There's an idea out there that just won't go away - that is, the notion that "older whisky is better." In this edition of Friday's Finest I come to bury that notion, not to praise it. Also, the vacation bug is biting hard, and many of us have begun to harbor secret aspirations of adventure o'er babbling brook or summer glen. What better way to get in touch with provenance than to hit up some distillery tours? After the recommendations section I've posted a link to a treasure map of sorts, given to me by a friend in Single Cask Nation. Now it's yours (sorry it's in Dutch)! Almost anywhere you live in North America there's a distillery (major or craft) only a day trip away, so if you're not out enjoyingFèis Ìle hit these up and see what's cooking! The hardest bit's been done for you.
At Cereal Alchemist I salute hard-working men and women, and although not all of us aspire to be "collectors" of fine spirits, I believe that everyone deserves the finest dram on the evening of their victory. Get ready to stretch those summer legs and feel young again!
Many whisky "enthusiasts" turn up their nose at younger whiskies, but this is a mistake for a number of reasons. For starters, how can you know where [whiskies] are going if you don't know where they've been? Getting to know young expressions from each distillery can teach you a lot about how each unique malt handles the marriage stresses involved in maturation. Every malt ages differently, and every malt has its "peak", although it's true that some have not yet reached it! The second reason young whiskies are great is that they are relatively inexpensive (less whisky lost to the angels = more stock; supply and demand) and they frequently offer flavor profiles that you just won't find in older whisky. Not all young whiskies are delightful, but I'll give you five expressions off the top of my head which prove that not all youth is wasted on the young.
Bowmore "Dorus Mor" Small Batch Release 1 ($90)
While 10 years old is not truly "young" for most Islay whisky, it does form the ceiling of what we're going to be recommending today. In Dorus Mor, Bowmore took it's famous, softly-peated whisky and aged it 10 years full term in first fill bourbon casks. The result is something delicate yet vibrant, a silky waft of sherbet and grapefruit tones balanced perfectly with a mild, peppery peat smoke and subdued, biscuity sweetness. I wouldn't call it a departure for Bowmore, but I would call it coy and vivacious, showcasing an adolescent malt full of vitality and promise. Cask strength at 55.1% ABV
Amrut Fusion (~$55)
Jim Murray (of Whisky Bible fame) called Amrut Fusion the "third best whisky in the world." It's from India. I'm not yanking your chain. I first experienced this whisky at WhiskyRI's World Whisky Tasting and could not believe my taste buds. Using roughly 25% peated malt (sourced from Scotland) and 75% unpeated (sourced from India), this distillery combines East and West in a stunning vatted expression that's full of brown sugary sweetness, cantaloupe, and touch of cigar smoke. It's only 5-6 years old (Bangalore has a wicked angel's share), but it has the maturity of a whisky twice its age. Bottled at 50% ABV.
Angel's Envy (~$45)
We're not limited to just Scotch whiskies here. Angel's Envy is (in my humble opinion) probably the best expression of bourbon I've ever tasted. The trick with Angel's Envy is that they take a roughly 6 year old spirit and ACE it (Additional Cask Enhancement) in port pipes. The result is a high rye bourbon that's seen that massive spice hit replaced with a ripe, caramelized fruitiness. If you buy a bottle, it's not going to last long - this is ridiculously drinkable neat. In fact, it would be a crime to mix it. I just recently discovered that the owner of Angel's Envy is a founding member of Single Cask Nation, of which I am also a member. Judging from the quality of SCN's whiskies, I can't wait to see what Angel's Envy comes up with next (they've already released a rum cask expression, but I haven't had a chance to acquire it yet). Bottled at 43.3% ABV.
Auchentoshan Valinch (~$57)
Auchentoshan is one of the few operational lowland distilleries in Scotland, a region famous for its "light" whiskies (light in style, not necessarily ABV). Auchentoshan adds to this distinction by triple distilling its whisky, resulting in a spirit that's exceptionally light and fruity. Valinch has no age statement, but I'll guarantee you it's 10 years or younger - aged in ex-bourbon barrels. In distillery culture, the valinch is the copper tool that blenders use to draw spirit from the cask for sampling. It's appropriate then that Auchentoshan's offering is absolutely cask strength at 57.5% ABV. It's a beautifully complex expression with a little water, producing notes of melon, banana zest (I know, right?), sake, coconut skin, and sopapillas. I almost expected to hear a steel drum band in the background...
