It's been a really good year for the Cereal Alchemist family. As someone whose passion for whiskey (and distilled spirits in general) really only took off a year ago, I have been remarkably blessed in numerous ways from "whiskey people" who deserve recognition for their kindness. If you don't mind the insufferable Oscar podium sound to all of this, these are people who have seen me through the Winter of My Discontent and have been a light of love in my family's life throughout 2013. You may even run into some of them yourself someday.
To Tyler (pretty sure that's his name), the dedicated and knowledgeable employee of Joyal's Liquors in West Warwick, RI, who introduced me to the glory of Hebridean single malts (and of Ardbeg Corryvreckan in particular). I credit this single bottle with the inspiration for my journey of whisky exploration this year, and ultimately the creation of this blog. No small feat. If I meet you again soon, I'm going to pour you a dram of that Ardbeg Alligator you so desperately wanted to get your hands on. Thanks for indulging a geek in his obsession, and for always having a stellar recommendation every time I walked into the store. You made Joyals a focal point of delectation and delight until my family moved to Kansas. Cheers, mate!
To my dear friend Paul, who has served by my side in the cloth of our nation and seen me at my best, my worst, and my funniest. I trust Paul implicitly, and - simply put - I don't know if anyone out there has a finer (or more critical) taste in spirits. I was super fortunate to have him tag along at Whisky Live in NYC this year, and I consider myself blessed that he always offers constructive criticism of this blog (and my own taste in spirits) while always believing in its mission. Slainte, buddy!
To Joshua Hatton, Jason Johnstone-Yellin, and Seth Klaskin of Single Cask Nation, who took my learning and experience of whiskey to the next level. When I first met this group (minus Jason) at Whisky Live they weren't even accepting tasting tokens (shhhh!!), they were just pouring and evangelizing some awesome whisky. I recognized Joshua from his stellar work over at JewMalt and became a member of the Nation right away. I'm not even Jewish, but I couldn't bear to be parted from their whisky so that's all she wrote. Actually, not quite, since I was super privileged to pour with Joshua at Whiskey in the Winter in St. Louis last month. Representing the Nation (after just 11 months of learning everything I could about whisky) was a sublime experience, and I don't mean to brag, but we totally stole the show that night (or rather, the whisky did... especially that Laphroaig 6). What a blast. L'chaim, fellas!
To Michael "Mickey" Heads, distillery manager at Ardbeg, for taking the time to talk with me and spill some trade secrets for at least half an hour after the Master Class ended at Whisky Live. This guy has my dream job, but he's totally down-to-earth and chill. It meant a lot to me to stand next to an industry icon and converse as equals. Slainte, to you and your team at Ardbeg! Can't wait to see what you've got up your sleeves this June.
To David Blackmore, Global Brand Ambassador for Glenmorangie. It's little secret that Glenmorangie is one of my top 3 favorite distilleries of all time. My first highland malt was Glenmorangie's Original (then called their 10 yo), and upon the nosing I was instantly transported back to the woods where I grew up. Glenmorangie sources all their casks from the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, so I learned a powerful lesson - early on, and by nose alone - about the unique relationship between whiskey and terroir. I recall the blind tasting I goaded David into for the Master Class at Whisky Live (which, hey, turned out OK) and feel blessed that another industry icon deigned to spend some small amount of time entertaining the whims of an uber-enthusiast. Whisky people really are pretty chill most of the time, united by their love of spirit and craft. Thanks for showing me that although whisky is a small world, it's not an exclusive one. Cheers! (even if I am a bit disappointed in the results of the Cask Masters Project; please don't repeat that experiment).
To our dear friends, Bryan and Kathleen, for being the guinea pigs of so many of my hair-brained themed tastings (a couple of which I have blogged about). I don't think they turned out too bad at all. Can't wait to get back into it when we return to Rhode Island. Thanks for the awesome Christmas presents, and cheers to you and yours!
To Josh at Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock, who comped me a pretty awesome (and rare) Christmas gift at the end of the tour for no rhyme or reason other than my professed enthusiasm for their products and love of the season. You folks at Rock Town need to get this man out and talking about your products as a brand ambassador - that tour was tremendously informative and super fun to boot. I'm hoping I'll have a chance to meet up or even pour with you at a show soon (my family is already talking about private tours and bottling parties). You really made the difference. Slainte!
To my extended family and friends who have so far gone unmentioned. You have indulged my fantasies about a future in the whiskey industry (commentary or otherwise), equipped me in my intellectual journey in craft spirits, and have spread the word about this blog and my passion to friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers. I'm blessed to be surrounded by your love, fellowship, and devotion. L'chaim!
To fellow bloggers, who have contributed greatly to my learning and development while guiding and checking my understanding. JewMalt, Malt Impostor, How to Drink Whisky, and Guid Scotch Drink have been daily must-reads for me. Slainte!
