A lot can change in four years, let me tell you.
You can get lost in yourself a bit. You can take a break from generating content and learn a little more what you enjoy and what you don't. You can find out the day after the anniversary of your son's death that your wife is pregnant again. You can move four times in three years.
When you finally do arrive in Japan, after a voyage through the Panama Canal and around literally half of the world, your wife will greet you along with the smiling, gorgeous, toothless face of your five-month-old daughter (we call her, affectionately and in the native parlance, Evie-chan). You might stare into both sets of eyes wistfully as you contemplate a call to service that has separated you from nine of your daughter's first twelve months. You can grow a mustache.
You can bow out at work, unexpectedly and with great churn. You can learn to ask for help. You can find your summit. You can not be melodramatic about it.
Four years later, everyone wants to know if you still have the edge. Do you still keep up? Do you still have the fire? Do you like who you were, who you are becoming? Will you ever write again?
Heed first the warnings of Ecclesiastes: "The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." We should not write for the sake or love of words. My composition factory has moss on the granite.
I have seen that a writer lays down his pen like a blacksmith who has lost his hammer: the gallows are still, the chimneys are silent, and birds and mice run freely upon the hay. The neighbors whisper, "I have seen a fire in the hearth, but nobody has heard anything for some time. I wonder often if some great illness or calamity has fallen upon them. Someone should fetch the friar."
My brother is a friar. I am a wordsmith. My hands and my sinews have not forgotten the ways of the forge. I may be out of practice, but I'm a stronger and wiser man than I was four years ago.
Before a whisky becomes a spirit.
Everybody loves a good origin story, and when it comes to distilled spirits, whisky's origins are worthy of the most thoroughly engrossing documentary (speaking of which, where is one? the movie Angel's Share comes closest, and that's just sad). I'm not even talking about the remarkable distillation process or the expertise (not to mention supply chains) involved in maturation. I'm talking about where your alcohol gets its start - as a beer.
This post is all about "beer". You see, all whisky starts its life as beer, even the non-barley kind. Saccharomyces cerevisiae may be a remarkably efficient little organism, but it doesn't generate ABV anywhere near the concentration you'll find inside a bottle of whisky. We have distillation to thank for this concentration (and civilization owes much to the scientific leaps that distillation engendered) but whisky has beer - and yeast even more specifically - to thank for even existing at all. There's so much more to the story, which you can read about in books like The Drunken Botanist and Proof: The Science of Booze, but it's the freakin' weekend. I believe this calls for some post-work week OJT. Today I'm going to introduce you to some of the most astonishing beers I've sampled over the last few months.
I realize that there is incredible risk involved in putting any beer recommendation list on the internet. Partly this comes from list exhaustion (thanks BuzzFeed), and the overwhelming amount of content that is already out there. Partly it's because many of you are going to question why such-and-such favorite beer of yours didn't make this list. Well, that's because it's my list. This is where my journey has taken me. Feel free to chime in on the comments with recommendations or criticisms - seriously! I keep an open mind, and I happen to know that many of you have impeccable taste in this arena.
I began my knowledge of beer with a 6-pack of Coors Light (ugh) on my 21st birthday. Summertimes mowing lawns during college taught me to enjoy shoving lime slices into my Negro Modelo. Evenings hugging warm girlfriends by the pool taught me to enjoy Shock Tops and Blue Moons. Seafood taught me to appreciate the pale ales and I seriously chased the hop train for a while (it's not quite "Puff the Magic Dragon", but it's close). Then I fell in love with Aventinus and doppelbocks over many trips to the Bier Garden in Norfolk. There wasn't much time for drinking during my deployments, but coming home always introduced me to new things (another trip to Bier Garden and hello Delerium Tremens!). My point is, I've been drinking beer longest of all my drinks, and all these fizzy lifting drinks have taught me a thing or two about beer culture:
With that said, these are the beers that stood out. I dare say that all of them are amazing in their own right, and I'll be happy to add to the list in the months to come (like maybe my next home batch!).
Disclaimers: If you're the paleo type and this grain thing just doesn't suit your style, I actually agree but c'mon. Science. If you're more of a "I'll stick to more noble drinks like whisky and wine, TYVM" type person, well dude, some of these have ABV higher than your wine and more complexity to boot. Give love a chance. For the masochists who still resist, why would you deny yourself the pleasure? For the faint-hearted, take courage (beer helps with that). For the uninterested ("Isn't this a distilled spirits blog?"), SEE TITLE. If you're an "I only drink DARK beer" person... well, I "only make love with the light's off" [Ed.: not true], [Ed. Wife: why do they even?!] Also, I tried really hard not to make this just a Dogfish Head list.
