Monday, December 30, 2013

Sku Awards: Worst Whiskey Company

'Tis the season for whiskey awards, and like every blogger, I want to make sure I get mine in.  This year, there was stiff competition for our Worst Whiskey Company award with lots of cynical marketing ploys, ridiculous pricing and other shenanigans, but there can only be one winner!

First, the runners up:

  • Jim Beam.  Year after year, Beam is contender for this award. This year, they put in a solid effort with their attempt to charge their loyal customers more for less by cutting the proof of Maker's Mark.  Only in the face of a huge public backlash did they relent, but hey, it's not their fault that there isn't enough whiskey around; they've got to meet the insatiable demand for Red Stag.
  • Diageo.  Another major heavyweight in this category, Diageo was clearly playing to win this year.  I won't go into detail here; just read Whisky Advocate's recent post naming them Distiller of the Year.  That post pretty much summarizes all of the reasons why they should get the Worst Whiskey Company award (and thanks to Whisky Advocate for saving me the effort!)
  • Dewar's (Bacardi Inc.).  A good rule of thumb for companies is not to alienate half the planet, but Dewar's managed to do just that with an ill advised commercial about their character "the Baron."  Aside from being a boring imitation of the advertising personalities for Captain Morgan and Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World, the Baron's heroics involved rescuing a friend from being approached by an overweight woman in a bar (apparently, Dewar's commercials operate in a bizarro-opposite world in which men in bars are in constant danger of getting approached by women they find undesirable).  The blogosphere immediately pounced, and Dewar's ended up withdrawing the ad.  They may have even used the same form apology that Maker's Mark used.
Congratulations to all the runners up, but there is only room in the world for one Worst Whiskey Company, and this year the award goes to:

Michter's (Chatam Imports).  Michter's has long been a Worst Whiskey Company contender both for their mediocre whiskeys and constant stomping on the grave of the true Michter's Distillery in Pennsylvania, which they have nothing to do with.  This year, though, they were not satisfied to rest on their laurels.  No, this year they rose from the ranks of whiskey mediocrity to pure evil with the release of Michter's Celebration.

Before Celebration, no one thought it would be possible to charge $4,000 for a bottle of American Whiskey.  Just doing that would have put Michter's in the running for this award, but they didn't stop there.  They went above and beyond in their effort to insult the intelligence of consumers.  This $4k marvel isn't a bourbon or a rye; it's a "sour mash whiskey," a classification which means...nothing.  It has no age statement, and it's not even labeled straight.  In short, this crap could be anything.  Though media reports mention that it contains whiskey up to 30 years old, it could contain whiskey that is much younger. It could be any type of whiskey.  It could even have added coloring.  And as with all Michter's whiskey, we have no idea what distillery or distilleries made the whiskey. We don't know anything. 

Of course, as the old saw goes, none of that matters if it tastes great, except that no one is going to taste it.  They only produced 273 bottles of this whiskey.  Based on my own observations, I would estimate that only 99.9% appear to remain on the shelf.  Given that and the fact that there appear to be no reviews on-line, perhaps we can take heart in the fact that whiskey consumers aren't as gullible as Michter's may think (they should have put a picture of Pappy on the bottle - then it would have been gold!).

So for shameless cynicism and chutzpah which knows no bounds, I'm honored to declare Michter's the Worst Whiskey Company of 2013!  (Note to Michter's, feel free to list this honor on your website in place of your current headline "Wine Enthusiast Distiller of the Year" since, you know, you're not actually a distiller).

Congratulations to Michter's and better luck next year to all of our other competitors.  Oh, and if I left anyone out who deserves a mention, just let me know in the comments.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Roast Beef and Frozen Custard: Top Round

Top Round is a new roast beef sandwich/frozen custard spot on Olympic and La Brea.  The sandwiches, which you order outside, are Arby's style roast beef sandwiches with various condiments and toppings, but none of them matter so much.  What you should do is get one of the sandwiches with extra beef and then slather it with their horseradish sauce, which had an awesome kick to it.

Then get some curly fries.  Fried in beef tallow, the fries come plain, or with one of a number of toppings: home made cheese whiz, beef ends and drippings or "dirty" with gravy, cheese and caramelized onions.  All of these were great except for the beef ends and drippings, which needed a little something else (cheese?).

When you finish your sandwich and fries, go inside and order a frozen custard concrete (sort of a flurry-type concoction).  The custard here is by far the best I've had in LA, smooth, rich and creamy with a clean vanilla taste.  The toppings are nothing special, but getting the concrete whips up the custard to a great, smooth consistency.  Usually when you see frozen custard in LA, it's soft serve.  This is the real deal and the true highlight of this place.  Sandwiches are good, custard is fabulous.

One of the owners of Top Round is Anthony Carron from 800 Degrees pizza.  Carron is a St. Louis native, and this place definitely has a St. Louis feel (my wife's a St. Louisan and I lived there for a year).  You can get provel cheese on your sandwich, which is a God forsaken processed cheese loved only by those who grew up in St. Louis.  And the frozen custard is a clear homage to St. Louis' great Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard stand.  But while St. Louis natives will undoubtedly love this place, so will everyone else.

Check it out!

Top Round Roast Beef
1000 South La Brea (SE corner of La Brea & Olympic - and there's a parking lot!)
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 549-9445

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scotch in New Charred Oak: Glenmorangie Ealanta

Glenmorangie Ealanta, the fourth release from Glenmorangie's private edition series, is a fairly unique Scotch. While many Scotch whiskies are aged in old bourbon casks, this 2013 release is aged in new, charred American oak, just like a bourbon.

Glenmorangie Ealanta, Distilled 1993, Bottled 2012, 46% abv ($130)

The nose is pleasant and malty.  The palate is very straight forward and malty.  There is a slight oak note at midpalate along with citrus, honey, vanilla and sweet wine notes, and it has a sweet, chewy finish. 

This is a good, solid malt, but it tastes fairly similar to any other good bourbon cask Scotch and is firmly within the general Glenmorangie profile.  I was surprised that the new charred oak didn't have more influence.  I had always assumed that the impact of new charred oak would be substantial.  Even the color was quite light, much lighter than most bourbons.  In American malt whiskeys, which are required to use new charred oak, there are often quite severe wood tannin notes that I find unpleasant.  Of course, those malts tend to be very young, often less than a year old, and this one is around 19 years old, so the aging could have mellowed some of those notes if they were there to begin with.

This was an interesting experiment and one I'm glad they did, but the result isn't much different from many other malts on the market.

UPDATE:  Even though the Ealanta label says "heavily charred," apparently it's actually "heavily toasted" according to this article quoting Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden.  Thanks to a commenter for pointing it out.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Latest Tunnage: Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9

Balvenie made a big splash last year with the release of their Tun 1401, a vatting of bourbon and sherry cask whiskeys.  Since then, they have released a number of different releases in different markets.  Each release is composed of a different vatting.  In the US, we saw Tun 1401 Batch 3 and Batch 6.  The latest US release is Batch 9.  This one is composed of 11 bourbon casks whiskeys and three sherry casks whiskeys.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9, 49.3% abv ($280)

The nose is remarkably fruity with grapes, figs and candied fruit.  The palate is rich and sherried with a syrupy mouthfeel.  It starts out moderately sweet but gets drier on the tongue and toward the end the sherry recedes and malty notes emerge.  The finish is sherry, apple cider and bubble gum.

This has great balance and is nearly flawless in execution, and on top of that, it's incredibly drinkable.  It's not quite as outstanding as Batch 3, but I prefer it to Batch 6.

Batch 9 reinforces that the Tun 1401 series continues to be a source of great whisky.

