Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blog of the Month: Chemistry of the Cocktail

This month's Blog of the Month is Chemistry of the Cocktail. Back in 2010, Oregon based chemistry graduate student Jordan Devereaux started to blog about cocktails, but over the years, the blog has evolved into a whiskey blog as the vast majority of his entries are now about whiskey (funny how that can happen - even to food blogs).  As a chemist, Devereaux is very good at laying down some whiskey science in a way that a lay person like me can (mostly) understand as in this post about the importance of long fermentation times. He also has some good commentary, like this piece on Bruichladdich under the Remy regime, lots of reviews (mostly of Scotch) and a monthly post on innovative cocktails.  Plus, he uses the most awesomely cool blog layout!

Check it out!

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Speakeasy: K&L's 5 year old Talisker

It's highly unusual to find independently bottled Talisker's that actually use the name of the distillery on the bottle.  Most distilleries don't care if indie bottlers use their names, but a few (Talisker and Glenfarclas for example) don't allow it.  Usually the bottlers say something else that makes it obvious where the whiskey is from like Isle of Skye Whisky (Talisker being the only distillery on the island).  Somehow, though, K&L got an indie bottling with Talisker's name right on the label, which is no small feat.

Branded The Speakeasy, this whisky is a five year old Talisker distilled in 2008 and bottled by Douglas Laing.  I'm not usually a sucker for packaging, but this bottle has a fun label.  It's got an old looking script, more 1890s than 1920s, with a keyhole cut out through which you can see a scene drawn on the inside of the back label.  Very cool.  But how does it taste?

The Speakeasy Talisker 2008, 5 yo, 58.2% ($60)

I really like the nose on this.  It's peppery and herbal with the smoky mezcal notes that you sometimes get on young peated whiskies.  Compared to that full nose, the palate is a bit thin.  It's got lots of that Talisker style peppery peat along with a squeeze of lemon, but it's got little in the way of mouthfeel; it feels thin and dissipates quickly.  The finish is suitably peated.

This is a fun and bold whisky, but it's very young.  You can't expect much complexity in a five year old, and it doesn't deliver much.  I did a side by side with another young, peated K&L selection, the heavily peated Young Bladnoch which is pretty close in price to the Talisker.  Overall, I preferred the Bladnoch which had a bit of sweetness to balance its peat, and lacked some of the new makeish notes of the Talisker, even though it's a comparable age (or maybe even younger).  Overall, the Bladnoch had a fuller palate and a stronger mouthfeel. Still, the Talisker is a decent malt, brash and peaty if not much else.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The 5 Rules of Whiskey Social Media

Since there are now so many whiskey social media sites, I thought I would post the five main rules that operate in these sites so people will know how they function.  Of course, different sites have varying practices, but these rules are fairly universal.

1.  You may not buy a bottle of whiskey unless you post a picture of it and ask "Is this any good?"

2.  You may not use Google to answer any question about whiskey, ever.  You must post all such questions to social media.

3.  Once you buy a bottle of whiskey, you must take a photo of said bottle and post a picture of it so people know you now own that bottle.  You may not wait until you get home to post such photo, lest people not know that you own it while you are in transit.  Therefore, you must post a picture of the bottle in the automobile, bus, train, plane, submarine, horse or other vehicle in which you are travelling.

4.  If someone posts a picture of a rare or desirable bottle and asks if it is any good (per Rule 1), at least five people must respond, "No, it's terrible. Send it to me immediately!" or some similar sentiment.

5.  If you are at a store, bar, friend's house or any other location that has a bottle of any Van Winkle, Willett, Angel's Envy, Michter's or Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskey, you must post a photo of said bottle immediately.

