A Visit to Blair Athol Distillery

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When I visited Blair Athol distillery, I was sick as a dog: sneezing, sniffling, slightly feverish. I’d also just started driving on the opposite side of the road that morning, and after a few harrowing hours navigating the twisty, windy A822 (the scenic route—lovely but tortuous) between Doune and Pitlochry, I was feeling pretty exhausted.

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So I didn’t appreciate the distillery tour as much as I would have otherwise. And alas, Blair Athol’s silent season is in the winter, when its water source is frozen over—so the distillery was in full production and we weren’t allowed to take photos or even visit the mash house or still house. That’s why most of the photos in this post depict quaint ivy-covered walls.

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Indeed, Blair Athol is a lovely distillery, for all that it’s one of those takes-all-comers that accommodates massive coaches full of German and Japanese tourists. Luckily for me and Crystal, our tour was one of the last of the day, and it was just us, so we could ask lots of nerdy questions without annoying anyone but the guide (who was, incidentally, lovely and more than happy to indulge our geekery).

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Blair Athol was legally founded in 1708 as Aldour, although as with many distilleries, it’s likely there was illegal production going on long before that. The site used to be a farm, also called Allt Dour, which means “River of the Otter”—hence the sweet wee critter on the Flora & Fauna label, the sole core Blair Athol single malt release. As the visitors’ center and lots of branding around the facility makes obvious, Blair Athol is the primary single malt used in the Bell’s blend. I reckon that’s why the tour buses come—like pilgrims to a shrine.

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I wasn’t allowed to enter this picturesque warehouse, alas.

In 1825, the name changed to Blair Athol. Just over a century later, in 1932, the distillery was mothballed (anyone know why?), but in 1949, Arthur Bell & Sons restored it, after acquiring it in 1933. These days, Blair Athol makes more than 3 million liters of spirit every year and 99 percent of it goes into blends, primarily Bell’s. The Flora & Fauna single malt is sold only in the UK, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway, but it’s well worth seeking out, full of rich sweetness with a well-balanced dryness.

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Lots of lovely clear water, Scotland’s most abundant natural resource

The water from the Allt Dour comes straight down off Ben Vrackie and is only filtered for particulate matter, but not purified, since the farmers around the source don’t use any pesticides. Oddly, after distilling, Blair Athol’s spirit is trucked off-site for filling into casks. Then some—though certainly not all—casks are brought back to be stored in three on-site warehouses that hold 5,000 casks apiece. When they’re ready for bottling, off they go to Leven, where owner Diageo has a massive bottling plant.

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Since so little Blair Athol is sold as single malt, our tasting was limited to the signature 12 year old F&F and a special Blair Athol Cask Strength. This one incorporated 14-, 15- and 16-year-old casks but has no age statement. Its like the 12 year old on steroids, with a nose redolent of cherries and hay. The palate has dried cherries and dried apricots, dark chocolate, and orange peel, with a long lingering finish. In 2012 when it was first released, a bottle cost £55. Now it’s up to £80 and if I could have justified the expense, I’d have paid it. Blair Athol makes a delicious single malt, and I highly recommend it.

A Visit to Deanston Distillery

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch

Last summer I went to the UK for my best friend’s wedding—a week-long Indian affair that redefined the whole concept of a party. At the time I was between jobs and had spent a stupid amount of money on a plane ticket, so I decided to make the most of it and take another week to trek around Scotland, mostly solo. This meant renting a car and making a good effort not to kill myself or others with my opposite-side driving. Thankfully, Enterprise has automatic transmission cars for hapless Americans (though their claims to offer American-style customer service are pretty suspect). And even more thankfully, the first leg of my journey—and easily the most difficult, as I had to get used to the driving—brought a traveling companion, the lovely Crystal Coverdale. She’s Canadian and thus forgave me for making some hairy turns in the first part of our journey.

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch still stillhouse copper

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch single malt highland

We met at the Edinburgh Enterprise and set off on the M9 for Doune and Deanston Distillery, passing the magnificent Kelpies along the way. Being an American, I’m used to road trips taking many hours, so it surprised me when we arrived in what felt like no time at all. The wee town of Doune has two main attractions: the distillery and Doune Castle, also known as the Monty Python castle. Naturally, Crystal and I had to stop in for a visit and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, Quite Extraordinarily Rude Frenchman notwithstanding.

Doune castle Monty Python Scotland

“I fart in your general direction!”