See LA Whiskey Society reviews for Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9 (most of LAWS likes it even more than I do).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Worst Whiskey Blogs

Every month, I feature a Whiskey Blog of the Month, a blog that I find interesting, humorous, informative or otherwise notable.  Let's face it though, while I like to emphasize the positive, on my Complete List of Whiskey Blogs, there are tons of blogs that are just plain crappy and serve no purpose.  These are the worst:

Whiskey & Corpses.  I'm told that undertakers, as a group, are very fond of whiskey.  In this blog, an undertaker reviews a whiskey each week and poses the bottle with one of the corpses he's working on, along with some personal information about the deceased and an evaluation of whether he or she would like the whiskey. Frankly, I'm surprised he can get away with something like this.

The Glenfiddich 12 Review Blog.  There are some blogs out there that I consider to be a bit verbose, but this one takes the cake.  This blogger started his blog in 2011 with a review of Glenfiddich 12 and has been posting a continuous review of it ever since.  Each day he dives into a different element of the nose, palate, finish, appearance, etc., and dissects that single element; he also pairs the whiskey with different foods and samples it in different glasses, reporting in great detail on the results.

People Who Misspell Whisky or Whiskey.  As many readers know, in most places, our favorite beverage is spelled whisky, with no e but in Ireland and in most US brands, it is spelled whiskey, with the e.  This blogger has cataloged every time a media outlet, blogger or forum poster has used the wrong spelling and also posts his caustic letters to said media outlets which begin with salutations such as "Dear brain dead hyenas who call yourselves reporters," and get less civil from there.  Who knew there was an entire world of people who collect whiskey corks.  This site evaluates and values hundreds of whiskey corks from the uber valuable to the run of the mill.  Be aware, though, that the blogger is very opinionated and particularly despises people who only buy whiskey to collect the bottle or drink the juice without any concern for the very collectible stoppers.

UPDATE:  I apologize for any trouble people have been having with the links above.  This should be a working link for Whiskey & Corpses

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Crazy Year in Whiskey

It's time for my review of the year in whiskey, and what a crazy year it was.

The year in American Whiskey got off to an inauspicious start with Beam's bungled attempt to lower the proof of Maker's Mark.  Pappy mania reached new heights with a crazy new secondary market opening up (and closing down) on Facebook and a heist of Pappy bottles right from the source.  And Tennessee finally answered the question of what a Tennessee Whiskey is.  But what really made this year crazy were the new releases.

There was a stunning number of new American whiskey releases this year and not just from the craft distilleries and independent bottlers.  Nearly every major distiller had new labels, including Buffalo Trace (Stagg Jr.), Heaven Hill (Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and 21 year old), Wild Turkey (Forgiven and Russell's Reserve Single Barrel) and Jim Beam (Jim Beam Signature and White Label Single Barrel).  Even the staid George Dickel Distillery got into the action with a new retailer offering of 9 and 14 year old whiskeys.  Add all of that to the regular annual releases from Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Brown Forman and Heaven Hill and the growing craft and indie movement and this was a wacky, frenetic year.

Unfortunately, it was also a sad year for American Whiskey.  We lost some giants this year, including Buffalo Trace's Elmer T. Lee, Heaven Hill's Harry Shapira, Angel's Envy's Lincoln Henderson, and A. Smith Bowman's tragically young Truman Cox. Our whiskey world, and the world in general, is a sadder place without them.

This was also the year that Japanese Whiskey finally broke through in the U.S.   We've had Yamazaki for years and a trickling of Nikka whiskies more recently, but this year the floodgates opened.  Now we have Miyagikyo, Nikka Pure Malts and Coffey Grain, Suntory Hakushu and even a Karuizawa from K&L with more Japanese Whiskies to come.

For years, Canada never sent us the best of their whisky, leaving it to American bottlers to try to get their own barrels, but this year we got the new Lot 40 Rye.  Hopefully, Canada will send us more of their good stuff in the future.

The one market that seemed a bit boring this year was Scotch.  There were the predictable regular releases, PC 10, Ardbog, Laphroaig Cairdeas, Highland Park Loki and four figure Diageo releases of Brora and Port Ellen, but nothing that was particularly new and exciting. Critics seemed to acknowledge that this year with Jim Murray saying he'd rather drink bourbon and the Malt Maniacs giving their top award to a Japanese malt. In fact, the only Scotch news anyone seemed to get excited about was Diageo wrangling with Whyte & Mackay.

Have a great holiday season, and here's to an exciting new year in the whiskey world.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Those Were the Days: Prohibition Era Bourbons

It's hard to fathom the impact prohibition had on whiskey production in the United States.  Keep in mind that while prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, it came right on the heels of a wartime ban on spirits production which was in effect during World War I, such that almost no whiskey (outside of the few producers who received medicinal licenses) was produced in the Untied States for sixteen years, from 1917 to 1933.

Imagine if all spirits production in the US halted now and did not resume until 2029 or if we were just coming out of a prohibition that started in 1997.  All of the innovation and development that led to our current whiskey boom wouldn't have happened.  There would have been no Pappy Van Winkle, no Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, no Parker's Heritage Collection, no Four Roses Single Barrel, and no craft distilleries at all.

The enormity of that gap became apparent to me as I tasted through a series of prohibition era whiskeys at the LA Whiskey Society.  All of the whiskeys we tasted were distilled prior to prohibition (mostly in 1916 and 1917) and released either as medicinal whiskeys during prohibition or after repeal. There were six bourbons, three ryes and three simply labeled as "whiskey."  All were 100 proof Bottled in Bond and ranged from seven to seventeen years old.  The tasting included whiskeys distilled in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and their distilleries and brands carried names that are now legendary:  Albert Blanton, George T. Stagg, Stitzel, Dant, Gibson, WA Gaines, Joseph Finch and EH Taylor.

The most striking thing to me about this tasting was not only how different these whiskeys were from today's but how similar they were to each other. The overriding flavor note on almost all of the whiskeys was a bold, spicy rye. This makes sense given that rye was America's primary whiskey in the pre-prohibition era.  Even the bourbons lacked the sweetness that I associate with today's bourbons, in favor of a hefty dose of spice.  Some of those bourbons had a stronger rye flavor than some of today's ryes, and the rye flavor is of a different character with more sandalwood  and wood spice notes. This was an entire style of American whiskey that was lost to prohibition.

People who taste Scotches from a similar era often note that the peating level was much higher even on whiskeys we think of today as not having much in the way of peat, like Macallan.  Of course, peat is what they used to cook the barley, but the phenomenon of these bold and spicy American whiskeys makes me wonder if perhaps people simply appreciated bolder flavored spirits back then.

It also gave me a sense of how different Pappy Van Winkle's wheated bourbons must have tasted compared to what people were used to when he opened up the Stitzel-Weller distillery shortly after prohibition ended. Today, the sweeter style of bourbon dominates even in rye recipe bourbons, but back then, Pappy's whiskey would have seemed like a true alternative to the dominant (or formerly dominant) style.

Were these ancient whiskeys good?  Most were quite good, some were great, and a few were bad, not unlike many other tastings I've done.  You can find detailed descriptions, bottle photos and links to tasting note in the LA Whiskey Society's post Medicinal Whiskey:  A Tasting from Prohibition.

Photos by FussyChicken.

Monday, December 9, 2013

An American Whiskey in Paris: Blanton's Paris by Day and Night

A few weeks ago I wrote about the best things I ate in Paris.  I didn't drink any whiskey in Paris, but that doesn't mean I didn't do some shopping.

La Maison du Whisky is one of the best whiskey shops in the world.  They have two shops in Paris, the main shop on Rue d'Anjou which is entirely whiskey and the Odeon shop, a three story shop which includes other spirits and hosts tastings.  Even if you are looking only for whiskey, I would recommend checking both shops as I found bottles at the Odeon shop that were not available at the main shop.

