Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Turning Taiwanese: Kavalan

World whiskies are getting bigger all the time as more and more countries follow the example of Japan and make Scotch style single malts. Kavalan is a Taiwanese single malt whiskey made at the King Car Distillery that came on the scene in 2008. They started with the competent, if unexciting Kavalan Single Malt. Then, in 2010, they began releasing the Solist line, a line of single cask, cask strength expressions aged in different woods.

Kavalan isn't yet available in the US, but hopefully, we will see them before too long. I was lucky enough to have some relatives visit Taiwan and bring me samples from the Solist line so I thought I would see what they're like.

Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask, 58.2% abv. (As these are single casks, abv varies from cask to cask)

The nose is fruity with white wine notes as well as some hay and horse feed notes in the background. The palate has the same fruity/malty mix, starting sweet with pears and canned peaches, then malty notes and Cream of Wheat. The finish is just vaguely fruity. This is a nicely drinkable malt.

Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, 57% abv.

This one is aged in American oak wine barrels that had held both red and white wine. The nose on this one has a very light wine note. The palate is very fruity in the way that sherry aged casks are with dried fruit, but then has some nice, dry woodiness to balance it out. The finish is fruity, with a distinctively grape note, along with a touch of anise. Tasting blind, I would likely guess this was a sherry cask, though maybe third or fourth fill.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask, 57% abv.

The sherry cask is aged in Oloroso sherry butts. Nosing this you get figs, sherry, maybe even balsamic vinegar, though not in a vinegary way, if that makes any sense. The palate has dry sherry notes and some earthy, rancio type notes. The finish is full of nice earthy sherry notes. This is certainly comparable to any of the standard, good sherried single malts from Scotland.

Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask, 58.6% abv.

The nose on this is striking with big, sweet sherry notes. The palate is very sweet sherry (strange, since fino is a very dry sherry) just bursting with fruit and sweet wine. In the finish, the sherry fades to an Angostura Bitters type flavor.

This Kavalan series was quite good. Kavalan exhibits a sweet, fruity character which is quite drinkable, even at cask strength (tasting blind, I would never have guessed the abv on these was as high as it is). While I enjoyed all of them, the Fino Cask definitely stood out; it's a bold, fruity sherry without any sulphur which hits my sweet spot for sherry pretty well (though it's on the sweet side of my sweet spot). Hopefully, these will land on our shores before too long.

See the LA Whiskey Society ratings for the Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon cask, Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask and Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Trader Joe's Scotch

Of late, it seems Trader Joe's has been increasing their house-label whiskey selection. Early last year, they introduced the Trader Joe's Single Malt Irish Whiskey, which was followed last fall by a Trader Joe's Bourbon. Now, they are reintroducing some private label single malts.

I say reintroducing because years ago, they had a line of Trader Joe's Scotch that was independently bottled and mostly pretty awful. Those malts listed that name of the distillery whereas the new malts only list the region; the actually distillery they come from is a mystery.

So far, TJ's has two malts: a ten year old Highland and an 18 year old Speyside. Both are bottled at 40% by Alexander Murray & Co., which bottled the previous series of TJ's malts and has also done bottlings for Costco. As with most TJ's items, the prices are extremely reasonable: $19.99 for the Highland and $25.99 for the Speyside.

Tim Read and I are doing a joint review of these whiskies, so be sure to check out Scotch & Ice Cream for his review.

Trader Joe's Highland Single Malt Scotch, 10 years old, 40% abv (%19.99)

The nose is sweet and malty with some nice fruit and white grape juice. The palate is very straightforward and malty without much else going on. It reminds me a lot of Glenmorangie 10, malty and sweet and not bad at all if a bit boring.

Trader Joe's Speyside Single Malt Scotch, 18 years old, vintage 1993, 40% abv ($25.99)

The nose on this one is light and fruity with fruit cocktail notes. The palate is also fruit forward but it devolves a sourness which lasts into the finish which also has a note of stale wine and a touch of bitterness.