A lot of craft beer isn't really "craft" (there's a big discussion about this in both the beer and whisky industries), and a lot of craft beer is pretty terrible or mediocre. Competition literally benefits the consumer in this case, and both craft and ... bigger-than-craft? brewers have laid down some serious challenges. Exciting things are happening. You'll notice many of these beers are barrel-aged. That's not just a paean to the whisky audience out there, it's damn good!
Ommegang Hennepin: I've really taken to saisons lately. You might even say that perhaps I don't prefer a color of beer so much as I prefer a region (French-Belgian in style, not necessarily source). Saison (French for "season") is always a pretty little blond ale that gets a lot of spicy, fruity, green farmhouse character. You can practically taste the hay and the laughter on this. It is the Star Trek: Insurrection of beers: overlooked, unappreciated, but full of beauty and lots of happy space hippies running around blissful Portlandish home gardens. By the name I think they intend that you "only drink this in the summer" since that's when the climate best suits its palate (our next beer, another saison, is only released seasonally). But hey, if you want to be reminded of happy days...
Long Trail (Brush and Barrel Series) Saison: If Hennepin is brewed in the French farmer's style, then Long Trail's Saison is the farmer's daughter: mature, self-assured, kind of sexy, but doesn't really care what you think about that because she's got too much work to do. I find this a bit spicier and earthier than Ommegang's offering, but they're definitely one good lookin' family. This beer is as classy as champagne with a more grounded, keep-it-real character.
Goose Island - The Ogden: There's a local brewhouse in Fall River that has this beer on tap. On tap! At 9%, this Belgian tripel falls right into my ABV sweet spot (I generally prefer a range of about 7-12%) and sits right inside the flavor profile of other great Belgians, including my notable first love, Delirium Tremens. These tripels tend to be magnificently fruit-forward with a powerful, malty finish. I can't get enough.
Hof Ten Dormaal - Barrel Aged in Octomore 2014: This is a blonde ale aged in barrels of Octomore, the world's peatiest whisky (one of my absolute favorite Scotches of all time). There's a special story that comes with it. It was a completely random find. I had some serious doubts. I put my doubts to rest and poured it for my brother at his wedding. I got fined $100 by the wedding venue because I Brought My Own Bottle and violated some stupid liquor license thingy. Worth. Every. Penny.
Dogfish Head - Midas Touch: I first heard about this collaboration between Dogfish Head and biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern in Proof: The Science of Booze. When I saw it in the local store and read the description, I had to go for it. You're not going to believe me when I tell you. Supposedly derived from an ancient Egyptian recipe, this ale is made from barley, honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron. BOOM! Beer claims another hipster juice cleanser.
Dogfish Head - 120 Minute IPA: For the home brewers here, you'll know that 120 minutes refers to the amount of time the wort is hopped. For the non-brewers, 120 minutes is a long time, maybe even a bit overkill. I tend to believe that many craft brewers use hops to mask the flavor of bad beer, just as many distillers cover for bad/immature whisky with smoke and peat. In many ways, the rush to IBU's in beer resembles the peat-freak fanaticism that holds back many Scotch enthusiasts. Needless to say, I was skeptical of the wisdom of Dogfish Head's approach here.
I went searching for this beer on the advice of a friend, and I was afraid it would turn out to be a bitter, over-hopped mess. I was wrong. This is the velvet cake of IPA's. The hops are so sweetly integrated with the malt that it was hard to put the bottle down. I have to find more, but I hope all that humulus lupulus doesn't affect my next urinalysis.
Gouden Carolus Van de Keizer Blauw: You want to look for the blue label here (which is only brewed seasonally, though largely available year round). This is a dark Belgian ale very much in the style of Chimay's blue label, although I tend to think the Van de Keizer cuvee has better overall structure and integration. It's essentially a barleywine, super sweet with a beautiful ABV. Best in its class.
Ommegang - Three Philosophers: Not to be outdone by the Belgians, Ommegang (based in Cooperstown, NY) went and whipped up a Belgian quad blended with a very small percentage of Liefmans Kriek (cherry ale). The cherry is hardly noticeable here. I like to keep a bottle around as proof that Americans can do some of my favorite beers just as well as - if not better than - the old Europe.
Widmer Brothers - Kill Devil '13: Brown ales are often undeservedly overlooked and unappreciated in an era when everything is supposed to be crisp and bitter and bright. This particular version is barrel-aged in Puerto Rican rum barrels, which give it a distinctive ABV bite and sugary sweetness. It gets mixed reviews online, but what do the hipsters know? It's not like they know good rum either.
