Friday, December 30, 2011

Johnnie Walker, Black Label vs. Double Black

stats: Johnnie Walker Black Label, Blended Scotch, 12 year, 80 proof, $36
          Johnnie Walker Double Black, Blended Scotch, no age statement, 80 proof, $42

The world of blended scotch whisky is all about consistency. Even when faced with supply interruptions of key component whiskies, among other challenges, the blender is tasked with composing a product that tastes very consistent from bottle to bottle. Yet, in spite of this fact, the flavor profile of a blend is occasionally changed on purpose. This is typically done to cater to evolving consumer demands – in simple terms, make the whisky taste more like what is currently popular. This can be a dangerous game - you want to put out a product that appeals to a new, younger generation of customers, but at the same time not change it so quickly or drastically as to alienate your core consumers.

I’ve been told that at some point in the mid 1990’s Johnnie Walker Black Label saw a fairly dramatic change, rapidly becoming significantly less smokey. I’m guessing that may have turned away some long time devotes. With heavily peated whiskies growing in popularity in recent years, the time was nigh for Black to change again. But, it appears that a lesson was learned, and rather than changing what many know and love, they chose to introduce a new, smokier version alongside the original. Once you get past the marketing double speak and stop trying to figure out what the "double" in the name refers to, it appears that some of the whisky in the new blend is also aged in barrels that are more heavily charred than normal.

Let’s see how the two compare.

Color - light to medium amber
Nose  - slightly floral, light on its feet
Palate - not too heavy, the floral notes quickly come to the fore, with the other balancing elements dancing in the background
Finish - it picks up some steam early in the finish, gaining a bit of depth. But later in the finish the floral notes begin to dominate again, pulling it out of balance a bit.
Overall - a respectable blend, but I’m not a big fan of whiskies with a strong floral influence (personal preference). Given the choice, I would drink Chivas 12yr or maybe even Famous Grouse first.

Double Black
Color - almost the same as the Black, maybe just a touch darker
Nose - a little more dense, doesn’t reveal itself as easily as the black
Palate - The floral notes are still there, but kept in check by a more substantially malty base and a smokey, peat element that is absent in the Black
Finish - this one proceeds through the finish with much more continuity, and is smoother late in the finish.
Overall - a much more cohesive whisky, very well integrated from start to finish. For the modest price increase, I would pick this over Walker Black every time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gordon & MacPhail, Glenturret 11yr

stats: single malt scotch, Central Highlands, 92 proof, $60

As I gaze across my collection of whisky bottles, queued up and waiting to blogged about, I notice that there are several from independent bottlers. In my early days as a whisky consumer I viewed independent bottlings with a suspicious eye, assuming that they came from inferior casks which the distilleries had unloaded on little companies that didn’t produce any whisky, to be sold at discounted prices. While my old assumption may hold true at times, it would very much be the exception rather than the rule.

By the simplest definition, an independent bottler is someone who buys casks of whisky from distilleries (and possibly ages it for some additional time), then bottles and sells it themselves. This is a phenomenon that is fairly, though not completely, unique to Scotland. In the United States, contract distilling is much more common – a situation where one has a whiskey company but no facilities, and hires a distillery to make their product from start to finish. In this case the client would specify the details of production throughout the process.

Modern independents represent a vast array of business models. Some of the largest firms have a connection to a distillery, with Gordon & MacPhail acquiring and resurrecting the defunct Benromach in 2002, and the owners of Springbank distillery purchasing Cadenhead in 1972. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are companies like James MacArthur and Deerstalker, which essentially operate as one-man-bands. Between these extremes there are many mid sized independents, such as Signatory, Hart Brothers, and Murray MacDavid. Some independent bottlers have their own warehouses and/or bottling lines, others may pay a fee to keep their casks in someone else’s warehouse and contract out the bottling process.

In spite of these differences, they all have a common origin. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, malt whisky in Scotland was primarily sold by distillers in bulk (usually in barrels) to grocers and wine merchants, who sold it on to consumers. Around 1830, the column still was invented and grain whisky became a cheap alternative. By 1860, many of the whisky merchants began blending malt and grain whisky. Several of these brands grew in size and popularity, and live on to be a common sight on store shelves today. But some merchants stuck with malt whisky, and they are the ancestors of the modern independent bottlers. Currently, most malt whisky produced in Scotland (upwards of 90%) is sold in bulk to blenders. That was even more true 50 to 60 years ago, before the malt distilling companies began to tap into the unexploited market for single malts. For many decades, independent bottlers were the only source of single malt from most distilleries. That has changed over the years since WWII, but even today a few distilleries do not market an official single malt bottling.

So the independent bottlers are buying in bulk alongside the blenders, just at a much smaller volume. In times of low demand, they occasionally have the opportunity to buy excess stock from the blenders as well.

