Monday, January 30, 2012

Bourbon Law: Bourbon vs. Corn Whiskey

This question comes up from time to time, so I thought I would address it. Bourbon and Corn Whiskey are both made from corn, so what's the difference (other than that bourbon is delicious and corn whiskey is usually rather foul)?

There are three key differences:

1. Barrels. Bourbon, as most of us know, must be stored in new, charred oak barrels (well, technically it doesn't have to be a barrel, but you know what I mean). Corn whiskey does not have to be barrel aged at all, but if it is, it can only be aged in (1) used oak barrels; or (2) new, uncharred oak barrels.

2. Corn Percentage. Bourbon must be made from a mast of at least 51% corn whereas corn whiskey must be made from a mash of at least 80% corn. So you can have a bourbon and corn whiskey that are the exact same mashbill (at least 80% corn), but they must be stored in different types of containers.

3. Taste. Bourbon is good. Corn whiskey sucks. (I actually couldn't find this listed in the regs, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Boos Philly Cheesesteaks

I love a good Philly Cheesesteak. While I've been eating them for years and know what I like in a cheesesteak, I have literally never set foot in the City of Brotherly Love, so I can't tell you what's truly authentic. I can, however, tell you what's tasty, and the new Boos Philly Cheesesteaks at the corner of Virgil and Fountain is tasty.

This cheesesteak is a hefty overstuffed sandwhich served on a big Amoroso roll. I like them with provolone (yes Cheez Whiz is considered authentic and they offer it, but I've just never been able to do it). The steak was great, thin cut with plenty of pepper. I got mine with onions and then loaded with sweet peppers out of the condiment jar, but you can get it cooked up with mushrooms and peppers as well.

I'm thrilled to have a Hollywood/Los Feliz area option for cheesesteaks, and this is a satisfying one that measures up well to the best I've had. The cheese melts into a nearly transparent state and the bun soaks up the flavorful grease from the cheese, beef and onions, creating a slightly mushy whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It's about the gestalt, and this place has got that down.

You could put ketchup on you steak (or Sriracha, which is also on the condiment table), but I've always preferred to eat my cheesesteaks sans condiments, just letting the beef, cheese, onions and peppers speak for themselves.

Fries are fine but nothing to write home about. Yeah, those are cheese fries with Whiz, I felt I had to get some Whiz in there to be legit.

The biggest downside to this place is the parking. They have a tiny lot (four regular and one disabled space) and street parking is rough. Go off-peak to assure yourself a spot, but do go if you're a cheesesteak fan. And if you're from Philly, as the owners are, let me know how you think it stacks up to the real thing.

Boos Philly Cheesesteaks
4501 Fountain Ave. (parking lot off Virgil)
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 661-1955

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Crow

Old Crow is one of the most storied brands of American whiskey. It was allegedly the favorite whiskey of General and President Ulysses Grant. It was eventually acquired by National Distillers which then sold the brand to Beam. At the time Crow had been a competitor to Beam's standard white label bourbon. Beam closed the Old Crow Distillery and then relegated the distinguished brand to the bottom shelf where it remains today.

Today, we will taste a National Distiller era Old Crow. The bottom of the bottle indicates "84" which gives us a 1984 date. It is a 375 ml bottle at 80 proof with no other abv listed. There is no government warning but there is a UPC code.

Old Crow, 80 proof (40% abv), 4 years old.

The nose on this is very nice with with some very light banana, lots of caramel candy and even some white wine notes. The palate has a nice balance of sweet (again caramel, bananas and wine) and some spicier notes that emerge late palate. The finish blends all of this together in a sweet caramel-banana milkshake.

This is a surprisingly nice bourbon. I wasn't expecting that much from an 80 proofer that used to compete with Beam White Label, but it has some great flavor notes and some nice nuance.

