Monday, April 30, 2012

Reader Poll: Scotch vs. American

In my first poll, I asked readers to decide between Irish and Canadian whiskeys. Now I figured I would go for the big Kahunas: Scotch or American whiskey. So here are the rules. You must pick between Scotch and American whiskey. If you pick Scotch, all Scotch will remain available, but all American whiskey will disappear, rapture-style, from the earth. Similarly, if you pick American whiskey, all of the Scotch will disappear.

For purposes of our little game, Scotch includes all Scotch whisky: single malts, blends, grain whiskey, etc. American whiskey also includes everything: bourbon, rye, corn whiskey, craft distilled malt and spelt whiskey, all of it.

So, which will it be and why?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Pewter Top

Today a bit of dusty trivia. Serious dusty hunters look not only for out of production brands and distilleries but familiarize themselves with changes to the bottle. They know that a bottle of Weller Centennial with sloped shoulders comes from a different time period than one with sharp corners. Today, we dive into that minutiae.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is a single barrel expression of the Wild Turkey 101 bourbon. Today, the bottles come with a wooden topped cork, but they previously had a pewter topped cork. Those pewter tops are now considered desirable dusties. From what I understand, the bourbon began production in the 1990s and the switch from pewter to wooden tops came in 2001. Today, I'm trying a pewter topped version from 1995.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit (Pewter Top), 50.5% abv (And for all you bourbon geeks: Barrel 1, Warehouse E, Rick 12, June 8, 1995).

The nose is sweet with a bit of wood. The palate is strong on vanilla with a bit of spice in the background and some oak notes as well. The finish has rock candy and wood.

I'd say I like this just a little bit better than the current version of Kentucky Spirit. This one has a bit more wood influence and a bit more complexity, which could be due to older whiskey being used. It's good but not something I'd go to great effort to hunt down.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Woodford Makes it a Double: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is the first permanent edition to the regular Woodford lineup. The Double Oaked is made by taking the regular Woodford Reserve bourbon and rebarreling it in a barrel which has been toasted for twice as long as the first barrel prior to being charred. While Woodford has said that it was inspired by the Master's Collection Seasoned Oak Finish, that was a different concept, involving extra seasoning of the barrel (seasoning is a process of exposing the wood to the elements). In addition, while the Master's Collection whiskeys are entirely made on the Woodford distillery pot still, this bourbon starts off as the regular Woodford, meaning it is a blend of pot still whiskey made at the Woodford distillery and column still whiskey made at Brown Forman. Like the regular Woodford, the Double Oaked contains no age statement.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, 45.2% abv. ($45)

The nose on this is very Woodford with medicinal pot still notes. The palate starts sweet and then hits mint and quickly transitions into that Woodford medicinal flavor which turns quite bitter; the bitterness lasts into the finish which is also a bit astringent.

I'd say this is slightly better than the regular Woodford (which isn't saying much) but not something I'd recommend and certainly not for the price.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sowing Your Wild Oats (and rice): Buffalo Trace Experimentals

Every year Buffalo Trace releases their Experimental Collection: 375 ml bottles of some wacky experiment (or in one case some old barrels they found). When they first came out, these things were impossible to get and, though priced around $45 in Kentucky, often went for $200 in California. Lately, it seems they have been a bit more reasonable and a bit more available (though they are by no means plentiful). A friend shared with me some of the latest release which was announced in December and hit shelves earlier this year.

This year's Experimental consist of two bourbons with different secondary grains (the grain added in addition to corn and a small amount of barley malt). One uses oats and the other uses rice.

Now, I don't usually pay much attention to reviews in selecting my bourbons, but it's always interesting when someone has a very passionate reaction. John Hansell reviewed these bourbons in a post provocatively titled Don't buy this whiskey! He particularly disliked the oat bourbon and had this to say about it:

The one thing I am sure of: I could randomly pick any bourbon priced at $10 or more from any retailers’ shelf and be pretty confident I will like it more than this. And, with a suggested price of $46.35 for a 375 ml, bottle, I wouldn’t go anywhere near this whiskey.

