What you will need ahead of time to accomplish this sort of tasting:
- Enough Glencairn glasses (or glasses of similar shape) for all your friends who will be partaking. The Glencairn style is preferred because it allows a wide bowl for the spirit to evaporate, but concentrates those vapors at the top for maximum "nosing" concentration. Other glasses such as wine glasses can be used in a pinch, but they tend to be a bit large for nosing operations this delicate. As you will find (and as I documented in "Whisky Pranayama: The Science of Nosing and Tasting"), nosing is fully half of a whisky tasting! In fact, nosing in the Pentagon tasting plays an even larger role in terms of discernment between grains.
- A pitcher of cool, still water. Many of you enjoy your bourbon or Scotch on the rocks - that's fine. But since we're not trying to mute the spirit here with dramatic temperature fluctuations (quite the reverse! we want the spirit to go wild), we're going to stick with liquid in the same phase as the spirit. That means water - cool, still water. An eyedropper might be a good investment here, since many American whiskies shy away from the cask strength ABV that would require spoonfuls of water. However, I've successfully been using my Brita water pitcher for the last 6 months!
- Some small plates of crackers or other bready snacks to neutralize the palate. This is important: no blue cheese or cotswold or sausage here, unless you want to destroy your ability to taste the subtlety in the spirit. The point of bready snacks is that they help neutralize the palate between pours. Many times a special dessert or BBQ finger food can be offered after the drinking just for fun. What a novel idea!
While the purpose of the Four Corners tasting was to focus on the contribution of wood maturation to the flavor of the spirit, the Pentagon tasting is designed to home in on the contribution of grain. You see, all whiskey starts its life as a fermentable grain mash (called wort) anyway. [Ed. Where do you think "Cereal Alchemist" came from?] The wort is then fermented by adding yeast, which breaks down the sugars in the wort to create alcohol. That wash is subsequently heated to a point where the alcohol boils off and leaves the water behind, a process called a "first stage distillation." Many times the first stage distillate is called a "low wine" because it's still only about 18-20% alcohol. To create those high-proof beverages that we so thoroughly enjoy, most low wines get at least one more trip through the still. Eventually a very high proof new-make spirit is born and then laid down in barrels to age, usually for at least several years (U.S. law is 72 hours in order to be called a "whiskey"). The Pentagon tasting is a uniquely American whiskey tasting, so we're going to let age be a secondary consideration to the grain choices that go into each spirit.
Here in America we have like a bajillion grains - okay, so four major ones - to choose from when it comes to the "mashbills" (recipes) for our whiskies. Unsurprisingly, some distillers get pretty adventurous in terms of what percentages of which grains make up their unique, proprietary snake-oil (tongue-in-cheek, but it explains the enormous range of flavor profiles you'll find in singular genres like "Kentucky Straight Bourbon"). The Pentagon tasting is designed to assess each of those four grain building blocks, then examine what happens when they're blended together in different mashbills.
The Players and the Order
Forming the bottom four corners of our pentagon are the four dominant grains used by American whiskey distillers: corn, red winter wheat, malted barley, and rye. Expressions in these categories are selected to highlight each single grain on its own in order that those flavors can be picked out of blended expressions- such as bourbon - at the pinnacle of the tasting. The language can get confusing here for some ("Wait, so rye is whiskey?"; "I thought bourbon and corn whiskey were the same thing"). Be ready to field plenty of questions from newcomers who are suddenly intensely curious about what's going on in their glass; that's what we want to happen! For this tasting you get to be their guide to the spirit world.
Corn serves as the foundation for a number of American whiskies, especially bourbon, but it's not unique to find it labeled as a "corn whiskey" on its own. To be called a corn whiskey the spirit has to be made from at least 80% corn in the mash bill. Balcones True Blue is made from 100% blue corn, which is somewhat unique, and it showcases the signature corn notes beautifully. To start, there's a deep, sugary sweetness here, with strong hints of orange and rich milk chocolate. There's also a subtle smokiness that probably comes from the wood. It's not the most complex whiskey I've ever tasted, but I challenge your tasters to say it isn't one of the most delicious. This is an important flavor to ruminate on for a while, since it's going to be featured heavily in every bourbon and even some "rye" blends.