Aside from offering single malts from distilleries who do not market their own, what do independent bottlers do to differentiate themselves? Well, there are distilleries that offer an official bottling, but with minimal production levels and limited distribution. The independents add greatly to the availability of these more obscure brands.

They also frequently offer single cask bottlings. Distillers strive for consistency from bottle to bottle in their official releases, so they typically marry together several hundred barrels to come up with a vatting that is uniform in flavor from batch to batch. Independents don’t have to do that, and they will often seek out odd barrels – of fine quality, just deviating from the standard house flavor profile – and bottle them individually to produce a unique product. Distiller bottled single malts typically end up being bottled between 80 (the legal minimum) and 86 proof. Independently bottled single malts often end up at a higher proof, from 92 right up to undiluted cask strength. The independents also have the flexibility to bottle their whiskies with a greater variety of age statements than their distilling counterparts do. Additionally, since they offer their products to a niche market, they see smaller swings in demand levels, and are often able to bring older whiskies to market at much more attractive pricing levels than the distilleries can.

There are also two practices that are far less common in independent bottlings – artificial coloring and chill-filtering. It is legal to add caramel coloring to scotch, but the practice is frowned upon by critics. It is usually done to give consistent color from batch to batch, but can be detrimental to the flavor. When whisky gets cold (by adding ice, or any other way), it gets cloudy. The compounds that cause this haze can be stripped out by chilling and filtering the whisky – chill-filtering. Sadly, much flavor gets stripped out at the same time. The industry as a whole is slowly moving away from these practices due to media criticism and the demands of increasingly savvy consumers. Still, these practices are far less common amongst independent bottlers.

The independents have a few other tricks up their collective sleeve, but I’ll save the details on those for some reviews that will be following in the coming weeks.

And now on to the 11 year Glenturret from Gordon & MacPhail.

Dark amber to medium brown in color. A rich, malty nose, with very little in the way of sweetness or fruitiness. Dense and chewy. Like a liquid desert (in flavor, but not with sweetness), with notes of toffee, caramel and cocoa powder / unsweetened chocolate, possibly balanced by a hint of cinnamon. The finish is relatively long and dry. Quite unique, unlike any other single malt I’ve tasted. I’m curious to know how this compares to the official distillery bottling.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Whisky Hunter

I hope I’m stating the obvious when I say that I really enjoy drinking a good glass of whisky. But what is likely less apparent, is that I also enjoy the thrill of the chase just as much. The world of whisky retail sales is complex and dynamic – there are new products introduced with limited distribution, seasonal releases of rare items which are only available for a few weeks each year, certain brands which only make their way to a few select regions, and existing stock of items which are no longer produced can linger in hidden pockets of the market for some time, not to mention the obscure items that a less informed consumer might pass up for something equally good but more commonplace. Whether I’ve made a concerted effort to hunt one of these whiskies down, or just happened across one randomly in my travels, I find it quite satisfying to end up face to face with a bottle from my wish list, add it to my collection, and have the opportunity to sample something outstanding that wasn’t so easy to come by.

Living in a liquor control state (as well as being bordered by another) means that a typical trip to the local liquor purveyor is unlikely to result in a special purchase. Don’t get me wrong, these can still be fertile hunting grounds, but it takes time to figure out the inner workings of each state’s system, and then most of the leg work is done online. When I travel to states where the liquor business is in the domain of the free market, I’m always on the look out for a store with a serious whisky program. One good source for leads is the Specialty Retailer Guide found in the back of Whisky Advocate magazine.

It was here that I noticed a listing for Town Wine & Spirits in Rumsford, RI (claiming a collection of 300+ single malts). Being just an hour from my parents’ house, it seemed a little road trip was in order during my visit to the Boston area. Soon enough my father and I were exploring the wilds of East Providence and the hunt was on.

When I spotted the sign for the store, I was a bit surprised. We were in the heart of a mid-grade retail strip. Sure, it wasn’t a ghetto, but there was certainly nothing upscale about the area. And my surprise morphed into disappointment as I got a closer look at the exterior of the store, a modest cinder-block structure. No way were there 300 single malt scotches here, not in this neighborhood, not in that building.

But I’d come all this way, so I reminded myself not to judge a book by its cover, and headed in with lowered expectations. The store did look much more promising inside, but the limited square footage kept my hopes dampened. I glanced around and noticed some bourbon bottles against a far wall. As I made my way over to them I caught some familiar boxes and bottles in my peripheral vision. My head spun to the right, and I was overwhelmed by the sight of an alcove densely packed with scotch. Boy was I wrong about this place. As I took in the glorious scene, I made note of ample selections from Springbank and Glenfarclas (my litmus test for the legitimacy of a retailer’s whisky endeavor).

Standouts in their well rounded selection included Mackinlay’sHighland Malt Whisky, the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, 40yr Glenfarclas, several types of Hudson Whisky, and 21yr Auchentoshan, just to name a few. 

