Thursday, February 21, 2013

Florida, Day 3

I took advantage of the opportunity to avoid the alarm clock on Day 3, and was finally able to catch up on some much needed sleep. My only responsibility for the day would be to conduct a staff training session late in the afternoon. I had to take care of some last minute photo editing for a slide show that would be part of my presentation; after that I had just enough time for a brief outing to the Tequesta Brewing Company, a local brewpub a few towns north of where I was staying.

I went with a Kölsch, which was a nice, enjoyable beer, but not really true to the authentic style of its namesake. Even though I only had time for one drink, I did manage to sneak in a small sample of a Russian Imperial Stout. It started off quite promising, with good flavor development and complexity, but unfortunately turned astringent as it moved into the finish. I liked the layout and feel of the place; the beer was okay but definitely not in the same league as what’s being made at Cigar City Brewing over in Tampa.

After a quick change of clothes, I was off to make myy presentation. The thought of sharing my knowledge of and passion for whisky with the club’s food & beverage staff was quite appealing to me. The reality of the scenario was a bit different than my idealistic vision though. I was going to be working with a group of nearly 50 people, who had greatly varying levels of whisky knowledge. On top of that, I was asked to keep the session down to 30 minutes, 40 at the most. I would have preferred to have some interaction from the group, but the circumstances would limit this to being more of a lecture.

I decided to focus on Scotch Whisky and try to avoid the esoteric tangents that I love so much. We started off with some basic definitions to make sure everyone was on the same page before moving on to the proper pronunciation of distillery names. Following that was a basic talk about Scotland’s whisky producing regions. We then went through an overview of the whisky making process, which was accompanied by pictures I took while enrolled in the Springbank Whisky School. Stretching my time limit to the max, I managed to briefly touch on a few advanced topics during the last couple of minutes.

All things considered, I think the session was a success, with everyone gaining at least some knowledge. If the trip is repeated next year, perhaps it would be better to give a brief pre-test and split the group into two, based on the results. A basic course could be given to those without a strong base of knowledge, and for the more advanced group we could spend time discussing details about the individual whiskies that the club has on offer.

By a stroke of good luck (actually, it was probably down to good planning on my host’s part), there was a bourbon tasting at the club just a few hours after my training session ended. Of course there too much conversation for any sort of tasting notes, but I still managed to pick up some good information.

The Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbons, Makers Mark, and several Wild Turkey products were being showcased. I started off with a head-to-head of the standard Maker’s Mark and the Maker’s 46, with the sales rep explaining that the 46 starts off the same as the regular Maker’s, but after the normal period of aging time, charred French oak staves are put inside the barrels and it is left to age a bit longer (I think she said around 6 more months). It is then bottled at 94 proof, as opposed to the 90 proof of regular Maker’s Mark.

When I wandered around to the other side of the display setup, the first thing that caught my eye was a small bottle of clear liquid. I had to ask if it was available to taste! To my surprise, the answer was an enthusiastic yes, and the next thing I knew there was a glass of Wild Turkey “white dog” in my hand. A few bourbon distillers have made their “white dog” (the whiskey as it comes off the still, prior to dilution and aging) commercially available, but Wild Turkey is not one of them, so this sample was a nice treat. It was shockingly smooth for 130 proof.

A bottle of Wild Turkey American Honey sparked a conversation about my lack of interest in the flavored whiskey category, although I was willing to admit that I had sampled a few and felt that some were certainly better made than others. With all the skill of a good salesman, the WT rep convinced me to taste their American Honey offering (I’d tried it before, but that was at least a few years ago). As I suspected, it was good for what it was supposed to be, but not really my cup of tea. Next he convinced me to try it mixed 50/50 with lemonade on ice, in spite of my warnings that I really wasn’t a cocktail drinker. God damn, that was mighty tasty! Okay, maybe I could see myself sipping on one of those on a hot summer day.