Visiting the distillery offered its own interesting rewards. Deanston is a massive facility. Once a cotton mill, it was converted to distilling in the 1960s and still retains many of the features that enabled it to produce cloth. Sitting directly next to the River Teith, there’s an on-site hydro-electric plant that not only produces enough power for the distillery, but actually feeds power back into the grid. The Teith also provides the distillery’s water source for mashing and for cooling the spirit as it comes off the still.

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch hyedroelectric power energy

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch hydroelectric power energy

Some of the hydro equipment, utterly dwarfed by the soaring mill space

From 1982 to 1990, Deanston was silent as a result of the “whisky lake” of oversupply and low demand. But since it’s come back, the distillery has produced some really excellent spirit, aging primarily in ex-Bourbon casks with some finishes in Sherry, Port, Cognac and other interesting barrels. The finishing is always to good effect and I recommend trying as many finishes as you can, as they tend to improve on what is already a solidly flavorful whisky.

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch cask barrel

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch filling store

Casks leave artistic patterns behind on the filling house floor.

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch cask bung

Bins and bins of bungs (For those interested, these are poplar.)

I spoke with Deanston’s Master Blender, Ian MacMillan, who is responsible for the latest release, an 18-year-old that was matured 11 years in ex-Bourbon and a further seven in Hine Cognac casks. He confirmed that a 100-percent certified organic Deanston will be coming sometime soon. He also noted that Deanston has done no chill-filtering in several years (Whisky Advocate notes that Burn Stewart ceased the practice across its single malt range in 2010).

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The gift shop at Deanston Distillery should look familiar to fans of The Angels’ Share.

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Deanston proudly displays a cask signed by the cast of The Angels’ Share.

Those who have seen the film The Angels’ Share will recognize Deanston’s tasting room and gift shop, and perhaps some of its warehouses. The cast of the movie also signed a cask, though I’m not sure if it’s been set aside for them or if in a few years we’ll see it up for sale in a DVD box set special.

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch earplugs

Earplugs! A distillery is a loud place.

Deanston Distillery whisky Scotch mash tun

One can imagine all sorts of horror movie scenarios when contemplating the barbed arms of the empty mash tun.

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Some fun facts about Deanston:

– Deanston is the primary malt in the Scottish Leader blend, the number-one selling Scotch whisky in Taiwan.

– Once upon a time, Deanston made gin, as well as a cream liqueur.

-There’s a resident friendly pigeon that hangs around hoping to be fed (and usually succeeding, apparently).

– The “dean” in Deanston shares its root with “Doune,” both coming from the Gaelic “dun,” which means a hill-fort.

Chai Whiskey Ice Pops

George Dickel No. 1 whiskey white corn whisky chai ice pop masala

Y’all, it’s getting hot around here, and since I live in NYC, land of dripping window units and crazy-high Con Ed bills, I try to stick it out in the summer weather as long as I can. This leaves me with more money for food and alcohol, as well as a feeling of superiority at being tougher than my neighbors. This city might be an urban heat island but I grew up AC-less in North Carolina, and I will take July’s heat and humidity over February’s unending polar vortex any day.

Besides, there are few pleasures more childlike than the race against time to slurp-eat an ice pop before it melts all the way down your arm. Although when you’re boozing up said ice pop, childlike becomes a less appropriate adjective, but a tasty treat all the same.

A few months ago, I received a bottle of George Dickel No. 1 White Corn Whiskey from a press event. I knew right away that I wanted to infuse it. I often use vodka or grain alcohol for these purposes and was curious whether the corn whiskey would have any noticeable effect. At 91 proof, it’s not excessively strong, but that was actually a benefit in this case, as I decided to mix in chai spices which take no time at all to make their presence felt.

Since the spices were already ground, a quick infusion was all that the whiskey needed to take on intense chai flavors. (If you’re hearing “chai” and thinking “tea bag,” see this post for a quick lesson on masala.) After only one hour, voila! A tasty chai whiskey that could easily accommodate some simple syrup for a chai liqueur.

So back to the hot weather. I found some darling ice pop molds at Ikea this week for $2 and that was all the inspiration I needed. I mixed the chai whiskey with a little milk and some leftover sweet tea and popped those suckers in the freezer for a few hours. And then, at the hottest point of the day, I went to town.

Chai-Infused White Corn Whiskey
Ingredients:
– 1 cup white whiskey, e.g. George Dickel No. 1
– 1/2 tsp. ground chai masala

Directions:
Mix whiskey and masala in a glass jar and let infuse for one hour, agitating once or twice. Strain through a coffee filter and store unrefrigerated in a glass jar indefinitely. (If there are no stray chai bits in, this should last at least six months to a year.)

Optional: Blend with simple syrup to taste for chai liqueur.

