Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: WhistlePig and Covert Canadians

Because of our porous northern border and common popular culture, Canadians often come to seek fame and fortune in the United States. Once here, unlike many other immigrants, they tend to assimilate quickly to such an extent that the American public doesn't realize that they hail from the nation to the north. They remain here, indistinguishable from US citizens, until they utter the stray "aboat" or drop a reference to a "bag of milk." Who are these covert Canadians? Well, there are too many to name, but they include Peter Jennings, William Shatner, Pamela Anderson, Jim Carrey, Alanis Morissette, Dan Aykroyd, the late Leslie Nielsen, Dr. Whisky and many others.

Add to this list another covert Canadian: WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey. It looks American, is bottled in Vermont, uses the American spelling of whiskey and has the American designation of "straight rye," but this seemingly US whiskey is actually Canadian.

WhistlePig is the brainchild of Dave Pickerell, formerly the Master Distiller of Maker's Mark. Pickerell started the WhistlePig Distillery in Vermont, but like many craft distillers, he chose to bottle a sourced whiskey as his first product. He found one in Canada. I should note that while there has been some confusion about WhistlePig, Dave is open about its sourcing and the back label states, albeit in small type, that it is imported from Canada.

WhistlePig is a 100% rye whiskey, and it really is a straight rye, albeit one with an unusual high rye content in the mashbill, as opposed to a typical, blended Canadian whisky. Even Canadian whiskies that are 100% rye are often blends of a "flavor whisky" and a higher proof, more neutrally flavored whiskey used as a blending agent. WhistlePig is solely composed of the flavor whiskey without any of the blending whiskey. That is what differentiates WhistlePig from other Canadian whiskies bottled by US companies, such as Pendleton or Snake River Stampede. Now, let's taste it.

WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, 10 years old, 50% abv ($72).

There is a fabulous nose on this with, unsurprisingly, a big kick of rye spice. I also get some briny notes, like pickle juice. The flavor starts sweet, then you get the rye kick, much more in the traditional rye fashion, followed by some herbal and medicinal notes, and then the brine, which fades into the finish. This is a very nice rye, and very unique tasting due to the briny notes, which I enjoyed. If I had to compare it to anything it would be some of the High West whiskeys with very high rye contents. I love these high rye mashbills because they really come out swinging with plenty of big, spicy rye.

This Canadian has fully assimilated into the American style. There is no question that it is much closer to straight rye than any Canadian whisky. I guess that's why they spell it with an "e".

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Juanita's at the Hollywood Farmer's Market

There are a number of great food options at the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market (Ivar Street between Sunset and Hollywood), but lately I've been enjoying the Mexican home cooking at Juanita's. It's fairly straight forward Mexican food, cooked fresh. The enchiladas go right into the pan as you wait. I'm always a big fan of a plate of chilaquiles for breakfast and the Juanita's version is piled high with chile sauce with egg and a sprinkling of cheese; it's not the most sophisticated version, more like someone's grandmother made it for you. There's a little table right alongside to sit and eat and it all washes down well with an ensalada from Delmy's pupusas, a few doors down.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Tasting and Talking at the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society Extravaganza

Last Thursday was the annual Scotch Malt Whisky Society Extravaganza in Santa Monica. As always, there were some good whiskies poured, particularly the Society's private label bottlings. I especially enjoyed their offerings of Glen Scotia and Rosebank, and I never miss a chance to sample some Highland Park 30 when it's on offer.

Most notable this year, however, was a panel discussion among brand representatives prior to the tasting. Hosted by the Society US President Alan Shayne, the panel featured Martin Daraz from Highland Park, Neyah White from Suntory, Robin Goupar from Skyy, Simon Brooking from Beam Global, Nicholas Pollacchi from Balvenie, Ricky Crawford from Glenlivet and Steve Beal and Ed Adams from Diageo. The hour long discussion was in Q&A format with questions from the 50 or so people in the audience. The discussion ran from basic tips to serious issues in the industry to more light hearted moments.

All of the brand representatives seemed to speak honestly and openly without a lot of salesmanship. I've seen Martin Daraz speak before; he's probably the funniest brand rep. I've ever heard, and if you have the chance to attend a class with him, you should.

On a more serious note, I was very impressed with Suntory's Neyah White, who showed an impressive grasp of Japanese history and its relation to that nation's whisky industry and made very thoughtful comments throughout the night. When asked about judging whiskies, for instance, he spoke of "emotional terroir," which I thought was a great way of describing the way in which environment, mood and other external factors affect the appreciation of whisky.