Taken in by the selection.
Single malts are the focus of LMDW, and what a collection they have. Along with Scotch, there is a large selection of Japanese single malts, including many from the shuttered Kaurizawa distillery, though they are very expensive.

There are deals to be had at LMDW though, particularly for some of their exclusive bottlings which can only be purchased there (and they don't ship to the US or Canada).  They aren't cheap, but not all of them are super expensive.  I saw reasonably priced exclusive bottlings of Glendronach, Kavalan and many others.

And then there's the bourbon.  Normally, there would not be much reason to shop for bourbon overseas, but there is one big exception:  Blanton's.  Made by Buffalo Trace but owned by Age International, Blanton's only has one release available in the U.S., but they have more expressions in Europe and Japan, including the cask strength Blanton's Straight from the Barrel I reviewed last year.  In addition, LMDW is a major distributor for Blanton's in Europe, so they often have specialty bottlings.

During my visit, they had two LMDW exclusive Blanton's on the shelf:  the 100 proof Paris by Day and the 120 proof Paris by night.  Despite the proof difference, both are 67 euro (approximately $90).

Blanton's Paris by Day, Barrel 21, Warehouse H, Rick 51, 50% abv

The nose is really nice with some sweet caramel and some nice rye spice.  The palate is rich and spicy with brown sugar and clove.  The spice keeps growing to dominate the finish.  This really nice stuff, complex but drinkable and a big step up from our standard domestic Blanton's.  

Blanton's Paris by Night, Barrel 54, warehouse H, Rick 90, 60% abv

The nose is sweet and chocolaty with some maple syrup and light anise notes.  The palate is rich with dark chocolate, polished wood and a slight medicinal note.  The finish a slightly bitter oak note.  A bit of water brings out some sweetness and medicinal notes. It's good, but for a high proof Blanton's, I prefer the Straight from the Barrel.

These are both very good bourbons, but the Paris by Day comes out on top.  It comes together very well, complex and balanced. Then again, I've never been much of a night owl.

If you visit Paris and you love whiskey, La Maison du Whisky should be on your list right between the Eiffel Tower and Louvre.

Viva la France!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Brandy Gifts

It was frustrating putting together my Whiskey Gifts post this year because of the unavailability of so many of the good whiskeys.  Brandy, though, is a different story.  As I've been fond of saying, we are living in a Golden Age of Brandy; the quality has never been better (at least not in my lifetime), the price is insanely reasonable for what you get, and most of it is still on the shelf.  Most of the best new spirits I had this year were brandies.  If you're shopping for spirit gifts, you might want to skip the whiskey aisle altogether.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Cognac Navarre Vieille Reserve ($200). This Cognac from Jacky Navarre includes brandies that are 50 years old.  It's a beautiful, oaky, earthy brandy.  Yes, it's pricey, but it's one of the best things I tasted all year. It's still available at Astor Wines.

Domaine de Baraillon 1985 ($116).  This K&L exclusive shows the best qualities of Armagnac; it's at once fruity, earthy and spicy.  It was one of my two favorite Armagnacs this year.

1996 Chateau de Pelleahut ($60) This was my other favorite Armagnac this year and also a K&L exclusive (kudos to K&L for jumping on the brandy brandy-wagon with both feet in their excellent exclusive barrels program).  Deeply earthy, it tastes much older than its 17 years.  At $60 per bottle, this is the best spirit deal of the year.

Osocalis Brandy The Heritage ($130) is the masterpiece of this California distiller, but their whole range is great.  For a budget pick, it's hard to beat their Rare Alembic Brandy ($43).

Navazos Palazzi Brandy de Jerez ($80 for a half bottle).  Nicolas Palazzi's sherry aged brandy is rich and dry, a perfect brandy for lovers of sherried Scotch.

Domaine D'Ognoas 2000 ($56).  Another K&L exclusive, this is a bold, assertive Armagnac that's a great deal at the price point.

So don't despair of the state of whiskey. Drink brandy!

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Whiskey Gifts

'Tis the season for holiday gifts (well mostly Christmas because someone made Chanukah start in November this year, but hey, there are still a few days left).  Here, then, are my whiskey gift suggestions.

American Whiskey

It was hard to come up with American Whiskey gift suggestions this year, not because there weren't a number of great new whiskeys released but because they are so hard to find.  I would love to recommend the new Elijah Craig Barrel Proof or either of the Four Roses Small Batch or Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Editions, but good luck finding those.  (And if you came here looking for Pappy Van Winkle, be sure to check out my post on Pappy Van Winkle alternatives).

There were, however, a number of new American whiskeys that are quite good but easier to find.  K&L's Faultline Bourbon, an MGP bourbon blended by Smooth Ambler, is a nice one at $40.  Similarly priced is High West's American Prairie Reserve, which blends MGP and Four Roses bourbons.  For something higher proof, Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is a spicy whiskey at 110 proof and around $55.

One of my favorite new whiskeys this year was the George Dickel 14 year old from Park Avenue Liquors.  The new Dickel retailer exclusives are a series of 9 and 14 year old bourbons selected by specific retailers.  The first Park Avenue release that I reviewed is sold out but they have a new one in stock ($90), and The Party Source also has good versions ($46 for the 9yo and $66 for the 14 yo, though they no longer ship out of Kentucky).  I love the dry, minerally profile of Dickel, and these more aged expressions have all of that along with a bit more oak that you'd expect from an older Dickel.

On the rye front, there wasn't as much action this year, but the new Angel's Envy Rye, finished in rum casks, is a sweeter take on MGP distilled rye, though it's a bit pricey at around $70.


After a few years where sherry seemed to reign supreme, most of the best Scotch I had this year was peated.  Among those I'd recommend would be the Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 004 ($60) and the New Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition ($60).  On the higher end were Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte PC 10 ($150), the Springbank Calvados Finish ($110) and a new Kilchoman from Binny's ($80).  And for the budget recommendation, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the Smokey Joe Islay Malt ($35) available at Total Wines.

If you're looking to avoid all the smoke, I really enjoyed the  Mortlach 1990 bottled for Binny's ($100), a sherry cask aged malt that tastes more like a bourbon cask malt.

Canadian Whisky

I seldom recommend Canadian Whiskies during my gift posts, but I'm very fond of the new Lot 40 Canadian Rye ($60) that's just showing up on American shelves.  It's got some nice rye spice but it's not as aggressive as the WhistlePig/Masterson's/Jefferson's Canadian Ryes. It's one of the best Canadian Whiskies I've had.

Whiskey Books

This was a great year for whiskey books.  For anyone interested in bourbon, rye or American craft whiskey, Clay Risen's American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is a must have.  For those with a historical interest, Michael Veach's Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American History is a great survey course on bourbon history.  I haven't read it yet, but I have heard very good things about Fred Minnick's Whiskey Women:  The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey.  And for those looking for more of a story, there's Rob Gard's engaging memoir Distilling Rob: Manly Lies and Whisky Truths.  So drink, but read too.

Later this week:  Brandy Gifts

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Blog of the Month: Cheap Bourbon Whiskey & Pearlsnap Shirts

November's Blog of the Month is Cheap Bourbon Whiskey & Pearlsnap Shirts.  I can't really do it justice; just check it out (you've got to love a blog where most of the photos are empty bottles - and be sure to go to the second page to see the shirts).

Monday, November 25, 2013

(Wild) Turkey Day Bourbon: Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

I always like to do a Wild Turkey review for Thanksgiving because I'm corny like that.  This year, we'll do the new and redundantly titled Russell's Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel (I guess a single barrel is about the smallest batch you can get).   The bourbon is aged in alligator char barrels.  It weighs in at 110 proof and is not chill filtered.  There is no age statement.

