Vevo's got some proprietary lockdown on that video link above, but if you let it open in another tab you can play it in the background. Or more likely you're going to watch the entire video ;-) Sorry for the inconvenience - I realize many of you simply won't bother - but the song really captures the vibe of this dram pretty damn well, and I'm sticking to it.
It's that time of year when the world falls in love, only at the moment there's no mistletoe or caroling or pumpkin spice flavored whiskey to be found. We're standing here with the second in a line of seasonal whiskey releases, specifically a young, hopped whiskey from the craft distiller Sons of Liberty Spirits Company in Rhode Island. Yes, you read "hopped" correctly, it isn't just those tantalizing spring zephyrs going to your head. Time to put on your Five Fingers, unbutton the collar a bit, and embrace winsomely your significant other, because this is a whiskey that brings the seasons together.
This is a very limited release; one third party source said the distillery was only putting out 1800 bottles of this product, at least this year. I have no idea if it's true or not, but the fact remains that this is a very rare whiskey. Or rather... it looks like a whiskey. And it does say "Hop Flavored Whiskey" (emphasis mine) on the label there, which is something that you'd definitely have to call a "spirit drink" by law in the UK. And right now I can hear prominently two elite camps of readers marching to Twitter and Facebook to express their indignation.
First: "Cereal Alchemist, Y U NO WRITE ABOUT WHISKEY EVERYONE CAN BUY??"
Because it's boring. Why would I spend all of my time writing about spirits that you can acquire and try for yourself with $40 and ten minutes of driving? In that case I guarantee that you can make up your mind about it faster than I can blog about it, and would you rather be reading or dramming? It's science. Let's face it - time is your most precious resource, and you come here to find out what's happening in the most thrilling, innovative corners of spirit distillation. The idea behind our reviews is to give you a detailed analysis of craft, spirit, distiller, and terroir before you pay a premium or embark on some damned idealistic crusade like your father. Knowledge is power.
We're not going to blog about only the premium spirits, but they have their place in the cannon, and in many cases they provide a glimpse of the future.
Second: "I have nary an interest in reading your "spirit blog" if you're going to speak of these abominable flavored whiskies. You, sir, are an imposter (elite sniff - evil look through monocle)."
Get over it. I'm perfectly willing to accept your personal taste in whiskey and whiskey production, but I have only one rule that I ask you abide by before you start trolling the message boards: Don't knock it before you try it. I'm pretty elitist about my distilled spirits in general, but even I gave Dewar's Highlander Honey a try at Whisky Live just to see what all the SWA brouhaha was about. Again, for science ;-) If you're going to be a true shokunin, you have to open your mind and have a little intellectual curiosity, accepting that you don't have it all figured out. That's true for life as well as whiskey.
Sons of Liberty is also one of those distillers that we're going to have to profile eventually, such is my interest in them. But I don't really want to spend time on the distiller as much as the process behind this particular craft release. Trust me when I say that I've gotten to know the team working at this facility in South Kingstown pretty well, and I've followed their distillery closely since their first small-batch release in 2011.
Sons of Liberty famously pioneers a very grain-forward whiskey in their distillation. Founder Mike "The Revolutionary" Reppucci graduated with distinction from a business school in London, and while he was there he acquired a taste for stout beers. And since all whiskey starts life as beer anyway, he thought "what would happen if we made the best beer possible and carried that over into the whiskey flavor profile?" He came back to the states, commissioned his own still design, and enlisted the help of Master Distiller David Pickerell (formerly of Maker's Mark) to get their enterprise off the ground. The result was Uprising Single Malt American whiskey, a spirit made from a combination of deep-roasted ("chocolate malt") and non-roasted barley - and aged less than a year in roasted oak. I thought the first batch release was rough - something close to a white dog whiskey (although certainly quite drinkable), but with skill and improved maturation this spirit has improved dramatically. We'll review Uprising on a later date, along with the rare and elusive "1765 Release".
In 2012, Sons of Liberty began their first in a line of "seasonal releases", which are essentially flavored craft whiskies based on the signature Uprising malt. Their winter release, Pumpkin Spice Whiskey, just garnered a Best in Category award from the American Distilling Institute. It makes a mean twist on a White Russian.
