Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tequila Week: The Añejos

Añejo or aged tequilas are aged more than a year. I only have two of these to try, both brands I sampled at other ages earlier this week.

Con Alma de Mujer Añejo, 35% abv

I've never found this one in the US so it may only be available in Mexico. The nose is floral with some citrus notes on it. I found the reposado version of this brand to be a bit bland, but this one has a bit more flavor to it. There is some acid with this agave that gives it a nice flavor, and it has a nice vanilla finish.

Los Tres Toños Añejo, 40% abv ($35)

The blanco version of this was one of my favorites of the tasting so far, so I was excited to try the aged version. The nose is very new makey. It's strong and a bit alcoholy but not in an unpleasant way. The palate has pine and some medicinal notes along with some of those earthy qualities I've found in so many of these tequilas. The finish is wild mushrooms sauteed in soy sauce. This is definitely the most complex of the tequilas I've sampled and my favorite of the bunch.

Concluding Thoughts

My two favorites in the tasting were both of the Los Tres Toños, the añejo and blanco. They stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of flavor and complexity. Overall, I still think tequila tends to be a bit mild for my taste compared to the flavor explosion of mezcal, but I'll be on the look out for Los Tres Toños.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tequila Week: Reposados Part 2

Today I continue tasting reposado tequilas.

Herencia de Plata Reposado, 38% abv ($39)

The nose has a very pure agave note. The palate, though, has an artificial sweetness too it. It comes on almost like egg nog with a boozy vanilla then picks up some bitterness that lasts into the finish.

Aha Toro Reposado, 40% abv ($50)

The nose is floral and earthy. The palate on this one starts with guryere (I kid you not) and just gets funkier as you go. The finish is umami with mushrooms in damp soil and a touch of salt. This is a very unique flavor profile and one I'm not sure what to make of but it's a good break from some of the overly smooth reposados I've had.

Don Eduardo Reposado, 38% abv ($40)

This is one of the few repeated brands in the tasting. I tried the blanco version and didn't find it very interesting. The reposado is quite sweet and floral on the nose. The palate is a bit spicy with some ginger beer and clove. This is quite nice. Clearly, time in the barrel has a positive impact on the Don Eduardo spirit.

Con Alma de Mujer Reposado, 35% abv ($28)

The nose is very pure with a nice balance of all the tequila notes, floral, earthy, sweet. The palate though is quite diluted, very watery tequila flavor. The notes on the nose are there but very muted at 35%. I wish, as with many of these, that this were stronger and some of those flavors could really sing. It's fine but not all that interesting at this level.

Tomorrow: the añejos.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tequila Week: The Reposados Part I

Reposados, or rested tequilas are aged from six months to a year. I'll be sample a variety so I'm diving them into a few posts and sampling them in no particular order.

Tequila Chamucos Reposado, 38% abv ($55)

This tequila has a devil/vampire character on it with the slogan si amanece nos vamos or "at dawn we go." It has a nice sweet agave nose with some magic marker notes. The palate is quite sweet and a bit salty but lacks any real depth. The finish is pretty short. I'd say this one starts well but doesn't follow through.

Tequila Don Tacho Reposado, 38% abv.($53)

This one has a fascinating nose with wood chips and pine. It's very earthy. The palate, though, is bizarre. It drinks almost like water with just a vague earthiness like water from a nasty, unrefrigerated drinking fountain at an old school or park. This really has almost no flavor to it and certainly no finish. Strange stuff.

Arette Reposado, 38% abv. ($44)

The Arrette brand is one of the few I'm trying that seems fairly popular among US enthusiasts. This has a lovely nose of wild flowers and hay. The palate starts as a traditional tequila but then has a bit of anise/absinthe type notes which last into the finish.

I enjoyed the Arette most of all from these three, but I didn't find any of these three to be particularly noteworthy.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bienvenido a Tequila Week: The Blancos

Sure this is a whiskey blog, but every once in a while I like to try a little something different. Years ago, I did a series of mezcal reviews, but I've never done much with tequila which I tend to think of as mezcal's flavorless cousin, though technically, tequila is a type of mezcal.