Russell's Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel, 55% abv ($55)

The nose is light with candy corn.  The palate is richer than the nose lets on and has spice, pine, polished wood, anise and caraway.  On the finish there's pepper and tobacco.

This is a nice, spicy bourbon with some richness and complexity.  It certainly would do well on the Thanksgiving table, and maybe even better with the pumpkin pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

You Can't Catch Me: Abraham Bowman Gingerbread Beer Finished Bourbon

No, this is not the newest flavored whiskey concoction.  It is, however, the newest release from the Abraham Bowman special release series.  A. Smith Bowman, in Virginia, is owned by Sazerac Company, which also owns the Buffalo Trace and Barton Distilleries in Kentucky. Their bourbons are distilled once at Buffalo Trace, then shipped to Bowman for second distillation and aging there.  They use both of the Buffalo Trace rye recipe bourbon mashbills but never say which mashbill is used for which bourbon. 

This particular bourbon was finished for two months in Bowman bourbon barrels that had been previously been used to age Hardywood Brewery's Gingerbread Stout (touted as aged in bourbon barrels - ah, the barrels that keep on giving).  It was further aged in bourbon barrels after the beer barrel aging.  I don't know that I've ever had a whiskey aged in beer barrels before, so let's give it a shot.

Abraham Bowman Gingerbread Beer Finished Bourbon, 7yo, 45% ($70)

The nose has a very strong rye component with pine notes. The palate has some bourbon sweetness up front but then a definite beer influence.  There's a malty, cereal grain profile that tastes like, well, beer - malty and a bit bitter.  That malty note dominates the finish as well.  For two months of finishing, there is a surprising amount of beer influence on this.  It's almost like a boiler maker in a bottle.

Does it work?  There's a bitterness to those beer notes that's a bit strong late in the palate which puts it a bit out of balance.  Overall, I'd say it's worth tasting, but I'm not sure I would want an entire bottle of the stuff.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Baker's Bourbon

With the rush to to buy new releases before they're sold out, it's easy to forget that there are lots of bourbons that are readily available.  I always enjoy a chance to go back and try one of these, especially if I haven't had it for a long while.  Baker's Bourbon, of course, is part of the Jim Beam small batch collection which includes Knob Creek, Booker's and Basil Haden. Unlike some products, Baker's age and proof haven't changed; it remains seven years old and 107 proof and is made using the standard  (lower rye) Jim Beam mashbill.

Baker's Bourbon, 7 yo, 53.5% abv ($40-$45)

The nose has really nice rich oak notes with bubblegum and peanuts (like a day at the circus).  The palate has savory oak notes and wood spice; it's slightly minty and quite complex.  The finish has dry oak on the nose and sweet toffee on the palate.

To say I haven't been a huge fan of Beam products would be an understatement.  Lately, even old favorites that I've revisited, like Booker's or Old Grand-Dad 114, have seemed to be in decline.  Baker's, however, was actually much nicer than I remembered, with more oak and more complexity.  It's definitely worth a second look.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Angel's Envy Rye

It feels like almost every day brings with it a new rye from Midwest Grain Products (formerly LDI, formerly Seagram's) in Indiana.  Today I try Angel's Envy Rye from the Louisville Distilling Company, the bottler of finished bourbon founded by the late Lincoln Henderson, formerly of Brown Forman.  Angel's Envy is an MGP rye finished in Caribbean rum casks. 

Angel's Envy Rye, Batch 1F, 50% abv ($72)

The nose is pure LDI, mostly mint with that slight whiff of pickel juice and some juniper notes, like a dirty martini made with pickle juice instead of olive juice.  On the palate, I expected the typical burst of rye similar to the nose and readily found in other LDI ryes, but no, something different.  It starts with vanilla, then a touch of mint, and then the rum sets in with fresh cane sugar juice.  The finish is a perfect balance of sweet rum and the briny rye.

This was a really surprising and fun one.  It had all of that LDI brininess but the rum cask influence tempered it and added a sweet counterbalance.  If anything, the rum is maybe a bit too influential, making it a tad too sweet, but all in all, it's a successful and interesting whiskey.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Best Things I ate in Paris

I was lucky enough to spend a week in Paris with my wife for our twentieth anniversary.  Having never before visited the City of Lights, I was excited to eat as much amazing food as humanly possible.  Based in the Rue Cler district, we branched out all over the city center and ate and ate and ate.  Given that it was my first trip, I make no claims to having uncovered anything veterans wouldn't know well, but these were my favorite things.

Cheese.  There are more cheese shops in Paris than anyone could make a dent in during a one week trip, but my very favorite was a small shop on Rue du Champ de Mars called Marie-Anne Cantin. They age their own cheeses and have a wonderful selection.  Epoisses is one of my favorite cheese and Cantin's had a wonderful grassy note, but I also loved their pungent Camembert, and their wide selection of aged goat cheeses as well as their butter.

Baguettes Cereal.  A baguette is a simple enough thing, but Paris baguettes are a wonder, with a density and richness absent in even the best baguettes I've had in the U.S.  While wheat breads in the US tend to be hard and flat tasting, the baguette cereal, a French whole grain baguette, is intensely flavorful, adding a zing to the regular baguette.  There were numerous boulangeries that had amazing baguettes, but one of my favorite cereal baguettes was at Nelly Julien on Rue Sainte Dominique.

Chocolate apes at Patrick Roger
Chocoalte Truffles.  The amount of cheese I ate in Paris was second only to the chocolate. Chocolate stores abound and display their wares like jewels in glass containers.  I'm a fan of the plain, cocoa coated chocolate truffle.  The two best I had were at Patrick Roger and La Maison du Chocolat.  The Patrick Roger truffle had a stronger and more complex flavor with a good balance of acid and bitterness. The Maison du Chocolat truffles may not have been as complex, but they had a creaminess that made them even more enjoyable.

Hot Chocolate.  Laduree is a chain of chocolate cafes.  Looking like a frilly English tea room, they might have been decorated by my six year old daughter, but they are oh so good.  Hot chocolate is everywhere in Paris in the fall, and the hot chocolate at Laduree is the best I had.  It's really a very thick ganache, much like the kind I make at home.   The serving is enormous and I'd recommend getting it with whipped cream (a la Viennoise) to cut the richness a bit because it really is more like drinking melted chocolate than any typical hot chocolate, though it is oh so good (and it'll give you a bit of a caffeine jolt as well).  They have great macarons as well.

L'As du Fallafel.  I thought it was curious that this little falafel stand seemed to be the single most recommended eatery in Paris by my friends and guidebooks alike.  Located in the Jewish corner of the Marais neighborhood, L'As dishes out falafel sandwiches to long lines day and night, and they are worth the wait.  These are small, perfectly fried, perfectly spiced falafel in a pita with a number of veggie slaws, grilled eggplant and an awesome, garlicky, hot sauce.  This may have been my favorite meal in Paris (I went twice).  The sweetness of the eggplant, the piquant sauce and the plethora of little falafel balls all comes together in perfect balance. You can go to the take out window or eat in, but the advantage of eating in is that you get your own little bowl of the hot sauce, which is a big plus.

Aux Merveilleux de Fred

Meringues from Aux Merveilleux de Fred.  These things are crazy.  Layers of meringue covered in whipped cream and rolled in chocolate (or other flavored) flakes.  Akin to a meringue layer cake, they come in various sizes.  They are creamy, chewy, melt in your mouth miracles of taste and texture.  The cream is not overly sweet and comes together with the delicate meringue to create a crunchy, creamy wonder.  The whole experience is like biting into a sweet cloud.  I'm not usually a fan of white chocolate but that was my favorite flavor.  The dark chocolate flakes overwhelmed the subtlety of the cream whereas the white chocolate just added to the creamy richness.