To round things out I sampled the new Wild Turkey 81 proof (a replacement for the old 80 proof), which has a label that matches the revamped design on the 101 proof bottles. While it’s a “no age statement” bourbon, the 81 is supposedly averaging a good bit more time in the barrel the 80 used to. Also, a few other changes were made to ensure a more consistent product. Overall, I still prefer Wild Turkey 101, but the 81 proof seems to be a significant improvement over the 80 proof, rather than a mere bump in alcohol level to make the new label stand out as I had assumed.

Of course, I did manage to wrap the night up with a glass of single malt, a bit of solitude, and some proper tasting notes. Caol Ila 12 yr, 43% abv:

The nose is full and peaty, but in a manner that is elevated and fresh, rather than being outright dense. Rich of body and oily in texture, in spite of its lighter color. Peat smoke is the dominant flavor, but not to the point of being out of balance. The alcohol adds weight without going too far. Evolves nicely through the long finish, with heat, peat and spice all taking their turns at the fore. Well made and quite enjoyable, but lacking the level of depth and complexity of some of its competitors.

It was certainly nice to have a brief change of scenery and weather. Many thanks go out to the management, staff and members of Frenchman’s Creek Beach & Country Club for their generous hospitality, and for making my working whisky vacation possible.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Florida, Day 2

Day 2 started off with some fishing from the beach, between passing rainstorms. Aside from that, the day primarily revolved around preparing my presentation for the evening’s scotch dinner.

Over the summer my father and I put together a scotch tasting (8 single malts, each from a different distillery we had visited) and a show of photos from our trip, for a small group of friends and family. I spent quite a bit of time editing nearly 1500 pictures down to 500, but beyond that and arranging the scotches in a logical order, there really was no advanced preparation for the presentation; it was just a casual narrative of the images, with my father and I recounting tales of our grand whisky adventure.

While that evening served as a model for the task at hand, this event had to be taken much more seriously; I couldn’t just “wing it”. I was the invited guest of the resort’s management, and had been brought there with the expectation of putting together a very special event for their members, an audience that would not easily be impressed.

Preparations had actually begun a month or two in advance, with the work of selecting the four scotches for the evening. I was given lists from a few wholesalers and a budget to stay within. The first hurdle came when I was told that there would be one drink during a reception with cigars, followed by the other three selections with dinner. Heavily peated single malts and cigars go hand in hand, but the proper way to taste through a series of whiskies is to start soft and light, then work up to the most pungent heavy hitters. I voiced my concerns, but had to forge ahead while waiting to see if the order of the evening could be amended.

I put together three groupings, two for cigars at the start and one if they could be moved to the end. The first option was a gustatory tour through the less well known of the most heavily peated single malts (in no particular order):

Ledaig 10 yr
Longrow 10 yr or CV
Caol Ila 12 yr
Kilchoman (specific selection dependent on availability)

The second option started with a more mature offering from the smoky end of the spectrum, then backed off the peat but maintained robust flavor profiles:

Talisker 18
Oban Distiller's Edition
Glen Grant 10 yr
Cragganmore Distiler's Edition

And, if the cigars were moved to the end of the evening:

Auchentoshan 12 yr
Aberlour 16 yr
Dalmore 12 yr
Talisker Distiller's Edition

A few days after submitting my proposed options, I learned that the cigars would indeed go with the last whisky. But a few more adjustments were necessary when I learned that the first three whiskies would be served during the reception, with the appetizer and with the entre, rather than being paired with the appetizer, entre and dessert, as I had originally thought. With that in mind, I decided to change the Dalmore 12 yr to Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition. That put me over budget, so I changed the Aberlour from 16 yr to 12 yr. Then I found out that the Cragganmore DE was unavailable. After pondering the options, I decided that Oban DE would be a suitable substitution, making the final lineup:

Auchentoshan 12 yr
Aberlour 12 yr
Oban Distiller's Edition
Talisker Distiller's Edition

As much time and effort as it took to come up with the final selection, that was actually the easy part. Now I had to figure out what to say; and just a critical was how much to say. It would seem logical to base my talk on subjects I had covered here in the blog, but my audience was comprised of a group of people who had been receiving my posts as part of a weekly email newsletter – a regurgitation of my recent writings just wasn’t going to cut it.

