Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finishing School: Parker's Heritage Collection Barrel Finished

I always look forward to the annual release of the Parker's Heritage Collection bourbon. Each fall since 2007, Heaven Hill releases a new version of Parker's, each one completely different from the last. They tend to run from very good to excellent, are reasonably priced and best of all, are relatively easy to find (unlike some brands, Heaven Hill doesn't whip up hysteria with manufactured scarcity).

This year's Parker's is a ten year old, 100 proof bourbon finished for six months in Cognac casks from the House of Frapin.

Parker's Heritage Collection Barrel Finished, 10 yo, 50% abv ($80)

I was wondering if you would detect a mere six months of Cognac barrel ageing, but wow, there it is, right on the nose. The first thing you get is sweet Cognac, followed up by more characteristic woody bourbon notes. The Cognac is equally apparent in the front of the palate, followed up by coffee, oak and then some light minty flavors. There's a lot there, but it doesn't all coalesce. The sum of the parts here may be greater than the whole. The finish is a smoky cask.

This is a good bourbon with some really interesting notes and a very pleasant drinker. Because Parker's is a completely different release each year, it doesn't really make sense to compare them, but I wouldn't count this one among my favorites (a club that would include the first edition and last year's wheater), but it's certainly fun to have around.

Now that I've had a few finished American whiskeys, I'll discuss this growing phenomenon in a future post. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Bitter Pill: Four Roses 2011 Single Barrel

Every year, aside from their standard single barrel offering, Four Roses releases a limited edition single barrel using one of their ten recipes. This year's is OBSQ, which is the high rye mashbill (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% barley) with the Q yeast strain. It's 12 years old and cask strength. The abv varies depending on the barrel but mine was 55.4%. It retails for around $80.

The nose is pleasant, floral and perfumy with some earthy and vegetal notes. The palate is harshly vegetal and medicinal with a strong bitterness which lasts into the finish. It is so bitter and chemically that I was initially convinced it might be tainted and got another sample.

With some time to oxidize in the glass, the bitterness on the palate subsides a bit, but it still leaves you with an overwhelmingly bitter finish with a mouthfeel like you've just taken an oral anaesthetic. Adding water brings out a soapiness.

I like some medicinal qualities in my whiskey, but this one overdoes it, and from late palate to finish, it's downright objectionable. This is a seriously flawed whiskey that I wouldn't drink again. I'm generally a fan of Four Roses and I've even had some decent bottlings from this recipe; this one is different.

Now, I should note that it seems I'm in the distinct minority in my negative opinion of this one, so I urge you to check out the always excellent (though in this case, totally wrong) Sour Mash Manifesto and Sipology for a different perspective.

Monday, November 28, 2011

High Rye Low Age: Redemption Bourbon

Last year, I reviewed Redemption Rye, a rye made at Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) for Dynamic Spirits. Dynamic also now bottles Redemption Bourbon, a high rye bourbon also made at LDI. Redemption Bourbon is 60% corn, 38.2% rye and 1.8% barley.

While there are a lot of LDI ryes on the market these days, there aren't as many bourbons, so I was interested to try this one.

Redemption Bourbon, 46% abv, "over 2 years old" ($25)

The nose is...young rye with all its vegetal qualities. The palate begins with a huge sugar-syrupy sweetness, then you get those young rye notes, raw and vegetal. The finish is rye dominated as well. This is simplistic, syrupy and vegetal, but I have to admit, it's sort of fun to drink as a light whiskey that you don't have to put a lot of effort into thinking about. It's worth trying and a bit more interesting than the Redemption Rye.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Felonious Bourbon: Breaking & Entering

I've often written about the phenomenon of American whiskey bottlers who don't distill, of which there are many, but lately, there is a growing trend in the opposite direction: distillers who are bottling sourced whiskey. High West and Prichard's started with sourced whiskey prior to distilling their own, but now even some craft distilleries that have their own distillate are looking to buy aged whiskey. Recently, we've seen a new group of sourced whiskeys from craft distillers including a bourbon from Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado, Temperance Trader Bourbon from the Bull Run Distillery in Oregon and Old Scout Bourbon from the Smooth Ambler Distillery in West Virginia. Add to that growing group Breaking & Entering Bourbon, a sourced bourbon from the St. George Distillery in Alameda, California.

