‘Cueing Up Summer

the difibulators, a bluegrass band from nyc

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.

bobwhite lunch and supper counter nyc fried chicken potato salad pimento cheese sandwich

What’s better than fried chicken? Cold fried chicken. (Seriously.)

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!)

Delaney Barbecue, brisket and ribs.

Serving up brisket and two kinds of ribs, and you still want more.

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.

Melt ice cream sandwich s'most

There’s a marshmallow hiding in that ice cream sandwich.

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.

Joshua Feldman, the Coopered Tot and whisky aficionado

Josh fits right in with the mood lighting.

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.

Summer Jam
1 1/4 parts Monkey Shoulder Whisky
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1 dollop of strawberry jam
Dash of sugar to taste
Splash of seltzer

Add all ingredients except seltzer to a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice and top with a splash of seltzer.

Science and Whisky! Does caramel coloring make a difference?

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Adding E150a to a glass of water, one drop at a time.

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.

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That wee tiny phial contains pure 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…

Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

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.

Canadian Whisky: Now on Twitter!

#1 #DavinTT-1st-week

 

I joined Twitter about a year ago, and the best part has been meeting all the amazingly cool, like-minded whisky lovers out there. To be honest, that was a big motivator in joining. Twitter works best when you use it to chat and connect with people you’d otherwise never get to know, because they live in other countries, or are outside your peer group, or you have nothing else in common but a shared love of the water of life.

I have made some awesome connections in 140 characters and, just as great, I’ve received incredible opportunities: free tickets to Whisky Live, a mystery whisky tweet tasting for International Women’s Day, and now, a book review and tweet tasting featuring the comprehensive, fascinating Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux. (What a great name, right?)

You can read the full press release below. Basically, every Sunday in the month of May, I and other whisky lovers from across the globe will gather on Twitter to discuss the book and then taste a mystery Canadian whisky. Having literally NO experience with Canadian whisky, I am beyond excited. First, I get to nerd out with a whisky textbook (no lie, I’ve brought my post its on the subway to make notes while I’m reading). Then, I get to nose dive into the pages with a delicious unknown dram! And, with no “standard” by which to measure the whiskies, I am most excited about experiencing something totally new, forming an educated but open first impression, and embarking on a whole new journey of delicious discovery.

If you’re on Twitter, join our sessions by searching for #DavinTT. Grab the book, read a few chapters, open a bottle of your preferred Canadian whisky, and voice your thoughts!

Canadian Whisky Book Review and Twitter Tasting

Be a part of the world’s first ever whisky book review/twitter tasting. Social media are changing the way we read and the way we taste whisky. We’ve decided to integrate the two! Each Sunday for the next four weeks we will review several chapters from the book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and discuss them on Twitter. And we will do this while we taste a representative whisky from that chapter.

If you wish to comment on the book, interact with author, Davin de Kergommeaux, or discuss a Canadian whisky you are tasting, please join us each Sunday at 3:00 pm Eastern time, on Twitter at #DavinTT.

The twitter reviews and tastings begin this Sunday, May 5th at 3:00pm EST when we will be talking about chapters 10 – 13. Davin will join us to answer questions, and contribute to discussion among the participants, etc.

After chatting for about 30 minutes about 15 participants from around the world will open a mystery bottle that we have sent to them. You didn’t get a bottle? Feel free to join in anyway. The more the merrier. After tasting the sample and talking about it we’ll reveal which distillery it came from and which whisky we tasted. Sound like fun?

This Sunday we’ll begin with chapters 10 – 13. Then, Sunday May 12th we will discuss chapters 14 – 17; Sunday May 19th, chapters 18 – 21; and Sunday May 26th, chapters 22 – 25.

We invite the whisky bloggers among us to blog about the book, the experience, the whiskies and/or Davin. Let the fun begin!

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me, @WhiskyLassie on twitter.

Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert is available at Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and many other fine bookstores, or on-line at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

WhiskyCast Virtual Tasting Starring Moi! *

*Okay, not starring—I’m back to my drama-queen daydreams here. “Featuring”, perhaps. Or “introducing”. Oh, I like that…

I mentioned in my post about Whisky Live that I joined in a Virtual Tasting with Mark Gillespie, creator of WhiskyCast. The tasting is now live here. If you like to listen to people discoursing on beautiful whiskies or want to know more about the character of the whisky before buying, take a listen. I didn’t sound nearly as silly as I thought!

Disclaimer: It is very hard for me to be critical of well-made whisky—I like almost every whisky I try. My enthusiasm can sometimes bubble over but in this case everything we had was absolutely in the top of its class. I recommend them all without equivocation!

Whisky Live 2013: In which my inner fangirl emerges

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When I lived in Scotland, I knew how spoiled for choice I was when it came to Scotch whisky. Besides the wide array of exceptional (and affordable) drams that even the smallest bars offered, it seemed like every other week there was a tasting, festival, or other event centered around the water of life. I realized that coming back to New York would mean adjusting my expectations of variety and opportunity.

Even so, New York City is probably the best place in the country to be a whisky drinker. We have oodles of great whisky bars, from the high-end down to the cheap and cheerful, and—thanks to the largest port on the East Coast and a slew of excellent importers and distributors—pretty much any whisky available anywhere in the US is available here, too. On top of that, several national whisky festivals make stops here: WhiskyFest, the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, and WhiskyLive.

Walking into Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on Wednesday transported me back to happy memories of the Glasgow Whisky Festival, the Whisky Stramash, and the Whisky Fringe. Booth upon booth of delicious drams stretched before me, freely offering pours of old and new favorites. There was a healthy mix of Scottish, Irish, and American whiskies, as well as international whiskies from Japan, Australia, India, and Sweden.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the the people. I enjoyed running into friends from the NYC whisky community like Allison Patel, whose Brenne booth was mobbed the entire evening by ardent new fans, and Josh Feldman, pouring for Gordon & MacPhail and charming the whole room with his usual bonhomie. And I was elated to meet IRL Angelo (G-LO) and Max from It’s Just the Booze Dancing. Best of all, though, I got to meet two of my industry heroes. (Am I allowed to be that cheesy? This is my blog—heck yes!)

Max and G-LO

Max and G-LO

G-LO texted me while I was still on my way to say I’d been invited to join a Virtual Tasting panel by Mark Gillespie, whisky writer and the man behind the magic at WhiskyCast. If you aren’t familiar, WhiskyCast is a weekly podcast + app + website/community about—duh—whisky, and Mark is the genius/personality that makes it all go. His weekly episodes, which feature news from the whisky world and interviews with industry folks, are an audible treat that I usually save up for my Sunday morning walk to church (whisky being as reverent an experience for me as worship, dontchaknow).

I tell you what, when I read that text, I had a small panic attack on the M14 bus. I knew Mark was going to be at the event and had hoped to meet him there, even just to briefly shake his hand and tell him what a fan I am. Now I was not only meeting the man, but drinking with him—and the potential for any number of embarrassments reared its head. What if I hated the whisky? What if I couldn’t articulate what I tasted? What if I just sounded dumb (a genuine concern for me since the first time I heard my voice recorded)?

There was no reason to worry. Mark is as friendly and generous in person as he sounds like on the podcast. And the tasting was just like any other, plus microphones, so I felt relaxed and at ease throughout. Together with G-LO and Max, some friends of Mark’s, and Ian Chang, Master Distiller at Kavalan, we sampled four beautiful whiskies: the aforementioned Brenne, an Invergordon single grain from That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Balcones Fifth Anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon, and Redbreast 12 yo Cask Strength. What a delight! It was like being back in Edinburgh, except this time I could blether about my thoughts to a much wider audience than just my husband. (Anyone who knows me can tell you that speaking my mind makes for a very gleeful Susannah indeed.)

With Mark Gillespie!

With Mark Gillespie!