These aren't going to win any awards, but they're decent for the (very cheap) price. The ten in particular, at $20, is a good deal if you want something straightforward, though I"d probably spring for five or six bucks more and get a Glenfiddich. The 18 year old has a bit more going on, but also has more flaws.

Both of these strike me as better than most of the malts Trader Joe's released in their last series, so I suppose that's progress.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Is the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection in Decline?

For the past decade, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection has consistently distinguished itself as the best of American whiskey. Few other whiskeys have been able to even come close to the quality of the quintet of George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17, Thomas H. Handy rye and Sazerac 18 year old rye. Even while the whiskey have become hard to find, the price has remained fairly consistent, making them a great value...if you can find them.

Over the last two years, however, the quality of these whiskeys appears to have declined. They are still great, but they have come down to earth from their previously astronomical levels. In December, I wrote about my disappointment with the 2012 George T. Stagg, but the 2011 was also a bit off balance, especially when compared to the 2010 and other earlier versions, which were so bold yet also balanced and complex.

I recently sampled the 2012 Weller and found a similar phenomenon. Both the 2012 and 2011 lacked the complexity of earlier versions, especially the excellent 2009 edition. There were more off notes, sour and bitter, than in previous versions. (See LA Whiskey Society Reviews of George T. Stagg and William Larue Weller through the years).

I haven't been as consistent in trying the other BTAC whiskeys, but I've noticed a similar drop in quality in all of those I've tried over the last two years.

I want to reiterate that these are still great whiskeys, but before 2010, they were absolutely phenomenal. Time will tell if this is a steady decline or merely a dip in quality.

Have you noticed a difference in your BTAC?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dickel Rye

Diageo made a big entry into the rye market with Bulleit Rye, which is distilled at LDI (now MGPI) in Indiana. Now, Diageo has released a second rye made from the same stuff under its George Dickel label. Like Dickel Tennessee Whisky (and unlike Bulleit), Dickel Rye is subject to the Lincoln County Process of filtering the spirit through sugar-maple charcoal. The difference is that Dickel Tennessee Whisky is filtered after distillation, before it goes into the barrel, whereas Dickel rye, since they purchase the whiskey from elsewhere, is filtered after aging. Let's taste this new rye and compare it to Bulleit.

George Dickel Rye (distilled at LDI), 45% abv ($20)

The nose on this is pure pickle juice, which is actually pretty typical of young LDI ryes. There's also a hint of oregano. The palate is the LDI rye spice box, bold and flavorful as ever. By the late palate, mint dominates. The finish is a tongue-numbing mint.

Bulleit vs. Dickel

The first thing you notice when taking these two head to head is that, unsurprisingly, they are very similar. For all we know, of course, Dickel is the exact same whiskey as Bulleit but run through the sugar maple charcoal. Between the two, Bulleit is more balanced and has more of the traditional rye character. Dickel has a stronger flavor, but between the pickle nose and the strong mint at the end, it's a bit much for "charcoal mellowing." Overall, I like them both, but I think Bulleit is the stronger whiskey.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Dickel Rye and Bulleit Rye.

Monday, January 21, 2013

There's an App for LA Coffee: LA's Best Coffee

Coffee in LA has exploded over the past five years. You used to have to go out of your way to get a decent cup. Now, a new third wave espresso bar with a 45 minute pour over seems to open every week.

The good news is there's now an iphone app that helps you find the best third wave coffee near where you are in LA. The mapping function works well, and the best thing about it is it's all wheat and no chaff. The people who made this app clearly have high standards for coffee as all of the places listed are great third wave coffee bars, so if you're a fan of this style of coffee, there's little risk of disappointment or need to sort through reviews.

