Wednesday, June 29, 2016

French Whiskey: Hedgehog & Uberach

I haven't been a huge fan of French whiskey in the past (by which I mean whiskey distilled in France, not the great Scotch aged in France by Michel Couvreur). I've tried a few, but they tend to have very floral and fruity notes which I don't prefer in whiskey. 

Recently, K&L brought in two new French whiskeys, one single malt and one single grain, and offered me some samples, so despite my general skepticism, I thought I'd give them a try.

Hedgehog Single Grain Whiskey, 45% abv ($45)

Distilled at Distillerie de Monsieur Balthazar in central France, Hedgehog whiskey is made from a bourbon-style corn/rye/barley mash. It spent a year in new oak and was then transferred to Cognac barrels for at least three years. There are lots of production details on K&L's Blog.

The nose is grainy and a bit raw. The palate is sweet with lots of raw grain notes. It gets sweeter toward the end and into the finish. The mash may be similar to bourbon, but this whiskey doesn't taste at all like bourbon. It's reminiscent of some of the grain-forward American craft whiskeys. It isn't bad, but it's pretty one dimensional. 

Uberach "Assemblage" Single Malt 42.2% ($60)

This is a lightly peated single malt from Distillerie Bertrand in Alsace. This one is "around six years old." It is a vatting of whiskeys aged in new oak and whiskey aged in Banyuls wine casks. Again, there are more production details and photos on the K&L blog.

The nose on this one has a mix of honey, peat and floral notes. The palate hits you like a 1980s Bowmore with perfume notes, floral notes and sugar syrup. I'm not a fan of the floral/perfume flavor profile so this is a no-go for me.

Suffice it to say, neither of these whiskeys has altered my opinion of French whiskey.

Thanks to K&L for the samples.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Rum Society

A couple of weeks ago, K&L held a tasting of rums from the Rum Society, a new Pernod Ricard project featuring unaged, sourced, pot distilled rums. So far, there are three rums in the line, which is only available in Los Angeles. They are all 40% abv and their numerical titles reflect the blend numbers used internally. They do not include any additives or coloring, which makes them unusual for rums produced by a large spirits conglomerate.

The three rums we sampled were "40", an unaged Guyanese rum from a single wooden potstill, "62), a blend of the rum used in 40 with two other pot still rums from Barbados and Jamaica, and "65," a blend of four rums from Guayan, Babados and Trinidad. The 65 is the only rum with an age component, an aged rum from the Angostura Distillery in Trinidad.

These were fun to taste and had plenty of the funky, earthy notes you get in additive-free pot still rum, but seldom find in any rum in the U.S. They seemed to be designed for the cocktail crowd or the Tequila/Mezcal drinkers as opposed to rum geeks who prefer long aged spirits. Drinking them neat, the 40 was my favorite. It was the funkiest and had the most flavor. The 62 still had some of that funk (which makes sense since the 40 is one of the components) but was more mellow. The 65 had a giant candy corn nose and a lot of vanilla notes; it was good but a bit too sweet.

It's great that Pernod is supporting this effort, and there was a lot of flavor here that will likely surprise the folks they are targeting, though for my part (as someone not likely in the target audience), I would have liked to taste these at higher proof. These rums go for $35 each.

This is the second K&L event I've attended at Mini-Bar at the Hollywood Best Western. These tastings are great deals; this one cost $10 which included a cocktail and plenty of hot snacks along with the three rums.

Friday, June 24, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Four Roses, Diageo and More

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

Four Roses cleared a label for their 2016 Limited Edition Small Batch. This year's release will be a blend of 12 year OESO, 12 year OBSV and 16 year OESK.

Diageo released labels for what appear to be more 2016 special releases (there were some additional special release labels a few weeks ago).  This set includes Linkwood 37 year old (distilled 1978), Mannochmore 25 year old (distilled 1990), Glenkinchie 24 and a 40 year old Cambus Single Grain.

Glenmorangie cleared a label for a new whiskey in their Private Edition Collection. Bacalta is finished in Malmsey Madeira casks.

Kilchoman cleared a label for a cask strength version of its Machir Bay.

Levecke Corporation, a California bottler, cleared a label for a 50 year old single malt which appears to be from the Loch Lomand Distillery.