From a relative's recent trip to Mexico, I find myself with a number of samples of obscure (to me anyway) tequilas, some which appear to be very difficult to find north of the border, and all of which are, naturally, 100% agave. What better excuse for a massive tequila tasting.

I don't know tequila like I know whiskey. Tequila geeks speak of NOMs and extraction methods, but I don't know what those are, and I'm not about to attempt to become a ten minute expert. There's a certain freedom that comes with trying a spirit I don't know anything about. I can free myself of all of the externalities and just taste the liquid and give my impressions. I don't know anything about the distilleries, bottlers, sources or production methods. I'm just drinking and writing, blissful in my ignorance.

In an effort to tackle these with some reason, I'm dividing these by age. I'll start with a couple of blancos today, move on to reposados over the next few days and close out with a few añejos.

Today I'll start with the blancos. This is unaged tequila, the equivalent of new make or white dog, though this used to be the way they all were made.

Tequila Los Tres Toños Blanco, 40% abv ($33)

The nose on this is actually more like mezcal than many tequilas I've had, with some ash and a sweet earthy note. On the palate it is decidedly smooth and a bit salty with some sweet notes. Smooth is not usually a quality I appreciate but this a really well balanced and pleasant drink.

Don Eduardo Blanco, 38% abv ($38)

The nose on this is very mild with some floral notes. The palate is also quite bland, watery with some vague agave notes, some lavender and some dirt. Not much to this one.

Well, of these two blancos, the Tres Toños (three tones) wins handily over the relatively flavorless Don Eduardo.

Stay tuned for more tequila fun.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Another Illinois Dusty: Hiram Walker's DeLuxe Bourbon

A few months ago I sampled Hiram Walker's Ten High from the old Hiram Walker distillery in Peoria, Illinois. Today's dusty is the higher end bourbon from the Walker distillery, also from around 1982: Walker's DeLuxe.

Walker's DeLuxe, 8 years old, 43% abv.

The nose on this has a nice, oaky, musty bourbon note trailing off to some buttered popcorn. It has much more oak on it than the four year old Ten High. The palate starts well with some of those oak notes as well as some nice toffee notes but ends on a very bitter note which lasts into the finish.

This is a better whiskey than the Walker's Ten High; it starts well but the bitterness really ruins it for me. So much for Illinois Bourbon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The New Generation of Rye: Bulleit Rye

Rye whiskey is in a time of flux. It's probably more popular than it's been in a half century, but that popularity has positive and negative effects. On the plus side, there are new ryes coming out all the time. On the negative side, the stocks of aged rye are running low. Even standard expressions like Sazerac and Rittenhouse 100 go through periodic shortages and price increases. Meanwhile, Wild Turkey has announced that they are going to have shortages of their standard 101 proof rye for at least a year, which relates to their introduction of an 81 proof rye. Rye seems to be getting weaker, more expensive and harder to find.

To fill the rye gap, big companies have been coming out with new expressions. Beam recently released Knob Creek Rye, an extension of its popular Knob Creek line of bourbon, though it's not for sale in California yet.

Today, I'll sample another big rye. Bulleit Rye came out last year and seems to be seeing brisk sales. The Bulleit brand is owned by the drinks giant Diageo and the rye is distilled at Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) using their 95% rye mashbill.

Based on what I see on shelves at both bars and homes, it seems that those who can't find their rye of choice are increasingly grabbing for Bulleit, a familiar brand to those who enjoy the bourbon of the same name.

Affordably priced at around $20 ($19.99 at Trader Joe's), Bulleit Rye carries no age statement. It's priced to compete directly with the other popular ryes and seems to be popular with the cocktail crowd as well.

Bulleit Rye, 45% abv ($20)

The nose is pure LDI with loads of pine and green wood. The palate comes on sweet and piney, like a sugar coated pine cone, or what I imagine one would taste like anyway, having never dipped a pine cone in sugar and started munching on it. That first flavor burst is nice, but it doesn't hold up; the palate goes flat midway through, ending on a bitter note. The finish is mostly bitter but there is a pleasant cooking spice in the background, and eventually the bitterness recedes and you are left with the pleasant spice and a happy feeling.