The app is made by Blue Crow Media and costs $.99.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Brandy Love

Wow, I have had a ton of fun reviewing brandies over the past few weeks. With whiskey, I feel like there isn't that much exciting being done these days, but just the small sampling of brandies I've tasted over the past few weeks has convinced me that brandy is something worth our attention. The last time I did a brandy series, around four years ago, I liked some of what I tasted, but I found much of it too sweet, too weak and too filled with additives. The market has started to change. While the big houses are still the big houses, there's a lot of innovation going, though you have to seek it out. In addition, you still get a lot of bang for your buck, though the prices tend to be more comparable to Scotch than American whiskey.

I've also been impressed with the amount of positive and enthusiastic feedback I've had with this series. Read through the comments on any of these brandy posts and you'll see wide ranging discussions by people who know far more than I (a particular shout out to commenters Numen, Tom Troland and NP who added a tremendous amount of information). There's a huge thirst for brandy knowledge and discussion out there and a real dearth of on-line resources.

It's funny that most whiskey drinkers don't drink brandy. We have these classifications in our minds...that whiskey is made from grain and brandy is made from fruit, and therefore, they are entirely different categories that have nothing in common. I used to think brandy was more an offshoot of wine, but its flavors have more in common with whiskey. Armagnac is much more similar in flavor to rye whiskey than rye is to Scotch, and I'm pretty sure I could convince someone tasting blind that the Navazos Palazzi Brandy de Jerez was the latest Glenfarclas. The fact is, these new brandies should be very appealing to whiskey drinkers, and their flavor profiles are going to be pretty familiar.

We'll get back to whiskey next week, but I'm going to keep drinking brandy, and I'll keep reporting on it. If you hear about something good, drop me a line or a comment.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Navazos Palazzi: Sherried Brandy from Jerez

Today we move over to Spain with a Spanish brandy from the Alvisa Distillery in La Mancha made from airen grapes. This was sourced by brandy importer/bottler Nicolas Palazzi and aged for six and a half years. For the last four and one half years, it was aged in a very old Oloroso sherry cask from Equipo Navazos, one of the most well regarded sherry bottlers in Jerez. It's bottled without coloring or additives.

There are only 720 half bottles from this cask. As the back label states, its goal is an authenticity that is currently difficult to find in Spanish brandies.

Navazos Palazzi, Single Oloroso Cask, Brandy de Jerez, Bottled March 2012, PM Spirits, 375 ml, 44.2% abv ($80)

The nose on this is pure, dry sherry with tons of dried fruit notes and some wood. The palate continues along the same lines with a dry wine feel, with some sweeter grape juice notes in the back. The finish has prunes and dried apricots.

This is fun stuff, and the strong sherry notes should appeal to lovers of sherried Scotch. At $80 per half bottle, it's not cheap, but it's extremely drinkable. Most of the brandies we've sampled in this series have been fairly old, but this bottle shows that brandy can do well at a younger age as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dawn of the Distillery: Reports of Zombies in Louisville

This week, reports began surfacing of life at the site of the old Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.

"It's un-nach-ral what's goin' on there," said one local, "once something's dead, it ought stay dead."

The Stitzel-Weller distillery died in 1992 of bad marketing and corporate downsizing, but recently, there have been strange goings on at the distillery site.

Rumors of life at the distillery started last weekend when several prominent whiskey bloggers, broke the news. The Whisky Aficionado Spectator Blog reported that the reanimation had been accomplished through "some combination of radioactive spiders, frog dna, gamma rays and lightening." Several hours after a freak lightening storm, locals told of a bearded man with a cigar seen ambling around the distillery grounds shouting "Brains, brains! But always fine brains!"

This would not be the first report of a zombie distillery. In Scotland, there are many popular folk tales about distilleries with names like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich that came back from the dead, but most consider those mere legends, similar to that of the Loch Ness Monster.

