Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Kentucky Vintage 1974

The current bottling of Kentucky Vintage is an independently bottled bourbon by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. This bottle, however, is a rare Japanese export of the same name. The label states 1974 as the vintage year and it was bottled in 2000 exclusively for the Japanese market. Based on the name and what I've heard about it, I assume it was also a KBD product, but I don't know for certain.

Kentucky Vintage 1974, bottled 2000, 25 years old, 47% abv

The nose has mango, tropical fruit and a bit of shampoo. The palate is very sweet, like fruit punch, and the finish is bitter. Water doesn't help.

Yuck. This stuff is terrible.

See reviews of Kentucky Vintage 1974 by the LA Whiskey Society.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Dusty Curiosity: Brown Forman President's Choice

Brown Forman introduced a President's Choice bourbon into its line in the late 1960s, but prior to that, it used the President's Choice label for gifts to special customers and other clients. The official name is actually the President's Choice for Distinguished Gentleman. The label includes the following description:

This whisky was selected by the President of Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation for its perfect balance and true Kentucky Bourbon flavor, and set aside for his private stock. This rare Bourbon was custom distilled and specially bottled at the direction of the president at the proof of 90.3 selected for barrel #989843 through barrel #989867.

Hmm, distinguished gentlemen? I'm not sure I qualify, but let's give it a try anyway. This bourbon was bottled in 1963, a blend of 24 barrels.

Brown Forman President's Choice, bottled 1963, 90.3 proof/45.15% abv

Another nice dusty nose, this one is rich, sweet and candy-like; It reminds me very much of some of those great, dusty Old Foresters I like (another Brown Forman bourbon). The palate is sweet with peppermint and vanilla, moving onto spices in the late palate. It's very rich and densely flavored, though a bit flatter than the nose. The finish is short and spicy.

Sweet and rich, this is a very drinkable bourbon.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Brown Forman President's Choice.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sku's 2012 Whiskey Awards

Welcome to Sku's 2012 Whiskey Awards. Each winner was the product of blind tastings before a specially selected panel of expert tasters.

Best Bourbon over 140 Proof: George T. Stagg

Best Blend of Scotch, Bourbon and Rye: High West Campfire

Best Scotch Distillery (Isle of Skye): Talisker

Best Scotch Distillery (Isle of Arran): Arran

Best Scotch Distillery (Isle of Jura): Jura

Best Scotch Distillery (Isle of Mull): Tobermory

Best Indian Distillery (limited to those available in the US): Amrut

Best Religiously Themed Independent Bottler: The Jewish Whisky Company

Best Bourbon Aged on a Boat: No Winner (there were no good bourbons aged on a boat this year)

Congratulations to all the lucky winners! (Winners, please feel free to contact me for special "shelf talkers" available at a reasonable price or to advertise in our special "awards edition").

Monday, December 17, 2012

Stagg-nation: George T. Stagg 2012

George T. Stagg, along with Pappy Van Winkle, has become the most renowned and hard to get bourbon out there. I don't really bother with these annoyingly hard to find whiskeys anymore, but I'll certainly give it a try if a friend drops me a sample.

George T. Stagg 2012, Distilled 1995, 16 years 9 months old, 71.4% abv. ($70 - in theory)

The nose has rich, woody bourbon goodness like only Stagg can have. The palate starts off quite tannic but then moves to candy and wood with a dash of pepper; the acid returns for late palate and the finish with a touch of mildew. A few drops of water brings out a chocolate milk like sweetness but also makes it lose a shocking amount of the woody notes which are reduced to a faint char in the late palate, making it one dimensional.

I've been drinking George T. Stagg since around 2005, and some of those bottlings have been among my all time favorite whiskeys. Starting with last year, though, I feel like Stagg has lost some of its luster. It's still very good bourbon, but the last couple of releases haven't been as transcendent as the earlier ones.

Just to make sure I wasn't being overly nostalgic, I did a side by side tasting with the 2010 Stagg, one of my favorites. Sure enough, the 2010 had a richness and complexity that was lacking in this year's release. The 2010 has a huge dose of polished wood and leather mingled and balanced with candy sweetness, the two maintaining a perfect balance well into the everlasting finish. This year's Stagg is certainly good, and I wouldn't turn down a glass, but it lacks that level of complexity, and given how hard Stagg is to find, it makes me even less likely to hunt for it.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of George T. Stagg 2012.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Eagle Rare 101 (circa 1979)

Back in February, I sampled a bottle of the now discontinued Eagle Rare 101 distilled, as is today's version, by Buffalo Trace. The bottle I'm sampling today, though, dates to before the label was sold to Buffalo Trace. It was originally a Seagram's brand made at the Old Prentice Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, which is now Four Roses.

Eagle Rare 101 Old Prentice, (circa 1979), 10 years old, 50.5% abv

The nose is a bit musty and very woody with some sweet maple syrup The palate is heavily spicy and minty in a mouth wash sort of way which continues into the finish. This is a very nice bourbon and one I'd happily buy if it was available, but I must say I preferred the later, Buffalo Trace version of the 101 that I sampled back in February.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Eagle Rare 101.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Deal Alert: K&L Longmorn 20

I did a number of reviews from the 2011 K&L exclusive barrel Scotch program, but I'm just getting started on the single malts from their 2012 program.

My first foray into this year's set is a 20 year old Longmorn distilled in 1992, bottled by Exclusive Malts. It sells for $100.

1992 Longmorn 20 (Exclusive Malts), 52.8% abv ($100).

The nose has sweet dessert wine and tropical fruit. The palate is bursting with fruit and dessert wine with a syrupy mouthfeel. I get dried, candied mangoes. The wine note gets more sherry like later in the palate and into the finish where there's just a touch of sulfur.

This one's a winner - just a really drinkable sherried malt with a lot of fruit. The back label states, "This should be much more expensive," and they're right. This is far better than the distillery's 16 year old which is only about $10 cheaper for a younger and lower proof whisky. If you need a last minute holiday gift, this is it.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of K&L Longmorn 20.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Year in Whiskey 2012

This was a frustrating year in whiskey. Back in July, I declared the end of the Golden Age of Whiskey, and I think the year bore that prediction out.

New but not noteworthy

The year saw a massive cache of new releases. Nearly everyone had something new, but much of it didn't seem very special. It seems that the the whiskey companies have caught on to the fact that people like new things so we see continual brand extensions. This year alone brought us two new Ardbegs (Galileo and Day), Highland Park Thor (in the big wooden boat box), Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Heaven Hill's Larceny and Elijah Craig 20, Knob Creek Rye, George Dickel Rye, Jefferson's Ocean Aged Bourbon and no fewer than four new E.H. Taylor bourbons from Buffalo Trace. Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam jumped on the invisible whiskey trend, releasing unaged white whiskeys to compete with, or perhaps overwhelm, the craft distillers.

The dropping of age and proof continued with Macallan eliminating some of its age statements and Wild Turkey dropping the proof of its rye.

Distillery happenings

It was a bad year for independence. Jim Beam, which purchased the Cooley Distillery in December 2011, announced that it would no longer be selling Cooley whiskey to independent bottlers, and the once fiercely independent Bruichladdich sold out to Remy Martin.

In the US, the explosion of craft distilleries continued with some notable names, including Old Pogue, Willett and The Party Source starting their own distilleries.

In Ireland, William Grant announced it would build a new Tullamore Dew distillery.

Meanwhile, sourced whiskey continued to grow in the US. It seemed like everyone had an LDI whiskey to release this year, and speaking of sourcing, bourbon geeks will remember this as the year of the Great Pappy Controversy.

Going once...

It was a tough year on the secondary market as well. The beginning of the year saw ridiculous mark ups at Bonhams and ebay, with Bonham's courting controversy with some of its bottle descriptions. Meanwhile, K&L sold a $90 bottle of Jefferson's Ocean Aged for over $1,000.

The tide seemed to turn when ebay shut down all alcohol sales, and Bowmore couldn't unload their latest six figure whiskey, which led some to wonder if the whiskey bubble was finally bursting.

And the silver lining

All of this isn't to say there wasn't a bright side to the year. Balvenie distinguished itself with the Tun 1401 series, showing that some distilleries are still willing to do the serious work of putting out great whiskey without gimmicks. GlenDronach's vintage series and Glenfarclas' family casks continued to impress without jewel encrusted bottles.