Come to think of it, there may be more than five of these rules.  Did I miss any?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ninteenth Century Armagnac: Domaine de Baraillon 1893

When K&L's spirit buyers, the Two Davids, go to France, they can find pretty extraordinary stuff, but perhaps nothing as extraordinary as an Armagnac distilled in 1893.  Distilled by one of my favorite Armagnac houses, Domaine de Baraillon in the Bas-Armagnac region, this Armagnac would have been made in the wake of the devastating phylloxera epidemic which hit the Armagnac region in 1878, a few years after it showed up in Cognac.  According to K&L, the family told them the brandy was transferred from oak to glass demijohns sometime in the 1930s and has been stored in glass since then, so it is around 40 years old.  It was bottled at a cask strength 40% abv.  The price on this was originally $2,500 but K&L recently dropped it to $1,500 (which made it workable for a group buy).  While that's still quite high for a bottle of anything, it's nothing compared to what a nineteenth century whiskey would cost, demonstrating again that we are, indeed, living in a golden age of brandy.

Domaine de Baraillon 1893, 40% abv. ($1,500)

The nose is well balanced with sweet brandy notes along with oak and tons of spice.  There's cinnamon, ginger, clove and some good, earthy notes.  This is a really complex nose that I've come to associate with some of the best Armagnac.  Air is very important to these very old spirits, and the more air this one gets, the fruitier it becomes, picking up stewed plums and raisins.  The palate starts sweeter than I expected with light fruit notes before taking on some bitter notes and picking up some spice which takes into the finish which is both bitter and spicy.   Again, air makes a huge difference.  On my first sip, the bitter notes were overpowering, but as it sits, they fade into a pleasant, earthy note that's balanced with the spice and fruit notes.  The balance in this is extraordinary between the sweet, spicy and bitter notes; each are bold but none manages to subsume the others.  It's also a really delicious and drinkable brandy.

Comparing this to the 1985 Baraillon, one of my favorites from Baraillon, distilled almost a century later, the 1985 is much less complex on both nose and lighter on the palate.  Though it's very drinkable, and still one of my favorites, it doesn't match the boldness, complexity and balance of the 1893. 

Interestingly, he 1893 profile isn't that different from the great Armagnacs I've had of more recent vintage.  The fruit, spice and earthy bitterness matches the profile I've come to expect, even if all of those notes were bolder in this bottling.

So here's to the golden age of brandy.  This is an amazing deal for a rare brandy, and an even better deal if you've got a group of friends to split it with.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Week in COLAs: A Grand Marnier Cask Finished Willett Rye & Ardbeg Supernova is Back

Willett XCF Exploratory Cask Finish is a seven year old MGP rye finished in Grand Marnier casks. It appears that this is the first release of a new series. Drew Kulsveen from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, the maker of Willett, explained that Grand Marnier is made by macerating bitter orange peel, distilling it and then aging it for two years in bourbon casks.  After that, it is combined with Cognac and sweetened.  The rye in this Willett is aged in the bourbon casks that were used to age the pre-sweetened orange distillate.

Ardbeg Supernova is coming back with a 2014 release.  This version includes sherry aged whisky and the label emphasizes the sweetness as much as the peat. "It's Supernova but not as you know it."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

COLA Watchers Beware

Since I'm no regularly posting news of new COLAs on the site, I wanted to make sure to state a few caveats that you should keep in mind when reading my COLA of the Week Posts.

First, as I've stated before, just because a COLA is issued does not mean the label will end up on the shelf.  Sometimes a company submits a label and then decides against using it.  Other times, the submit the label just to create a record of their use of the name for trademark protection.  And for imports, label approval is just one step on the way to getting the whiskey into the US.  Most labels do seem to end up on the shelf, but not all.

Second, there is a whole list of things on the label that companies can change without submitting a new label.  The list includes changes to the abv, age statement and many other label components.  While whiskey companies usually issue a new label for an age statement change, one of the most common things that gets changed without a new submission is the abv.  In many cases, the abv on the COLA is just a place holder. I've seen labels that say 50% abv for whiskeys that are later released at cask strength.  Given that, I would suggest taking the abv on a COLA with a grain of salt.

So have fun looking at the COLAs (more tomorrow!) but do keep these warnings in mind.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Five Eras of American Whiskey

Thinking and reading about the post-prohibition history of American whiskey, I find the period breaks down into 20 year increments.  These aren't perfect, of course, as history doesn't include bright lines, but there are certainly some undeniable trends.  So I present the Five Eras of American whiskey.