I needed something original, and that came to me in the form of a book that I had just finished reading. I was inspired by a passage from this whisky based novel (a review is in the works) and that would be my opening toast.

Perhaps I’m a master of procrastination, or a man cursed with poor time management skills, or I subconsciously know that I do my best work under pressure and purposely put myself in these situations; however you look at it, I had little more than an opening quote with a few scant hours left before the big event. I was even still vacillating on whether or not to incorporate a slide show into my presentation.

I would have to talk about each whisky briefly (flavor profile, region / distillery location, production methods). I decided to leave the talks for the second and third selections at that, and not disrupt my audience’s dinner.

With the first course, I could continue on with tales of some of the wonderful people I met in Scotland and the conversations I had with them. This would allow me to segue into the story of my discovery of the novel I had just finished, which would lead to the quote / toast to open the evening.

I made a last minute decision to go with the slideshow, and running perilously low on prep time, I rapidly edited 500 images (from the above-mentioned family event) down to 120. My last page of notes was barely legible, but it was time to go.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was nervous, but I was certainly feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to put on a good performance and impress my guests. I opened well. What was essentially a keynote speech was engaging and drew people in, not to mention being of an appropriate duration. The second and third talks were informative but concise. However, I do have to admit that between a slightly longer talk about the fourth whisky and getting drawn off on a few tangents by my own slide show, I did get a little long winded at the end. But I could see that I was starting to lose my audience, and I really cranked up the pace for the last 30 or so images.

The whiskies were also well received, with the Aberlour garnering the most positive feedback. The Auchentoshan may have even converted a few vodka drinkers that were in the crowd.

Overall, the evening was a complete success, and there was even some talk among the members of turning it into an annual event!

It was nice to always have a glass of single malt close at hand during my presentation, but I did far more talking than drinking. However, at the end of the evening I was able to sit down by myself and unwind with a whisky. I decided to try something I’d never had before and put together proper tasting notes.

Glenkinchie is one of the three Lowland single malts that is currently in production and commercially available. The distillery dates to 1825, and lies in the countryside just east of Edinburgh.

Glenkinchie 12 year, 43% abv. The nose is elevated, malt, floral, grassy. It reminds me of bees and pollen. The palate is on the light side of medium, fresh cut grass with a little malt. Picks up intensity as it moves into the finish, unfortunately that intensity comes as heat rather than flavor. It goes out of balance toward the end, turning hot. Lonely grassy notes are the last man standing after everything else fades away. Not bad, but not great.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Florida, Day 1

When I started writing this blog, close to two years ago, it was really just an outlet; something to do while I drank whisk(e)y late at night in the comfortable solitude of my modest living room. I looked at it as a journal, a way to ensure that my thoughts / opinions were not lost with the passage of time, and perhaps as an introverted way of sharing my enthusiasm for the brown spirits with anyone who was willing to listen / read.

However, over time, it has grown into much more than that. It has driven me to delve far deeper into researching related subjects, both historical and technical, than I ever thought I would care to. It has also likely been the impetus for much of my whisky related travel. Attention to my prose has grown as well, with the level of readership increasing ten-fold over the last year. 

I never expected anything in return from my writing, but now doors are beginning to open and potential opportunities are arising, connections are being made and my network is expanding; where this will ultimately lead, only time will tell.

I recent months, I’ve been in contact with a former “food & beverage” colleague, in regards to a potential collaboration. Then, the call came through, an invitation to host a Scotch dinner and conduct a staff training session at an exclusive private golf community in Florida.

The night before my departure had me up quite late struggling to put the finishing touches on a lesson plan for the training session. That, coupled with a very early flight, left me starting the first day of the trip with just two hours of sleep; but the 70 degree increase in temperature during my short journey was a refreshing change.