As regular readers know, one of my top whisky wishes is to get more Japanese whisky imported to the US. I've often asked Suntory representatives if they will ever send us whisky from their Hakushu distillery, and I usually get an ambiguous maybe, at best. When I submitted the question to the panel, White was straight forward, saying there simply isn't enough Hakushu to export, though he wished there was. I appreciate getting an honest answer on that one (and since I'm lucky enough to have some sources in Japan, I'm planning on reviewing the Hakushu 18 in the near future).

Another interesting tidbit that I'd never heard came out when someone asked about chill filtering, the controversial process that distilleries use to prevent whiskey from appearing cloudy at cooler temperatures which some claim inhibits flavor by filtering out oils containing flavor elements. Diageo's Steve Beal explained that prior to World War II, there was almost no chill filtering. After the war, Scotch became popular with Americans, but unlike the Scots, the Americans tended to drink it on the rocks which caused clouding. It was only then that the distilleries began large-scale chill filtering. Now, I haven't verified the story, but it would be interesting if all of this filtering was our fault. Perhaps we owe the world of whisky a collective apology (at least they can't blame us for caramel coloring).

The panel was a great way to begin the night, and I hope the Society will continue to sponsor it at its future Extravaganzas.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Next Pop Up: Your House

The morning started like any other weekday morning. I awoke to my alarm at 5:30, put on a robe and headed quietly toward the kitchen, trying not to wake the rest of my family. Once I turned the corner from the hallway, I noticed there was someone in the kitchen. My first thought was that it was a burglar, but then I saw that this intruder was cooking, and as he turned around, I recognized the face of a well known, local celebrity chef.

"What are you doing here?", I asked, perplexed.

"Zis is pop up!" the chef responded.

"A what?"

"Ze traditional restaurant is dying. Soon there will be only food trucks and pop ups. Zis is your pop up breakfast."

"But I thought pop ups were just where you cook at someone else's restaurant..."

"Wrong! A pop up can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone."

"How did you get in here?" With that, the chef shoved a plate in my face, "Zis is an amuse bouche: a cured baby scallop in a puff pastry shell with an uni-fennel foam." I popped it in my mouth. It was very good, but I did have to get ready for work.

"You know," I said, "I usually just have coffee and toast for breakfast, and..." The chef pushed another plate toward me, "First course, a deconstructed fingerling potato and cheddar zoup inspired by potatoes au gratin topped with caviar scented truffles, paired with a German Riesling."

"I don't usually drink this early either, I just..."

"Nonzense! Now where do you keep your liquid nitrogen?"

And so it went, a tour de force of a menu, a breakfast unlike any I'd ever had. It consisted of nine courses plus wine pairings. The chef cooked furiously, only stopping for the occasional tweet. Just as the rest of my family was getting up and wondering what was happening, the chef disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. My wife looked around quizzically and asked, "Have you been drinking wine?" I sighed, "It's a long story."

So don't be surprised if sometime, somewhere, someplace when you least expect it, someone steps up to you and says, "Zis is a pop up!"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Help Me Figure this Out: Bright Kitchen Article

So I'm wondering if any of you can help me identify this implement. I received it as a gift from my mother-in-law, who bought it in Japan. It's a steel utensil about the size of a kitchen knife. It is slightly bulb shaped on one end and stretches into a long tear drop shape on the other. It looks a little bit like a long, flat metal Q-tip or maybe a cuticle pusher.

There is very little English on the package. The company appears to be "Stylish Cutlery," and the product seems to be called "Bright Kitchen Article." It also notes "stainless steel," and "Made in Japan." That's it for the English.

So, what is this thing? Can anyone help me out?

UPDATE: Thanks to Yuki (see the comments) for pointing me in the right direction. Apparently, this is a cocktail stirrer, what we would probably call a bar spoon. Thanks Yuki, time to mix up some cocktails.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Est Arrivé

Last weekend, the first bottles of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) started appearing on local shelves. It's always an event when the BTAC arrives each fall, but this year, it's reached a level of frenzy that I've never seen before.

David Driscoll, the spirits buyer at K&L recently wrote on his blog that he was getting a huge volume of calls and emails asking about the Collection, and his three stores get only a case or less of each bottle. (By the way, if you aren't reading David's blog, you should be; he's one of the few retailers who writes really honestly about the whiskey retail world without always trying to sell you something). On StraightBourbon.com, there is a frenzy of activity as people try to find bottles so they can add one of each (or a case of each) to their already massive bourbon bunkers.