Bruichladdich Octomore Comus (~$173)
For the dedicated enthusiast and whisky adventurer out there, there's always Bruichladdich (pronounced "brook-laddie"). The Octomore series is the world's peatiest whisky (this expression stands close to the record at 167 ppm phenols). Comus is a spin on the originals (much like Orpheus), a "concept" whisky that involves ACE'ing this 5-year-old fire in Sauternes casks. The result is breathtaking, and quite possibly one of the best drams ever to grace my tongue. You'll pay a pretty penny for it, but a whisky like this will never come again. You really ought to read Jim McEwan's tasting notes on the subject (always so poetic) where he describes it as "a sensory solar system."
Vis Whisk(e)y Distilleries Americas på et større kort
You can feel the warm summer breeze on your face and you're thinking "thanks Cereal Alchemist, but I'd rather not be cooped up in a dark, dank liquor store trying to find these whiskies you speak of." You're the samba, samba master master, master master master, push out from your ghetto blaster blaster blaster blaster blaster. I get it, you live to pwa-TAY! So venture out and see what's happening in the spirit world around you. Let the map above (and the music) be your guide! Just in case the embedded HTML doesn't work, here's the link.
This is by no means a comprehensive list (there are hundreds of smaller-but-worthy craft distilleries out there that could be included). Still, there's plenty here to work with, and it's one of the best products that I've seen, even including embedded links for the distillery websites (some require you to call ahead for tours). I'll leave the map to serve you in its own magic way. Just remember, it's only a dream in Rio.
You're welcome ;-)
This post is dedicated to my parents, who just this past week celebrated 31 wonderful years of marriage (my dad jokes "31 years of incompatibility"). We were ring-around-the-rosy children, they were circles around the sun. Never give up, never slow down, never grow old, never ever die young :-)
On the heels of my Four Corners Whisky Tasting (designed to explore the influence of wood on the spirit) - and before I open the gates to my Pentagon Tasting (an American tasting designed to explore the influence of grain) - comes the topic of maturation. When we say "maturation", we're referring to the way in which a spirit is aged in wooden barrels. As the Four Corners tasting shows, the type of wood (and the liquid it contained - if any - prior to the "first fill") is an enormous part of the color and flavor profile of all distilled spirits. There are nearly limitless ways to combine spirit and cask. What's astonishing to me is how much the pairing is still an act of provenance.
It is an inherently old-fashioned and romantic notion, the idea that a spirit and a cask could be destined for each other. Most master blenders wouldn't have it any other way. The choice to pair new-make spirit with, say, virgin American white oak or Buffalo Trace ex-bourbon or Oloroso sherry butts is a painstaking one, and only the most suitable oak will do. This is why you'll hear descriptions like "aged in barrels made from slow-growth American white oak from the northern slopes of Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, cut, dried, and seasoned in the open air for 2 years before being fashioned into barrels." Distilleries are proud of this relationship, like a father who has just given a deserving suitor his daughter's hand in marriage.
It's also no surprise - given the age of instant hook-up and gratification that we live in - that there are some people who try to ... advance the process. Laphroaig has an excellent expression called "Quarter Cask" that is a young Islay malt spirit aged in quarter-sized barrels to speed up the maturation (greater surface-area-to-whisky-volume ratio). Another pioneering distillery in New York (Tuthilltown Spirits) has taken the same angle (3-20 gallon barrels) but drills dimples into the cask staves to attain an even more complimentary ratio (many Scottish distilleries do cut small grooves into their staves to accomplish the same). Oh, and Tuthilltown also plays rap music on giant subwoofers in the warehouse every night to increase the vibration between wood and spirit - a process some call "rapturation." Romantic aria or brain-numbing club culture? You tell me. Or I can tell you when I purchase my first 375 ml bottle this afternoon. For what it's worth, Tuthilltown was named American Artisan Distillery of the Year by the American Distillers Institute. So this marriage is just different, maybe a bit unruly.
In most modern distillery culture, spirits and casks enjoy meaningful, fulfilling marriages; the offspring don't lie. But much in the same way that we've penetrated the mysteries of human sexual reproduction, we are now trying to penetrate the mysteries of maturation. Of matrimony. It's a process that's rooted in scientific curiosity but ends... who knows where. You have only to look at 10 year experiments being commissioned by Scottish distilleries to monitor every condition of maturation inside and outside the barrel to say confidently that technology is starting to peal back some of those mysteries. But at what cost? And will we ever be able to say with confidence that those mysteries will ever be fully bent under our command?