Shortly after the reports broke in Louisville, concerned townsfolk gathered at the KFC Yum! Center to make plans. Several had ordered pitchforks from Amazon and were intent on surrounding the Distillery. Many were also arming themselves. Popular lore is that the only thing that can stop a zombie bourbon distillery is a bulleit made in Indiana.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Daniel Bouju Cognac

Having done a number of Cognac reviews in the past, I've been focusing on Armagnac during this series, but I did want to feature one Cognac that has piqued my interest and seems to be highly regarded. Daniel Bouju is a small grower/producer in the Grande Champagne region of Cognac. It seems that much of their Cognac isn't available in the U.S. or is very hard to find, but I was able to get some samples from a friend. Like many of the Armagnacs I tasted last week, the Bouju Cognacs exhibit a bolder flavor profile than the typical syrupy sweetness that we find in many Cognacs.

Bouju claims that they don't use any additives or caramel, but these things are all as black as night which certainly makes me suspicious. They don't carry any age statement, but I'm told that the Royal is 15 years old, the Extra is 35 years old and the Tres Vieux is 40 years old. The Royal and the Tres Vieux are cask strength (brut de fut).

Daniel Bouju Royal, 60% abv

The nose is dry and a bit musty. On the palate, there's an initial sweetness yielding to a dry palate, some spice and some of the mustiness from the nose as well as some medicinal notes. The mouthfeel is thick and syrupy. The finish is peppery. This tastes like some kind of Cognac concentrate, thick and rich and syrupy.

Daniel Bouju Extra, 40% abv

The nose is quite spicy with fruit underneath. The palate is sweet with freshly dried prunes, raisins and ends in spice which joins the prunes in the finish with just a touch of bitterness.

Daniel Bouju Tres Vieux, 50% abv

The nose on this is dry and woody, more like a bourbon than a Cognac. On the palate, it comes on astringent, though not in a bad way, with a fair amount of acid as well as spicy tobacco notes, yielding to some fruit, then menthol. The fruit comes back for the finish, mixed with some spice, then trails off with a palate numbing menthol.

After all of that Armagnac, I had to adjust to the sweetness of these, though they are not as sweet as most Cognacs. Of these three, I most enjoyed the Royal, with it's concentrated flavor, but also liked the Tres Vieux which had a lot going on but may not have had as many high notes. I didn't care as much for the Extra, which was overly bitter on the finish. All of these are very intense such that a little goes a long way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Domaine D'Esperance

To wrap up our week of Armagnac, we'll be tasting a 1998 brandy. Brandy importer/bottler Nicolas Palazzi was kind enough to send me a sample of his Domaine D'Esperance single barrel 1998 Armagnac. Domaine D'Espearance is a very small grower (10 hectares) in the Bas-Armagnac region. Palazzi imports a number of expressions, including a five year old and a ten year old, as well as a number of single casks. They contain no coloring or additives.

The 1998 vintage is made from 100% baco grapes and aged in Gascony oak casks (which tend to have a high tannin content).

Domaine D'Esperance 1998, 14 years old, Barrel 69, 49% abv ($90)

This one smells like bourbon. In fact, if I were nosing it blind, I would likely mistake it for a high rye bourbon and a very good one at that It's got lots of oak, spice and even some of that corn sweetness. The palate reveals its true nature, a dry, spicy brandy with cloves and then pepper. The finish lingers nicely, emphasizing the spice and, for the first time, the underlying wine, and the notes blend together like a mulled wine.

Dry and complex, this Armagnac might be challenging for some who need some sweetness, but I thought it was delightful. If you're ready for the next level, check it out. Right now it's only available in the east, but I'm told there are a few bottles that should be headed into California.

Next week I'll move out of Armagnac to try some Cognac and a Spanish brandy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Three More K&L Armagnacs: Domaine D'Ognoas 2000, Domaine de Lassaubatju 1989 & Domaine de Baraillon 1985

Today I'll be tasting my final three Armagnacs from K&L's exclusive barrel series.