Chai Whiskey Ice Pops
Note: Measure the amount of liquid your ice pop tray can hold. If more or less than what is called for here, adjust accordingly. Adding a higher proportion of alcohol may alter your mixture’s ability to freeze fully.

Ingredients:
– 1 cup+ sweetened iced tea (the stronger the better)
– 2 Tbs chai whiskey
– 2 Tbs milk

Directions:
Mix ingredients and pour into ice pop molds, topping off with more tea if needed. Chill for 3–4 hours.

Thanks to Taylor Strategy for the bottle of George Dickel No. 1.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cranachan

dessert trifle parfait cranachan Scottish whisky honey oats whipped cream strawberry rhubarb brown sugar

There are many things to love about Scotland but, people always point out, the cuisine is not one of them. These always tend to be people who have never actually traveled to Scotland and bothered to try anything that seemed scary and unfamiliar. I pity these people, not only because they end up missing out on an authentic and pleasurable cuisine, but because they likely suffer from their culinary close-mindedness in other ways, too. (Imagine how dreadful they must be to dine with!)

The truth is that Scottish cuisine might be simple and somewhat unadorned, but when it’s well-made, it can hold its own. It surprises me that in this era of trendy nose-to-tail restaurants, no one in the US seems to have discovered the beauty of haggis, a dish that combines multiple kinds of offal with humble oats, suet, and spices and truly does taste delicious. Perhaps because the haggis emerges from its pudding-bag (aka sheep’s stomach) an ugly, crumbly mess — but that certainly hasn’t stopped chefs in Scotland from plating it up in elegant towers or stuffed in bacon-wrapped chicken breasts.

I digress. Besides the haggis, Scottish cooking offers other dishes that incorporate the most basic ingredients into satisfying and tasty meals. Cullen skink, possibly the best name for anything ever, is a haddock and milk soup: sounds horrible, tastes divine. A good scotch broth is nothing more than barley, vegetables, and a few shreds of meat, and yet you’ve never tasted anything more suited to the wet, windy days of January in Edinburgh. And what about shortbread? It’s flour, butter, and sugar — three ingredients become one divine treat.

My absolute favorite Scottish dish also incorporates only a few basic items. Cranachan is basically trifle made with fresh berries (usually raspberries), whipped cream, and oats. (Oh, oats! The Scots can do about a thousand things with oats.) A little extra flavoring comes from heather honey and, naturally, whisky. It’s a simple, beautiful, wholly satisfying dessert and one upon which you can riff endlessly.

So, since it’s springtime and here in New York that means rhubarb, I decided to whip up a cranachan that’s a little more tart and syrupy than normal. You don’t have to include the whisky, although I obviously recommend it since it provides that little bit of depth the dessert would otherwise lack. I used Compass Box Great King Street, my go-to blend, but feel free to choose a whisky suited to your taste. (A cask strength Glenmorangie or even a sweet-and-salty Old Pulteney would really kick things up.)

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cranachan

Ingredients: 
– 1 heaping cup of rhubarb, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 heaping cup of strawberries, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
– 1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. brown sugar
– 1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. whisky
– 1 pint heavy cream
– 1 tsp. honey
– 2 Tbs. oats

Directions:
1. Toss the rhubarb and strawberries with brown sugar and heat over low in a saucepan. Allow the mixture to gently simmer, stirring often, until the rhubarb breaks down and the liquid becomes syrupy. Remove from heat, and stir in 1 Tbs. whisky. Let cool and then move to the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to one day.

2. In a skillet over low heat, dry-toast the oats until they’re brown and nutty. Sprinkle on the brown sugar right at the end of cooking and remove from heat, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. Let cool.

3. Using a whisk, stand mixer, or hand mixer, whip the cream until very stiff peaks form — nearly overwhipped. Fold in the whisky and honey.

4. In glasses, bowls, or ramekins, spoon the fruit mixture and layer the whipped cream over it. Top with the toasted oats and garnish with a sliced strawberry, if desired. Serve immediately.

When you dig in, you’ll want to mix up the layers — and you should! This syrupy fruit base mixes especially well with the whipped cream, and the toasted oats remain crunchy to the last bite.

Cold Beet, Daikon Radish, & Carrot Salad

beet daikon carrot grated root vegetable cold salad radish

I didn’t know I liked beets.

At least, not until this past winter. I didn’t have anything against them—I’d just never eaten them growing up and my only experience theretofore had been encountering those gelatinous maroon cubes in the dining hall salad bar. ICK. But when I joined a winter CSA, beets abounded, and I had to come up with something to do with them all because I sure hate wasting food (and money—CSA’s ain’t cheap!).

