Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Blog of the Month: Whisky Lassie

Canadian whisky blogger Johanne McInnis started Whisky Lassie in 2012 and has been posting at a solid clip ever since. Whisky Lassie tends to focus on Scotch (especially Tomatin) and Canadian Whisky and brings a unique voice to everything she discusses. The thing I like most about the blog is that it almost never repeats things seen on other blogs. Both feisty and unpredictable, Whisky Lassie isn't afraid to be contrarian, defending NAS whiskies at a time when they are under attack, and she has little use for anything she perceives as snobbishness on the part of whisky geeks. While I don't always agree with her, I always enjoy reading her opinions and the stories she tells.  Check it out!

Monday, April 27, 2015

New Books: Bitters, Shrubs and Smoke

The number of whiskey and cocktail books out there continues to grow. Along with great general works, we now have numerous specialty books that dive into very specific and specialized areas. Today, I review two such works.

Bitters & Shrub Syrup Cocktails by Warren Bobrow

Whiskey and cocktail writer Warren Bobrow takes us back to the medicinal history of cocktails with recipes that hearken back to the days when mixology was a subset of pharmacology.  While the title includes bitters and shrub syrups, the book's emphasis is really on shrub syrups which I had never heard of before reading Bobrow's fascinating book. Not being an advanced mixology buff, the only shrubs I knew of were the kind that grow in the yard which don't seem all that fit for use in cocktails. Shrub syrups, it turns out, are vinegar and sugar concoctions flavored with fruits, vegetables and/or herbs. Historically, they were often paired with rhum agricole, but Bobrow provides recipes for numerous shrubs syrups, shrub syrup cocktails, mocktails and even main dish recipes using shrub syrups.

Bobrow's drinks sound fantastic; who wouldn't want to try a cocktail that combines peated Scotch with a syrup made from tart cherries, honey, mirin and rice wine vinegar or a rum drink that includes a shrub syrup made from grilled peaches and Thai basi?  The only challenge is that making your own shrub syrups requires a fair amount of commitment as many of them have to age for at least three to four weeks (though he does provide some recipes that can be made in much shorter times). On top of that, some of the drink recipes include other syrups or infusions that are also fairly labor intensives.

This book is a huge amount of fun.  The recipes are creative, the text is engaging and I'd love to try pretty much every cocktail listed.  For a bar with a serious mixology program, this would be a fantastic resource.  For all but the most ambitious home-mixologists, though, it would be pretty daunting. That being said, there are a few bottled shrub syrups out there, so I might just take a few of these recipes for a spin with some of those.

Bitters & Shrub Syrup Cocktails by Warren Bobrow
Fair Winds Press ($22)
Releases May 1 but is available for pre-order on Amazon

Fire Water: Experimental Smoked Whiskeys by Darek Bell

Another new book that is even more focused on industry professionals is Darek Bell's Fire Water: Experimental Smoked Whiskeys.  Bell is the owner of the Corsair Distillery and is obsessed with integrating smoke into his whiskeys. Bell goes in depth with instructions about the various ways to make smoked whiskeys and then reviews and analyzes dozens of woods, barks, roots and herbs that can be used impart smoke.

This is a book that should be of great interest to craft distillers. One of the benefits of smoked whiskey, which Bell acknowledges, is that it makes very young whiskey more palatable (think Balcones Brimstone, Bruichladdich PC5, etc.) so it's a perfect fit for craft distillers who are trying to do something innovative but need to get product on the market.

As to the non-distiller, for me, it's always fun to read something by someone so dedicated to their craft, but unless you're a real distilling geek, it's probably more detail than you would want. Hopefully, it will inspire some distillers and in a few years, we will see a new generation of smoked whiskeys.

Fire Water: Experimental Smoked Whiskeys by Darek Bell ($30)

Thanks to Bobrow and Bell for copies of their books.

Friday, April 24, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Four Roses Small Batch, Brora and More

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

Four Roses cleared a label for this year's Limited Edition Small Batch.  This year's Small Batch will be a blend of  16 year old OBSK, 15 year old OESK, 14 year old OESK and 11 year old OBSV.  That makes its components quite a bit older than last year's release.

Brown Forman cleared a label for this year's Woodford Reserve Master's Collection, a bourbon called "1838 Style White Corn." There are no further details on the label.