After selecting a young scotch from a new distillery, an esoteric single malt from a low profile distiller, and a hard to find limited edition bourbon, we prepared to head home. My father was asking an employee for the fastest way back to the interstate, and when he mentioned the distance we had come in search of rare whiskies we were asked if we had met Elliot. Who’s that? The store owner and resident malt fanatic. After talking shop for a few minutes and discussing my purchases with Elliot, we were invited out back for an impromptu tasting. No need to ask twice, let’s go!

First up was a 15 year Highland Park from independent bottler Murray McDavid, which was aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in Chateau Lafite casks. Mind-blowing, no way I could walk out of the store without a bottle of that. Next up were the anCnoc 12yr and 16yr. They were notably different from each other as the elder was aged in bourbon barrels and the younger in sherry barrels, but both were quite enjoyable. Lastly we tried out the new Johnnie Walker Double Black – very impressive, and a vast improvement over the standard Walker Black. All in all, it turned out to be an exceptionally successful outing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buffalo Trace 2011 Experimental Collection

  1993 Barrels: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, 17 yrs 7 mos, $47 (375ml)
  1991 Barrels: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, 19 yrs 1 mos, $47 (375ml)
  1989 Barrels: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, 21 yrs 1 mos, $47 (375ml)

Buffalo Trace Distillery has been on a mission to experiment since 1987, going so far as to construct a micro distillery within their main distillery just for conducting small scale whiskey research. They claim to have over 1500 experimental barrels aging in their warehouses. In 2006 they began bottling some of the more successful examples and releasing them to the public annually. Every year since has seen 2 to 4 different bottlings. Since these are limited production specimens, Buffalo Trace chose to put them in 375ml bottles so there would be more to go around. None the less, these whiskeys are pretty rare and hard to come by. When I came across all three examples of the 2011 release priced well below the suggested retail level listed above, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to try them out.

I was really excited when I picked these up, but I was a bit disappointed when I learned that this year’s release was from "rediscovered" barrels, and didn’t actually originate from an experiment. In 1998 Buffalo Trace acquired the Old Charter brand, along with their inventory of 150,000 barrels of aging whiskey. A small number of these barrels were lost in the shuffle, forgotten about, left hiding in a dark corner of one of the massive warehouses until they were recently discovered during an inventory audit. I suppose the “hey, look what we found when we did inventory collection” isn’t very marketable, so I can kind of see why they were included in the experimental collection.

The three bottlings were distilled in 1993, 1991 and 1989, and were bottled at 17 years 7 months, 19 years 1 month, and 21 years 1 month, respectively. In my last post I talked about whiskey evaporating out of the barrel during aging, referred to as “the angel’s share”. What’s really cool about this group of bottles is that they have a lot of technical information printed on their labels, including the percentage of liquid lost to evaporation at the time of bottling. The 1993 lost 43.6%, the 1991 lost 62.1%, and the 1989 lost 75.9%. These numbers help to explain the high prices of older whiskeys.

Okay, these Bourbons didn’t originate as experiments - but they are unusual, have a unique history, and it is uncommon to see Bourbon in this age range. So I am still excited about them.

All three are bottled at 90 proof, and they are the same shade of medium amber, with the older examples maybe each getting just slightly darker.

1993 – The most lively of the three on the nose, but still quite thick and masculine. Surprisingly floral on the palate, with notes of Lavender standing out, and balanced by moderate spice notes.

1991 – Something on the nose reminds me of Play-Doh. The wood flavors become more prominent, with spice and vanilla coming to the fore. The floral notes are still there, but quite subdued.

1989 – The nose is similar to the others, but a bit restrained. Now the wood is starting to dominate on the palate, to the point that even the spice notes give way to hints of pencil shavings and leather.

I like all three of these overall, and each one has a respectably long, engaging finish. I really appreciate the unique flavor profile of the 1993, but the traditionalist in me gives a slight edge to the 1991. The 1989 is quite enjoyable, but just falls a little short of its younger siblings in my opinion.

Friday, November 4, 2011

George T. Stagg

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 141.4 proof, no age statement, $70

While I was researching my last post, I came across an interesting bit of information that resolved a longstanding conundrum. I restrained myself from expounding on it at the time because I have a bad habit of going off on tangents, which could easily turn a good blog post into a rambling diatribe if I’m not careful.

Years ago, I had read about heavily aged (40 to 50 years) single malt Scotches, which needed to be bottled before they dropped below the legal minimum alcohol content of 80 proof (Scotch typically goes into the barrel around 127 proof). I knew that aging whiskies lost 2% to 3% of their volume annually to evaporation. This loss is commonly referred to as the “Angel’s Share”. If the proof of the whisky was dropping significantly over the years, obviously it was primarily alcohol that was evaporating out of the barrel.