One thing I've though about with these dusty tastings is how these dusties measure up to today's whiskeys. We have an amazing wealth of great bourbon today and it seems likely that the specialty bourbon we have available to us today, (the Buffalo Trace Antiques, Van Winkles, Four Roses Single Barrels, etc.), is some of the best bourbon ever, but I wonder if the general quality of bourbon was better twenty or thirty years ago. There may not have been a super-premium category in 1984, but this bourbon knocks the socks off of the bottom shelf 80 proofers of today. Perhaps the price of all of the great bourbon we can drink today is that there are also more people are actually drinking mediocre bourbon. For my part, I'll take an 80 proof old time Old Crow any day.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Talk About Bum Cakes - Big Bottom Bourbon

It seems like hardly a day goes by without a new release of bourbon or rye sourced from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). Here is a list of the current products that I know of which use LDI whiskey.

  • Backbone Bourbon

  • Bulleit Rye

  • Cougar Bourbon & Rye (export only)

  • High Whiskey

  • High West 12 year old (and components of their other whiskeys)

  • Redemption Bourbon and Rye

  • Riverboat Rye

  • Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon

  • Templeton Rye

  • Temptation Bourbon

  • W.H. Harrison Bourbon

  • Willett Rye (3 and 4 year old versions)

To this list we now add another LDI whiskey: Big Bottom Bourbon. Released last year, Big Bottom, based in Hillsboro, Oregon, is marketing a three year bourbon as well as two port finished bourbons at two and three years old. Today, we will taste the three year old. The mashbill is 60% corn, 36% rye, 4% barley.

Big Bottom Bourbon, 3 years old, 45.5% abv ($28)

The nose on this young, high rye bourbon is very similar to the young, LDI ryes, vegetal and spicy, though with just a bit of corn sweetness. On the palate, you get the sweetness first and then the big, spicy rye notes. The finish is long on the rye and caraway.

This is very similar to the Redemption Bourbon, which makes sense given that it's the same mashbill and a similar age (and they are similarly priced as well). Having to pick between the two of them, I'd probably pick the Redemption which melds the flavors a bit more. With the Big Bottom, the flavors tend to come in more distinct waves, like drinking a bourbon with a rye chaser. Young LDI whiskeys are many things, but subtle is not generally one of them. If you like thick sweetness and bold spice on your bourbons, this one is for you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Trader Joe's Single Malt Irish Whiskey

I'm always on the lookout for a new Trader Joe's product, be it whiskey or cheese, since they tend to have quality products at good prices, even if I haven't liked their private label selection of single malt Scotch.

Tipped off by one of my faithful commenters, on a recent TJ's trip, I picked up a new TJ's product, an Irish single malt made by the Cooley Distillery. At $20 it's certainly a bargain compared to other Irish single malts on the market, though it is only four years old.

The Cooley distillery makes a variety of styles of whiskey, including blends, grain whiskeys and single malts. They make single malts under the Tyrconnell label and peated single malts under the Connemara label.

Trader Joe's Single Malt Irish Whiskey, 4 years old, 40% abv ($19.99)

The nose on this is fruity and malty with some sherry (though the label says this is aged in bourbon casks) and a bit of peat as well. The palate starts off with dried fruit, sherry and malt, quickly yielding to peat smoke which gradually dominates along with some salty notes that are typical of peated whiskeys. The finish has fruit on the nose but peat on the tongue.

I have to say that given my experience with Trader Joe's private label whiskeys, I wasn't expecting much, but this is a surprisingly good whiskey. It is nicely balanced with distinctive notes of fruit, malt and peat which make it wonderfully drinkable (and I don't care what the label says, there is definitely some sherry in there). I'm guessing this is a vatting of the malts that go into Tyrconnell and Connemara. In fact, I think I like it better than the standard issue of either of those malts.

TJ's deserves some kudos for going for a non-traditional flavor profile for their store label Irish Whiskey. I'm guessing they will hear some complaints from people who aren't used to this range of flavor in their Jameson.

