Thursday, June 30, 2011

White Whiskey

stats: Death's Door - white whiskey, 80 proof, aged 3 days, $30
        Georgia Moon - corn whiskey, 80 proof, aged less than 30 days, $10

First a brief correction of what I wrote last week. Under U.S. law, certain types of whiskey cannot be distilled above 160 proof, but distillates of grain are considered to be whiskey up to 190 proof. At or above 190 proof it becomes “neutral spirits” (of which vodka is a sub category).

On to the white whiskey. Un-aged whiskey has many nicknames – hooch, white dog, white lightening, new make, etc. This used to fall mostly into two categories, illegal moonshine and tasting samples of what comes off the stills at large commercial distilleries given during tours, neither of which you’d find in a retail store. Corn whiskey (sort of the legal relative of moonshine) must be made from at least 80% corn, and requires no aging but it can be aged in un-charred oak barrels. It has been around for a while, but was traditionally hard to find outside of the southern markets. It has become more widely available in recent years. Other un-aged whiskeys have popped up in recent years with the boom in micro-distilling as these new companies try to turn a profit in the early years before their aged whiskeys are ready to go to market.

Death’s Door is a white whiskey from Wisconsin, made from 80% wheat and 20% malted barley. It is distilled to 160 proof, and finished in un-charred oak barrels for 3 days. I like that the bottle has sort of an ominous look that made my mother stop and say “Death’s Door, what the hell is that?” when she saw it sitting on the coffee table.

The nose is quite intense - it is unique, but hard to describe. I guess a combination of floral and perfumey aromas is the best I can do. Nosing a wheated bourbon that I have on hand, I do detect similar aromas. But they are more background notes, barely able to stand out among the heavier wood/leather/vanilla scents imparted by the oak. On the palate there doesn’t seem to be much up front until you swallow it, then there is a quick explosion of flavor. It is similar to the nose, but with a fruit component too, perhaps apple. As the flavor recedes, a bit of a burn builds. As the burn slowly fades, a mostly perfumey finish emerges and lingers on for some time. In spite of the burn, it is fairly smooth overall. I bought this bottle in my quest to sample all things whiskey. I do like it, and not just because it is interesting and unique, I just enjoy drinking it. But I do have to admit, I would probably reach for an aged whiskey first most of the time.

 The Georgia Moon definitely has a sharper, more industrial nose to it. The aromas from the Death’s Door are more intense, but also far more pleasant. On the palate, it’s not quite as bad as the nose might lead one to believe, but still not too impressive. The flavors are somewhat restrained (which is good, because they are kind of weird). It starts off with floral and grain notes that are almost acceptable, then becomes reminiscent of some sort of wax candy. It goes through a bit of a burn before the long finish sets in. I usually love a long finish, but when the flavor is undesirable (similar to the nose in this case), it becomes a burden. I would avoid this headache in a bottle unless you enjoy using peer pressure to make your friends drink unpalatable liquids from a mason jar.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Whiskey Laws

First an apology to anyone who follows this blog regularly. It has been my intention to put up new posts at least once a week, twice if possible. Updates have not been that frequent over the last few weeks, but hopefully I can be a little more consistent from here on out.

I know that when I did the Whistle Pig review, I said I would go over the differences between American and Canadian whiskey regulations next time around. But as I started in on the research, I got a little overwhelmed and realized it would be better lay out some basic definitions, then take one country at a time. Once I've covered the five major whiskey producing nations, I'll do an overview and highlight the differences between them. I'll alternate with reviews to keep it interesting as well. Also, keep in mind that whiskeys are made in certain ways sometimes by laws and regulations, and sometimes just by tradition. I'll try to differentiate as I go along.

I should really start with the most basic definition - whisk(e)y: a distilled spirit made from grain (basically beer which has had its alcohol concentrated by a still). Barley, corn, wheat and rye are the most common grains found in whiskey production, but really any grain can be used to make whiskey. Some people might ask "Belvedere is vodka and it's made from wheat, what's the difference?". The logical answer is that it's not whiskey because it's not aged in oak barrels. And that is the wrong answer. Most whiskeys are aged in oak, sometimes by law, sometimes by tradition, but not by definition. White (unaged) whiskeys do indeed exist. What is important is the level to which the spirit is distilled. A vodka (which can be made from anything fermentable, including grain) will be distilled to a very high proof, up around 190. But a whiskey will typically not be distilled above 160 proof. Sometimes this is by law, sometimes it is tradition, but it is part of the basic definition of whiskey. At a maximum of 80% alcohol, whiskey will retain much of the flavor and character of the grain it was originally made from. Vodka on the other hand has almost all of the flavor and aroma literally distilled out of it, reaching 95% alcohol before water is added back to it when it is bottled. Why is this done? Well, vodka was originally made from the cheapest possible ingredients (potatoes, etc) and tasted so bad that it made sense to distill the flavor out of it. In fact it was still so awful tasting that people added botanicals (like Juniper) to it to mask the flavor, making gin (which is really the original flavored vodka). So, you can probably see why I have no respect for vodka in general, and especially expensive ones that start with quality ingredients. While I'm covering basic definitions, I should go over the other distilled spirits as well. Tequila comes from the Agave plant (commonly mistaken for a cactus, the plant is a succulent, more closely related to yucca). Rum is made from sugar (cane sugar, molasses, sugar beets, etc). Brandy is made from fruit (most commonly grapes, and certain types of brandy, such as Cognac, can only be made from grapes).