I probably would have roasted the whole winter’s share once I discovered how amazing warm, sweet beets taste, but my husband got a little tired of that format, so: onwards. My final share also included a boatload of daikon radishes which—although I pickled a solid pound—never seemed to diminish in volume.

How to use up these sturdy roots, especially at the end of a long, snowy winter when oven fatigue has set in? Optimistic and cheerful thanks to the first stirrings of spring (50 degree days, omg!), I banished the thought of cooking with heat and decided that a cool, crunchy salad was in order. Rounding out the daikon’s peppery sharpness and the beet’s earthy sweetness, I threw in mild orange carrots and concocted a tastebud-popping dressing. If you prefer more or less of one of the vegetables—or even something else altogether—go wild. Substitute mint and basil for cilantro, lime zest (or juice) for lemon, and use a fish sauce at your preferred pungency.

I used a food processor to grate all the vegetables, thank God. Doing this on a box grater would take forever and the beets would stain your hands Lady Macbeth style—not recommended. DO use a microplane for both your lemon zest and your ginger though, and don’t worry about peeling the ginger—I promise no one will notice the teeny bits of skin.

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Cold Daikon, Beet, & Carrot Salad

Ingredients:
– 2 cups beet, grated
– 2 cups daikon radish, grated
– 2 cups carrots, grated
– 1/3 cup vegetable, corn, or canola oil
– 1 Tbs sesame oil
– 1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
– 1 Tbs fish sauce
– 1 tsp soy sauce
– 1″ knob of ginger, finely grated (use a microplane!)
– zest of 1/2 lemon
– 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

Directions:
In a large bowl, whisk both oils, vinegar, fish sauce, soy sauce, ginger, and lemon zest until emulsified. Stir in grated vegetables and allow to macerate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and up to two hours. Just before serving, stir once more and garnish with cilantro.

 

 

PSA: I’m Blogging Beer at the Village Voice

Magic Hat brewery pistil spring beer psychedelic label

For the first day of spring, check out my post on Fork in the Road about the best beers for this flighty weather. And let me know what you’re drinking today—or looking forward to drinking as the temperatures rise.

In Defense of Flavored Whisky: Crown Royal Maple Eggnog

Crown Royal Maple Finished Canadian whisky whiskey eggnog creamy winter cocktail

At long last, it’s March. The snow mountains have receded to mere hillocks, the days are growing longer, and spring is just around the corner. Someday in the not-too-distant future, we’ll break out the fresh fruit for sangria and cucumber slices for a Pimms Cup. I can almost feel the warm sunshine now.

But—it’s March. In like a lion, and all that. I’m still enjoying rich, wintery cocktails. And since it’s sugaring season here in the northeast, maple syrup has become a focal point for my experimentation. Truth be told, I could eat straight maple syrup with a spoon, but instead I decided to highlight its clean sweetness with a creamy eggnog. Sure, it’s not Christmas, but who says you have to confine yourself to one month a year to enjoy eggnog?

Here’s where it actually gets unorthodox. I created this recipe with bourbon and maple syrup in mind as the main flavor elements—but then I received a sample of Crown Royal Maple Finished Canadian Whisky. I can hear the gasps—flavored whisky?! Can it be true? Sacré bleu!

Hear me out. This is not a spirit I would drink by itself. It’s quite sweet, and more of a liqueur than anything else. For that reason, it makes a great cocktail and an excellent mix-in for eggnog, particularly if you want to cut back on the added sugar. The maple flavor doesn’t overwhelm the palate and actually comes through cleanly without cloying or saccharine notes. In this eggnog, it’s bolstered by a rich undertone of molasses and some earthy allspice.

You can still make this recipe with bourbon or rye and maple syrup, but if you’re pressed for time, or want to save the real stuff for your pancakes, this makes for a very workable compromise. Bonus: it makes four to six servings, enough for a small gathering or a particularly thirsty evening.

Crown Royal Maple Eggnog
Ingredients:
– 4 large eggs
– 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
– 2 cups whole milk
– 1 cup heavy cream
– 1/2 cup Crown Royal Maple Finished (alternatively, 1/2 cup bourbon or rye plus 1-2 Tbs. maple syrup)
– 2 Tbs. molasses
– 1/2 tsp. allspice, plus more for sprinkling

Directions:
1. Separate eggs. (Try this method!) Using an electric mixer, beat the yolks thoroughly in a large bowl, then add in the brown sugar, beating until dissolved.

2. Stir in the milk, cream, alcohol and allspice and set aside.

3. Use the electric mixer to beat the egg whites just until soft peaks form; then, gently and quickly incorporate the molasses.

