Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Golden Mongolian Restaurant: Mongolian in the Heart of Koreatown

Once upon a time, this was a food blog, so occasionally, I like to pay tribute to that with a food post if I find a really interesting place.

For at least a decade, there has been a very small Mongolian population in my Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown, but this is the first time I can recall a Mongolian restaurant opening. (Note that this is not the once ubiquitous Mongolian BBQ style; this is an actual Mongolian restaurant).

Located at the intersection of Wilshire and Virgil, Golden Mongolian Restaurant opened a few weeks ago and also has a sushi menu, though they weren't serving the sushi the day I visited.  The Mongolian dishes are listed as "traditional" on the menu. Mongolian is not a cuisine with which I am readily familiar, so I was excited to give it a try.

We started with a salty milk tea ($1.50); the salty element, which you might think would detract, actually worked very well in the tea.  I'm not much of a tea drinker, but I couldn't stop taking sips, loving the combination of tea spice, milk and salt.

The steamed lamb soup ($9.50) was one of the best lamb soups I've had.  It featured a deeply intense lamb broth with thinly sliced lamb.  Some of the lamb pieces were chewy with connective tissue, but the broth was amazingly rich. It was served with a fried pancake, like a Chinese scallion pancake without the scallions, that was crisp on the outside and tender within - perfect for sopping up soup.

Tsotsgiitei Bansh ($6.25 for 10 pieces) are steamed beef dumplings served with thick sour cream. The dumplings were filled with a nicely spiced beef meatball and went very well with the sour cream. Like many of the dishes, this one felt like a melding of Russian and Northern Chinese cuisine which obviously makes sense geographically.

Huushuur ($5.95 for 3 pieces) are described on the menu as flat, fried beef dumplings (or something like that).  They are large flat dumplings fried in a flour-based dough.  They had nice flavor and were served with a pickled cabbage slaw.

Lastly, Tsuivan ($8.95) is a fried noodle dish featuring home made noodles, beef, peppers and carrots.  The noodles were delightfully chewy and the slivers of beef were very tasty, but the use of red bell pepper was a bit heavy handed and dominated the flavor.  I would have liked just the noodles and beef.  Still, I might order it again just to get those noodles.

All in all, this was a lot of fun and the prices were extremely reasonable.  The lamb soup was probably the stand out dish, but everything was enjoyable.

Golden Mongolian Restaurant
3012 Wilshire Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(213) 263-2141

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Walking Blend: Assorted Johnnie Walker

It's been a long time since I tried any Johnnie Walker whiskies; the last one I reviewed was the King George V three years ago, so I figure it's about time for some new Walker.  I've always considered JW to be sort of zombie whiskies.  They look and smell like whisky, but they are devoid of any soul.  Let's see if any of these blends survived the zombie apocalypse.

Johnnie Walker Swing, 40% ($75)

JW's Swing comes in a wobbly bottle.  That appears to be the most significant information about it. The nose is nice and malty. The palate is very light with malt notes and just a touch of spice, trailing off with some pepper in the finish.  It is completely inoffensive but not at all interesting, although, did I mention the wobbly bottle?   

Johnnie Walker Platinum, 18 yo., 40% abv ($115)

JW Platinum joined the rainbow in 2013, shortly before the 18 year old JW Gold was discontinued. New color, same age, but double the price.  Sounds Diageolicious!  This has a nice nose with malt, sea air, green grapes and some floral notes.  The palate is malty with some musty notes, like drinking in a damp cellar.  The finish is dry with notes of autumn leaves.  This is decent stuff, but nothing I'd pay three figures for.

The Explorers' Club Series

This is a series of blends released in 2012 for the duty free market.  Last summer, a New York court enjoined Diageo from using the name after the New York Explorers Club filed suit; the parties settled in September so these whiskies will remain available.

All three of the Explorers' club whiskies are no age statement, 40% abv, come in liter bottles and include a stupid story about how they were specially blended to represent the part of the world alluded to in the name...whatever.

The Spice Road ($40)

The nose is soapy and grainy.  The palate is very grain forward, with light grain notes, sort of like an Irish blend. The finish is a bit medicinal.  This one is pretty blah.

The Gold Route ($125)

The nose on this one has more in the way of coastal notes with a slight whiff of peat.  The palate is malty with some seaweed and very slight peat and mineral notes that follow into the finish.  This one is decent and at least has some interesting stuff going on, though so does JW Black and it's a lot cheaper.

