Friday, September 28, 2012

Isle of Arran 10yr

stats: single malt scotch, Islands, 92 proof, $48

The end of my last post made me realize that it was high time to pull that dusty bottle of 10 year Arran off my shelf for a thorough tasting. It can be hard for me to find the motivation to write about a whisky that I’m indifferent to – it’s much easier to get the ball rolling with a whisky that is spectacular, or even one that is awful. But tasting a much more impressive bottling from the same distiller was just the kick in the pants that I needed.

Before I get into the whisky (literally and literarily) I’d like to take a look at the background of the distillery. I’ve talked before about the massive downturn that the Scotch whisky industry went through in the 1980’s, but the reality of that time period truly comes to light when one looks at the pattern of distillery openings and closings in Scotland over that last five decades.

Information about distillery closings from the 1960’s is hard to come by, but I’m relatively sure there were very few, if any, and during that decade at least 13 new distilleries came on-line. The 1970’s saw the trend begin to reverse, with just five new facilities being almost balanced out by the three that were lost. Then things really went south in the 1980’s with no less than 18 distilleries shutting their doors, and not a single new one opening. Keep in mind that I’m only counting closures that were essentially permanent – I’m not even considering the outfits that were mothballed for anywhere from a few years to a decade before eventually coming back into operation. The after effects of the 1980’s saw four more distilleries go under in the 1990’s, but there was some hope as consumer demand surged and three new distilleries came to be. In the first decade of the new millennium, six more new facilities commenced production. In the same period roughly half a dozen have closed or been mothballed. It remains to be seen if those mothballed distilleries will return to production, or become permanent closures.

The point that I’m trying to get at here is that it would take a lot of moxie to open a new distillery in Scotland in the early 90’s; but that is just what Harold Currie, a former director of Chivas, did. He founded the Isle of Arran distillery in 1993, construction began late in 1994 and the stills were running by mid 1995.

The island is located in the Firth of Clyde, a body of water that separates the Kintyre peninsula from the southwest coast of the Scottish mainland. Arran has a rich distilling history, although most of the 50+ distilleries that operated on the island in the early 1800’s were not licensed, and the last legal distillery closed in 1837. The location of the new distillery, on the far north of the island, was chosen partly for its exceptionally pure water source – Loch na Davie.

In the early years of operation, several very young expressions were released, but now that they have enough stock aging, the lineup is led by the 10 yr, as well as a 14 yr and a few “no age statement” cask finished bottlings. Several limited releases seem to be available, as well as a moderately peated version (most of the malt used here is unpeated). No chill filtering is employed, and no caramel coloring used. As for the 10 year:

Pale golden in color.
Aromatic nose, mix of clay and floral notes.
Light to medium bodied.
Slightly sweet up front. Fairly floral through the mid palate, and those flavors carry on through the respectably long finish, where they are joined by warm spice notes of moderate intensity. The spice fades off late in the finish, leaving the floral notes as the whisky’s final voice while they turn slightly perfumed. It progresses through with no rough edges and decent balance, but I’d like to see more complexity.

My feelings of mediocrity towards this whisky may be partly down to personal preference. As I’ve put some time in with this bottle over the last week, it seems to have grown on me a bit, and I think it’s really just the tail end of the finish that I don’t care for.

Looking at the CalMac ferry map, I see that a short drive from Glasgow followed by less than an hour on the ferry will get you to Arran. From the other side of the island, a 30 minute ferry ride would put you on the Kintyre peninsula, where one could head south to Campbeltown, north to Oban, or west to catch the ferry to Islay. Every picture I see of Arran looks stunning, and I think this could be a great way to start a coastal / island distillery adventure.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Whiskey bars of Washington DC, part 3

I had been at Bourbon longer than intended and sampled more whiskeys than I had planned to; there’s a distinct possibility that I hay have been moderately intoxicated by the time I arrived at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, around 1:00 in the morning. I feel fortunate to have the ability to maintain my composure under such circumstances. But I do have to apologize for the quality of the pictures in this post; my photography went from being creative earlier in the night to sloppy by the end.

My springtime visits to Duffie’s Bar on Islay with 300 bottles and the bar in the Ardshiel Hotel in Campbeltown with 450 bottles had both been real eye openers for me. But the 1400 bottle collection at Jack Rose was truly a sight to behold. The space is roughly 25’ by 50’ and features high ceilings. Whisky bottles adorn 2/3 of the interior wall space, and reaching as many as six bottles vertically, several library ladders are needed to access the higher shelves.