Then, a few years ago, I finally managed to hunt down a bottle of the elusive George T. Stagg. This is a beast of a Bourbon, bottled at a whopping barrel proof of 141.4 (the bottle I have is from the 2009 release, and the proof changes from year to year, with somewhere in the low 140’s being typical). But wait, by law Bourbon cannot go into the barrel for aging above 125 proof. So, how was it that the proof of this whiskey could increase during the aging process, while at the same time other whiskies were known to decrease in proof while in the barrel?

And this question lingered on in the back of my mind, until last week. While I was poking around the web, trying to make sure I had my facts straight on the details of barrel aging, and I came across this paragraph in a wikipedia article. Finally, the enduring enigma had been resolved.

Although the bottle carries no age statement, most releases of Stagg are said to be aged in the neighborhood of 15 years. This Bourbon is an incredibly dark shade of amber, looking almost black in the bottle if there is limited light behind it. The nose is dense, and while being quite aromatic, it is also highly alcoholic. Nose with caution. Modest sips are recommended, as the intense flavor and alcoholic heat battle for dominance on the palate. It has incredible density and intensity of flavor, with notes of dry spice, polished leather, and roasted nuts coming to the fore. In spite of its brute force, it is actually incredibly drinkable when you consider its amazingly high proof. It actually becomes even easier to drink after the palate is broken-in by the first few sips. If you are going to consider yourself a serious Bourbon connoisseur, the Stagg is something which must be sought out and experienced.

George T. Stagg (along with the rest of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection) is released in late September every year. They sell quickly, but with a little persistence and some luck you may still be able to hunt down a bottle from the 2011 edition.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Four Roses Yellow Label

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 80 proof, no age statement, $20
I guess I got excited by my last blog post – I went out a few days later and tracked down a bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label. Before I get to the tasting, I’d like to talk about the aging process for a bit.

At first glance, it seems like a simple operation – new make comes off the still and goes into an oak barrel for several years, after which it comes out transformed into mature whiskey, ready to be enjoyed. Of course, it is much more complicated than that when you dig into the details.

Oak is the wood of choice for aging because it has the most beneficial effect on flavor, the correct porosity, and lends itself to the barrel making process. But, there are several species of oak to choose from, and each has unique qualities. Next, the oak staves must be seasoned. This can be done in a kiln, but the time-intensive open-air method will result in better flavor. Then there is the degree to which the wood is charred when the barrel is being made. The range of charring for wine barrels is usually lighter than whiskey barrels, and described as toasting instead. Many whiskies are aged in former wine barrels. The barrels can also be made un-toasted, in which case they are heated with steam instead of an open flame when the barrel is shaped.

Traditionally, Bourbon was shipped down the Mississippi river to its biggest market, New Orleans. Since oak trees were abundant in America, it made sense to ship the whiskey in new oak barrels, rather than glass bottles which were very expensive to make at the time. Eventually, aging in new oak defined the style, and later it became a requirement of the laws which govern the making of Bourbon.

Concurrently in Scotland, it made economic sense to re-use oak Sherry barrels for aging Scotch, since those barrels were already coming into the country in large quantities, carrying the Sherry that was being imported from Spain. As Scotch production grew, and the popularity of Sherry dwindled, it was inevitable that Scotch distillers would start using ex-bourbon barrels to age their whisky. Both barrel types are used in Scotland today, and it is common to refill the barrels two or three times before they are considered past their useful life.

The next big factor is climate. The aging process is driven by seasonal temperature swings pushing the whiskey in and out of the wood. The larger the temperature range the barrel encounters, the more quickly the whiskey ages. A certain amount of liquid will evaporate out of the barrel every year (2% is typical). If the humidity is low, mostly water evaporates out. But if the humidity level is high, more alcohol than water will come out of the barrel. So, the alcohol level can actually increase or decrease during the aging process, depending on the local climate.

And finally, the design and operation methods of the warehouse will affect the aging. Most Bourbon producers use large warehouses, up to nine floors high with the barrels three-high on each floor. Modest temperature control is achieved by opening and closing windows, and a few distillers heat their warehouses in the winter to add some control to one end of the temperature range.

Distillers who make single barrel and small batch bourbons will typically find the worthy barrels in the inner areas of the middle floors – the heart of the warehouse. The standard bourbons of their lineups will usually come from a marriage of barrels from a cross section of warehouse locations to ensure consistency. Maker’s Mark takes a different route, aiming for maximum quality in every bottle. And to that end, they go through the labor intensive process of rotating their barrels through the warehouse, ensuring consistent aging from barrel to barrel.

And then there is Four Roses. They rely on long, low, single story warehouses for consistent aging. While most producers rely on random warehouse particularities for their higher end offerings, Four Roses goes with consistent aging across the product line and uses the ten different flavor profiles at their disposal to differentiate their special bottlings (along with extra aging and higher proofs).

Now that I’ve finally tied it all together, on to the whiskey. There’s an air of familiarity on the nose. On the palate, a gentle fruitiness is quickly overtaken by warming spice notes, which grow in intensity as they transition into the finish, which lingers on and slowly fades away. There is more intensity than might be expected from an 80 proof bourbon. The spice notes are somewhat dominant, pushing other flavors into the background, but I’m okay with that as I find them quite pleasant. A very solid performer considering its proof and price point.