For $20, this is a no-brainer. If you live in the vicinity of a Trader Joe's, go get some.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Introducing Toe Stubbin' Whiskey

The Buffalo Fiddich Distillery has introduced a new, limited edition super-premium whiskey known as Toe Stubbin' Whiskey to commemorate the Great Toe Stubbing of 2010. Master Distiller Harlen Miller explains:

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was walking through the warehouse, and someone had left a barrel right in the walkway. Well, I didn't see it and I just banged my big toe against it. I tell you, I've stubbed my toe before but this hurt something fierce. There was blood, the nail was broken, and worst of all, I thought we'd lost the whole cask. Well, after I put on a band aid, I sampled the whiskey, and it was terrific; I think the toe stubbing might have made the whiskey even better. That made me think of that old saying, "When life gives you lemons...make an expensive, limited edition whiskey." So that's exactly what we did. We thought about calling it the Toe Phoenix or Toe-r-nado, but in the end, we settled on Toe Stubbin' Whiskey. I really feel good about this. We took something that was a real tragedy and made something positive come out of it.

Toe Stubbin' Whiskey, a vatting of different barrels in the warehouse the day of the toe stubbing, will be available for $95 per bottle. As Miller says, "You're not only buying an expensive, limited edition whiskey, you're buying a piece of history."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Luscious Lamb "Fried with Meat" at Beijing Restaurant

I've been meaning to write up Beijing Restaurant for a while as it's one of my new favorite destinations in the San Gabriel Valley. Occupying the second floor of a strip mall on Valley Boulevard just west of Del Mar Street in San Gabriel, Beijing is a momentous house of bold flavors.

The menu has some similarities with the Northern Chinese restaurants in the SGV, which makes sense geographically. It includes a fair amount of offal and lots of lamb dishes, but the spicing here seems much more aggressive than the relatively mild north/northwestern Chinese style restaurants. I should note that English used on the menu here is pretty unhelpful (even by SGV standards), but it does have pictures which are helpful.

I have to start with these little sandwiches pictured above, because they were just phenomenal. The one on the left is lamb in a sesame-wheat bun. The lamb is crisply fried on the outside, fall apart soft in the middle. It's like lamb carnitas. The fat from the lamb soaks into the soft bun making for a huge flavor bomb. This thing was just amazingly good. The menu name for this dish is "Fried with Meat."

The sandwich on the right was similar but with pork, including lots of little fat globules, cilantro and chilis on a white bun. On the menu, this one is "Pork with Cooked Pie."

Another excellent dish was "Lamb Pot" which was a lamb stir fry brimming with whole fried cumin seeds, which gave it a huge flavor punch of gamy lamb and cumin. We also had a lamb noodle soup with a thick, rich broth, tender lamb slices, cilantro and noodles.

Among the non-lamb dishes, sauteed green beans were great, full of garlic and chili. Fried pork dumplings were the size and shape of blintzes and bursting with juice almost like xiao long bao. Lamb dumplings were similar though less juicy and much more gamy. I preferred the pork fried dumplings.

Also very good was the dish called "Out of a Pot," which consisted of braised beef, green beans, potatoes, cellophane noodles and large, flat noodles, all served "out of a pot" with a thick, rich braising sauce. This was a real stick to your ribs dish with great flavor, especially when you dug down into the center of the pot where the braising liquid pooled with the noodles and potatoes.

Another good noodle dish is Fried Ge Da, tiny, pan fried rice cakes with carrots, zucchini and plenty of garlic and ginger. I didn't care as much for the menu item described as "Chinese Pizza," a corn meal crust with scallions. The scallions were fine, but the crust was stiff and bland.

This is a great place and the "Lamb Pot" and "Fried with Meat" lamb sandwiches are quickly becoming two of my favorite dishes anywhere.

Beijing Restaurant
250 W. Valley Blvd., #B2
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 570-8598

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Daviess County Bourbon (Medley Distillery)

The Charles Medley Distillery in Owensboro Kentucky has a long and rich history, but like Stitzel-Weller, it was purchased by United Distillers (now Diageo) and closed in the early 1990s. Angostura had purchased the distillery with plans to reopen it but then ran into financial problems and is now looking to sell. Daviess County Bourbon was, from what I gather, a mid-level Medley brand. The label is now owned by independent bottler Luxco out of St. Louis.