If a man can figure out how to create a 22 year old Scotch in 3 days, what will that process look like, and how will it change our perception of provenance? Can wisdom be attained without experience? Can love be truly committed without the passage of time? One distillery in Cleveland thinks that it can.
"Cleveland Whiskey unabashedly brings 21st century science and technology to an industry steeped in traditional practice. Making whiskey is done in pretty much the same way it’s been done for centuries and that’s okay, it works, in fact it works quite well. Indeed, it’s a $20 Billion world-wide market, a market that’s growing around the world.
Pardon my English, but bullshit. That's not just me saying it, that's every critic who has tasted this product of what I would kindly call "stave rape" - the forced coupling of wood and spirit under temperature and pressure. That's not love, that's sexual abuse. Why would we even??
I understand there is a large barrier to entry for new distilleries who have to lay down and age spirit for years before seeing cash flow (well, hey, there's always vodka and gin), but money is about the worst reason ever to abandon the beauty of craft, provenance, and terroir; what is this, a bride price? Time is what whisky is, even if some whiskies have only been married for 3 years. We can listen to Tom Petty all day long telling us that "the waiting is the hardest part", but the waiting is also what makes the whole damn thing worth it! It's lifting the veil with the valinch and nosing an aged spirit for the very first time. It's the tender consumation that occurs when that spirit first enters the palate. It's the Master Blender saying hello and goodbye to a spirit that he raised from the moment it exited the still's womb. Like it or not, we're starting to miss the marriage for the offspring, assuming that the denouement lies in production rather than what God has joined together.
"That is why a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." - Book of Genesis
In whisky we have a liquid that embodies the human condition, our desire to be loved and joined with another. However, that marvelous liquid can quickly give way to emptiness, greed, and detachment as easily as the culture that created it. Heed well then the ponderings of Samuel Clemens, for if the world loses touch with the divine mystery, then what have we really gained? And who, or what, is our new idol?
2 Ways of Seeing a River
"Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring. I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.
"But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: "This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?"
"No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?"
I can't help it - I'm geeking out on this raw cask "Smoking Islay" I tried the other night. H/t to Penny Arcade for the perfect (creepy) metaphor (lightly edited).
A couple nights ago I had the pleasure of attending a World Whisky Tasting with a friend at WhiskyRI. It's a great group if you live anywhere near Providence, RI, and it was a fun and educational evening for both whisky aficionados and newbies alike. This particular event was hosted by Raj Sabharwal of Purple Valley Imports (Whisky Importer of the Year, 2013 - Whisky Mag) who did a fantastic job fielding questions and guiding the blind tasting. That's right, a blind tasting.
Now, I'm no stranger to blind tastings. Many months back I managed to arrange a competitive blind tasting with some British naval officers in the wardroom of the HMS Dauntless. [Ed. In the spirit of international cooperation and intense bilateral one-upmanship.] In that instance I correctly guessed 6 of the 8 whiskies presented - God save the queen! Part of that was because one was actually a brandy (psshhht, child's play! sneaky tossers) and most were either distinct members of the Speyside species or representatives of the most popular Hebridean distillers.
The World Whisky blind tasting was significantly more challenging. In retrospect, had I known it would be a blind tasting I would have done my research prior to arrival (since we knew the names of the whiskies we were being poured, just not the order). Knowing from which ones to expect sherry notes vs. light peat (or indeed, just seeing a squat bottle in the bag) would have been invaluable. All told, it was a interesting decision on Thom's part to arrange the tasting in this way.
Here were the offerings:
So more of an Indian, British, and Australian tasting then :-) No Japanese imports on this go 'round :-(
Still, I believe this specific line-up achieved two goals remarkably well: (1) dispelling the rumor that more age makes a better whisky - these were all quite young, relatively speaking, and (2) keeping us guessing with regards to the origin - more on that later.
Thoughts on the Expressions
The English Whisky Company Classic Single Malt was probably the least impressive of the group. That wasn't to say it was bad, far from it! It's clear that some good "Scotch" can come from just south of the border now. However, the whisky itself - though sweet and cantaloupe-y with a malt-forward presence - was not nearly as complex as the rest of the group.