4. Whisk the egg white mixture thoroughly into the creamy base and chill for at least half an hour. The whites may separate and rise to the top, so stir well before serving. Sprinkle with allspice if desired.

Thanks to Christina at Taylor for the Crown Royal Maple Finished sample.

On Craft: Finger Lakes Distilling

finger lakes distillery whiskey whisky barrel aged seneca lake rickhouse warehouse storage

Craft spirits, while for some instantaneously synonymous with “quality,” can sometimes get a bad rap among whisky aficionados. Even though prevailing wisdom suggests that small batches,  local materials, and “handmade” (or at least small-scale and hands-on, rather than industrial and fully-mechanized) techniques  make for better product, the truth is that a lot of distillers laying claim to these principles turn out mediocre—and occasionally downright terrible—spirit. And some “craft producers” (yes, Michter’s included) are circumspect—even cagey—about the fact that they source their aged whisky. (While sourcing isn’t something to be ashamed of, a lack of clarity in brand messaging can confuse the non-savvy. To really know the provenance of a whisky, you have to read the label. For quick reference on particular brands, Sku’s Recent Eats provides a comprehensive list of American whiskey distilleries and brands, including those who source.)

For uninformed consumers who want to patronize independent, local, or small-scale whisky brands but aren’t sure which bottles are worth the price point, it can be intimidating to figure out where to start, especially considering that words like “craft,” “small-batch,” and even “single barrel” are essentially undefined (or inconsistently defined) in a legal sense—meaning, therefore, that anyone can define for themselves what is and is not considered “craft.” Even though I run with the whisky nerds, there are so many new “craft” brands appearing lately that it’s darn near impossible to keep up. Sifting through the marketing noise of folksy backstories and snappy packaging to find whisky that actually tastes good can turn an enjoyable hobby into a chore.

bar tasting room distillery microdistillery Finger Lakes Distilling bottles whisky whiskey spirits

Tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling

I rely heavily on the trusted recommendations (and warnings) of fellow whisky lovers when seeking out and trying brands that are new to me. So a few weeks ago, when a friend with an excellent palate and serious whisky chops praised Finger Lakes Distilling as the only craft distiller he doesn’t “avoid like the plague,” my interest was piqued. This distillery flies under the radar, bottling their whiskies under the name McKenzie, and I hadn’t heard of it up to that point. Serendipitously, I had a weekend in the Finger Lakes planned, so I got in touch with the distiller, Thomas McKenzie, to arrange a quick visit.

I could tell right away that Thomas is a man who respects and enjoys whisky as, indeed, a craft—something to tinker with, develop over time, and (perhaps someday) perfect just as an artist would a sculpture or painting or eventual magnum opus. The office space of the distillery is lined with shelves of whisky bottles, many of them old and rare, that Thomas tastes not just for pleasure but research, comparing his own products with whiskies of the past.

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Thomas McKenzie’s shelves of dusty whiskey.

Thomas and his partner, Brian McKenzie (no relation, oddly enough) opened Finger Lakes Distilling about five years ago. The distillery itself has a very modest footprint, with a teeny column still (only 25 feet tall) and thumper, and equally wee (350 gallons) pot still and rectifier. They have a small warehouse for on-site barrel storage and bottling, with plans for a larger rickhouse someday. Most of Finger Lakes’ whisky is sour mash; they use 50% setback (rather than the more standard 25%). Amazingly, they grow their own yeast—a rarity even among so-called craft distilleries these days.

continuous column still copper thumper distillery whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distilling microdistillery

25-foot continuous still

Finger Lakes barrels spirit at an unusually low 100 proof, which brings out a different spectrum of flavors in the finished whisky than might appear with a more standard proof of 125 or above. Using 53-gallon barrels, they put only 50 gallons in them to age because, Thomas says, the headspace allows the spirit to begin maturing immediately. The angels’ share is surprisingly high—about 13% annually—and, because the warehouse is quite dry, whisky comes out of the barrels at a higher proof than when it went in, about 104.

grain silo storage whisky whiskey distillery microdistillery Finger Lakes Distilling

Grain storage

Considering the distillery’s young age, I was surprised at the variety of aged expressions it offers. Besides brandy and grappa (a natural fit, with grapevines and vineyards surrounding the distillery site), vodka, gin, white dog, and liqueurs, Finger Lakes sells bourbon, wheat whiskey, rye, and an Irish-style pot still whisky. They’ll soon have a wheated bourbon for sale—and, having tasted a bit, I am desperate for a bottle. It’s astonishingly good.