Four Roses continued to distinguish itself with its Limited Edition Small Batch. High West continued to innovate with Campfire (a blend of bourbon, rye and peated Scotch) and Son of Bourye, and Bulleit offered a bold and spicy rye that wouldn't break the bank (or even bruise it).

So while investing and speculation may have reached new levels of stupidity, there is still good whiskey to be had. Let's hope for good whiskey at affordable prices for the new year.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Fairfax County BIB 1955

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia dates back to the 1930s. Built just after prohibition's end, it was most famous for Virginia Gentleman Bourbon. The distillery was sold to the Sazerac Company/Buffalo Trace in 2001; Virginia Gentleman and other bourbons are still made there though now they get their first distillation at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky.

This bonded bottle of Bowman's Fairfax County Bourbon was distilled in 1950 and bottled in 1955. It's described on the label as "Heavy Bodied," whatever that means.

Fairfax County Bourbon, distilled 1950/bottled 1955, 100 proof.

The nose is quite lovely with vanilla and floral notes. The palate is floral then a minty note kicks in which turns herbal. The finish is a tad bitter. Water is actually terrible for this one, bringing out even more bitterness.

This is a nice enough bourbon, though not one that is particularly exciting. It's fun to try a Virginia bourbon from that era.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Fairfax County Bourbon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Single Pot Still Hits the Spot: Green and Yellow Spot Irish Whiskey

Green Spot is a well loved single pot still (formerly known as "pure pot still") Irish Whiskey made by the Midleton Distillery for the Mitchell & Son spirit shop. For years, it and Redbreast were the only single pot still whiskeys available, but unlike Redbreast, Green Spot was only available in Ireland. In its effort to expand its single pot still offerings, Midleton has refurbished and expanded Green Spot and brought back an older offering, Yellow Spot, a 12 year old single pot still, made up of whiskeys aged in a variety of casks, including malaga dessert wine casks from Spain. (While I know that Yellow Spot is an old brand, I couldn't shake the thought that it connotes either a part of the snow that you wouldn't want to eat or something you should call your physician about.)

I've long been a fan of Green Spot, but haven't had it in a while, so I was excited to try it again and compare to the new Yellow Spot. The Spots are not yet available in the US.

Green Spot Irish Whiskey, 40% abv ($55)

I love the Green Spot nose. It's just pure and malty with fresh grass and hay; it's like everything you want Irish Whiskey to be. The palate follows up nicely with those pure malt notes, a bit of sweetness and a slight fruitiness in the late palate. The finish is mostly malty. I've always preferred Green Spot to almost any other Irish, even the acclaimed Redbreast. It just shows so much lovely malt, nicely balanced with some sweetness; straightforward, perhaps, but very well done.

Yellow Spot Irish Whiskey, 12yo, 46% abv ($98)

Surprisingly, the Yellow Spot nose is much lighter than the Green Spot; it has a grainy, almost bourbon like quality to it. The palate is also very grainy with a very alcoholic type flavor. Tasting blind, I think I would guess that it was a single grain whiskey. The initial grainy note then leads to some bitterness and some soapiness, and a bit of sourness which could be the wine influence. Some floral notes emerge in the finish, followed by bitterness. This one is a bit all over the place. The flavors don't come together well, and there are a number of off notes and clashing flavors. It's as if it can't decide if it wants to be grainy or sweet, so it settled on bitter.

For me this comparison was no contest. The pure simplicity of Green Spot easily wins out against the muddled flavor profile of Yellow Spot.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Green Spot and Yellow Spot.

Monday, December 3, 2012

2012 Holiday Gifts: What not to get.

Last week I published my list of whiskey gift recommendations for the holiday season. This week, I want to take some time to tell people what not to get for their spirit loving friends.

The Rabbit Electric Cocktail Mixer ($20) (image from Metrokane). For the past month or so, this has been advertised in full page ads in the New York Times Magazine. According to the ad copy, "Measure the ingredients of your favorite cocktail into the Rabbit Mixer, add ice and press the start button. Sit back and enjoy the mixing show."

This thing may be the saddest statement I've ever seen about American consumers. Is this what we've come to? Are we so lazy that we can't even work up the energy to shake a cocktail? Even if there was a reason someone couldn't shake a cocktail, say that had severe arthritis of the elbow or something, my guess is most people who are into cocktails already have a machine that mixes things for's known as a blender.

If you know someone just getting into cocktails, consider a Boston shaker for $2.75 and use that extra money for ingredients. Come on people, get up and shake that cocktail.

Whiskey Stones ($20). The idea of whiskey stones is to cool your whiskey without diluting it. You put these cute little rocks in the freezer and then add them to your whiskey. Now, I don't typically drink my whiskey on the rocks, so this clearly isn't for me, but even if I did, would I really need a $20 item just for this purpose? Does ice melt so quickly that your drink is diluted before you finish? And isn't the point of ice to dilute as well as cool? If you really wanted to drink cold, undiluted whiskey, why wouldn't you just put the bottle in the fridge or freezer? There, I just saved you $20. You can thank me later.

The Balvenie 50 ($30,000). (image from Scotch Malt Whisky). This new release from Balvenie looks on track to become the whiskey equivalent of fruitcake for the 2012 season. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's great Scotch, but like most whiskey lovers, I'm assuming I'll get dozens of these. Then I have to think about who I can regift them to or whether I can pass them off at the office "white elephant" party. For everyone who was thinking of this as a gift, instead, consider getting 120 bottles of the excellent Balvenie Tun 1401...or a Toyota Camry.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Taco Heaven: Guisados

Boyle Heights lies at the western-most outpost of East LA, just across the LA River from downtown, and it's one of the culinary centers of Mexican food in LA. I've been craving Mexican a lot lately, and while there is good Oaxacan in my neighborhood, to get traditional northern Mexican cuisine, it helps to cross the river.

A small, rectangular taco shop at the corner of Cesar Chavez and St. Louis with a sort of Chicano hipster vibe, Guisados is a recent edition to the neighborhood, having opened in 2010. It's purely a taco shop, offering about a dozen varieties and no other dishes to speak of. For those of you who are fans of Loteria, it's like the taco selection there, but so much better with bolder flavors and spicier sauces. And if it's not spicy enough, try some of their fiery habañero salsa, but use it sparingly, very sparingly.

The base of any taco is the tortilla, yet so many LA taco joints just pop them out of a plastic bag, not so Guisados which makes fresh, thick corn tortillas. And the toppings are worthy of those excellent tortillas (guisados is Spanish for stews).

The chicken tinga, shredded chicken in a savory red sauce, was a stand out. The mole Poblano was less thick and molten than the Oaxacan style found in my neighborhood but equally rich and complex. The fish tacos were also wonderful with pan fried rather than deep fried fish and the traditional cabbage and cream sauce. All of the meat dishes, spicy chorizo, tangy conchinita pibil, a lovely bistek in salsa rojo, and many others, were superb. Vegetarian tacos were also excellent, including a lovely hongos (mushrooms) con cilantro in which the earthy mushrooms were well paired with the bright flavors of cilantro. It's apparent that so much care goes into the preparation of each of these dishes, both the cooking of the meat and the sauces; you really can't lose at this place.

For all of these complex stewed delicacies, though, my favorite taco was probably the quesadilla (pictured as the center taco in the bottom plate at right). It consisted of a disk of Mexican cheese fried so that it developed a crispy crust, and topped with a sort of remoulade sauce. It was so simple, but so rich, with a diversity of textures and a richness from both cheese and sauce that practically forced me to order a second.

For your first visit, a great menu option is the sampler plate of six mini tacos with your choice of toppings (pictured), then go back for the ones you love most.

If you're a taco lover, you need to get to Guisados.

2100 E. Cesar E Chavez Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90033
(323) 264-7201

Friday, November 30, 2012

CORRECTION: Trader Joe's Bourbon is Barton

Earlier this week, I reviewed Trader Joe's new bourbon and noted that it was distilled by Buffalo Trace. While it is a product of the Buffalo Trace company, BT contacted me to let me know that it is actually distilled at the 1792 Barton Distillery, which Buffalo Trace owns. Thanks to BT for the correction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Grand-Dad BIB 1945

Old Grand-Dad is another bourbon with a long heritage, going back to the nineteenth century. For years, it was made at the Old Grand-Dad distillery which was closed after National Distillers sold the brand to Beam in 1987.