The Royal Route ($195)

The final and highest priced member of the Explorers' Club, The Royal Route has some decent peat on the nose along with some wine notes. The palate opens with the peat but then turns malty/soapy and diluted, leaving only a trace of peat on the finish along with a lot of soapiness and a bit of bitterness.

Wow, the Explorers' Club was a big yawn.  The Gold Route was clearly the strongest of the three.  The Royal Route starts strong but then goes steadily downhill.

All of today's JW whiskies are pretty much in line with my opinion of Johnnie Walker products.  None are offensive, some are decent, most are boring and all are overpriced.

All in all, it's still soulless zombie whisky.  If you see a bottle, don't open: dead inside.

Thanks to Tyler Patton for the samples.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Worth the Chase? Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014

I've come to hate the fall whiskey season.  I just can't bear the lotteries and craziness, the flippers and gougers, the speculators and the folks who couldn't name the last bourbon they drank but know they must have a bottle of Pappy.  I was lucky to taste my share of Pappy and BTAC when it was easy to get, and I feel bad for the folks who are newer to the hobby, legitimately love whiskey, but have to put up with all this shit just to try a bourbon they have heard so much about.

So I don't chase whiskey anymore. I just don't have the stomach or the will to do it...with one exception.  For at least the last two years, the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch has been the highlight of the fall whiskey season.  Unlike Pappy (well, some Pappy) and BTAC, it's a different blend of whiskeys each year, and each year so far, it's been pretty great.  So I make an exception for it and try to chase down a bottle every fall.

This year's Small Batch is a mixture of 13 year old OBSV, 12 year old OESV, 11 year old OBSF and 9 year old OBSK (E is the lower rye mashbill, B is the higher rye; V, F and K are yeast strains). The oldest whiskey is quite a bit younger than past years, so we'll see how it stacks up.

Four Roses Ltd. Edition Small Batch 2014, 55.9% ($100)

The nose is bursting with caramel and wood notes.  The palate starts with a nice spicy notes, then develops some acid notes which trail off with it. The finish brings back some of the wood from the nose.   This one needs some elements.  Air and water work well with it, bringing out more caramel on the palate as well as some chocolate and mint.  Even more water reveals some pineapple notes.

This is a nice bourbon, but it's not in the same league as its two most recent predecessors. It lacks the complexity and layers of flavor we saw in the 2012 and 2013 Small Batches.  It's certainly worth picking up if you happen to see it, but it's not worth an extensive chase.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dusty Thursday: Old Hickory 20 yo (circa 1969)

Old Hickory was once a very well known Pennsylvania bourbon made by Publicker in Philadelphia. The distillery went out of business in the early '80s and was later abandoned. The brand currently survives only as a blend made by an unrelated company.

Today, I taste a 20 year old which appears to have been bottled in 1969.  You don't see many 20 year old bourbons from that era, so I was very interested in this one.

Old Hickory 20 year old, 40% abv

Some bourbons tell a story; this one told a story right from the nose, a story of how old bourbon used to taste, a story of how it's changed.  One whiff of this stuff brought me back to every great dusty bourbon I've tasted.  The first sniff hit me with sweet butterscotch - liquid candy, followed up with some spice.  It was a little musty, but it was one of those that makes you wonder why they don't make them like this anymore. I could happily nose it for hours.

Unfortunately, the palate didn't measure up to the incredible nose.  It was light and sweet with honey and a bit chewy, but it felt diluted and lost some of the magic.  The finish was spicy and slightly bitter. Shockingly, for a 20 year old, there was very little in the way of oak or wood, and no signs at all of it being over oaked.

The nose on this was incredible, but it just didn't hold up.  Still, I think I'd be happier just nosing this than drinking most current bourbons.

Thanks to Tim Puett for the sample and photos.

Monday, December 15, 2014

2014: The Year in Whiskey

The year in whiskey 2014 was a tumultuous one.  It started with buy outs and consolidation, shortages and the continuation of what seemed like a boom market that would go on for years, but there was trouble ahead.  By the middle of the year, some unsavory aspects of the American "craft" industry garnered a lot of mainstream press, and the year ended with diminished sales and expectations in the world of Scotch. 