Dogfish Head - Raisin D'extra: This is a magnificent brown ale brewed with like a bajillion raisins and some beet sugar (boosting the ABV to 15-18%!). Now I've got your interest! You just have to try it.
New Holland - Dragon's Milk: We're getting into my winter favorites. Of all beer styles that enjoy a good bourbon barrel, I think stouts benefit from their conditioning the most. Something about those barrels dials the caramel, toffee, and butterscotch notes to 11. Sometimes these beers tend to be a bit "sticky". They leave residue at the bottom of a glass, and they generally have a low head of foam that purists frown at. I don't care. There's only one other stout out there that I would put above this Michigan beer, and that is...
Goose Island - Bourbon County Stout 2014: King of beers. You know how I told you that one local brewhouse has Goose Island's Ogden on tap? Well, they have the 2012, 2013, and 2014 vintages of this stout on tap as well! I am in heaven. It's the hero Gotham deserves, just... not one I can drink all the time. It may be trying too hard sometimes.
Why do we drink?
That is such a silly sounding question. Has a non-drinker ever asked you that? Just what is a "non-drinker" anyway? Drinking, as Maestro Webster would define it, is vital to human survival. So when did the act of swallowing life-giving, fresh, cool water become eponymous with quaffing an ethanol-laced liquid? More importantly, why has this happened? Anglophiles have words like imbibe which have strong, alcohol-specific associations, but drinking... in America... what a thing. Nobody says this word in a sentence like that when they talk about Mountain Dew: "Woohoo, let's party like the Beach Boys! Root beer's on the house!" Furthermore, I've never seen soda-pop "breweries" draw in fans waiting for the latest bourbon barrel release, because of course that's ridiculous. You owe it to yourself to ask why.
The world is full of people who take themselves very seriously. Odds are that you hang around one or two of them on a daily basis, and you can't help but notice how they often set the mood for the group. You leave work or school and you're like, "I seriously need to chill right now. I have wiled away the hours contemplating the complex and fundamental questions about the universe, and now I shall let my proverbial hair down [because if you spend very much of your time in places like this, you probably don't have much hair left]." So what do you do? You do what homo sapiens across generations and millennia have done: you come home and crack open a "cold one" (the one makes it sound more mysterious; you have to guess what the one is). People often remark to me - and after my travels I have to agree - that Americans don't know how to drink. Well, we know how, we just seem to have different goals. We get all silly about it. We start adding razzmatazz flavors to our neutral grain spirits, and we take these amazing wines and toss a bunch of fruit juice and sprite in them. We long for the effect, but we don't give a flying frack about the journey - some of us anyway. Then the yin to the yang, badda bing, badda bang, and we have a whole subset of the population that lives to judge the ones who are drinking stoopid. Because why? You don't even know. I bet you never even knew that stuff that we knew.
I can be a pretty snooty, high-minded person about my alcohol sometimes. It's not a mystery or even an apology; just read through this blog and you'll see. Maybe you even came here originally because you share my sensibilities and are looking for validation (you are not a Philistine). But even a scrooge as cold-hearted and critical as me can tell when I start to take a subject like alcohol too seriously. What, do you think I really worship this stuff? I can't even take any credit for it! Just one, single-celled organism is responsible for providing the human race with the most marvelous experience of all that we drink, and you think I'm really qualified to be the arbiter on what is right and wrong about the subject? Preposterous. I don't know where you come from, but I know that we can find some really fun stuff to drink together. Maybe I'll even write about it.
A toast! new friend. To second guessing!
To all who ever reached for their "default" sipper -
- Their standard bottle or brew -
And spied the bottle next to it and said, "Why not?"
Enjoy the roads untraveled.
To the home brewer or vintner,
Who starts with a kit and gets hooked,
And while following the recipe starts eyeing the spice cupboard.
Embrace the spirit of discovery.
To the ones who imbibe alone,
And then one day their spouse asks if they can stop by the liquor store,
And although they want to grab that noble, rare single malt,
They reach for that American Honey
In hopes of winning a convert.
Because don't you like honey?
May you relax and find love in letting go.
To the ones who look at that vodka in the cabinet,
Then look at that bag of peppers in the refrigerator,
Or perhaps they're eyeing their loose leaf tea,
And say, "What if..."
Unleash your inner mad scientist.
To the ones who are mixing up their whisky sour,
And - out of lemons - settle for grapefuit,
Who drink it anyway,
And give it a name.