Mark also shared a taste of Cleveland Whiskey which he reviewed a couple weeks ago on WhiskyCast. Dear God. The only thing I can compare it to is if you mixed paint thinner with dried blood in a rusty bucket. Nothing more need be said, amirite?

The thrill of taking part in an actual WhiskyCast (sort of) infused my evening with a happy glow. And the excitement wasn’t over! The other whisky luminary I’d hoped to meet was Davin de Kergommeaux, writer of Canadian Whisky and author of the book of the same name. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a series of mystery tastings based around Davin’s book and I’ve been getting a head start on reading and boy, am I learning A LOT. I know next to nothing about Canadian whisky and what I do know is, apparently, incorrect. This book reveals the truth behind common myths about Canadian whisky plus copious other information: the history of distilling in Canada, how Canadian stills work, flavor profiles found in Canadian whiskies, and more facts about grains and yeast than I ever thought I wanted to know. It’s awesome. I’m actually pulling out post-its on the subway to mark which passages I want to re-read and where I have questions.

At the end of the evening, I still hadn’t managed to track down Davin, but I knew he was there: a tell-tale stack of his books indicated that he’d come by before the night was over to pick them up. I waited around a bit and then spotted Peter Silver, who pointed Davin out just a few steps away. I bubbled over and introduced myself and shook hands and probably acted pretty foolish…But it was just the perfect end to the evening. Davin is so nice. I mean, nearly every whisky person is nice but he is absolutely the nicest because he’s Canadian. He signed my book and didn’t mind a bit how much I gushed. In all the excitement, I forgot to take a picture with him, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was  grinning like a kid on Christmas.

I pretty much floated home, that’s how great an evening it was. Because of the time I spent doing the Virtual Tasting, I didn’t sample nearly as many whiskies as I’d have liked—but the trade-off was definitely worth it. There will be more whisky events this year (another is coming up in just a few days) but even if I don’t make it to the rest, Whisky Live 2013 has left me quite content for now.

Tasting Notes: Bushmills Black Bush Head-to-Head

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This review is part of a St. Patrick’s Day Flash Mob Blog effort. Scroll to the end for a list of all participating blogs.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t know much about Irish whiskey. It’s not the sort of thing one drinks when spending a year in Scotland. The Water of Life Society hosted a small tasting of Irish whiskies but only because our president was Irish—and I unfortunately missed out on that one. I’m pretty sure the only Irish whiskey I’ve tasted is Jameson—and that was long before I knew how to drink whisky, back in my days of shots and vomit.

So I’ve got some catching up to do when it comes to that other uisce beatha. What better time to start than in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day? The brilliant Canadian blogger and germinatrix of ideas Johanne McInnis of The Perfect Whisky Match suggested on Facebook that we—the whisky bloggers of the world—unite in the first-ever whisky blogging flash mob (first ever blogging flashmob in general?). We settled on St. Paddy’s as it gave focus in terms of whiskey type (Irish) and tie-in with an existing holiday. Bushmills Black Bush was selected as an easy-to-find (for most) and relatively inexpensive Irish whiskey, perfect for accommodating as many bloggers as possible. (A few folks couldn’t find Black Bush in their country or weren’t able to buy an entire bottle—ahem, that’d be me—and other bloggers generously sent samples of their own—ahem, that’d be the ever-gracious, kindest of the kind Joshua Feldman of The Coopered Tot. Just another day of friendliness and generosity in the Whisky Fabric!)

I enjoyed this tasting, then, because I started with a fresh slate. Inevitably, I compared my impressions to Scotch, but I tried hard to nose and taste sans expectations. This tasting was especially fun because I had two different expressions of Black Bush to try. Josh had an old bottle from the ’90s that he’d not drunk much of over the years, and handed it off to me for the project and “for shots when novice drinkers come over.” (I’ve had some disappointing experiences giving good whisky to rubes who shoot it back without a second thought. Sad face.) He also gave me a generous sampling of today’s Black Bush to taste side-by-side with the old stuff.

