Friday, September 30, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Balcones, Vanishing Whiskey and More

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

Balcones cleared labels for a cask strength versions of their Baby Blue Corn Whiskey and Texas Single Malt.

Weird Label Department: According to the label, Chadwick James Private Reserve is a "whiskey vanished on wood cubes." Does that mean there's none left?

And it always touches me to see a distillery put a lot of effort into their label, both graphically and in terms of providing the consumer with information. Here's a great example of a stunningly beautiful and highly informative label from Cannon Beach Distillery in Oregon.

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, September 28, 2016

Two New Cognacs

Photo Courtesy PM Spirits

Today I taste two new Cognacs being brought in by Nicolas Palazzi's PM Spirits.

Gourry de Chadeville, 8 years old, 55% ($95)

This is the third release of Gourry de Chadeville that we have seen. Each one has been different. This 100% Ugni Blanc Cognac is  composed of two casks. One spent four years in a Saint-Emillion cask and was then transferred to Cognac casks for an additional four years. The other spent its first four years in a Cognac cask and was then transferred to a Saint-Emillion cask for its next four years.

The nose has strong wine notes with some malt, very whiskey like. The palate is similar with strong malt and wine notes, and a bit of a funky note. Had I been given this blind, I might have guessed that it was a Springbank. It's got a nice punch with very little in the way of fruit character - definitely a brandy for malt drinkers.

Bourgoin Micro Barrique, 22 years old, 55.3% ($150)

Another 100% Ugni Blanc, this Cognac from the Fins Bois region was distilled in 1994 and finished in 10 liter barrels (i.e. micro barrique). The nose is grassy with green grapes. The palate is dry with grassy/malty notes and just a slight brandy character and a malty finish. This one has a slightly more brandy-like character than the Gourry, but it's still more malt-like than brandy like.

I don't know that traditional brandy enthusiasts will be excited about these Cognacs. Given their strong malt whiskey characteristics, they might appeal more to malt fans.  

Thanks to PM Spirits for the samples.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fred Minnick's Newest Bourbon Book

Fred Minnick is one of the most prolific writers in whiskey. This fall, he will be releasing his third whiskey book since 2013 (his previous books were Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious). His newest volume is an historical overview of bourbon.

Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, traces the history of bourbon from its earliest days to the present. Minnick adds some new speculation as to who might have "invented" bourbon, saying that he believes a Bourbon County, Kentucky distiller named Jacob Spears was the "true father of bourbon," though the evidence, as Minnick describes it, seems far from definitive.

There are a number of bourbon histories out there by respected writers such as Michael Veach and Chuck Cowdery. What makes Minnick's book different though is that while Veach and Cowdery tend to focus on distilleries and bourbon brands, Minnick's new books is really a history of the regulation of bourbon. Each chapter focuses on the different ways that U.S. has affected bourbon production and the bourbon industry.  Minnick fills an important gap here, for while there are many books that deal with Prohibition, I'm not aware of any other book that comprehensively examines the history of alcohol regulation in the way that Minnick's does. He looks in depth at wartime prohibition, anti-trust investigations, tariffs and the various laws and regulations that have defined what bourbon is and how it can be made. The downside of this focus is that it can be a bit dry (pun intended). I found myself very interested in the various laws that defined bourbon but less so in the tariffs.

Minnick's discussion of more recent times veers more into information about brands and consumer habits, and he unearths some interesting stories like his anecdote about Brown-Forman's ill fated Frost 8/80 from the late '60s. Frost was a Pennsylvania bourbon that had the color filtered out of it to compete with vodka. It was so poorly received that Brown Forman issued a national recall, buried the bottles in a landfill and banned the word "Frost" on company property.

Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey in an important addition to American whiskey literature, and it's worth a read for anyone interested in bourbon's complex regulatory history.

Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey
Voyageur Press ($15)
Publishes October 1, 2016

Thanks to Zenith Press for the review copy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ten Years of LAWS: An Interview with Adam Herz

Adam Herz preparing to pour
A decade ago, the whiskey craze was still in its infancy. Increasingly, people were drinking, writing and talking about whiskey. At that time, a group of whiskey fans in Los Angeles started meeting for tastings as the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society. Unlike many informal whiskey groups of the time, they also created a website to track their tastings.

LAWS was founded by a small group of LA whiskey enthusiasts, but the driving force was screenwriter Adam Herz (best known for the American Pie films) who held the meetings in his home. Today, I talk with Adam about his reflections on the tenth anniversary of LAWS. (Disclaimer: I have been a member of LAWS since 2010).

How and why did you and the original members come up with the idea for LAWS?