Heaven Hill cleared a label for Elijah Craig Barrel Select, a nos age statement bourbon listed as 125 proof, and Elijah Craig Small Batch 1789. It's not clear from the label what makes the 1789 different from the standard Elijah Craig Small Batch.

Kentucky's Limestone Branch Distillery cleared a label for Minor Case Rye, an MGP rye finished in sherry casks.

Luxco cleared a label for David Nicholson Rye, a Kentucky rye.

Earlier this week, I reviewed Tom's Foolery Bonded Bourbon. This week they cleared a label for a Bonded Rye (they had previously cleared labels for bonded corn and wheat whiskeys as well).
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, June 22, 2016

A.H. Hirsch Blind Tasting Results

Back in May, I announced a blind tasting in which I would pit the classic A.H. Hirsch 16 year old gold foil against an off the shelf bourbon. After receiving hundreds of responses, I picked 12 individuals for the tasting. I tried to create a diverse group so I included people with a variety of tasting experience.  All were whiskey drinkers (they read my blog after all), but some had more bourbon experience than others. I picked some people I knew and some completely at random. The one requirement was that no one in the tasting could have tasted any A.H. Hirsch bottling.

Each taster was given two sample bottles, labeled only "A" and "B." One contained the A.H. Hirsch 16 year old; the other contained...Elijah Craig Small Batch, which I bought at my local shop for $25 (the one I bought for this tasting was the version that still had the 12 year old age statement on the back label, which has since been removed).

Each taster was given their bottles individually and was told to report back to me, in as much detail as they cared to give, about which bourbon they liked best and why. The goal of the blind tasting was to see how a cherished bourbon that goes for thousands of dollars on the secondary market would compare to a standard, good bottle of bourbon off the shelf.

Well, the results are in's a tie. Six of the tasters preferred the Hirsch and six preferred the Elijah Craig.  There was not particular pattern having to do with tasting experience. A few bourbon veterans correctly identified which was the Hirsch, but not even all of them thought it was the best. And many tasters were lukewarm to both samples. That being said, a few tasters were very excited by the Hirsch and found it markedly better. Below are a few excerpts from the tasters' notes on each bourbon.

A.H. Hirsch, 16 year old (gold foil), 45.8% abv.

  • "Not as complex"
  • "Okay, nothing I'd run out and get, no matter the price"
  • "Very smooth, sweet, warm, maybe a little one-note, though."
  • "It has a really nice old-time flavor that I enjoyed."
  • "It goes bitter on the palate and I'd call it over oaked. There's some wet grass in there. Overall it comes off as very tired."
  • "This is pretty great. Not crazy complex or powerful, but well balanced. If this is the Hirsch, it lives up to the hype for me."
  • "I wouldn't turn it down at a bar, but I wouldn't be excited to drink more of this."
  • "Classic dusty caramel mouth feel."
  • "Nothing I'd run out and get, no matter the price."
  • "A fairly straightforward dusty-like pour with a lot of higher alcohol notes and a classic woody character."

Elijah Craig Small Batch (12 year old on back label), 47% abv ($25)

  • "Banana bomb like most current bourbons."
  • "Harsh and alcoholy."
  • "TONS of butterscotch! The mouth-feel on this was much nicer than A, with a velvety smooth feeling..almost creamy."
  • "Dry taste and mouth feel at first, tastes older but not sure it is, lots of dry wood."
  • "I'd buy it, though not for three or four figures."
  • "Spicier, the sweetness is at the backdrop and there is more balance from nose to palate on this one for me. It's a creamier dram."
  • "Simple bourbon with not much in the way of flaws but nothing to make me want more."
  • "When I think of bourbon, this is the essential profile I imagine." 

And a few concluding notes folks had on both of them:

  • "I honestly didn't really enjoy either one. They would not be something I would go back to my bar for consistently."
  • "Neither is fantastic."
  • "I'm disappointed I didn't really jump for joy over at least one of these."

What does it all mean? 

