Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fun with Labels: YOUR STATE HERE Crown Club

If you saw a bottle of Kentucky Crown Club whiskey on the shelf, complete with a picture of a racehorse, you probably wouldn't guess that it was Canadian blended whiskey, but lo and behold, Houston based Mexcor, Inc. has been approved for a label for just such a whiskey.  

And suppose you wanted a whiskey from your native Arkansas, Florida or Colorado.  Well, you're in luck, because Mexcor is planning to produce Canadian Whiskeys named for pretty much every state (though the Dakotas get just one between them). 

But lest you think this is just some bulk whiskey operation cynically cashing in on state pride, the back label for Tennessee Crown Club explains that the whiskey was crafted to "reflect and highlight the rich heritage of the great state of Tennessee" and that it "embodies the treasures that the majestic state of Tennessee possesses." Similarly, the label for South Carolina Crown Club reports that it was crafted to "reflect and highlight the rich heritage of the great state of South Carolina" and that it "embodies the treasures that the majestic state of South Carolina possesses."

Think of how much work Mexcor must have done to come up with a different whiskey that embodies the treasures of each of our majestic states.  This was clearly a massive undertaking in which skilled tasters had to contemplate questions like, "Does this Canadian blend more accurately embody the treasures of the majestic state of Connecticut or does it reflect and highlight the rich heritage of the great state of Indiana?"  Kudos to the great team at Mexcor that found these unique whiskeys.

Oh, and Jersyites take notice, the bottle for Jersey Crown Club makes no reference to the Garden State being either majestic or having a rich heritage.  I guess even Mexcor has its limits.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

State Whiskey Law: Kentucky & California

Whiskey is mostly regulated by the federal government, but some states have their own whiskey regulations.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about the passage of a Tennessee state bill defining Tennessee Whiskey.  That bill has since been signed into law and will regulate how Tennessee companies can use the term "Tennessee Whiskey." 

Kentucky also has a law on the books regulating the use of its name on whiskey labels.  For years I had heard about a special rule in Kentucky but had never seen it or had anyone provide a citation, so when some folks swore to me that it existed, I went searching for it.  Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) section 244.370  requires that to use the name Kentucky on a whiskey label (as in "Kentucky Bourbon" or "Kentucky Whiskey") the whiskey must have been aged in oak for at least one year in Kentucky.  If it's not aged a year, the company can still bottle it, but they can't use the name "Kentucky" or even say that it was made there except in the name and address of the distiller.  The only exception to the aging requirement is for corn whiskey.

Of course, this doesn't really have much practical application these days, since most Kentucky whiskey is sold as straight whiskey, which means it is required to be aged for at least two years.

California has its own laws defining whiskey.  California Business & Professions Code section  25175 makes it a misdemeanor to sell any product labeled at whiskey that has not been aged for three years in charred oak barrels.  There are exceptions for corn whiskey, spirit whiskey and Scotch.  Unlike the regulations in Kentucky and Tennessee which cover activity and label information not regulated by the federal government, the California law directly contradicts the federal regulations, which do not provide any age requirement for non-straight whiskeys.  In fact, even many straight whiskeys, which have a two year age requirement, would not be permitted to be called "whiskey" under the California law.  State laws that conflict with federal laws are preempted by virtue of the Constitutional Supremacy Clause, though preemption is a rather complex issue with many nuances. (See also, Chuck Cowdery's post on this law from a few years ago).

Given the plethora of young whiskey on California shelves as well as the lack of any case law interpreting this provision, I can only assume it is not being enforced. 

There may well be other state laws regulating whiskey which exist alongside or even conflict with federal regulations.  If you know of any others, let me know.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Pastry Love at Cooks County

This Beverly Boulevard farm to table operation opened last year.  I stopped by for brunch on a Saturday, and the pastries alone were worth the trip.  The pastry basket isn't actually a basket; it's a tray, but the day I went it came with a fresh jelly doughnut, a blueberry muffin, a cheese biscuit and a ginger scone.  These were all excellent, but the scone impressed me the most.  Never have I had a scone that was so flaky, so melt in the mouth delicious.  The doughnut was slightly larger than a golf ball and stuffed with a thick, nicely tart strawberry rhubarb jam.

The baked goods also shined as part of the breakfast entrees.  The baked pancake is a unique and delicious beast, a puffy pancake with crisp edges and a light and fluffy center emphasizing the "cake" in pancake.