To my darling wife, who has seen my great enthusiasms and grounded them in reality, who has stood by my side as I moved our family halfway across the country (numerous times), and who is currently bearing our unborn son (due this spring!). You allow me to do the things I love every day (certainly not just this blog), and I love you very much.
Finally, I must give thanks to the reason for this season, the God who become flesh and dwelt among us. I write a lot about whisky and distilled spirits in this blog, but none of these things has given me life, and none of them will matter when my days in this world come to an end. Man does not live on such material possessions, but by the very word of God. I pray that God will bless my own words in the days ahead, that he will protect your coming and going forth, and that he would bless and keep you in the coming year . "The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation." Psalm 118:14
Whew - it's been a while! Graduate school is taking its toll on my personal time, but I had to get this post out before the end of the year (and preferably in time to give you a chance to review the list for a gift). The form and the shape of the inaugural Highley Recommended awards has been stirring in my mind for a while. Think of it as something like my "Friday's Finest" posts, except I'm summarizing a whole year! In many categories, lots of spirited debate (pun intended) about the front-runners took place between me and my friends. Huge upsets happened at the last minute with exposure to some great year-end whisky shows. At the end of the day, it's still my call. [Just an aside: that's not a misspelling of "highly" - Highley is my last name. Nothing wrong with leveraging the brand, yaknow?] There can only be one!
The awards will present the top dogs and runners up in many spirit categories (namely the ones I care about). Great care has been taken to avoid "category sprawl" (a term I use when I see award categories like "Best American Flavored Corn Whiskey Less Than 6 Years Old" - can you say niche?). I'm forcing categories themselves to go toe-to-toe for the sake of brevity and clout. For the categories that have any number of subcategories, there will always be an overall winner. Spirits are judged on multiple factors, including first impressions, nose, palate, finish, ingenuity, affordability, accessibility, and even authenticity (looking at all you ADL and LDL bottlers out there - although quality in this regard will always trump origin). I don't judge you on what you look like or where you came from. I judge you on your character and where you are going.
Highley Recommended: Karlsson's Gold Vodka (40% ABV) - The most kick-ass vodka I've ever experienced - those Swedes really know how to do it right. If you've never tried vodka neat (because hairspray) then this bottle will force you to reconsider. Unlike many vodkas, which strive for the most neutral character possible, Karlsson's (a potato vodka made from virgin golden potatoes) keeps loads of earth and spice on the palate. If you're mixing, stick with Ketel One. If you're sipping neat, there's simply no finer vodka on the market. Most easily found on the internet; store availability is very limited.
Runner up: Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka (40% ABV) - Another beautiful potato vodka (seeing a pattern here?), that just barely got edged out by Karlsson's peppery kick. Much more widely available in stores, it's definitely worth seeking out.
Highley Recommended: El Dorado 21 Year Old Special Reserve (43% ABV) - An exquisite and insanely sweet little sugar cane bomb. The only oak influence here is a deep vanilla and subtle spice; crazy for a spirit that spent over two decades resting! This may be the oldest rum I've tasted, but it's widely available online and quite adequately priced. No other rum approaches this level of perfection and integration.
Runner up: Thomas Tew Authentic Pot-Still Rum (42% ABV) - On a totally different take from the smoothly integrated El Dorado, you have this blackstrap molasses rum from Thomas Tew's old stomping grounds in Newport, RI. Having toured the distillery myself and spoken to the head distiller, I can tell you that the rough-and-tumble nature of this rum comes from a deliberately chosen wider cut of the spirit coming off the still. The wood has time to mellow the sour and tarry notes, but I applaud the creators for their ingenuity and faithful recreation of "how rum used to be." Well-priced for a craft product, but largely limited to New England in availability.
Highley Recommended: Don Julio 1942 (40% ABV) - This tequila, bordering on extra anejo by only half a year or so, is quite simply the most well-integrated barrel-aged tequila I've tasted so far (and much more affordable than Don Julio REAL Extra Anejo). Lots of tequilas start to finish like bourbons once they've rested in the barrels for a year or so, but this one retains it's delightful agave character all the way to the end. You wouldn't mix this with margaritas, not unless you have some serious dinero to throw around. This is truly a special occasion sipping tequila, and well worth every penny.
Runner up: Tequila Avion Silver (40% ABV) - A raw, unvarnished look at tequila's pure agave nature without the heat or harshness that lesser distillers are happy to bottle on-the-cheap. It's priced like a premium tequila, but surprisingly affordable for what you're getting. Mix this one or have it neat - I find it makes the perfect digestif.
Highley Recommended (London Dry Style): Leopold's American Small Batch Gin (40% ABV) - That's right, an American gin taking the subcategory! I've sampled plenty of dry gins in my time, but this one is unique for its exquisite balance. It doesn't overpower like Hendrick's, but it also doesn't leave any botanical on the sidelines. It almost defines American Dry Gin as its own separate style. This has to stem from Leopold's unique distilling and blending method, but the truth is I don't care how they do it. Leopold's is mighty close to perfection.