You don't see many independently bottled Broras these days, but this week, a label cleared for a 35 year old Brora from Gordon & MacPhail. 

Three labels cleared for Japanese whiskey but not from any of the usual suspects.  They are from distilleries that make shochu, an unaged rice spirit.  Apparently, they are barrel aging their shochu to make rice whiskey. Two are from the Ohishi Distillery, distilled from malted and unmalted rice. The labels include a brandy cask and a sherry cask with no age statements. A third, is from the Fukano Distillery and is made from malted rice. None of them have age statements. Hmm, perhaps Japanese rice whiskey is the next big thing.

Old Pulteney cleared a label for a 26 year old lightly peated whiskey distilled in 1989.

Lastly, it's always good to see a label honoring one of our great American presidents so thanks to California based Alambic Inc. for Millard Fillmore brandy, a blend of pot distilled brandy from Germain-Robin and a column distilled California brandy. Now I'm looking forward to Franklin Pierce Rum!

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, April 22, 2015

Glenfarclas 1990 from K&L

This was a 2014 release from K&L composed of a vatting of two first fill Oloroso sherry casks.

Glenfarclas 1990, 24 years old, 50% abv ($170)

The nose has bright fruit and sherry notes with a touch of sulfur. The palate starts with a moderately sweet sherry note; as with the nose, there is very light sulfur and milk chocolate in the late palate. The finish is sweet and fruity on the nose but dry on the palate with some nice spice on the palate.

This stuff is great, balanced and drinkable as hell. I wouldn't call it a sherry monster, but it's one of those malts I just find myself reaching for over and over. If you're a sherry fan and certainly if you're a Glenfarclas fan, I'd definitely recommend it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The State of American Whiskey Distilleries 2015

Every year, I do a brief summary of the American distilling scene based on my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries & Brands.

The rapid growth of distilleries continues. By my count, as of 2015, there are 517 distilleries in the United States that are currently making whiskey, up from 325 just a year ago.

Whiskey is being distilled in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii is the only no-show, though they do have a rum distillery.

Washington State continues to lead the way with 47 active whiskey distilleries, followed by New York with 43, California with 36 and Colorado with 29.  Four other states have twenty or more whiskey distilleries: Oregon (24), Kentucky (23), Texas (21) and Ohio (20).

The expansion of distilling really is amazing over the years if you look back at my reports from 2014 and 2013.

Friday, April 17, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Scotch and Garlic

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

Independent Scotch bottler That Boutique-y Whisky Company may be most known for their comic book inspired labels.  Their whiskeys have not previously been available in the U.S., but this week the cleared labels for two blends (#1 and #2), a blended malt and single malts from Alt A Bhainne, Glentauchers, Glenburgie and Tormore.   All labels were for 375 ml bottles and are NAS.

Glenrothes cleared a label for a 1995 vintage whiskey.

How will we know when the flavored whiskey thing has jumped the shark?  Hmm, maybe when people start making garlic flavored whiskey.

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, April 15, 2015

Jim Beam Gets Some Color: Brown Rice & Red Wheat

Last year, the Jim Beam released two bourbons as part of their Signature Craft series which used alternative mashbills, one with soft red wheat and one with brown rice. They are planning to release more using oats, triticale (a rye/wheat hybrid), six row barley and a high rye recipe.  Of course, these are all bourbons so they all are at least 51% corn, but these alternate grains are used in the mashbill.  The first two are both eleven years old, 90 proof and go for around $50 for a half bottle (375 ml).

Jim Beam Signature Craft Soft Red Wheat, 11 yo, 45% abv ($50)

A Jim Beam bourbon with soft red wheat instead of rye isn't very revolutionary since that's pretty much what Maker's Mark is.  In fact, given that there is no requirement that the distillery be listed on a whiskey label, this could well be 11 year old Maker's Mark, which would be interesting since Maker's has never carried an age statement and is reputed to be much younger than 11 years old.

The nose has sweet caramel with, strawberries, raspberries and red licorice.  The initial palate is intensely fruity with apple candy, then it picks up some spice, but it fades quickly, leaving a sweet, fruit candy finish on the nose and some pepper on the tongue. This definitely has some of the Maker's style candy sweetness, though more fruit comes out than in Maker's. It's a decent bourbon, candy sweet to be sure but not overwhelmingly so, and the spice adds some nice balance. 