The house made bagel was delicious, though a bit hard on the outside, but the smoked trout it was served with was bland.

Overall, the sweet outshined the savory, but most everything was good.  I went back for lunch, and definitely enjoyed it, but nothing was quite as great as their various brunch pastries.

Cook's County
8009 Beverly Blvd. 
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 653-8009

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dusty Thursday: David Nicholson 1843 (circa 1955)

This was an old Stitzel-Weller brand bottled for the Peter Hauptmann Co. in St. Louis that I haven't been able to find too much about.  I'm hoping some of our bourbon experts can shed some light on it in the comments.  This one is a 1955 bottling. The brand is now a sourced bourbon owned by Luxco.

David Nicholson 1843, BIB, 100 Proof

The nose has honey, floral notes and some citrus.  The palate is rich with vanilla bean, butterscotch and some oak.  The finish returns to some of the floral notes.

This is actually far better than I expected it would be with some real complexity.  I've had a number of Stitzel-Weller bottom shelfers that weren't great.  This is really good stuff and more akin to some of the better Old Fitzgeralds I've had.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Balvenie 12 Single Barrel

Up until about a year ago, I pretty much ignored the existence of Balvenie.  Some of their malts were fine, but I'd never had anything that bowled me over.  Then last year, they blew one out of the ballpark with the Tun 1401.  Given that success, I was pretty excited to taste their newest whiskey, a 12 year old single barrel aged in first fill bourbon casks.

Balvenie 12 year old Single Barrel First Fill, 47.8% abv, Cask 12694  ($70)

The nose is a fruit bomb with pears and fruit cocktail.  The palate is fruity and malty in equal parts.  The finish is mostly malty with some cereal and cocoa.

This one is bright and fruity.  It's not overly complex but is nicely drinkable, a good edition to the Balvenie lineup and a perfect lighter whiskey for those hot summer months (along with Bladnoch).  Keep in mind, as a single barrel release, barrels may vary.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Meat Heaven: Chi Spacca

It sort of seems like a no-brainer that the new Batali/Silverton/Bastianich project let by Chad Colby focusing on meats would be amazing, but it is. Located in what is fast becoming a Mozza mini-mall, Chi Spacca is a small space with amazing meat.

Charcuterie plates are beyond cliche these days, but Chi Spacca's sampler is extraordinary.  There's copa, one of the best specks I've ever had, two salumis with gloriously large chunks of fat and, my favorite, two country style pates.  One pate was pork with pistachios wrapped in bacon.  It was smoky and ham-like.  The other was a pork liver and kidney pate that was unctuous and livery.  This was fantastic stuff.

But the tour de force on the menu I ordered was the beef and marrow pie.  A small, but very deep pie of braised beef with a marrow  bone stuck in the middle.  The braised beef in this pie was black as night with a syrupy thick jus.  It was the best of braised meat and soaked beautifully into the flaky, perfectly done pie crust.  Eat some of the marrow by itself on bread, but then spread some on the beef and pastry to get an ultra-rich bite.  (You may need to use the back end of the spoon to get all of the marrow out.) 

There are lots of great things on this menu, including huge steaks and pork chops, that would have been better for a larger crowd, but don't miss that pie.

The wine program was also impressive.  Rather than offering bottles, wine is offered from a limited selection by the glass or carafe.  Alternatively, they offer three levels of wine pairings, selected to match your particular meal (even though it isn't a tasting menu).  We ordered the cheapest one ($25 per person) and were delighted with the diverse choices, which included a sparkling red and a sour beer among the four selections.

If you're a meat lover, this should go on your must-try list.

Chi Spacca
6610 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90036
(323) 297-1133

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dusty Thursday: Hill and Hill Bourbon (1976)

In terms of dusty whiskey, Los Angeles is pretty much shopped out.  It's been a long time since I found a good, old bottle on the shelf.  Even the dusties I left behind are long gone.  These days, I'm pleased to find even a bourbon with a mediocre reputation if it's from the old days, and so there's this.

Hill and Hill was a lower end National Distillers label that is no longer around.  This bottle is a half pint circa 1976 that I picked up in the San Gabriel Valley.  It cost me all of $4.