Runner up (London Dry Style): The Botanist Islay Dry Gin (40% ABV) - You've got to give it to Bruichladdich's old still "Ugly Betty", she makes a fabulous botanical concoction right alongside some world-class whiskies. So close to the London dry gin in style, but with a decidedly wry Islay twist. Well done, boys. I'll be revisiting this one in the years to come.
Highley Recommended (Barrel-Aged Gin): Berkshire Mountain Distiller's Barrel-Aged Ethereal Gin (40% ABV) - So small batch it's ridiculous, I almost didn't list this one for the fact that you probably can't find it in stores anymore. But then I decided that there just hasn't been a decisive effort from the competition (there won't be a runner up in this space). This is the standard that all barrel-aged gins should aspire to, and it might just be my favorite gin of all time. Note to BMD, you need to make this a permanent part of your line-up, not just a one-off. Perfect for mixing up in a Negroni.
Highley Recommended Gin (Overall)
Highley Recommended Single Malt Whisky: Suntory Hakushu Bourbon Barrel Japanese Whisky (48.2% ABV) - I'll never forget the first time I nosed and tasted this whisky, as it was my first exposure to the Japanese portfolio. While the "non-bourbon barrel" bottling (which is, ironically, still a product of bourbon barrels) is amazing in its own right, this particular bottling is entirely from first-fill bourbon barrels. It is, in a word, mind-blowing. Tons of complexity, subtle green smoke, creamy palate entry... just a whopper of a whisky, and proof that the Japanese have truly matched the Scots in skills of the trade.
Runner up: Laphroaig "Cairdeas" Port Wood Edition Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky (51.3% ABV) - This was a special "friends" bottling for the distillery's Feis Ile (pronounced Fay-Sheel, a festival on Islay) celebration this year. I tasted it blind at Whiskey in the Winter in St. Louis and was floored (I then spent the rest of the evening savoring it off to the side). I would love to see some more Laphroaig like this!
Highley Recommended Rye: Grand Traverse Distillery's Ole George Whiskey (100% rye, 46.5% ABV): A craft distiller takes the subcategory title! (Fist in the air!) In such a rising and saturated space as the market for rye whiskey, it seems like craft distillers would have a hard time standing out from the pack (what with all the ADL liquid floating around out there). Not so with the distillery team at Grand Traverse. My wife found this bottle for me while visiting family and brought it home on a whim. Boy am I glad she did, since few things get me riled up like good rye whiskey! None of that moldy, damp grass character or over-oaked suffocation here. Just clean, bright heathery rye and spice. Delicious!
Runner up: WhistlePig TripleOne Straight Rye Whiskey (55.5% ABV) - I told you I wouldn't hold origin against a good whiskey. Here we have liquid from Alberta Distillers Limited (ADL), bottled by WhistlePig in Vermont. This one's finished an extra year in bourbon barrels - starts like a rye, finishes like a bourbon. Sublime.
Highley Recommended Bourbon: Elijah Craig 21 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon (46% ABV) - Heaven Hill makes some heavenly whiskey, but nothing takes the title like a 21 year old high-rye bourbon. Strangely, the oak spice in this whiskey intermingles with the rye spice in a "destructive interference" sort of way. That brings out the honey and cornbread notes in droves. This is a sweet little honey-pot bourbon with a neat oak influence, mild bodied on the spice. Stunning. I only wish I could taste it at cask strength.
Runner up: Four Roses Single Barrel (Bottles Private Edition - 61.4% ABV) - A full-bodied high-rye bourbon that only lost to the Elijah Craig due to a subtle "sour" note on the finish. It's not off-putting in the least (or else why would I list it as runner up?), but then it's at half the price point and probably a quarter of the age of our category winner. I love how both of these bourbons have toned down the rye spice through maturation. Spicy is good, but balance is best.
Highley Recommended Corn Whiskey: Balcones True Blue Corn Whiskey (61.8% ABV) - The only palatable corn whiskey I've come across, Balcones is riding some serious waves from its success in producing competitive Texas single malts. True Blue (made from 100% blue hopi corn) is offered at cask strength, but no matter how much water you add (within reason, of course) it maintains its strong, sugary sweet and biscuity character. Interestingly, the oak maturation here has added a hefty dose of rye spice to the affair, which makes this taste more like a bourbon. The only corn whiskey I could possibly recommend right now, and a magnificent whiskey in its own right - on par with the best bourbons.
Runner up: are you kidding me?
Highley Recommended Whisky (Overall)
No other whisky in my entire year of tasting achieved such stunning complexity and integration as this whisky from the heights of the Japanese Alps. I specialize mainly in whisky here at Cereal Alchemist, since I tend to consider it the highest art form of distilled spirits. It's saying a lot that I view THIS WHISKY as the most exceptional craft creation of the entire year, an achievement that beats out so many incredible spirits that have (and have not) been named before on this blog. I don't know how to say "Slainte!" in Japanese, but men and women of all languages can appreciate a toast from this magnificent dream of a dram. Bravo Zulu!