I had tasted Amrut's cask strength single malt at Whisky Live NYC this year, but this time around I had a much better chance to sit and enjoy the little nuances. There's nothing that screams "India!" (or rather, "Bangalore!") about this whisky in the glass - just a nice sweet barley malting (which, if anything, I believe I will now recognize as "signature Amrut") with a deceptive maturity. Deceptive, because this whisky is only a few years old. Amrut's altitude combined with their "delta T" (temperature fluctuation between seasons) combine to create a nearly 12% "angel's share" per annum. For those in the know, that means that 12% of the whisky evaporates from the barrels each year - Amrut will never be able to produce a whisky older than about 8 years (their extremely rare Greedy Angels expression), because by then it's all gone! The cool upshot is that an 8yo whisky has the flavor profile of some 2-decade-old Scotches.
Amrut's Fusion really blew me away. I had been teetering on the brink about purchasing this whisky, but wasn't sure I wanted to until that first nosing of the glass. The beauty of this expression is that it's lightly peated with the most sweet, delicate peat imaginable. To accomplish this, Amrut ships peated barley from Scotland to Bangalore, then ferments it, distills it, and marries their traditional single malt to the finished product in a barrel for about another year. The result is breathtaking - something Jim Murray called "the third finest whisky in the world" in his Whisky Bible, scoring it a 97/100. Overall, Fusion has won Amrut more than 6 major awards in the last three years, and it's easy to see why. I purchased a bottle immediately after the tasting.
Glenglassaugh is celebrating the revival of their distillery with a young, beautiful sherry bomb that is appropriately named "Revival." This whisky definitely impressed me, but I thought that it needed just a bit more age to integrate and balance those sherry tones (a mixture of sherries really, but my palate caught the hint of PX immediately).
I was very excited to taste my first Australian (Tasmanian, where all but two of Australia's 8 distilleries are located) whisky, an expression called "Double Cask." Essentially, Sullivans Cove married ex-bourbon with ex-port casks and created what turned out to be a very popular whisky amongst the tasters (though many would deny it when told it came from Australia). I don't know why people must pooh-pooh Australian whisky along with their table wines. I thought the whisky had a sophisticated, delicious, and complex flavor profile. I suspect many elitists just don't have much affection for port finishes, which is a shame. The pursuit of whisky wisdom requires an open mind and a receiving palate. Yes, you can quote me.
And then, the star of the show:
Oh Blackadder, you have me smitten. Had I but known that such a creation existed in the world, I would have conquered the slopes of Olympus to attain it. It wasn't that the whisky was far-and-above unusual for what you'd expect from an Islay. It's that this was raw cask. Smoking Islay was my first raw cask experience, and I can tell you, THIS is how whiskies were meant to be enjoyed! I'm spoiled on all but the valinch now, like a babe who will never again take the bottle.
You see, this peppery, young Islay malt was taken straight out of the cask (making it the ultimate single cask expression) and then bottled. No filtration, no color additives (yes, some whiskies "criminally" add caramel coloring because "darker looks older"). They won't say which Islay distillery this comes from, but I'm going to maybe guess Laphroaig (though I haven't had a Laphroaig this young to compare it to - time for Single Cask Nation to help me out!). The unreal part was delighting in the thick, estery whorls tumbling around in the glass, and rejoicing at each little bit of char that was suspended in that liquid gold. Adding water was a sublime experiment, as this was particularly massive on the ABV side (62.4%!). Some people think the floating charcoal is just a novelty, designed to be enjoyed once but never duplicated. I say it will make purists out of us all.
Happy World Whisky Day, everyone! I do hope you're making the most of it. This wonderful day has its roots deep into... well, last year! when it was invented by a 23-year-old student from Aberdeen. That's Scotland. Blair Bowman, take a bow, sir! I wish I had been that forward-thinking when I was 23, but then Facebook was only a few years old. I'm not even sure if crowd-sourcing was even a word then, much less an entire concept (I'm being at least a little facetious).
This is Nosing the Net's World Whisky Day Edition - a chance to celebrate the manifold accomplishments of those courageous souls who first pioneered "that beautiful, soft spirit".
Starting with this :-)
My, my, how far we've come. You tell me whether it can be called progress.
The Perfect Whisky
Well, in case you're curious about whether a whisky could ever be considered to have achieved perfection, here's your answer. Apparently Highland Park's 25yo recently captured an unprecedented score of 100 (out of 100) at Ultimate Spirits Challenge [Ed. Is that like UFC with whisky? Bring it!]