Ice cream. Ile St. Louis is a small island in the Seine that seems to consist mostly of ice cream shops.  Flocks of tourists window shop with cones in hand.  Most of the shops serve Paris' legendary Berthillon ice cream, but if you continue past the pretenders, you'll reach the actual Berthillon shop and find that its reputation is well earned.  Bold flavors and a creamy texture made this some of the best ice cream I've had.  We tried the rich, dark chocolate cacao, tangy passion fruit sorbet, and a creamy but nutty pistachio. 

Fine Dining.  I ate at a lot of bistros and cafes, but while in France, I wanted to do a splurge meal at a traditional French temple of fine dining.  On a friend's recommendation, I chose Le Pre Catelan.  The restaurant is located in Bois de Boulogne, a huge and beautiful (though somewhat seedy) park on the northwest outskirts of Paris.  The dinner menus at this three star Michelin eatery are extravagant and extravagantly priced, but they have a lunch prix fixe for 105 Euro (140 with the wine paring).  The lunch is an even better deal than it looks like as each course actually consists of two or three parts.  I will resist going through each course of this meal and say only that it was one of the most memorable meals of my life.  The ambiance, including the traditional French service with an army of waiters set in a beautiful dining room with a courtyard view, was of course memorable.  But, as part of my three part pork entree, the meal included probably the best cooked piece of pork belly I've ever had, with cracklin' skin, a thick, toothsome but somehow not fatty layer of fat and meat that was the rich essence of all that is good and porky in this world, all bathed in a pork jus (the other two pork courses were a braised pork in tomato foam and a sort of liquid head cheese served in a martini glass and topped with mayonnaise.  And of course, the cheese selection was wonderful, with a particularly well aged Mont D'Or.  The wine pairings added depth to each course, and unlike in most American tasting courses, the pours were generous and bottomless.

Not everything was perfect in the world of Paris food, but it was pretty close.  Sure, we had some mediocre bistro meals, and I can only imagine the world of tiny, out of the way treasures we had no clue about (and please let me know what they are!), but generally, the availability and quantity of amazing food was, well, just as true as everyone says it is.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013: Port Wood Edition

This is the third edition of Laphroaig's annual Cairdeas bottling.  This year's edition spent eight years in bourbon casks and an additional 14 months in port casks.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013 - Port Wood Edition, 51.3% abv ($60)

The nose is peat with burning plastic (though not in a bad way, if that makes any sense).  The palate is smoky campfire embers, and the finish is lots of smoke and a touch of acid. I don't get much in the way of port influence on this.

This is a very nice solid peater, that's very drinkable, packing a good, smoky, punch.  It reminds me of the more peated, less sweet style of Islay whiskies that was prevalent a decade ago.  I'd say it's a step above the 2012 Cairdeas release. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Binny's Kilchoman

For years, Kilchoman has been the craft whiskey start-up with the most potential.  The Islay distillery that opened in 2005 has already gotten rave reviews from everyone, but while I've liked some of their expressions, they are all very young and still have some rough edges.

Recently, though, I tasted one that was by far my favorite of the Kilchomans I've had.  A Binny's exclusive, this Kilchoman is not quite five years old and aged in a first fill bourbon cask.

Kilchoman 4 year old Binny's Exclusive,  Cask No. 307/2007,  Distilled 11/1/2007, Bottled 9/15/2012, Aged in a Bourbon Cask, Cask Number 307/2007 ($80).

The nose is a really beautiful Islay nose with peat and coastal breeze.  The palate has smoke and sea water with a bit of a tanginess to it and some mezcal notes that I typically get with younger Islays.  The finish is pure peat.

This is a bold and beautiful Islay Scotch, and the good news, as of now, it's still in stock at Binny's.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Whiskey 101: Clay Risen's American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye

Clay Risen's new book American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is a refreshing and comprehensive treatment of American Whiskey.  A New York Times editor and author of the Mash Notes blog, Risen's new book joins Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Straight as a must have for anyone developing an interest in American whiskey.

While the bulk of the book contains reviews of over 200 American whiskeys, I most enjoyed the 76 page Introduction, in which Risen manages to cover pretty much every aspect of American whiskey, including its history, production, composition, label terms and tips on organizing tastings.  The breadth of material covered is truly impressive, and Risen includes many recent trends in the industry, including white whiskey, craft distilling, flavored whiskey and non-distiller producers, all of it written in accessible, engaging prose.

The review section spans every type of American whiskey and includes both tasting notes and a paragraph or two about each producer, including many independent bottlers and craft distillers. Recognizing the importance of the craft trend, Risen went out of his way to sample (and in some case, choke down) a huge number of craft products, making this one of the largest compendiums of craft whiskey reviews anywhere.

Nothing in the book is sugar coated, including the ratings.  Risen uses a star rating system ranging from a high of four stars to a low of NR (not recommended), and he's a tough grader, even by my standards. He also makes clear which producers make their own whiskey and which are bottlers or blenders. 

Risen's book fills a real gap on the shelves, both as a broad survey and a buyers' guide.  Even though it's intended more as an introduction, the detail is such that I would recommend it to longtime whiskey enthusiasts as well.  It goes for around $16.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye
by Clay Risen
Sterling Epicure, 2013 (298 pages)

Disclaimer:  I reviewed and gave feedback on a draft version of the book and was sent a complementary copy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2013

One of the most anticipated new releases of the year, the annual Four Roses Small Batch release has become almost Pappy like in its elusiveness.  Last year's edition was, by far, my favorite bourbon of the year.  The Small Batch is always a blend of different Four Roses bourbons; this year's is composed of 18 year old OBSV, 13 year old OBSK and 13 year old OESK, the same recipes in last year's edition but slightly older.

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2013, 51.6% abv ($90)

The nose is rich and oaky with caramel and a touch of rye.  The palate is pretty dense.  It starts with sweet notes but quickly moves to rye, leather and oak and trails off with medicinal notes.  The finish is medicinal/menthol which fades into a nice spicy tobacco note.  As with most of these Small Batch releases, there's a lot going on here; it's a great, complex bourbon.

I still have a bottle of the 2012 Four Roses Small Batch so I tasted them head to head and found them to be very different.  The 2012 is sweeter and maybe more balanced in that the sweetness provides a nice counterpoint to the spice notes, but the 2013 is bolder.  After a few tastings, I can't decide which I like better, so I'll call it a draw, the really good kind of draw.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Shake your Bourbon: Faultline Bourbon

Faultline is the K&L house label, a tongue in cheek reference to the placement of its stores and our whole state on a treacherous earthquake zone.  This particular bourbon was blended by Smooth Ambler from whiskey distilled by Midwest Grain Products (formerly LDI, formerly Seagram's) in Indiana.  According to K&L, it's a vatting of two MGP bourbons, a ten year old low rye recipe and a seven year old high rye recipe bourbon. 

Faultline Bourbon, 50% abv ($40)

The nose is brown sugar with subtle rye notes.  The palate is very balanced between sweet and rye notes, coming on first with lots of sweet candy notes and then moving toward rye spice, which occupies much of the finish.

This is a wonderfully drinkable, very balanced bourbon.  It's certainly one of the best LDI bourbons I've had, and for the price, it's a very good deal. I wasn't a huge fan of Smooth Ambler's early efforts at bottling LDI whiskeys, but their later stuff has been far better.  I give it a 4.5 on the Richter Scale (a California only rating system), a nice little tremor that doesn't do too much damage.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Very Very Good: A Very Very Old Fitzgerald Tasting for the Record Books

I've been a member of the LA Whiskey Society for around four years, and I have constantly been amazed at the selection at their meetings, which seems to get better and better.  My theory is that those guys have a time machine they use exclusively to go back in time and buy whiskey (hey, that's what I'd do with it). 