That may be the worst thing I've ever heard him say about a whiskey, certainly a major distillery whiskey. Anyway, I was more than a little intrigued, and since I particularly like to chase down the bad stuff, I had to try it. Is it as bad as Hansell suggests? Let's see.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection "Made with Rice," 9 years 5 months old, 45% abv

The nose on this is definitely a bit different from the average bourbon. It's got some definite spice similar to a rye spice but also a sort of wet cardboard sort of aroma. On the palate, well, it doesn't taste like Uncle Ben's. The palate is extremely subtle and muted, but quite pleasant. It's also on the weak side, tasting much weaker than 45%. The finish is very light, just a bit of bourbon fumes and then a sort of graininess, really the only discernible rice-like flavor I've gotten from it (and if I didn't know it was made with rice, there is no way I would have identified it that way). This one is sort of nice in its understatedness. It's not something I would seek out, but it's perfectly nice for sipping. I actually think there is something to it, and if I were BT, I'd probably thing about further rice experiments as they could use the formula to end up with an ideal flavor profile for someone who wants a lighter bourbon.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection "Made with Oats," 9 years 5 months old, 45% abv

The nose on this is similar to a rye recipe bourbon, sweet and spicy, though there is also a bit of a plastic note. The palate starts off with medicinal notes which yield to a bitterness that lasts into the finish. I have to say I agree with Hansell that this one is not very good. I would never guess that it was oats, but the bitter notes don't do it any favors. Still, it's not horrible. I've had much, much worse, but it's certainly flawed.

So the rice showed some promise, but the oat was not good. Maybe BT should give potatoes a try.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Glenmorangie Artein

Artein is a recent release by Glenmorangie. Per the ad copy, "Scots Gaelic for stone ‘Artein’ is an intriguing assemblage of 15 and 21 Years Old Glenmorangie, extra matured in ‘Super Tuscan’ wine casks." Those wine casks are said to be Sassicaia, a Bordeaux style Tuscan wine.

Glenmorangie Artein, 15 years old, 46% abv ($80)

The nose on this is sweet and perfumed with lots of fruit and floral notes. I get pears, rosewater and fruit cocktail. The palate surprises with a dry malt early on cushioned by the perfume which then fades into those syrupy, floral notes that were on the nose and then a quite sweet white grape juice. The finish is a slightly malty rosewater reduction.

I thought this was fine, but it certainly didn't excite me much. On balance it's a bit too sweet, and I must admit, perfume and flowers are not my ideal flavor notes. It takes its place among many other good but not great malts.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Week of Drinks Kicks Off with Jameson Black Barrel

I've been spending a lot of time on whiskey minutiae, controversy, legal issues and such so I thought I would take a week and just drink. This week will be all reviews from a variety of whiskeys. We'll start in Ireland

Here's another newish Irish offering. This new Jameson expression was released last year; it is a 12 year old blended whiskey. Why they call it "black barrel" I can't tell you, but per the Jameson website, it has a higher percentage of single pot still whiskey and is composed of whiskey aged in bourbon and sherry casks. Jameson whiskeys are made at the Midleton Distillery.

Jameson Black Barrel, 12 years old, 40% abv ($38)

The nose on this is very nice, rich and malty with some fruit in the background; it's very crisp and clean. I likely would have guessed a single malt based on the nose alone. The palate reveals its blended heritage with some spicy grain notes that play along well with the maltiness, though there is a diluted quality to it. The finish is just a whisper of sweet, fruity malt on the tongue.

This is a well done whiskey and leagues above the standard Jameson. I like the flavors, but this is one where I really wish they had upped the abv. In a whiskey with delicate flavors like this, a high abv can make the difference between something good and something outstanding. In its diluted state, it hints at the great whiskey it could be but just doesn't get all the way there.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve 10/101 - What is a Dusty?

I talk about dusties every Thursday but I don't think I've really spent any time defining what a dusty is. If you ask most people, they would say it's a hard to find or out of production bottle of whiskey. But if you really talk to people about dusties, many would say that what they are looking for are bottles that were out of production before they started drinking (or seriously drinking) whiskey.

Enter Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve 101. Unlike many of the dusties I've covered here, this bourbon was available when I started becoming a whiskey fan. In fact, it was the first bottle of bourbon I ever purchased. Around 8 or 9 years ago, I had been drinking Scotch for a few years and was trying to learn about bourbon; a friend recommended this ten year old version of Wild Turkey 101; I think I picked it up for around $35. Needless to say, I loved it and I was on my way to bourbonland. A few years later, they repackaged Russell's Reserve at a lower proof (45% abv). Since then, the 101 proof version has become a dusty treasure, but it's hard for me to think of it as a dusty, since I remember seeing it on the shelves.