This very dusty Grand-Dad is bottled in bond and was distilled in 1945 and bottled in 1949.

Old Grand-Dad BIB, distilled 1945/bottled 1949, 4 years old, 100 proof.

This one has an amazing nose that starts with a big blast of rye then moves to toffee, butterscotch and brandy. The palate isn't quite as strong as the nose. It has very dry, spicy notes with cinnamon and wood. The finish is pleasantly briny and spicy.

The nose on this is absolutely fantastic. The palate is good but lacks the sweet notes that balance the nose so well. Water mellows it nicely, bringing out maple syrup, citrus and honey.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Old Grand-Dad BIB 1949.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Trader Joe's Bourbon

Trader Joe's has done a number of private label whiskeys, but never a bourbon, until now. Trader Joe's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a new product on their shelves. It is distilled at Buffalo Trace's 1792 Barton Distillery and goes for a typically TJ's affordable price of $15.

Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon, 45% abv ($15)

The nose is very nice, woody with a nice rye kick, burnt caramel and cloves. The palate is much less complex with lots of vanilla, and some spice on late palate, but it fades to bitterness in the end which lasts into the finish which is quite bitter.

This one starts well but doesn't hold up. Even for $15, there are better bourbons on the shelf. I expected more out of Buffalo Trace/Barton, but maybe there is a reason they aren't releasing this under their own label.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Whiskey Gifts

Happy holidays! Here are some gift ideas for that loved one who loves whiskey. There were a number of good new releases this year which would make excellent gifts for the booze lover in your life.

Top Picks

For single malt Scotch, my pick of the year is definitely the Balvenie Tun 1401 ($250), a vatting of whiskies aged in bourbon and sherry casks that is a wonderfully balanced sherried malt. There are two distinct batches of this that have been released in the US, batch 3 and batch 6, and while both are excellent, batch 3 is a bit better, so grab it if you can.

For bourbon, the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2012 ($87) is an easy pick. It's a big, complex bourbon bottled at barrel strength with notes of briny rye, tobacco and even some fruit. If you know someone who drools at the thought of George T. Stagg or Pappy Van Winkle, get them a bottle of this. It's probably the best bourbon I had all year. Apparently, though, it's become hard to find in California, so you may have to dig a little.

Something Smoky

If you know someone who likes their whiskey smoky, you might want to get something a bit out of the ordinary instead of that usual bottle of Ardbeg or Laphroaig. Two of my favorite smoky whiskeys of the year were fun and off the beaten Islay path. High West's Campfire ($55) is a blend of bourbon, rye and peated Scotch. It's unlike anything else around with a flavor that is at once sweet, spicy and smoky. Balcones Brimstone ($50) is a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak. It's deeply smoky with a sweet edge, and it's unlike any other smoky whiskey I've tasted.

Budget Booze

If you're looking for a less pricey gift, there are several good options. Trader Joe's Single Malt Irish Whiskey ($20) was probably the best Irish Whiskey I had all year, with a nice combination of peat and sherried sweetness. Distilled at the Cooley distillery, it still seems to be readily available, and the price is right.

One of my favorite new bourbons of the year was Hooker's House ($36), a high-rye Kentucky bourbon finished in pinot noir barrels. It has a nice, fruity disposition and is a pleasure to sip for a reasonable price.

Canadian Whisky

If you know someone who loves Canadiant Whisky, you could get them one of the excellent ten year old Canadian straight ryes, WhistlePig ($70), Masterson's ($65) or Jefferson's ($40), but what you really should get them is Davin de Kergommeaux's excellent book Canadian Whisky, the Portable Expert ($15) which answers any question anyone has ever had about Canadian Whisky, its history, style and production.


Lastly, for those of you who might be looking for a whiskey alternative, look no further than the Famille Esteve Selection Coup de Coeur Cognac ($90), part of K&L's exclusive selection of Cognacs. Equal parts sweet and spicy, this is a wonderful Cognac to sip anytime and better than some Cognacs that go for nearly double the price.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving: Whiskey Edition

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are ten things in the whiskey world that I'm thankful for.

1. Four Roses, Balvenie, Glenfarclas and other producers that continue to release great whiskey at reasonable prices without gimmicks or excessive bling.

2. The death of whiskey on ebay. I was pretty neutral about ebay while it was selling whiskey (and I never bought or sold whiskey on ebay), but I have to admit, I'm relieved at not seeing the latest Pappy Van Winkle 15 to go for $800. For a while, it was probably a good thing for folks who don't have a great selection of whiskey where they are, but by the time they shut it down, the prices were so ridiculous that I can't imagine it was helping consumers.

3. Craft whiskey. I give these guys a lot of grief, but on the whole, the craft whiskey movement is a good thing, and I think we'll eventually get a number of really great whiskeys out of them.

4. K&L. Those guys give 110%. I'm lucky to have them as my local shop.

5. All those amateur bloggers who spend their own time and money to keep all of us better informed, including (but in no way limited to): Serge, Oliver, Davin, Jason P., Tim R. and many, many others.

6. Jefferson's Ocean Aged, Red Stagg, Dalmore Constellation, six figure whiskey, sourced whiskey that pretends to be something it's not and all the other absurdities that provide fodder for my satire. I'm thankful for them the way political satirists are thankful for Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

7. That there's no whiskey Black Friday...yet.

8. A little known LA liquor store I frequent with a huge selection, no web presence and no email list that just sticks everything out on the shelf...first come first served, like the old days.

9. All those folks who make the whiskey, not just the distillers, but the distillery workers, coopers, folks on the bottling line and other unrecognized people who show up every day to do the unglamorous work of making whiskey.

10. Everyone out there who bothers to read my ramblings or comment on them. Thanks to all my reader-pals!

Happy Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for, whiskey or otherwise?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Beam's Finest: Booker's Bourbon

In my review of Knob Creek Rye I noted that I'm not a big fan of Jim Beam products. I particularly dislike their ryes but also don't care for the basic Beam mashbill that goes into Jim Beam label bourbons as well Knob Creek and Baker's. The only bottling of this mashbill that I have enjoyed is Booker's, the barrel strength version of the Beam mashbill. It's been years since I tried Booker's, and I've never done a formal review, so I thought it was a good time to revisit this member of the Jim Beam small batch collection.

Booker's Bourbon, 63.7% abv ($50)

The nose has nice caramel notes and maple syrup with some decent wood on it, as well as tobacco and red wine notes. The palate is distinctively Beam, syrupy sweet but then it has some nice, spicy, tobacco type notes, then it gets a bit soapy and ends on a cloyingly sweet note which fades into a sticky finish.

Well, this is definitely better than most of the Beam mashbill, but while I remember it fondly, I wasn't very impressed with this one (and of course, there is always the possibility that the composition has changed over the years). It's far too sweet for my taste, though I like the spicy/tobacco note that creeps into the mid-palate. If you like Beam, this is definitely a step up, but there is a lot better bourbon to be had for $50.

See the LA Whiskey Society review of Booker's Bourbon.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The New Batch: Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6

This spring, I was very impressed by the first US release of Balvenie Tun 1401. That Batch (Batch 3) is still on some shelves, but Balvenie has now sent another release to the US: Batch 6, so I thought I'd compare them.

Whereas Batch 3 was composed of a blend of seven bourbon cask aged whiskies and three sherry cask whiskies, Batch 6 is composed of seven bourbon cask and two sherry cask whiskies.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6, 49.8% abv ($250)

The nose has those really nice sherry notes with mixed berries. The palate is a drier sherry that trails off with some baking spices, including cloves and allspice. Then there is just a wee bit of iodine and some medicinal notes more reminiscent of a coastal malt.

This is quite different from the first US release, Batch 3, which was fruitier. It's still a great whiskey though perhaps not as transcendent as Batch 3 was.

See the LA Whiskey Society Review of Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Very Old Fitzgerald

For the next few weeks, I'll be spending my Dusty Thursdays on a series of mid-century bourbons I tasted as part of a phenomenal tasting at the LA Whiskey Society. The Society manages to hunt down some amazing bottles, and I'm lucky to be able to partake.