Major business news came early this year.  In January, Japanese beverage giant Suntory purchased the iconic Jim Beam company for $16 billion.  Then, in March, Campari purchased Canadian craft distillery Forty Creek.  Meanwhile, the Bladnoch Distillery, a lowland Scotch distillery with a cult following, went into receivership.

While the American craft revolution continued, there were some bumps in the road.  The issue of whiskey sourcing, well known among the whiskey crowd for years, went mainstream due to a Daily Beast article that went viral.  This led to further publicity and lawsuits targeting well known producers such as Templeton Rye and Tito's Vodka and curiously, a suit against Maker's Mark, which has never misled about its product.  All of this tumult led to some results with  Templeton and Bulleit changing their labels to more clearly state the source of the whiskey.  Meanwhile, other sourcing companies went further in the direction of distilling their own with Willett releasing its first in-house whiskey and Michter's building a real distillery in Kentucky.

Then there was a melt down at Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas, one of the most successful American craft distilleries.  The Balcones Board sued founder Chip Tate, and the suit exposed some of the tensions that can arise among investors in small distilleries.  The battle appeared to end earlier this month with the Board buying out Tate's share of the business.

Demand for aged whiskey continued to outstrip supply in the US, leading Sazerac to drop age statements from Very Old Barton and Old Charter, but there were signs of a slowing market as well.  A crackdown on bribery in China led to diminished sales of Scotch in a market that many had seen as limitless, and this fall, Diageo announced that it would halt some expansion plans after their quarterly report showed a drop off in sales.

 My guess is that the whiskey frenzy, on an international level, is going to start to wane in the next few years.  American whiskey joined the frenzy later than Scotch, so it probably has a few years of insanity left to go, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a continued slow down next year that extends to the American market as well, though the companies will probably be able to make up any difference with sales of flavored whiskey, which remains wildly popular.

All in all, a rocky year for whiskey, but let's see what the next year holds.  Any predictions?

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: New Jack Daniel's, Old Glenrothes and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Brown Forman cleared Jack Daniel's Sinatra Century, a 100 proof JD to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ol' Blue Eyes (proof on label approvals is often just a placeholder but I assume the 100 proof here is a tie in to the 100th birthday).  The label states that the whiskey was "matured with grooved oak barrels for boldness and depth."

A few months ago I wrote about a series of new Ardbeg labels celebrating the 200th anniversary of the distillery: Continuum, Bicentennial, Atmosphere and Anniversary.  They are now joined by another, Perpetuum, which has the same tasting notes as the other four.

A label cleared for a distillery bottling of a 1968 single cask Glenrothes that was bottled in 2013.

WhistlePig released a label for a single barrel version of their 10 year old Canadian rye which appears to be for retailers or other private parties and may be cask strength.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brandy Gifts

K&L and Nicolas Palazzi again dominate my brandy gift recommendations, and for the second year running, some of the best spirits I tasted this year were brandies.

Cognac: I just reviewed Palazzi's great, single barrel, cask strength Gourry de Chadeville ($150), which is as bold and intense as any spirit I've had. If you're looking for a more traditional Cognac with sweeter flavors, K&L's 2002 Claude Thorin ($60) and 1996 Giboin Fin Bois ($55) are great picks that are super-drinkable.  These are great holiday party picks.

Armagnac:  This year, K&L brought back new Armagnacs from what have become two of my favorite houses: Domaine de Baraillon and Chateau de Pellehaut.  One of my favorites of this year's Baraillons was the 1988 ($110) which is still available. At a bit cheaper price point, I also enjoyed the 20 year old ($70). My favorite of the Pellehauts was the 1994 ($70), but they were all good and are all still available.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Whiskey Gifts You Can Actually Buy

The end of the year means lots of "best of" lists and gift recommendations. I get exhausted with some of these lists which typically read like this:

1.  Port Ellen 35 year old
2.  George T. Stagg
3.  Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old
4.  Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition
5.  Brora 35 year old

It's all well and good to taste rare and ridiculously expensive whiskey.  I'm thrilled when I get to taste that kind of stuff, and I'm glad some people have the access and/or funds to do that and write about it so the rest of us know what they taste like, but the truth is, lists like that aren't helpful to 99% of the folks out there.  That's why I've tried to spend some time this year on good affordable whiskey you can actually buy.