The St. George distillery is one of the older craft distilleries. They started with brandies and then spread to vodka, malt whiskey, absinthe and many other spirits. But Breaking & Entering is the first whiskey they have released that was made elsewhere.

According to the St. George website, Breaking & Entering was made from 80 different Kentucky bourbon barrels ranging from five to seven years old. We don't know if those 80 barrels all came from one distillery or were from multiple distilleries.

Interestingly, Breaking & Entering is not designated as "straight" on the label. That could mean that some of the whiskey is less than two years old or that it doesn't meet the definition of "straight bourbon" for some other reason (or they could have simply chosen not to use the term, which is not required).

Breaking & Entering Bourbon, 43% abv ($34)

The nose on this has light rye, peanuts and some savory notes. The palate comes on with dry white wine notes, maybe even some apple in the background. Late palate I get some rye spice which continues into the finish with a bit of bitterness.

With 80 barrels in the mix, this could be a little bit of everything, but the nose resembles some Brown-Forman whiskeys I've had. I would guess there is some Heaven Hill in there as the palate reminds me most of some of the Evan Williams Single Barrels with maybe even some Four Roses in the mix.

This is a pretty unique flavor profile, though overall, it's a bit light to my taste.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm taking a holiday break from blogging, but I'll be back next week with five consecutive reviews of recently released American whiskeys starting next Sunday.

And for a fun whiskey read, check out the excellent discussion about whiskey and water in the comments from last week's post.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pappy Van Winkle: Know Your Bottle Codes

It's Pappy time! That crazy time every fall when the Pappy Van Winkle's get released. Pappy Van Winkle, of course, is one of the most prized regular releases for bourbon lovers. The Van Winkle family, of the late Stitzel-Weller distillery, are known to have a diminishing number of barrels of that prized Stitzel-Weller bourbon. Along with those barrels, they also bottle whiskey made at Buffalo Trace (and their rye comes from a variety of sources).

Of late, there has been much controversy about which bottles of Pappy are Stitzel-Weller and which are Buffalo Trace. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that the 20 and 23 year old Pappys are still made from Stitzel-Weller bourbon, but there has been a lot of back and forth about the 15.

Pappy 15 is the most affordable and some think the best of the Pappy line (which also makes it the hardest to get). Based on statements made by the Van Winkles a few years ago, it sounds as if they made a big (and possibly final) run of Pappy 15 bottles from Stitzel Weller in 2009 that held them through the spring 2011 release. This fall, according to this K&L interview with Preston Van Winkle, the Pappy 15 is bourbon made at Buffalo Trace.

But suppose you happen to find a bottle of Pappy on a dusty shelf somewhere. How will you know whether it is the old Stitzel Weller or the new Buffalo Trace version? The answer is in the bottle code. If you have ever visited Tim Puett's Ardbeg Project site, you know about bottle codes. They are codes placed on each bottle that show the time and date of the bottling and they can help you distinguish between different releases of the same whiskey. Tim has demonstrated huge differences in, for instance, the Ardbeg 10 over the years, but you can't tell when the whiskey is from without knowing the bottle code.

Buffalo Trace uses a similar code which can tell you the year your Van Winkle (or your Stagg, Weller, etc.) was bottled. The code is a very small digital stamp that appears on the bottle, usually below the back label. Here's how to read it using two examples:

Example 1: K0780907:21

Example 2: N3001114:13

The first letter is the bottling line at Buffalo Trace; example 1 was the K line, and example 2 was the N line. I don't know enough about the bottling there to know if there is any real significance that can be gleaned from the bottling line.

The second three digits indicate the day of the year that it was bottled. So example 1 was bottled on the 78th day of the year and example 2 was bottled on the 300th day of the year.

