Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tiny Bottles

I guess it goes without saying that I’m obsessed with whiskey, and I’m on a mission to taste any that are new to me. But buying more 750ml bottles than I could possibly drink gets expensive, and it’s getting harder to find bars that carry whiskeys that I’ve never had before. This has brought about my infatuation with small format whiskey bottles. Sadly, their rarity can rival that of Unicorns. They seem to go in and out of availability quickly, so I always snap them up when I stumble upon them. The four most common sizes are 50ml, 100ml, 200ml and 375ml. The 50ml (standard nip size) is too small for me to sample on two or three occasions, as I like to do. The 375ml seems to be the domain of mainstream whiskeys and special limited production items. With something like the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, where a limited number of barrels may only produce a few thousand bottles, it makes sense to use the 375ml format and double the number of bottles available to curious consumers. Often, the little bottles are bundled into sample packs. While I’m happy to find anything new and unique in a small bottle, the 100ml and 200ml bottlings are what I’m really after. So far my finds have included the 200ml Walker Blue, a trio of 200ml Bruichladdich bottlings (10yr, 15yr, 17yr), a trio of 50ml bottles from the Balvenie (10yr Founders Reserve, 12yr Double Wood, 15yr Single Barrel), a sampler pack of four 100ml offerings from Glenmorangie (The Original, The Nectar d’Or, The Quinta Ruban, The Lasanta), a three pack of Glenrothes 100ml’s (Select Reserve, 1998 Vintage, 1985 Vintage), and nips of Jim Beam Rye, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, and Gentleman Jack. The ones that are known to exist but have eluded me thus far: the Talisker 200ml trio (10yr, 18yr, Distiller’s Edition) and a variety of Glenrothes 100ml trios of different vintages. I’m sure others are out there, but like I said, they tend to come and go. So, be sure to buy any of these little gems as you come across them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

William Larue Weller

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 125.3 proof, no age statement, $60

Buffalo Trace is the largest, most progressive bourbon distiller in the U.S. The company sells whiskey under countless brands, many of which have been acquired through the company's history. Some of the brands are a joint venture, where Buffalo Trace has a partial ownership, and some of the brands may be distilled under contract. Since 2000, the company has put out an annual release of a series of whiskeys called the Antique Collection. William Larue Weller is the barrel proof, wheated bourbon of the lineup (which has changed a bit over the years), along with the Sazerac 18 yr Rye and Thomas H. Handy Rye reviewed below, and the Eagle Rare 17 yr and George T. Stagg bourbons.

In the 1970's, the bourbon industry essentially collapsed, and while it has made a tremendous comeback in recent years, worldwide demand is still somewhat weak relative to supply. Which is good, because it means bourbon is a tremendous value (unlike Scotch, which has seen prices skyrocket over the last five years). But there has also been an effort in the bourbon industry to keep prices from rising too much, which will certainly help maintain a steady future growth of the brand. The downside is that some products are released on an allotment, or only to certain core markets. The Antique Collection is a prime example of this situation, being released in limited quantities mid October every year, in most locations it is sold out in a matter of weeks. These are special whiskeys, aged many years in the finest oak barrels - they can't really just crank up production. Sure, they could make these available year round (and make a lot more money), if they jacked the price up to $250 a bottle, but that is not the business model they have chosen. And my wallet thanks them. So, my point is, if you happen to come across one of these bottles, snap it up while you can!

Now, on to the tasting. The color is a fairly dark amber. The nose is big and concentrated, with notes of leather, cocoa and fossil fuels, it is quite masculine. Even though "wheated" bourbons are typically softer and sweeter than their more common "ryed" counterparts, at this high proof, the flavors are densely packed and intense. Medium in body and seemingly mild up front, the intensity builds quickly and can sneak up on you. Be weary, this is a slow sipper. Spice notes (the back of the bottle says vanilla, teaberry and cinnamon, I concur) and a slight alcohol burn push the sweet grain core into the background. It has an exceptionally long finish, which transforms as it advances along and eventually fades out. Big and powerful, but still graceful and balanced, one of my favorite bourbons.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Scotch and cheese

I know, Scotch and cheese, it sounds like an unlikely combo. In the last 10 years there has been an explosion of artisanal cheese producers throughout Vermont, whose outstanding products I am always eager to sample. Combine that fact with a couple of whisky shelves brimming with single malts, and the two were bound to collide at some point. I'd love to say that there is an art and a science to pairing Scotch and cheese, but I'll be honest, it's more of a crapshoot. And the undertaking can be a bit of a minefield, with some of the unsuccessful pairings leaving you gasping for air and teary eyed. But when you find a combination that really works, the results can be nothing short of magical. The finest union that I have stumbled upon so far has to be Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro VT.

When this unlikely duo comes together, each brings the other to a whole new level. The Bayley Hazen has a rich, creamy texture (unlike any other blue I've tasted), which is punctuated by its intense, pungent flavors. The Quarter Cask also has a thick, creamy, velvety mouthfeel. With its sharp peaty depths wrapped around a malty core, its flavors reverberate on the palate. The interplay of the two flavor profiles is quite astonishing. Both have salty, earthy qualities, with the cheese bringing a nutty character to the table and the Scotch adding its biting smoky elements.