Twelve people is too small a sample size to make any definitive statement, but the failure of Hirsch to blow away the competition, even among those who preferred it, certainly raises questions about its current value. If a bourbon that costs four figures on the secondary market isn't demonstrably better than a $25 off the shelf pick, then its value is obviously based on something other than the quality of the whiskey. The fact that it's scarce, no longer in production and famous increases its value just as scarcity does among any other collectible, and like it or not (and I'm firmly in the "not" camp), bourbon is now that sort of collectible. But if you're one of those increasingly rare folks who actually buys rare whiskey to drink, I would think this tasting might make you pause before plopping down thousands of your hard earned dollars on a bourbon that you might not like much better than one you could buy today for $25.

Many thanks to the Hirsch tasting group for their time and their fantastic notes. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tom's Foolery Bottled in Bond Bourbon

Bottled in Bond or BIB whiskey has a reputation for quality. The requirements for a whiskey to be bottled in bond are known to most whiskey geeks, but to recap they are that the whiskey be:

  • Produced by one distillery in one season;
  • At least four years old;
  • Free of additives; and
  • Bottled at 50% abv
Lately, there is a new entry into the BIB world, craft whiskeys. Anchor was the first craft outfit to put out a bonded whiskey many years ago with their Old Potrero Hotaling's series, but recently there have been a couple of craft distillers who have released BIB whiskeys, including Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn and Tom's Foolery in Ohio.

Tom's Foolery started making apple brandy, but they moved onto bourbon using the barrel-a-day pot still that formerly was owned by Pennco, the maker of Michter's (which they have since sold to the new Michter's Distillery). Their bourbon is aged in standard 53 gallon barrels.

Tom's Foolery Bonded Bourbon, 4 years old, Batch #1, 50% abv ($50)

The first time I tasted this I thought it was raw and off-putting...typical craft whiskey, I thought.  I put it back on the shelf.  I taste everything that I review at least twice both because some whiskeys benefit from air and to make sure my own palate is consistent. 

A week and a half after that first taste, I tried it again. The transformation was huge. The nose still had some of those raw grain notes that are typical of craft bourbons, but it also had oak, honey and mint. On the palate it had mint and sweet tea. The finish was very strong with butterscotch and malty Ovaltine type notes on the nose and sweet mint tea on the palate followed by Carnation chocolate malts (like at the ballpark).  As I sipped it, the raw notes started to dissipate, with mint taking its place. It got better with every sip.  It's sort of what I imagine MGP's bourbon would taste like if it was made on a pot-still - minty and grainy.

This is unmistakably craft whiskey, but it's got more complexity then most craft bourbons I've tasted.  As I describe above, though, it needs air, lots of air. My suggestion would be to pop it open, have a small taste, and then wait a week.  Then, once you pour it, give it a good 15 minutes in the glass...or sip and observe the transition.  

Thanks to K&L's David OG for the sample.  

Friday, June 17, 2016

Blue Star Donuts

After posting about the amazing doughnuts at Sidecar Doughnuts in Santa Monica, several folks advised me to hit another west side shop, Blue Star Donuts in Venice. Well, who am I to shrink form a doughnut challenge?

Blue Star is a Portland import located on a strip of Abbot Kinney filled with imports, including fellow Portlandian Salt & Straw Ice Cream and San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee.

Blue Star feels less like a doughnut shop and more like a doughnut museum with a display of single doughnuts on long white trays. I tried a variety. My favorite was the old fashioned which was the moist, buttery sort of cake doughnut that I really like. The apple fritter, while unlike a standard fritter - this one was more cakey and less fried, was also excellent.  However, nearly all the rest of the doughnuts were disappointing.

In my Sidecar post, I lamented doughnut shops that concentrate on toppings at the expense of the actual doughnut. This was mostly the case at Blue Star. The toppings and fillings are great. The passion fruit glaze had an intense passion fruit flavor, the Valrhona chocolate doughnut had a nice, dark chocolate topping and a well done, not too sweet, custard filling; the creme brulee had a satisfying burnt sugar crust.

While all of that was great, the actual doughnuts were lacking. The yeast doughnuts were too dense and not at all crispy. The cake doughnuts, with the exception of the excellent old-fashioned, were a bit mushy and also lacked a crispy crust.

If I lived nearby, I might stop by for the occasional old fashioned or fritter, but overall, Blue Star was disappointing.

