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 … Continue reading
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 … Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the last few years among whisky and bourbon brands, there’s been a concerted effort to market to women. Some of this has materialized in the form of flavored whisky offerings (which, according to at least one master distiller, are more popular with men than women). Other times, companies have created campaigns, like Campari’s Women & Whiskies, to give women a “safe space” in which to explore the spirit. As a female who drinks whisky—and who loves evangelizing about it—most of the time I view outreach to women in a positive light.
But make no mistake—women drinking whisky is not a new thing. And throughout history, women weren’t drinking whisky because of targeted marketing campaigns or special added flavors. They were drinking whisky because it is good, and because you don’t have to be a certain gender to appreciate things that taste good.
Noted journalist Fred Minnick has just published a book that proves just that. Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey should cause quite a splash among whisky professionals and enthusiasts alike as an exhaustive, and often surprising, history of women’s relationships to whisky and vice versa.
Minnick starts his narrative in the realm of the obscure and somewhat mystical, describing Mesopotamian brewing deities and the Egyptian woman who invented the first alembic still, Maria Hebraea. He charts in great detail the laws and customs that surrounded brewing and distilling, noting that “women faced the same regulations as the men.” Drawing the thread through the centuries, Minnick’s writing weaves a tapestry of women, usually anonymous, who made spirits for a living—often as the only option to feed their families.
How about the women who “saved” bourbon, Scotch, and Irish whiskey? The examples are numerous—wives and daughters of established distillers who inherited or took over and kept the companies going; women who made and used whiskey as medicine during wars and on the American frontier; and of course female moonshiners whose manufacture of whiskey during Prohibition helped preserve important knowledge and distilling culture during that dry period.
Minnick presents a scholarly and even-handed point of view, discussing temperance women alongside female bootleggers. He doesn’t gloss over the tension that existed between these groups up until the mid-20th century. Instead, he treats both sides of the story with care and respect, although of necessity giving more attention to the bootleggers (this is about whiskey women, after all).
When discussing the whisky industry’s position toward women in the latter half of the 20th century, the terrain begins to feel more familiar. Noting that the industry had welcomed female participation in whisky production in the 19th and early 20th century, Minnick points out a few examples of notable women in the mid-century and then declares the 1970s and 80s as “lost decades” for women in whisky. The last couple of chapters he devotes to modern women who are making their mark as blenders, distillers, and producers of whisky.
I found this section most interesting because Minnick acknowledges plainly that “despite women running two major whiskey companies and making significant decisions at every level, women whiskey executives face the same ‘Oh, wait, you’re a woman stigma'” that occurred in the 1960s. Having done his homework and interviewed women all over the world about their experiences in the whisky industry, Minnick can back up his claim.
And, I have to say, I’m not at all surprised that these attitudes still prevail, both within professional circles as well as among plain old imbibers. I’ve encountered such attitudes myself—from men and women. At times I’ve chalked up dismissive treatment to my age, but at least part of the time I think people underestimate or discount my knowledge of whisky due to my gender.
Minnick questions why the whisky industry has not yet recognized its strong female heritage. For example, plenty of brands are named after men—Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, the numerous expressions named for master distillers—so why not an expression named for a woman whose work contributed to the distillery’s success? His question is valid, and I look forward to seeing the industry’s response to it.
Whiskey Women is a game-changer—a serious, scholarly text that details how women have impacted the whisky industry and why that matters. It rightfully lauds the industry for its progressive past treatment of women while pointedly calling out what it can do further. Don’t look for tasting notes here. Read it for an entertaining, often-surprising narrative of strong, interesting people making, distributing, and drinking whisky—people who all just happen to be women.
Part of my aim in writing this blog is to bring good food and whisky together. When asked to review a new expression from Glen Grant, I took it as an opportunity to engage in one of my favorite kitchen pastimes: boozy baking. And since I had most of an unwanted loaf of Italian bread going stale, I decided to whip up a whisky bread pudding. With whisky sauce. To enjoy with more whisky.
Now, I did NOT use the lovely Glen Grant sample in this recipe. I never use “real” whisky (e.g. a nice single malt) in cooking, Brenne-infused mulled wine notwithstanding. I used what I had on hand, which was Grants, but you can use any cheap blended whisky or, heck, any dark spirit you want. Bourbon, brandy, rum—go wild! But please, please don’t use your good stuff. Save that to enjoy with the food.