The world is your grapefruit.
To the second guessers,
To the late impressors,
Kanpai! Salud! L'Chaim! Cheers!
"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed." -
Rumors of my demise have been ... largely exaggerated :-) It is so good to be back in this space, and there's not much time before the clock tolls 2015, so let's do what is necessary to fulfill all righteousness and get some recognition out of the way. Last year's Highley Recommended spirits were based on an extraordinary sample size and the whimsies/opinions of one man - your author, J.R. Highley (Cereal Alchemist). This year, the awards are taking on a much different shape, partly to satisfy expediency, but partly because I have had so many other demands on my attention - and missed out on so much - that the "awards" need to take their rightful place as recommendations. My chief recommendations. Which, if I flatter myself (not that I would ever do such a thing), means a lot. I'm pretty critical when it comes to taste, and praise of this magnitude is not meted out to satisfy anyone's self-esteem. From the Happy Warrior and my family comes 2014's list of Highley Recommended... stuff. Starting with!
2014's Highley Recommended Whisky
I hate to say it, but Scotch whisky was left in the dirt this year. I can't recall more than a few drams that really succeeded in impressing me, and most of those came from independent bottlers. Even Jim Murray admonished the Scotch industry in his 2015 edition of the Whisky Bible (not a single Scotch was in his top 5). It's clear that the whisky glut has taken its toll on old, quality spirit stock (Scotch is a whisky that needs plenty of time to mature, more so than other world whiskies), and overall pricing and quality have left Scotch fans suffering this year. Luckily, there are outstanding foreign distillers taking up the slack, and none more able than the Japanese whisky shokunin.
Last year's Highley Recommended whisky was a Japanese single malt (Suntory's Hakushu: Bourbon Barrel), and this year Nikka followed through with their signature grain whisky. If Hakushu is outshining Scots at their own game, then Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky is taking on grain whisky's older brother - the Irish. This whisky is so sweet, so delicately matured, so simply delightful that I'm amazed you can find it around town and online for only $60. What. The Actual. Heck. Nikka could easily sell this whisky for twice that price. It meets all the wickets, and its the only whisky this year that had me continuously coming back for more.
2014's Highley Recommended Literature
This book was actually published in 2013. Up until this week I was prepared to recommend the only "drinks" book outside of school that had succeeded in grabbing my attention this year - Proof: The Science of Booze. Proof is a great book for the scolar and the uninitiated alike, but its writing feels (no offense, if this is your thing) more like a lengthy Gawker article. It's fun, it's hip, it's refreshing, but if you want adult literature you reach first for Amy Stewart's clinical masterpiece The Drunken Botanist.
Part of the joy of spirits - and the drinking world as a whole - is discovering just how much the natural world (a.k.a. Provenance) is responsible for all that we call good drinkin'. Plants and micro-organisms are a huge part of it. Many of them have arguably domesticated us while we were domesticating them. This book is a fascinating read, and its research is so illuminating that nearly each page repels a common alcohol myth or misperception. It is the ground truth - pun intended - for all things related to what's in that drink. It's cold outside. Grab a book. LeVar Burton wills it.
2014's Highley Recommended Spirit Shop
I don't get paid for my recommendations, or reimbursed in any way. So why do I bother talking about retail? Quite simply, I know many of you who don't have a local shop that offers many of the things I talk about here. I also know that many of you are quite proud of some of your local dives (Joyal's, Vicker's, Bottles Fine Wine & Spirits, the list goes on). Sooner or later though, you'll be looking for that one bottle that can't be found on a shelf but can be found on Google. Whom do you trust?
If you've avoided turning to online retail because (1) you don't trust online purchasing or (2) you worry you'll be roped into some book club you didn't sign up for, I think it's time for you to reconsider. I've ordered from many online retailers, but none of them have as slick and direct a website as Caskers. Yes, they do have clubs for those of you interested, but their prices are exactly what you would expect to see in a store and their shipping is prompt and secure. One of these days I'll update my blog with a list of all my trusted online retailers, but now you know that I consider Caskers to be the cream of the crop.
2014's Highley Recommended Distiller / Distillery Tour
I've been told by several reputable sources that no state boasts more active distilleries outside of Kentucky than Colorado. I do know that I've tasted a lot of good hooch from several Colorado upstarts, but I don't know that I've ever had more pure, unadulterated fun visiting any distillery than when my wife and I swung by Breckenridge Distillers last March (Colorado in spring - or any time of the year really - is divine). It's easy to find, easy to tour, and best of all - they make amazing whisky. You may have heard of it. "The bourbon that beat Pappy"? People don't kid about that stuff.