I would have loved to have checked out their whisky list in advance of my visit, but at the time they didn’t have it on their website. They have since posted a partial list online, showing about 350 selections, I think it covers maybe half of their single malts.

Upon my arrival I asked to see the list, and was handed a hefty book that, while well organized, could easily overwhelm with volume alone. I was kind of surprised by some of the omissions; I thought surely a list of this size would feature 40yr Glenfarclas or 21yr Springbank. Of course there were plenty of offerings far more rare than the above mentioned, and many of whose existence I wasn’t even aware. Official distillery bottlings ranged from run-of-the-mill flagship expressions to rarities and limited releases. All of this was backed up by a healthy selection of independent bottlings, giving astounding depth to most categories.

After much perusing, I finally settled on a 19yr Bunnahabhain at 54.3%, part of the Raw Cask series from independent bottler Blackadder. This is a cask strength, non-chill filtered, single cask bottle, I believe from a sherry butt. Pretty much hit a home run right off the bat:

Crazy intensity, fire, burning nasal cavity. Black hole of Bunnahabhain flavor.

And yes, I meant that in a good way. I tasted several Bunnahabhans when I was on Islay, but none at such high proof. It was truly stunning to see where this whisky could go.

It was getting pretty late at this point, and I still had to navigate my way back to the hotel before the trains stopped running at 3:00 – I had time for one more glass of whisky. The bartender seemed quite competent, so I threw caution to the wind and put the fate of my last drink of the night in his hands.

I was a little apprehensive when he pulled a bottle from the Isle of Arran distillery off the shelf. I have a bottle of their 10yr 46% at home, and I’m kind of indifferent to it. But this was a Port Cask Finish version, with no age statement at 50% abv. It’s amazing what a little Port wood and a slight increase in strength can do - one taste put this distillery in a whole new light for me.

For some unknown reason, I took a small pad of paper out of my pocket at this point and wrote down my tasting notes instead of typing them into my phone. Unfortunately, my normally meticulous handwriting had devolved into something that only a doctor could be proud of, and now I’m having a hard time deciphering my scribblings. Here’s my best attempt:

Depth, earth, fruit (quince), intensity, honey, dry port, raisins, smooth, balance.

Earth, quince and honey were the really tough ones; those may have been entirely different words. But the bottom line was that I really liked it. Now I’m excited to try out other Arran expressions and maybe I’ll even pay a visit to the distillery some day.

For the whisky obsessed, this place is a must see. As impressed as I was, the realist in me has a hard time believing that such a business model would be viable outside of the land of lobbyists, political schmoozing and international deal making.

I somehow got slightly disoriented trying to retrace my steps in reverse, so the 15 minute walk back to the train station took 30 minutes, but I got there by 2:45 and managed to catch the last train out to Bethesda.

Apparently, in my pre-trip whisky hunting euphoria, I grabbed the wrong suit; one that I’ve owned for far longer than I care to admit. So, yes, I had to suffer through the wedding moderately hung-over, wearing a horribly ill-fitting suit. But it couldn’t have been too bad; I did manage to throw back a glass of 12yr Chivas before the sun set.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Whiskey bars of Washington DC, part 2

A short ride on the DC Metro from Union Station to Dupont Circle brought me within walking distance of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, home to the Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Bourbon. The two bars share a common ownership, and are on the same street, just about a block apart.

Jack Rose was just a fifteen minute walk from the closest Metro station. I arrived around 11:00, and looking in from the outside it seemed very crowded and very loud. The noise levels seemed to echo a common complaint of many online reviews. With a large, rectangular open floor plan, I think that problem is just the nature of the space. I decided to save the best for last, and hoofed it a little further up the street to Bourbon.

With a long, narrow layout, Bourbon has a more intimate feel than Jack Rose. It too was pretty packed with people when I got there, and I’m guessing this is typical of most bars in the area at 11:00 on a Friday night. I had checked out their website in advance, which shows a whiskey list 200 bottles deep, primarily American offerings as one would expect. The standard pour is 2 oz here, and ½ oz pours are available for most of the selections.

The list featured some limited releases, such as Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13yr, which I’ve been curious to try for many years, as well as Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23yr Bourbon (at a very reasonable $8 for the ½ oz pour, considering the bottle’s $230 retail price tag). I was going in with a game plan.