This is a big fat rye, and being a 95% LDI rye, it's quite different in character from the Kentucky ryes that are in short supply. It's imperfect, but it's bold and spicy, and for $20, it's hard to beat if you need a solid rye for sipping or mixing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Whiskey Law: Barrels New & Used

Most American whiskey drinkers know that according to U.S. regulations, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak containers. But did you know that American rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey and rye malt whiskey also must be aged in new charred oak? In addition, any whiskey labeled "straight," with the exception of straight corn whiskey, must be aged in new charred oak. (Want proof? See the US Code of Federal Regulations, 27 CFR § 5.22(b)(1)(i) and 5.22(b)(1)(iii)).

A distillery can make a whiskey and age it in used barrels but they cannot call it bourbon, rye whiskey, etc. Some such whiskeys are just labeled generically, such as Early Times' "Kentucky Whiskey." The TTB also recognizes the categories of whiskey distilled from bourbon mash, rye mash, wheat mash, etc. If you see that designation, it means that the whiskey was stored in used oak.

The new oak requirement presents a problem for American distilleries that want to make Scotch style single malt whiskey. Scotch single malts are almost always aged in used barrels (often bourbon barrels), but an American distillery can't call its spirit "malt whiskey" if it's aged in used oak.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Whiskey Auctions: Caveat Emptor

The whisky auction market is fairly young in the United States. Reselling spirits is generally illegal here (and yes, that includes ebay), but a handful of states allow spirits auctions, giving way to some pricey, high profile auctions of the type that are common in Europe.

I've never participated in one of these auctions, but I know some people who have and they counsel caution. Before participating, for instance, be sure to find out the fees that the auction house charges, which can be substantial.

Of greater concern is how much you can trust the items in the auction. My colleague Adam from the Los Angeles Whiskey Society recently posted this excellent piece in which he describes why an Ardbeg that is listed for an upcoming auction as "circa 1900" is most likely from the late 1930s. [UPDATE: the bottle has now been withdrawn from the auction.]

Adam was able to figure this out because, as a collector (and one who drinks his collection, I should add), he has a deep knowledge of bottle styles and bottling companies, one that goes way beyond my own dusty hunting knowledge.

It's tempting to trust an official auction house more than you would a random ebay listing, but if you're going to get involved in the auction world, you should do it with a lot of knowledge and a good dose of buyer beware.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Glen Salen Caption Contest Results

There were lots of great suggestions for the caption contest, but I think my favorite was the understated "Speak softly and carry a Glen Salen" by an anonymous poster. A runner up would be Eric's "If I see you holding your Glen Salen like this, I'LL KILL YOU" presumably referring to the admonitions of Whyte & Mackay Master Blender Richard Paterson.

Thanks for playing!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Fun: Scotch Caption Contest

This label is just begging for a caption. Leave your best effort in the comments. Try not to be too obvious.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dusty Scotch: Haig Blended Scotch

I recently wrote about how hard it is too find good dusty Scotch and complained that the only thing that seems to be left on the shelves is old blends. Well, a friend found an old blend for me so I thought I'd give it a try.

Haig is an old Scotch blend now owned by Diageo, who seems to own most of the blends these days. This bottle is 86 proof, listed in standard measurements with a tax stamp which puts it prior to 1980. I don't know as much about identifying old Scotch as I do American whiskey, but it's most likely from the 1970s.

Haig Blended Scotch, 43% abv.

The nose on this is dreadful. Old gym shorts, plastic notes - like a new rain coat, chemicals. I really don't want to drink this at all. The palate is thankfully better than the nose. It starts with some decent smoke but those notes are quickly subsumed by a sickly sweet flavor similar to an unnaturally sweet dessert wine. The chemical taste returns for the finish as if to bid a final eff you for drinking this. It's lousy.