The bottle I'm tasting today is 500 ml (metric measurement used) and 86 proof (with no abv listed). The bottom of the bottle indicates "82" which makes 1982 a likely time period. It contains no government warning but does have a UPC code.

Daviess County Bourbon, 4 years old, 86 proof (43% abv)

The nose on this is very nice, sweet bourbon with wood polish and oak. Based on the nose, I was expecting big woody/chewy complexity from the palate, but it's actually more of the light and smooth variety with sweet candy flavors and just a bit of oak. The finish goes back to the woody qualities of the nose.

This is a decent Bourbon but not overly complex, certainly not particularly special or better than anything on the market today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Don't be Outraged, be Happy: Clix Vodka

The whiskey community reacted in predictably indignant fashion when news came out that Buffalo Trace was marketing a new vodka. This was not just any vodka. Clix Vodka is, according to BT, distilled a whopping 159 times, and it will retail for $300.

Now, I admit, the only thing sillier than paying $50 for a spirit that, by legal definition, must have no "distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color," is paying $300 for it, and the 159 distillations almost seems like a parody of vodka marketing. This was one of those press releases that I had to double check to make sure it wasn't originally from The Onion.

That being said, we in the whiskey loving community should rejoice at this news. Buffalo Trace has done an admirable job keeping prices reasonable on its excellent bourbons and ryes. There are other companies that would easily be demanding three figures for something like the Antique Collection, but BT doesn't do that. I'm hoping that things like Clix Vodka help them keep our prices low. For every imbecile that buys a $300 bottle of Clix, that's more money that BT isn't charging me for bourbon. All hail the cash cow!

In fact, from now on, I'm going to make Clix my standard recommendation for anyone who is dumb enough to ask me what super-premium vodka is the best (and I get asked this a few times a year). Of course you should buy Clix, it's distilled 159 times!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bourbon Outlaws: Export Whiskey

Every once in a while I get an email in which someone sends me a picture of a Bottled in Bond whiskey that is 90 proof (instead of a the legally required 100 proof) or a "straight bourbon" that says on the label that it has caramel coloring, when such coloring is not permissible in straight bourbons. What's the deal? Are these scofflaws? Am I wrong about the law?

The answer is almost always that these are export bottlings. American regulations require that bonded whiskey be 100 proof and that no coloring may be added to straight whiskey, but these regulations only apply within the United States. In fact, the regulations explicitly say that they do "not apply to distilled spirits for export." 27 CFR § 5.1.

While the U.S. has a number of trade agreements that protect "bourbon" and "Tennessee Whiskey" as distinct products of the United States, these agreements, for the most part, only require that products carrying those names be made in the U.S.

Therefore, companies that export American whiskey do not have to comply with the strict regulations that they have to adhere to when producing American products. So for those of you bourbon lovers who aren't in the U.S., caveat emptor.

That being said, my guess would be that if you are buying a brand available in the U.S., it's a pretty safe bet (though not 100%) that it complies with U.S. laws. If you're buying one of the many independently bottled bourbons for export only, you're on your own.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What is the Stinkiest Cheese?

Time to dip into the old mailbag with this question:

Sku, I love a stinky, stinky cheese. What's the stinkiest cheese you know?

Ah, a question that pulls at my heart strings. Well, there are different kinds of cheese stink and the stink depends not just on the type of cheese but on its age. I love the stench of a blue mold or the barnyard floor smell of aged goat. The downright stinkiest cheeses, though, have to be the soft, washed rind cheeses. I've had some very mild Taleggios, but I've also had some that were super-powerful and Stinking Bishop from England is appropriately named (although it's actually named after a variety of pear). And while Epoisses and Pont l’Eveque are legendarily stinky, their stinky exteriors fade on the palate to reveal a rather subtle and delicious cheese.

If I had to pick out the absolute stinkiest cheese I've had in recent memory, it would have to be Vacherin Mont d'Or, the French cow's milk cheese. I recently purchased one of these from the Cheese Store of Silverlake (shown at the top left in the above photo), and while Vacherin Mont d'Or is always stinky, this one was corpse-waking material...or maybe just corpse. I have a pretty huge tolerance for stench, but I even had trouble getting it down, and my fridge still doesn't smell the same.