Many can speak to what's in the Breckenridge bottle, but what I'm really impressed to see is a craft distiller eschewing micro-cask maturation. No shortcuts, no tricks, no over-oaked stave rape. The altitude and the temperature swings almost surely lend that Amrut bit of speed to what's in their warehouse, but then American whisky always does pretty well given 3-7 years of maturation. If you're planning a Colorado visit, you will enjoy every minute you spend at this place, all while tasting some of the finest craft whisky in the nation / world. Breckenridge Distillers - 2014's most Highley Recommended distillery and tour.
That's it! No lengthy vivisection of the past year's. No prophetic wisdom to usher in the new. Just a fine bottle of whisky and some great people bringing joy to the masses - from my family to yours. God's blessings to you and yours in the new year.
Sole author and editor of Cereal Alchemist
If you're not in the habit of checking out the Drink section where all the reviews happen... well, who could blame you? The assortment was pretty sparse during the first year. That's all changing though, as I've just finished offering up my notes on the entire Single Cask Nation lineup to date (when the whisky fairy delivers that Catoctin Creek, you'll be the first to know). My latest review on their single cask Glen Moray is especially useful if you'd like to know more about the unique relationship between Scotch whisky and Spanish wine. That's more what the Drink section is - a journal dedicated to whisky dissection, titration, and analysis, apart from the Blog section where science meets politics and anything goes.
In other news, you'll be excited to hear that I've just tasted my favorite pair of tequilas so far, and I've got a mescal tasting to attend next week. Cognacs and Armagnacs are on the horizon, and exciting things are happening with a local vodka distillery (I am trying to arrange a virtual tour). It's all happening here and in the reviews! Catch you on the flip side.
"God made the kitten that man may pet the lion."
I'm sitting out here on the plains, just north of the dry line, tuned in to TVNWeather and watching super cells burst through the cap and roll across the plains. It's shaping up to be a stormy couple of days, but the rain is therapeutic and I'm all in for the farmers working on their red winter wheat (a prime mash ingredient for many of your favorite bourbons). I thought I'd take a break from a string of delicious whisky reviews to get reacquainted with the next round, starting with this mature beauty (one of the last bottles of its kind).
This whisky combined with a rainy evening provides the perfect moment for a little reflection on where I'd like to bring this blog over the next year. For starters, I'm definitely going to lean in heavily on the reviews. I've got bottles lined up for finishing off, but I don't want to drink them until I can memorialize their contents in a worthy update to the Drink section. I have plans for getting creative with the recommendations. Additionally, there are plenty of spirits out there that deserve their day in the sun: cognac, armagnac, pisco, cachaca, and mescal, to name a few. Sun can come later though. Tonight, it's this sweet little peat bomb and anticipation of a delivery from the whisky fairy. It's a thing. Google it. Just don't Google "Irish Whisky Fairy" unless you want to see NSFW whisky pin-ups. I warned you - Irish.
Either way, sometime next week I'm expecting the fairy to drop off a bottle of the Nation's newest release.
I realize we're all grown ass adults here, but it's still okay to get excitable about things. This is how we recall the holiday seasons of our youth: not by worshiping at the altar of whisky, whisky icons, or material possession, but in delighting once again at the joy of surprises, provenance, and giving. Whisky in a box will do that. It occurs to me that we could all use a little more magic in our daily lives, something that reminds us of the mysteries that lurked around every corner of our childhood. We often don't need to sit down and read a blog that claims to give us all the answers (pro tip: they don't exist). Sometimes we just want to love again and believe.
Whisky from the "fairy" is absolutely best when gifted to other people, but if you're lonely - and really want to pretend - you could always do worse than hopping online and shipping yourself the promise of delicious discovery. Just don't be lonely. Message me. You've got a friend (in a non-creepy way).
Stay tuned for Benriach, Kilchoman, and Laphroaig on the flip side.
The spirit of discovery is alive and well here at Cereal Alchemist. A lot of behind the scenes footwork goes into exploring new frontiers and distilled spirits to write about, very few of which will ever grace the Drink page for a review or the Blog page for an honorable mention. Simply put: not everyone can be a winner in these boomin' times, and there are plenty of really good things going on in the spirit world that you'd rather hear about first. Ordinary people with extraordinary dreams are making them happen.
This edition of Friday's Finest goes to the movers and shakers in the distilled spirits arena, the ones who know the great strivings and are coming out on top. I'm not going to tell you which bottles to buy from these people, because I'd buy anything they put out there. These are the select few players who you just can't go wrong with when it comes to quality, taste, and craftsmanship. They are out of this world.