My first stop was the clubhouse for a light lunch, and an introduction to the GM and a few of the members. After picking up my rental car and checking in to my lodgings, I took some time to relax, unpack and settle in. Next, I was off to my hosts’ private beach club for a fairly spectacular dinner. I won’t go off topic with all of the details of the wine pairings, but I really enjoyed tasting a Barolo Chinato for the first time. It’s always entertaining to taste something blind and try to figure out what it is when you’ve never even heard of said beverage before.

But after dinner it was back to the serious business of whisky. My old friend took me out to what I can only assume is the area’s most serious whisky bar (and purveyor of fine cigars as well), to meet to meet the local wholesale rep for Glenmorangie/Ardbeg and Diageo.

Angry Moon Cigars – Zino Platinum Lounge is somewhat of a cumbersome name, but it seemed like most people simply refer to it as the Angry Moon. I like the layout of this place, the free-standing bar is backed up by a properly light wall of whisky, creating a nice focal point. Everything was very comfortable: the seating ranged from tall chairs and high tables to large leather chairs surrounding tables of an appropriate height. The lounge atmosphere is emphasized by a lack of seating at the bar, which simply serves the purpose of proving a place to walk up to, peruse the collection and order a drink. Two separate outdoor seating areas are also provided for the cigar smoking crowd.

While I’ve seen bars with larger whisky collections, this one still had plenty to offer and was quite impressive for its size. Notable selections included Ardbeg Day, Ardbeg Galileo, Ardbeg Alligator, and three different 14 year single cask Springbanks, each aged entirely in a different type of sherry cask. George T. Stagg and 23 yr Pappy Van Winkle stood out among the American whiskey grouping. I was told that the owner is obsessed with obtaining anything rare, unusual or hard to get – a man after my own heart!

Many of the bottles they have are from the high end of the price scale, but considering the number of Bentleys I saw driving around the area, this is probably appropriate for the local clientele. If you’re into whisky and in the Palm Beach Gardens area, it’s worth checking out.

I looked over the menu for a while before deciding to try out one of the more obscure Glenmorangie offerings; the Sonnalta PX (aged 10 years in bourbon barrels before being transferred to Pedro Ximenez sherry casks for another two years). My host opted for the Glenmorangie Artein (comprised of 2 parts 15 year old whisky and 1 part 21 year old whisky, both of which were aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in casks that formerly held Sassicaia, a Bordeaux-style red wine from Tuscany).

I was offered a sip of the Artein, which I gladly accepted. Both whiskies were quite impressive, but there was far too much conversation and social interaction for me to focus on tasting notes.

My compatriots only had time for a single drink, but I decided to linger for one more; surely I could find something interesting here to sip on and compose proper tasting notes. As my eyes scanned the bottles, there it was – an unfamiliar label with Japanese characters. I asked for a closer look, and sure enough it was the Hakushu 12 yr that I’d been hunting for.

Hakushu, established in 1973, is the second Suntory distillery, essentially the sister to the more well known Yamazaki distillery. It has only recently become available in the U.S. and has certainly not made it to the little, tiny liquor-control state I live in. Looking online a few months ago, I saw prices mostly ranging from $60 to $70 a bottle. I spotted one for $55 and tried to order it, but they wouldn’t ship to Vermont. I managed to track down a bottle that was out of state, but within driving distance. Unfortunately it was way overpriced at $105. Needless to say, the Hakushu 12 yr was high up on my hit list and I was happy to find it by the glass. Notes from my phone: 

Hakushu 12yr, 43% abv
The nose is dense but gentle, with malt, sherry and very mild floral notes. Kind of a dichotomy with many subtle notes coming together to produce a richer whole. Medium bodied. Nice flavor development with depth, complexity and good balance. Flavors on the palate are well represented by the nose. Long, hearty finish. Far superior to Yamazaki 12 yr, but I would still give a slight edge to the Yamazaki 18 yr. 

At the time of the tasting, I had forgotten that this whisky is made from lightly peated malt. I really didn’t notice any peat / smoke notes, and now I’m left wondering if they were really that subtle, or if my palate / nose was thrown off by the minimal amount of cigar smoke wafting in from the outdoor seating area. At least now I know I like Hakushu enough to warrant a follow-up tasting should I come across it again.