This is an interesting decision on behalf of the judges. Interesting as in it has obviously never happened before. The salient question then is whether or not it ever should. You see, it's one thing to aim high and achieve that illustrious 99/100. A score like that is certainly nothing to frown at, or at least it wasn't until the first coming of our mighty redeemer (see photo above). When you see 99/100 on a bottle or a price sticker, it's a reminder that judges obviously thought this whisky was just about as good as mere words can describe. But 100... 100 is an entirely different plane of existence. I mean, if you're the winner of such a score how else are you supposed to react other than to literally shove this in the just-became-the-99-percent's faces? Luckily, Highland Park restrained from spiking the football and actually acknowledged there were competitors. May Highland Park's face shine upon them and be gracious unto them.
I'm not really sure we've grasped the ramifications of this decision yet. These judges (experts in their field) just said that this whisky is as good as whisky gets. This isn't a 98 or 99, where you - the jury - are left to determine the merits of the case. This is a judge (or panel of the same) trampling on due process. For crying out loud, 100 is a score that is supposed to be reserved for the soul. In that sense, 100 proclaims something beyond even "perfection" (which - truthfully - is unknowable). It proclaims enlightenment.
Now here's the rub. With a score this utterly adulerated, what happens when someone inevitably creates a better whisky? Do you go back and break up with Highland Park 25? Sorry baby, but this other whisky just gets me. She makes me feel things I've never felt before. I hear the creaking hinges of Pandora's Box.
In non-mountain-out-of-a-mole-hill commentary, congratulations to Highland Park for this stunning achievement. Congratulations also to Ultimate Spirits Challenge for completely delegitimizing your scoring system.
The Complete Widget
Some of you remember my article from quite a while back where I basically compared Ardbeg to Apple as far as how each company approached marketing and hype. I stand by those observations. However, when it comes to the production of the whisky, there is another son of Islay that I believe is more deserving of the Apple reputation.
Enter Kilchoman Farm Distillery, the first distillery built on Islay in 124 years, and one that has only been laying down spirit since 2007. I myself own a Kilchoman release from an independent bottling company I'm a member of (Single Cask Nation). Not yet reviewed on this website, the whisky is a 4yo expression aged in ex-bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace Distillery. It is magnificent, complex, and mature beyond its years.
It's clear that in only 5 years of distillation Kilchoman has come into its own (amidst impressive Islay competition), as critics are calling it "The Little Whisky Farm Distillery That Could." Kilchoman's Machir Bay (a vatting of 4 and 5 year old whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrrels and finished for 4 weeks in Oloroso sherry butts) recently took the Gold Medal at the International Whisky Competition. This was a stunning win for a whisky so young, and it definitely got the whisky press' attention. The reason I think Kilchoman's successful future is now assured is because there's a story behind this distillery that will impress the thousands of enthusiasts now asking "Who's Kilchoman?"
Kilchoman is one of the only distilleries (it may be the only distillery, but I need to do more research) that produces the entire widget. "The entire widget" is a term coined by Steve Jobs to express the way in which Apple controls its entire hardware-software production and ecosystem. Mr. Jobs maintained it was this counter-intuitive approach to control (vs. "open source") which allowed Apple to build superior products. Taking a page out of Silicon Valley's playbook - and with great timing considering the rise of the organic / locavore movement - Kilchoman owns nearly every aspect of the production of its whisky, from farming the barley, to malting the barley (which only a handful of distilleries still do on their own), to distilling the wort, to warehouse maturation, to bottling. Every. Single. Aspect.
It's no wonder that a fascinating business ethos coupled with a "David vs. Goliath" narrative would appeal to the current generation of whisky consumers. With such an unprecedented amount of quality control, is it any wonder that we then have this unprecedented win from such a young start-up? There's even an upshot for would-be collectors. Given its very young age, even the most expensive single malt from this distillery can usually be found for under $70, a positive steal. Check 'em out.
The night is young, and you want to do something interesting with your whiskies that doesn't involve a Glencairn glass and cool, still water. I get it - whisky does have a unique flavor dynamic that makes it irresistable to mixologists. I give you then this delightful little gem of an article, complete with the most famous whisky cocktails and their more experimental incarnations. You're welcome :-)
Speaking of mixology, if the robot apocalypse happens to occur anytime soon, at least we can rest assured that all the little T-1000's will still be able to enjoy a proper Old Fashioned. No word on whether "Liquid Metal" will become an instant cocktail phenom in those days, but I'm willing to bet that some Applebee's will survive the carnage.