Were they different? Yes, and no. The flavor profiles had a lot in common but each emphasized different aspects.

Bushmills Black Bush (late 1990s expression)
Nose: Leather, mocha, apples, and lots of spice: cinnamon, allspice, cloves. A sweet vanilla note and light floral topnote, as well as fresh wood or pencil shavings.

Palate: Strong wood pervades throughout the duration of the flavor. Spice, especially black pepper, on the midpalate which fades disappointingly quickly. Slight sweetness and a surprising flash of banana along with more expected citrus. Overall, the oak overwhelmed the more interesting flavors in this dram.

Finish: Oak and more oak. A bare hint of lingering spice but not enough to suit me.

Bushmills Black Bush (contemporary expression)
Nose: Vanilla, cloves, apple bread, pears, cardamom, clean pencil shavings. Light, sweet, and fruity, with a slight mocha or chocolate undercurrent.

Palate: Sweet with vanilla and counterbalanced with oak. The most prominent spice is a gentle cinnamon bark, with baked apples and a hint of banana.

Finish: Again, lots of wood and not much else. There’s some dark chocolate (like unsweetened, 100% cacao) at the back of the tongue but otherwise, it disappoints.

Overall, I found that neither dram fulfilled what I enjoy most in a whisky, but I was glad for the chance to find that out for myself. My opinion wavered as to which I preferred. In the first round, the new stuff came out on top; but round two found me preferring the older version. Neither would be my post-dinner dram of choice, but the 1990s version made a lovely hot toddy, and I’ll surely keep the remainder of the bottle around for future mixing or cooking use.

Flash Mob Bloggers:

http://www.bestshotwhiskyreviews.com/search/label/Black%20Bush
http://misswhisky.com/2013/03/17/black-bush-whiskey-flash-blog/
http://whiskyisrael.co.il/2013/03/17/tasting-bushmills-black-bush-its-saint-paddy/
http://freakywhisky.ca/2013/03/17/bushmills-black-bush/
http://theperfectwhiskymatch.blogspot.ca/2013/03/guest-blogger-for-st-patricks-day.html
http://dramgoodtime.com/2013/03/17/bushmills-black-bush-review-flash-mob-style/
http://whisky-discovery.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/whisky-discovery-349.html
http://gjr71.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/bushmillsmb-flash-mob-tasting/
http://whiskyguyrob.com/whiskyguyblog/robby-oill-and-the-little-people/
http://whiskymeasure.com/714/reviews/bushmills-black-bush-review/
http://themaltdesk.blogspot.dk/2013/03/bushmills-black-bush-distillery-bottling.html
http://awardrobeofwhisky.com/bottle/bushmills-black-bush
http://www.tomswhiskyreviews.com/review.php?articleid=485
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ir0tNwjYahE&feature=youtu.be
http://boozedancing.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/st-patricks-day-flashmobblog-whiskey-review-bushmills-black-bush/
http://maltfascination.com/2013/03/17/bushmills-black-bush/
http://whiskygirl.nl/into-the-black-bush/
http://cocktailchem.blogspot.ca/2012/03/whiskey-for-st-patricks-day-bushmills.html
http://www.whiskyplus.ca/critiques/whisky-critiques/whiskey-whisky-critiques/bushmills-black-bush/
http://theperfectwhiskymatch.blogspot.ca/2013/03/st-patricks-day-bushmills-black-bushhe.html
http://www.connosr.com/reviews/bushmills/bushmills-black-bush/irish-top-blend/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3VDH9kAKKo

An Evening of Scotch & Chocolate

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What’s better than a whisky tasting? A whisky tasting with chocolate.