Jim Beam Signature Craft Brown Rice, 11 yo, 45% abv ($50)

The only other rice bourbon I'm familiar with is the 2012 Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection "Made with Rice."  Let's see how Beam's version compares.

The nose on this one is pretty traditional bourbon with caramel notes, but it has a sweetness that's reminiscent of old, dusty bourbons.  The palate is very unBeam.  It's got strong mineral notes, almost like a Dickel (and tasting blind, I would definitely have guessed Dickel), which give it a lot more texture and depth than a typical Beam. Those mineral notes really blow up on the finish, which is quite long.  It's quirky, but I like it.

These are well crafted bourbons, and it's nice to see Beam doing something truly innovative, but I wish they were about $20 cheaper. While I'd happily drink either of them, I don't think I'd plop down a US Grant for a half bottle of one of these.

Thanks to John Burlowski for the samples.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A New Technology to Miraculously Age Whiskey

Like Ponce de Leon searching for the fountain of youth, whiskey makers have spent years on the quest for a method that will allow them to age whiskey more quickly.  There have been countless theories and experiments, but now one man says he has the answer.

Larry Shihtzu of the Happy Kennels Distillery says he has a fool proof, tested method for aging his whiskey at lightning speed.  According to Shihtzu, "We opened our distillery inside of a working kennel so it actually ages in dog years.  For every year of aging, it tastes like it's aged for seven, so in two years, it will taste like a 14 year old whiskey; in three, it will taste like a 21 year old. When this hits the market, it's going to be huge!"

Shihtzu explains that the presence of dogs changes the composition of whiskey. "It's like how whiskey aged on the coast or on a boat has those sea notes. At the kennel, the dogs play with the barrels and roll them around; the whiskey acclimates to its surroundings and ages accordingly."

But can storing whiskey with dogs really speed up the aging process?  We took Shihtzu's theory to a chemist at a nearby university. Speaking off the record, he was skeptical, saying that from his observation, the theory appeared to be "total bullshit." Responding to the chemist, Shihtzu was undeterred, "Look, we have graphs...and charts. This thing is legit. We even submitted an article to the Journal of Veterinary Medicine."

In the end, as with any whiskey, the proof will be in how it tastes. According to Shihtzu, the distillery isn't providing samples of their work at this time. "Right now we're just doing press. You don't want to rush these things." 

Friday, April 10, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Royal Brackla and Brenne

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

Bacardi cleared labels for three new original bottlings from the Royal Brackla distillery, a 12 year old, a 16 year old and a 21 year old.

Brenne cleared a label for a ten year old expression of their French single malt.

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, April 8, 2015

How Whiskey Geeks Appear to Outsiders

The other day I was shopping at the grocery store.  As I was putting a container of cottage cheese in my cart, I was approached by a young man who said, "Can I help you find something?"

"Thanks. I'm fine."

He continued, "Is that Dairy World Cottage Cheese you've got there?"

I looked at the label and responded, "Um, yeah, I guess it is."

"You may not be aware of this, but even though they call it 'Dairy World,' they don't have a dairy. They're just a company that buys cottage cheese from another dairy and puts their own label on it. It's total BS."

"Okay, does it taste bad?"

"Not necessarily. It's really about the deception.  And they use a filtering process to sort out the smaller curds."

"Is that bad?"

"A lot of us feel that the filtering takes away from the richness, full mouth feel and balance we expect from a good cottage cheese."

"But it's just cottage cheese."

"Well, as a real fan of cottage cheese, I like to make sure people know what they're getting.  The other issue is they use a soy-based additive to add texture and color."

"Is that bad for you?"

"No, but it's an unnecessary additive to make it seem 'smooth' for people who don't know anything about cottage cheese."

"But I like smooth cottage cheese."

"No, no you don't.  Here, try this one, Healthy Cow; it's got no additives, it's unfiltered and they make it themselves."

"But it's $25."

"Good cottage cheese takes time and effort to make. And hey, that's a bargain compared to what some of the special releases cost...if you can find them."

"You know, I'm just looking for something basic so I think I'm going to stick with the $5 one, but I really appreciate your help, and I'm glad that the people who work here have so much knowledge about the products."

"Oh, I don't work here."

"Okay, I'll be going now."