Frankly, all their aged expressions are good—I’d say very good. The whiskies, which show their young age with a pleasant heat, all have a thick sweetness offset by the wood character which lends a surprising freshness. Bourbon, rye, and wheat whiskey are bottled at 91 proof. Even young as they are, Finger Lakes’ whiskies show remarkable complexity that continues developing in the glass. I’m guessing (hoping!) that in future years there will be older, even more interesting expressions to try.

barrel cask whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distillery wooden oak aged spirits

Barrel storage. As you can see, more space is needed.

This distillery exemplifies “craft” as I understand it. One brief visit, followed by a tasting, handily bore out my belief that true craft is about the process as much as the result. Finger Lakes Distilling thoughtfully makes spirit using well-tested and proven (some might call it traditional) equipment and methods, constantly refining their process. (For example, while they used to age some spirit in 10-gallon barrels, they’re phasing them out in favor of larger barrels which produce the desired flavors, even though the whiskey might be ready sooner in the smaller ones.) The people at Finger Lakes—from Thomas and Brian to the meticulous assistant distiller to the friendly guy pouring in the tasting room—all genuinely care about the products. There is no marketing speak, no backstory hokum. Just an airy room overlooking the distilling equipment, open for everyone to see, and a whole lot of bottles that need no introduction.

barrel cask whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distillery wooden oak aged spirits tasting room

The tasting room, overlooking production

Finger Lakes Distilling backs up its craftsmanship credentials with a solid local footing—despite being around for only five years, it’s clearly a beloved institution already. As a licensed New York farm distillery, Finger Lakes sources the majority of its ingredients from within the state. (The law requires at least 75%, but Finger Lakes gets closer to 90% of its grain and other materials from New York.) The company seems to have not only an awareness of the economic impact it has on its neighbors, but a real investment in the mutual benefit of both the distillery and the people, land, and businesses—especially agricultural businesses—around it. Obviously, this was part of the reason New York state created its farm distilling license to begin with (which Brian worked to make happen). But it goes beyond financial gains. Together with the care that it puts into making spirit, the strength of Finger Lakes Distilling rests on its connection to the community—by purchasing locally-sourced ingredients and materials; employing more than a dozen area residents; and acting as a tourist attraction in its own right.

I would recommend any of the Finger Lakes whiskies, but am only providing tasting notes for those that I’ve been able to drink multiple times. If you get the chance to travel to the area, make time to swing by the distillery and taste a few of their other offerings, chat with the staff, and watch the magic happen from their beautiful tasting room.

McKenzie Wheat Whiskey Rye Whisky Finger Lakes Distilling microdistillery

McKenzie Wheat Whiskey
A beautiful sweet nose starts off  right off the bat, with butterscotch, vanilla, and brown sugar underscored by a hint of cantaloupe. The mouth-watering palate is rich with molasses, vanilla, and black cherries, and lingers on a sweet, spicy finish. Give it time to develop in the glass but don’t add water—it mutes some of the more subtle flavors.

McKenzie Rye Whiskey
Baking spices, thyme and butterscotch on the nose meld with a surprising undertone of watermelon. The palate is all fresh-baked bread, caramel, cherry cough syrup, and a bit of caraway, with a current of old-fashioned hoarhound candy. Adding water enhances the spicy-sweetness without dimming the intense warmth, so enjoy it either way.

Thanks to Thomas McKenzie, Brian McKenzie, and the staff of Finger Lakes Distilling for showing me around, answering my endless questions, and providing the bottle of McKenzie Rye.

Musings on Michter’s

bourbon whiskey rye whisky Michter's single barrel American

Whisky drinkers can get pretty sentimental about their drams. We bemoan the loss of distilleries closed when whisky wasn’t selling; we decry the trend of whiskies with no age statement (NAS); we question the industrialization of traditional processes and ingredients. Most of all, we tear our hair and gnash our teeth at the soaring prices for whiskies aimed at collectors or “investors”—a trend which has driven up prices across the board. Looking back at the whisky of years gone by, we have a tendency to view it not only as cheaper (which it was), but as more pure—untainted by computerized processes, slick marketing, and gimmicky packaging—and therefore superior to today’s product.

Many of these criticisms have merit. The closing of any distillery making good whisky is a great loss indeed, and the trend of NAS whiskies is damaging to the industry overall, present and future. Naturally, every serious drinker feels frustration with people who buy whisky not to enjoy but to look at on a shelf or to re-sell later at a profit. But we should also look critically at our instinct to prize something just because it’s old or traditional or historic. Although there are numerous examples of great whisky from the past, there was certainly plenty of terrible whisky made throughout history, too. (And I bet much of it hasn’t survived because of that fact.)