The last time I attended a whisky event at the Morgan Library, it was hosted by Gordon & MacPhail and featured five of their independent bottlings plus a Benromach. Last Friday, Josh Feldman (aka writer of the Coopered Tot and personality extraordinaire) presented six unique whiskies coupled with stunning chocolates by Pacari. In a warm, inviting atmosphere, attendees softened chocolate between their fingers while learning from Francisco Vivar of Pacari about the origins and characteristics of each variety and from Josh about the whisky pairings. We nosed and sipped and tasted in various combinations (whisky first, then chocolate; now chocolate first and then whisky; now together!) to determine the impact on flavors resulting from each order. Surprisingly, it does matter which goes into your mouth first. Even simply placing the chocolate on your tongue, allowing it to melt a bit and then nosing the whisky can radically alter the evident dominant flavors.

Pacari is a company that seems relatively unknown to the average US consumer but has captured the spotlight of the chocolate world. Based in Ecuador (Pacari translates as “nature” in local language Quechua), they make 100% organic chocolate and adhere to “fair and equitable standards” of production while aiming to preserve traditional methods of cacao farming. The importance of this becomes clear when tasting Pacari’s different varieties of chocolate, several of whose unique flavors showcase the diversity of the local terroir. And all this isn’t just talk; Pacari really puts its money where your mouth is. The company is the first chocolate producer in the world to earn the Demeter Biodynamic Certification and, what’s more, Francisco’s sincerity and authenticity—he uttered not a word of industry jargon or marketing language—spoke volumes about Pacari’s confidence in their products. Indeed, with or without whisky, this chocolate shines.

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Joining me in flavor exploration were pastry chef/food writer Rebekah Pizanaauthor and chocolate expert Clay Gordon, and Allison Patel, Whisky Woman and producer of Brenne Single Malt. We formed a cozy little pack of nerds, exchanging notes and learning from each other throughout the evening. As I know next to nothing about chocolate (except that I enjoy it!), it was truly a privilege to taste alongside someone as knowledgeable as Clay and learn from his insights. It was also a treat to hang out with Allison—and even more so when Josh pulled out a bottle of Brenne to share with the room! For the unlucky (aka non-New Yorkers) who don’t yet have access to it, Brenne is a delicious, different kind of single malt produced in Cognac, France. It always surprises first-timers—even whisky connoisseurs—in a pleasant way and as other guests mobbed Allison to heap effusive praise on her whisky, the night culminated in a truly magical moment. Big ups to Josh for his perfect timing!

The night held other surprises too, not all of which I can reveal just yet. (Check back in a couple of months for something exciting that perfectly marries the realms of chocolate and spirits.) Clay generously shared some unique products with me—the beautiful 100% cacao Il Criollo by Domori, a bit of the ridiculously-addictive (and tragically not available for purchase) dried cacao fruit, and strangely awesome dark chocolate-covered, jalapeño-dusted corn nuts from Fruition Chocolate. (Yeah, corn nuts, I know—you have to try it to believe it.)

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but is worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but it’s worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Just as at the Gordon & MacPhail tasting, a comment from the evening perfectly reinforced the philosophy behind this blog, and behind my explorations of food and spirits in general. In the midst of the writers’ geekery over the pairings and our attempts to verbalize the tastes and feelings swirling around our palates and minds, Clay sagely intoned,

“You can take the whisky seriously. You can take the chocolate seriously. But you can’t take yourself seriously.”

How right he is. No matter what tone of “authority” I might take on this blog (and I do hope there’s not much of one), I earnestly believe that eating and drinking should be primarily about enjoyment. Tasting notes and philosophical rhapsodizing help me sort out the mechanics of food and drink, provide an outlet for my natural interest, and enable me to organize my emotional connections to the act of cooking, eating, and sharing. But I don’t have to deeply contemplate a dessert or compose an ode to a dram to enjoy it, fully and truly. In the end, what matters is the pleasure received from tasting what’s good, and that’s it.

All that being said, now I’m going to share my tasting notes. Ha!

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 12yo with Pacari Piura 70% Regional
The Piura chocolate is made from Peruvian white cacao beans and is an unprocessed as possible. By itself it had a strong fruitiness—notes of berry, cherry and green apple. Paired with the Glenmorangie (which displayed typical sherried notes of golden raisins on the nose and spiciness on the palate), the two produced a honeyed butterscotch flavor with the fruitiness coming out as peaches, and a hint of underlying white pepper.