The excitement is understandable. The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection includes some of the world's best whiskeys at reasonable prices. George T. Stagg is probably the world's most renowned bourbon. William Larue Weller is less popular than Stagg, but the reputation of this wheater is growing fast. Sazerac 18 and Thomas Handy are undoubtedly two of the best rye whiskeys around, and while Eagle Rare 17 may be the runt of the bunch, it's no slouch either. Even more amazing than the quality of this collection is the price. While some retailers have been known to jack it up into the three figures, they still regularly retail for $70-$85. I don't know that there is a better price/quality ratio in existence.

All that said, the frenzy is getting a bit out of hand. These things are becoming like the newest Xbox on Christmas Eve. I would appeal to all of the American whiskey lovers and collectors out there to, as Jon Stewart would say, take it down a notch.

While the BTAC is an annual release, they tend to be quite consistent from year to year, especially in the last four or five years. Do you really need a bottle of each when you have a closet full of the past releases? Can't we leave some for the newbies?

Even if you decide these are must haves, there are lots of stores that get the BTAC, including both the big chains and some much smaller, off the radar stores. There are always a few bottles that languish on shelves and usually some that pop up mid-year. If you live in Southern California and you are willing to put in a little bit of effort (i.e. drive around a bit), you should be able to find a bottle of each without too much effort.

Me? I picked up a Stagg, but I still have some Weller left from last year, and while I'm out of Sazerac and Handy, I have enough good rye on hand to keep my thirst quenched without buying these up.

So let's all take a deep breath. Remember folks, it's just whiskey, and there will probably be enough for everyone.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pork Pump at Yu Garden

Over the summer, I posted about the pork pump at the Shanghainese restaurant Wok and Noodle. In the comments, Tony C., the inimitable SinoSoul recommended the pork pump at Yu Garden in San Gabriel. It takes me a while to work up to a pork pump, so I took some time, but did manage to head their recently.

For those who don't read Chinese, it can be a little tricky to pick out the pork pump on a menu. At Wok and Noodle, it's "degreased and braised boneless pork leg shank." At Yu Garden, there were two potential items. One was, I think, just labeled braised pork and the other was House Special Braised Pork Shank. I went with the shank, which turned out to be the pork pump.

This was a great pork pump. Occasionally, the meat inside the pump is a bit dry, but in this one, it was moist and fully flavored by the sauce, which had really permeated the thing. The fat was rich and sticky, and after the meat was gone, it was pretty hard not to just eat the fat and skin. On the whole, I liked this pump better than the version at Wok and Noodle, as the whole thing really came together more. I'll have to try it against some of those classic pork pumps that I haven't tried for a while.

While the pork pump was great, and they did a very nice pork fried dumpling, most of the rest of the meal was lackluster. The xiao long bao were dry, with very little broth and the skins were tough. The pickled napa and pork soup was bland, and the scallion pancake was too greasy.

This is a pork pump place, and it would be wise not to wander too far off the menu.

Yu Garden
107 E. Valley Blvd. (just east of Del Mar)
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 569-0855

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recent Reads: The Latest Bourdain

Medium Raw, published earlier this year, is Anthony Bourdain's fourth work of nonfiction (not including his cook book), and probably his best book since his breakout Kitchen Confidential.

The book reads much like Kitchen Confidential, a series of disconnected pieces, more a collection of essays than continuous chapters. Bourdain retains his straightforward and snarky writing style, though his editor needs to give him a banned list which should include "maw," "clusterfuck" and question marks, which he inevitably misuses. (It seems like you shouldn't be able to misuse question marks, but somehow, Bourdain does?)

There's plenty of red meat here for Bourdain's fans, including slaps at the classic easy targets like Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee. Wielding his pen like a slasher movie villain wields a chef's knife is what we've come to expect from Bourdain, and he doesn't disappoint. I love the snark as much as the next sarcastic blogger, but I feel like it's become part of a schtick for Bourdain.

More thoughtful than his usual snark is a chapter-long take down of Alice Waters. The full-on attack raises issues of class and challenges the Waters world view in a manner that is influenced by Bourdain's first hand experiences of some of the world's harder places to live.

Despite all the classic Bourdain venom, I was much more interested in the chapter about Justo Thomas, the guy who breaks down all the fish, every day, at Le Bernardin. Bourdain lyrically describes the work, somewhere between art and drudgery, of a lone fish-butcher, trapped in the basement of New York's seafood temple, cutting fish to perfection. It's the story of a man and his craft, and it even has a surprise happy ending.