Sure, Chip Tate can come across as a pretentious know-it-all, but my experience is that many whisky astronauts suffer from a deplorable excess of personality. What's more, you can't deny that Balcones' whiskies are generating more excitement than a meteor fly-by at the moment. I've tasted it all, and it's the best rocket fuel this side of Cape Canaveral.
I just got a chance to tour this place, nominally the "world's highest distillery." It's not exactly exoatmospheric, but you're going to have a hard time with the Colorado altitude all the same. Understanding the effect this would have upon their angel's share, the whisky's makers mature the spirit in a carefully climate-controlled warehouse on site. I understand that Jordan has a single malt in the pipeline that's been maturing for a couple years now. In the meantime, I'll just get that Rocky Mountain high from their bourbon, vodka, and bitters. Too infinity, and beyond!
Triticale is not a moon, it's a space station. If you're thinking that a rye/wheat hybrid grain would produce a whisky with characteristics of rye and wheat... you'd be absolutely correct. It's delicious. It's unique. Not your cup of Irish tea? Scoot around this binary system for a taste of their port-matured wheat whisky. Or their cask strength bourbon. Or hell, anything you'd like. Where Dry Fly's going, you don't need roads.
Nothing this company makes is bad. NOTHING. And all of it is pretty great. Start with their core expression ("the original") then move out from there. It's a whole new solar system of delicious Scotch whiskey.
I'm pretty sure some Ardbeg Day release will flop, someday. Shoot, even our own sun will eventually expire and collapse into tiny neutronism. Until that day, I expect this will continue to be my Islay of choice.
Don't worry about how to pronounce it. Just know that they're the most progressive, inventive Scotch distillers in the galaxy. With a pipeline that includes "cuvee" (PX is my favorite, but they're all great), the world's peatiest whisky (Octomore), and the mysterious Black Art series, you'll have to watch how quickly you imbibe or you're going to be explaining a lot to your EMH.
Products from this Campbeltown distillery can go by any number of illicit names: Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn, just to name a few. Hard to find much of their stuff stateside, but if you've got Jango Fett on speed dial I'm sure you can work something out.
El Dorado is insane, just totally insane delicious rum. Insane, because they apparently have boatloads of mature stock sitting around and are selling it below exorbitant prices. It's a mad house! A mad house!
Avion: the Betazoids of the United Federation of Agave Roasters. By that I mean that it's almost as if they can read your mind and totally get you what you want out of a tequila. By that I mean that they would make a frightening addition to the collective. 7 of 9? More like 10 out of 10. Can't go wrong.
Who distills only vodka anymore? You realize that cosmonauts drink vodka, right? Astronauts drink that other stuff I just wrote about. Still, Karlsson's is pretty damn good. When you only make one thing, why not make an astonishingly prodigious potato vodka? Those guys don't dig imperfection. Resistance is futile.
A blend of distilled spirits news and commentary from around the web. In this edition: The wisdom of the Rum Guru, crafting in Colorado, Cask Master's on the rocks, and a battle without honor or humility. We miss you, Eren.
Feature: A Rum Guru's Wisdom
This will unblock your rum chakras. I'm not sure a more definitive or revealing expose of the secrets of distillation has ever been written. Originally posted on KLWine's Spirits Journal, this open letter from Bryan Davis (Lost Spirits Distillery) to David Driscoll (KLWines) comes across as impromptu but genuine. Posterity demands that I repost the entire tomb.
Everyone wants to talk about age, but in truth the barrel should only represent the final step that catalyzes a chain of chemical reactions and brings all the work together from each step of the spirit production process.
Nobody would ever accuse Lost Spirits Distillery of following the beaten path. To be honest, I was not the biggest fan of their Leviathan II or Ouroboros single malts (uniquely matured and American peated). This description of the process behind their navy style rum is forcing me to reconsider my initial conclusions.
I had this particular theory myself after hearing about Glenmorangie's latest Private Edition release. I must correct an error from my last Nosing the Net post where I said Cask Master's was intended to crowd source Glenmorangie's next private edition. It wasn't. Instead, it was intended to pick the next addition to the company's core lineup of ACE'd whiskies (next to Nectar D'or, Quinta Ruban, and the Lasanta). Taghta will join those ranks at a similar price. Interesting, then, to see the stone that the builders rejected make its way into this year's private edition at a much higher price point. I'll be sure to post my review on Companta in the "Drink" section soon.