I haven't had a sip of the Russell's Reserve 101 since that first bottle, so I was excited to get some and see how it compared to my memory.

Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve 101, 10 years old, 50.5% abv.

The nose is candy sweet with a good measure of wood. The palate is rich and woody with some rye notes. There is a lot of age on this for ten years. Tasting blind I would likely guess it was older. I'm getting sentimental now, this really reminds me of why I started drinking bourbon. It revealed what bourbon could be and shaped many of my early opinions. I'm lucky I started with this. If I'd picked up something else, I might never have bothered to buy a second bottle (then again, maybe that would have been a good thing - at least I'd have more available closet space).

This really is a great bourbon and it saddens me that it's no longer around, but Dusty Thursdays can be bittersweet, especially when the whiskey comes with memories.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grain of Truth: What is a Grain Anyway?

As I mentioned in yesterday's post about a so-called "potato whiskey," the federal regulations require that whiskey be made from grain, but what is a grain? Ten years ago, there was no reason to ask this question, since at that time, all American whiskey was made from some combination of corn, wheat, barley and/or rye. Today, however, we live in a completely different whiskey world. The explosion of the craft distilling movement has brought with it numerous innovations around whiskey, including in the mashbills. Today there is whiskey being made from spelt, millet, oats, buckwheat, hops, you name it. But are all of these grains?

Interestingly, the term "grain" is not defined in the federal regulations that set out definitions for spirits nor is it defined in Title 27 of the United States Code, which governs alcohol. The term is defined in other sections of the code. In the agricultural standards, 7 U.S.C. § 75(g), there is the following definition: the term "grain" means corn, wheat, rye, oats, barley, flaxseed, sorghum, soybeans, mixed grain, and any other food grains, feed grains, and oilseeds for which standards are established under section 4 of this Act. There is another provision, in the Bankruptcy Code, that actually includes "dry edible beans" in the definition of "grain" (11 U.S.C. § 557(b)(1)), but the provision makes clear that its application is limited to the bankruptcy of someone who owns or operates a grain storage facility, so let's concentrate on the definition of grain in the agricultural standards provisions.

The Agricultural Code definition is very loose and includes a catch all to include any other grain for which standards are established by the Secretary of Agriculture. If soybeans, a legume, are a grain, then why not other beans, or peanuts for that matter? As to oilseed, another section of the Code tells us that the term "oilseed" includes "soybeans, sunflower seed, rapeseed, canola, safflower, flaxseed, [and] mustard seed" among others. (7 U.S.C. § 1462). Mustard whiskey anyone? Heck, I'm beginning to wonder if potatoes really could be a grain.

All that being said, it would be perfectly reasonable for the TTB, to determine that the term "grain" as used in the regulation of spirits is defined differently than when used in the agricultural code. It is fully appropriate to have different definitions for the same word in different contexts. In a famous nineteenth century case, the Supreme Court held that tomatoes should be deemed a vegetable for the purposes of tariffs because while botanically a fruit, its traditional use was more akin to that of a vegetable. (Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)). So even though the term grain is broadly used in some contexts, in the world of whiskey, the TTB can and should use a narrower definition.

Why is this at all important? Well, if we want the terms we use to mean anything and want to have some understanding of what we are purchasing when we purchase "whiskey," these definitions are the way to do it. I have no problem with anyone who wants to make soybean liquor, but let's not call it whiskey, that would be going against the grain.

Monday, April 16, 2012

You Say Potato, I Say...Whiskey?

A few weeks ago, I saw an inquiry about a potato whiskey being made by a Colorado microdistillery. I assumed that the person asking the question was just using the term "whiskey" as shorthand because there could not legally be a potato whiskey.

Under the federal regulations governing spirits, whiskey must be made from "grain." Now, it's not totally clear what "grain" means under the law (more on that tomorrow), but I sure as hell know what it doesn't mean: potatoes.

But lo an behold, I Googled around and found a Colorado liquor store selling potato whiskey, and I found a Certificate of Label Approval from the TTB (Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) for 303 Whiskey which says right on the label "Distilled from Potatoes."

How did this happen? You may recall a few years ago, the Scotch Whisky Association had a fit when India tried to export a sugar-based "whiskey" to the EU. It was a major controversy and the SWA eventually won, but here in the States, we just let potato whiskey go?