We will start with one that is one of the holy grails of dusty bourbon: Very Old Fitzgerald distilled at Stitzel-Weller. One good thing about bottled in bond whiskies is that they take much of the guess work out of dusty hunting. They are required to list the distillery that produced the bourbon and the older bonded whiskeys listed the date of distillation and bottling right on the tax stamp. This particular example of the renowned wheated bourbon is an eight year old that was distilled in 1948 and bottled in 1956. According to the label, this bottle was made expressly for Howard Cook. Whoever he is, I raise a glass to him.

Very Old Fitzgerald, 8 years old, distilled 1948/bottled 1956, 100 proof.

This has a beautiful nose with big candy notes including candied orange peel. The palate opens with a sweet dessert wine note, moves on to orange flavored baby aspirin (you'll remember those if you're over 40) and some floral notes. The finish is fleeting but slightly spicy with more of those orange notes.

This is a very unique bourbon and very different from other Stitizel-Wellers I've had. Those dessert wine and the floral notes separate it from other, more recent Stitzel-Wellers, though the orange and candy notes are more familiar. Of course, this is the oldest Stitzel-Weller I've had by a few years. While this was very good, I think I prefer the flavor profile from the late '60s and '70s.

See the LA Whiskey Society review of Very Old Fitzgerald 1948/1956.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rye Wars: Are Bulleit & Knob Creek the Coke & Pepsi of Rye?

There's been a big change in the rye market this year. As I've noted previously, some of the old reliable rye whiskeys have been hard to find. Rittenhouse 100 and Sazerac have become scarce. Wild Turkey 101 was "temporarily" discontinued to make for a lower abv 81 proof version. Into this gap have stepped two major contenders from two of the largest spirit companies. First Diageo stepped up with Bulleit, and then Beam with the new Knob Creek Rye that I reviewed last week.

Faced with the shortage, Bulleit seems to already have become the right rye at the right time. I can't find Sazerac or Rittenhouse many places, but Bulleit is everywhere, including Trader Joe's for $19.99. I've seen it on bar and retail shelves across the country. In a matter of just a year, it's managed to fill the void left by the more established ryes and become the most ubiquitous rye whiskey. Clearly seeing this success, Diageo introduced a second rye, George Dickel Rye. While it carries the name George Dickel, the whiskey is distilled in Indiana at LDI, the same distillery that makes their Bulleit Rye. Clearly, Diageo has made a very calculated bid on the rye market.

Beam's Knob Creek rye is just hitting the shelves in California, but I have no doubt that it will also see big sales. Knob Creek is a top selling brand and Beam was smart to reboot their silly (rī)¹ whiskey under a more familiar label (and at a higher proof). The lighter, barely spicy taste of the Knob Creek will appeal to people who aren't ready for the spicy kick of Bulleit. Lots of people who hear about rye and want to try it, but can't handle the spicy LDI profile will undoubtedly become fans of Knob Creek.

Diageo and Beam saw a vacuum and stepped in. The issue for Sazerac, Rittenhouse and Wild Turkey is how much of their sales will be gobbled up by these behemoths before they can increase supply. My guess is that Bulleit and Knob Creek will quickly become the Coke and Pepsi of rye whiskey, with other brands playing to more of a niche role.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bon Voyage: Jefferson's Ocean Aged

The story of Jefferson's Ocean Aged is one of the more curious bourbon stories of the year. It started out with a slightly gimmicky release by McLain & Kyne, makers of the Jefferson line of bourbon. They took a sourced Kentucky bourbon and aged it at sea, in the hull of a ship, for four years. The theory was that the bourbon would slosh around at sea, getting more contact with the barrel. This is not an entirely original concept, having already been done with Kelt Cognac. They originally announced that they would release 600 bottles at $90 each.

Well, apparently some of the bourbon disappeared at sea. There would be fewer bottles and they would cost more like $200. The allocation to retailers was cut way back. As a result, one retailer, K&L here in California put the bottle on auction. Shockingly, it sold for over $1,000. You read that right, a current bottling that was originally priced at $90 went for over $1,000 at auction. As I remarked at the time, this, more than any single event, marks the end of the golden age of whiskey and portends the crash.

To their credit, K&L gave the proceeds to charity, but what about the bourbon? Could it possibly be worth that amount? Lucky for me, I was able to taste some that was acquired for a far lesser amount.

Jefferson's Ocean Aged, 41.15% abv ($1,000?)

The nose has a nice spicy characteristic, but the palate is a bit flat. There is banana and some spice that trails into the finish. Not unlike the standard Jefferson's bourbon, this is a decent but totally unexceptional bourbon. There's just not much to it.

Having tried this, I'm even more shocked that it could sell for a ridiculously high price. This is a totally average bourbon. We are truly living in whiskey bubble which may be close to popping, and this is the of bourbon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Reader Poll Results: A Landslide for Buffalo Trace

The results of our Election Day Reader Poll about which company makes the best American whiskey are in, and the crowds at the Buffalo Trace victory party are jubilant.

Sazerac/Buffalo Trace cleaned up with 18 votes, Four Roses was second with five, followed by Heaven Hill with four, Beam with two and Brown Forman with one. Interestingly, seven of the votes for Buffalo Trace mentioned their sadness at losing Four Roses.

I suppose conventional wisdom (and maybe Nate Silver) would have favored Buffalo Trace, but I was surprised by the lopsidedness of the result. BT makes some excellent whiskey and a wide variety of it, but of late, they've had some criticism for brands that some consider not up to par. Even with those criticisms, though, it's clear that BT is still close to the hearts of whiskey lovers.

I was also surprised that Heaven Hill didn't perform better. They make a wide range of products at a reasonable price, though for the most part, they have shied away from some of the more limited releases and high end offerings of some of the other companies (the exception being Parker's Heritage Collection). Are we whiskey geeks obsessed with bling and undervaluing a solid producer?

And woe is to Wild Turkey, a once beloved brand that didn't get a single vote. My guess is concern over their recent output, including the proofing down of their rye, has turned people away from them.

Of course, people will analyze these results for years to come, considering the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the October Surprise of Dickel Rye, but Buffalo Trace clearly has a mandate. Now let's see what they do with it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Edition Reader Poll: Best American Whiskey Company

The election is upon us, and that means a big decision for everyone: If you could only drink whiskey from one of the major American whiskey companies for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Here are the rules. You must pick one of the companies below. All of the other companies will cease production and there will be no whiskey available from them. Make your choice in the comments. Please mark your ballot carefully to avoid election night discrepancies.

Below are your choices with a sampling of what you get with each vote (if you want to know all of the brands made by each distillery, check out my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands).

  • Beam Global (including Maker's Mark): You get the full Beam line, including Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Booker's, Old Overholt Rye, Maker's Mark, Old Grand-Dad...and Red Stagg too!
  • Brown Forman (including Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve). You get Old Forester, Early Times, Jack and Woodford (including all those Master's Collection bottlings).
  • Diageo: Diageo owns the George Dickel distillery and the Bulleit label, so that's what you'll get.
  • Four Roses: Single barrel, small batch and limited editions, but no rye for you.
  • Heaven Hill: Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, Rittenhouse Rye, Bernheim Wheat, Mellow Corn and Parker's Heritage Collection among others.
  • Sazerac Co./Buffalo Trace (including Barton, Bowman, Van Winkle and Age International products): Lots of stuff here; you get the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the Van Winkle bourbons, Very Old Barton, Weller, Sazerac Rye, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, E.H. Taylor, all those single oak bottlings, etc., etc.
  • Wild Turkey: You get Wild Turkey bourbon and rye plus the Russell's Reserve bourbon and rye.

Footnotes for the whiskey geeks:

1. Van Winkle is an independent company and not all of their whiskey is made at Buffalo Trace, but I'm making the call to include them with Sazerac (which doesn't mean it will be any easier to get a bottle, by the way).

2. Current releases of Rittenhouse Rye are still made at Brown Forman but it's a Heaven Hill product and is now being made at Heaven Hill again so it goes with Heaven Hill.

3. If Diageo wins, Four Roses will stay open for the sole purpose of making the bourbon for Bulleit.

4. LDI isn't a choice because they don't market anything of their own, but if you love LDI rye, you can still get it in Bulleit and Dickel ryes if you pick Diageo.

5. Assume no independent bottlings will be available other than those produced by the companies listed above, so don't assume you will still get plenty of Heaven Hill from Willett's or other independent bottlers.