Blue Star Donuts
1142 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90291
(310) 450-5630


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Summer Joy of an Aperol Spritz

Last summer I visited Italy, and by my calculation, on a summer evening in Venice, ninety-nine percent of people are drinking an Aperol Spritz. That's when I got hooked. There's something wonderful about the simple, refreshing combination of Aperol (an orange flavored Italian amaro), Prosecco (or any dry white wine) and a splash of seltzer. It's not complex or intellectual. There are no flavor subtleties, but it energizes you after a long, hot day and gets you in the proper mood for dinner. Yes, Campari and Cynar are great as well, but I always come back to Aperol for my spritzes.

Like Rice Crispy Treats or Toll House Cookies, the recipe is right on the label, but even if it wasn't, as long as you know the ingredients, you'll do fine. The proportions need not be exact, the wine need not be anything at all fancy (I use Cecilia Beretta Prosecco Treviso - available at Trader Joe's for $8), and no garnish is necessary, though I go with the large Spanish olive and lemon rind that I got used to in Venice.

The Aperol Spritz, it's one of the reasons to look forward to summer.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tennessee Teenager: George Dickel 17

George Dickel has always been one of my favorite distilleries. The Diageo owned Tennessee Whiskey maker's No. 12 is a favorite of mine, and I'm a big fan of the private barrel 9 and 14 year olds that went to retailers so I was excited to hear that they were releasing a 17 year old, which is also the oldest Tennessee Whiskey that I know of.

According to Dickel, they recently found these old barrels, accidentally stumbling upon them in the warehouse. We totally believe that story, right? I mean, this is Diageo. They've got a whole series of whiskey, the Orphan Barrels, premised on barrels they just found or accidentally mixed up or whatever. This is what they do. It's pretty shocking how a company that regularly admits to its own incompetence in these matters can still be the largest spirits company in the world, but hey, I guess they just stumbled into that too.

In any case, the 17 year old Dickel is only available at the distillery visitor center in 375 ml bottles.

George Dickel 17, 43.5% ($75 for 375 ml).

The nose is fantastic with big bourbon notes and plenty of oak. There is a dryness to it along with some red wine notes. The palate is, I hate to use the term, smooth. It's got a creamy, buttery mouth feel with those characteristic Dickel mineral/plywood notes, but there is a diluted quality to it. The finish is sweet with floral notes and maple syrup.

This is distinctively Dickel and as a Dickel fan, I certainly like it, but I really wish it were higher proof. It's good, but it feels like it could have been great with less water. As it stands, it's not as good as some of the 9 and 14 year old retail picks I've tasted, and given the quality and great price of the standard No. 12, it's hard to recommend the 17 year old at $75 for a half bottle to anyone but the most fanatical Dickel fans.

Thanks to Ryan at Signde Drinks for acquiring the bottle (and also see his review of the Dickel 17).  

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sidecar Doughnuts are Without Equal

I'm a doughnut maven. I've scoured the city for great doughnuts. Over the last few years, there have been a lot of new additions to the doughnut scene. I haven't hit them all, but I've been disappointed with a lot of them which seem to expend a lot of effort on creative toppings while neglecting the actual doughnut. It's all well and good to cover your doughnut with bacon and Snickers bars, but I want to taste a high quality doughnut underneath.

Recently, after it was recommended to me by my friend Tim Read (of the late, great Scotch & Ice Cream blog), I made it over to Sidecar Doughnuts in Santa Monica. Let me be clear, these are the best doughnuts I have ever had. I do not make such a pronouncement lightly. Sidecar uses all kinds of toppings (including bacon), but they keep their eye on the prize, the actual doughnut. The doughnuts are made throughout the day, come out fresh and are topped while you watch. The glazes are more subtle and less sweet than a lot of places, allowing the doughnut underneath to shine rather than covering it up. Because of the constant production and the popularity of the place, all the doughnuts I purchased were still warm.

The Sidecar piece de resistance is the butter & salt doughnut. It's a cake doughnut with an amazingly moist and buttery texture and just a light glaze and sprinkling of salt. It's like a more refined version of Primo's buttermilk bar. This is a doughnut that is all about the actual cake, and it is pretty much a perfect specimen.