So if you really, really want to push the envelope on stench, see if you can find one of these ripe Vacherin Mont d'Ors, but you may want to keep it in a lead box or something.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Early Times Bourbon Circa 1981

Since I've been writing a lot about Brown Forman lately, I thought I would try another dusty Brown Forman bottle: Early Times Bourbon.

Early Times used to be a regular bourbon offering from Brown Forman. Then, they started ageing it in used barrels (a bourbon no-no) and calling it "American Whiskey." In 2010, Brown Forman brought back a bourbon under the Early Times label while continuing to produce the American Whiskey.

Today's dusty Early Times is from the era when Early Times was always bourbon. The bottle indicates "81" on the bottom so it's likely from around 1981. It is a liter bottle with the metric measurement. Alcohol is indicated by proof only and there is no government warning, but there is a UPC code.

Early Times Straight Bourbon, 80 proof (40% abv), 4 years old.

The nose on this is very light with alcohol fumes and kerosene. This is actually one of the few bourbons that is better on the palate than on the nose, though it is still pretty light. It's got corn syrup and rock candy. The finish is nice and Bourbony. It is light and easy to drink, but it doesn't come together that well and the nose is weak. Mediocre, but I still like it better than the current Early Times American Whiskey.

Early Times has always been Brown Forman's lower shelf offering. When looking for dusties, I'll stick to Old Forester.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Other Collection

Speaking of hoarding, why do I have so much damn salt?

Fear not though, all of these are open and in use. I'm no salt speculator. (And note that the Morton's table salt there is a dusty from the '70s, before all of Morton's turned to crap).

Yeah, I'll have some salt reviews coming, just you wait.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why Does Brown Forman Suck So Much?

There are many mysteries in the world of whiskey, but this is one of the biggest for me. Brown Forman is a hugely successful company. Why does their whiskey almost universally suck? I'm generally not a fan of Jim Beam, the other huge player in US whiskey, but there are products in their portfolio that I can enjoy, such as Old Grand-Dad 114, and they put out some great Scotch from Laphroaig and Ardmore. But with Brown Forman, their whiskey is just terrible. What's the deal?

If you're not familiar with the company, Brown Forman is one of the biggest selling whiskey producers in the United States. They own three whiskey distilleries (Brown Forman, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel's). They also own Canadian Mist, Finlandia Vodka, El Jimador and Herradura Tequila and Southern Comfort.

They clearly know spirits and marketing, so why does their whiskey suck so much? It's easy to reflexively answer that they are just too big, but Diageo is an even bigger company, and it owns some distilleries that are making excellent whiskey.

The three Brown Forman whiskey distilleries are very different. Jack Daniel's is their cash cow. I can understand it sucking, and I don't complain about it. It doesn't need to taste good because it sells on its well crafted mystique. Rock stars, bikers and hipsters all agree that the black bottle of Old No. 7 is cool, and they'd like a t-shirt and some barbecue sauce to go with it. I've never met a Jack product I liked, but given the role the brand plays, that's okay.

Woodford Reserve is the polar opposite of Jack. It's a small distillery making pot still whiskey which does a limited experimental release each year. It's essentially a corporate owned microdistillery. The only problem is, their whiskey runs from mediocre to terrible. Experimentation is all well and good but if you don't start with good whiskey, you aren't going to end up with good whiskey. Garbage in, garbage out.

The eponymously named Brown Forman distillery is mid-way between Jack and Woodford, an industrial distillery but not one that produces on anywhere near the scale of Jack Daniel's. This is where they make Old Forester, a mediocre mid-range bourbon and Early Times, a lower end American Whiskey (bourbon stored in used barrels) which now also has a bourbon label. These whiskeys are boring, boring, boring. Some whiskey fans do like the annual Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. While that is undoubtedly the best bourbon that comes out of Brown Forman, I've never been as excited about it as some others. It just never seems that distinctive.