1933-1950:  The Rebuild.  After the repeal of prohibition, American whiskey tried to get back up on its feet again only to be knocked back down by World War II which saw another prohibition on beverage alcohol production.  It really took until the late 1940s to get things moving again.

1950-1970:  The Classic Era.  The whiskey flowed in the Mad Men era.  For the most part, the juice wasn't fancy, but it was good, strong and plentiful.  This is the era when Maker's Mark was founded and Jack Daniel's got big with the help of Frank Sinatra.  It was the heyday of National Distillers with Old Crow, Old Taylor and Old Overholt. And some of the best bourbon ever made came out of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the Classic Era.

1970-1990:  The Glut.  This was a tough time for American whiskey as the baby boomers became America's first wine drinking generation.  Distilleries were consolidated and closed, and the industry looked toward gimmicks like light whiskey to try and increase sales to the me generation.

1990-2010:  The Renaissance (aka the Golden Age).  As a new generation of drinkers came of age, the whiskey industry fought its way back to prominence.  It started with a few small batch and single barrel releases and blossomed into the era that brought us A.H. Hirsch, Pappy Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Four Roses' triumphant return to the US market.  It also saw the birth of the craft distillery movement and the revival of rye whiskey.

2010-present:  The Bourbon Craze.  I don't have to tell you about today's market.  The Renaissance of the last era led to a full-on craze.  Every other day there's a new special edition from the majors, the craft distillery movement has exploded, and everyone's experimenting, but demand for old, high quality whiskey has far outstripped supply and scarcity is a major issue. Prices are climbing while age and proof are falling.

What's next?  The crash?  The Second Revival?  A New Classic Age?  Time will tell, but based on the timelines above, I'm guessing the current era will last for a  while.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Pappy Van Winkle Time Line

Given the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys and the number of detailed questions I see about these bottles, I thought it would be helpful to put together a chronology of the various Van Winkle releases.  I've attempted to list all the key release dates and have also tried to document changes to the appearance of the bottles so that people can better date their Van Winkles.

As you'll notice, this list includes general releases only, not private bottlings, of which there were a number in the early days.  In addition, it deals only with bottle appearance and release dates, not with where various releases were distilled.

Our chronology begins in 1972, the year the Van Winkle family sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery to Norton-Simon but kept the rights to the Van Winkle name.

1972:  Old Rip Van Winkle 7 yo 90 and 107 proof released.

1983:  Old Rip Van Winkle 90 & 107 proof changed from 7 to 10 yo.

1989:  Old Rip Van Winkle 15 released, barrel bottle.*

1990-1992:  Van Winkle 16 and 17 yo released for export only.

1991:  Van Winkle 12 yo Lot A and Lot B released (Lot B would continue).

1994:  Pappy Van Winkle 20 released.

1997:  Old Rip Van Winkle 12 Rye released, barrel bottle.

1998:  Pappy Van Winkle 23 and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 yo released (Rye might have been released in '97).

1999:  Regular bottles for Van Winkle series changed from (very light) green glass to clear glass.

2002:  Address on Van Winkle whiskeys changed from Lawrenceburg to Frankfort when Van Winkles partnered with Buffalo Trace.

2003:  Second release of Pappy 23 (late 2003/early 2004).

2004:  Old Rip Van Winkle 15 (barrel bottle) replaced with Pappy Van Winkle 15 (regular bottle).

2007:  Digital bottle codes showing date and time of bottling begin appearing on each bottle.

2009:  Old Rip Van Winkle 23 decanter released.

Fall 2011:  Last release of Old Rip Van Winkle 10/90.

Spring 2012:  Last spring release of Van Winkle whiskeys.

2013:  Old Rip Van Winkle 10/107 changed from barrel bottles to regular bottles.

It's harder to pin down this information than you would think, and I had lots of help on this list so my thanks go out to everyone who assisted.  Particular thanks go to the Van Winkles for digging through their records to find some of the more elusive dates.

*"Barrel bottles" are the squat bottles that were used for the Old Rip Van Winkle and Old Weller lines, so called because the base of the bottle looks like a barrel, sort of.

