Friday, August 31, 2012

Whiskey bars of Washington DC, part 1

While I prefer to spend most of my time near my secluded rural homestead, occasionally one must give in to the pressure of social obligations. I recently found myself in the position of being invited to a wedding and without a decent excuse not to attend (nothing against the couple getting married, I’m quite fond of them both, but I have a strong disdain for weddings in general). Having resigned myself to traveling to the Washington DC metro area for the weekend, I decided to try to make the best of my situation - if I’m stuck with lemons, I can at least make a whiskey sour.

Fortunately, I had recently read an article about a relatively new whisky bar in DC, a place with a collection of epic proportions, called the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. My obligatory trip was gaining a sense of purpose. A little online research turned up a few more prospects: a bar called Bourbon specializing in American whiskeys, and quirky sounding place named Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar. This was turning into a whiskey mission with a matrimonial side show.

I started at Little Miss Whiskey’s since it was furthest from where I was staying and located in a less-than-upscale neighborhood. Nothing too terrible, but it might be unwise to bumble around there drunk at 2:00 a.m. I wasn’t really sure what to expect here, their web site mentioned whiskey tastings but only had a beer list, and most of the online reviews focused on the music, the outdoor patio and a cocktail called Awesomeness that came out of a Slushie machine.

The sun was still above the horizon when I got there, and it was very dark inside, but my eyes eventually adjusted to the low light levels. The crowd was light for a Friday, but I was there pretty early in the evening. The music was eclectic (in a good way) and the décor had sort of a New Orleans / voodoo feel to it. The whiskey selection wasn’t as extensive as I had hoped, coming in between 40 and 50 bottles (about 15 single malt scotches, 15 American whiskeys, and maybe a dozen Irish bottles). Not a lot of depth, but at least they had a few variants of many of the brands they carried, rather than just the standard flagship offering from each distillery. Calling it a whiskey bar might be a bit of a stretch – it came across more as a cool, hip, upscale dive bar with a respectable whiskey selection.

They did have a printed whiskey list on the bar, but there were only a few offerings I was excited about. I started off with a 16yr Glen Grant – the only other Glen Grant I had sampled before this was a 38yr old from Gordon & MacPhail, so I was curious to try an official distillery bottling. The pours here are a solid 2 oz, and even thought it is not normally offered, the bartender was willing to do a half pour for me.

I have found that if I’m alone at a bar and start to write tasting notes on paper, it can draw unwanted attention. Not to mention that scraps of paper tend to disappear when I drink. I’ve switched to typing my notes into my phone using the notepad function. It looks like I’m texting so people usually leave me alone and I can concentrate on what I’m tasting without being distracted. My notes on the 16yr Glen Grant are as follows:

almost no nose. fairly big. mix of malt, fruit and spice. spice builds nicely as other flavors subside. dry finish. mostly just spice at the end of the long finish. I like.

I had also noticed a few offerings from Copper Fox on the list. This is a Virginia distillery started by Rick Wasmund. Some of his whiskies are branded Wasmund’s, while others are branded Copper Fox. Their barley is all malted in-house, and they are known for smoking it with American fruit woods, as well as adding charred wedges of fruitwood and oak to the whisky while it ages in former bourbon barrels. Production is limited, and this was the first time I’ve had a chance to try anything from this distillery in spite of being on the lookout for it for several years.

The menu listed a Copper Fox Rye and Single Malt. I later learned that the Single Malt is actually bottled under the Wasmund’s label, so there was a slight error on the list. I ordered the Single Malt first, and the second bartender, who had just come on duty, didn’t notice they were out of it and poured me the Rye by mistake. I didn’t realize this until I finished that drink and ordered the Rye (from the original bartender). I was almost certain he grabbed the same bottle, and it tasted just like my last drink:

very fruity nose, apple and cherry? interesting, unique palate. big fruit throughout, malt foundation up front gives way to moderate spice. lonely spice finish. good but slightly out of balance, fruit (cherry) is dominant.

I was a little unhappy about getting the same drink twice, especially on a night when I’d have so many things to taste and really didn’t want to be hungover the next day. But it was an honest mistake, and when I explained what had happened, the bartender only charged me for my first two drinks. He was a good man and was tipped accordingly.

While I didn’t love the Copper Fox whisky, I do love what this distillery is doing – pushing the envelope to create a new style of whisky that is uniquely American. I’m looking forward to trying more of their offerings in the future.

As for Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, it’s a cool and unusual place. I wouldn’t go out of my way to make the journey there just for the whiskey, but if I was with friends who wanted to go to a fun, interesting bar and I still wanted to have some decent whiskey options, this would be the spot.

A thirty minute walk and a short train ride got me to the neighborhood with the next two whiskey bars, but I’ll to save the rest for my next post.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Two from the Isle of Jura

Isle of Jura Superstition, single malt scotch, Islands, 90 proof, $48
Isle of Jura Origin 10yr, single malt scotch, Islands, 86 proof, $43

Looking at a basic map of Scotland several years ago, I made the assumption that one got to Islay by way of Jura, with a quick ferry ride at each end of the island. I later learned that this was not the case and that the only way to Jura (at least with a car) was via a short ferry ride from Islay, after having taken a much longer ferry ride from the mainland to Islay.