While Brown Forman has some special releases, one notable thing is that they never seem to release anything at barrel strength. In fact, their only regular higher proof offering is the Old Forester Signature at 50% abv (last year saw a Jack Daniel's special release, the Holiday Select, also at 50%). I'm not one of those people who thinks nothing under cask strength is worthwhile, but I am suspicious about a distillery that never releases anything at cask strength. It's as if they don't believe in the quality of their whiskey in its purest form.

The tragic thing is that Old Forester used to be lovely stuff. For last week's Dusty Thursday, I tasted a bottle from the 1970s that was just wonderful, with more complexity than anything they are doing today. I've had bottles from the 1950s that have an intense, chewy, cigar butt note that reminds me of a well aged Zinfandel. It saddens me that this once great bourbon is a shadow of its former self.

I suppose there is no use in encouraging one of the most successful whiskey companies in the country to change its game, but success is more than balance sheets. I want to see Brown Forman do more than succeed. I want to see them make whiskey worth drinking.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Whiskey Collectors: A Field Guide

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the phenomenon of whiskey collectors. Whisky Advocate just did an entire issue on collecting which covered collecting from many perspectives (it's a fabulous issue which on its own probably justifies the annual subscription price). After that hit the stands, numerous web discussions ensued.

The discussion is often framed as a conflict between collecting and drinking, but the lines aren't always so clear. Many of us have collections even though we don't consider ourselves "collectors." To my knowledge, though, in all this discussion, no one has actually tried to categorize the various whiskey collecting types out there. So here is my field guide to whiskey collectors (I'm hoping Audubon will pick it up).

Type 1: The Hoarder

Most common in American whiskey circles, this collector lives with a constant fear that they will one day run out of their favorite whiskey (which is usually George T. Stagg or Pappy Van Winkle 15). As a result, they buy case after case of their favorites, which are usually stored in the original boxes in the basement or attic. Enough is never enough of their whiskey, but they ignore pretty much everything else on the market.

Where to find them: Trolling the internet and calling liquor stores to find more Pappy and Stagg.
Field notes: Don't tell them your Pappy source!

Type 2: The Thrill Seeker

This specimen is the opposite of the Hoarder. They seek new flavors and will never buy the same whiskey twice. In fact, they don't even like to drink the same whiskey twice, which is why they have amassed an enormous collection of opened but mostly full bottles.

Where to find them: On web forums PMing you with offers to trade samples.
Field notes: If you get invited to their place for a tasting, you should go as they tend to be very generous.

Type 3: The Hybrid

This person cannot decide whether all whiskey should be drunk or whether they should maintain a pristine unopened collection, so they dutifully buy two of everything, one to drink and one to save, though they aren't exactly sure why they are saving that one.

Where to find them: Therapy.
Field notes: If they really like a bottle, they have to buy a third so they can drink two.

Type 4: The Librarian

This person can't bear to finish a bottle of whiskey so, when a bottle gets low, it is transferred to a 50 ml mini bottle and goes into the library for future reference. When that gets low, it is transferred to a 25 ml mini. This continues until the transfers are occurring at a microscopic level.

Where to find them:
Field notes: May be overhead yelling into the phone, "What do you mean 5 ml is the smallest bottle you have!"

Type 5: The Speculator

This is the type of person that we all hate but that I'm not sure actually exists. This phantom menace doesn't even drink whiskey and certainly doesn't care about it but has decided that it's a worthy investment vehicle. They make strategic purchases based on what they believe will increase in value in the hopes of turning a huge profit.

Where to find them: Bonham's
Field notes: Wait for the bust, then we'll get all their stuff for cheap!

Type 6: The Dusty Hunter

This collector doesn't trust anything that's less than 20 years old. They will, however, buy anything old, regardless of quality. Their collection is a treasure trove of closed distilleries and extinct labels. They notice subtle variations in tax stamps and have memorized the UPC codes and DSP numbers for every label and distillery. But don't bother them with something recent; they think anything made after 1990 sucks.