But what if you want a special gift for your whiskey loving friend who already has plenty of Henry McKenna?  Well, this year saw some very good new whiskey releases that you can actually walk into a store and buy for a fairly reasonable price.  So here are some of my favorite whiskeys of the year.

Scotch:  I've been very impressed with the Springbank owned Kilkerran Whiskies, distilled at the Glengyle distillery.  I especially liked the bourbon barrel aged expressions, but the sherry casks are also good.  They go for around $60.

Bourbon:  One of the best new release bourbons I tried this year was the Maker's Mark Cask Strength.  While it's not as easy to find as some bourbons, it seems to be more available than many of the other new releases.  It goes for around $40 for a half bottle.

Rye:  It was a good year for finished rye.  High West's Midwinter Night's Dram ($80) is their Rendezvous Rye (a blend of Barton and MGP rye) finished in new French oak and port casks. Willett XCF ($150) is an MGP rye finished in Grand Marnier casks.  These were both good whiskeys that successfully balance spicy rye with a sweet finish.

Irish: At $20, Clontarf 1014 is a great deal for a solid Irish Whiskey.  The slightly pricier Teeling ($40) was a nice, light, drinkable whiskey.

Other:  For a delicious but completely different bourbon, the Corti Brothers Mission del Sol aged Exquisite Whiskey was a real hoot and is still on shelves in California, though its sherry like notes may appeal more to Scotch and brandy fans than bourbon lovers.  It goes for $50 or $30 for a half bottle. 

Splurge:  It is the holidays, so what if you do want to splurge on something?  One of the best whiskeys I tasted this year was Charbay III, the third release of Charbay's original, massively flavorful, hoppy distilled pilsner.  It is definitely a splurge at $400, but Charbay Whiskey is one of a kind and it's still on the shelves after a year on the market.  If you want to try Charbay style whiskey without the big bucks, the R5 (distilled Racer 5 IPA) and S (distilled Big Bear Black Stout) are aren't as good as the pilsner, but they are a lot more affordable at $70 and give a good view of the house style. 

Books:  The good thing about whiskey books is they don't get bought up by whiskey flippers.  This year was another fantastic year for whiskey reading with great books for every level of whiskey lover.  For the beginning whiskey fan, Heather Greene's Whisk(e)y Distilled is the perfect introduction to all types of whiskey; for the intermediate whiskey lover, Lew Bryson's Tasting Whiskey goes a bit more in depth; and for the advanced bourbon geek, Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Strange drills deep into the world of bourbon. And if you're a real whiskey nerd, just do what I did and buy them all!

And while it wasn't a whiskey book, Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book deserves heaps of praise as the best bartending book to come out in years with great instruction on ingredients and techniques.

Happy holidays!

Later this week:  Brandy Gifts

Friday, December 5, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: More from Diageo and Rebel Yell

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Diageo cleared a label for a new whiskey in their Orphan Barrel series, Forged Oak, a 15 year old Kentucky bourbon.

Luxco cleared a new Rebel Yell label for a two year old bourbon/rye blend that appears to be a combination of Kentucky bourbon and Indiana rye.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gourry de Chadeville Cognac

Nicolas Palazzi, aka Captain Cognac - brandy importer extraordinaire, sent me a new brandy, which is always a good thing.  I'm not sure anyone picks their Cognacs as carefully as Palazzi, who is very strict about pure spirit with none of the nasty additives and coloring that are typically poured into mass market Cognac.

His latest is a single cask, cask strength, non-chill filtered Cognace from the House of Gourry de Chadeville, a Grande Fine Champagne estate which claims to be the oldest Cognac producer, having acquired their vineyards in 1619. This Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes. It carries no age statement and weighs in at 64.3% abv, which is huge for a Cognac. There are 330 bottles.

Gourry de Chadeville Cognac, 64.3% abv ($150)

The nose is just huge with chocolate, wood spice and some grassy/earthy notes at the end.  It doesn't smell like any Cognac I've ever sniffed. The palate is dense with flavor.  It comes on sweet then gets some of those chocolate notes with dried fruit underneath.  Then it turns to a bourbon like sweet and spicy mix with lots of big, earthy notes leading into a finish that is fruity on the nose but spicy on the palate.  A few drops of water has a big impact, adding some clove and anise on the nose and lots of spice on the palate.

The flavors here are much more akin to an Armagnac than most Cognacs I've had.  There is lots of spice and much less fruit than the typical Cognac.  It's wonderful, unique stuff with a lot going on.  I keep tasting it, and I keep getting new flavors.