Bread pudding is ridiculously easy to make. Bread, sugar, eggs, cream. Throw in some vanilla, baking spices, nuts, raisins or other fruit, chocolate chips, whatever—you can’t mess it up. It’s a great dessert for company, too, because you can make a whole pan (or portion into little ramekins) and feed a crowd. Plus, you get to serve it with hard sauce, which is butter, sugar, and booze, and tastes like the topping at Cinnabon only way better, because booze.
Glen Grant’s new Five Decades expression pairs nicely with bread pudding, complementing it with a light creaminess, notes of nutmeg, and sweet raisiny undertones. In fact, next time I might add raisins or currants to further draw out the dried fruit in the malt.
Glen Grant Five Decades
Nose: Sweet with strong vanilla and honey with icing sugar and an undertone of stone fruits, especially fresh cherries, and a hint of nutmeg.
Palate: Gentle at first, with a creamy sweetness that progressed to warm spiciness and finished with toasted, buttered nuts and lingering spice. As the dram opened up, I got notes of minerals, birch bark, and cherry syrup, plus some orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. It was very easy drinking, and more complex than the nose suggested.
Glen Grant just released this whisky as a celebration of their Master Distiller, Dennis Malcolm, who began his career at their cooperage in 1963. Malcolm selected casks from each of the last five decades to create the limited-edition expression priced around $250.
Whisky Bread Pudding
– 1 loaf Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes and allowed to go stale
– 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
– 4 large eggs
– 1 cup white sugar
– 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
– 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
– 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
– 2 tsp. vanilla extract
– 3 Tbs. whisky (e.g. Grants)
– 1 cup heavy cream
– 3 cups half and half
– 1/2 cup raisins or currants (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F (175° C). Grease a 9″x13″ glass baking dish. Melt the butter and toss with the bread, coating thoroughly.
2. Beat eggs and both sugars until well blended. Add spices, vanilla, and whisky. Blend in cream and half and half until thoroughly mixed. Gently mix in raisins, if using.
3. Toss bread chunks with cream mixture and pour into baking dish, ensuring each chunk is well saturated. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until liquid has set. (It will still be bubbling, though.) Serve warm with butterscotch or hard sauce.
Thanks to Nick at Exposure for the sample of Glen Grant Five Decades.
Last week, I went drinking on a school night. (And by school night I mean a night before work, obvs.) When I make choices like these, I usually face regret the next day and vow never to do it again. And yet, rarely do I choose to go out and drink through the entire line of one of America’s finest craft distilleries.
When that happens, there are NO regrets.
I trekked all the way to Hell Gate Social in my old hood, Astoria, for a tasting of Balcones whiskies led by Chip Tate, the bearded genius who founded the Waco, Texas distillery. His presentation ranked among the best I’ve ever gotten from an actual distiller, overpowering not by volume but by sheer gentle magnetism the noise of the backyard BBQ going on around us. He put the small crowd at ease immediately by chatting like we were all old friends and displaying the kind of understated hospitality that the best Southerners are known for.
Plus, the whiskies were out-of-control AWESOME. I’d had some Balcones before, but never the opportunity to taste them all in one sitting, from the Texas Single Malt to the Brimstone with some special treats besides. Chip says he tries “to obey the flavor rules and not just do something weird to do something weird,” a refreshing position at a time when many craft distillers resort to gimmicks to distinguish themselves. Chip seeks to create a flavor profile that is unique and uniquely Texan, and boy, does he ever succeed. It was easy to connect the dots between the pours, and yet each expression stood on its own. Even if Balcones made only one of these spirits, the name would command same the respect and admiration as its full line of seven expressions.
Chip’s “brand of whisky science” is that you have to start with quality to get quality. So he uses ingredients, like Hopi blue corn, and processes, like rigorous wood management and even building his own stills (he sported burn marks from recent welding), that he has tested and vetted and found to result in an excellent product. I think almost every distiller would claim the same philosophy, but when Chip says it, he can genuinely back it up. He’s turned down investors who wanted to increase production but on terms Chip didn’t agree with. Luckily, some investors came along who see the wisdom of letting the man behind the magic do things his way, and Balcones is building a new facility in Waco’s downtown that will increase production without sacrificing quality (hence the newly-welded stills).
The evening passed too quickly, with excellent company and superb spirits. I can’t write about everything we tried, but I can hint that Balcones is releasing something pretty special in a few months’ time. Aw, heck, they’re all special, but this one will really catch people’s attention. I’d be mad that it’s not yet available, but Chip made us promise we wouldn’t be angry at him for pouring us things we can’t get.