Where to find them: That run down store with the sign that says "Liquor/Deli/Lottery"
Field notes: When travelling with this person, build in time for stops at every corner liquor store.

So dear reader, which type are you?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

RIP Thee's Continental Bakery

In all the hub bub over Nancy Silverton's new Farmers Market spots, Short Cake and Single Origin, there hasn't been much mention about the place that occupied that corner for the thirty years previously.

Thee's Continental Bakery low key bakery that made just about everything, from croissants to rolls to sweets. There are people who swore by their hamburger and hot dog buns as the best in town. I personally loved the tres leches cup, a parfait version of the Latin American treat. They also did a mean chocolate marzipan log, great florentine cookies and petits fours.

Thee's wasn't fancy by any stretch of the imagination and it was about as unpretentious as you can get. Often staffed by a lone counter person who was also baking, its memory serves as an amusing contrast to the massively staffed Short Cake/Single Origin.

Thee's wasn't a culinary destination (I rated it as second tier in my "Ultimate Guide" to the Farmers Market a few years back), but it was a nice corner of the market and one that I'll miss even though I'm a fan of its replacement.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Forester 86 Proof (circa 1978)

Bourbon dusty hunters search high and low for Old Fitzgeralds and other dusty Stitzel-Weller bourbons, but to my mind, the less coveted, more accessible dusty Old Foresters are a great find as well. Today's dusty is an 86 proof Old Forester in a quart bottle. The bottle bottom indicates "78" and 1978 sounds about right given that there is no metric volume measure and abv is stated in proof only; there is neither a government warning nor a UPC code. I live in a pretty dusty neighborhood and like most of my dusties, this one was found within a quarter mile of my home.

Old Forester 86 proof (43% abv), 4 years old.

Wow, this stuff is great. The nose is a perfect balance of wood and caramel. The palate is decidedly rich and full of caramel and some vanilla with lots of wood, again in perfect balance. The finish is all sweet corn and lingers pleasantly for quite a while. This is the whole package with amazing richness for the low proof. Textbook great bourbon.

This is likely what is known as glut bourbon. Starting in the late 1960s, demand for bourbon (and spirits generally) plummeted. Distilleries stuck with a glut of whiskey in the warehouse dumped older whiskey into their standard brands such that a whiskey like this might say four years old on the label but actually contain whiskey that is much older (remember that the age statement indicates the youngest whiskey in the bottle). These days, that older whiskey would go into some premium or specialty bottling, but back then, they were just trying to get rid of it.

So keep in mind, you may not be able to find an Old Fitzgerald 100 proof in the dust bin (I never have), but don't ignore those old Old Foresters.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sonoma Whiskey Part II: Hooker's House Bourbon

Yesterday I sampled Masterson's Rye from my home town of Sonoma (well, from Canada really, but sold by a company based in Sonoma - hey, it's something). Today, I look at Kentucky bourbon bottled by another Sonoma company and finished in Sonoma wine casks: Hooker's House Bourbon, bottled by Sonoma limoncello makers HelloCello under the name Prohibition Spirits.

Since they use a somewhat provocative name, I should explain that Hooker's House is a Sonoma landmark, the home of Civil War general Joseph Hooker whose fondness for prostitutes led to his name becoming a general term for those practicing the oldest profession. The bottle pays tribute both to the general but also to those namesakes with a female silhouette on the label.

The whiskey is a four year old Kentucky bourbon with a mashbill of 54% corn and 46% rye grain. This is a huge rye content (the highest I've heard of for a bourbon) and not one I've ever heard coming out of one of the Kentucky distilleries. According to the folks at HelloCello, the barrels they bought were part of a pilot project that didn't go forward so the barrels were sold off. The Sonoma angle is that once HelloCello bought the whiskey, they finished it for nine months in pinot noir barrels.

Hooker's House "Sonoma-Style" Bourbon, 50% abv. ($36)

The nose on this is very nice starting sweet and fruity with quickly emerging vegetal rye notes. The palate is quite fruity, with sweet fruit punch as well as some sweet plum. Later in the palate, rye peaks out from underneath and it turns minty, which is typical of strong rye on the younger side.