Now obviously, this is not the world's biggest issue. No one is being deceived, since the label says very clearly that the product is whiskey distilled from potatoes, but if we are going to go to the trouble of having legal definitions, shouldn't we apply them consistently? Otherwise, what's the point? There is enough confusion out there about terms like "whiskey" and "bourbon" without further confusing them by stretching those definitions.

Now, unlike Scotland, where certain spirits are simply not permitted to be produced, in the US you can make almost anything, but you have to label it correctly. Whatever this stuff is (aged vodka? potato spirit? spud-shine?), it ain't whiskey.

Tomorrow: What is a "grain" anyway?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Competitive Mandoo at Olympic Noodle

I've never been a huge fan of Korean dumplings or mandoo. The typical mandoo is a huge things with an overly glutinous dough and a flavorless filling of ground meat and vegetables. I'd been meaning to head to Olympic Noodle for a while to try the chicken noodle soop (gook soo) and mandoo.

The mandoo are available boiled, pan fried or steamed. We got some steamed and pan fried and some boiled in soup. They were smaller than the usual mandoo, which is a good thing as it improves the filling to wrapper ratio, and the filling actually had flavor. I enjoyed both the steamed and fried versions. While these were by far the best mandoo I've had, they still didn't even come close to the average quality of Chinese dumplings I can get in the San Gabriel Valley, so it was hard for me to get too excited. When it comes to dumplings, I'm just not hot on mandoo, but if you're going to eat them, eat them at Olympic Noodle.

The gook soo consisted of a nice rich broth with a good dose of garlic which came to life with a sprinkle of salt. The hand pulled noodles were good but a bit on the soft side.

Olympic Noodle
4008 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 931-0007

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Where is all the dusty Scotch?

This question came up on a forum the other day so I thought I'd address it here. There is so much talk about dusty bourbon, but is there dusty Scotch and if so, where is it? There is dusty Scotch but it's more recent and much harder to come by.

Most of the dusty bourbon I find on the shelves is from the 1970s and '80s. This was a great era for bourbon, and there are many good finds to be had. I see Scotch from the same era but it's mostly crappy blends because that is mostly the Scotch that people were drinking back then (I can't even begin to count the dusty bottles of Cluny I've passed on).

Single malts didn't really come on the scene in the U.S. in any significant way until the late 1980s, so the hot period for dusty Scotch malts is the late 1980s to the late 1990s. However, unlike a lot of the old bourbon that I find in dingy corner stores where the owners have no idea what it is, single malt was a high-end product that tended to go to high end stores that had a high product turnover, were heavily trafficked, and where the proprietors understood the value of the various products. For that reason, you are a lot less likely to find Scotch of any real quality gathering dust.

That isn't to say there aren't some great dusties out there, but they are harder to find and more expensive. I know someone who recently found an Ardbeg Provenance for $300, which doesn't sound like a steal, but that malt goes at auction for around $1,000.

The dusty Scotch holy grail would be a 1994/1995 Black Bowmore. If it was sitting on a shelf for its original price it would be around $200 or $300, whereas now it regularly fetches upwards of $4,000. Like the actual holy grail, though, I'm not sure Black Bowmore dusties exist.

Of course, there are lots of old Scotches out there, but most of them are going for high prices at spirits auctions. Finding a decent old single malt on the shelf in an American liquor store is a lot tougher to do, but hey, there's no reason not to try.

I'd love to hear any good stories folks have of dusty Scotch finds. Leave them in the comments.

UPDATE: I wanted to post this excellent response by Adam from the LA Whiskey Society:

Ahhh, one of my favorite topics.

In short: all the (good) dusty scotch was cleaned out over the past decade.

You are right to point out that scotch (particularly the single malts that we'd seek) was a high-end product that was treated differently. Also, Bourbon was much more widely distributed than single malts, and in much greater quantities. There's simply more of it to be left sitting around. Whereas the sort of malts we'd currently hunt for always existed in quite limited quantities. (Example: Signatory dumpies).