Here are a few brief notes from the lineup. The atmosphere wasn’t conducive to my style of drawn out, thoughtful tasting, but I look forward to revisiting each of these drams again to discover new pleasures.
Balcones Texas Single Malt (53% ABV)
Sweet nose of caramel and brown sugar, with a hint of mocha. Sweet (cherry, jelly sweets, bubblegum), nutty and oaky palate with well-balanced spice (cinnamon, nutmeg).
Balcones Rumble (47%)
Note: this is not a whisky. It’s made with figs, honey and sugar. The nose is sugary and floral, the palate all molasses, honey, candied violets, and layered spice. In Chip’s words, it “came from years of sauce-making.” And indeed, it tastes like something I’d gladly spoon over my roast pork tenderloin.
Balcones Baby Blue (46%)
Nose of vanilla, mint, and toasted marshmallows. Palate of leather, sugar, tropical fruits, vanilla, and a slight smokiness. Chip called this the “reposado tequila of the corn whisky world”.
Balcones True Blue (50%)
A vegetal and smoky nose—like grilled steak over dark greens. The palate holds incredible mint and spice flavors, reminding me of certain Indian chutneys. It is so sweet, dark, vegetal, meaty, and benefits well from a few drops of water.
Balcones True Blue Cask Strength (58.3%)
The nose is pure maple syrup with a hint of tobacco; the palate also has maple, vanilla, lemon, and wood notes. A gut-punchingly good dram.
Balcones Fifth Anniversary Bourbon (64.2%)
This thing is so rich you could pour it on pancakes (but please don’t). I tasted it for the first time at WhiskyLive last spring, and you can hear my reaction here. Needless to say, this is one of the bottles you’ll have a hard time finding in stores and I am exceptionally pleased to have had it twice.
Balcones Brimstone (53%)
Chip says this whisky creates a psychosocial reaction in most folks, bringing back old memories, usually of something very primal from early childhood. It certainly reminds me of camping trips when I was a kid—it’s pure steak cooked over a mesquite fire, with sweet vanilla, mango, brown sugar, coriander penetrating the dense meatiness. This whisky might remind scotch drinkers of peated expressions, but unlike with Scotch malt whisky, where the barley is dried over fire for that smoky flavor, Brimstone—the spirit itself—is smoked through some secret, mystical hoodoo. Josh, the Coopered Tot, compares it to “bubbling through like bong water”. I’m going to just leave that there.
Balcones Brimstone Resurrection (59.2%)
The whisky that was “snatched from the jaws of hell” (i.e. corn burnt to a crisp, chiseled out of the bottom of a still and re-processed into something drinkable, then bottled after three years—see what they did there?) blew me out of the water. If I had to choose a favorite from the evening, I think this would be it. The nose is more subtle than the Brimstone—much less meat, much more fruit. The palate is one big WOW of honey, butterscotch, cardamom, and Fun Dip (yup, Fun Dip) riding beneath the smoky goodness. I could see myself drinking this for a week straight and still coming up with new revelations (wordplay!) with each sip. Too bad it’s another of those hard-to-find bottlings, created to celebrate Balcones’s fifth anniversary.
The only regret I woke up with was that the evening didn’t last longer. I think Chip and I could have had some interesting theological conversations to rival the complexity of his whiskies. Maybe next time. Have no doubt, I’ll disregard any school night for Balcones.
Find more whisky in Astoria at the Astoria Whiskey Society.
Is there anything better than barbecue, bluegrass, and good booze to get you excited about summertime? Maybe ice cream. And cornhole. And great company to share in these marvelous things.
Last week, I got all that and more at Tasting Table‘s ‘Cue Up Summer party. Yes, it’s already late July. But after an intensely oppressive heat wave, I think we all needed a reason to get excited about summer again. With great food by local purveyors, twangtastic bluegrass from the Difibulators, and unlimited booze, it perfectly renewed my love of the season’s simple pleasures. (And it didn’t hurt that the day itself was unseasonably cool!)
It all went down in the Elizabeth Street Garden which, under normal circumstances, is lovely enough with its antique statuary and rampant greenery. This evening, marquees strung with fairy lights sheltered tables laden with picnic pleasures—cold fried chicken, potato salad, and pimento cheese sandwiches from Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter; brisket, pork AND beef ribs, and fixins from Delaney Barbecue; some guilt-free gazpacho and veggies topped with Tabasco Buffalo Sauce; and amazing desserts—cookies by Mah-ze-Dahr Bakery; Imperial Woodpecker sno-balls; and massive ice cream sandwiches by Melt Bakery.