Compass Box Hedonism with Pacari Lemongrass
My favorite combination of the evening, best taking the whisky first. Hedonism is an all-grain blend with a sweet nose of marshmallows and gorse flowers and a tropical palate full of coconut. Josh described it as a “500 thread count silk pillowcase” and it is, indeed, indulgent. With the chocolate, the citrus notes of the whisky came out in full force beside the lemongrass along with a crisp freshness—to me, spearmint—which lingered on the finish. As the whisky breathed (and as we tasted other chocolates), the gorse scent (some smelled it more as jasmine) became stronger and more developed and lingered sweetly.

GlenDronach “The Revival” 15 yo with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
Another sherried malt, the Revival gave off strong plum and raspberry notes on the nose and a palate of dried fruit, orange peel and a hint of hot paprika on the tip of the tongue. With the chocolate, strong gingerbread notes emerged which deepened both elements.

Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 42 with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Aberlour and especially their A’bunadh series. Paired with this chocolate, the dram that displays some of the richest sherry notes I’ve tasted takes on an earthiness entirely new to me. The familiar cooked fruits now seemed roasted rather than stewed—bolder and more complex. This was one of the most interesting combinations of the night, as the chocolate and the whisky completely changed each other.

Ardbeg Uigeadail with Pacari Salt & Nibs
The pink salt in this chocolate comes from Cuzco, where people dig ponds, fill them with water, and let the water evaporate, leaving this salt behind. Ardbeg, an Islay whisky, also incorporates parts of the earth where it’s made, displaying characteristic peatiness. Together, these two elements created a total explosion of salt and peat: dissonant at first, but which soon mellowed to a sweet, honeyed harmonization. A very fun combination, especially since this was one of the few chocolates we were encouraged to chew (the “nibs” being little bits of the cacao bean).

Balcones Brimstone with Pacari Fig
By this point, I was so caught up in the general atmosphere of excitement (this was right after Josh produced the Brenne and the whole room went wild), I neglected to take very comprehensive notes. As you might have guessed, the chocolate contained chewy little niblets of fig. Its sweet fruitiness married nicely with Brimstone’s uniquely smoky profile, achieved via Texas scrub oak (whatever that is—tastes sort of, but not really, like mesquite). It was like drinking a barbecue sandwich topped with fig preserves—and therefore awesome. The Brimstone also paired fabulously with the aforementioned corn nuts, leaving me in a state of near-delirium and joy.

PS—Read Allison’s beautiful take on the evening here

The Jewel of the Village: East Ville des Folies

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The last time I attended a spirits-fueled theme event, the focus was murder, mayhem, and a roving cast of characters straight out of Dickens. This past weekend, mayhem and characters (sans murder) abounded in a Prohibition-esque party held at Webster Hall, infamously publicized as a former speakeasy run by Al Capone (well, there’s the murder, I suppose). East Ville des Folies seeks to become an annual event celebrating “rare Whiskeys and Beers from around the world” while immersing its guests in “the culture of the original burlesque hall as it was at the turn of the century”.

The jazz was swinging as scantily-clad ladies sporting feathered headpieces beckoned on the dance floors. I headed for the whiskey first, finding a wide selection from Highland Park, The Famous Grouse, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and others. As always at these sorts of the things, the ambience didn’t lend itself to properly tasting each separate dram, but I was at least able to weed out the dreadful from the exceptional. (On the former category, I’ll keep silent; on the latter, I’ll point out Whistlepig Rye as a new favorite and the ever-reliable Balblair—represented here with the 1989, 1991, and 2001 editions—as consistently pleasing.)