Friday, April 11, 2014

This Week in COLAs - The New Woodford Master's Collection & Kentucky Slush

This week in COLAs saw the approval of a label for the newest Woodford Reserve Master's Collection release which will be a triple distilled bourbon finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir barrels.  This, of course, hearkens back to the 2007 Woodford Reserve Master's release finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay barrels. (Woodford's parent company, Brown Forman, owns the Sonoma-Cutrer winery).

And if you're looking for something a bit more Slurpee like, look nor further than Evan Williams Kentucky Slush "with the taste of lemonade, orange juice and sweet tea."  It's labeled as bourbon "with natural flavors and caramel color" and it's "ready to freeze or pour!"

The big question is...which of these will be better?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Resurrecting Closed Distilleries: So Many to Choose From

The results of this week's reader poll asking which closed distillery people would magically resurrect are in and they are....all over the map.  There were certainly some votes for predictable favorites like Brora, Port Ellen and Stitzel-Weller, but there were a wide range of suggestions including Lochside, Millburn, Ben Wyvis, Old Hermitage, Karuizawa, Monumental (home of Maryland's Pikesville Rye), Samuel Dillinger (PA), A. Guckenheimer (also PA), Oscar Pepper, Old Taylor, John's Lane, and even someone's grandfather's moonshine still. Reading the comments was a kick, so many thanks to all of the very creative commenters.

As one commenter pointed out, for many of these distilleries, it's hard to know what the whiskey would have tasted like when the distillery was operating since, for Scotch in particular, the only exposure most of us have had to them are super aged indie bottlings.  Indeed, for many of the closed Scotch distilleries, nearly 100% of their production went into blends (which was fairly typical of all malts back when most of them closed). Who's to say that if Caol Ila and not Port Ellen had closed in 1983 we wouldn't now be wishing against all hope that it could reopen because of all the great, super-old and rare Caol Ila we'd have tasted?  I've tried one of the standard, Japanese releases of Karuizawa, and while it was good, it tasted nothing like the old sherry monsters that have been released by the Number One Drinks Company which bought all of the old stocks when the distillery closed.

With American whiskey, we have a bit more of a sense due to the availability of dusties.  Surely, though, the general perception of Pennco/Michter's is almost wholly shaped by the A.H. Hirsch bourbons which consisted of a one-time run that is not likely representative of the distillery as a whole.

Interestingly, there were lots of prominent distilleries that didn't receive any votes, including Rosebank, St. Magdelene, Glenugie, Hanyu, Caperdonich...and Malt Mill.

Thanks for playing!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Reader Poll: Resurrect a Distillery

With this poll, it's your turn to play re-animator and resurrect a dead distillery, but you only get one.  This will involve your magical powers, so you are free to resurrect a distillery that has been completely torn down, and you can assume that the quality and style of whiskey will match that at the time it ceased production.

So what will it be?  I'd have to think that the big three here will be Port Ellen, Brora and Stitzel-Weller, but I'd guess we'll see seom votes for Rosebank, St. Magdelene, Pennco/Michter's and who knows what else, maybe even Malt Mill.

So wave your magic wand and tell me in the comments which distillery you are bringing back to life.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2013

The second edition of Kilchoman's Machir Bay was released in 2013 and, according to the website, consists of a "vatting of 4 and 5 year old ex-bourbon casks, with the 4 year casks being finished in Oloroso sherry butts for 4 weeks prior to bottling."

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2013, 46% abv ($55)

The nose is exactly what you expect it will be, sock you in the face Islay peat and brine.  Big and peaty and oceany.  The palate mostly follows suit but with a trace of sweetness.  You can definitely taste the youth.  Very little of the sherry finishing comes through.  The finish is a very nice blast of peat.

This is a good, solid Islay malt.

Friday, April 4, 2014

This Week in COLA's: Really Old Glenlivet, New Bourbon from Barton and More

Every week, I review the TTB's latest label approvals, or COLAs.  It's a fun thing to do and it's one of the main sources for my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands. If I find something new, exciting, funny or weird, I'll usually Tweet it, but since not everyone is on Twitter, I thought I would start a new blog feature, where I will occasionally list some of the latest fun COLAs I've found.  This is a particularly exciting time of year because spring is when many of the labels are approved for the fall special releases.