Bourbon hunting is also a more recent phenomenon. Scotch hunting predates it, and the people doing so were well-networked by the late 90's (due to the internet). Combine that with the fact that bourbon enthusiasts are generally on a lower budget than scotch enthusiasts, 'cause bourbon's generally a lot cheaper than single malts. So, when a malt hunter found a dusty treasure trove, he was more likely to clean it all out, and he had the network of people to distribute it to. I've heard stories of someone finding a few cases of (say) a very early Macallan 18, and he'd buy it all -- knowing that there were plenty of other friends in his whisky circle who'd happily take some of the bottles off his hands. Springbank 12/100 was essentially cleaned out of America by just a handful of guys (namely the stately and respectable PLOWED folks) [Ed: PLOWED is a Scotch tasting group], who'd often share a large find with each other.

You're not finding any dusty malts in LA because me and The Duke [Ed: Another LAWS member] scoured LA County and the neighboring valleys around 2008. PLOWED had already cleaned out SoCal in their great FOAFing [Ed: FOAF = dusty hunting] adventures of the earlier 2000s, and we bought whatever scraps they'd left behind. And drank most of it. As examples, there were still scant Springer 21's, Macallan Gran Reservas, Ardbeg 17s.

Keep in mind that it only takes ONE good hunter a few days to hit every single store in a small city. Personally I can hit upwards of 100 stores in a good day (seriously). If I've been somewhere/anywhere with some spare time on my hands, then by the time I leave, you're gonna have difficulty finding any dusty scotch in that area (I mean scotch that's any good).

To give you an idea of how seriously this was taken in the past -- before I travel anywhere, I'll speak with some of the "godfathers" of scotch dusty hunting I know. They can almost always tell me if an area has been hunted out, who hunted it, and when. You hear stuff like, "Oh yeah, so-and-so cleaned out everything on the 10 corridor between Palm Desert and Phoenix, he was commuting for business a lot between 2004-2006."

It's my belief that the Great American Whisky Hunt is essentially in its last glimmers of twilight, as far as single malts are concerned. Yes, you can hoard cases of Ardbeg Ten L7143, but that's a whole different category of dusty hunting.

Black Bowmore is gone (original was released in 1993). I think I heard that someone found a bottle in upstate NY in like 2004.

South Central LA remains unfoafed. [Ed: Not quite Adam, I've spent some time there, but there aren't any Ardbeg Provenances or Black Bowmores to be least so far].

Great comments Adam, Thanks.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Peat Plus: Finished Octomores


I was a big fan of the first edition of Octomore, the uber-peated expression from Bruichladdich, but I haven't sampled one since that first expression (which is, by the way, still available). Today I try two Octomores: The 2.2 Orpheus and the 4.2 Comus.

Both whiskies are five years old, as are all Octomores so far, and named for Greek gods. The Orpheus is peated to 140 ppm and finished in Bordeaux casks from Chateau Petrus. The Comus is the newest Octomore and is finished in Sauternes casks. This one is peated to a mind-numbing 167 ppm (though they are apparently working on one in the 300s). Comus isn't available in the US yet but it appears to be on its way. My guess is it will go for $170-$180.

Keep in mind that peat phenols in ppm (parts per million) are generally measured after malting. The distillation process and aging can affect the perceived peat content, so the numbers alone don't tell the full story.

Octomore 2.2 Orpheus, 61% abv ($160)

I love the nose on this. It's like what I imagine it would be like to stick your head into a peat bog, smoky, earthy and a tad sweet (okay maybe a bog wouldn't be sweet, I don't know). The palate is at once sweet and smoky but that's about it. It has a lot less complexity than the nose and there is a bit of a chemical element which lasts through to the finish. A drop of water, though, does a lot to bring out some of those more earthy flavors I was missing from the nose and adds a more multi-dimensional quality, bringing in some of that earthiness and even a more distinct wine note, so I'd recommend this one with water (something I rarely find myself saying).

Octomore 4.2 Comus, 61% abv

The nose on this has rotting plant matter with motor oil, flowers and sugar cane...and I like it. The palate is similarly funky with some definite white wine influence, corn syrup and maybe even some soy sauce and mushrooms. Water on this one brings out both the sweetness and the smoke. The finish is just peaty.

Even though Comus is peated to a higher level, Orpheus really tastes like a more traditional peat monster (albeit on steroids). I find that Sauternes influence is a gamble and I'm not so sure it works on the Comus. If I had to choose between the two, I'd definitely pick the Orpheus, but I'm not sure I'd pay for either given the other, cheaper peated whiskies that are available.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Preston Van Winkle: Everything in Pappy 20 and 23 is Stitzel-Weller

Last week, I wrote about the tempest in a bourbon pot regarding the provenance of the Pappy Van Winkle bottlings. The on-line rumblings continued this week with, in the best tradition of the internet, allegations and accusations based on speculation. I finally decided that enough was enough and gave Preston Van Winkle a call, and he spent about an hour answering my questions.