Of course I was excited when I heard a few months ago that LAWS was planning a tasting of Stitzel-Weller bourbons, wheated bourbons from the now shuttered distillery that was founded and operated by Pappy Van Winkle. Even though I knew they were planning such a tasting and I always expect great things from LAWS meetings, when I clicked open the email invitation, I did a double take.  Lying before me was pretty much the dream bourbon tasting of every bourbon enthusiast in the world, ever.  It was beyond ridiculous.  Seven different Very Old (and Very Very Old and Very Extra Old) Fitzgeralds, ranging from 8 to 18 years old, most distilled in the 1950s, including three 12 year olds from three different eras in the distillery's history.  Most bourbon fans would consider themselves lucky to taste just one of these Stitzel-Weller gems, and here was a whole set of them staring me in the face.

Going to this type of tasting fills me with a mix of joy and apprehension.  There's always the chance that these bourbons won't meet the ultra-high expectations.  There have been many times when I have gotten my hands on a treasured whiskey and found it to be just good but not as exceptional as I'd hoped.  You just never know.

In this case, I'm happy to report that not only was the quality of these bourbons amazing, but the full tasting allowed us to see the evolution of the whiskey and also made us wonder why they were so different from today's bourbons.

The first tasted and the youngest of the night was the 8 year old distilled in 1958.  What was fascinating was that it had a flavor profile that you simply don't find in today's bourbons.  It came on dry and spicy, with some brandy notes and a mouthfeel that was at once chewy and creamy.  Overall, it was subtle, not blaring spice, sugar or oak but an understated melange of notes that came together well.  What happened to lovely, understated bourbons like this and why don't we have them anymore?

The ten year old, distilled in 1967, maintained the balance of the 8, but with everything pumped up a bit more.  There was stronger sweetness, in a maple syrup vein, tannic red wine and more oak.  As with the 8 year old, there were lots of notes reminiscent of brandy and Armagnac in particular.

Then came the flight of 12 year olds.  One from each era of the distillery.  The oldest was distilled in 1952 and bottled in 1964, entirely within the era when Pappy Van Winkle was running the distillery.  The second was distilled by Pappy in 1956 but bottled after his death in 1968 and the third was from the 1980s, possibly distilled while the Van Winkle family was still running things, but bottled after the distillery had been sold and the name had been changed to the Old Fitzgerald Distillery. 

These were three very different bourbons.  The 1980s release was my least favorite. It was sweet and light and comparable to many good but not great bourbons around today.  The subtle complexity of the earlier bourbons had somehow been transformed into a very light, sweet bourbon that was good but without any of those interesting notes found in its forebearers.

The 1956/1968 12 year old was nearly flawless.  The complexity was back along with the brandy notes and some coffee notes (a note which I detected in a number of the older Fitzgeralds) and a spicy finish.  This bourbon had a richness that wasn't as developed in the younger versions. 

And then there was the 1952/1964.  My notes read like a free association of bourbon flavors:  "pine, oak, citrus, spice, candy, maple syrup, brandy, wood pulp" and on and on.  I don't know that words can do justice to this bourbon.  While the 1956 12 year old was a textbook great bourbon and many would probably favor it, the 1952 was great for reasons beyond the individual notes.  There was a gestalt to it, in which all of the various notes came together into perfect balance, making it taste totally original and mind-blowing.  It might just be the best bourbon I've ever tasted.

We moved on to the two rarest bourbons in the line up, the 15 year old and the 18 year old.  These are hard to find any information about, even a Google images picture is tough to track down (though we will certainly fix that).  The 15 year old (1957/1972) was another fantastic bourbon but much more familiar.  At this age, the wood started to play a greater role, creating the balance of candy and wood (I call it the "enchanted candy forest") that I identify with the more recently bottled Stitzel-Weller bourbons.  In fact, this tasted just like Pappy 15.  To confirm this thought, I pulled an older bottle of Pappy 15 off the LAWS bar (such is the state of the LAWS bar that a half full bottle of Pappy 15 has languished on it for the past five years) to compare.  They were nearly indistinguishable.  It was amazing to me that the 15 year old Stitzel-Weller had maintained its profile so well (and that the Van Winkle family had succeeded in replicating it so well in the Pappy bottling).

The last bottle was the 18 year old, distilled in 1951 and bottled in 1969.  This is probably the only bottle for me (other than the 1980s VOF) that was a let down.  After 18 years in the barrel, there was a bitterness and an overoaked quality that dominated the palate and finish.  It wasn't bad by any means, and in any other group of bourbons, it probably would have done well, but it suffered compared to those that came before.  I couldn't help but feel that they had left this one in the barrel for too long.

And so it was, almost undoubtedly the greatest bourbon tasting I'll ever have the pleasure to attend.   While I've always been skeptical of Stitzel-Weller hype, this confirmed for me that there really was something special going on at that distillery all those years ago.  Sadly, it's something that is almost entirely lost to history, but I'm glad to have had the experience of a night with the real Pappy Van Winkle.

Thanks to the FussyChicken for the photos.

UPDATE: Check out the official LAWS write up (and from there you can follow links to member notes for each bottle) from the Very Very Old Fitzgerald tasting.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blog of the Month: Danish Whisky Blog

Steffen Brรคuner started his Danish Whisky Blog back in 2010 and has been doing a phenomenal job of consistently providing fresh, interesting commentary.  Unlike most European whiskey bloggers, Steffen has a taste for and knowledge of American whiskey as well as Scotch.

In a world of sometimes insanely long lists of whiskies to try before you die, Steffen's Seven Whiskies to Taste Before you Die nailed it. Another great list was his 10 facts about Japanese Distilleries.  Combine these with a discerning and experienced palate and a low tolerance for BS, and you've got a creative blog that just keeps getting better.  If you don't know it already, check it out!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Parker's Heritage Collection 2013: Promise of Hope

The Seventh and, rumor has it, final edition of the vaunted Parker's Heritage Collection is the Promise of Hope.  Parker Beam, former Master Distiller of Heaven Hill, was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's Disease).  The idea of the Promise of Hope was to represent Parker Beam's favorite style of bourbon and to help honor him by contributing $20 per bottle sold to a special fund set up to benefit ALS research.

The bourbon is a ten year old, single barrel rye recipe bourbon picked from Beam's preferred warehouse and released at his preferred strength of 96 proof.  He chose 100 barrels to go into the release. 

Parker's Heritage Collection Promise of Hope, 10 yo, 48% abv ($90)

The nose has saw dust, coffee grounds, peanuts (or peanut candy really) and wood; it's got a lot going on but in a sort of confused way (as opposed to a complex way).  The palate is dry with mineral notes and wood.  The finish is dry and woody.

This is a very nice bourbon with dry, mineral notes that are so pronounced it could be confused with a Dickel.  I like it, though, as with last year's Blend of Mashbills, it's not quite up to par with the best releases of the collection.  Still, it's good bourbon and for a good cause.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Our First Whiskey Reviews

I thought it might be fun to go back into the archives of some well known whiskey bloggers and see what the first whiskey they ever reviewed was.  Many bloggers had been tasting whiskey for years before they actually posted a review, but it's interesting to see where people started when they went to print.  (Of course, this is just a small sampling of the many whiskey blogs out there.)