6. Be sure to let me know if you're from Ohio so I can make sure your vote counts more than everyone else's.

The polls are open!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2012

Many lovers of Four Roses bourbon concentrate on their single barrel offerings, each of which highlights one of the distillery's famed ten recipes (made up of five yeasts and two different mashbills). While it's fun to sample the different recipes, Four Roses also blends them for their other bottlings. The Four Roses Small Batch is a blend of four different bourbons. Each year, Four Roses also releases a Limited Edition Small Batch, a marriage of four bourbons bottled at barrel strength.

This year's Limited Edition Small Batch is a blend of the following four bourbons:
17 year old OBSV, 11 year old OBSV, 12 year old OBSK and 12 year old OESK. This vatting combines three different ages, two different yeasts (V and K) and both of the mashbills: the B mashbill is 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley. and the E mashbill is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley.

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2012, 55.7% abv ($87)

The nose on this is really wonderful with all kinds of things going on. A first whiff reveals fresh cherries, followed by a nice dose of briny rye spice, tobacco and wood notes. The palate carries the same complexity. The briny rye spice is there but also a sort of light perfume note that intensifies the tobacco from the nose. The tobacco and rye spice really stand out on the finish which is quite lengthy and delicious. Water brings out some anise notes and some acid that add to the picture.

This is really fantastic stuff. It's packed with flavor and has a complexity that shows new dimensions with every sip. This may be the best new bourbon I've had all year. It's certainly competitive with the annual offerings from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Pappy Van Winkle, but unlike those, there appears to be some Four Roses Small Batch Limited still on the shelves. If you see it, grab it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jefferson's Rye

McLain & Kyne's Jefferson's Rye is the third of the trifecta of Canadian ten year old ryes that came out last year, the others being WhistlePig and Masterson's. Like the other two, Jefferson's is ten years old and made from 100% rye mash, but it's about $25 cheaper than its competitors.

Jefferson's Rye, 10 years old, 47% abv ($40)

The nose is sweet and piney, like a sugar coated pine needle. The palate is very similar to the aforementioned Canadian ryes with strong, earthy, piney notes and a bit of brine but some sweetness as well. The finish is decidedly spicy and briny.

These Canadian ryes came around at just the right time, during a shortage of aged American straight rye. In comparing Jefferson's to the other two Canadian ryes, WhistlePig is stronger, and Masterson's is slightly more nuanced. When it comes right down to it, though, they are strikingly similar. Given that similarity, you might as well buy the cheaper one, and that is clearly Jefferson's.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Trolling the TTB

As I've written before the Federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approves all spirits labels and publishes the certificates of approval on-line. This is a huge service to spirits fans as we get to see labels for new products long before they are on the shelf. Whiskey geek that I am, I spend some of my free time trolling the TTB database to see what's new and noteworthy. If I find something good, I usually tweet a link to using the hashtag #ttbtrolling, so if you want to see what's new that I've found interesting, search that hashtag.

Now keep in mind that label approvals don't guarantee that the product will hit the market. Sometimes, a company submits a label to have a product ready but then decides not to go forward or changes it for one reason or another. They also approve labels that are for private distribution for a particular event or store but which may not be widely available, so if you see me tweet an interesting label, understand that it's likely but not guaranteed to end up on the shelf.

Here are some of my recent finds:

I bet you never thought government documents could be so much fun!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Am I Too Hard on Whiskey?

Lately, I've had a few comments suggesting that maybe I'm too negative about whiskey, that there's nothing out there I like. Heck, maybe I don't even like whiskey at all. While I make light of it, it's a legitimate question: am I being too hard on whiskey?

I certainly admit to being a hard judge. I started this blog as recommendations for a small group of readers who were mostly my friends. My feeling was that if I recommended something for them to spend their hard earned money on, it was going to be something I felt strongly about.

Even though the audience for the blog has grown by leaps and bounds since then, I still take that same attitude. I will always honestly say what I feel about a whiskey. That doesn't mean any given reader will agree with me, but it's all I can do. For that matter, there are a number of blogs out there that give mostly very positive reviews. That's not a criticism of those blogs, and I have no reason to believe they are not being every bit as honest as I am, but if you mostly want to hear about how good most whiskey is, there are a lot of people who have palates that will accommodate you.

That being said, I don't think it's all my fault. As I recently wrote, the Golden Age of Whiskey is over, and I honestly feel that the new releases we are seeing these days (and new releases are what most bloggers write about) are simply not as good as they used to be. It used to be that new releases meant a company had something different to offer, perhaps something older, higher proof or a unique mashbill. Over the last few years though, spirits companies have figured out that people like new releases and will buy them, so you get high priced line extensions that aren't really much different from current offerings, though there is usually some story to go along with them (survived a tornado, aged on a boat, named for a felony, etc.).

The truth is that I do like lots of whiskey. In another few months, I'll release my holiday gift suggestions, and I've had no problem compiling them from this year's new releases. While I won't swoon over every new bottling, there's plenty out there that I like and even love, though it's not usually the most hyped new release.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

K&L Spirits Blog: Read It

I've always been a fan of the K&L Spirits Journal blog which gives a unique insight into the retail market as well as some general philosophizing on the booze industry.

Lately though, K&L Northern California spirits buyer David Driscoll has taken it to a new level. When presented with price hikes for some whiskey brands, he dramatically lowered prices on others brands from the same company to the consternation of the distributor and other retailers. Check out these great posts and then peruse the rest of the blog.

For extra bonus fun, read about how I totally punked K&L when David was visiting the Los Angeles store.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rye Two: Knob Creek Rye

A few years ago, Jim Beam made a play for the high-end rye market with something called (rī)¹ (pronounced "Rye One"). They claimed it would be followed by Rye Two and Three, but that never happened, presumably because sales were not what they imagined. Now, Beam is making another attempt at the premium rye market, this time using its popular and expanding Knob Creek label. Knob Creek Rye carries no age statement and is bottled at 100 proof. We can only assume it includes some of the rye that was previously intended for Rye One...or Two.

I should note that I'm generally not a fan of Beam ryes (or Beam anything really). They tend to be sweet and lacking in spice, which is the note I like most in my rye.

Knob Creek Rye, 50% abv ($37)

The nose on this is typical of Beam ryes, very light with some banana and some soapy notes. The palate is slightly sweet with little rye character. The initial sweetness fades to that slightly banana flavor, which is really more like an artificial banana candy. There's a sort of sweet candy finish.

Well, what can I say? It's a Beam rye. Those banana notes are similar to what I get in Old Overholt, another Beam rye. This does nothing for me. I've always seen Beam ryes as rye for people who don't really like rye, and this one is no different. If you like Overholt or you liked Rye One, give it a try. Otherwise, stay away.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cookin' Bourbon at Cashmere Bites

Last weekend I hosted a bourbon tasting at a cute little cooking school called Cashmere Bites. Located in the West Adams neighborhood, Cashmere Bites is a one-woman project run by clasically trained chef Tracey Augustine. She holds classes for up to 13 people on a variety of subjects from "urban tapas" to New Orleans cuisine, and her kitchen is in a great little industrial space. The classes usually cost in the $65-$75 range.

For our bourbon tasting, I led folks through the bourbons while Tracey accompanied with a four courses, each of which used bourbon as an ingredient. In this novice tasting, we tasted Eagle Rare 10, Elijah Craig 12, WL Weller 12, George Dickel 12, Bulleit Rye, and as a bonus I brought some Rittenhouse 23 year old and George T. Stagg from my personal stash.

Tracey made bourbon glazed chicken wings, brisket sliders with caramelized onions, bourbon/bacon pecan tarts and banana-bourbon pudding. All of these were great but I especially loved the sliders and the tarts, which were mini-pecan pies with bourbon...and bacon. It's hard to describe how immediately addictive these little things were, so sweet, chewy, nutty, bourbony and, as if that wasn't enough, bacony. I had to restrain myself from eating the whole plate.

I've hosted a lot of bourbon tastings, but this one was particularly fun. I've never had a (mostly) novice class where people were so engaged in the subject, and I've never had a tasting where a majority of the participants were women. Kudos to Tracey for putting together such a great group.

If you're interested in a fun cooking class, check out Tracey's operation at Cashmere Bites.