Keep in mind that just because a label has been approved does not necessarily mean that it will be used. While most whiskey labels found on COLAs do seem to end up on bottles, sometimes companies approve a label for something they are still developing in order to have the label ready or to protect their trademark of a certain name, so don't assume everything listed here will hit the shelves.

So what's new and interesting in recent labels?  How about some old Glenlivets from Gordon & MacPhail.  I mean, really old:  1948 and 1955.

As for this fall's bourbon releases, the label for this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is out, and the 2014 Parker's Heritage Collection will be a 13 year old straight wheat whiskey.

Diageo got approval for the label for Rhetoric, a 20 year old Kentucky bourbon that will be the latest addition to their Orphan Barrel series.

Sazerac approved a series of labels for a new line that appears to be from its Barton 1792 Distillery.  The line is titled "1792" and includes five expressions: Small Batch, Single Barrel, Full Proof, Sweet Wheat and High Rye.  The full proof is listed as 125 proof and would be the first barrel proof offering from Barton.  The Sweet Wheat is a wheated bourbon and the High Rye is a high rye recipe bourbon.  They are all NAS.

One recent approval which I found amusing was this label for J. Tyler Signature Bourbon, a bourbon from an operation with the sinister name Shadow Beverage Group.  I like the placeholder that appears on the label:  "Story of J. Tyler Here."  I'm sure there's a good story about J. Tyler, whoever he is, and how he invented a special bourbon formula a hundred years ago.  They just haven't decided what it is yet.

Duke Bourbon is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon honoring John Wayne.  The label says it was "truly inspired and crafted by legends, with the old bottles unearthed from my Father's private liquor collection, preserved for over 50 years."  Er, what?  It goes on to say it is a collaboration between John Wayne's son and Wild Turkey's Jimmy Russell and was distilled in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, presumably at Wild Turkey, but the label application was submitted by the Popcorn Sutton Distillery in Tennessee.  Very strange stuff, but I'm sure we'll be hearing more about it.

Stay tuned for regular label updates.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Whiskey Fun Facts

Here are some whiskey fun facts that may surprise even seasoned whiskey geeks.

  • Contrary to popular belief, rye whiskey is not legally required to be made in Indiana.  While much of it is made in Indiana, some is made in Canada.
  • "Whiskey" is never spelled with a z in Scotland, Japan or Ireland and never spelled with a % in the United States or Canada.
  • In most countries, brand ambassadors do not have diplomatic immunity.
  • Diageo is the world's largest whiskey company; they are also almost universally considered to be assholes.
  • Cask strength whiskey can be good, but it really hurts when you inhale it.
  • Honshu and Ireland are not technically considered part of the "Islands" region of Scotland. 
  • The USA is divided up into 50 whiskey distilling regions known as "states."
  • In most jurisdictions, it's considered battery to slap someone, even if they don't hold their whisky glass by the stem.
  • Jim Murray's Whisky Bible has more tasting notes than the actual Bible. 
  • If you post something with a technical error on a whiskey forum, it takes an average of .48 seconds for someone to post a correction, and the average number of posts that will then repeat that same correction is 37.
  • Nine out of ten dentists do not recommend brushing your teeth "with a bottle of Jack."  The tenth dentist works for Brown Forman.
  • In order to receive the title "Master Distiller" you are not legally required to be either a master or a distiller.
  • While it is not entirely clear how bourbon got its name, most historians agree that it was probably not named for Bourbon County, Kansas.
  • White whiskey is neither white nor whiskey...nor good.
  • The law passed last year defining Tennessee Whiskey was written to exclude Jack Daniel's Barbecue Sauce from the requirement to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. 
  • If international law had allowed only one new whiskey blog per year, it would have taken over 500 years to reach the number of blogs we have today.  That means the first whiskey blog would have been founded in the 1500s, possibly by Shakespeare. 

Now you know.