The third two digits indicate the year - this is really the most significant piece of information. The "09" on example 1 indicates it was bottled in 2009, so if it's Pappy 15, it would likely be from the old Stitzel-Weller stocks. Example 2 has an "11" which indicates 2011 when they started using Buffalo Trace bourbon.

The final four digits are the bottling time on a 24 hour clock, so example 1 was bottled at 7:21 am and example 2 was bottled at 2:13 pm (14:13).

If you love your Pappy and your BTAC and especially if you go dusty hunting for older versions, it pays to know your bottle codes.

UPDATE (March 2012)

For the Spring 2012 release, it appears that the order of numbers has switched. In the comments below, a reader gave this example of a bottle code: b1204011:11k.

I would interpret it this way.

The first letter indicates it was bottled at Buffalo Trace. The first two digits are the year, so "12" means bottled in 2012. The second three digits are the day of the year, so "025" means the whiskey was bottled on the 25th day of the year, which would be January 25th. This would be consistent for the spring 2012 release. The last four digits are the time of bottling, in this case, 11:11.  The last letter is the bottling line.


Bottle codes did not start appearing on bottles until 2007.  For hints on dating a pre-bottle code Van Winkle, see my Pappy Van Winkle Timeline.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Turkey Day Cheese

If you're looking for some good cheeses to start off your Turkey Day, here are some I've been enjoying lately:

Toreggio (also known as Roccolo). No, not Taleggio but from the same region of Italy, Toreggio is a cow milk cheese with a consistency more similar to a goat, a bit chalky in the middle, smooth and creamy closer to the rind. It's a washed rind cheese with a subtle, nutty flavor which would go well with any of the traditional cheese plate accompaniments, including nuts and dried fruit.

Caveman Blue. Rogue Creamery in Oregon is probably my favorite maker of domestic blue cheese. Caveman Blue is a creamy, raw cow cheese with a sweet disposition. It plays well with fruit, so slather it on tart apple or pear slices, and I bet it would go down well with either a Riesling or a Beaujolais, if that's how you roll on Turkey Day.

Harbison is a soft, bloomy rind cow cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. Wrapped in bark, the cheese oozes at room temperature. It starts off with a nice nutty character, then you get just a glimpse of some ripe, aged Camembert type flavors; tasty but not the highest of stink.

So happy Thanksgiving and cheese it up!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Recent Reads: Of Scotch and Werewolves - The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

I used to be a fan of vampire stories. I love the gothic reportage of Bram Stoker's original Dracula, the eerily elegant portrayals of the Prince of Darkness by Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella, and the impressionistic gruesomeness of Nosferatu. But then Anne Rice came along and ruined the entire genre with her overwritten prose and dandy vampires. Her silly novels led directly to a world inhabited by the schlocky vampires of True Blood and Twilight. Vampires written for overly romantic pre-teen girls, possibly living in the Victorian era.

But we still have werewolves, and Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf makes the case for the vitality of that sister genre. Duncan's novel is a first person diary of the last surviving werewolf, living among us in contemporary society. Duncan's werewolf, Jacob Marlowe, is smart and real, neither elegant nor overly beautiful. He may be 200 years old, but his disposition is decidedly modern, and best of all, he loves his Scotch. The opening scene has him drinking a 45 year old Macallan as his only friend tells him of the death of a German werewolf that was the only other surviving member of his species. He later imbibes some Glenlivet and suspiciously noses a dram that he suspects is Laphroaig when he ordered Oban.

Whisky is a small detail in this work, but it gives me a chance to encourage anyone with a love of the genre to seek it out. It's smart and well written with an ironic sense of humor. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mail Bag...It's Your Whiskey

Here's the latest question from the email bag:

Dear Sku,

My two favorite whiskies are Brora 30 year old and Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old. I like to drink the Brora with Red Bull and the Pappy with Coke (50/50). I know these are expensive whiskeys, but hey, it's my whiskey; I should be able to drink it however I want right?

Coke Fiend

Dear Fiend,

If you pose this question on most blogs or whiskey forums, the first response will typically be reassurance. "Yes," the responders all say, "it's your whiskey, you can drink it however you want."