[Interesting side observation: If you've noticed the price of corn whiskey (and bourbon) going up in recent years, you can thank the government for at least part of that (of course, there's also the occasion of blossoming demand and supply constraints). It seems that more and more farmers are willing to grow corn, but generally less of it is available to whiskey distillers. The reason? Ethanol subsidies. There's gold in them ears! This has a ripple effect in the agricultural industry, as grains like rye and barley don't receive the same subsidization. As a result, these grains are less preferred by farmers which makes them more expensive for distillers to procure. Call your congressman, but refrain from making your tasting too political unless everyone already agrees with you ;-) ]
Can't find Balcones anywhere? Out of your price range? That's okay, really. There are plenty of corn whiskies out there at the moment, so ask your local liquor retailer and I'm sure they can point you to some. Just don't buy "moonshine", usually clear or very pale corn whiskey. Remember, we're trying to showcase the corn's sugary sweetness. Moonshine is typically rougher stuff (hey, it's an experience, but your guests may not want to stay for the rest of the tasting after they've rinsed their mouth out). Corn whiskey done right is a beautiful thing. Look for a rich, amber hue.
But my local liquor store has never heard of Bernheim! What do I do?? My Pentagon is becoming a square-ish thing indeed! Don't fret! Instead, simply substitute one of the items from the pinnacle of this tasting in its place - specifically, Maker's 46. It's not 100% wheat by any stretch of the imagination, but its highly-wheated mashbill will allow your guests to instantly identify the departure from the 100% corn whiskey that they just tasted.
If you read the latest edition of Friday's Finest, you probably noticed the treasure map at the bottom of the post. Many of those distillers produce small batch or limited release single malts that you can find in pockets of local resellers. I also offer a fall-back option for those burnt-out on searching below. But here we come to praise malted barley! I chose Sons of Liberty Spirits Company (a local craft distiller in Rhode Island) and their 1765 Collection for the job.
Barley is widely considered to be one of the most "neutral" fermented grains, but that doesn't mean there isn't going to be flavor involved. For starters, all malted barley wort is essentially fermented into beer before it's distilled. So you can have "stout beer" whiskies (made from certain percentages of "chocolate" - i.e. "toasted" - malt) like what Sons of Liberty has produced that contain rich, malty chocolate tones. You can also have exceptionally light whiskies from 100% malted barley. Then there's the difference that aging in wood makes for all of these neutral spirits, which is something the Four Corners tasting addresses head on.
Any single malt you choose is going to be a definitive departure from the corn and wheat we've tasted so far. Most single malts are not by the grain's nature alone "sweet", but they are quite delicate. Have your tasters enjoy this one as an outlier, and encourage them to go distillery-hopping sometime in search of great malts. My gut tells me that America has just begun to take up its own single malt movement with the passion that it deserves.
The idiot behind the counter at my local store thinks all single malts come from Scotland. If I don't have time to order online, what do I do? We're outsourcing this particular dilemma to Scotland - go with a Scotch and explain that the mash bill (100% malted barley) is essentially the same. Just don't pick a peat monster (most Islay whiskies) or something heavily sherried, since neither define American single malts at the moment. I'd recommend a highland or Speyside malt to make your flavor point: Glenmorangie's Original or Glenlivet's Nadurra (or hell, even their 12yo in a pinch) will get you through.
This is not a 100% rye whiskey. I chose Bulleit because it's truly best in class, but you'll notice that it's actually "only" 95% rye in the mashbill. To be called a "rye whiskey" you have to use - you guessed it - at least 51% rye in the mashbill. I don't hold that 5% barley in Bulleit's mashbill against them, as I think it's used here to tone down some of that rye spice a bit and allow the heathery honey notes to really flourish. And flourish they do! Hooray! Just such a perfect expression of an American rye whiskey. Your tasters will pick up on the spice though. That is rye's signature contribution, and it's cherished by many full-bodied bourbons for that very reason. Add just splash of water to open up those heathery notes.