In comparison, the single barrel offering has more of everything, more depth, more character, more complexity. But, at twice the price, that should be expected.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Four Roses Single Barrel

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 100 proof, no age statement, $40

The history of Bourbon is a tangled tale, driven by booms and busts of the industry along with associated expansions and consolidations, and interspersed with mergers and acquisitions. The Four Roses distillery is an integral part of this history.

Prior to World War II, Four Roses was the best selling bourbon in the U.S. In the early 1940’s the Seagram’s Company purchased Frankfort Distillers (who owned Four Roses) to acquire the brand. They also purchased the Old Prentice distillery, where Four Roses was produced. Around the same time, Seagram’s acquired four other distilleries and a large number of whiskey brands. Each of the five distilleries used two different grain bills, giving the company ten different whiskeys to work with. These whiskeys were vatted in different combinations and varying amounts to produce the variety of flavor profiles required for the many brands owned by Seagram’s.

For some unknown reason, in the early 1950’s, Seagram’s chose to only sell Four Roses straight bourbon outside of the U.S. In this country they sold a blended whiskey under the Four Roses brand. In the 1960’s it was downgraded to a lower quality blend with a high percentage of grain neutral spirits. Over the decades, the reputation of the once mighty brand fell to unthinkable lows.

Seagram’s still made quality whiskey, with an extensive R&D program going back to the 1930’s, they just chose not to sell it in the U.S. under the Four Roses band. Then came the 1970’s, and dark days for the bourbon industry. Sales plummeted and the industry contracted. It was no longer practical for Seagram’s to operate five distilleries, so they closed four of them and consolidated operations to the Old Prentice distillery. But the company didn’t want to kill off any of their brands. In order to do this, they fell back on their past research and utilized a huge yeast portfolio to replicate the flavors of the closed distilleries. With two mash bills and five yeast strains, they were still able to produce ten unique whiskeys to work with.

The latest chapter in the Four Roses story started in 2000 when Seagram’s merged with French conglomerate Vivendi. The media holdings of the two companies were the focus of that deal, and Seagram’s many liquor assets were broken up and sold off. Four Roses (the brand and the distillery) was purchased by Kirin, their former Japanese distributor of many years.

Kirin immediately set about returning the brand to its former glory in the U.S. The blended whiskey was quickly dispatched and the flagship Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon was reintroduced. In 2004 the Single Barrel Bourbon was released, and in 2006 the Small Batch Bourbon hit the shelves. Several unique, limited edition bottlings have been released in recent years. Over the last decade the brand has spread around the country, steadily penetrating into new markets. Kirin has maintained the quality control that Seagram’s was known for, and with ten distinct whiskeys coming out of one distillery the possibilities for innovation are endless.

Enough of the history lesson, on to the tasting! It’s a beautiful golden amber in color. The nose is rich and very complex. Floral notes mingle with spice and aromas of grain and oak, and they all play nicely together. That complexity carries through on the palate. The flavors are bold, but the whiskey manages to maintain a certain elegance. The finish is quite long, meandering into a warming spiceyness balanced by just a hint of sweet malt, and it fades off oh-so-slowly. If I was hunting for a new bourbon to try, my eyes would scan the shelves for anything with a Four Roses label.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wild Turkey 101 proof vs Wild Turkey 80 proof

stats: Wild Turkey 101, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 101 proof, $21
          Wild Turkey 80, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 80 proof, $18

Last month, when I did the Jim Beam review, I said there were other Bourbons in the same price range that I would choose to drink first. If I am going to make a statement like that, I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is. In my early days of Bourbon drinking, Maker's Mark set the standard. It was the one that drew me in and turned me on to Bourbon. But with limited exposure to the variety of Bourbons available, that was were I drew the line - anything more expensive / exclusive was to be sought out, and anything less expensive / more common wasn't worth my time. Eventually I got around to sampling some of the everyday Bourbons, and found some real gems (along with coming across some higher end examples that really weren't up to snuff). The Weller Old Antique 107, which was reviewed when this blog was in its infancy, was one such eye opener. Wild Turkey was another pleasant surprise.

Wild Turkey 101 has been around since 1940, with the 80 proof version being added in 1974. In recent months, an 81 proof version has been introduced, which will replace the 80. It is supposedly aged a bit more than its predecessor, but neither carries an age statement. I've always preferred the 101 over the 80, but I find that the 80 is more common in bars. I'm assuming the bar owners buy the less expensive one, thinking consumers won't know the difference. I've squinted across many dimly lit bars to see which version is on the shelf before ordering. 