Blade Runner 2
In case the future is more of a sunny, android-infested dystopia than robot apocalypse, we'll settle for the idea of an "inhalable whisky tornado" that will totally get you drunk. No, for realsies.
Slainte, friends, and a blessed weekend to you all!
Many of you have purchased a bottle of whisky at some entry point (Scotch, bourbon, rye). Some of you have even been to an official whisky tasting, where you wandered and engaged in some odd grown-up trick-or-treat rituals that opened your eyes to the world of craft and terroir. Far fewer of you have hosted your own tasting. This post is going to show you that you don't need to have a giant liquor collection to assemble one hell of an educational (and delicious) tasting experience for your friends. I call it my "Four Corners" tasting, and it is now my default hosting event for newer entrants into the spirit realm (it's a fascinating exploration even for the long initiated).
What you will need ahead of time to accomplish this sort of tasting:
The "Four Corners" Mission
The mission of the "Four Corners" tasting method is to introduce your guests to the importance of wood maturation in a whisky's flavor profile. Many newer entrants to the realm will not be aware of some very basic facts about "where whisky comes from". You don't need to sit them down and have the "birds and the bees" convo; by all means, just show them! It's more fun that way!
That's where this tasting comes in. As you set the stage for the tasting (ideally gathered around a table with whisky unpoured - I'll tell you why in a minute), introduce your guests to some basic "fun facts" to help get them up to speed:
The Players and the Order
This tasting is predominantly Scotch-oriented, but we are going to start with Death's Door White Whiskey, for what will soon become obvious reasons. The reason I suggest you leave your whiskies unpoured until you get to them is because - especially in large tastings - the spirit will effervesce from the glasses and subtle nosing notes will get mixed and confused. The crackers will also help here. In either event, it's best to keep it clean and simple as you go, especially since we start with the lighter spirits first and then work our way up to the sherry, peaty monsters.
Death's Door White Whiskey
That's it right there - clear as day. Death's Door is a perfect example of what a spirit is like when it comes fresh from the still. Double-distilled on Washington Island in Wisconsin from a mashbill that is 80% red winter wheat (yes, the same kind that makes Maker's Mark so soft and sweet) and 20% malted barley, this whiskey is aged for only 72 hours in virgin white oak barrels - the minimum required by U.S. law to be called a whiskey. This time is too short for the wood to impart any color (or indeed, much flavor profile), but that doesn't mean this tastes anything like vodka. Instead, expect huge cereal notes, light, fruity esters, and a hint of something like agave (tequila). For the experienced whiskey connoisseur this can be a bit rough, but where's your sense of adventure? This one - quite honestly - isn't meant to be enjoyed. Instead, it's supposed to allow you to savor what's coming and appreciate the origins of every great whisky. Not much need to add water to this one, as it's 40% ABV.
Don't want to order Death's Door online? That's okay, many famous distillers including Jack Daniels and Jim Beam ("Jacob's Ghost") are producing white dog spirits just like this. "White dog' is a common name given to new-make spirit by distillery workers. Just don't say I didn't warn you - this whisky (in my opinion) is really only suitable as a teachable moment, so don't drop tons of cash.
Glenmorangie Ealanta Private Edition
Glenmorangie: the unquestionable pioneers in cask maturation among the Scotch whisky industry. This private edition release made many people nervous; you see, it was aged 19 years in virgin American white oak barrels. Why is this unsettling? Because with a relatively neutral grain like malted barley, most Scotch whiskies prefer to age their spirit in ex-bourbon barrels. This is supposed to allow the bourbon to absorb all the harshest elements from the wood so that the barley will only retain the subtlety and softness that ex-bourbon oak tends to impart. Well, Glenmorangie said "to hell with that!" and went out to Missouri, searching the Mark Twain National Forest for only the best slow-growth American white oak they could find. Then they turned that oak into slats and air-dried them in the open weather for 2 years. Then they fashioned those slats into barrels. Then they filled those barrels with new-make Glenmo spirit and let them sit for the last two-thirds of my lifetime. Everyone expected this to culminate in a vicious, tannin disaster, like a bourbon that's breaking bad. Instead, you have the most exquisite, delicate vanilla-and-sugar-coated-almond flavor you could imagine, along with some orange-flavored milk chocolate. Bold, amazing stuff, throwing that white whiskey above into stunning relief. This is what wood can do to a new spirit in the right hands. A tiny bit of water added is preferable here.