Can't I pick just about any "Straight Rye Whiskey" off the shelf and have that serve as the rye corner of my Pentagon instead? Yes. What about rye from craft distillers like Hudson's Manhattan Rye? Do you have a problem with me picking that one so that I can relay the interesting story of "rapturation"? Not in the least ;-)
All you anti-establishment types are about to jump ship now that I've recommended a Maker's Mark whiskey on what is turning out to be a legendary and elite whiskey tasting. That's your loss. Because Maker's 46 is an exceptional bourbon on its own, and really stands out as the king of "wheated" bourbons. I chose the 46 over their original expression, largely because of the higher ABV (46%, which almost always means more complexity) and also because I like what the French oak staves have accomplished with the color and flavor profile. This bourbon (at least 51% corn in the mashbill) , but you could easily substitute the original here for pricing or availability and accomplish the same goal. With the 46 I'd add just a bit of water to open it up some.
Have your tasters begin with the corn influence here - a syrupy sweetness that pervades the palate. If you need to have them go back to the individual grain whiskies to figure it out that's totally okay; trust me, they'll get it. Then have them dive deep for that 20% red winter wheat in this expression. It's there, but its sweetness is masked a bit by the sharpness of the French oak. If anything, you want your tasters to see that this is a subdued, complex corn whiskey. Because that's what it is :-) Odds are it'll be a crowd favorite up to this point.
On NO! I already poured this drink earlier as the wheat corner of my Pentagon! Is my tasting a complete sham? Relax. You can either pour it again just for kicks, or head straight on to the next part. That Four Roses coming up is amazing, full-bodied stuff and will make a great pinnacle on its own. And we haven't even talked about the sneaky, surprise offering that you're going to unveil at the very end yet! >:-)
Four Roses is a definitive "high rye" bourbon. This means that while corn makes up the lion's share of the mashbill, rye gets (pretty much) the rest. When you taste a bourbon and you get that strong spice sensation at the tip of the tongue, you know it's using rye in the balance. To that end, OBSK lives up to its recipe quite well, exhibiting a powerful corn sweetness on palate entry, followed by an interesting hit of dark berry jams, and finishing medium spicy. I prefer the medium spicy to some bourbons' powerful spice assault, but that's just me. Certainly a departure from Maker's 46, even if corn is still the dominant ingredient. And this is still "Kentucky Straight Bourbon"! Together with Maker's it's the perfect apex to our pentagon.
Oh, but I already have a favorite bourbon! No, really, it's just super great stuff and so, so good and just really, truly delicious, trust me. I really want to make that my pinnacle instead. Pleeeease! Well, go ahead! This is really your tasting after all. I'm just a blogger. However, I think you should try to pick something that's high-rye in the mash bill (most bourbons, admittedly) just to put a blended mash bill with a contrast to Maker's on display. Go with your gut. And if you're thinking Blanton's, I'd also totally agree with you. Tennessee whiskey... maybe.
So, it looks like this has been a really successful---
In a recent tasting with family friends I pulled the (now exceptionally hard to find) Brimstone out at the end as a surprise pour. The reaction as it was entering the glass was one of "hmmmm, that's an interesting smell." The reaction upon nosing and tasting was, "Holy cow! Can we eat some ribs now?!" It's just that different, basically like drinking sweet, mesquite BBQ in a glass. There is no other whiskey in the world like it. I freakin' love it, as much for the novelty as anything else.
If you go for the Angel's Envy option, your guests can expect a high-rye, full-bodied bourbon with none of the spice kick. Instead, it's delicious, dark fruit soaked in rum all the way down. Truly an exceptional take on what the bourbon flavor profile can accomplish, and one that will leave your friends asking, "Why don't more distilleries extra-mature their bourbon?" I have no freakin' idea. But this one does, and that's enough for me.
That's it for this American whiskey tasting! We've covered wood maturation and grain influence, so where do we go from here? Is this all there is?
Regarding that, I'll leave you with a teaser: Did you know that the word "Samurai" means "to serve"?