They appear to be the same hue of amber, but the 101 is significantly darker. They are similar on the nose, but the 80 seems quite a bit more aromatic. On the palate, the 80 has a moderate burn which is countered by pleasant notes of caramel and vanilla that fade into a slightly spicey finish. It's balanced and enjoyable, but perhaps a bit too subtle. What the 101 holds back on the nose, it lets loose on the palate. The balance is still there, but everything is intensified compared to the 80. It burns a bit hotter, but that is backed up by greater depth of flavor. The finish, however, is where the 101 really shines - waves of spice linger on for quite some time and slowly fade. I have a feeling that this Bourbon is generally under-rated and not recognized for the value that it is. I went back to the 80 for a follow up taste, and expected it to seem weak and watered down, coming from the 101. Surprisingly, I still find it quite pleasant in spite of it being fairly mild mannered.

Just to make it official, a taste of Jim  Beam White Label. It's okay, but I can see no reason to drink it if either version of the Turkey was on the shelf, even with a slightly higher price.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

High Water and Canned Beer

Please pardon my extended absence from the blog. I've been a bit distracted by the aftermath of devastating flooding across the region caused by the remnants of hurricane Irene. Fortunately the Whiskey Room sits on high ground and I only suffered the inconvenience of having to drink by candle light for a few nights. I took a few photos of a suspension bridge for snowmobiles that is just down the road (the center normally hangs 12-15 ft above the water).


Further down the road, much of town was laid to waste as the mighty Winooski River breached its banks. The water reached levels not seen since the great flood of 1927, and among the casualties was an iconic local brewpub. With waist deep water in the bar / dining area and kitchen, and the basement brewing facility completely submerged, The Alchemist was effectively destroyed. The good news: they will rebuild, and hope to re-open by the end of the year. The better news: they had just completed a 15 barrel production brewery and cannery on the other (and higher) side of town. By a stroke of fortunate timing, the new facility opened less than five days after the flood, offering 16 oz cans of their Heady Topper (an American Double IPA) by the case, 4-pack and individually. In a tremendous showing of local support, the first run of 300 cases sold out in a day and a half.

Some of you might be wondering why a craft beer is being put in cans. Many years ago I theorized that Heineken was available in cans solely to tap into the lucrative airline beverage market (obviously glass bottles and turbulence don't mix). But there must be more to it than that, and there is. The microcanning trend began in 2001 with the introduction of canning equipment geared toward smaller producers and the availability of smaller minimum orders from can manufacturers, and has slowly gained steam since. Cans have many advantages over bottles: lighter weight saves on shipping costs and is better for outdoor activities like hiking, aluminum is easier to recycle than glass, breakage becomes a non-issue, cans can go places where bottles are not allowed (or practical) - parks, stadiums, boats, beaches. And, most importantly, cans do a better job of isolating the beer from light and oxygen than bottles do.

So, how is the beer? First I should note that I feel the same way about hoppy beers as I do about smokey Scotches - I really like them, and appreciate the intensity and depth they offer, but I kind of have to be in the right mood to enjoy one. Neither generally fits the bill of an everyday sipper for me. The big surprise here, once you get past the fact that you have good beer in a can, is that you are advised by the label to drink it from the can and go against your intuition to pour it into a glass. According to the brewmaster, putting it in a glass will release hop aromas but diminish the impact of the hops on the palate. Fair enough, but I'm going to try it both ways, um, for research purposes. Hop levels of IPA's usually go up hand in hand with alcohol content, so at 8% abv I was expecting quite a wallop. The bitterness is intense, but not overpowering as I feared. You get little aroma from the can, and the beer is quite smooth up front, but quickly gives way to an attack of hoppy bitterness. The finish is quite lengthy, with the bitterness reverberating in gradually diminishing waves of intensity. Strangely, after a few sips, the intensity of the bitterness seems to fade away, and the Topper becomes incredibly easy to drink (frighteningly so considering its alcohol content). This may sound odd, but the chocolate chip cookie I'm nibbling on seems to refresh the palate and bring the concentration of the hops back to the forefront. How is it from the glass? Hop aromas are definitely released. It certainly smells nice, but the dropoff of flavor on the palate is quite significant. It definitely loses more than it gains going from the can to the glass. Great beer in a 16 oz can, who knew?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Aberlour 10yr

stats: single malt scotch, Speyside, 86 proof, $34
I started to write the Glenfarclas 12yr post last week, and got half way through it when I had to close the laptop and head out to dinner with my parents who were visiting for a few days. I was suffering palate fatigue when I got home, and it was a few days before I got around to finishing up that post. But I had capped off that interruptive meal with a glass of 12yr Aberlour. And that got me thinking……Glenfarclas, Aberlour and Macallan are all very similar in style (originating in Speyside, little or no peating, and aged almost exclusively in Sherry casks)…..comparisons are in order. Ultimately, I’d like to do a triple three way comparison – the 12yr offering of each, the cask strength version of each, and Glenfarclas 17yr / Macalan 18yr / Aberlour 16yr (or Aberlour 18, if I can find one). That will take time and money, but in the meantime I do have a bottle of 10yr Aberlour lurking in the back row of the Scotch shelf, and that borrowed bottle of 12yr Glenfarclas hasn’t been returned yet. A few years ago the standard Aberlour lineup had a 10yr and a 15yr. The 10yr is still available but a little harder to find than the newer 12yr, and the 15yr has been replaced by a 16yr. There is also the above mentioned 18yr.