Domaine D’Ognoas 2000, 46% abv ($56)

Domaine D'Ognoas is a prestigious producer in the Bas-Armagnac that is part of a state funded school teaching brandy production. The 2000 Domaine D'Ognoas offered by K&L is one of the lowest priced bottles in their series. It is a blend of 30% Folle Blanc and 70% Ugni Blanc grapes.

This has a really nice nose with apple, pear and some floral notes. The palate is a massive spice box with cooking spices, earthy notes and a bit of oak. It turns nutty on the finish and ends with a touch of bitterness, though not in a bad way, more like you get in a Campari.

This is really wonderful stuff at a great price. There's a boldness of flavor that is hard to find at this price point. If this was cask strength, I bet it would be unstoppable. This is one I would definitely recommend. (Note: per K&L's David Driscoll in the comments, there are only a few of these in the stores right now but more on the way).

Domaine de Lassaubatju 1989, 44.2% abv ($80)

On the nose this is quite spicy with pepper, fresh cut wood. On the palate, this is perhaps the driest of the Armagnacs I've sampled so far with the spice taking on almost a chile like hotness and then fading into wood. The dry spiciness might appeal to rye whiskey fans. This was very good, but I'm not quite as excited about it as either of the other two in today's review.

Domaine de Baraillon 1985, 48% abv ($116)

Domaine de Baraillon is a small grower in the Bas-Armagnac region that makes only about two barrels of brandy per year. This bottling is a 1985 vintage made from ugni blanc and baco grapes.

This has a fantastic nose with fruit but also earthy notes, like a forest after the rain. That same earthiness shows up on the palate along with some sweet sherry or port notes and some of the lovely damp mildew you sense when visiting a winery. The finish is slightly spicy and very earthy.

This is just lovely stuff. In fact, I think it's my favorite Armagnac of the K&L series. It actually reminds me of some of the old, dusty bourbon I've had which has a certain earthiness to it. If you're interested in Armagnac, it would be hard to go wrong with the Domaine de Baraillon.

Note on disclosure: Someone asked in the comments yesterday if I am getting these brandies for free from K&L. The answer is no. While I rarely get free samples, it does happen occasionally and if I'm reviewing something I received from someone in the industry, I will always disclose it. Later this week, I will have a review based on such a sample, and I'll let you know, but the vast majority of the spirits I sample are things I have bought myself or that non-industry friends have kindly shared with me. As always, though, I am happy to accept anything for free, including bottle sweaters, key chains, distillery trips, pharmaceuticals or cash. Of course, none of these will impact my reviews, except the bottle sweaters.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chateau de Pellehaut Armagnac

Our first week of brandy tastings for this series will be dedicated to Armagnac. As I discussed last week, most Cognac producers are essentially blenders who buy brandy on contract with small grower/distillers. In Armagnac, it is a bit easier to find grower/distillers, and one of the larger ones, though still small by Cognac standards, is Chateau de Pellehaut.

Chateau de Pellehaut is in the Tenareze region of Armagnac which is between the regions of Bas-Armagnac and Haut-Armagnac. Tenareze brandies are considered more rustic and less approachable than those from the more popular Bas-Armagnac region.

Today I'll be tasting one of their standard offerings, the Reserve, and two special bottlings from K&L, a 1987 and a 1973. The 1973 demonstrates some of the value of brandy as compared to whiskey that I've mentioned in the past...try finding a 39 year old whiskey for $130.

Pellehaut's more recent vintages are made from the folle blange grape, and the Reserve is made from both ugni blanc and folle blange, but the 1973 is 90% ugni blanc.

Chateau de Pellehaut Reserve, 42% abv, ($50)

The nose has nicely balanced elements of fruit, wood and spice. The palate starts sweet and then develops a nice tang which goes on to dominate the finish. It's very drinkable.

Chateau de Pellehaut 1987, K&L Selection, 49% abv ($80)

The nose is dry and spicy with just a touch of fruit. The fruit comes in strong on the palate, followed by wood and spice which last into the finish. This is a powerfully flavorful and well balanced brandy.