It was just instinctive. The original email that I sent to 9 friends in 2006 went like this: “Guys. We’ve been drinking a lot of whisky lately. It’s time to take things to the next level. I propose we form some sort of gentleman's club dedicated to the drinking of fine whiskies.” So, we all met and chipped in together to drink good stuff. It just snowballed from there. Enormously.

How experienced with whiskey was the original group that formed LAWS?

Most of us had been drinking malts for a year or two. There was some debate over whether that qualified us to do ratings. My argument was, “what you taste is what you taste,” and that we should assign ratings based purely on our enjoyment of each whiskey. Cut to 10 years later, that’s kind of the group’s mantra: all that matters is your personal enjoyment of the beverage.

In your opinion, is there a "right way" to taste whiskey?

The way whiskey is supposed to be tasted is by pouring it in your mouth, then swallowing it. Smell also matters. That’s about it.

What we expect to taste has more influence than what we do taste. Your brain is looking to confirm or reject whatever it’s anticipating. So I try to remove all the pomp and circumstance. It’s just a beverage.

That’s why blind tasting is so important. Today, nearly every “blind” tasting I see online goes like this: “We took these 4 specific whiskeys and blind tasted them to find out which we liked best!” That’s not a blind tasting — that’s just a guessing game.

Blind tastings are when you have no clue what’s coming, period. Many people don’t like to do those because they’re afraid of “not liking something that’s actually good.” And vice-versa. But that’s what you want to happen! You have to realize what’s in your mouth vs. what’s in your head.

There are lots of whiskey tasting groups around but few have such extensive websites. How did you come up with the idea for the website?

When we started, the few existing whiskey sites were difficult to navigate and there was no way to sort and filter. That drove us nuts. So we custom-built our database and interface to be what we wished existed.

Also, we wanted a different rating system than the 100-point scale — one that had more generalized categories, along with a sense of “Would I buy this?" Hence our letter grading scale, which has been widely adopted, which is cool to see.

What is the average LAWS meeting like (subtext: How geeky are you guys)?

Each meeting’s format is to open 5 to 10 new bottles along some theme. For the first few years, we always tasted blind, only knowing the style of whiskey to be tasted -- bourbon, malts, etc. Now we’re kind of half-and-half. We’ve hit on some classic formats, sort of how The Price Is Right has their classic games. So we spend the first two hours very, very focused on tasting the new bottles, sometimes in a pure blind tasting, and sometimes in a game or competition. Then, we relax and move to “The Reserves,” which at any given time are around 175 open bottles from previous meetings, member donations, and group buys/finds.

As for “geeky” — our conversation is very whiskey-heavy, so to an outsider, it would probably sound overly detailed and maybe obsessive. But to anyone who loves whiskey, it would just be insightful and informative.

What have been your favorite LAWS meetings?

Too many to count. The “battle” format is a big favorite: two or more collectors will donate bottles from their collection. The bottles are known only to them and can't already be on the LAWS website. The group then tastes/rates them all blind, and whoever’s bottles score the highest wins. It’s a lot of fun, because we take winning way too seriously. And because someone’s “ringer” bottle always ends up getting lousy ratings, and they get all butthurt about it.

What has been the biggest change in the whiskey world over the last ten years?

Increasing scarcity and prices, but that’s a given. After that, I’d say the preponderance of the trophy mentality.

What happened was, as whiskey blew up in social and traditional media, newcomers to the hobby became less interested in whiskey itself and wanted only to obtain the specific bottles they’d read about. And they wanted them quickly and at any price.

So, whiskey (particularly bourbon) moved from something pursued for the merits of its flavors, to being a piece of commerce that you could brag about owning. Whiskey forums transformed from places of friendly collaboration to virtual trophy rooms. Tasting notes and buying tips were replaced by photographs merely proving ownership of a bottle — or even just ownership of a sample! Who needs to see the ten-thousandth photo of yet another Pappy or BTAC stash? They all look the same. Show me something I haven’t seen before.

How has the group changed over time?

Experience, comfort, and pickiness. “Experience” because we really, really know our stuff and have tasted an enormous amount. “Comfort” because, for those of us that have been in the Society a long time, there’s no longer that crazy, on-overdrive push to taste everything, meet everyone, get new releases, go to events and distilleries, and so on. We’re kind of more relaxed now, I guess. And “pickiness,” because the bar is admittedly very high for LAWS meetings now… we’ve tasted so much that, for us to keep future meetings interesting, the lineups have to include some insane bottles.

Oh, and also, we rarely publish anything about our meetings anymore. We kind of lost interest in doing the writeups… like I said before, braggadocio has come to dominate so much of the US whiskey scene, we don’t want to seem like we’re trying to contribute to that. Many of us still publish notes/ratings, because it’s fun to do, and we do feel we’re contributing to the community by posting those.