Cashmere Bites
2609B Brighton Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90018

Disclaimer: While I didn't charge for my services, Tracey offered me a free cooking class in exchange for the tasting.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to be a Whiskey Expert

With all of the fall whiskey shows coming up, I thought I would give some helpful advice about how to be a whiskey expert. When surrounded by ignorant novices, it's very important to let people know that you are an advanced whiskey specialist, and there are a number of excellent ways to do that. If you follow the guidelines below, no one will doubt your whiskey knowledge.

  • Make sure to correct people who use the wrong spelling of whisk(e)y. Remember, everyone loves to be corrected, especially about spelling.
  • If you're looking for a good way to demonstrate your expertise, you can almost always do it with Jack Daniel's. If you hear someone refer to Jack Daniel's as a bourbon, you can say, "actually, it's a Tennessee Whiskey," but if you hear someone saying that Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon, you can say, "actually, it really is just a bourbon that has been run through a filtering process." Either way, you get to show how much you know and how little they do.
  • Try to remember that when people drink whiskey the wrong way it's not always because they are stupid; sometimes they just don't know any better. They may not always know how to express it, but these philistines will be grateful that you informed them that they were using the wrong glass or adding the wrong amount of water in their whiskey. Of course, if they are adding ice, you are free to demean them; sometimes you have to be strict if you are dealing with people who simply make no effort to do things correctly.
  • Whenever possible, refer to master distillers by their first names. Whether writing or talking about whiskey, it's always effective to say something like, "well, I know Harlen makes a great single oak whiskey." It's also good to stress your familiarity with these whiskey celebrities. Try saying things like "I was talking to Jimmy Russell the other day" [i.e. I attended a 50 person masterclass] or "I've been close to Richard Paterson for years" [i.e. I follow him on Twitter]. Warning: Make sure that the distiller you're referring to is actually alive. You don't want to be caught unawares when you say you enjoyed a nice chat with Pappy Van Winkle or Elijah Craig the other day (unless you are very old).
  • When drinking whiskey, always let people know that you have tasted very rare and expensive whiskeys. Just the other day, I was drinking a Canadian Club on a plane and I said to my seat mate, "Well, this just isn't as good as the Black Bowmore I had the other day." He sat there in stunned silence, so taken aback by my expertise that he didn't say a word to me for the rest of the flight!

Once you follow these simple steps, everyone will understand that you are a certified whiskey expert. I've been doing this for years, and one positive side effect is that may people are intimidated by my level of expertise. In fact, I've found that people are so afraid of seeming stupid around me that they won't even dare to come over for drinks, which is great because it means I don't have to share any of my rare and valuable whiskey with such people. Indeed, I've found that even some well known brand ambassadors, critics and distillers are too intimidated to spend time with me.

If you follow these steps, you too may be able to attain this level of whiskey expertise. Good luck!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Four Roses Single Barrel Gift Shop Exclusives

It bugs me as much as the next guy when people review impossible to get whiskeys that I will never have a chance to try. That being said, when I get my hands on something really unique, I feel an obligation to share my thoughts, if not the liquid (though I try to do plenty of that as well).

Four Roses is a fabulous distillery, and their single-recipe, single barrels are well known. Almost all of these are nine to ten years old, and up until recently, there hasn't been any older Four Roses available. Within the last year, they have released extra aged single barrel bottlings which are only available at the distillery gift shop. I managed to get my hands on samples of the 16 and 17 year old gift shop bottlings, both of which use the OBSV recipe, which is the higher rye mashbill of 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley. I believe they sell for around $60 or $70 at the gift shop.

Four Roses Single Barrel 16 year old OBSV, Barrel 78-3A, Warehouse QS, 54.7% abv

There's a huge rye kick on the nose which melts into a vanilla extract. The palate is surprisingly fruity. I get pineapple and then a hint of rye which fades into the finish, but the more I drink, the more those rye notes emerge, like when you eat a chili mango paleta and it mostly tastes like mango but then the chili creeps up on you. There are even some of the vague sandalwood notes that I detect in those old Pennsylvania ryes. The finish has a light chocolate note. The more I drink this one, the more I like it. Even though this is six years older than the usual Four Roses Single Barrel, it doesn't have much in the way of wood.

Four Roses Single Barrel 17 year old OBSV, Barrel 78-30, Warehouse QS, 55.3% abv

The nose has a much more subtle rye influence than the 16 year old, but it's still there and grows as you continue to nose it. The first thing I get on the palate is a nice rye spice followed by more distinctive baking spices with clove and allspice, along with some chocolate; these spices fade nicely into the finish. This is a strong, spicy number.

Despite their similar recipe and age, these two bourbons are actually very different. The 16 has more diversity on the palate with those fruity notes, while the 17 has a much stronger rye flavor. Overall, these are both very good, but I'd give the edge to the 17; of course, I'm a sucker for a strong rye character.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Scarpetta: Celebrity, Chain, Delicious

I'm usually fairly skeptical of celebrity chef chains. After all, how good can a restaurant be when the chef has ten locales in five countries. For this reason, I mostly avoided Scott Conant's Scarpetta for a long time. Conant's not a huge celebrity but his high-end Italian chain, Scarpetta, originated in New York and now has branches in Miami, Las Vegas (natch), Miami and Toronto. Here in LA, Scarpetta is located at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills which also houses another celebrity chef spot, Thomas Keller's Bouchon.

Despite my skepticism, I had an amazing dinner at Scarpetta a week ago and am a complete convert. The menu is fairly simple but the food is spot on. Things started on a positive note with a broiled octopus appetizer that was one of the finest octopus dishes I've ever had. The octopus was not at all chewy, with more of a texture of pork than anything else, and a fresh from the grill, slightly charred exterior that was just fantastic.

Pastas were also exceptional, the highlight being a short rib agnolotti in brown butter sauce. You would think the richness of short rib in butter sauce would be a bit much, but it wasn't. The short rib really shined through. Each of these was a perfect mouthful.

Entrees were equally wonderful. The veal chop, topped with marrow, was as moist and juicy as any I've had, cooked to a perfect medium rare. The spiced duck breast had a great flavor (I'm guessing some tea spicing). The only entree that was less than fantastic was the black cod, which was fine but unexciting.

For dessert, the chocolate dishes really shined, particularly a chocolate budino, a sizable serving of rich, silky pudding.

The only downside of Scarpetta, other than the high prices, was the service, which was a bit lackluster, not matching general feel of the place. It could have just been an off night, but the service was quite sporadic. The waiter would take a partial order, then leave and come back later for the rest, water was luke-warm and water service was a bit sporadic. It wasn't horrible, but not up to the level of the food and prices.

My go-to Italian spot is another celebrity chef owned restaurant, albeit one with shared local ownership that originated here, Osteria Mozza. I'd say Scarpetta is every bit its equal.

Montage Beverly Hills Hotel
225 N. Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(866) 743-7559

Friday, October 12, 2012

After the Whisky Bust

Dateline: 2018

As everyone knows, the early years of the decade were heady times for whisky collectors. Despite some curmudgeons who were never on board, distillers regularly auctioned whiskies for four, five and even six figures. People crowded into auction houses for the latest 50 or 70 year old whisky in a jewel encrusted bottle. Aged whiskies from Dalmore, Bowmore, Macallan and Glenlivet became the liquid equivalent of Rolls Royce and Bentley.

The high water mark was in 2013 when an anonymous collector paid $1.8 million for a 180 year old Macallan. As everyone now knows, it was later discovered that, through a clerical error, an extra zero had been added to the age and it was actually an 18 year old. When the anonymous purchaser asked for his money back, the auction house responded with a three word tweet: "Caveat emptor sucker!"

Many people credit the Macallan 18 incident with causing the Great Whisky Crash of 2014 when the bottom dropped out of the market. People simply weren't willing to pay that level of money anymore, and an entire industry of collectors and speculators was left high and dry. Many remember the low point of that bust cycle, when bottles of Port Ellen and Brora littered liquor store discount racks and clearance bins, and the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery began their three-for-the-price-of-one Pappy Van Winkle giveaway. Bonham's Auction House, which was one of the major centers of whisky auctions during the boom, disbanded its spirits division in early 2016 and transferred its spirits staff to the rare Beanie Babies division.

I recently visited one of the major collectors from that time, Jose Bolsa de Dinero, who lived through the boom and bust.