The night I started the post on the 12yr Glenfarclas (and comparing it to the 25yr), there was a gap of at least 2 hours before my post-meal 12yr Aberlour. Not quite a side-by-side tasting, but the Aberlour definitely stood out as being lighter and quite a bit fruitier.

The Aberlour 10yr and the Glenfarclas 12yr are almost identical in color. While the nose on the ‘farclas is heavy, thick and malty, the nose on the Aberlour is lighter and thinner (but not in a bad way), and a bit minty. On the palate, the Aberlour is surprisingly a little fiery with warming spice notes (mint, cinnamon, etc). There is a fruit element there, but it stays in the background relative to the spiciness. The finish of the Aberlour is quite long with the spice notes slowly tapering off. The Glenfarclas is quite malty out of the gate then meanders into a bit of spiciness, with hints of fruit showing through late in the finish. The 10yr Aberlour is not nearly as fruit forward as I remember the 12yr Aberlour to be. While I do find this to be an enjoyable malt, I would give a slight edge to the 12yr offerings from Aberlour and Glenfarclas.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Glenfarclas 12yr

stats: single malt scotch, Speyside, 86 proof, $36

After writing about the 25yr Glenfarclas, I was fortunate enough to have a friend offer to loan me her bottle of 12yr Glenfarclas (in exchange for a wee taste of the 25yr, of course). I've tasted the 12yr before and was quite fond of it, but that was at least a year ago. A direct comparison is definitely in order. A few weeks ago, I mentioned recalling that there was very little difference between 12yr Chivas Regal and 18yr Chivas Regal, I'm quite curious to see if that is the case here. 

The nose on the 12yr is pronounced and dense with a sweet, malty, biscuit-like quality. On the palate it has great structure - plenty of backbone for its proof. It is fairly viscous, with a sweet, malty core which is nicely tempered by the spicy oak notes. Across their age range, Glenfarclas whiskies are aged almost exclusively in Sherry barrels. The Sherry influence is there, but does not dominate. Rather, it adds another layer to the balanced complexity. The finish is long and warming. It actually seems somewhat similar to the 12yr Chivas that I'm so fond of.

When comparing the 12yr and the 25yr, it is obvious they are cut from the same mold. However, there are some not-so-subtle differences. The color is almost identical between the two. The nose is similar, but the 12yr smells richer, with a more obvious butterscotch-like sweetness. On the palate, that sweetness becomes the biggest difference. The 25yr is much drier up front, but they both give way to a long, spicy finish. I would describe the 12yr as bold and youthful (in a good way) and the 25yr as more elegant and refined.

These are both great whiskies. If I were to score them on a 100 point scale (something I don't really feel I'm qualified to do), they would likely be within a few points of each other. Each is a great value for the age statement it carries. If you are new to Glenfarclas or looking for a great single malt at a very reasonable price, I would go for the 12yr. If you are enamored with the brand and want to explore it further, or if you want to experience an older Scotch without breaking the bank, the 25yr is well worth seeking out.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jim Beam: White label VS. Black label

stats: Jim Beam Original (white label), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 80 proof, $15
         Jim Beam Black, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 86 proof, $20
The standard Jim Beam Original makes the bold claim of being “The world’s finest Bourbon” on the label of every bottle. I’m willing to give any whiskey a fair shake, but I’ll have to disagree with that statement right off the bat. I guess I can’t call them liars though; it’s not really a quantifiable statement, more like one man’s opinion. It also seems to create a marketing conundrum - where does that leave the more expensive, higher proof, longer aged Black label? Not quite as good as the everyday stuff? Jim Beam is, however, the best selling brand of Bourbon in the world. That statement is true and quantifiable, and that makes me think it is worthwhile to compare these two examples and see what makes the 800 lb gorilla tick.

The White label has a fairly pleasant, thought slightly medicinal nose. On the palate, it’s a little hot – not a huge burn at 80 proof, but there’s not quite enough flavor there to back up the alcohol. There are some decent flavors hiding inside (along the caramel-vanilla-spice range), but the unimpressive medicinal note that I picked up in the nose becomes more predominant on the palate. The finish is reasonably long, but it’s hard to get excited about that when the flavor profile is nothing to write home about. Overall, I don’t hate it, nor do I love it. The word mediocrity keeps popping into my head. I’d use it for mixed drinks, but I think there are better Bourbons for drinking straight in the same price range.

