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.