And what would an outdoor summer party be without bottomless booze? Guests had their choice of Santa Margherita wines, Goose Island beers, and cocktails made with Monkey Shoulder and Hendrick’s Gin. I’m a big fan of both of the latter and stuck to those. The Hendrick’s lemonade suited my unusual preference for having lemon with Hendrick’s (and only with Hendrick’s—with other gins, it’s always lime), and the Summer Jam, mixing Monkey Shoulder with strawberry jam and lemon juice, was everything a July whisky cocktail should be—cool, slightly sweet, and far too easy to drink. Check out the recipe below.
My buddy Josh, of the Coopered Tot and Morgan Library whisky fame, along with some new friends, ensured that the company was as good as the comestibles. Thanks to Nick of Exposure USA for hosting with aplomb and Freddy of William Grant & Sons for sharing his extensive boozey knowledge. Summer might be half-gone already, but I plan to carry on with the outdoor eating, drinking, and merry-making, getting all I can out of the few weeks we have left.
Add all ingredients except seltzer to a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice and top with a splash of seltzer.
Single malt Scotch whisky comes in a beautiful range of colors: warm goldenrod, deep russet, bright dandelion. Thanks to the variety of casks used to age whisky, the length of time the spirit spends in them, and the various mixtures of different casks to create the final product, the palette available to Scotch drinkers makes a lovely sight. Check out this color bar with its whimsical, somewhat confusing names (I never realized there was a difference between yellow gold and old gold).
But did you know that some Scotch whisky contains an additive coloring called E150a? Many whisky lovers believe this so-called “caramel coloring” impacts the flavor of the spirit, but producers who use it insist it does not. A few months ago, in an effort to provide some evidence one way or another, Johanne McInnis, the Whisky Lassie and one of half of The Perfect Whisky Match, planned and executed a blind tasting of a single whisky expression with and without E150a.
The instructions dictated the participants carry out the test blind—so I enlisted the help of my husband to pour and keep track of whether my guesses were right or wrong. After I put on my blindfold (really!), he poured 10 ml of each sample into a Glencairn glass and placed them in either hand. I also had a glass of plain water in the middle. I nosed each one and made my guess three times in a row with a five minute wait in between each nose. (And Sunjay mixed up—or not—the glasses between each round too.) Finally, I tasted each without water, making a guess based taste and trying not to let my impressions of the nose get in the way.
I repeated this process three more times over the next few days at different times of day. Sunjay patiently recorded my guesses and only revealed them when the final drop had been drunk. I did not open the tiny bottle of E150a until after the experiment was over, so as not to prejudice my guesses.
My first test took place in the mid-afternoon. When I initially nosed the two whiskies, I immediately smelled a difference. One whisky was distinctly sweet and sugary on the nose, while the other had more floral character. I had no idea what kind of qualities the E150a would impart: would it add something extra, or take something away? With no clue, I decided the sweeter-smelling one was more suspect. I generated some kind of reasoning in my head involving sherried whiskies being both dark and sweet, but it didn’t really make sense even to me. I honestly couldn’t decide which one was meant to have the coloring added: not knowing the smell or taste of E150a, it was a true blind guess. That the two whiskies were distinct and different, however, was obvious.
I nosed three times and detected that difference each time, selecting the sweeter-smelling one as having added color. When, after three nosings, I tasted each, I found a difference there, too. This time, however, the sweet-smelling one tasted more like whisky to me. So I chose the other whisky as the one with added color. Either way, I’m half-right, right?
I covered the glasses and left them for a couple of hours and then returned. This time the difference in smell was still there but more subtle. Slight oxidation had regulated the differences between the two so that they were closer in scent. One still stood out as smelling more like brown sugar (slightly reduced by this time), however, and I stuck by my original supposition and designated it the “colored” whisky another three times.
When it came to tasting, however, I actually became stymied. By this point the whiskies were so similar (and a bit too warm) that they were virtually indistinguishable. Each of them had a slight sweetness on the nose and on the palate, with sweetness, some spiciness, and oak at the finish. One of them did taste a bit duller than the other; or perhaps the other was just brighter and more vivid, so I chose the flatter one as the one with coloring.
The next day, I repeated the process. At this point, I began second-guessing everything I knew about how whisky smells and tastes. If I didn’t know one of the samples had coloring added, I’d never guess that either of them were altered in any way: they both smelled and tasted “like whisky” to me. But is this because my knowledge of whisky is tainted by drinking and “knowing” whiskies that use coloring? Surely that influences my perceptions of what “tastes” and “smells” like whisky. In any case, I took a truly blind guess for the third time.
