Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Redder, Blacker, Golder: A Colorful Bruichladdich Trio

The Bruichladdich Distillery at one time looked like it might be a casualty of the lean years.  Founded in 1881, it changed ownership multiple times until it eventually became part of the Whyte & Mackay portfolio and was mothballed in 1995.  Except for a few months of production in 1998, the distillery stayed silent for the rest of the century.  Then, in 2000, a new investor group purchased the distillery and set about reopening it.  Michael Jackson lovingly described the moment it opened its doors in the 5th edition of his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch:

Islanders carried children on their shoulders to witness the historic moment. They lined the Islay shore to watch the reopening in 2001 of Bruichladdich, Scotland's most westerly distillery. The single morning plane, bringing more guests, was running late. The people on the shore scanned the skies. They had waited ten years; what was another hour? Lovers of Bruichladdich had come from London, Seattle, and Tokyo. There were tears of joy, a ceilidh, and fireworks at midnight.

The new owners didn't waste time making an impression.  They started releasing a vast number of whiskies, more expressions than any single Scotch distillery had ever released at one time, possibly by a factor of five.  They had sherried malt, lightly peated malt and began distilling heavily peated malt.  They released whiskies with unconventional names in bottles with unconventional colors.

Probably no bottlings from that first decade are more heralded than the "still" series, a series of whiskies distilled in the 1980s that were released as Blacker Still, Redder Still and Golder Still. The Blacker Still, in particular, became legendary and probably still stand as Bruichladdich's most heralded whisky, certainly of those distilled pre-closure.

Things are different at Bruichladdich today.  After an exciting and tumultuous decade, the distillery was purchased by liquor giant Remy Countreau.  They now make a wide range of very good whisky, but there don't seem to be as many surprises anymore.

Today I relive some of the salad days of Bruichladdich with my friend Tim over at Scotch & Ice Cream, and many thanks to Tim for sharing these old whiskies and making this tasting possible.

Blacker Still, distilled 1986/bottled 2006, 20 yo, 50.7% abv.

Blacker Still was matured in Oloroso sherry casks.  As you might expect, the nose has deep sherry notes.  The palate is sweet sherry with a touch of sulfur. There's all kinds of fruit in here: raisins, dark cherries, figs - delicious stuff.  The finish is dessert sweet.   This is a big old sherry bomb.  For a legendary bottling, I didn't find it particularly complex, but it's wonderfully drinkable.

Redder Still, distilled 1984/bottled 2007, 50.4% abv

The Redder Still was aged in first fill bourbon casks and finished in Chateau LaFleur Bordeaux casks.  The wine notes come out clearly in the nose with sweet notes similar to dry sherry as well as some herbal notes.  The palate is also filled with a dry sherry type note which lasts in to the finish. It's much drier than the Blacker Still and the wine notes seem to have less depth, which may be due to the fact that this is only finished in the wine casks.

Golder Still, distilled 1984, 51% abv

Golder Still was released in 2008 and aged in "hand-made squat American Bourbon hogsheads – experimental 'dumpy' casks that American coopers flirted with briefly in the eighties."  The nose is clean and malty with perfume notes and canned fruit salad (especially the grapes).  The palate has lots of sweet malt with some peppery notes and then some nice peat notes.  The finish is lightly peated. This is a whisky with strong malt notes and a nice, light touch of peat.

These are all very nice.  If I had to rank them, I would say I liked the Blacker best, followed by Golder and then Redder.  It will be interesting to see how Bruichladdich's new distillate compares to these once they reach the 20 year mark.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What's in a Label? Undefined Whiskey Terms

The US regulations governing whiskey include definitions of many terms that appear on labels, including straight, bottled in bond and blended.  While there are long lists of defined terms, there are some common label terms that are not defined.  It's important to know what these are because when a term is undefined, it means that it could be used very loosely.  Here is a list of some common whiskey terms that are not defined in the regulations.