I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. If I buy a rare Van Gough at an auction and decide to use it as toilet paper, that is not okay. I would be misusing a national treasure and being an idiot. I don't care if I paid for it, I'm still an idiot.

You want to buy whiskey to drink with Coke or Redbull? That's why God (aka Brown-Forman) invented Jack Daniel's. Hell, you can brush your teeth with it like Ke$ha for all I care.

What's the difference? Well, JD is plentiful and fungible. There is plenty of it and the spigot will never run dry; one bottle is the same as the next. Brora and Pappy, though, are scarce resources and international treasures, like the last dodo bird. And each annual release is somewhat different. Even as I write this, there are people wondering how they can get just one bottle of the latest Pappy release without having to go on ebay and pay exorbitant prices to some guy who happened to score a case.

So, no, it's not okay to buy this stuff because you have the means and then drown it in cola. It's your whiskey, but with these rare whiskeys comes a responsibility to the whiskey community to not be an idiot.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Disneyland Dining: Stage Door Cafe

A few years ago I did a write up of the various food offerings at Disneyland. One place I didn't make it to back then was the Stage Door Cafe. The Stage Door is in Frontier Land, just to the right of the Golden Horseshoe ice cream shop. The cafe is a counter where you order food to eat in the outdoor seating area.

It turns out that even more than most Disney eateries, if you can imagine this, the Stage Door is a palace of fried food. In fact, literally everything on the menu is fried, with the exception of the mandatory Disney-healthy-option bag of apple slices. The menu choices are fish & chips, chicken tenders & fries and corn dog & fries. The corn dogs are the excellent Disneyland version available at the Main Street red wagon and the Corn Dog Castle at California Adventure. The chicken was perfectly acceptable and I didn't try the fish.

For dessert, they have funnel cake offered topped with sugar, strawberry topping or chocolate. I had high hopes for the funnel cake. After all, Disney cuisine may have a number of draw backs but their strength is that they know how to fry the shit out of things. The corn dogs are probably the best food in the park, the churros are tasty and the monte cristo sandwiches at the Blue Bayou are legendary. Unfortunately, that deep frying prowess didn't seem to carry on to the funnel cake. Instead of being crisp, it was chewy and stale. I suspect it had spent some time sitting under a heat lamp, which is death for funnel cakes. But the flavor was also pretty non-existent, which is, I suppose why they buried it in strawberry glop and non-dairy whipped topping.

Overall, the Stage Door Cafe is not a bad option if you're looking for something fast and greasy. Just skip the funnel cake.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Quiz Answer: Who Serves the Finest Corn Whiskey?

So, in answer to the quiz question from last week, where is this establishment that serves the "Finest Corn Whiskey"? The answer is...nowhere. As you may have guessed, this being tinseltown and all, this is a facade. It's not from a movie set, though, it appears on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Disneyland.

My daughter is the one who found it one day when she was in line for the ride with my wife. "Look, it says whiskey," she said loudly, "Daddy loves whiskey!" For the rest of the line, my poor wife had to endure the pitifully sympathetic looks from nearby patrons who undoubtedly imagined that the little girl's father was, at that very moment, lying face down in the gutter somewhere.

Had I been there, of course, I would have corrected her..."Yeah, but not corn whiskey."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Latest Sichuan: Taste of Chongqing

Taste of Chongqing is a relatively new Sichuan restaurant on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel. I'm a big fan of the San Gabriel Sichuan stalwart Chung King, so it was hard for me not to compare.

I always start a Sichuan meal with a selection of the traditional cold appetizers. Smoked chicken was fine but lacked the intense smoke of Chung King. Marinated cucumbers were refreshing and nice to eat along with the spicy foods that followed.

Sichuan style fish with peppers is the equivalent to one of my favorite Chung King dishes, hot pot fish, white fish cooked in a spicy broth. The fish at Congqing is tender and nicely cooked but the broth lacks the sizzle of the highly spiced Chung King broth. If you're looking for spice, the deep fried shrimp have it. Big hits of pepper and Sichuan peppercorn, so much so that I had to eat it in very small amounts. Lamb with pickled peppers was one of my favorite dishes with plenty of spice playing well with the gaminess of lamb.