Monday, April 6, 2015

Ranking the American Distilleries

There are twelve major American whiskey distilleries in the United States. We all know them and drink their whiskey, but how do they compare?  This is how I would rank them in order from best to worst, taking into account all of their whiskey products.

1. Four Roses. Compared to many distilleries, Four Roses doesn't have many labels.  There are just three standard bottlings (Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel) and now that they have discontinued the Single Barrel Limited Edition, just one special release (the Small Batch Limited Edition), but for the last few years, they have been operating at an extremely high level.  The standard bottlings, especially the Single Barrel, are very good.  The Limited Edition Small Batch has probably been the best bourbon of the year for the last three years, and it's shocking how many amazing bottles I've tasted from their private bottle program which allows retailers to choose a single barrel of one of their ten recipes.  For me, it's hard to quibble with the fact that Four Roses is currently the best bourbon distillery out there.

2. Heaven Hill.  It's a virtual tie between Heaven Hill and third ranked Buffalo Trace.  Both of these distilleries have seen a bit of decline over the past few years.  The last three years of the annual Parker's Heritage Collection release have been disappointing compared to some of the earlier ones, and the disappearance of Elijah Craig 18 in exchange for slightly older and much more expensive expressions makes me sad, but Elijah Craig 12 is still one of the best easily available bourbons out there, and the barrel proof version is fantastic, probably one of the best new regular release bourbons of the past few years.  Add to that Rittenhouse Rye, the standard Evan Williams, which is one of the top budget bourbons (though I'm not a fan of the very popular Evan Williams Single Barrel), and some very good private bottlings of Henry McKenna, and despite some slippage, Heaven Hill is still a top contender.

3. Buffalo Trace. Five years ago, there is no doubt that Buffalo Trace would have ranked at the top of this list. Since then, their star has faded a bit while Four Roses has simultaneously brightened. The last few years of the Antique Collection that I've sampled (which does not include 2014) have not lived up to past releases, but they still make plenty of great whiskey. Even ignoring Van Winkle and the BTAC, which are now so hard to get as to be irrelevant, Blanton's, Sazerac Rye, Weller 12, EH Taylor, the Experimental Collection, Eagle Rare and the standard Buffalo Trace are all solid choices. Yes, even the run of the mill bottlings seem to go through shortages, but it's hard to blame the distillery for that.

4. MGP.  MGP (Midwest Grain Products) is unique in that it's the only major whiskey distillery in America that doesn't sell its own whiskey (save for one very small release). Despite that fact, there is tons of it on the market. Their 95% rye whiskey has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget how good it can be, and how unique it was when it first came out in a world of 51% ryes.  Bulleit Rye has become a bar staple based on the strength of that recipe. And while we all make fun of the fakers and schemers who carelessly bottle MGP whiskey, let's not forget all the great MGP bourbon and rye that goes into various bottlings of excellent whiskey from High West, Smooth Ambler, Willett and others. MGP deserves a seat at the table whenever we talk about the great American distilleries.

5. George Dickel.  Diageo's Tennessee distillery is another one that has been upping its game in the last few years.  The No. 12 has always been a go to for me with its unique mineral and plywood notes, but the recent retailer program bringing us 9 and 14 year old versions has put some great aged whiskey on the market. Dickel is definitely the best whiskey coming out of Tennessee.

6. Maker's Mark. Another distillery that has improved in the last few years, Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark used to make only one bourbon for domestic consumption, and it was just okay.  Now they have three, having expanded first with Maker's 46, which is a bit better than the standard, and then with the cask strength Maker's Mark which does seem to have some bottle variation, but the best of which are very good. This is one distillery that seems to be going in the right direction.

7. Barton 1792.  Sazerac owned Barton 1792's premium brand is 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, a bourbon I find to be chronically overrated.  The real feather in their cap, though, was always Very Old Barton 100 proof, a six year old bourbon that delivered great flavor for around $13. The only problem with it is that it's not widely available and that they recently removed the six year age statement.  They probably should be tied with Maker's for overall quality, but I bumped them down a peg for removing age statements while Maker's is adding proof.

8. Wild Turkey. Probably the biggest disappointment on the list is the once great Wild Turkey. A decade ago, Wild Turkey would have been near the top of the list with 101 Rye, Russel's Reserve 10 year 101 and American Spirit, but they now seem to be running on fumes.  They do put out high proof, aged whiskeys, but they have more heat than flavor, and their recent releases, Forgiven and Diamond Anniversary, have been flops.  The Turkey's fall from grace probably saddens me more than anything on this list.