The Age of Acquiring Us
No Age Statement (NAS) whisky: a battle without honor or humility. "No Age Statement Will Kill Us All." No it won't. Yes it will. It's a conspiracy. It's complicated. It's business. Don't act like you're not impressed. "What do I say? Yes, the 18 tastes 3 better than the 15?" Who cares? This whisky is 60 years old.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to tour Breckenridge Distillery this week. There are good things going on there, including an outstanding bitters reminiscent of Drambuie and a single malt in the works. Colorado has a great thing going on here, and I'm excited to see what the future brings. Nobody could tell me whether they were experimenting with ACE'ing their bourbon though. How about it, Jordan?
One of my very first reviews on this blog was of Sons of Liberty's seasonal summer release, a craft hopped whiskey. Well, it seems Sons of Liberty's winter release (a pumpkin spiced whiskey) has just achieved the incredible honor of "Best Flavored Whisky" in Whisky Magazine's World Whisky Awards. Regardless of your feelings on flavored whisky, this is a huge win for a distillery I've followed and believed in from the beginning. Look for a review on the winter release (along with cocktail suggestions) in the "Drink" section soon.
Sullivan's Cove won "World's Best Single Malt" with their French Oak expression, which is instantly worth 10 times as much. I'm kicking myself for not buying a bottle when I had the chance. I did get a chance to taste the expression and speak to their master distiller back in January. Super nice guy.
I've never turned to whiskey for self-medication (nor would I ever recommend it), but 4 weeks on, I miss you, Eren.
Someone once asked me,
"Why do you drink so much coffee?"
and I fought the urge to say
if I didn’t drink coffee, it would be whiskey
Because it takes 8 cups of coffee a day
to get my mind racing fast enough
to skip over thoughts of you
But one bottle of whiskey
not only who you are,
but who I have been.
- Author Unknown
It has been a rough two weeks for the Cereal Alchemist family. On February 19, my first child, Eren, was stillborn weighing 4 pounds and 11.5 ounces. Only three weeks away from his due date, the doctor shockingly informed us that Eren no longer had a heartbeat. After two days of zero sleep and a heart-wrenching delivery (my wife was very brave and is healing well), I penned a testimony to my son and our loss on Facebook. It has since been shared on the Cereal Alchemist Facebook page.
Today I feel called to share with you the eulogy I gave at Eren's memorial service. I understand that many readers might prefer not to focus on the death of an infant, but there is a light in this dark story that I think deserves to be recognized. In some small way, I pray that you would also be blessed by my son's story, which is really not his story at all.
Eulogy for Eren Jacob Highley
My wife and I appreciate your love, thoughts, and prayers.
Author and Editor
"Will It Blend?" is intended to be an ongoing series in this blog, much like my "Nosing the Net" and "Friday's Finest" segments. Partially this is to raise awareness of efforts of master blenders in crafting some of the finest spirits in the world (and in sustaining a huge slice of whisky business, well above 90% in fact). The rest of the time I'll be showcasing the work of entrepreneurs and amateurs, while encouraging you to join in the fun!
Whisky blending is intensely experimental. In fact, as far as the market goes, I'm willing to bet that only a single-digit percentage of blends birthed in the master blenders' hands end up surviving to store shelves. You can be blending from established whisky lines that have not changed production methods in decades, but there's just no guarantee - from one cask to the next - that the quality will always be the same. Maintaining a blended whisky's quality requires an intrepid nose, tons of patience, and a willingness to face failure and frustration head-on. For this reason, master blenders are the unsung heroes of the whisky biz. They are just as deserving of glory as master distillers, while requiring ten times the perseverance to "get it right." The true alchemist's work happens not in the wort but in the blending lab, for single malts and blended malts and vatted malts alike.
There are plenty of ways to sample the work of master blenders, usually involving a trip to the store with an informed recommendation, but tonight I want to focus on the faithful efforts of amateur blenders. After all, it's not as if there's something uniquely magic about blending that shuts out the uninitiated. Just as Ratatouille's Chef Gusto insisted that anyone (even a mouse!) could cook, I am equally confident that anyone can blend! You don't need permission, you don't need practice, you just need a willingness to take risks and experiment. Few blends will turn out exactly as you hoped, but there's some serious fun to be had on the margins of an expertise-dominated whisky scene. Plus, it's a great way to learn more about what makes a good whisky in the first place!