Barrel Proof/Cask Strength:  The general understanding of this term among consumers is that the whiskey has not been diluted with water, but does it always mean that?  Can a small amount of water be added to keep batches consistent?  If a label said "no added water," that would be a definitive factual statement that you could take to the bank, but "barrel proof" or "cask strength" are a bit more fuzzy.  This isn't to suggest that anyone is actually adding water to barrel proof whiskey, but it is not a defined term.

Moonshine:  Traditionally, moonshine meant any illegally made alcohol.  Obviously, when it appears on a label, it doesn't mean that.  These days, it seems to be used for unaged spirits, both whiskey and sugar based, but it's not defined, so it really has no meaning.

Single Barrel:  Most of us think this means that the the whiskey in the bottle is the product of one barrel, but does that mean only one barrel?  The My Annoying Opinions blog recently did an excellent report about how, in Scotch, single barrel whiskeys are sometimes rebarreled (thus not literally aging entirely in a single barrel), but it could go even further.  If a company vatted a number of barrels and then rebarreled them, presumably they could still use the single barrel designation once they bottled those barrels.  I have heard rumors of this practice occurring in American whiskey, and it is contrary to what most educated whiskey consumers expect from a single barrel whiskey.

Single Malt:  In Scotland, a single malt is a whisky that was (1) distilled at a single distillery and (2) made from 100% malted barley.  In the US, this term has no legal meaning.  While we all assume that American whiskeys labeled as single malt adhere to the same definition as Scotch, there is no regulation to ensure that is the case. 

Small Batch:  Small batch is a meaningless marketing term.  If Jim Beam, the world's largest bourbon company, can call its bourbons "small batch," then who can't?

White Whiskey:  This is another term that has come into frequent use fairly recently but has no legal definition.  We all know white whiskey means unaged whiskey, but unless it's corn whiskey, it still has to spend some time in wood to be called whiskey.  As a result, lots of white whiskeys get dumped into a barrel and then immediately dumped out, a silly practice that is required by the current definitions. 

These terms are so common that it would be helpful if the TTB issued regulations defining them.  With the exception of small batch, there is a pretty common understanding among consumers of what these terms mean, and it would be good to know that those understandings are correct and are being adhered to by the industry.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

WhistlePig Boss Hog: Have You Seen the Little Piggies?

A lot of times when I write about craft whiskeys, I really like the people who make the whiskey, but I don't like the whiskey itself.  With WhistlePig, a non-craft whiskey dressed up in craft clothing, it's the opposite. I like the whiskey, but the guy who sells the stuff is a real piece of work. The owner of the brand is Raj Bhakta, a reality TV star and failed politician who was mentored by Donald Trump, which explains a lot. Bhakta recently gave an embarrassing interview to Bloomberg News in which he came out with gems like, "If you look at American whiskeys, traditionally speaking, you don't see an age statement on the bottle."  Er, what?  And in the whole interview, he talks a lot about American whiskey but never mentions that his whiskey is made in Canada.

All of that being said, I very much liked the first iteration of WhistlePig, though that likely has very little to do with Mr. Bhakta and everything to do with WhistlePig "Master Distiller" Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker's Mark, who is the brains behind many successful whiskey start-ups.

WhistlePig's latest release is the Boss Hog, a 12 year old cask strength, single barrel rye that is finished in bourbon barrels and sells for an eye popping price. As with all of the WhistlePig whiskeys, it's 100% rye, which indicates it is likely of Canadian provenance, though the bottle has no statement of origin.  The bottle lists a series as well as a barrel; keep in mind that as with all single barrel offerings, the different barrels may vary.

WhistlePig Boss Hog, 12 years old, Spice Dancer series, Barrel 3, 67.3% abv ($160)

The nose has a whiff of that pickle juice that's typical in these Canadian ryes but with a bit of  vanilla as well. The palate has a nice balance of sweet and spicy rye notes, caramel and plenty of brine but the brine overwhelms by late palate.  A drop of water brings out the vanilla notes and really enhances it, smoothing out some of the rough edges.  The finish is briny and slightly bitter.