9. Jim Beam. Now we get to the distilleries I just don't like all that much.  Of my four least favorite distilleries, Beam at least makes some things I can drink.  Baker's is pretty good; Booker's is not bad (though how many variations on it do we really need?); Old Grand-Dad 114 used to be wonderful, but bottles I've had recently have been just okay...and that's about it. Their ryes are terrible and I don't have much use for the rest of their overly sweet lineup.

10. Jack Daniel's. Speaking of overly sweet, hey, it's Jack Daniel's.  I know the Single Barrel has its fans, but I just never had a Jack (well, a modern Jack) that I had anything good to say about.

11. Brown Forman. Old Forester and Early Times are swill.  I don't even like the Birthday Bourbon which flies off the shelf like kombucha at a hipster convention. Their saving grace used to be that they made the excellent Rittenhouse Rye for Heaven Hill, but Heaven Hill has since taken production back in-house, leaving this distillery with no redeeming qualities.

12. Woodford Reserve. Last place is reserved for the metallic, medicinal pot still whiskey from Brown Forman owned Woodford Reserve. There's a reason that even in a world where Diageo Orphan Barrels are treated as a status symbol, Woodford Reserve Master's Collection bottles seem to have a permanent home on liquor store shelves.  It's true, I thought their new rye was decent (though who knows if any of it was actually distilled at Woodford), but the rest of the lineup is so terrible that an okay rye doesn't do much to save them.

Alright, I've had my say, what would your ranking be?

Friday, April 3, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Brandy Finished Woodford, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and More

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

Brown Forman cleared a label for Woodford Reserve Legacy Barrel bourbon finished in "a single brandy barrel."

They also cleared a label for this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. This year's 12 year old Birthday Bourbon was barrelled in 2003.

Pernod Ricard cleared a label for the new Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a single pot still whiskey finished in virgin Irish oak barrels.

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, April 1, 2015

Marketing Diageo Style

This just in: one of my confidential sources at Diageo sent me a recording of a marketing meeting that took place sometime in mid-2013.  I've changed the names in order to protect my source, but all of the participants are high level executives in Diageo's marketing department. Here is the transcript which provides a fascinating look into the marketing practices of the world's largest spirits company.

Roger: Thanks for coming to this meeting on short notice.  I wanted to talk about our bourbon problem.  As you know, we've got a shortage of available warehouse space.  Well, that's partly because we have thousands of barrels of very old, mediocre bourbon, mostly from the Bernehim distillery, that we have no use for. We've got to dump it somehow. I need ideas.

Peggy:  Easy, put it in Bulleit.  We need a new source for that brand anyway.

Roger: I thought of that, but this stuff is too old for Bulleit.  We could only dump small amounts in at a time, and that wouldn't do much toward ameliorating the stockpile.

Peggy:  Okay, so start a new brand. Maybe bring back IW Harper.  We get a press hit for the new brand, folks buy a bottle to give it a try, and we dump all the old crap into it.

Roger:  Great idea, I think that's a plan.

Don:  Wrong!

Roger:  What do you mean Don.

Don:  You know what I see here?  A lack of creativity.  These old stockpiles aren't a burden; they're an opportunity.  Sure, you could pour all of the bourbon into one new brand, get one press hit and people will buy one bottle, but then they'll realize that it's mediocre bourbon and they'll never buy another one. But why release one new label when you could release five or ten. Hell, release a new one every month.  Then you get a press hit for every bottle, plus reviews, blog posts and tweets every month.  People will collect them all.  They'll post pictures of them on Facebook with comments like "Boom" or "This just happened," and other people will see the posts and buy them all because it said "boom."

Roger:  Don, I don't think I made it entirely clear how mediocre this stuff is.

Don:  Oh, I'm sorry, did I accidentally walk into a meeting of the quality control department?  I thought this was marketing. Come on Roger, don't be naive. Sure, people will buy the first release and maybe it will suck, but then they'll think, hmm, maybe the second one will be better, and if that one sucks, maybe the third or the fourth will be better.  Think about it. These are old bottles of limited edition bourbon.  It's like printing money. People can't not buy them.

Peggy:  Don, with all due respect, I don't think our customers are that stupid.

Don:  We'll see Peggy. We'll see.