Hill and Hill Bourbon,  4 years old, 80 proof (40% abv)

The nose is pretty decent with some brandy like sweetness and some solid rye spice.  It actually smells like it has some age on it.  The palate is also nice and spicy with some wood notes and a nice sweet, caramel note at the end.  The finish retains that sweetness and again gives some brandy type notes.

I expected this to be terrible, and it's actually quite good.  Despite the age statement, this tastes much older than four years; it has that rich, caramel flavor that I've seen in older bourbons from the '70s.  I'm guessing this one is a glut whiskey, filled with older stocks that the distilleries didn't know what to do with back when bourbon supplies far outstripped demand.  It just goes to show, you shouldn't make assumptions based on the label.  I could drink this stuff all night, and that's what I call four dollars well spent.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Willett Wheater Bourbons: The April 6, 1993 Bernheim Run

Earlier this week, I wrote about the great ryes distilled at the Bernheim Distillery in the 1980s that were released by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD).  There is another set of great Bernheims out there from a different era.  In 1991, the old Bernheim Distillery was torn down by United Distillers and replaced by a new, high-tech distillery.  At around the same time, United Distillers closed one of their other distilleries, Stitzel-Weller.  They needed somewhere to make the wheated bourbon for the Stitzel-Weller brands like Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller so they started making it at the shiny, new Bernheim Distillery.  

This era's Bernheim wheat whiskey is great stuff.  Today, as Stitzel-Weller stocks run dry, many of the Van Winkle whiskeys have some of this Bernheim bourbon in the mix.  But some of the best Bernheim wheated bourbon I've had is from a run of Willett whiskeys distilled just over twenty years ago, on April 6, 1993.  Of course, since these are independently bottled and the producer is not disclosed, I can't guarantee they're Bernheim, but there aren't that many candidates for a wheated bourbon from that era.

These are huge, oaky bourbons with abvs in the high 60s.  If you don't like wood, stay away, but if oak doesn't bother you, these are fantastic, like cask strength Van Winkles.

The 4/6/93 Bernheims are bottled under the Willett label (the date is on the back label).  Shopper's Vineyard had a 17 year old version a few years ago, and Pacific Edge has distributed a number of them in California, including 16 and 17 year olds.  It's possible that some are still on the shelves.  If you find one, and you like that oaky wheater profile, definitely pick it up.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Rathskeller Rye and Old Bernheim

The old Bernheim Distillery in Louisville was not one of the more treasured distilleries of its time.  Operated by the Schenley company after prohibition, it was the home to IW Harper and Old Charter bourbons until it was torn down in 1991 to make way for the new Bernheim distillery which is now Heaven Hill.

The Bernheim distillery also made rye, which is popularly referred to as Cream of Kentucky rye, though it was a very limited release and most of the rye they made went into various blends (Schenley was one of the largest whiskey companies of the time).

Midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, a number of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers independently bottled ryes distilled in the mid-1980s started appearing on the scene and making waves.  There were Willett bottles by Doug Phillips, the Velvet Glove and Iron Fist Willetts that are still available in DC, the Red Hook Rye bottled for LeNells in Brooklyn and Rathskeller Rye, bottled exclusively for the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville.  These were huge, spicy, cask strength ryes.  They are without a doubt, some of the best ryes I've tasted.

Eventually, it came out that many and possibly all of these whiskeys had their origination at the Old Bernheim distillery.  What they were doing to the rye at Old Bernheim in the 1980s, I don't know, but it was something amazing.

Today, I'll taste the Rathskeller rye, but you can see my previous notes for LeNells Red Hook Rye Barrel 3 and Barrel 4, the Willett Iron Fist and one of the Doug Phillips Willett Ryes on the LA Whiskey Society site.

Rathskeller Rye, 23 years old, distilled 1983, 68% abv

This has a really concentrated nose of sandalwood, molasses and brown sugar.  It starts spicy and goes sweet.  On the palate it's thick and syrupy with sandalwood, plenty of wood and sweet wine.
The finish has mulled wine spices and cloves.

This is really amazing stuff.  It has a lot in common with the old Pennsylvania ryes I've tried, particularly the sandalwood notes.  Unfortunately, the days of these ryes are numbered.  Other than the Seelbach, there are bottles of this at a few prominent DC bars, including the Acadiana, Jack Rose and Bourbon DC, though it will cost you from $60 to $70 per glass.  Still, one of those bars is your best bet, since it's pretty much impossible to buy a bottle.