I’ve been considering this question lately with regards to a few different whiskies, especially after some fascinating conversations with Joshua Feldman, aka the Coopered Tot, who has made an academic pursuit of tracking down and tasting old dusty bottles. We recently tasted a whole bunch of Michter’s together, a brand made in Pennsylvania from the mid-2oth century and affiliated with a distillery in Schaefferstown, PA that traces back to Revolutionary era. When Michter’s went bankrupt in 1989, thousands of gallons of unsold spirit remained in its warehouse. The Michter’s “jug house” and visitor center was a popular Pennsylvania landmark up to that point and probably for that reason the brand has remained associated with positive memories for many. (Read about Michter’s complicated history, along with some fond reminiscences, here, here, and here.)

In 1996, Chatham Imports registered the Michter’s trademark, which was then in the public domain. They began selling whisky under the Michter’s name that had been sourced from an undisclosed distiller. They also used language in their marketing and labels that implied an extension of the Schaefferstown distilling legacy (although a recent press release acknowledges the bankruptcy and subsequent revival of the brand in a more straightforward way). Since the mid-2000s, Michter’s has been “like a cook in someone else’s kitchen,” making their own spirit on another distillery’s equipment and aging it in their own barrels in rented rickhouse space. The earliest runs have been bottled as Michter’s US*1 range, while older Michter’s expressions continue to come from an unnamed source or sources.

whiskey whisky Michter's sour mash original old 1970s

Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey from the 1970s/80s

Even though it’s difficult to find old Michter’s to compare with the new, it appears highly likely that what is labeled Michter’s today far surpasses the Michter’s of the 1970s and 80s in quality. The two can’t be compared at all, really, since the new stuff shares nothing with historic Michter’s but its name. Today’s Michter’s offers a range that includes bourbon, rye, and sour mash whisky at various ages while the Michter’s of yesteryear focused on sour mash whisky more or less exclusively, aging it for around six years. I can appreciate the emotional attachment some folks have to the old Michter’s site—and by extension to the brand name—but it seems the spirit itself wasn’t very good (corroborating opinion here). (In fairness, Ethan Smith’s post on the Whisky Advocate blog quotes the old Michter’s Master Distiller, Dick Stoll, as saying that the whiskey was “good stuff”—make of that what you will.)

I enjoyed tasting the current Michter’s range and am encouraged that Chatham is already making its own spirit. In fact, Michter’s now has a licensed distillery in Shively, KY and since December 2012 has operated two test stills there. In July of this year, they’ll install a full column still and will eventually be bottling only their own whisky. With this move (plus an additional micro-distillery and tourist facility in downtown Louisville), I look forward to the future of the brand, especially tasting it over the next several years to see how well they can transition from sourced to own-made whiskey. Having spoken quite candidly with Joseph Magliocco, Michter’s President, I am convinced that he is invested in making great whisky, both in financial terms and in bringing in the right equipment, processes, and people to make it happen.

Michter's Joseph Magliocco distillery micro-distillery Louisville Kentucky bourbon rye whiskey

Joseph Magliocco shows off a mock-up of Michter’s planned Louisville micro-distillery and tourist center.

Magliocco also has not hidden his ambition to elevate American whisky to levels that are currently more common in the Scotch market. Last year’s Celebration release, priced at $4,000 a bottle, points to what will likely become a trend among American distillers, as they test the market’s taste for it, just as it is now an accepted part of the Scotch industry. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to make money off their product, especially when it’s a genuinely excellent whiskey, and I think there are American whiskies every bit as deserving as Scotch of “premium” and “luxury” designations. And of course as drinkers get priced out of the premium Scotch market, they’ll turn to alternatives, thus igniting the economic cycle of increased demand and higher prices among domestic whiskies. But selfishly—because I’m not in a position to purchase a $500 bottle of 25-year-old rye, no matter how much I desire it—I wish we could keep the American whisky market where it is, where I can afford, without too much sacrifice, an amazing bottle like Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch ($90).

As far as Michter’s is concerned, marketing itself as an extension of the historic distillery is not, in my opinion, necessary. Although they are trying to play on the cachet of history and its associations with better quality, many people (well, many whisky geeks) have been turned off by what they see as deceptive language and “cashing in” on a legacy which the brand, with its undisclosed sources and location in Kentucky rather than Pennsylvania, hasn’t continued. Maybe these people aren’t a significant part of Michter’s target market; I’m sure the brand knows what it’s doing. But I think the whisky can stand on its own without any attempts to relate it to a backstory that is, at best, fanciful and, at worst, deliberately misleading.