Can't afford a 19yo private edition whisky? That isn't a problem, my friend. My suggestion is that you choose anything from Glenmorangie's line-up. Their original is a stunner in recent years; remember, the goal is to exhibit excellent wood maturation. Even with a 10yo, you'll definitely get the point across with Glenmorangie.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
We're back to a younger whisky with Laphroaig's Quarter Cask. Still, this is a younger whisky that tastes twice its age. What new devilry is this?! It's because Laphroaig aged this spirit in a barrel only 1/4 the size of the typical whisky cask. Smaller barrel means larger wood-to-whisky-volume ratio, thereby "speeding up" the aging process. See how it's all tying in to this central maturation thesis? And boy, the results here are grand. It could also have something to do with the fact that we have some deliciously peated malt represented here - our third corner! Welcome to the peat monsters!
A cautionary note about how far we've come now. This whisky is deservedly dubbed a "peat monster", and I selected it because it showcases that Islay peat better than almost any other. Islay whiskies are... unique, and that's why they form fully 1/4 (oh SNAP!) of my Four Corners method. You get the idione, the smoke, the maritime reak - it's all there my friend, and no other whisky in the world comes close to this experience. This flavor doesn't come from the wood. Instead, it all comes from how the malt (barley) is treated before it's fermented and distilled. In fact, the wood tempers the harshness somewhat.
Some of your guests will be exclaiming "holy hell!" while others will have found their Shangri-La. You tell me if you can go back after this, but make sure you clear your palate before the final run. That peat smoke leaves an imprint, and you don't want to miss what's coming. A few drops of water will release the younger lemon-heather notes in this malt (which many guests will appreciate).
Your local liquor store doesn't stock the special releases? Not to worry - you just pick anything from Ardbeg, Lagavulin (a bit pricier), or Laphroaig and you're set.
Bruichladdich 1992 Sherry Edition
Sherry casks are totally de rigeur in the whisky scene nowadays, with just about every distillery releasing a "sherry matured" variant of their original malt. Sometimes this is a way to inflate price, sometimes it's just to follow the crowd (especially if the results are misguided and terrible), and sometimes this is just an excuse to get experimental. Enter Bruichladdich - the kings of experimentation. I purposely selected their 1992 Sherry Edition (a delicious concept whisky) over a rare (but superior) item like their 407 PX Cuvee because this is sherry gone wild. Specifically, we're talking Pedro Ximinez (PX) sherry, which is renowned as the most unctuous sherry to ever fill a barrel.
Your guests here will be treated to something diametrically opposed to that peat monster above. The flavor is rich, yes, but there's no peat reak, no botanicals, no lemony, heathery pepper spice. Here we have pots full of stewed fruits, rum spice and wine skin, oranges and sangria. That may sound really sweet, but sherry doesn't actually impart much "sweetness" - it's a dried plum or dried fig sensation that will coat your mouth on the finish. And of course there's that unmistakable Bruichladdich cereal note underneath.
About this time I surprise my guests by bringing out some New York Cheesecake to savor with this particular malt. While I have successfully paired this with a steak dinner in the past, I really think Pedro Ximinez sherry (unlike Oloroso or Fino) is well-suited to a fine dessert. Cheesecake always seems to fit the bill, but creme brulee or something with chocolate may not be off the table.
Dude, I am tired of you recommending malts that I'll never find in my local liquor store. That's okay, amigo! I would recommend Auchentoshan's Three Wood in a pinch (also exhibiting PX sherry on top of light malt), or possibly the Glenfiddich 15yo Solera Vat if you can't squeeze in the PX. Bowmore's 15yo ("Darkest") is just too similar to the Laphroaig Quarter Cask to draw a definitive "corner" here, but the smoke is subdued and it will definitely be different. Just look for something sherry matured, and then try to make it a special pick to really savor as the evening winds down.
To be continued...
So, you're disappointed that I started off talking about things like rye and bourbon and didn't even bother to include them? That's because there are really at least 2 more "corners" we can add here. However, why taste six whiskies when you can invite all you friends back for another round? A Four Corners Americana Tasting!, coming soon to a blog near you ;-)
If you've been checking in on the blog you'll see it's been several days since I posted. In case you weren't aware, it's because I work full time in an entirely different job, and man just doesn't live on blogging alone. I LOVE writing about distilled spirits, but I love living and working and fulfilling my sundry duties to God, family, and country even more. In fact, here are Cereal Alchemist's Rules for Blogging, just so you know how I "abide". They're as much for me as for you. Call them my beatitudes, if you will.