A couple of days later, I did the fourth and final test. At this point I just gave up on trying to use any logic or method and just chose one. When the last drop had been swallowed, my results were revealed:
Tasting 1: Noses 1-3 WRONG; Palate CORRECT
Tasting 2: Nose 1 CORRECT, Nose 2 WRONG, Nose 3 CORRECT, Palate WRONG
Tasting 3: Noses 1-3 CORRECT, Palate CORRECT
Tasting 4: Noses 1-3 CORRECT, Palate WRONG
I was surprised. I had really convinced myself that the first-round nosing was totally correct, but no. At least the other nosings (with one exception) were consistent. My tasting was 50/50, which doesn’t surprise me as I really, truly didn’t know what to be looking for. Not knowing what the additive tasted or smelled like ahead of time, I was taking a stab in the dark, assessing each dram to decide which one “tasted more like whisky.” It’s interesting to see that this worked out for me in the initial round, when I was still forming judgments about the process and the two whiskies, as well as in the third round, when I had spent a lot of time thinking about my perceptions of whisky and whether or not they could be trusted. I’m not surprised I got the final round wrong as I’d basically thrown in the towel at that point.
The problem with making my choice based on which dram was more whisky-esque is that my tasting experience has included both colored and additive-free whiskies. And most of the time, I haven’t known or paid attention to E150a presence. So my palate has, in some way, been “tainted” by my tasting of colored whiskies as on par with (or at least undistinguished from) non-colored whiskies. They have all been lumped into the “tastes like whisky” category.
And this impacted my ability to judge the “whisky-ness” of each dram. The truth is, they both tasted like whisky to me. Heck, they both smelled like whisky too, but it was easier to detect what I thought was a hint of something “fake” on the nose than on the tongue. The sweetness I associated with the E150a stood out like a red flag every time I smelled it (or thought I did). But the two tastes—that was much harder. One whisky (which ended up being the E150a) had a stronger spicy character and what seemed to me a more rounded finish. The other seemed less vivid with a less satisfying finish—some of the time. Both whiskies, after oxidizing a bit, tasted even more similar, further complicating my perceptions.
This whole thing turned my preconceptions about whisky on their head. What should whisky smell like? I found the nose on the E150a whisky rather pleasant, just as the nose on the non-colored whisky was, too. What should whisky taste like? There is no doubt in my mind that the additive changes the flavor of the spirit, although this seems to lessen when the spirit breathes a little. The E150a whisky provided, in my opinion, a more rounded finish albeit a less nuanced palate overall. Would it be wrong to prefer the additive whisky over the “pure” one?
If making the argument from taste, my guess is that both colored and additive-free whiskies would have their fans in a widespread blind tasting. Should consumers know when E150a has been added? Absolutely, and in many cases, folks can guess (does the bottle say no colouring added? If not, buyer beware). Since I personally have a bias against additives and things like that in all the food and drink I consume, I would be more likely to purchase non-colored whiskies, especially single malts, an effort to maintain the purity of what I consume. But if I already knew and loved a standard bottling like, say, Glenfiddich 12, and I found out it contained E150a (which it does), would I stop drinking it? No way. I drink what I like.
Of course, E150a isn’t added for taste. It’s used to ensure consistent color across all bottlings of an expression. Visual cues, like labels, impact our perceptions of quality and enjoyment, and producers know this. If your Glenfiddich 12 appeared deep gold one year and pale yellow the next, you’d wonder if they were altering the product somehow (and you might find the pale yellow one less satisfying). Keeping the product visually consistent signals that it remains consistent in nose and taste, too. Visual consistency remains an important issue in countries where there is less regulation and oversight of food and beverages, and where consumers might not feel confident about the quality of a product whose appearance varies. (Then again, it cuts both ways: producers in such countries can more easily use additives to achieve visual consistency, opening the door to some horrible realities.)
In the end, I suppose I’m still on the fence about E150a in my whisky. I’m certainly going to be inspecting all the bottles I buy from now on, and, as I wrote above, I’ll likely privilege those without any additives. But I respect the decision of producers to use E150a to create visually-consistent whiskies. Frankly, I’m more anxious that chill-filtering will affect the smell and taste of a whisky. But who can say for certain, unless we do some more research…
Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.
But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)
Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.
What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.
A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.
I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.
Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!
One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!
Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.
Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.
Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.
Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.
Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.
Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.
Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.
Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.
Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.
I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.