For those of you who don't know, Preston is the great-grandson of Pappy Van Winkle. He and his father, Julian Van Winkle III, run the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, which is a whiskey bottling company. In talking with him, I got straight to the point:

Regarding the issue that seems the most controversial on-line, the provenance of Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old, Preston was clear, "Everything in the 20 and 23 is Stitzel-Weller." I questioned him on the details and he was adamant that all of the whiskey was distilled at Stitzel-Weller in Louisville and there is nothing else in those bottles. Preston noted that there aren't any other barrels of that age that would even fit the bill. The Van Winkles began sourcing Stitzel-Weller bourbon from the distillery after the family sold it in 1972. They did so until the distillery closed in 1992. The barrels were moved to the Buffalo Trace warehouse a few years ago. Preston was there and saw them move the barrels.

With regard to the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, the very first run of that rye, back in the '90s, was entirely from the Medley Distillery and was released in both 12 an 13 year old expressions. That run quickly sold out and since then, the Van Winkle Rye has come from a marriage of Medley and Bernheim (Cream of Kentucky) rye that was purchased by Julian years ago and has been in stainless steel tanks. Buffalo Trace is aging rye to replace the Medley/Bernheim blend when it runs out, but Preston thinks there are probably a few more years of that tanked rye left.

With regard to statements by Buffalo Trace's Harlen Wheatley that were reported on the StraightBourbon forum, Preston was clear that while he would answer any of my factual questions, he would not specifically comment with regard to what may or may not have been said by Wheatley. He wasn't there, and he didn't hear it, so he didn't feel comfortable commenting on it.

Given that I had Preston on the phone, I took the opportunity to ask a few more details about these whiskeys beyond those that have been controversial.

For those who have wondered about the hand written numbers on the bottles of rye, they really don't mean much anymore. The best way to determine the date of the bottle now is to use the laser code.

Of course, the stocks of Stitzel-Weller will eventually run out. According to Preston, the 20 and 23 year old versions of Pappy Van Winkle have generally been right at that age and have not contained older whiskey. Doing the math from a distillery closure in 1992, this means that this could be the last year that Pappy 20 is Stitzel-Weller (this is my formulation, Preston said that was possible, but he would have to check to know for sure how much was left), while the 23 year old may still have a few years left.

I asked if there were plans for any more special bottlings such as the 23 year old decanter released a few years ago. He said there were no plans because they didn't have enough whiskey to do that. The decanter was the product of having extra stocks of the 23 at that time, so they selected the best ten or eleven barrels for the special release.

I asked about the process for selecting bottles for whiskeys that are made by Buffalo Trace, like the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old. Preston said that they are selected based on warehouse position and placement. Barrels of wheated bourbon in particular areas of the Buffalo Trace warehouse fit the Van Winkle flavor profile. There is a tasting panel at Buffalo Trace which starts with their lab staff. Every barrel that goes into a Van Winkle bourbon is tasted by Preston or his father, and often both of them. They taste them watered down to 60 proof, and yes, they spit. Preston mentioned that they were "thrilled" with the Buffalo Trace distilled Van Winkle whiskeys, such as the ten year old Old Rip Van Winkle.

As to all the on-line commotion, Preston said he appreciates the enthusiasm for his products on the internet but bristles at those who would question his integrity or that of his family. "There is no smoke and mirrors," he told me, "no misleading people for the benefit of profit." He referenced the old saying of Pappy Van Winkle, "We make fine bourbon, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon," and added, "and that's the way we've always done things."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Open your Pie Hole for Beijing Pie House

My daughter was skeptical. "Where are the pies?" she asked, expecting, no doubt, to be able to choose from apple, berry, chocolate and other traditional flavors. Well, they don't have that kind of pie at Beijing Pie House, I explained, but what they do have are succulent, savory meat pies, dumplings and pancakes.

Meat pies are the thing here, and the ones to get are the lamb pies, which are about the size and shape of very thick pupusas. Biting into a lamb pie releases a torrent of juice and the gamy fragrance of lamb. We tried the pork pies as well, but they aren't nearly as good.