Thanks to Jason Beatty for the sample and photo.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sku's Guide to Wine

As my readers know, I'm a whiskey guy.  I'm not really into wine.  In fact, I'd never had a glass before last Thursday, but after I saw Sideways at a friend's house, I thought I would become a wine advocate, throttle a few wines and give you the definitive scores on the best ever wines.

Screaming Eagle Cabernet.  Someone told me this was the very best wine in the world, and since I did not do any research for this piece, I am going to parrot that information here:  This is the very best wine in the world.  It is red and smells strangely grapey.  Yes, I would say there are definitely grapes in the mashbill.  On the palate, it tastes like a great bourbon but wineyer.   Don't bother with the ice or Coke with this one...sip it neat!  Oh, and this is a really rare wine that you will never get which enhances its quality by a huge amount. 100 million points!

Charles Shaw Merlot.  Charles Shaw is a guy who I assume grows and then stomps on grapes for this wine.  I think it's from France and imported by a guy named Trader Joe.  The only downside is that it's a Merlot, and the guy on Sideways didn't like Merlot so I can't recommend it.  Terrible stuff that tastes like sewage.  90 points.

Onus One.   This slope shouldered bottle has a white label with some blue smudges on it and a signature.  It's fine, but I've seen better labels, especially for the price.  I didn't get around to tasting it.  99 points.

Manischewitz.  My Rabbi told me to drink this.  It's definitely the best white wine I've had, and I think it's cask strength!  94 points.

Now that I have made the definitive statement on wine, you, my devoted readers, are ordered to slavishly hunt these down until you have driven your local retailer to the point where they will consider suicide as possibly the only relief from your incessant harassment.

I hope you enjoyed my conquest of wine and wine's unconditional surrender.  Next week there's  a James Bond marathon on...get ready for my definitive statement on Vodka.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Darroze: Armagnac's Independent Bottler

Darroze is probably the most prominent independent bottler of Armagnacs.  The company was founed by Francis Darroze, a restauranteur in the Bas Armagnac in the early 1970s who purchased Armagnac casks for his customers.  Eventually, he purchased large enough quantities that he began bottling them for sale independent of his restaurants, and the business grew into the primary independent bottler of Armagnacs.  Darroz died in 1995, but his name lives on in the bottles with the beige, script style labels and red wax caps.

Unlike the negociants of Cognac who favor blending, Darroz operates much more like a Scotch indie bottler.  Each bottle of Darroz Armagnac is from a single grower/producer that is identified on the label, and many of the bottlings are vintage dated.  As with independent bottlers of Scotch a decade ago, Darroz bottlings are the only way to taste the brandies of many of Armagnac's smaller growers.

As with Scotch indie bottlings, it can be difficult to track down the same bottle, and some of these are hard to find, but there are many Darroz bottlings out there, and I thought it would be worth it to taste some of their offerings to give a sense of what they do.  Today I will sample three Darroz brandies from two growers, both located in La Freche in the Bas Armagnac.  While I don't know the exact grape proportions, these are all made with predominantly Baco grapes. 

Darroze Domaine de Salie 1988, 48% abv ($140)

The nose is all wood and spice, like the inside of a wooden box.  The palate is spice-forward with cloves and powdered ginger with some nice sweetness coming in late palate. The finish comes back to cloves with some floral notes and finally, some nice earthy notes. This is a really wonderful brandy with so much spice, but in layers that add to its complexity.  Really wonderful stuff, it's one to put on the list.

 Darroze Domaine de Salie 1977, 35 yo, 44% abv

The nose on this is even woodier than the 1988 but with less spice and a soapy note.  The palate is surprisingly sweet with pears that trail into the finish.  This one is a sweeter, more one note brandy.  It lacks the sophisticated wood and spice interaction that the 1988 has.  Between the two, I definitely prefer the '88.  I don't list a price for this one because it's the only one of the three that I couldn't find currently available.

Darroze Domaine de Coquillon 1974, 33 yo, 48.2% abv ($211)

The nose on this one is very bold with wood and spice, though the wood is more like the polished wood of a library, than the raw wood I get in the other two.  The palate is really striking with tobacco, chocolate, clove and molasses.  It finishes with sweet, earthy notes then develops a strong, numbing menthol.  This is a dense, flavorful brandy.  The nose and early palate are wonderful but then it becomes a bit too sweet and syrupy, which makes me wonder if there are boise and sweeteners in it. 