The last chapter is a sort of "where are they now" of the characters from Kitchen Confidential. It would have been interesting as an updated epilogue in a new version of that book, but here, it's a lot to expect that we remember the ins and outs of each character that made a chapter appearance in his book from nearly ten years ago.

Overall, the book is a good mix of the old snarky Bourdain and the newer, more reflective writer. It's an easy read and one that's worthwhile.

Medium Raw
Anthony Bourdain
Ecco/Harper Collins 2010 ($27)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Ralfy on American Whiskey

Hellooooo Malt Masticators. If that doesn't mean anything to you (you need to imagine a thick Scottish accent), then you need to know about Ralfy, the king of the ten minute Scotch tasting video on YouTube. He has recently started an entertaining series of reviews of American Whiskey that is a must watch for any American whiskey fan. Ralfy does his homework more than most reviewers, especially those stepping from single malts into the treacherous and confusing category of American whiskey, and it's fascinating to hear his Scottish perspective on our whiskeys.

Included in his reviews so far have been Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, Rittenhouse 100, George Dickel No. 12, Buffalo Trace, McAfee's Benchmark Bourbon, Jack Daniel's and Gentleman Jack, Knob Creek, Elijah Craig 12, Maker's Mark and Maker's 46 and something called Western Gold Bourbon, which appears to be a German bottling made for Supermarkets. It's a great selection and the videos are a lot of fun so check them out (and if you know, tell me what type of animal had to die to make Ralfy's jacket).

Oh, and last year, I did my own little tribute to His Ralfyness:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Scotch Malt Whisky Extravaganza Coming Soon - Get Your Discount!

Don't miss the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Extravaganza coming up next Thursday, November 18.

Prices for non-members of the Society are $135, but the Society is offering my readers up to two tickets per person for the member price of $120. Just go to the Society's website to sign up and enter SRE2010 in the promotion code box to get the discount or call (800) 990-1991.

Last year's Extravaganza was great fun and featured some great whiskies from a number of distillers and bottlers. In fact, the Extravaganza is one of the only ways to taste the excellent single malts bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society if you aren't a member.

This year's Extravaganza will be Thursday, November 18 at The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica from 7:00pm-9:30pm.

Check it out and tell 'em Sku sent you.

FTC Disclaimer: Sku was invited to attend this event free of charge.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Search for Great Dumplings Continues: Mama's Lu

Any random weekend morning, you're more likely than not to find me somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley in my quest for great dumplings. The latest was the popular Mama's Lu dumpling house.

A quick hit here since I didn't take good notes. The Xiao Long Bao were good but not stellar. The pork chop noodle soup was good, but no match for the heavenly version served at Qing Dao Bread Food.

I inevitably compared the lamb chow mein to the one I miss so much from Dumpling Master, and it paled in comparison. The noodles were thick and a bit too chewy, and there were only sparse slivers of lamb. The whole thing just didn't come together well.

I did like the pan fried dumplings, and the stir fried pea shoots were good and garlicky.

All in all, everything was competent but nothing was great or better than I've had elsewhere nearby. I can't really figure out the intense popularity of the place. Mama's Lu fans, did I miss a great dish?

Mama's Lu
153 E Garvey Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 307-5700

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Recent Reads: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

For those of us who enjoy wine and spirits, it's sometimes hard to believe that alcohol was once banned in the United States. New York Times reporter Daniel Okrent does a marvelous job of telling the fascinating story of this failed experiment in Last Call- The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Okrent starts from the earliest strains of the prohibition movement and ends his tail at repeal. For any student of American political history and grassroots movements, it's fascinating to see how this cause took shape. One thing that may seem surprising to today's readers is the the political diversity of prohibition's advocates, from progressive reformers to religious conservatives to the Ku Klux Klan. This diverse and divergent group managed to make the Anti-Saloon League one of the most powerful forces in American politics for nearly two decades.

Once Prohibition actually passes, the story becomes less political history and more of what we think about when casually considering prohibition: the remarkable tales of bootlegging, speakeasies, medicinal alcohol scams, poisoned hooch and gangsters. Writing in an engaging, page-turning journalistic style, Okrent relays numerous fascinating tidbits such as the story of the notorious bootlegger Sam Bronfman, the growth of Walgreens through sales of medicinal alcohol and the grape bricks, sold by California wineries, which cautioned not to add yeast lest the grapes inadvertently be converted to illegal wine. And Okrent finally puts to rest the legend that Joseph P. Kennedy had anything to do with bootlegging (he didn't).