  • Because he started in the days of the ARPANET, Serge Valentin's first reviews on Whiskyfun are no longer on-line.  The most recent available post is for a massive blind tasting from February 15, 2004.  Even then, he was sipping only the best; the tasting featured nine whiskeys, including the second release of Brora 30 and a 25 year old Signatory Port Ellen.
  • The first episode of Mark Gillespie's WhiskyCast aired on November 12, 2005.  In that first episode, Mark said he would not review whiskeys (though he later did), and he reported about two new releases:  Penderyn and Bernheim Wheat Whiskey.  The episode was eight minutes long.
  • The first meeting of the LA Whiskey Society took place in October 2006 and the stand out bottle was a 16 year old 1985 Glen Elgin from the Bottlers.
  • Sam Simmons, now the Balvenie guy, was once upon a time a blogger known as Dr. Whisky.  He made a few brief recommendations in late 2006, but the first of his series of "Malt Missions" was a review of Johnnie Walker Black on January 1, 2007.  He called it a "world-class knock-out dram."
  • John Hansell started his blog, then called What Does John Know on June 28, 2007.  Then, as now, the blog was mostly news with occasional reviews.  His first blog review was a series of 12 single cask Highland Parks reviewed on September 17, 2007. 
  • Ralfy uploaded his first video (though it was titled "Whisky Review 2") on February 15, 2009 in which he reviewed the Canadian single malt Glen Breton 10, calling it "the best non-Scotch single malt I've ever tasted." The video was three minutes and 18 seconds long. Ralfy clearly has a lot more to say these days.   
  • Oliver Klimek opened with a trio of short reviews on July 18, 2009:  Ardbeg 10Port Charlotte PC 7, and Caol Ila 12.  He liked the PC7 the best, followed by Ardbeg and then Caol Ila. 
  • Josh Hatton's JewMalt Whisky used to be the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society and his first review was a February 18, 2010 review of Ardbeg Uigeadail which smelled like his "sister’s suede jacket after a Bon Jovi concert."
  • Jason Pyle at Sour Mash Manifesto didn't do a formal review until his third post, on May 6, 2010, when he blogged and vlogged (remember when he was a vlogger?) about Evan Williams Single Barrel (vintage 2000) which he was quite fond of.
  • And me? I started this blog as a food blog (hence name) on May 10, 2007.  My first whiskey review was a survey of Buffalo Trace bourbons Eagle Rare 10, Buffalo Trace (which wasn't even available in California back then) and George T. Stagg on May 15, 2007.  The regular Buffalo Trace was "probably my favorite of the three."  I clearly knew a lot more about doughnuts than bourbon back then.    

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ron Navazos Palazzi: Sherried Rum

Earlier this year, I enjoyed Navazos Palazzi Brandy, a sherry aged brandy that was a joint project between spirits importer Nicolas Palazzi and sherry bottler Equipo Navazos.  Nicolas Palazzi recently sent me a new Navazos Palazzi rum finished in sherry casks.

This rum was distilled in the Caribbean from molasses on a column still.  It was aged at the distillery for five years and then shipped to Spain, transferred to Oloroso sherry casks and aged for an additional ten years. It was bottled in July at cask strength. They are planning on releasing 1,500 bottles per year for the next four years. 

Ron Navazos Palazzi, 51% abv ($150)

The nose on this is a deep sherry with just a hint of brown sugar at the end.  The palate begins with a thick sherry with fruit; it goes on to reveal the sweetness of the rum which creates a candy-fruity melange like candied, dried fruit.  The finish is back to a pure sherry.

At first taste, this is very similar to a Spanish brandy, but beyond the sherry notes in the late palate, you can pick up the molasses.  I'm not generally much of a rum drinker, but this is excellent stuff.  The rum and sherry combination is really gives this a rounded, full flavor. I bet it would be great on the rocks as well.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Canada Week Part III: Lot 40 Canadian Rye

For my final Canadian Whisky of the week, I thought I'd sample Lot 40.  Lot 40 was a popular Canadian Whisky about a decade ago but was abruptly discontinued.  The whisky was rereleased in fall 2012 in Canada, and it was sent to the US shortly thereafter, but I've only recently started seeing it in California. According to Canadian Whisky blogger Davin de Kergommeaux, Lot 40 is produced by a bottler, Corby Distilleries, from whisky distilled at the Hiram Walker Distillery.  The mashbill is 90% rye and 10% malted rye and it is distilled in a pot still.  For the full story, as with any Canadian Whisky, check out Davin's (and buy his book too!).

Lot 40 Canadian Rye, 2012 Release, 43% abv ($60)

The nose on this has a strong rye, very reminiscent of the herbaceous rye notes on Whistlepig and the other Canadian straight ryes. Then some cocoa notes emerge.  The palate is both drier and less aggressive on the rye than I expected with some brandy notes, cherries, chocolate and a more muted rye than the nose.  The finish is the first time you get more traditional Canadian Whisky notes with some honey joining the rye spice.

This is a very nice whisky.  It has the nice, spicy rye notes of the Canadian straight ryes but with more complexity.  I've been skeptical of recent talk about a Canadian Whisky revival, at least based on we've seen in the US, but this whisky gives me hope that we will start to see some real gems coming out of Canada.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Canada Week Part II: Caribou Crossing

As my second in a week of Canadian Whiskeys, I thought I'd finally try Caribou Crossing.  This is a Canadian Whisky from an undisclosed distillery bottled by Buffalo Trace.  (Buffalo Trace is named for the path created by migrating buffalo, so the name "Caribou Crossing" is a bit of a play on that).  It's a single barrel whiskey that was first released in 2010. Buffalo Trace isn't revealing whether this is a single-grain Canadian "flavor whiskey" or a blend which was blended prior to barreling or rebarreled after blending. As always with single barrels, results may vary.  There is no barrel number or other identifier so you just have to take your chances, though I should note that I've had this particular bottle for a few years.

Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky, 40% abv ($45)

This has a nice bourbony nose with caramel and some oak notes; nosing blind, I would certainly guess that it was a bourbon.  On the palate, it's more distinctly Canadian, but with a richness that isn't typical of Canadian blends (at least the ones we tend to see in the US).  There's chocolate, rye and some nice oak notes all backed up with some traditional Canadian sweetness.  The finish has muted rye spice and honey.

This is a nice whisky, certainly better than most Candian Whiskies I've had.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Canada Week Part I: Masterson's Barley and Wheat Whiskeys

It's been a while since I took a serious look at Canadian Whiskey, and there is a growing number of whiskeys coming out of the Great White North these days, so grab a bag of milk and some poutine, it's Canada week!

Last year, I reviewed Masterson's Rye from 35 Maple, a Sonoma, California company that bottled a ten year old Canadian rye whiskey, similar to those from WhistlePig and Jefferson's Rye.  It was very good stuff.

Now Masterson's has two new Canadian Whiskeys on the market, a straight barley and a straight wheat whiskey.  Presumably, as with the rye, these were originally intended to be components of a Canadian blend until 35 Maple purchased them and bottled them as straight whiskeys. While their rye was composed of 100% rye, there is no information about the mashbill of these whiskeys, so we don't know if they include other grains as well.

Masterson's 12 year old Straight Wheat Whiskey, Batch 001, 50% abv ($65)

As you can see from the picture, the wheat whiskey (on the right) is much lighter in color than the barley. The nose is alcoholy with a distinct sesame oil note.  The palate is light and sweet without much discernible flavor other than a touch of milk chocolate and a medicinal note toward the end with just a touch of graniness underneath it.  The finish is pretty much nonexistent.  There is very little substance to this; it reminds me of some of the not very good Scotch grain whiskeys I've had.  If the Masterson's Rye came from the flavor grain elements that they use in Canadian blends, I'm wondering if this is one of the base whiskeys they add to round the blends out.

Just for kicks, I did a side by side tasting of this and Heaven Hill's Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. The Bernheim had a depth of flavor, richness and balance that was totally lacking in the Masterson's.  Between the two, my guess is that the Masterson's has a lower proportion of corn (if any) in the mashbill.  Plain wheat is just not that flavorful.