Of course no seats were to be had at the bar, or near it for that matter. The bartenders were super busy, and it seemed that far more people were drinking cocktails than whiskey. I jockeyed my way forward and waited patiently for the attention of one of the two bartenders. It took a while, but when it was finally my turn, I went straight for the 23yr Pappy – only to be informed that they ran out of it a few weeks before. A short pause from me, and she was on to the next thirsty soul. I really can’t be too critical of this, I’ve spent plenty of time on the other side of the bar and when that many people want drinks at once, a good bartender will move on to someone who knows what they want after about 10 seconds of indecision.

Okay, on to plan b – pick something off the shelf. Fortunately, I’ve been at this long enough that I can figure out what many of the whiskey bottles behind a bar are, even if I’m not close enough to read the labels. My eyes honed in on a pair of matching ½ size bottles that could only be this year’s release of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection – a pair of 100% rye whiskeys, one aged in new oak casks, the other in used oak casks. It wasn’t too long before I was able to order a ½ oz of each, and a bar stool had actually become available in the mean time. I had narrowly passed up the opportunity to buy these bottles (at $100 for a pair of 375ml’s) three or four months prior, so I was really excited to have a chance to try them. Again, that tasting notes typed into my phone are essentially unedited.

Big color difference, medium amber vs. medium to pale straw. Light spice nose on aged cask version, fuller nose on new cask version, rounder too. New cask is a solid spice wave American rye, classic. Aged cask is nice, decent spice, but lacks the depth of the new cask version. Can almost liken them to a single malt vs. a blend.

Over the next hour the crowd thinned out a bit and the bartenders, who were both quite helpful, were able to spend some time guiding me through my selections. I later learned that the Van Winkle Rye had sold out too, but that was okay, there were plenty of interesting choices here.

While visually scanning through the bottles, I noticed one with a peculiar shape, short and squat with an extremely long slender neck. I thought it might be something I had hunted for in the past, so I asked one of the bartenders what it was. She brought the bottle over and it turned out to be the Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon (something totally new to me), a moderately priced 6yr old at 94 proof. The next thing I knew, she had poured me a (presumably) complimentary splash. The bottle was more impressive than its contents.

Deep Caramel and Vanilla nose. Fair to midland overall.

The next thing to catch my attention was a collection of bottlings from High West, another producer who had been on my radar for a bit, but remained untried. A micro-distiller based in Utah, they actually bottle a variety of whiskeys, younger ones that they have distilled themselves, and older ones that they have acquired from other sources. I decided to put my faith in the bartender, and asked him to pour me a glass of his favorite High West offering. I ended up sipping on the Double Rye, a marriage of 2 yr old (95% rye and 5% malted barley), and 16 yr old (53% rye, 37% corn and 10% malted barley).

Very mild nose. Palate is familiar, but can’t put my finger on it. Some sort of floral spice? Smooth finish. B+.

Next I noticed most of the Hudson Whiskey line from Tuthilltown Spirits. This is a fairly new distiller in upstate New York, known for aging their whiskey in small casks and using other techniques to increase the surface area of wood that the spirit is in contact with in order to mature their whiskeys more quickly. The lineup is well marketed, being presented in distinctive 375 ml bottles with eye catching labels, but they don’t come cheap, retailing around $50.

Once again, I decided to go with the bartender’s choice from the lineup. When I told him what I was after, he bluntly informed me that he didn’t really have a high opinion of any of them. I was then presented with another (presumably) complimentary splash. This time it was the Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey, I assumed it was the Hudson offering that the bartender found least offensive. My unbiased opinion definitely fell in line with his.

Hot, spice, lack of balance. Doesn’t suck, but meh.

The bar staff had steered me well thus far, and I felt safe putting the choice of my last drink here in their hands. I soon found myself sipping on a glass of Old Pogue Master’s Select Bourbon and it did not disappoint.

Subtle, smooth, sublime. It doesn’t do anything exceptionally, but it does everything extraordinarily well. A good, solid bourbon.

I like this bar, it has a comfortable feel, a helpful staff (who aren’t afraid to share their honest opinions), and a well rounded list of American whiskeys with plenty of obscurities and limited releases. For the true whiskey fanatics, I would suggest going at off-peak times to avoid the crowds.

I hate to stretch this out over 3 posts, but I’m going to for the sake of avoiding going far too long between posts.