Chateau de Pellehaut 1973, K&L Selection, 43% abv ($130)

The nose mildly spicy; there's also some honey and mild fruit. The palate has a nice spicy fruit flavor, almost like a mulled cider with cloves lasting into the finish which also had a sandalwood note. There's a similarity to some of the better Canadian whiskies with their balance of rye and fruit.

In comparing these, you can definitely tell they are from the same family; the interplay between fruit and spice is a common motif. The Reserve is an easy drinker, the 1973 is nicely balanced, but I'd say the winner here in the 1987 with its strong notes of both fruit and spice in perfect balance.

By the way, if you haven't been reading the comments on the posts introducing last week's brandy series, you should check them out. There is tons of helpful information from knowledgeable commenters, including some who are in the industry. Clearly, there is a thirst for knowledge and discussion of brandy.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The World of Brandy Producers

For Scotch fans used to the idea of single malts vs. blends, we need to adjust our thinking when thinking about brandy.

Cognac is filled with small and medium sized grape growers, many of whom grow grapes and then hire someone to come and distill their grapes into brandy. Very few of these growers market their own brandy. Instead, the big brands have contracts with these small producers to buy their brandy for use in their brands, much like a blended Scotch whisky, though the term "blended" doesn't seem to be used in brandy. While some of the big name houses have distilleries, most of those in-house operations produce only a fraction of their brandy; they buy the rest from smaller growers. Even many smaller, more upscale brands, like Delemain, are blenders who buy brandy on contract.

Unlike Scotch, in which many distilleries make a single malt as well as selling their whisky for use in blends, most of the small growers don't sell their brandy under a private label. It all gets sold to the big houses.

In Cognac, which is dominated by the four big houses of Remy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier and Martell, this system can deter more innovative approaches. As brandy importer/bottler Nicolas Palazzi told me:

Right now in Cognac, there are small guys who would want to go fully on their own but are kind of split because keeping contracts with big houses makes the future more secure. But a younger generation is taking over their families' estates and seem to be more in tune with the drinkers so this will help.

This is another aspect in which brandy today is comparable to whiskey 15 or 20 years ago. The Scotch export market was almost all blends until the 1980s, when single malts started creeping in. Palazzi and a few others are acting as independent bottlers and releasing some of this grower-produced brandy that otherwise only goes into blends. Another way to taste smaller producers is through Armagnac, which has fewer big blenders. Starting next week, I'll be sampling some Armagnacs from K&L's exclusive small producer bottlings as well as some other interesting brandies from smaller producers.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013: The Golden Age...of Brandy

While the golden age of whiskey is over, we may be on the cusp of a golden age of brandy. Just three or four years ago, it was difficult to find a Cognac in the US that wasn't caramel colored, flavored with wood pulp (boise) and diluted down to 40%. While rum, tequila and even once lowly mezcal saw specialty, higher strength bottlings from small producers, Cognac continued to be dominated by syrupy sweet spirit from the four large houses and Armagnac completely flew under the radar.

There are signs, however, that we are entering a brandy renaissance. Suddenly, we are seeing single barrel and cask strength, non-treated French brandies from small producers.

Another of the signs of a coming golden age is that for now, prices remain reasonable. Remarkably, forty year old brandies can still go for under $150. As whiskey prices continue to explode, brandy is a huge bargain with a more diverse flavor palate coming to the US every day.

Brandy today seems to be where whiskey was fifteen or even twenty years ago. As we know, golden ages don't last forever, so if you're a brandy fan, your time may be now, and if you're a whiskey fan, there is much to like about these new brandies.

And it's not just Cognac. Armagnac, Calvados and Spanish brandy are all starting to show some real promise. Over the next two weeks, I'll ring in 2013 by exploring the emerging golden age of brandy.