So, about all those Scotch blends on the shelves...leave them there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

More Van Winkle Mania

Earlier this week, Chuck Cowdery wrote a post for the Whisky Advocate Blog about the composition of the next release of Van Winkle whiskeys this coming fall. A few months ago, I interviewed Preston Van Winkle about the 2011 release after an internet kerfuffle broke out over its provenance. We all knew that the stocks of Stitzel-Weller whiskey would not last forever and it appears that this fall's release of Pappy 20 year old will contain Stitzel-Weller blended with wheated bourbon made by Buffalo Trace. Other expressions in the Van Winkle line contain bourbon made by the Bernheim Distillery, now Heaven Hill, which United Distillers used to make wheated recipe bourbon for the Old Fitzgerald and Weller labels after it closed Stitzel-Weller.

For the whiskey geeks among us, it's tempting to get worked up about these issues. As I've stated before, I would like to see a regulation requiring American whiskeys to disclose their distillery of origin on the label, but that's highly unlikely to happen. That being said, there are two things to consider if you find yourself getting obsessed about the composition of the latest Van Winkle bourbon.

First, the cult of Pappy is strong, but Stitzel-Weller bourbon, while good, is not the be all and end all of American whiskey. I've had some great Stitzel-Weller dusties, but I've also had some that were mediocre. There is a uniqueness to some of the older Stitzel-Wellers, but that uniqueness is, in part, about its subtlety and not overly compatible with lots of wood. The best Stitzel-Wellers I've had have been seven to twelve years old. In contrast, I've had some amazing old wheaters made at the Bernheim distillery. If anything, I think those Bernheim wheaters might age better than Stitzel-Weller over the long haul. And of course, Buffalo Trace also makes some great wheated bourbon as part of their Weller line. So given that the Van Winkles are using a combination of whiskeys from those three distilleries for its bourbons, the quality of the bourbon is unlikely to suffer. They could do a lot worse.

Second, bourbon is not single malt. Unless it's bottled in bond, there is no requirement for bourbon to be made at a single distillery, and unless it is made at distilleries in different states, there is no way for the consumer to know at which distillery a non-bonded bourbon was made, particularly one from Kentucky with its many distilleries. When we drink a bourbon from Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill, we assume that it was made at that distillery, but there is no way to know for sure absent sworn testimony by the master distiller. I've heard tell of all manner of contracting arrangements and even bulk sales between distilleries. We all know that, for years, Heaven Hill contracted with Brown Forman to make Rittenhouse Rye, but there may well be similar arrangements that we don't know about. In the end, we may know as little about the composition of any of these whiskeys as we do about Van Winkle.

I like whiskey history and I like knowing what I'm drinking, but in the end, what is most important for those of us who actually drink the stuff (as opposed to "investing" in it) is what's in the glass and how it tastes. In all of our heated discussion, which can be perfectly healthy, we shouldn't lose sight of that fact.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In-N-Out Super Secret Menu

You may have heard about In-N-Out's secret menu, but I bet you've never heard about the super secret menu and the special product that will be discontinued on July 1.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Group Taste: Noah's Mill

This is the latest of my joint reviews with my pals Jason from Sour Mash Manifesto and Tim from Scotch & Ice Cream.

Noah's Mill is the premium selection from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers small batch collection, which includes Pure Kentucky XO, Kentucky Vintage and Rowan's Creek (I reviewed those three several years ago).

While they own a distillery that they recently refurbished and began distilling in, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) is an independent bottler and all of their current product is sourced from other distilleries. Noah's Mill is a bourbon which is sourced from one or more of the Kentucky distilleries; it's bottled at a higher proof than the other bourbons in the collection.

Noah's Mill (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers), 57.15% abv [Batch 11-121]($50)

This one is very musty on the nose. The mustiness is followed by some peanut candy (PayDay bar) and rubbing alcohol. The palate is mostly heat with some wood underneath that grows stronger into the finish. Hmm, where's the flavor? I've never had a high proof whiskey that was so indistinct. Given that it's high proof, I thought that water might help bring out some flavor notes as it often does with high proof whiskeys, but no dice. Water gives the palate a bit of those peanut notes from the nose, but not much else.