This is very similar to the standard WhistlePig.  It's exactly what you would expect from a cask strength version.  I actually prefer the standard 10 year old which has more balance.  The brine in this one tends to take over.

While this is a good rye, it's hard to recommend at this price point.  I don't see many advantages of this over the regular ten year old, which is half the price.  Then again, if you really want a 10 to 15 year old cask strength rye, there aren't a lot of other options.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Our Newest Release: Really Old Whiskey!

Many of you may remember some of my early forays into whiskey marketing including Sku's Great Grandpappy's Down Home Real California Sippin' Whiskey and its follow up, Loki Titanic Mule Train Diamond Jubilee Whiskey.  Those whiskeys, of course, are long sold out and have become the stuff of legend, but I'm proud to introduce an exciting new release.

Old As F*&$ Whiskey

Old As F*&$ Whiskey is a mysterious 48 year old whiskey that we uncovered in an old warehouse.  We took this long forgotten whiskey and gave it some additional aging in the same state that once housed the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery. Yup, none other than Pappy Van Winkle's distillery known for wheated bourbons like Very Old Fitzgerald and Old Weller.  If it's good enough for Pappy, it's good enough for us!

The only thing that's been added to this whiskey is love and pure West Virginia water (which it turns out, is very cheap these days).  We hope you will enjoy this old whiskey which should be on sale soon at a store near you for $499.99, and considering the age, that's quite a bargain compared to Pappy Van Winkle!!

Produced and Bottled by the Schitzel-Willer Distilling Co., a subsidiary of SKU International Spirits & Plumbing Supplies, 1423 Dixwell Avenue, Hamden, Connecticut. 100% Rye Grain Spirit aged in used cooperage.  A product of Canada.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reader Poll Results: We Want Full Age and Proof, Thank You Very Much

On Monday, I asked readers if they would rather have companies face whiskey shortages by lowering age, lowering proof or not changing anything which would cause shortages.  The responses was overwhelmingly in favor of not making changes to age or proof and accepting shortages.  Some even recommended raising prices before tinkering with the product.  Between age and proof, commenters seemed most offended by lowering proof.

All the comments are worth a read, but I thought the majority sentiments were summed up well by Carlton:

Maintain age and proof. Shortages and excess inventory are inherent in any product with such a long lead time between production and sale. It seems to me that "satisfying demand" is the whiskey companies' euphemism for "selling all we can, even if it isn't as good as what we used to sell." Once a whiskey starts down the NAS road, it is too easy to chip away at quality in the name of the bottom line.

There were some contrary views.  Chuck Logsdon favored dropping age statements.

Drop the age statement.  A large number of people have have consistently shown that they will hoard when things get scarce even if they never tasted a drop of a particular bottling.  I'd rather have the product available to me than it have an age statement. 

In general, though, people felt not only that companies shouldn't drop proof or age, but that companies who do are not being straight forward with consumers.  As one anonymous commenter stated:

Retain the proper aging for the products that have been defined by that age statement. The corporate people are playing a risky game when they try to play games with educated consumers. "We age it to the proper flavor" is spin like we hear from shifty politicians. We can reasonably expect price increases and shortages when demand is up, but what we do not want is a decrease in quality while being told it is the same. There are mass produced bourbons that never had age statements that we know are being stretched because the consumer expects to see that brand on the shelf, but if your brand is based on the fact that it has always been aged a certain period of time and you change that, you've changed too much. So a few more dollars or an occasional shortage, OK, but if you produce a lesser product I believe you will find that consumers might just start looking to the guys that have made the commitment to stay true to their to their brand - and their customers.

So, whiskey companies, I hope you are listening.  Your consumers would rather have trouble finding your products, or even pay more for them, than have you fool with the age statement or proof.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reader Poll: Younger, Weaker or Harder to Get?