"None of us saw it coming," Dinero says of the crash, "I mean, here I had invested most of my life savings into these whiskies, assuming I would be the first whisky billionaire once I flipped them all, but then it just all went to hell. Now I can't give the stuff away. I mean, I try to tell people, hey, this is a 50 year old Bowmore, and they're like 'dude, it's just booze.' The bottles are quite lovely though, I managed to sell a bunch of the empty ones on ebay. Apparently, they make a perfect vase for Dutch tulips."

As many whisky lovers said at the time, the bright side about having a whisky collection, however worthless, is you can always drink it, but on that point, Dinero demurs, "Sure I drank some of it, but all those Dalmores? Who would want to drink all that stuff?"

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dusty Thursday: The Inagural Sazerac 18

To commemorate the beginning of the fall whiskey season and the impending release of this year's Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, I thought I'd reach back to the first BTAC. The Antique Collection debuted in 2000. Back then it was a three bottle release featuring Eagle Rare 17, William Larue Weller and Sazerac 18. George T. Stagg would join the party in 2002 and his pal Tom Handy would be the last addition in 2006.

I first picked up a bottle of Sazerac 18 back in 2005 and formally reviewed it way back in ought seven. I've been lucky enough to get my hands on some of the original 2000 release of Sazerac 18 year old rye.

The thing about Sazerac 18 is that since 2003, Buffalo Trace has been using the same distillate for all its Sazerac ryes. Apparently, there was enough rye distilled in 1985 for them to transfer it to steel tanks after 18 years, and since 2003, they have been drawing the Sazerac 18 from those same steel tanks. That makes the pre-2003 ryes even more unique since, unlike everything since '03, they were made from different distillate (though it remains to be seen if this year's Saz 18 will be from the '85 run).

Sazerac 18 (circa 2000), 45% abv.

The nose is beautiful with plenty of spice and even some of those sandalwood notes that I've found on old Pennsylvania ryes, followed by some botanical/herbal notes. The palate takes all of those notes and combines them with some sweet, overripe fruit, but that sandalwood notes really dominates toward the end and into the finish.

This is more like an old Pennsylvania rye than any Kentucky rye I've had. It's totally unique and has a different character from the more recent bottlings of the 1985 vintage rye.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Indie Bourbon, Scotch Style: Alchemist Heaven Hill

Independent bottling of whiskey is a major phenomenon in both the United States and Scotland, but the industries are very different in each country. In the US, independent bottlers seldom disclose the distillery where there whiskey was made and often imply that they made it themselves at some rustic site. In Scotland, independent bottlers commonly disclose the distillery right on the label. Every once in a while, a Scottish distiller gets hold of some American whiskey and we get to see what life would be like in the full-disclosure world of Scottish indies.

Alchemist is a Scottish bottler known for its independent bottlings of such well known single malts as Highland Park, Macallan and Springbank. It's one of the smaller indies and occasionally bottles other spirits such as brandy and rum, and on at least one occasion, they bottled a bourbon.

As someone used to the American indie game, it's refreshing to see an independent bourbon bottling with the name of the distillery right on it. Alchemist's Heaven Hill is a 12 year old, distilled in 1999 and bottled in 2011. It weighs in at 46% abv. It goes for $90 which is a pretty hefty price tag for a 12 year old 92 proof bourbon, but then again, it's that rarest of things, an imported bourbon.

Heaven Hill 12 (Alchemist), 46% abv ($90).

The nose on this is pure Heaven Hill, sweet with honey and somewhat floral with a light woodiness at the end. The palate also has a classic taste of burnt caramel and brown sugar mingled with a small amount of wood which gives it just the right amount of character; it ends with a candy-sweet finish.

This is a great, easy to drink, no muss-no fuss bourbon. It's not overly complicated, but it's light and sweet and very enjoyable. If I'd tasted this blind, I might have guessed it came from an old dusty bottle. Maybe more than any other contemporary bourbon, the Alchemist Heaven Hill harkens back to the old dusty days when bourbon was sweet with a touch of wood and oh, so easy to drink. It's surely expensive for what it is, but it's thoroughly enjoyable. Hmm, maybe those Scots do know a thing or two about whiskey.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Parker's Heritage Collection 2012: Blend of Mashbills

One of the annual special releases I most look forward to each fall is the Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage Collection. Like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the Parker's is always good (and sometimes amazing), but unlike the BTAC, Parker's is always something different and is usually easy to find on the shelf.

This year, Heaven Hill brings us a "Master Distillers' Blend of Mashbills." It's a vatting of rye recipe bourbon and wheated bourbon distilled in 2001, and bottled at cask strength.

There were three different barrel minglings (aka "dumps") that will be released, each with a slightly different abv. The one I review here is the first dump.

Parker's Heritage Collection 2012 "Master Distiller's Blend of Mashbills", 11 yo, 65.8% abv ($80)

The nose starts with lots of spicy rye and winds through yeasty bread notes, ending with a good dose of oak, a pleasant journey. The palate starts with the acidic kick I'd usually identify with a wheated bourbon though even more acidic, like a sour lemon candy, then some chocolate notes (you want specifics? I'd say high cacao Costa Rican chocolate). Water brings clarity, that initial sour kick is more lemony and is followed by caramel and wood (more an oak tree than cut wood), though the sourness lingers. The finish is a muted oak, the sour notes reduced to a tangy tongue.

It's interesting how the wheat and rye work together here. It smells like a rye bourbon put tastes more like a wheater. As I said, Parker's bourbons range from good to amazing. I'd put this further toward the good range. It's a solid bourbon with a great nose and some interesting flavors, but I found the sourness a bit overpowering, and I didn't think the whole thing came together as well as some of the past releases.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Brandy Friday: Famille Esteve Cognac

Back in January, the K&L Dynamic Duo of Davids, spirits buyers David Driscoll and David Othenin-Girard, traveled to France to hunt down brandies to use for exclusive K&L bottlings. They ended up with more than a dozen from the small distillers of Cognac and Armagnac. The first one I tried from this selection was the Famille Esteve Selection Coup de Coeur, a Cognac which is a vatting of vintages from 1979 and 1981. You can find a description of the Daves' visit to the basement distillery at the K&L Spirits Journal.

Famille Esteve Selection Coup de Coeur, K&L Exclusive Bottling, 40% abv ($90)

The nose has that deep, Cognac fruit with white grape juice and raisins, but also some nice wood notes. The palate is fruity but not too sweet with a lot of spice notes. It starts with sweet wine but develops with some pepper and maybe a hint of clove. The finish has light fruit on the nose and pepper on the palate.

This is a really nice Cognac with a good amount of complexity and a nice balance of sweetness and spice. At $90, this is a huge deal.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It's Whiskey Tasting Season

The whiskey tasting season is rapidly approaching with LA's two big whiskey tasting events coming this fall.

WhiskyLive - October 17. Whisky Magazine's WhiskyLive tasting will be on Wednesday, October 17 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. Regular tickets are $109 and gain you entrance from 6:30pm to 10:00pm. VIP tickets cost $139 and get you in an hour earlier at 5:30.

SMWS Extravaganza - November 9. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Extravaganza will be Friday, November 9 at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Tickets are $135 for members of the SMWS and $150 for non-members. Readers of Sku's Recent Eats can get the lower, membership price by entering promotional code SRE2012. (This code will actually work for any of this fall's Extravaganzas, which will be in Boston, Chicago, DC, Philly, San Francisco, Seattle or Fort Lauderdale, see the SMWS calendar.) [Note: Sku is admitted to this event free of charge]

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Peated Mai Tai

In all my informal cocktail experiments, I've come to the conclusion that adding peated whiskey to a cocktail is usually a good thing. Now, in the past, I'd reserved such experimentation for traditional peated cocktails, like the Sazerac, but finding myself in the dog days of late summer LA with a still mostly full bottle of orgeat, I figured, why not a peated mai tai?

I used the same recipe I used in my mai tai post, except I substituted an ounce of Finlaggan for one of the ounces of rum (I used Depaz Rhum Agricole for the other ounce).