I've heard a lot of good things about Noah's Mill from a lot of people I respect, but this one just left me perplexed. Of course, given that this is a vatting of sourced whiskeys, the potential is there for a lot of variance from batch to batch, but if this batch is at all representative, I'd say it is easily one of the most overrated bourbons out there.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Charter (early 1980s)

Old Charter is yet another bourbon brand dating back to the nineteenth century (don't they all?). Post-prohibition it was made at the Bernheim distillery. In the '70s and '80s, Bernheim was best known for Old Charter and I.W. Harper. Eventually, Diageo (then United Distillers) sold the distillery to Heaven Hill and the Old Charter label to Buffalo Trace, which continues to make it today.

The Old Charter I'm sampling today is a seven year old, 86 proofer. It doesn't have a number on the bottom of the bottle but the fact that it has a tax stamp and uses a metric measurement (it's a 375 ml bottle) would place it in the early 1980s.

Old Charter, 7 years old, 86 proof (43% abv.)

The nose is really nice with vanilla and marzipan. The palate is less complex with a general sweetness but not a lot of flavor. There's a quick flash of those dessert flavors from the nose, but then they're gone. Late in the palate it has some wood and gets a bit chewy which is nice but as soon as you start to enjoy that, it's gone and your left with a vaguely oaky finish. This one is not bad but certainly nothing I'd be tempted to reach for if I had other choices.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Introducing Loki Titanic Hurricane Mule Train Diamond Jubilee Whisky: A Whisky with a Gimmick (or two)

After spending some time studying recent trends in whisky marketing, I am proud to introduce my first whisky for sale: Loki Titanic Hurricane Mule Train Diamond Jubilee Whisky.

In honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II and named for the Norse God Loki with no intention at all to capitalize on recent popular movies which may feature a character of the same name, Loki Titanic Hurricane Mule Train Diamond Jubilee Whisky is a truly unique whisky. This three and a half year old is a replica of a whisky which is rumored to have been recovered from the ruins of the Titanic (when we found it, it was very wet). Our brand ambassador, famously known as "the Tongue," carefully and faithfully recreated the whisky using a selection of the best spirits available at our local Costco. Then, while the Titanic replica whisky was ageing, a massive hurricane (well, technically a tropical storm or at least "gusty winds") broke a window to the warehouse and left the whisky exposed to the elements for nearly 38 minutes. Luckily, the whisky was unhurt and was immediately transferred to mules, which carried the casks through the Grand Canyon to improve the ageing process.

Now, for just $18,565, you can celebrate the Diamond Jubilee by tasting a whisky that may be very close to what was consumed on board the Titanic, survived a natural disaster and was subject to mule-enhanced ageing. Remember, with a name like Loki, it has to be evil!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Poll Results: Reviewing the Reviewers

I didn't have too much feedback on the reviewing the reviewers poll which asked which one whiskey reviewer people would pick if they could read only one set of reviews. I guess people are more passionate about the actual whiskey they drink than those who review it for a living. To the extent there were responses, they mostly favored John Hansell.

For my part, I think there is a lot of talent in the professional whiskey reviewing world, particularly given its small size, and each of the reviewers in this poll has a certain niche.

Mark Gillespie tends toward higher scores but shows a deep appreciation of the whiskey he samples and samples a wide variety. His status as his program's sole reporter as well as its sole reviewer gives him a deep personal knowledge of each whiskey he tries. Often, he samples whiskey at the actual distillery or with the master distiller, which gives him additional information about the production of the whiskey compared to those who taste mostly from samples.

Jim Murray may be the most controversial whiskey reviewer, but if you want quantity, he's your man. No single professional reviewer reviews as many whiskeys, and he is the only one on the list that has the power to single-handedly raise prices and create shortages, particularly if he names something as his top whiskey of the year.

Paul Pacult is the lone spirits generalist on the list. The fact that he reveiews all sorts of spirits brings a unique perspective to his reviews, though he is probably less read than any of the other writers I listed.