On the less spicy side, sauteed green beans were very nice and they do a fabulous chow mein with a nice smoky flavor.

My initial reaction to the Taste of Congqing is that it is less funky, but also less flavorful than Chung King. I'd rather go for the raw, in your face flavors of Chung King.

Taste of Chongqing
172 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-1357

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Brandy Friday: Nicolas Palazzi's Cognac Mission

I've done a number of Brandy Friday posts over the years, but I haven't stuck to brandy the way I have to whiskey. Part of the problem is the state of Cognac, the premiere brandy. Too much of the Cognac from the big houses is syrupy sweet, and even the best Cognacs have a certain simplicity to them. Added caramel is a given with most Cognac, added sugar is common and very few are released above 40% abv. After my first series of Cognac tastings on the blog, I opined that Cognac was behind the curve compared to whiskey with regard to additives and abv.

But Nicolas Palazzi aims to change all of that. Palazzi is a brandy importer and independent bottler. Born into a wine making family and raised in Bordeaux, he operates PM Spirits in New York, making regular trips back to France to hunt for Cognacs from small producers which he bottles under his Paul-Marie & Fils label. Through buying his own casks, Palazzi is able to release them the way he wants to: single barrel, cask strength and unfiltered. And he doesn't use added sugar, caramel or wood additives (boise) which are common in Cognac production; says Palazzi, "I despise those things."

Suddenly, Cognac is catching up to where whiskey has been for years. Palazzi's first special release for K&L Wines, one of the retailers he works with regularly, was a 58 year old vintage 1951 Cognac that weighed in at $600. Impressive sounding, but at a price that most of us can't afford. Luckily, there were more reasonably priced options to come. Palazzi's latest Cognac for K&L is $130, still expensive, but not outrageous.

There are 200 bottles of this new K&L exclusive. It comes from from the Borderies zone of Cognac, and while there is no age statement, K&L says that it is an XO (XO indicates at least six years old - but I'd guess this is significantly older).

Paul-Marie & Fils Cognac, Faultline Spirits (K&L Wine), 200 bottles, 61% abv ($130 exclusively at K&L)

The nose on this is bursting with fruit, but not just traditional grape/wine notes; there are apples and pears as well and some nice spice in the background. The palate is even more lush with mulling spices, cloves, even some sweet orange, all painted on a canvass of bourbony oak with some pine and fir to boot. Gone is the syrupy sweetness that many Cognacs push to the fore. Instead, there are complex notes of spice and herb. This is a whiskey lover's Cognac if ever there was one, and while it's cask strength, it goes down very easy. A drop of water, as is often the case, brings out the sugar, but makes it lose some of the balance. Drink it neat! The finish is well balanced with sweet wine and oak and then a slight vegetal note, maybe tobacco.

This is a pretty extraordinary Cognac and if you like whiskey, and bourbon in particular, you should give it a try.

I had largely given up on Cognac as anything other than a pleasant but simplistic night cap. Now my interest is piqued. Cognac may finally be getting it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

SMWS Extravaganza: Don't Forget Your Sku Discount

November is when the Scotch Malt Whisky Society brings it's tasting Extravaganza road show to California. Don't forget that as one of my valued readers, you can get a discount at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Single Malt and Scotch Whiskey Extravaganza.

The regular price is $135, but your Sku discount gets you up to two tickets for the member price of $120. To purchase tickets and get your discount, just go to the Society's website and enter SRE2011 in the promotional code box.

Dates and times are as follows:

Los Angeles: Friday, November 11 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in Santa Monica.

San Francisco: Wednesday November 9 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at teh Intercontinental Hotel.

FTC Disclaimer: Sku finally sold out and attends this event free of charge.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Whiskey Quiz: Who Serves the Finest Corn Whiskey

Did you know that white whiskey was big enough to have its own specialty bar? Somewhere in Southern California is the establishment, shown above, known as the Gold Nugget Dance Hall. As you can see from the picture, they claim, "We Serve the Finest Corn Whiskey."

So, where is this place?