What I had once imagined would be an obligatory visit to the Isle of Jura distillery on the way to Islay, turned out to be an optional day trip that didn’t fit very well into the schedule of my trip around Scotland. Having tasted only one example of single malt from Jura, and not being all that impressed by it, the optional day trip was one that I never even seriously considered.

During my stay on Islay, I was treated to glorious views of the Paps of Jura (a small group of steep, rounded mountains that rise dramatically from the sea) from a multitude of locations. Since my return home, I have sampled an offering from the Isle of Jura distillery that I have a much more favorable opinion of.

Next time I am on Islay, the optional side trip will be seriously considered. For now, I can compare the two above mentioned single malts.

A vatting of older Jura and younger, more heavily peated Jura. Medium golden-amber in color. The assertive, fragrant nose has a mix of peat smoke, malt, perfume and pine. It’s a little hot across the palate, with moderate peat smoke quickly followed by strong perfumed floral flavors. The two flavors seem to be at odds with each other, not in harmony. The finish has some length and warmth, with dry spice notes joining the fray at the end, but the flavors put forth still fail to impress overall.

Origin 10yr
Made from lightly peated malt. Almost identical in color to the Superstition, maybe just the slightest bit lighter. The nose is also similar to the Superstition, but with a lower proportion of peat smoke, and everything more subdued overall. It has mild peat on the palate, balanced by caramelized malt flavors. Gentle, not aggressive. Respectably long finish with subtle floral notes emerging, and then giving way to a dry spiced ending. While it’s not terribly complex at any given point, the flavors evolve nicely and are well integrated. Quite enjoyable.

The 10yr puts the Superstition in context. I can see where they were coming from and what they were trying to do. It wasn’t well executed, and doesn’t really work, but it makes more sense to me now.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Scotland follow-up, part 4

At last, I have reached the final Scotland follow-up post. This one will include an almost forgotten whisky review, but first a few thank-yous are in order.

We had the good fortune to stay at a series of top notch B&B’s, with wonderful proprietors who were instrumental in making our trip a truly special experience. Gary and Sue at the Heatherfield House in Oban, Jane and Adrian at the Strongarbh House in Tobermory on Mull, Andrea and Donna at the Cala Sith Guest House in Port Ellen on Islay, and Angela and Callum at the Feorlin Guest House in Campbeltown; they all could not be thanked enough in person. Their warm hospitality, local knowledge, and phenomenal home cooked meals made our trip the journey of a lifetime.

We also met a lot of great people along the way; tour guides, bartenders, distillery workers and whisky tourists from many other nations among them. But our Whiskey School mentors deserve special thanks. Pop, Norman, Kerry and Gordon at Springbank graciously allowed us to interrupt their normal work routines. Their generous information, patience and good nature were greatly appreciated.

As one drives south across Islay on the A846, the wide open agricultural landscape is suddenly interrupted by the massive, looming buildings of the Port Ellen Malting facility on the northern outskirts of the town of Port Ellen. Once the site of the distillery of the same name, many of the original warehouses and other distillery buildings lie just out of site behind the newer, dominant structures.

The distillery dates back to 1825, and even though no whisky was produced from 1929 until a 1967 rebuild, malting and warehousing operations continued throughout that time. The Port Ellen Maltings (where the process is an automated, mechanized alternative to traditional floor maltings) was constructed in 1974, alongside the distillery. Malted barley from this facility has been supplied to most of the distilleries on Islay since 1987, but originally its malt only went to Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen. Those three distilleries were acquired by Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in the 1920’s. The 1980’s brought tough times to the scotch industry, and with three Islay distilleries in their portfolio, Port Ellen was deemed to be surplus and closed in 1983. Many single malt enthusiasts bemoan that fateful decision to this day. A series of mergers and acquisitions starting in 1986 eventually put the three brands, along with many others, in the hands of current owners, Diageo.

Not having produced any whisky for close to 30 years, Port Ellen single malt is becoming a rare commodity, and expensive. My last night on Islay seemed like an appropriate time to take the plunge. I made the short walk to the pub at the Ardview Inn, bearing the brunt of the Islay head wind, and ordered up a 27 year old Port Ellen (at 46% abv, distilled in the spring of 1983, from independent bottler Douglas McGibbon). I then sat quietly in the corner, tasting, contemplating, and typing notes into my phone.

My tasting notes, just about verbatim: Pale straw yellow. Good nose of sweet smooth smoke. Smooth moderate peat smoke on the palate, moves nicely through a range of flavors, from stone fruit to peaty smoke to a warming spicy finish, back into floral and fruit at the end.

So, did I like it? Was it worth it? While I certainly thought it was a well made, enjoyable single malt, I wasn’t blown away, and I definitely tasted more impressive offerings that week. But I think that may just come down to personal preference more than anything else. £25 is a steep price to pay for a single drink, at least in my world. While I found it to be an enjoyable dram, I wouldn’t pay that much for a second sampling. But to me it was worth the price just to satisfy my curiosity, and at the time I was able to justify the expense with an utterance of “hey, I’m on vacation after all”.