Going forward—especially now that they’re making their own spirit—I think Michter’s should gently honor the legacy of their name and let their whisky do the rest of the talking. The stuff they’ve bottled well deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, without taking the old Michter’s into account. Even setting aside all the sourced whisky, just tasting the Michter’s US*1 range that has been made by the brand shows that they’re off to a good start. With a few more years’ time, I anticipate the whisky made in Michter’s own distillery will prove itself genuinely good and even great in its own right.

In the meantime, while we wait for the new Michter’s to come of age, let’s acknowledge that we can enjoy sourced whisky if for no other reason than it tastes good. And let’s support the ambitions of a brand that wants to make other good-tasting whisky to sell to us—hopefully at prices we can afford. 

Tasting Notes
Rather than sourcing, Michter’s currently makes these expressions itself using another distillery’s equipment. They retail for $40-45 in most states.

Michter’s US*1 Bourbon
Aged around eight and a half years, it has a floral and citrusy nose with light herbaceous notes. The palate is grapefruit, spun sugar, lavender, and chicory—a lovely, spicy, lingering dram.

Michter’s US*1 Rye
With roses, vanilla sugar, coconut, and toffee on the nose, it has a comfortably rounded palate—spicy, chocolatey, gingery, with a hint of arugula—and lingers well. It’s about six years old and one of the best entry-level ryes I’ve had.

Michter’s US*1 Sour Mash Whiskey
Neither a bourbon nor a rye, this whisky offers something to love from both ends. It has a beautiful nose of cotton candy, caramel, and spearmint, with more mint on the palate mingling with walnuts, fruit, and floral notes. At about six years old, it shows lovely complexity. (Note that this whisky, while not meant to replicate the original Michter’s sour mash, is a sort of hat-tip to it.)

Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey
This whisky is a free-for-all, both in terms of how the distiller can make it and what it smells and tastes like. The nose has interesting notes of coffee and kettle corn—sweet and a little woody. I taste mint chocolate and orange peel with strong wood influence and a honeyed sweetness that reminds me of Bit O’ Honey candy. The finish is all cherry cough syrup—not unpleasant, but very unlike the other expressions.

Turnips Gratinée (aka Cheesy Neeps)

cheesy neeps turnips au gratin gratinée with cheese Gruyère French Burns Night Scottish

If you live in a northerly place, trying to eat seasonally in winter can sometimes feel like a chore. With the exception of expensive (and often impossible to find) greenhouse-grown fruits and veggies, most local produce is limited to roots, squash, and hardy “storage vegetables” (usually more roots and squash).

Now, I love beets and cabbage and sweet potatoes as much as the next person. But after awhile even the most dedicated locavore feels worn down by the endless line of hard, knobby root vegetables. How many times can you roast the same tray of cubed veg tossed in herbs before going crazy?

When I’m feeling particularly depressed about eating the same old-same old for what feels like the millionth week, I turn to the one food culture that can make anything, no matter how run-of-the-mill or tired, feel elegant and gourmet—the French. This recipe combines nearly all the best parts of French cooking: butter, cream, mustard, and cheese. The only thing missing is wine, and you can easily add that in by enjoying a glass while the dish bakes!

white turnips peeler peeled gratin gratinée neeps

I used a mandoline slicer to get my turnips to an even thinness, but don’t fret if all you have is a sharp kitchen knife—that’ll do fine. If you’re concerned about cholesterol or calories, well, this dish is probably not for you, but feel free to substitute light cream or half and half if you wish.

In French, one might call this dish navets au gratin or navets gratinés but in the spirit of Burns Night (tonight, January 25!), I’ve dubbed it “cheesy neeps” (turnips = neeps in Scots-speak). If at all possible, use white turnips rather than yellow turnips (also known as swede or rutabaga)—they slice easier and cook faster. If you are using yellow turnips, you may want to increase the cooking time under foil to a full hour.

Cheesy Neeps (Turnips Gratinée)

Ingredients:
5 small white turnips (~5 cups’ worth)
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 Tbs. whole-grain Dijon mustard, such as Maille
1/2 – 3/4 cup coarsely-grated Gruyère cheese (if unavailable, substitute Emmenthaler or Swiss)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. butter

Directions: 
1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Rub the butter around the bottom and inside edges of a glass pie plate or round casserole dish.
2. Peel turnips and slice 1/8″ thick using a mandoline or sharp knife.
3. Whisk cream, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Dredge turnip slices thoroughly, and layer in the round dish, scooping up plenty of liquid with each slice. Pour any remaining cream on the top layer.
4. Sprinkle generously with cheese, and cover with aluminum foil. Bake covered for 45 minutes; then uncover and bake a further 20 minutes until the cheese is brown and cream is bubbly.