Sure enough, this was great stuff. The peat created a nice, smoky nose but the lime and orgeat still ruled the palate making this a feast for all senses. It's an unlikely combination for sure, but it works. Give it a shot!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Great Caesar's Ghost: Caesar's Palace Bacchanal Buffet

On my annual long weekend trip to Vegas, I usually ignore the buffets. There is so much good food there, both on and off strip, that I've got a full meal plan without diving into the world of stand-in-line-to-gorge-yourself action. Of course, buffets have come a long way since the $6 all you can eat rib deal. About a decade ago, the Bellagio introduced the first upscale buffet, followed by the Wynn.

A few weeks ago, Caesar's Palace relaunched their buffet as the Bacchanal Buffet, a foodie-oriented paradise of xiao long bao, posole and other delicacies. Well, I finally broke down and gave a buffet a try.

Showing up at 4:45 pm, we spent an hour and a half in line. I assume that had we come later, it would have been much longer. The buffet itself is immense. Like most buffets, it's broken down into stations, but unlike many buffets, each has an open kitchen. The food is cooked and immediately plated, which means no carting food through the dining room, and you can see the action in the kitchen. Here's a breakdown of the seven kitchens.

  1. Seafood: King crab legs are the big thing here and they were really quite, rich, buttery and full of meat; you can eat them cold or the cooks will briefly boil them for you. There are oysters too, usually one of my buffet favorites, but they were small and gravelly; the oysters in the oyster shooters were better as it seems they had picked the plump ones for those and thoroughly cleaned them. I didn't much like the shooter itself, which was mostly tomato sauce, but the oyster was good. There was also shrimp, seafood gazpacho and all manner of fish dishes.
  2. Meat: There was all manner of food at the meat station, including lamb chops, prime rib, and a barbecue selection of spare ribs, brisket, sausage and chicken. The ribs and brisket had wonderful flavor though were a bit tough; I also enjoyed the sausage. This station also had all manner of small sides, including tater tots (regular and sweet potato), potato skins, fish 'n chips, sliders, onion rings, beans, mashed potatoes, etc., etc.
  3. Mexican: The Mexican station was definitely one of the highlights. Carne asada was perfectly medium rare and nicely spiced. Corn tortillas are made fresh in front of you and there is a large salsa bar. Unfortunately, I didn't get to the posole (such is the tragedy of the buffet), but I've certainly heard good things about it
  4. Italian: Pasta, meatballs and pizza. I didn't indulge. You've got to choose wisely.
  5. Charcuterie: This station featured six types of charcuterie, all of which were pretty tasty. As with the oysters, this is one of those times where the gourmand in me comes out; how often do you get to just load your plate with prosciutto?
  6. Asian: This was another great and very diverse station. Obviously, covering a huge continent in one station is challenging, but there was sushi, various chinese dishes and dim sum, Japanese beef curry which was quite good, and a noodle bar featuring ramen, soba and pho. The xiao long bao wrapper was gummy but the filling and broth were competent renditions.
  7. Dessert: This was another stand out. The crepe station featured freshly made crepes with a choice of toppings, and as per usual, there were all manner of mousses, cookies, cakes, bread pudding, bananas foster and a gelato bar (though I didn't care for the gelato).

So after an hour and a half odyssey (I pledged to spend as much time eating as I spent in line), here are my thoughts on the whole feast.

Overall, it's very well done. As with most really good buffets, there were a few prizes really worth searching out (the barbecue, carne asada, crepes, sweet potato tater tots, etc.) and everything else was at least competent. I appreciated that the portions on offer were very small, so you didn't have to waste a lot of food if you wanted to try something, and of course, you could always take more. This isn't a meal that is comparable to the finest eateries in Vegas. It's still a buffet, but certainly, a very good one and a fun experience.

One downside was the service. We were thirsty the entire time and we had to practically stalk the waitstaff to refill our water glasses. We suggested a pitcher, but were told that would violate their policies. I'm not sure if they skimp on service to save money or not giving you drinks is a policy to make people eat less, but it was an unpleasant aspect of the meal.

The buffet is $40 per person with an additional $15 for all you can drink beer and wine option (we declined). Value-wise, as with most buffets, it's hard to beat.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dusty Thursday: All that's Stitzel-Weller is not Gold - Cabin Still (circa 1986)

If you mention "Stitzel-Weller" in a whiskey blog, people's minds turn to visions of Very Very Old Fitzgerald or the early editions of Pappy Van Winkle, rare and delicious bourbons that fetch large sums. It's important to remember, however, that in its day, Stitzel-Weller was a bourbon brand like any other, with both top and bottom shelf offerings. The Old Fitzgerald and Weller lines were on top, but the bottom shelf included brands like Rebel Yell and Cabin Still.

As part of a massive wheated bourbon tasting, I recently got to sample some Cabin Still from 1986, when Stitzel-Weller was still in operation (the brand is now owned by Heaven Hill).

Cabin Still, (circa 1986), 40% abv

The nose has wine like notes, some floral notes and is almost brandy like in some ways. The palate has licorice and mint, also some light corn syrup. It's very light with some Irish Whiskey like flavors. The finish is very short with that light corn syrup taste.

This is not bad by any mean and is certainly distinctly Stitzel-Weller (so much so that I was able to identify it as such in a blind tasting). It's quite drinkable but not at all remarkable and comparable in quality to many whiskeys available today. On the one hand, I'd say this shows that not everything Stitzel-Weller deserves to be worshiped, on the other, I'd note that if this was the bottom of the SW barrel, they were doing pretty well.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury: A Craft Distiller Responds

Last week, as part of my Craft Whiskey Week series, I published a review of two new peated whiskeys from the Lost Spirits Distillery in Salinas, California. I thought the whiskeys showed promise, but overall, I thought they were too young, possessing some of the new makey characteristics that are common in underaged whiskeys.

Distillery owner Bryan Davis posted a lengthy response in the comments that I thought was worth publishing in its entirety, both to allow him to have his say and because I think it's somewhat emblematic of the way that certain distillers respond to anyone who doesn't think their product is the best thing ever to pass through a still:

This morning I woke up after reading your blog post and contemplated closing the distillery that Joanne and I spent the last 3 years of our blood sweat and tears to build. Then I poured myself a glass of Leviathan and the forthcoming Paradiso and said HELL NO I love this whiskey. It was at that moment that I decided to write a short rebuttal to your opinion of my work.

The criticism that a spirit is too young is insulting.

A spirit can be too hot for your taste. A spirit can be too sweet for your taste. A spirit can be to bitter for your taste. You can find notes in it that you don’t like or find awkward. That’s fine and you’re entitled to your opinion, but to say its too young is an undefined criticism.

You owe it to your readers to say why you don’t like it. Hell you owe it me, the person who slaved for years to make the whiskey you panned for no defined reason. Its like saying I am in my thirties and therefore too young to make whiskey. I, like the art I created, stand or fall on my own merits, not my age.

I further take issue with the statement “its too young” since it pretends to be an objective statement when we all know opinions about whiskeys are inherently subjective.

I would also point out that many trained palettes that have sampled my work see what I see in it and love it and support it. I am not saying you have to like it but I am saying the criticism “its to young” pretends to be objective when its not, and is really just a vindictive and mean way of saying I don’t care for it.

Why I did it:
A spirit derives its reason for being based upon what it does that is new, interesting, and unusual. If Leviathan tasted like Laphroag it would have no reason for being since Laphroaig already exists. I made bold changes to the production process, the wood, the peat, and the techniques used to age it. The ester profile and flavor density is off the charts. Is it conventional NO – it’s not supposed to be.

I think Leviathan has a lot to say, you don’t have to like what it says, but don’t tell people not to listen because it’s too young to speak – say why you don’t
like what it says.

Why “it’s too young” is a dangerous thing to say. Big distilleries are pushing the message that craft products are too young… why because they are trying to bankrupt them by discouraging people from trying the whiskeys at all. When you repeat their garbage you are being played like a pawn of the multinational corporations that don’t want to see a world with 10,000 distilleries in it. For them this is business. For me this is art, and the world will be richer place if we don’t let them push their corporate PR strategy down our throats.

For my part, I'm confident that my readers understand what I mean when I say something is "too young" and "new makey," and I think Mr. Davis does too since in this interview with K&L, he himself admits of these whiskeys, "We don't really want to tell you how long they've been in the barrel...obviously they're relatively young and it's not our strongest suit."

So what say you good readers? Is Sku nothing but a shill for corporate whiskey (something that I'm guessing Brown Forman, among others, would have a hard time believing)?