Based on both flavor and color of Masterson's Wheat, it would surprise me if it was aged in new charred oak for 12 years.  Aging in new charred oak is a requirement for wheat whiskey in the US, and given that this is labeled "straight wheat whiskey" and not "Canadian Whisky," I would think that it would have to comply with that requirement, but you never know what exceptions the TTB will make.

Masterson's 10 year old Straight Barley Whiskey, Batch 001, 46% abv ($65)

The nose on this is very nice with fruit and spice as well as some strong floral notes.  On the palate, it's light and fruity in a pleasant way but also has the raw wood notes that are common in younger craft whiskeys (think Hudson Malt Whiskey).  The finish is mostly medicinal.  This is certainly better than the wheat whiskey, and it's not offensive, but it's not good either.

These whiskeys are a real let down after the very good Masterson's Rye.  The wheat whiskey is pretty bad. The barley is okay but nothing I'd recommend.   Selling either of these poor to mediocre whiskeys for $65 a bottle is downright scandalous! 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What's in a Box?

A few days ago, David Driscoll posted an article on his K&L blog about the problems he runs into with customers who complain not about the whiskey that K&L shipped to them but about the box.  I thought it was an amusing post, but apparently, some folks on Twitter and the StraightBourbon forum took offense that Driscoll would treat whiskey boxes so irreverently.

For my part, I don't care about whiskey boxes.  I buy whiskey to drink not to display or resell.  I do use the boxes for storage (extra storage is always helpful in earthquake country), but once I'm done with a whiskey, the bottle, box and anything else goes straight to the trash.  Most of them are just flimsy cardboard or cheap metal tins anyway (that are inevitably dented by me if they aren't already dented when I get them - which they often are). 

It actually upsets me when the boxes (and bottles) are too nice.  It means that the company spent significant money, money that is passed onto the consumer, on something that's going in my trash bin.  A terrible example of this was the Old Rip Van Winkle 23 year old  decanter of a few years ago which came in a giant wooden cube.  It was a great bourbon, but what a totally useless waste of money and resources (and the thing had a sort of creepy, coffin-like look to it, but maybe that was appropriate for a whiskey from a dead distillery). 

Also, to elaborate on something Driscoll said in his StraightBourbon response, when we fetishize packaging, we only add to the industry perception that jacking up prices with fancy boxes and bottles is a good marketing strategy.  If you're one of those people who wrote a nasty email to your retailer about how your tin was dented, I don't want to hear you complaining about the next $500 whiskey released in a hand blown bottle nested in a wooden boat. 

What do you think?  If you are one of those people who finds value in the box?  I'd love to know why.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Where can I find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon?

It's that time of year again.  With fall comes the browning of the leaves, the cooling of the air (well, eventually, we hope), and the Google searches for Pappy Van Winkle.  "Where can I buy Pappy?" is a question I see pop up a lot on Google searches leading to my blog this time of year.  As a public service, I'm going to answer this question for all of the Googlers out there.  This post isn't for my regular readers who know this stuff already, but I will ask them to help out. 

So, you read an article about how Pappy Van Winkle is the best bourbon ever and you think it would make the perfect holiday gift for your spouse/significant other/boss/client.  Here's the deal: Pappy Van Winkle is the most sought after bourbon in history.  Bourbon fans will go to great lengths to hunt it down.  Liquor stores often have hundreds of people on the wait list for two or three bottles and some poor slobs are willing to pay double, triple and, yes, nearly 10 times the retail price for the stuff.

So let's deal with the reality.  If you got to this post, because you Googled "Where can I find Pappy Van Winkle?", you aren't going to find it.  I'm not going to find it.  All but a few tireless or very lucky souls aren't going to find it.  That doesn't have to mean you're out of luck though.  Pappy is great bourbon, but there are plenty of other great bourbons out there that you can find; so if you can't find Pappy (and you won't), consider the following:

  • W.L. Weller 12 year old.  This is essentially the same stuff as much of the Van Winkle bourbons.  It's made by Buffalo Trace, the same distillery that distills all but the oldest Van Winkles, and it's made from the same recipe that they use to make the Van Winkle bourbons.  Buy this and tell that boyfriend that this is essentially Pappy 12.  It's a great bourbon; it won't cost you an arm and a leg ($20 to $25), and you'll be able to feel superior with this bit of insider knowledge.
  •  Four Roses Single Barrel Hand Picked Editions.  Four Roses is probably the most consistently excellent bourbon distillery around today.  These guys pump out great bourbon like it's nothing.  The regular single barrel is good, but retailers hand pick single barrels of particular recipes that range from decent to mind blowingly good.  Binny's currently has eight different hand picked bottles for $55 a piece, a fraction of what Pappy would cost you for juice that's just as good if not better.  To put it in musical terms, Pappy may be as popular as The Knack in 1980 but Four Roses is the Velvet Underground in the early '70s, the life changing band that only those in the know are listening to (check out that rock analogy - eat your heart out David Driscoll!)
  •  High West Rendezvous Rye.  This one's not a bourbon, but a rye, bourbon's spicy cousin. This excellent whiskey is composed of rye whiskeys from Kentucky and Indiana, masterfully blended by David Perkins from High West in Utah.  At $50, it's one of the best whiskey deals around for a fabulous, spicy whiskey.

One thing I have going for me on my blog is an army (okay, a division) of talented readers who know their stuff.  Readers, what would you recommend as a relatively easy to find substitute for Pappy this holiday season?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How I Taste Whiskey

Last week, one of the people who was trying to figure out how I could possibly have a different opinion about a whiskey than other reviewers asked me under what conditions I taste whiskey and whether there were variables that could affect the tasting and explain my obviously erroneous results.  In response, I thought I would let people in on my process.

When I'm taking tasting notes, I always use my Glencairn glass.  Not just any glass mind you, but the same glass (to eliminate the common variation one gets from different glasses), and it is always sterilized by a lab prior to my using it.

All of my tastings are done between 10:00 and 11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time (between 11:00 and 12:00 pm during daylight savings).  I have a special tasting room which keeps a constant temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.  The room has an Argon gas environment to ensure that the whiskey will not oxidize while I am pouring or tasting it.  Of course, this means that I have to hold my breath during tastings, but that is a small price to pay for consistency of results.

I don't eat for 24 hours prior to a tasting, and between tastings, I cleanse my palate with a single, low sodium Wheat Thin.

All of my notes are taken on a moleskin notebook with a number two pencil.  Scores are recorded in the same notebook but with a magenta crayon from a Crayola 64 pack.  (If anyone has any extra magenta crayons, I would be willing to trade for sets of 63 crayons, of which I have many).

Oh, and I only taste in the nude.

So you see, I have eliminated all possible external influences, as well as all of the fun from my whiskey tastings.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Blog of the Month: Last Call

This month's blog of the month is not a whiskey blog per se, but a legal blog about alcohol.  Bone McAllester Norton is a large Tennessee law firm that has a specialty in alcoholic beverage law.  The firm's blog, Last Call, is written by William T. Cheek III who leads the firm's alcoholic beverage legal team.

I first came across the blog while researching the State of Tennessee's efforts to define the term Tennessee Whiskey, but I soon added it to my regular reading list.  While the blog mostly deals with state law issues, it's a fascinating look at the complicated legal framework, both state and federal, regulating the production and sale of spirits.

And fear not non-lawyers, the blog doesn't read like a brief.  The writing is succinct and devoid of legalese, and Cheek has a penchant for quoting song lyrics in his posts.  If you're both a legal geek and a whiskey geek, this is definitely a blog you should be following.