This is a very nice bourbon. I'm guessing that some of the fruit forward notes are due to the pinot noir casks ageing but you also really pick up on the high rye mashbill; the fruit and spice give it a nice balance. I've been skeptical of wine finished bourbons but this is very drinkable and very nice for the price.

Lately, there have been a lot of affordably priced, very drinkable bourbons being put out by independent bottlers, which is a great trend. So far, this is my favorite of that genre that includes bourbons like Redemption High Rye Bourbon and Breaking & Entering.

Hooker's House is currently only available in California, but they are hoping to expand distribution.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sonoma Whiskey Part I: Masterson's Rye

I grew up in lovely Sonoma, California, in the Northern California wine country. While wine is clearly the beverage of choice for my home town, there are two recent whiskeys that have come out of Sonoma (though neither was distilled anywhere near the town). Today and tomorrow, I'll be reviewing my hometown whiskeys.

If you grew up in Sonoma, Sebastiani was a name you knew. The Sebastiani Vineyard was the biggest winery in town, we saw movies at the Sebastiani Theater, our local elected officials were Sebastianis, and when old man August Sebastiani died we read in the local rag about the Dynasty style struggles between the different branches of the family to control the winery.

Now, the prominent family has entered the spirits world with their new company, 35 Maple, named for the Sonoma street address of their office. Similar to Whistlepig and the recently released Jefferson's Rye, 35 Maple's Masterson's Rye is a ten year old whiskey made in Canada from a 100% rye mash.

Masterson's Rye, 10 years old, 100% rye, Made in Canada, 45% abv ($65)

The nose on this is strongly vegetal, which is typical of these 100% rye mashbills, full of pickle juice and capers. The palate follows through with a goodly amount of spice and even some Worcestershire sauce (Hmmm, Bloody Masterson anyone?) followed by some floral/perfume/soapy notes.

It will be interesting to see if these Canadian straight ryes (mostly being released for the US market) are a new genre or Canadian Whisky or just a fluke due to a few loose barrels of the stuff being available for sale to willing bottlers. They have a unique, bold character that flies in the face of the stereotypically sweet Canadian blend and is more spicy and vegetal than Kentucky style straight rye.

Davin de Kergommeaux, over at calls Masterson's "the best of the Canadian straight ryes." I've only had two of the three, but in a side by side of Masterson's and WhistlePig, I found both to be pleasing. The Masterson's is bolder in the spice department, but the Whistlepig has a touch of sweetness which lends a bit more complexity, but the truth is, these are very similar whiskies. If you're a rye fan, I doubt either will disappoint. They are comparably priced, though the Whistlepig is slightly higher proof at 50% abv.

Back in Sonoma, 35 Maple has plans to continue bottling spirits, including a gin, a rum and a bourbon. Based on the quality of Masterson's, I'll be looking forward to their future bottlings.

Coming tomorrow: Sonoma Bourbon

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Short Cake/Single Origin: More Nancy Silverton at the Farmer's Market

I recently reviewed Nancy Silverton's Short Order burger joint at the Third and Fairfax Farmers Market. Since then, Silverton has ordered a pastry/coffee shop as well.

Located where Thee's Continental Bakery used to be, Short Cake/Single Origin is really a single stand with two names (much like the Cognescenti "pop up" at Proof Bakery). While I was underwhelmed by Silverton's burgers, her pastries, unsurprisingly, are spot on. I'm already addicted to the chocolate bear claw, and I love the brunette, a sort of blondie (not a brownie or a blondie, but a brunette, get it?) with pine nuts and a sprinkling of thyme.

The coffee at the Single Origin side gives a welcome shot of third wave aesthetic to the tired Farmers Market coffee scene. Single Origin uses Verve coffee from Santa Cruz and brings a real third wave cuppa' to Third and Fairfax, which is more than welcome.

Unlike Short Order, which I found underwhelming, these establishments are an excellent addition to the Farmers Market and worth a trip on their own accord.

Short Cake and Single Origin
LA Farmers Market
Third & Fairfax