It was then with great anticipation that we awaited the coming of the summer release. What mysterious elixir would this local legend have in store? Would it be apple flavored? Honey flavored? [Editor's note: YAAAAAWN] But then I started thinking about the Sons of Liberty ethos.
If all whiskey begins life as beer, what would a whiskey made from an IPA taste like? Yes, I am telling you that I guessed the release at least 2 months before reports hit open source. I was even *this close* to creating such a whiskey from a brew kit at home out of sheer curiosity, but Sons of Liberty did my work for me. They enlisted Cottrell Brewing for the wort, distilled it, aged it less than a year in 10-gallon oak barrels, and then actually dry hopped the whiskey itself before bottling it (Citra and Sorachi hops - brilliant!). So while it's labeled a "hop flavored whiskey", it is truly a hopped whiskey in the spirit of the craft.
On the nose we have pure, fresh-mown lawn without the lawnmower fumes. I'd like to call this "summer forward" instead of grain forward, all chlorophyll and honeysuckle, Vitamin D and cicadas. The cereal malt forms the perfect foundation, almost as if you can feel the barley grains mashing between your fingers. You know that opening scene from Gladiator, where Maximus is dreaming of being home (or heaven)? A sniff of this and you will be transported.
These spirits are bottled at 40% ABV. For those of you crying "Wuss!" I will remind you that this is the same strength as Jack Daniels (which has not received any Maker's-related PR blasting for their watering), and really, can you blame a craft distiller for wanting to stretch supply a bit? Besides, to quote Daniel "The Mayor" Murphy, Sons of Liberty is out to make a whiskey that's very easy to drink and access. Given how few people I know understand the importance of adding water to whiskey, this may prove a clever move.
What that 40% ABV means for you is that you can choose to drink this neat if you want to. Really - I find 35-40% ABV to be the sweet spot anyway. But if you add just a little water, you will bring out those fruity, citrus notes - grapefruit, lemon, tangerine. Good stuff.
Upon entering the palate, this spirit shows that it has a very easy mouth feel. [Editor's note: you will never, EVER, see me use the word "smooth" in a spirit review. Amateurs, heed my example.] There is a slight bite that comes from the bitter IPA origins here, but in all the spirit coveres the entire palate. I should say it works the entire palate, as IPA's (in their genius) tend to engage the senses a bit. Doubt me? You've got fruit, you've got IPA bitter hops, you've got IPA sourness, you've got salty sweet malt. You've got the entire tongue in play.
There are a lot of herbal notes coming out now. Hops definitely, but strong hints of menthol (mint), dill, bay leaves, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme; we've clearly entered Scarborough Fair territory. The point is, at this point the spirit starts to resemble a gin more than a whiskey. In fact, if I were into scientific classification, I'd say what we have here in my specimen net is not the flavored whiskey we started with, but a rare species of un-Junipered, deliciously aged, malt-forward gin. BOOM. Nailed it.
As the finish works its way out, leaving my breath smelling like Harpoon's latest iteration, I have an idea. What if we were to substitute the gin in a Negroni with Sons of Liberty's Hopped Ginny-Whiskey? This is a treat - just for those of you who've read this far.
A cocktail named after Count Negroni. You see, back in the last century Italians in Europe were greatly enjoying a popular drink called the Americano that was made with tonic water, bitters, and vermouth. Legend has it that one day the Count walks into a bar (not an joke setup) and decides he wants a little more oomph to his drink - smart man. The bartender substitutes gin for the tonic water and the Negroni was born! It's also popular now because Mad Men.
Recipe: Equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari (an Italian bitters, and really, what bitters aren't Italian?). Stirred - although shaken is your prerogative - and poured into a martini glass. If garnish is desired, orange peel works quite well.
I made one tonight using Sons of Liberty's hopped whiskey instead of gin and it was amazing. As someone partial to Negronis in all their forms, this is my favorite so far.
I've enjoyed drinking this spirit neat as much as I have enjoyed treating it like a gin. In fact, a whiskey and tonic based on this flavor profile produces something truly refreshing as well, like a mojito or a mint julep. I'm going to need to hunt down more bottles in time for June! I guarantee you that this whiskey will put Sons of Liberty on the map in a whole new way.
Like a cross over the lost and found.
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.