Any advice for people starting their own clubs? Or about whiskey in general?

The fun of whiskey is in the pursuit, the journey, the rise up the learning curve. You know all those crazy bottles you’re dying to try? You wanna know what they taste like? Something else you’ve already had. Or at least pretty similar. What will begin to matter most is who you’re drinking with and what the occasion is. I still love drinking crazy stuff I haven’t tasted before — but the fun of opening those bottles is in doing it with friends.

Lastly, what will LAWS be drinking for its tenth anniversary meeting?

A wide variety. I’m personally looking forward to opening a 1965 Corti Bros Clynelish, and one of our last remaining LAWS Charbays. [Ed. Note: the LAWS Charbay is a Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey bottled especially for LAWS].

Thanks to Adam for taking the time to respond to my questions.

Friday, September 16, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: WhistlePig, Tyrconnell and More

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

Wyoming Whiskey cleared a label for Outryder American Whiskey, a bottled in bond whiskey made up of a "blend of stray batches of Wyoming Whiskey."

Whistlepig cleared a label for the third edition of its cask strength Canadian Whiskey, Boss Hog Rye. The label shows an age of 14 years (though age statements can be changed after label approval).

Beam Suntory cleared a label for a 16 year old expression of Tyrconnell Irish Single Malt.

Popular bottler Barrell Bourbon released a label for a New Year Edition for 2017, a non-straight blend of bourbon distilled in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.

Luxco calls their new bourbon/rye blend Kentucky Best, but a close read of the label reveals that it's 50% MGP rye. 

CH Distillery in Chicago cleared a uniquely honest label for an MGP bourbon which says:

Sure, you can take your chances and buy an expensive bottle of craft whiskey and hope it doesn't taste like crap. Or, you can save your hard-earned dollars and give this a shot. We didn't make it, but it's damn good bourbon, and we sell it at a crazy low price.
Now that's some truth in advertising.

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, September 14, 2016

Foursquare Rum

Foursquare is a Barbados distillery that has been turning heads lately. This is one of their first cask strength bottlings available in the US. It's a blend of pot and column still rums, aged in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at cask strength without additives.

Foursquare 2004, 11 years old, 59% abv ($60)

The nose opens with sweet brown sugar and then some grassy notes. The palate begins with the same brown sugar note, then some sharp acidic notes that provide a nice contrast, like the adicidy of pineapple (though not having that flavor). It's quite hot for the proof. The finish is earthy with molasses. Water brings out some earthy notes on the palate which add to the complexity.

This is really fantastic stuff, and it's hard to think of a better deal for the price. This one is a must-buy for sure.

Thanks to FussyChicken for the sample.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Domaine du Tertre Calvados

Today I'm reviewing two new Calvados brought in by Captain Cognac, Nicolas Palazzi (though maybe he should change his moniker to Captain Calvados considering how much of it he's been bringing in lately).

Domaine du Tertre is run by two brothers who make cider and distill a small amount of it into Calvados. They use around 30 varieties of apple, ferment it for six months without heating and use indigenous yeast. Like many French brandy producers, they distill on a traveling column still.

These two bottles come from single ex-Cognac casks and are bottled at cask strength with no additives. The U.S. is only getting 90 bottles of each.

Calvados Domaine du Tertre 2000, 16 yo, 52.6% abv ($200)

This has strong oak notes on the nose with some underlying apple. The palate starts dry and oaky, then the fruit comes in, but it's a very dry apple flavor. It's got a thick, chewy mouthfeel. The finish is woody and slightly fruity then turns to chocolate covered cherries, but without the sweetness, if that make sense.

This is a really lovely and complex Calvados. It's the polar opposite of the big fruity style of some Calvados (Camut for instance); it's drier with oak notes and tannins. It's a great Calvados for a whiskey or Armagnac drinker. Really fantastic stuff.

Calvados Domaine du Tetre 1998, 18 yo, 51% abv ($225)

The nose on this one has maple syrup notes along with oak and a sort of musty note. The palate leads off sweet and then turns earthy with some sulfur like notes. The finish is slightly fruity and sulfuric and then develops apple and oak. This one is sweeter but has less overall fruit character than the 2000.

These were both great. Between the two, I preferred the 2000, which was drier and more complex, but those who prefer more fruit in their Calvados would probably prefer the 1998.  They are currently available at Astor Wines but should be popping up in other locations soon.

Thanks to Nicolas Palazzi for the samples.