Three Roses

Three roses at Four Roses

Having exhausted my companion with spirituous refreshment, I moved on to the beer floors, which were far more crowded. Was it just that more people had arrived by that point, or that the demographics of ticket-buyers skewed towards beer lovers? No idea, but it was pretty rough. I managed to taste a few new-to-me brews such as Leinenkugel’s Vanilla Porter (no joke on the vanilla), Curious Traveler Shandy (I’m not a shandy drinker, and I liked it), the range of Full Sails (excellent, each one) and Moa Breakfast, a New Zealand “blend of premium wheat malt, floral Nelson hops and cherries” that, I’m sorry to say, tasted of Dimetapp. Sadly, the Crabbie’s table was all out by the time I got there; but luckily, Williams Brothers was still pouring Fraoch Heather Ale, one of the tastes I miss most from Scotland.

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Swingin’ jazz set the tone of the affair.

With four floors of tasting tables, music, and more, this event certainly gave bang for the buck. I loved all the bands (and the phonograph DJs), and the entertainment, which included stilt-walkers, a photo booth I never managed to get to, and an aerialist, definitely wowed me. I had great fun exploring the nooks and dark corners of Webster Hall, too, especially with new drinks to try at every turn. Touting the some of the beers and whiskies served as “rare” might have misled some folks, though at $40 a ticket I’m sure no one expected Pappy Van Winkle. The selection, especially some of the beers, was unique, if not so difficult to find that I’d call it “rare”.

In short, East Ville des Folies provided three solid hours of booze-tastic entertainment and—in a truly “rare” turn for New York—was incredibly affordable. The event sold out, which means with any luck it’ll return next year. I’m already looking forward to donning some beads and feathers, springing for the early-access VIP ticket, and finally getting my shot at the photo booth.

Mulled Wine with Whisky

I have always wondered why Christmas has to come at the beginning of the long winter rather than somewhere later on. Wouldn’t it be better for us to have something to look forward to during the long dark nights and bitterly brief days? Why kick off such a depressing season with our biggest to-do of the year? I mostly ask these questions because all the Christmas goodies would be so much more appreciated on say, January 28, when the cold winds are howling and the snow is piling up, than now, when it’s barely gotten cold enough in New York City for me to break out my awesome new Betsey Johnson coat.

Then again, who says we can’t have holiday treats outside the holidays? I’ve had so little time for baking this month that I anticipate making some of my favorite seasonal delights long after the gifts have been unwrapped, simply because I can’t wait another year to have them. Likewise with this mulled wine: it’s too delicious and, frankly, too perfect for chasing away the chill of winter to limit to one month of this long season. So I plan to make it again and again until the trees start budding and I can move on to that warm-weather wine punch, sangria.

This recipe is great because you can play around with all of it. Don’t like Syrah? Use another red wine. Don’t like red wine? Use white. Adjust the spices, sweetness, and flavorings to your taste. Leave out the whisky if you prefer, or use brandy, rum, or schnapps. Try adding other fruits, like cherries or pears. In short, go wild! Experiment and taste often. Mulled wine is a crowd-pleaser and excellent for parties because a) it’s cheap and b) you can make a big batch all in one go. (Pro tip: Keep it hot throughout an event on the “warm” setting in a slow cooker.) You can also make it ahead of time and store in the fridge for up to a week. In fact, I recommend making extra so you can let it macerate for a day or two and come back to it after a busy workday—time improves the depth and complexity, for sure.

Be warned: the smell of this simmering will intoxicate your brain even before you take your first sip! Prepare for a languorous evening and have bon bons on hand to complete the feeling of indulgence.

Mulling spices

Mulling spices: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fresh ginger.

Mulled Wine with Whisky

Ingredients:
1 bottle of cheap Syrah (like Trader Joe’s Three Buck Chuck) or other red wine
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, peeled and thin sliced
1 orange or lemon, peeled and segmented (reserve half the peel)
3 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
3 cardamom pods
3 Tbs. honey
1/4 cup whisky (I used Brenne, a beautiful new single malt whisky aged in French oak and finished in Cognac casks. Its light, fruity sweetness marries nicely with the wine.)

Directions:

Combine all ingredients and heat just to a simmer. Barely simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes. Taste, adjust, enjoy.