Another item to take note of is the still. There are two types, the pot still and the column still (sometimes known as the continuous still for its method of operation, sometimes known as the Coffey still for one of its inventors). The pot still is the original method and works in a batch process. A vessel is loaded with an alcoholic liquid and heated. The alcohol evaporates first, and passes out through a tube at the top of the vessel. Once it cools, the alcohol (along with some other liquid) re-condenses in a separate container, and is now concentrated away from the liquid left in the still. For most whiskeys, this process is run through two or three times (double distilled, triple distilled). The column still, which was invented close to 200 years ago, is a little more complicated, and I won't go into the details of how one works. It operates on a continuous process - as long as steam and alcoholic liquid keep being pumped into it, concentrated alcohol and waste liquid (water from the steam and the liquid the alcohol was separated from) will continue to come out. The column still is more efficient, especially when producing highly concentrated alcohol (such as vodka, or denatured alcohol). The pot still has a greater mystique, and many believe it to produce a better product. That may be partly because the column still seems more industrial, and its operation is harder to understand. But at the end of the day, quality whiskey can be made from either type of still. In recent years, with craft (or micro) distilling growing rapidly, hybrid stills that are a combination of pot and column have become popular too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Whistle Pig

stats: 100% Rye Whiskey (distilled and aged in Canada, bottled in the US), 100 proof, 10 year, $70.

In 2009 Raj Bhakta, an American entrepreneur from Pennsylvania, bought a 500 acre farm in Vermont. He soon realized that the best way to turn a profit was to take the agricultural output of the farm and create a finished product from it which could be sold for a much higher price. Being a whiskey lover, he chose to grow rye on the farm, and distill it into whiskey, with the lofty goal of being a single estate distillery (producing whiskey only from the grain grown on the farm). Shorty after the purchase, Raj was introduce to Dave Pickerell, former Maker's Mark master distiller of 14 years. The two decided to collaborate on the project, and a business partnership was begun. Of course quality whiskey has to age for quite some time, and no one wants to own a business that doesn't sell anything for several years. In this situation, there are two paths that can be taken: start off making unaged products like vodka and gin, or source aged whiskey from larger distillers to sell in the near term. Raj and Dave chose the later, and with Dave's industry connections, he was able to source some fine 100% Rye out of Canada. So, technically this is Canadian Whiskey which is bottled in the US, which brings up an interesting point - the US and Canada have different definitions of Rye Whiskey. By US law, to be called Rye it must have at least 51% Rye in it, but in Canada, a whiskey can have very little Rye, and still legally be called Rye. I don't want to go off on a huge tangent, so I'll follow this post in a few days with one that covers the differences (technical and legal definitions) between American and Canadian Whiskey.

One obvious question is, can you buy this or something like it in Canada? The answer is not really. The 100% Rye from Canada is what they refer to as a flavoring whiskey. A tiny percentage of it is added to the fairly pedestrian base of something like Canadian Club or Crown Royal to give it a backbone of flavor. Sure, the Canadians could sell this on its own, but that's just not what they do. It is simply outside of the range of what they normally sell. The next obvious question is, what is a whistle pig? It's just another name for a groundhog, for a sound it sometimes makes. After an amusing encounter with a Frenchman in Vermont, Raj decided to name his farm and his whiskey after the critter.

Okay, enough of my ramblings, on to the whiskey. Rye is a spicy spirit by nature, and this is a big intense one. Sometimes it's hard for me to identify individual flavors, but most Rye whiskeys have a unique but common profile of spice flavors. Also, a typical Bourbon will have somewhere between 10% and 40% rye, so they can taste similar. But at 100% rye, and 100 proof, the Whistle Pig is all about the Rye flavors. The nose has dry spice notes with floral hints. On the palate it seems mild up front, but don't be fooled, the flavor grows rapidly with an explosion of fiery spice which quickly builds in layers of intensity. The classic rye flavors eventually reache a crescendo of mouth numbing proportions. Then the long finish tapers off pleasantly and slowly. A light floral hint runs through the background. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in depth and intensity.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Canadian Club 6 yr vs Canadian Club 10 yr

stats: Canadian Club 6 yr - blended Canadian Whisky, 80 proof, $15
           Canadian Club 10 yr - blended Canadian Whisky, 80 proof, $17

I know that when I did my Crown Royal roundup a few weeks ago, I said there were no other Canadian whiskies that I really even considered. Most of them get lumped into the unfortunate category of "brown vodka". But in 2008 Canadian Club celebrated its 150th anniversary with a limited release 30 yr old bottling. While it wasn't something that I'd pick up on a whim at $150 a bottle, when Malt Advocate declared it the 2009 Canadian whisky of the year, I certainly took notice. After observing that the standard CC caries an age statement of 6 years, and that a 10 year can be had for just a few dollars more, I decided to give the two a try and see if there was anything here worthy of my attention.

I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted the two. While I certainly wouldn't regard them as great whiskies, they were far better than I expected, especially when you consider their price point. The 10 year is balanced with enticing notes of teaberry and gingerbread and an oaky background. Not a lot of complexity, but still quite pleasant with a respectable finish. The 6 year has a similar flavor profile, but lacks the depth and character of the 10 year. While there's nothing seriously wrong with the 6 year, it just comes across as a meek version of the 10 year. These aren't whiskies that I would get terribly excited about or go out of my way to purchase, but I do have a good bit more respect for them than before this tasting. Given the minimal price difference between the two, I would reach for the 10 year every time.

I've noticed that CC also makes a 12 year and a Sherry Cask version, both of which are in the $20 range. Now I'm very curios to see how those compare to the 10 year. Definitely fodder for a future review.