Having just reviewed Lagavulin's 1991 Distiller's Edition, I figured I'd briefly turn our attention to the impending launch of another great son of Islay.
Ardbeg's annual committee releases are amazing feats of marketing and pizzazz, to a hyperbolic degree, but who am I to take issue with the creation of another great peat monster? And great it will surely be, despite the hype and Ardbeg's command of the Reality Distortion Field (see my post on Ardbeg vs. Glenmorangie if you're wondering why I'm comparing whisky to the tech industry). I just can't see this distillery doing something blunderously stupid with their maltings, even if people are wearying of the annual keynote hangovers. I trust Distillery Manager Mickey Heads implicitly. But Mickey, how about making one of these releases something we can enjoy as a permanent addition to Ardbeg's lineup? Wink wink, nudge nudge, saynomore.
Ardbeg introduces Ardbog on Ardbog Day, which is technically June 1st. However, the preceeding week will be one of revelry and merrymaking at Ardbeg Embassies the world over since committee members have been invited to launch parties starting 28 May. I myself will be attending one in Massachusetts prior to June 1st, and I'll make sure I report back diligently on my findings (along with preliminary tasting notes). Hopefully I can even grab a bottle as soon as it's released. Now, what little do we know about Ardbog? Let's tell it in pictures, posted just this week on Ardbeg's Facebook page.
Part of me is just curious - is the prehistoric marketing angle just hype and differentiation? After all, it's supposedly Manzanilla doing all the work. Or could it be that they've somehow peated this one differently, with some especially prehistoric peat? Or something? All peat is ancient, so I'm thinking it probably wouldn't matter, but I like the air of mystery and intrigue.
Either way, I'm excited about Ardbog. Whether it turns out to be justifiably hyped or overburdened by expectation, it's a good day to be a Committee member. Joining up is free on the Ardbeg website.
Welcome back - sure glad we all survived that mid-week! Sorry this is so late in the day, but I subscribe to a policy of real life first, always. Last Friday we had some pretty good tequila recommendations for Cinco de Mayo, so you should definitely check those out if you're starting to get "Mary Jane's Last Dance" stuck in your head. Here in Rhode Island we can definitely feel summer sinking in, so it's time for a departure. It's the rum and vodka edition! Don't worry, we still feature whiskies in our "earthshakers" section at the bottom. At Cereal Alchemist we appreciate the value of hard-working men and women, and although not all of us aspire to be collectors, we believe that everyone deserves the finest dram on the evening of their victory. Slainte! (or whatever you exclaim when you sip vodka).
Clarity and Finesse
A good friend and dedicated follower describes vodka as the veal of spirits. I can agree with this, and I can definitely appreciate using food descriptors to compare distilled alcohols :-) For those with a refined palate and a willingness to hold off on the mixers for a while, here are some vodkas you can absolutely appreciate neat (as seen above).
Sweet and Subtle
Rum is the new tequila, or so you would think by the people who haul out the 1.5 liter stuff for their rum & Coke fests. Not content to be callously tippled by the Spring Breakers out there, these rums stand out from the pack for the subtlety, their craft influence, and their sweet-sipping, unspiced approachability.
Whisky time! I'm not going to sugarcoat it - these expressions can be exceptionally difficult to find. If found, however, you should snap them up on sight. For those with the means and the drive, these are undisputed champions in their league.
Over on the reviews tab we've posted a couple of new reviews. We (1) finished our Bulleit triple header up in style, and (2) gave you a Japanese whisky to ponder. That Hakushu really is amazing stuff, and we can't recommend enough that you encourage your local liquor store to get some from an importer/distributor. They won't know you want it unless enough of you ask - and believe me, you don't want to miss this whisky.
Just for your own Epicurean delight, I'll share the video that was our passport to the spirit world on our Hakushu review. This music will take you on a journey, and is suitable for meditation over ANY dram, with no excuses necessary. If you're the sort who does the "ewwww, orchestra music stuff" thing, then I pity you. This is beautiful stuff. Give it a shot (best with hi-fi equipment of some sort).
If you're going to be a true spirit guru, I recommend you take time out of your day occasionally to sit and think, to allow nothingness to happen. Turn off Facebook, turn off the Apple TV, and turn off the phone. We just don't do it enough lately, and with a dram it's the perfect excuse to be profound, contemplative, and even introspective. The spirit (pun intended) will guide you through some amazing and hard-hitting truths, and you can let the music do its work too ;-)