Each of these two are quite special in their own right. But when the two come together, it creates a synergy that provides a unique culinary experience.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Crown Royal, part 2

stats: Crown Royal Reserve - blended Canadian Whisky, 80 proof, $40
         Crown Royal Cask No. 16 - blended Canadian Whisky, 80 proof, $80

And now on to the upper end of the Crown Royal lineup, the Reserve and the Cask No. 16. The Reserve has actually been around a lot longer than I realized, originally introduced in 1992 as Crown Royal Special Reserve. It was re-branded as Crown Royal Reserve in 2008, two years after the introduction and the Extra Rare. I'm guessing that the reason  for the name change was the confusion caused by the abbreviations for the names of these two whiskies, SR and XR, which sound very similar. Bar patrons who think they are getting an SR and end up with a drink that costs three times as much tend to get a bit grumpy. The Reserve starts as the same base whisky that makes up the flagship Crown Royal, but the better barrels are set aside and aged longer. The Cask No. 16 likely starts off in a similar fashion, but before bottling, the whisky spends additional time in casks that previously held cognac for 12 years. This variant of Crown was first brought to market in 2007.

The color of the Reserve is noticeably darker than the standard Crown Royal. There doesn't seem be a big difference in aroma between the two, perhaps the Reserve is just a bit richer on the nose (again, I'm probably not using the best glassware for nosing). On the palate, like the standard Crown, the flavors of the Reserve are fairly mild up front, then come on strong in the finish, which is quite long. They have a similar flavor profile, but where the original is a bit one-dimensional, the Reserve gains depth and complexity. It has more intense spice notes, but retains that elegant, drinkable Crown Royal quality. There's actually less of a difference between the two than I expected. Tasting them side by side has actually elevated my opinion of the original Crown and my appreciation of its long finish. The Reserve is a superior whisky, but only by a small margin.

The Cask No. 16  has a unique label. There is a wood grain printed on the inside (bottle side) of the back label, which is visible through the whisky as you look at the wording on the front label (which has a clear background). It's hard to see unless there is a bright light shining on the front of the bottle. I only noticed it when I was photographing the two bottles. The nose, while again being a bit weak, is definitely different. It reminds me of isopropyl alcohol along with some fruity qualities (that makes it sound like it smells bad, it really doesn't). Up front, the Cask No. 16 seems like it might be a lot like the Reserve, but the flavors from the cognac barrels quickly come into play. The flavors that dominate are slightly sweet and perfume-like. The quintessential Crown Royal spice notes are still there, but they drop into the background, only showing up late in the finish and tempered by the influence of the cognac barrels.

Over the years, I've come to realize that tasting whiskey (in a scientific, analytical way) can be a tricky endeavor. The palate is a fickle beast. One day it can love something and the next, not so much. And worst of all, the taste of one whiskey can have a great impact on my opinion of the next whiskey when they are sampled in close proximity. And that seems to be the case with the Reserve and the Cask No. 16. I've had the Cask No. 16 on several occasions, and have always enjoyed it. When I first tasted it tonight, I thought that the cognac cask finish added a new layer of flavor to an already great whisky, making it more well rounded and complex. But after drinking copious amounts of the standard Crown and the Reserve to sort out the differences between the two, the flavors of the Cask No. 16 seemed peculiar and garish. I still rate the Cask No. 16 quite highly, but this experience highlights the need to sample any whiskey with a fresh palate, and to be willing to give a second chance.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crown Royal, part 1

stats: Crown Royal - blended Canadian Whisky, 80 proof, $25
           Crown Royal Black - blended Canadian Whisky, 90 proof, $30

I've always considered Crown Royal to be the king of Canadian whisky, but there really weren't any other Canadian whiskies that I even considered, so I guess that doesn't mean too much. The lineup from Crown Royal has slowly grown over the years, with the addition of the Black last year bringing the total up to 5. I tasted the Extra Rare (XR) a few years ago, and wasn't too impressed. I don't have access to any right now, and I'm not going to hunt down a $100+ bottle of something that I don't really like just for the sake of comparison. So tonight I'll check out the standard Crown and the Black, my next post will cover the Reserve and the Cask No. 16.

The flagship Crown Royal (sometimes referred to as the Deluxe) has a medium amber hue and pleasant nose. On the palate, it is smooth and well balanced, with a surprisingly long finish. It definitely has some Bourbon-like qualities, similar to a fairly mild Bourbon, but with a bit less sweetness. Most of the flavor comes on late, but it hangs on for quite a while with nice spice notes. While many whiskies with long finishes have great complexity and meander through a spectrum of flavors as they linger on, that is not the case here. I hate to make up words, but I'm at a loss, so I'll have to call it mono-flavorisitic. But I like the flavor, that's really not such a bad thing. While I consider it to be fairly mild, it does have enough backbone to stand own its own and be sipped straight. Maybe not my first choice of beverage, but if I was at a bar with a limited selection, I'd be happy to have this as an option.

Next up is the Crown Black. A darker, bolder, higher proof Crown Royal. The aromas are definitely more potent, but less pleasant. The color is significantly darker, but that could be from a number of factors (caramel coloring, new oak barrels, more heavily charred barrels, being put into the barrel at a lower proof - i.e. more water added before it goes in the barrel and less water added before it goes in the bottle). It has a bit more body than the standard Crown, a more viscous mouth-feel. The flavor comes on stronger and more quickly. There's a bit of sweet maltiness up front, but that gives way to more harsh flavors. The spice notes are there, but they are mingled with unpleasant sooty notes. Late in the finish it gets a bit hot (as in alcohol burn without flavor to balance it). I've certainly tasted worse, but $30 a bottle is a bit pricey for something that I would relegate to mixing with cola. The standard (and less expensive) Crown is more delicate, elegant and most important, drinkable.