Darroze clearly knows what they are doing, and I'll be looking for new bottles from new growers.  Back in the good old days, Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys used to have a huge selection of Darroze bottlings.  As with their independent Scotch, the selection has dwindled, but last time I visited, there was still a smattering of old Darroze bottles on the shelves.  It's certainly worth checking out if you're looking for these.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Pappy Bubble

Not surprisingly, last week's Bonham's auction featured some pretty ridiculous sales.  Someone, for instance, coughed up $380 for the good but not great Ardbeg Alligator released two years ago for $100 (Keep in mind that Bonham's charges all kinds of fees so the seller didn't make anywhere near $380 but the buyer did pay it).  But what really had me scratching my head was the price for Pappy Van Winkle.  A 20 year old Pappy went for $654 and 23 year olds went for $892 and $773.  Unlike the Ardbeg Alligator, these are bottles that are in current release.  At last fall's release, the 20 year old was selling for $125 and the 23 year old was $240. If you go to places like the new Bourbon Exchange Facebook page (a site apparently set up for those who miss the pleasure of getting gouged on ebay), you will hear similar stories.  Keep in mind, the Pappys listed at the Bonham's auction did not include a date; they did not appear to be older bottles.  They were likely bottles that someone purchased within the last few years for the standard retail price.

This is exhibit one showing that there is a whiskey bubble in the secondary market that will likely collapse sometime in the near future. Currently, you have a situation in which people are willing to pay extraordinary prices for whiskeys like Pappy and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection that are not truly rare.  They may be hard to find right now, but they aren't rare in the literal sense in that there are plenty of them out there, and they are released every year.  In fact, that's the Beanie Baby model.  The product appears scarce because the company closely controls production and allocation, and in response, people hoard them.  It's very easy for a market like that to collapse.  

As an independent bottler, Van Winkle currently has a limited number of casks available for bottling, but that could change.  Tomorrow, the company could find a way to acquire additional stock allowing it to double production, or Diageo could buy the brand and quintuple production, and pop goes the more secondary market.  Some more savvy collectors would still look for certain bottle codes, but that's not most people who are driving this market, as demonstrated by the amount paid for standard bottles in the Bonham's auction.  

Even if production stays at current levels, there will eventually be a crash.  As noted above, the allocations have led to hoarding (just go to any bourbon forum or website and you'll see photos of people's collections of dozens or in some cases hundreds of Van Winkles and BTACs).  The fact that there is so much product out there is going to leave some hoarders holding so many that they will eventually have pressure to unload them.  They will move, lose their job, go into debt...or die, and their massive collections will start to trickle into the secondary market.  Eventually, people will realize that these are not so hard to come by.  And by the way, the same is true of A.H. Hirsch 16 (the most common version with the gold foil cap); even though there isn't new production and it's from a closed distillery, there is a huge amount of it in collectors' hands.  

Preston Van Winkle is none to pleased with the idea of a secondary market for his current products.  As he told me:

As for auctions, I have no problem with people selling true collector bottles, ones that will never see production again or that are truly non-existent at retail. I have a BIG problem with people buying our products purely for profit. It takes away from legitimate fans who just want a bottle to drink. Often times the people who are in it for the gain are the ones who manage to get their hands on large amounts so that makes the problem that much worse.
For my part, I look forward to a market correction which injects a modicum of sanity into this situation. It saddens me to see enthusiasts who had once preached "drinking the juice" now trying to capitalize on Pappy  fever by unloading their bottles at ridiculous prices.  It's especially ironic given Pappy Van Winkle's own creed, that he would make fine bourbon "at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must."  He had his priorities straight.  Maybe we can all take a lesson from the man whose picture is on that $892 bottle of bourbon.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Best Whiskey Review Ever

Last week in my post about Zachory Boone's silly label, I dropped a link to a video review by a guy on YouTube.  The review got a huge response, so I thought it was worth posting on its own.  Find ten minutes and watch this thing.  It's comedy gold.

I started to list some of my favorite quotes, but it pretty much became a transcription of the entire video, so just watch it.  If you have any favorite quotes, leave them in the comments.

And don't miss Tactical's reviews of other quality products like this shocking revelation that Charles Shaw Merlot isn't very good.