The Jim Beam Black is aged twice as long and bottled at a slightly higher proof (86 vs. 80). On the nose it comes across a little more woody with notes of leather, and with a bit more intensity. On the palate it is more flavorful up front, fading into a pleasant tingle on the tongue as it drifts into the finish. I pick up subtle floral notes, but they could be the flavors that came across as medicinal in the White label, only suppressed a bit by the stronger oak and spice flavors present in the Black label. Overall this is more well-rounded and civilized than the White label. While it is a step up in quality and worthy of drinking neat, there are definitely other Bourbons in its price range that I would reach for first.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mango Salsa

Okay, I’m going off topic tonight – it’s recipe time. If you’re going to be a whisky swilling, lone-wolf recluse, and you want to eat well, you’d better learn to cook. While I have no formal culinary training, I have worked in some great restaurants over that last 5 or 6 years, and I have always tried to pay attention to what the masters were doing in the kitchen. In doing so, I have learned many new techniques, ingredients and concepts, along with garnering inspiration. This has led to my mango salsa. Tonight it topped off a piece of grilled Sockeye salmon, accompanied by long grain & wild rice and a bottle of 2004 Sineann Pinot Noir. If the Unabomber had eaten like this, he might have been content with life. This is sort of a seat-of-the-pants recipe, all quantities are very rough estimates.

Mango (1/2, medium)
Granny Smith apple (1/4, medium)
Vidalia onion (1/4 or less, medium)
Orange Bell pepper (1/4 or less, medium)
Tomato (1 medium to small, or 5 Grape size)

All of the above are Brunoise cut (very fine dice, 1mm to 3mm cubed).
This takes me forever, I should own a food processor.

Then add:

Red wine vinegar (1 tablespoon)
Lemon Juice (1 teaspoon)
Agave nectar (2 teaspoons)
Cholula hot sauce (2 teaspoons)

Chill and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chivas Regal 12yr

stats:  blended scotch, 80 proof, $33

By the mid 1800’s there were two types of whisky being made in Scotland, Malt Whisky (made from 100% malted barely) and Grain Whisky (made primarily from corn and/or wheat with a small percentage of malted barley). The Malt came from small farms in the Highlands and was produced in pot stills in small quantities. The Grain came from the Lowlands and was produced in column stills in bulk. The more expensive Malt Whisky was of higher quality, but the cheaper Grain Whisky was needed to satisfy the demand of the growing cities. Grocers who purchased both types by the cask soon realized that they could blend them together for the best compromise of cost and quality, and Blended Scotch was born. Some of those early names, such as Johnnie Walker and Chivas Brothers, live on today.

Of all of the Blended Scotches I’ve tried so far, Chivas Regal tops my list of preference. It is malty with floral undertones on the nose, and fairly light bodied. While it seems mild right up front (almost like there is going to be nothing to it), there is a sudden blast of flavor on the palate as you swallow. It has a nice balance of malt and oak, with a hint of smokiness. The flavor attacks in waves which gradually subside through a pleasantly long, tapering finish. It warms the soul, and strikes a perfect balance between drinkability and depth of character. While I usually prefer single malts over blended Scotch, if I am going to drink a blend, this is my first choice.

It’s been about four years since I tasted 12yr Chivas and 18yr Chivas head to head. As I recall, the difference between the two was quite subtle, much to my surprise. The 18 was just a bit more oaky, with slightly subdued smoke notes relative to the 12. I like them both, but for the minimal difference in flavor I wouldn’t be able to justify the extra expense of the 18yr.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Glenfarclas 25yr

stats: single malt scotch, Speyside, 86 proof, $110

Well, so much for my vow to update the blog at least once a week. It’s been a hectic, stressful month, and I don’t like to force a post when I’m feeling uninspired – the quality just isn’t there. And, I’m diverting from my plan to alternate between writing about the whisk(e)y laws of various countries and reviews of related whiskies. Why? Because the motivation to write has come upon me in the form of a bottle of 25yr Glenfarclas.

Glenfarclas is one of the few independent single malt distilleries left in Scotland, and has been owned by the same family since 1865. It caught my attention a few years ago when I noticed favorable reviews in Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide To Single Malt Scotch, and some very reasonable prices. I’ve been fortunate to sample the 21yr, 17yr, Cask Strength and 12yr since then, and my latest acquisition is the 25yr. Many Scotch fans are unaware of Glenfarclas due to a minimal investment in marketing. Of course, that allows them to keep prices low even though the quality is stunning across their line. By contrast, the heavily marketed Macallan has their 25yr priced at $600 a bottle.

The nose is dense and chewy, with malty aromas. On the palate it is unexpectedly fiery up front, but backed up with lengthy flavor development. This is a rich, viscous Scotch, with the longest finish that I’ve experienced in a whisky that isn’t at cask strength and/or heavily peated. It has great density with a balanced interplay of malt, oak and sherry influences. It manages to come across as being sophisticated, while at the same time retaining plenty of backbone. This bottle may evaporate a bit more quickly than many of the others in my collection.