Okrent's book is a must read for anyone with an interest in prohibition or American twentieth century politics, but also for anyone who enjoys their liquor and can't imagine that it did happen here.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 2010 ($20-$30)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Parker's Wheater

The two releases I probably look forward to most in fall whiskey season are the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the unveiling of the newest bottle in the Parker's Heritage Collection. This is the fourth year of Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage series and each release has been unique and pretty darned good. The inaugural bottle, released in 2007, was a high strength, Stagg-style Bourbon; the 2008 edition was a whopping 27 years old; and the 2009 Golden Anniversary edition featured whiskies from each of the last four decades.

This year, for the first time, the Parker's Heritage bottling is a wheated Bourbon, using wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain. This is particularly surprising since, while Heaven Hill does produce wheaters under the Old Fitzgerald label, they have never seemed to put much care into making or promoting that brand. Many the old Bourbon lover has lamented the decline of that previously vaunted label under the stewardship of the otherwise quality-oriented Heaven Hill. So for those of us who are fans of the unique beast that is wheated Bourbon, perhaps this is a sign of good things to come from the bards of Bardstown.

The other pleasing thing about this year's release is that, after two years of three figure prices on the Parker's bottlings, the price has come back down to earth's orbit at a still premium but more reasonable $80.

Let's give it a try...

Parker's Heritage Collection 2010, 10 year old wheated Bourbon, 63.9% abv ($80)

There is a lot of alcohol on the nose, beneath it is caramel candy and other sweet Bourbon notes. The flavor profile is very nice, with lots of good wheated Bourbon notes, including some apple brandy type fruit. It's sweet with some acidity and some herbal flavors in the finish. It remains very hot on the palate. This is one that really benefits from a few drops of water. As the alcohol content diminishes, more flavors emerge. There is some oak, but its the sweet caramel that becomes really pronounced, bringing with it some Cognac-style fruit. The finish evinces a certain umami that was previously undetectable.

After an initial tasting, I tasted some of the 2009 William Larue Weller from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection for comparison. The Weller is a wheated bourbon at a similar proof and price point that I really loved, so I thought it would make for a good head to head.

The flavor profiles of these two are quite different. The Parker's is sweeter, with more of those candy notes, while the Weller has more of that dry, oaky/woody/wood polish profile. While these are both great bourbons, the Weller had more depth and complexity. The flavor profile of the Weller is just so rich and varied, and the flavors are sharper and more direct. Even though the Weller is slightly higher proof than the Parker's, the alcohol is better integrated and it's actually less hot tasting than the Parker's. While I prefer the Parker's with water, I prefer the Weller neat.

Still, the Parker's is a great bourbon that I would recommend. I would love to see Heaven Hill put this kind of energy into the neglected Old Fitzgerald line. Hopefully, there will be more great wheaters to come.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: I Can Be Bought!

The whiskey blogosphere has been all aflutter about ethics. This week, in the latest of many blogger ethics posts, Malt Advocate Publisher John Hansell put up a post titled Let me reiterate: I can't be bought!. Hansell described an unnamed whiskey company rep asking for a mention in his blog based on their participation in Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest. Other bloggers have also recently chimed in on the ethics of whisky blogging.

Of course, anyone who is a regular reader of Malt Advocate shouldn't have to be told that Hansell can't be bought. You may or may not agree with his scoring, but there is simply no questioning his integrity.

With me, however, it is quite different, so I want to reiterate here and now that I can (and hopefully will) be bought!

For a long time now, I have given out a handy price guide to interested companies which shows exactly what kinds of whiskey scores they can get for their money:

$5,000: 99-100
$2,000: 95-98
$1,000: 90-94
$500: 85-89
$200: 80-84
$100: 70-79
$50: 60-69
Free: 0-59

Now, keep in mind that this system is not without integrity. While a company can pay for a scoring range, I reserve complete discretion as to where on the range a given whiskey lands. If someone pays $1,000, I alone decide if their whiskey scores a 90, a 94 or somewhere in between (though a muffin basket never hurt).

Surprisingly, I have thus far not had much luck with this plan. One drinks company did make an offer, but it was contingent on my reviewing their new whiskey liqueur, and hey, even I have some standards.

So come on companies, drop me a line because remember, there's nothing worse than someone who tries to sell out only to discover that no one's buying.

[And for those of you who are tired of the satire, we'll have a real whiskey review tomorrow].