Start a Living Bottle
One fun way to get started in the amateur blending scene is to create a "living bottle." I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I actually borrowed it from a great blog I've combed through called Vatted. It's run by a guy named Matt and hasn't been updated in a while, but the idea behind a living bottle is solid. Essentially, whenever you finish your next bottle of whisky you empty it, clean it out, and set it aside as a blending vessel. From that point forward, when you're on the last few sips of your favorite whiskies, take those ounces of liquid and contribute them to your living bottle. Over time, the bottle builds volume and becomes a blend of your favorite whiskies. Plus, it's constantly changing depending on what you drink and what you like!
It's possible to vat everything together in a living bottle to see what happens, but I'd like to think a more sure-fire recipe of success would be to segregate whiskies by style. By that I mean you could have a Scotch living bottle, a bourbon living bottle, an Irish living bottle, etc. That's not to say you couldn't cross lines every now and then (i.e. pour your last ounces of highland malt into your bourbon bottle, just to see what happens) but this would enable you to learn more directly about the styles of your favorite whiskies while still getting experimental. You could even segregate the style along other lines if you'd like: particular wine finish living bottles, particular wood finish living bottles, particular grain style living bottles, etc.
The beauty of the living bottle concept is its enduring nature and low-risk approach. It's not like you're putting down lots of money on single malts that may or may not blend well with the rest of your whisky cabinet, and it's a process that can take its sweet time (with whiskies you consistently enjoy). I personally intend to start several living bottles over the next few weeks, as I've got lots of great bottles reaching the end of their volume. I'll let you know how I sort out the styles in future postings.
With tonight's elixir, I went for something a little more complicated than my "Cardinal North" blending series. I wanted to see how some well-groomed Islay malts (peated and unpeated) interacted with an old base grain whisky to round out the rough edges. I'm also doing this "live" (off the cuff), so you can actually trace my thoughts during experimentation. The bottles I've initially chosen are seen below, and as I'm hoping this will turn out rather "campfire and sex on the beach" in style, I hope to christen the ensuing night-cap Sandfire.
I mixed Compass Box's Hedonism, Laphroaig's Port Wood Cairdeas, my 11yo Longrow Wood Expression, and Bruichladdich's "Laddie 10" in a ratio of 6:3:3:2 respectively. I wanted a fruity wine influence (apart from sherry) in the blend, along with a good mix of bright and maritimey peat. Showcasing the peat interaction was really the point of Sandfire, with the Laddie 10 (unpeated) thrown in to add some umami and tropical melon notes. These were all fairly young whiskies, with a great deal of variation between the disparate elements. The Hedonism was there to round out the edges with its grain characteristics and first-fill bourbon notes, as well as to add a light sweetness underneath all the fire. Sadly, it didn't want to make its influence known (I had to keep upping the ratio), with the Longrow dominating the blend much more than I anticipated. Let's see how this one shook out...
The nose is distinctly Longrow/Laphroaig dominant with wooden pencil shavings, a low beach BBQ smoke, and a middling fruit salad play. Bringing it onto the palate reveals those rich, tropical fruit notes I so desperately tried to add (acai, honeydew, cantaloupe, blueberry), but they struggle under the immense weight of oak (why, oh why, in such a young blend overall?). That wood is definitely on fire, with the individual peat characteristics canceling each other out and smothering the blend in a tongue-numbing ash. I guess you can't win them all - looks like I have some perfecting to do with this blend. I could probably start by substituting the Longrow for another bright peat like Ardbeg, while upping the ratio of Laddie 10 in the blend. The Longrow just didn't play nice here. You could even see it in the color after I brought it down to proof - pale, ghostly straw.
Let's get perfecting. Blending is, after all, a work in progress. Gimme a sec while I gather my pipettes...
Now I've substituted Ardbeg 10 for the Longrow, bumped it down to 2 in the ratio, and bumped the Laddie 10 up to 3. Do they play nice?
Sigh... it's a step in the right direction, but the Ardbeg is strong and a little too botanical. I would probably be better off pairing the subtlety of the Port Wood Cairdeas (I know, "subtle" not usually being a word you associate with Laphroaig, but with this expression it fits) with something like Bowmore's Dorus Mhor (young, first-fill bourbon, with subtle Bowmore smoke). I'll still happily drink what I've got in front of me, since it is distinctly Hebridean (with a good deal of salt now, BTW). You're starting to see how this works, right?
Third time's the charm...
Ah, yes. That's the ticket. The Dorus Mhor takes Ardbeg's place and brings that low, pipe-smoke waft of peat I've been seeking all this time. Rich, Hebridean, fruit-forward, elemental. This is what I've been looking for! Still, I wonder if I could dial the fruit to 11 with a sherried Islay and tone down the tequila by reducing the Hedonism in the ratio...
... but that would be a different blend :-) Maybe next time?