Feature: Those Yeasty Beasties
You might say that a master brewer is to yeast what a dog breeder is to a champion purebred. Both disciplines harness the power of artificial selection, also known as selective breeding. As Harvard microbiologist and avid homebrewer Sarah Douglass explains, “when you add yeast to sugar, you’re putting them into into their ideal environment for rapid evolution via rapid growth. You might see several generations of yeast live, reproduce, and die in a single fermentation.”
To keep things consistent, commercial brewers “spike” each fermentation with an initial batch of yeast. Large batches of these flagship yeast are kept deep frozen in suspended animation. Yet eventually even these stocks run out, at which point scientists do their best to recreate the lost flavor profile using other strains of yeast.
What about creating yeast strains in the lab? “We do have the technology to make all sorts of molecular changes in yeast,” Douglass told me. “But flavor is such a complex trait, with so many metabolic pathways involved, that we're much better off using artificial selection to find yeast strains that make tasty beer. Trying to engineer a tasty yeast strain from scratch, by deleting genes or turning up protein expression, would be very difficult.”
There's a good (if short) track record of Japanese management of American brands. In 2002 Kirin purchased Four Roses bourbon as part of a realignment of Seagrams' portfolio, and it turned the brand from a bottom shelf also-ran into an elite player at the top of its industry. Four Roses' single barrel bottlings are now consistently my most recommended bourbon purchases, right alongside products from Heaven Hill. What's more, it's not like a move to Jack Daniels is going to make you feel any better. They're owned by beverage giant Diageo, a British company. This is just how international distribution in the whisky boom works now, friends. If you really like small and local, find thee a craft distillery! There's plenty to choose from nowadays.
I'm coming around to Canadian grain whisky. It really has been getting an unfair rap for the last few decades. Still, they can only blame themselves. You can't rest on your laurels during a disruptive whisky boom.
There are lots of online whisky auctions popping up in recent months. You'd better be REAL sure you're not getting duped.
Also, regarding rye: been sayin'.
I have a lot of good things to say about The Angel's Share, a heart-felt and well-paced Scottish drama about whisky, mild shenanigans, redemption, and persevering through adversity. My wife and I rented it through iTunes, but I understand it's now available on Netflix and a host of other digital distribution sources. It's not a whisky documentary, it's a drama with plenty of unemployed millennial street-kid angst and cussing (hey, they're Scots, deal with it). The subtitles are actually totally necessary, unless you're a native. Check it out sometime (but earmuffs for the kids). I started drooling when they brought out the 35 yo Springbank.
If you've read my recent review of Nikka's 15 yo Japanese single malt, then you may be interested in this documentary about Nikka founder (and Japanese whisky industry co-founder) Masataka Taketsuru's wife: "the Scot behind Japanese whisky." There's a rich and wonderful history here, told alongside a beautiful romance.
Finally: it's tough to beat out Bruichladdich when it comes to pairing whisky zeitgeist with cinematography. This is just gorgeous...
By now we've put lots of thought into how the grain, the yeast, the fermentation time, the design of the still, the wood, the maturation time, the finish, and the ambience all contribute to whisky flavor. I thought it was particularly interesting to add warehouse design to the list of variables.
I generally feel that whisky is less susceptible to the sorts of psychological marketing gimmicks that haunt wine-buyers. On second thought... never mind.
Glenmorangie's Cask Master's Project (an attempt to crowd-source the company's next Private Edition release) nailed down the finishing touches on Taghta last year. So this year's Private Edition release... was not Taghta. Companta was the burgundy-finished cask series that formed one of three finishing choices in last year's Cask Master's Project (and was actually my second favorite, Taghta - a Manzanilla finish - was my third; I have personally tasted all 3 expressions). So... I can comfortably predict you will now see all three of these finishes released as Private Editions in the next few years (SIGH). Taghta, wherever you are, you were a brilliant marketing stunt. So much so that the Glenlivet is now following suit. Wake me up when the Bordeaux finish arrives (for what it's worth, a friend has already acquired a bottle of Companta and enjoys it thoroughly).
The Antipode: cool name, cool coffee.
Holy Grain Spirits, Batman! It really is fantastic cave vodka (HUGE vanilla hit). I'm very sad to hear that they're following the micro-barrel craze with their whisky maturation. Still, I'm trying to work out a personal distillery tour and see what it's all about before we move away from KC this summer.
A counter-point to that Canadian whisky article: whisky water may not make a huge difference before distillation, but think about the water you're using after. I personally will not spend extra money for source water. Talk about obnoxious.
I love barrel-aged gin, but barrel-aged sriracha? Hokay.
Jim Beam continues whiskey's sorry descent into flavored obscurity. This was before the Suntory acquisition, BTW.
Quote: "Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it's time to drink." - Haruki Murakami