That leaves my two favorites: John Hansell and Dave Broom, two great reviewers with nearly opposite writing styles. Hansell's reviews are straightforward, and his writing style is crisp and clean. When I read a Hansell review, I have a good idea of what the whiskey will taste like (though I may not agree with him on how good it is). Dave Broom is anything but straightforward. A flowery wordsmyth, Broom's reviews are more fun to read than anyone's, but they give me little idea of how a whiskey will actually taste. (What does "Montgomery Clift seducing Elizabeth Taylor" taste like exactly? Never mind, I'm not sure I want to know). So for informativeness I give the point to Hansell, while for entertainment I give it to Broom.

All of that being said, I don't actually spend much time reading professional reviews. In fact, I probably spend less time on the reviews than anything else in Whisky Magazine or Whisky Advocate. And for my own purposes, I'm much more likely to purchase something that's been given high ratings by Serge on WhiskyFun or by my pals in the LA Whiskey Society. Luckily, though, we don't have to pick just one reviewer and we can benefit from a wide variety of palates, both amateur and professional.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Reader Poll: Reviewing the Reviewers

For our latest poll I thought I'd switch from judging the whiskey to judging the judges. Suppose you could only have access to the reviews of one whiskey reviewer for the rest of your life. Who would it be? Here are some ground rules. You can still access non-review articles by anyone, but you will only see reviews from one writer (so, for instance, if you don't pick Mark Gillespie, you could still listen to WhiskyCast, just not the end where he does the reviews). It might be the person whose judgment you trust the most or it might be someone whose writing (or speaking) style you really enjoy. It's up to you.

To make this fair, I have limited the choices to (1) professional reviewers who (2) review a variety of whiskeys, so you won't see a number of very excellent, very popular reviewers who are unpaid bloggers or who review only one type of whisky. Those are the rules, here are your choices.

  • Dave Broom: Reviewer for Whisky Advocate and Whisky Magazine.
  • Mark Gillespie: Producer of WhiskyCast.
  • John Hansell: Publisher of Whisky Advocate (though not the only reviewer for that publication).
  • Jim Murray: Author of The Whisky Bible.
  • F. Paul Pacult: Publisher of the Spirit Journal.
  • Other: Anyone else you would care to vote for who fits the criteria.
And folks, let's try to keep this from being a study in negativity. I'd rather hear about why you picked the person you did than why you didn't pick the others. Cast your vote!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Recent Reads: Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano

If you're looking for a great summer read that will make you hungry to boot, look no further than Gustavo Arellano's Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Through a series of narratives, Arellano traces the history of Mexican food, in some cases going back to the Aztecs, and how its popularity spread through the United States. You'll learn about the mass popularity of tamales a century ago, a fad that survives in the tamales available in Chicago and Mississippi, the once famous chili queens of San Antonio, numerous regional delicacies and the evolution of the US love affair with chips, salsa, tequila, burritos, and of course, tacos, from taco trucks to Taco Bell. More than just the story of a cuisine, these culinary trends reflect the multi-cultural nature of the US, its relationship with Mexico, and most strongly, the Mexican-American experience.

Based in Orange County, Arellano is the OC Weekly's food editor and author of the popular "Ask a Mexican" column. He clearly owes some of his writing style to Jonathan Gold, the food critic who formerly wrote for the LA Weekly, which has common ownership with Arellano's paper. That style, casual, witty and metaphor-heavy, is entertaining, but in reading Taco USA, I couldn't help but wonder if sometimes it's better suited for a short review than an entire book. Arellano sometimes goes overboard with the metaphors, which are often mixed. In a two sentence description of the making of a San Francisco Mission-style burrito, he writes of a "tundra of rice," a "rain of cheese", a "jungle of shredded lettuce," being made "as fast as in a game of Whac-a-Mole." Sometimes this goes on for paragraphs at a time. But that tendency is a minor annoyance which is more then made up for by the stories Arellano tells and the history he uncovers.

The one word of caution I would give is that this book will make you hungry. I finished reading it on a flight to LAX and upon reaching the airport found myself heading immediately for the closest great Mexican food I could think of (La Huasteca in Lynwood - review to come). So if you read the book, and you should, I'd recommend doing it in close proximity to some good Mexican grub.