Friday, September 9, 2016

New Whiskey (and Brandy) Labels: Chichibu, Westland and More

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

Copper & Kings cleared a new label for their Cr&ftwerk series of brandy finished in beer casks. This one is finished in Sierra Nevada Chocolate Cherry Stout barrels.

 A label cleared for Ichiro's Malt Chichibu Port Pipe, an almost five year old, single cask whiskey from Japan's Chichibu distillery.

A label cleared for Komagatake, a 30 year old cask strength whiskey from the Mars Shinshu distillery in Japan.

Washington's Westland Distillery released three new circus-themed labels for Peat Week.

Hey look, a new Calvados from, er, Michigan. Given that Calvados is a protected geographic term in France, it seems like some of the French producers may not be too happy about that.

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, September 8, 2016

Berlin: Europe's Next Great Food City?

I walk down my block and I've got tons of great food choices: Korean, Italian, Vietnamese, burgers, Middle Eastern. Just another day in LA, right?  Except, I'm not in LA, I'm in Berlin.

Grilled octopus with polenta at Donath.
If you ask the average American to name some of the great food cities of Europe, Berlin isn't likely to be in the top five, maybe not the top ten. Paris, Barcelona and nearly every city in Italy have a claim to the greatest food on the continent so it's easy for people to overlook Berlin, but I think there's a strong argument for it as a great food city, and certainly one that is flying under the radar.

Octopus bibimbap at Gong Gang

But Berlin's food is great more in the way that LA's food is great. It's the food of immigrants in a cosmopolitan city. I particularly enjoyed eating my way around Prenzlauerberg, a very hip neighborhood in what used to be East Berlin. That's where we found great Korean, Italian and Vietnamese food.


There's great Middle Eastern food throughout the city. Along with all of the Donar Kebab and falafel stands, it's worth a trip to the Turkish Market and one of the higher end Turkish restaurants like Hasir.

And Berlin has some excellent sweets as well. From the delicate and not-to-sweet marzipan at Wald Konigsberger to the rich, chocolate drinks and cakes at Fassbender & Rausch.

I wish I had time to explore the regional Chinese restaurants or even more of the Turkish food. What didn't I eat much of?  Traditional German food. It wasn't even that easy to find it in Berlin (except for the ubiquitous currywurst), but hey, that's what Munich is for.

Standard-Serious Pizza

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bestia's Best Bone Marrow

Possibly the best dish I've had this year is the roasted marrow bone at Bestia. It's served on the bone, but you scoop it out and mix it with their spinach gnocchetti, a spaetzel like spinach pasta. The gnocchetti has been sauteed so its chewy and crispy with some garlic. The marrow bone is coated with balsamic to give it some acid. When you mix the fatty bone marrow chunks into the pasta, you get the contrast of chewy and creamy textures and fatty, acidic and salty flavors. It comes together beautifully.  Everything about this dish is great; it's one of those dishes I'll dream about until I have it again.

2121 E 7th Place
Los Angeles, CA 90021
(213) 514-5724 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

LA (and Maybe the World's) Best Pastrami: Ugly Drum at Smorgasburg

If you haven't been to Smorgasburg, you need to make a beeline there on your next free Sunday. Smorgasburg is a food fair that originated in Brookly and opened in LA in June. It includes around 50 vendors; some are connected to food trucks or stores, but many are only available at Smorgasburg.

The festival is a food lover's dream with vendors selling a wide range of great food from Summer Crab Company's fried soft shelled crab sandwiches to pork belly paratha tacos from Goa Taco to Wanderlust's fantastic ube ice cream.

But the best thing I've had so far in the entire place is Ugly Drum's pastrami. They serve one thing. Pastrami on rye with a squirt of mustard if you want it. This pastrami is amazing. The flavor is as rich as any I've had, but the texture is more akin to fat marbled, barbecued brisket; it has that melt-in-your mouth quality. This is the best pastrami I've ever had, better than Langer's, better than Katz's. Go eat it!

Smorgasburg takes place downtown at the Alameda Produce Market on Sundays from 10 to 5. It's shockingly uncrowded, and there is plentiful parking at the lot at Alameda and Bay Streets that is free for the first two hours.

Friday, September 2, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Heaven Hill, Ardbeg and More

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

LVMH cleared a label for Ardbeg Kelpie, a non-age statement whiskey aged in "virgin casks crafted from oak grown on land in the Adyghe Republic, leading down to the Black Sea coast."

Remy Cointreau cleared a label for a new edition of Bruichladdich Black Art, distilled in 1992 and a second limited edition of Port Charlotte 10.

Heaven Hill cleared a label for a 20 year old Select Stock distilled before the distillery fire of 1996.

A label cleared for Michel Couvreur Very Sherried, a 27 year old single cask from the French Scotch bottler. 

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.