I've howled for years about how I'd love to see higher proof, single cask offerings from Cognac, and it's great to see that we're finally getting one.

This is so complex, oaky and spicy that it will be great for whiskey geeks.  Miss out on BTAC this year? Grab one of these.  Right now, it's available at Astor Wines for $150, and I'm told, it will soon be at K&L as well for $130.

Monday, December 1, 2014

New Whiskey Books by Heather Greene and Lew Bryson

When I first started getting interested in whiskey, good information wasn't easy to come by.  There were some books, but they were fairly specialized. There was Cowdery on bourbon and Michael Jackson on Scotch, but nothing that gave a good general overview on whiskey in all its different forms.

Well, the whiskey boom has changed thing.  It seems like a new whiskey book comes out every month, some good, some not so good.  This fall though, we are lucky to have two general whiskey books from writers who know their stuff: Heather Greene and Lew Bryson.  Both books are general whiskey surveys and include chapters on how whiskey is made, what the different types are, tips on tasting, recommended bottles, cocktails and food pairings.  While they cover a lot of the same ground, the two books have somewhat different styles.

Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life by Heather Greene, Viking Studio (Penguin) ($19)

Heather Greene was a long-time Glenfiddich brand ambassador who now curates spirits for the Flatiron Room in Manhattan.  Her book is definitely written for novices.  Greene has a conversational tone and does a good job covering all of the basics while launching into some geeky detail as well (the impact of hard vs. soft water on distilling, the three tier distribution system, different types of barrels, etc).  The information is presented in a concise, clear fashion with no nonsense advice, and I particularly liked the Cook's Illustrated style sketches sprinkled throughout which illustrate things like the size of different barrels and how to read the label on a bottle of Scotch or bourbon.

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits, by Lew Bryson, Storey Publishing ($14) 

Lew Bryson is a long-time whiskey and beer writer and the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine.  His book contains much similar content to Greene's with a bit more historical background and more detail in some areas.  It's nicely laid out with plentiful photos, charts and graphs. Like Greene, Bryson covers all the basics along with some geeky detail, including a great section on the way in which warehouse location impacts flavor and a very helpful chart of mashbills.


These are both very strong books, but as a whiskey geek, I reserve the right to quibble, so here is some nitpicking.  Greene centers her discussion of Scotch on the largely irrelevant regions of Scotland which I have always thought of as more confusing than helpful to novices.  In discussing bourbon, Bryson resorts to a flavor graph, another staple of whiskey education that I think is wholly unhelpful.

Greene gives short shrift to Canadian Whisky (less than two pages) whereas Bryson barely even acknowledges whiskeys made in countries outside of the big five. And while Greene does have a short section on world whiskey, she makes some odd choices, covering France and South Africa but not Taiwan, whose Kavalan is much better known and well regarded than any South African or French whiskey.

Both books have helpful charts listing the ppm level of various peated whiskeys, but they don't agree on exactly what they are (Greene says Bowmore is 18-25 ppm, Bryson says it's 25-30).

In the only glaring error in either book, Greene has a list of bourbon mashbills that is inexact and error prone (for instance, it lists Eagle Rare as "traditional mash bill" and Buffalo Trace as "high-rye," though in fact, they use the same low-rye mashbill).

All that being said, these are very minor criticisms of two excellent introductions to whiskey which will easily join the top tier of any list of whiskey books.

Choosing a Book

So which of these books should you buy?  You certainly don't need both given how similar they are. Here's how I would choose.

If you are looking for a book for a true novice, I would pick Greene's book.  While both books cover the basics, Greene writes in a more introductory style, always remembering that she may be writing for someone who knows nothing about whiskey.  She is particularly attuned to the possibility of wine lovers trying to learn about whiskey and has a very interesting section on whiskey choices likely to please fans of specific wines.

For the intermediate level whiskey drinker, maybe the one who has had a few whiskeys, knows the basics, and wants a bit more or for the intense bourbon or Scotch lover who wants to branch out, I'd pick Bryson.  He goes a bit more in depth on some whiskey geek type issues and seems to write more for an intermediate level whiskey drinker.

All in all though, you will do any novice or intermediate whiskey drinker who wants to learn more a great service with either of these books. Kudos to both Greene and Bryson for expanding our whiskey library.