Dumplings of all sorts were also good, Xiao Long Bao as well as pan fried pork and shrimp dumblings with cabbage or leek were juicy and nicely seasoned. The dish known as "Homeland Meat Cake" is a pancake filled with onions and pork like an oversized scallion pancake.

Other dishes (cold appetizers and hand cut noodle soups) were fine, but the various meat pies, dumplings and pancakes were the best.

Beijing Pie House
846 E Garvey Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 288-3818

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Will it Play in Peoria? - Hiram Walker's Ten High

Have you heard of Illinois bourbon? Well, many years ago, there was lots of whiskey being made in Illinois, particularly in Peoria. Canada's Hiram Walker company opened a distillery in Peoria in 1934 and made whiskey there until 1981, when they sold the distillery to Archer Daniels Midland which converted it into an ethanol distillery.

Walker made Ten High Bourbon at its Illinois plant. That brand is now made by the Sazerac owned Barton distillery. (Here's a review of Ten High from the pre-Sazerac Barton distillery). Ten High was, and continues to be a budget brand; they distillery also made Walker's Deluxe.

The liter bottle I'm sampling today was purchased for $15 at a lovely liquor store that looks like it popped right out of Mad Men, inventory and all (see picture above). The bottle has the number "82" on the bottom indicating the bottle was made in 1982, but curiously, the bottle has a tax stamp strip with no numbers which would indicate that it went to market after 1985, when tax stamps were phased out (probably from just after 1985 since they still used the strip). According to Chuck Cowdery, the company emptied the warehouses of stock after they stopped distilling, so I would guess that they either bottled a bunch of Ten High in 1982, right after the distillery closed, and released it gradually or bought bottles in 1982 and bottled it gradually until they ran out. Either way, this bourbon was likely distilled in the distillery's last years.

Hiram Walker's Ten High Bourbon, 4 years old, 40% abv.

The nose is pretty middle of the road bourbon, some caramel sweetness, some spicy rye notes, not bad at all. The flavor is, well, missing. It's like water, bourbon flavored water. There is a slight caramel sweetness...and then nothing. The finish is like the smell of an old bourbon glass after you've finished and it's been sitting around for a while.

This isn't bad; there's nothing objectionable about it, but, to quote Gertrude Stein, "there is no there there." Forget Peoria, I'll take what plays in Frankfort or Bardstown.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Click with Clix

A few months ago, I encouraged whiskey fans to celebrate Clix Vodka because the overpriced vodka from Buffalo Trace will hopefully subsidize the price of our precious bourbons and ryes. But then I began to wonder how a vodka of this sort would taste.

Most whiskey is distilled twice, three times at most. Vodka is often distilled many more times, and Clix vodka is distilled 159 times! More distillations has to be better, doesn't it? At $300 it's certainly more expensive than any of Buffalo Trace's whiskeys, and hopefully, it will stay that way. Now keep in mind that I don't drink vodka and don't really like it, but then again, who does?

Clix Vodka, distilled from rye, corn, wheat and malted barley, 40% abv ($300)

The nose is slightly white doggy. It tastes like corn whiskey with a lot of water added, then it just gets foul. The finish is like nail polish remover fumes. Hey, I thought this was supposed to have no distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.

Summary: It's not just terrible, it's $300 terrible!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Last Flight of the Wild Turkey: 101 Rye

This is the second in a series of joint reviews I'm doing with Jason at Sour Mash Manifesto and Tim at Scotch & Ice Cream. Our first review, as you may recall, was of the roundly panned Rebel Yell Bourbon. Today we hope to up the ante with Wild Turkey 101 Rye.

For years, Wild Turkey 101 has been a reliable, workhorse rye: cheap, available, good for cocktails or sipping neat. Recently Campari owned Wild Turkey announced that it would bring out a new 81 proof rye, and that the release of this new rye would result in shortages of 101, which makes sense since they only have so much rye and presumably they are using the same batches for the new 81. Sources seem to differ as to whether 101 will go away entirely or will be back once rye stocks are replenished.

I haven't tried good old Wild Turkey 101 Rye in a while, so consider this a goodbye (for now) tribute.

Wild Turkey 101 Rye, 50.5% abv ($20 if you can find it).