Last week's list of bourbons that have lost their age statements got me thinking about the problem distillers are facing in the current market.  I'm sure most companies would rather not remove age statements or lower proof, but they feel they have to in order to meet demand.  Meanwhile, enthusiast consumers get frustrated over younger and weaker whiskeys on the one hand but also about scarcity of brands that haven't lowered their age or proof on the other.  From a producer perspective, I can see how it seems like a no win situation.

So, what would we, as consumers, prefer?  Let's assume that there is not enough of a beloved whiskey to meet demand.  The company producing the whiskey faces the choice of taking off the age statement, lowering the proof or making no changes, but making no changes will cause scarcity which, of course, encourages hoarding and flipping at higher secondary market prices.  So, as a consumer, would you rather see a brand:

1.  Take away the age statement;

2.  Lower the proof; or

3. Maintain the age and proof even though it will cause shortages and make the whiskey harder to get.

Respond in the comments.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dusty Thursday: Four Roses - The Bad Old Days

Given the love heaped on Four Roses these days, it's easy to forget that it's only been a big name in quality bourbon for about a decade, at least in the U.S.  Prior to 2002, it was owned by the now defunct Seagram's Company.  It had been popular in the post-prohibition years, but around the 1960s, Seagram's decided that it would concentrate on the export market.  The only thing Four Roses made for the US was crappy blends.  All of that changed in 2002, when Kirin, the Japanese beer company, purchased the distillery and let the roses bloom.

Today, I'm going back to the bad old days and tasting a circa 1978 Four Roses Light Whiskey.  Light whiskey is a whiskey distilled to more than 160 proof, a higher distillation proof than is permitted for most American whiskey, such as bourbon or rye, for which 160 proof is the maximum.  Light whiskey can only be stored in used or new uncharred oak.  This is a blended light whiskey, which means it is mixed with straight whiskey, but the straight whiskey must be less than 20% of the total composition.  Light whiskey lies somewhere between bourbon and vodka on the spirits spectrum, though unlike regular "blended whiskey," it does not contain any neutral spirits (which are spirits that must be distilled at above 190 proof).

Four Roses Light Whiskey, A Blend, 43% abv

The nose has an ever so slight vanilla note.  The palate is...awful.  It tastes mostly of alcohol.  It's like a lightly sweetened vodka, with honey and maybe a touch of wood.  There is not much whiskey character at all.  This stuff really has no redeeming value.

Whenever you hear someone (like, say, me) mourning the old days when bourbon had a special taste that you can't find anymore and things were cheap and plentiful, remind them (or me) that not everything was better back then.  Exhibit A is Four Roses, a whiskey that went from terrible to amazing in a few short years.

Thanks to Matt P. for the picture and sample.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Bourbon Fountain of Youth: Dropped Age Statements

American distilleries must have found a fountain of youth somewhere because their bourbons keep getting younger.  After writing about the disappearing age statements of Old Charter and Very Old Barton last week, I thought I would make a list of all of the American whiskeys that have recently (in the last 10 years or so) lost their age statements, so I compiled a list with the help of some very knowledgeable friends.  Unless otherwise noted, all of these whiskeys went from the age listed to having no age statement (meaning, according to the regulations, that they are at least four years old).  I didn't include expressions that disappeared altogether, such as Weller Centennial.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve 8 yo
Basil Haden 8 yo
Benchmark 8 yo (now 3 years old)
Evan Williams Black 7 yo
Evan Williams 1783 10 yo
Jefferson's Reserve 15 yo
Johnny Drum Green 8 yo
Johnny Drum Black 12 yo
Johnny Drum Private Stock 15 yo
Kentucky Vintage 8 yo
Noah's Mill 15 yo
Old Bardstown 10 yo
Old Charter 8 yo
Old Fitzgerald 1849 8 yo
Old Overholt 4 yo (now 3 years old)
Old Weller Antique 7 yo
Pure Kentucky XO 10 yo
Rowan's Creek 12 yo
Sam Houston 10 yo
Very Old Barton 6 yo
Weller Special Reserve 7 yo

Did I miss any?  Have any other whiskeys been to the fountain of youth?