I also loved the choc-a-lot, an airy, raised chocolate doughnut topped with chocolate glaze and cacao nibs. The other doughnuts I tried, raspberry, blueberry cheesecake and salty caramel, were all very good but the butter & salt and the chocolate were the ones that stuck in my mind. In fact, pretty much as soon as I finished my last doughnut I was thinking about going back. It's that good.

Go there now!

Sidecar Doughnuts
631 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 587-0022
(There is also a location in Costa Mesa)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Recent Eats: Shabu Hyang

Old timers might remember when this was a food blog. Well, it's still called Recent Eats, and I still eat plenty, so I thought I'd get back into the habit of sharing some of my food finds. Lately, I've been enjoying the shabu shabu at Shabu Hyang at the corner of Wilshire and Western.

At Shabu Hyang, you can choose between regular and spicy broth or get  a half and half order which comes with a partitioned bowl to separate the broth. There are two basic orders. One is the traditional shabu shabu with huge cabbage and chard leaves, various mushrooms, bean sprouts and fish cake. The other is a spring roll which comes with rice paper wrappers assorted veggie toppings. Both come with beautifully marbled beef and a variety of sauces.  If you're there with a group, get both traditional and spring roll for maximum variety.

Noodles & Rice cooked in the shabu broth.
Once your done with the shabu shabu, there is a noodle course and a rice porridge, both cooked in the same broth and with whatever meat and veggie odds and ends are left in your dish.  The rice porridge is great, particularly if cooked in the spicy broth. It's a mix of rice, seaweed, pumpkin and egg.  A lovely end to the meal.

Shabu Hyang
3807 Wilshire Blvd., #120
Los Angeles, CA  90010
(213) 384-5464

And if you're interested in more of my recent eats, I've reactivate an old Instagram account and plan to use it mostly for food pics. My Twitter will remain spirits focused.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Pacory Calvados

Pacory Calvados is a new Calvados being carried by K&L. It's from the Domfrontais AOC, which requires that at least 30% of the brandy be made from pears. This one is 70% pear and 30% apple, and while there is no age listed, K&L tells us it is five years old and bottled at cask strength.

Calvados Pacory Reserve, 54% abv ($40)

The aroma on this is huge. Just popping the bottle fills the air with fruit. It's got a powerful apple/pear nose with a bit of sourness on it, much like a good cider. The palate is much drier than you would expect from the nose. It opens with wood and a slight bitterness, yielding to some medicinal notes and then a touch of sweetness with some acid at the end, all of which comes together very well. The finish is long lasting and brings back the pure fruit of the nose.

This is a really nice brandy. The fruit on the nose is balanced nicely by the wood on the palate.  It tastes very mature for a five year old spirit, and it drinks very easily for its proof (and cask strength Calvados is pretty tough to find).  It's good stuff, very drinkable and a great deal at $40.

Friday, June 3, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Diageo Special Releases and More

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

This week Diageo cleared labels for its 2016 special releases. They include Brora 38, Port Ellen 37, Auchroisk 25, Caol Ila 15 Unpeated and Lagavulin 12.

A new set of Douglas Laing private barrel Scotch for K&L cleared this week. They include Arran 19, Auchentoshan 18, Bunnahabhain 25, Glenturret 28 and two single grain whiskeys, Garnheath 42 and Invergordon 50.

Here's an interesting new bourbon from Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock, Arkansas. It's a bourbon made from a mash of 61% corn, 30% sorghum and 9% barley. I've seen sorghum whiskeys before, but I don't think I've ever seen a bourbon with sorghum as the flavor grain.

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.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A.H. Hirsch Blind Tasting Update

Wow! The response to my A.H. Hirsch blind tasting idea has been overwhelming. I figured it would be popular, but I didn't expect hundreds of responses. I really wish I had enough so that everyone could participate, but alas, I'm down to one bottle.  However, I did expand the tasting group from ten to twelve, which will at least give a couple more people a chance to taste it.

Everyone who will be in the tasting has been contacted. For those who I wasn't able to include (and, unfortunately, that was most of you), I am truly sorry, but if this works out well, maybe I will organize more tastings in the future.

It will take some time for me to get the samples bottled and distributed, then for the folks to taste. Once the tasting is completed, I will, of course, report back. Hopefully, it will be interesting even to those who don't get to participate.