The 101 picks right up with a nice, spicy rye nose. The nose is so full of rye spice that it's much closer to LDI or one of the Canadian straight ryes than your typical 51% Kentucky rye. Think pine, brine and the kitchen spice cabinet (you know, that blend of all the spices in there). The palate doesn't disappoint with its rye strength either. It's less sweet than the versions I recall from years past but full of punch. It starts with a big rye hit with a touch of sweetness, gets a bit soapy mid way through and then trails off into a hot rye finish. Water brings out some bitter notes, so I say leave it out.

There's not much complex about this rye but it's got everything you need for a general rye whiskey, does wonders in cocktails and there are few better deals around. Let's hope it spreads its wings again soon.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tempest in a Bourbon Pot: What did Harlen Wheatley Say and When did he Say it?

There was a great to-do in the bourbon-geekdom world last week when a member of the StraightBourbon forum posted a report of statements made by Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley at a tasting. Among the most controversial was a comment that Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old is "fully [Buffalo Trace] Juice" and that Pappy Van Winkle 23 may be at least partly Buffalo Trace bourbon. He also stated that the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye had been entirely made by Buffalo Trace for the past two to three years. Most people had believed that the Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old bourbons were still made entirely made from whiskey which had been distilled at the now closed Stitzel-Weller distillery. The Van Winkles have a partnership with Buffalo Trace which supplies them with much of their bourbon and bottles their product, and it's long been known that the younger Van Winkle bourbons are distilled by Buffalo Trace.

Like everything having to do with Pappy Van Winkle, the reaction was outsized. Posters expressed anger, felt betrayed and became cynical. Hell hath no fury like a Van Winkle drinker scorned, and plenty acted like they had been spurned by a lover. For my part, I don't really care, and here's why.

First, I've never been a Van Winkle partisan. I like the bourbon well enough, but I've never bought into the crazy hype surrounding each release. I'll taste them and enjoy them if the opportunity comes along, but I generally avoid the Van Winkle line and its high prices.

Second, we don't know the veracity of these claims. I have no reason to distrust the poster, but these were statements made at a bourbon tasting. I'm sure Wheatley was speaking to the best of his knowledge, but these were off the cuff musings, and I have no idea what he knows or how much control he has over the Van Winkle line of products. His statements appear to contradict other statements he made a year ago on the K&L Spirits podcast where he said he thought that Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old were "probably still all Stitzel-Weller." (The podcast is available here; the statement is made at approximately 24:30) Preston Van Winkle also stated on a K&L podcast last November that "the older two [Van Winkles], the 20 and 23 year are still coming from stocks that were made at Stitzel-Weller." (The podcast is available here; the statement is made at approximately 14:30).

Now, there has been a tendency on the forum to engage in close readings of these statements as if Wheatley was a prophet of some sort. He's not. I'm also guessing that he doesn't care what the composition is of these bourbons. Let's all do our best to stay grounded and remember that the number of people who do care about this issue is microscopic, even among fans of Van Winkle bourbon. This is major inside baseball. Rather than being the result of some conspiracy or misinformation campaign, I'm guessing that some of these contradictions are due to these issues not being very important to Wheatley or the Van Winkles.

Third, it would also behoove us to remember that Van Winkle is not marketed or sold as a Stitzel-Weller bourbon. Unlike Jefferson Presidential Select, the Van Winkle bourbons do not advertise themselves as Stitzel-Weller bourbon. You won't find that claim made anywhere on the bottles or in any press release. To the extent that statements have been made by Wheatley or the Van Winkles as to the provenance of the bourbon, it has usually been in response to questions from bourbon geeks. Now I've always been of the opinion that whiskey bottlers should fully disclose who distills their bourbons, but it's hard to fault the Van Winkles any more than any of the countless other bottlers that do this.

As to the Van Winkle Rye, statements from the Van Winkles had indicated that this rye was initially a blend of ryes from the Medley and Bernheim distilleries, but it was always supposed to transition to Buffalo Trace distillate, so that revelation was not surprising to me.

It's always fun to speculate about things like age and provenance and it's a time honored tradition in the whiskey world (Finlaggan anyone?), but the hard truth is that if it's not on the label, we just don't know for certain. By not listing a distillery on the Pappy label, the Van Winkles have the flexibility to alter the composition without notice. I would urge them to come clean and make a definitive statement, but I'd also urge the rest of us to stop worrying and learn to love the bourbon.

Sorry, No April Fool's Day Post

April Fool's Day? It's for amateurs. Here at Recent Eats, we'll fool you when you're least expecting it.