A blend of whisky news and commentary from around the web. In this edition: Those Yeasty Beasties, Japan moving in the business space, whisky in the movies, ambience (admit it, you love saying it), Whisky Web 3.0, and Holy Grain Spirits, Batman! Editor's note: all Nosing the Net links will now open in new tabs, allowing you to continue to browse this page without annoyance. Enjoy!
Feature: Those Yeasty Beasties
Popular Science has an amazing article about those marvelous organisms that make this entire whisky affair possible:
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.”
Whisky companies (I'm most familiar with the work of Seagrams) pour millions of dollars a year into research behind proprietary yeast strains and their effect on fermentation and flavor. Four Roses' four-letter recipe codes (there are 10 proprietary recipes at the distillery; ex. OBSV would be one recipe) all end with a letter that designates the yeast's contribution to the mash (either V, K, O, Q, or F). When the recipes are tasted separately, they reveal distinct differences in each bourbon's style and body. Beer brewers have known for years that yeast was the "brewer's best friend"; it seems that master distillers may soon be coming to the same conclusion.
Suntory (great Japanese whisky makers) created quite a stir early this year when they announced their acquisition of Jim Beam (American bourbon icon). Predictably, the move brought about a rash of ignorant comments from interweb warriors. The spectacle was unfortunate, since the merger is really a win-win for both sides. Japan gets access to great American bourbon (which continues to represent a single digit percentage of all whisky consumed in Japan), and our bourbon gets access to new markets and new converts. It will only make the Jim Beam brand stronger, and it's unlikely Jim Beam's daily operation will change much, if at all.
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'.
[And now you will know why I write about whisky instead of blogging for Rotten Tomatoes.]
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...
We now know that ambience affects whisky flavor, because science. Say that word with me again... ambience. :-)
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.
Science finally does something useful by bringing you the iPhone-controlled micro-brewery. If only the law would accommodate iPhone-controlled micro-stills...
In case you didn't already know that whisky could come in "vintages" (Balblair isn't always easy to find, depending on your distributor network), now you do.
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
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?"
Here's the round-up from the web this week. Apart from THE FEATURE it's a bit shorter this time - largely because this weekend is AlchemyWife's birthday :-)
Whiskey Tech: The Blend-Your-Own Movement
This follows up on our article on Whisky Tech this week. Have you ever tried blending your own whisky? I tried it once with stuff from my cabinet, but the results were ... mixed (bwahahahah!) :-D There's nothing wrong with getting a little experimental in the kitchen, but if you do, maybe don't use your most expensive bottles. Or, try a home blending kit. Or...
... let Web 2.0 do it for you :-) I think I'm so going to have to do this.
Here are two good people (recommended in order) that will blend and bottle whisky for you, all with the touch of a mouse (plus, you get your own customized label! - GlenHighley, here we come).
Scandal: Drink It or Sell it?
By now you've probably heard of the dude in Toronto who thieved a $26,000 (Canadian dollars?) bottle of whisky - Glenfiddich's 50 yo to be exact. I particularly liked the article's rather "nosy" description of the man: "[...] five-foot-ten, aged between 35 and 45 years old, clean shaven with black framed glasses. He was last seen wearing black jeans and a Burberry plaid shirt, with a finish that includes a jaunty brown hat and brown trenchcoat."
There are some immediate questions right off the bat: (1) How do you just take a $26,000 bottle out of a glass case? (2) Without help? (3) Or anyone noticing? (4) If you own a liquor store, how careful are you about which employee has the keys to the good stuff? I'm not implicating anyone, but where there's smoke there's fire. Every time I've ever wanted a spirit from a locked glass case the employee takes it up front for me. Just sayin' - something doesn't add up in this story.
In case you had doubts, prominent whisky journalists who've had a taste of this rare 'Fiddich testify that it is indeed delicious, and not over-oaked. Only 500 bottles of this oldie-but-goodie have ever been made (from 2 casks), and only 50 bottles are released each year. Which begs the question - do you drink it, or do you sell it? I would love to think that this guy just has a romantic interest in fine whisky and is right now enjoying one of the most marvelous drams to ever grace his palate. But odds are he's at least tempted to sell it (blasphemy!). Decisions, decisions. Of course, I know what I would do.
(Sell it and then buy all the oldest and rarest Bruichladdich I can find!) :-D
Okay, so we're not hating on Glenfiddich here. Remind me to talk about their superb Solera Vat expression after I make a trip out to Hillrock Estate Distillery in NY. May need to review those two products side by side.
Feature: New Releases and Whisky Culture
Talisker, not waiting for the ozone to settle from Storm (I'd link to the page, but Talisker's web presence is horrendous - enjoy Master of Malt!), has announced a new permanent addition to its lineup - the smoky, port-finished Port Ruighe (pronounced "Port Ree"). I penned some thoughts on the interaction of smoke and port pipes in my review of Bowmore's 1991 Port Matured Limited Release. I expect this one to be meaty, husky, and in all quite a degree spicier than Bowmore's concept (especially considering that the new make spirit was aged in deeply charred casks). I don't think fans of Skye's only distillery will complain.
On the other hand, it would seem The Glenlivet is on the verge of jumping the shark with the release of ALPHA. That's it - that's all you'll ever know about it (other than the color of the bottle - not the spirit, the bottle mind you) until 6 weeks after the release. I get it. They're channeling the mystique and announcement hype that Ardbeg is famous for hoarding, but seriously - good luck with that shit. It would usually be safer to assume that we can trust established distilleries with providing a spirit that will be worthy of fetching that premium price, but why would you want to? Have we not accepted - with only slightly hedged enthusiasm - the dawn of the NAS (No Age Statement) era? Is it not enough for us to be entertained by the Black Arts of the whisky world? Would you pay over $100 on a gamble verses a sure thing? I can think of 20 whiskies off the top of my head I'd pay that amount for right now, and I already know everything about them.
This all begs one more delicate observation. I'll preface it with a question: Why do you think the worldwide whisky revival happened?
If your answer is that we improved marketing and these things are cyclical you know and ooooOOOooo new sherry finish! then you really haven't been paying attention.
If your answer is that culture shifted to create this massive opportunity for growth, I'd say you were spot on.
20 years ago, if you asked someone what predominant age group would most enjoy a neat glass of Scotch (and not necessarily single malt) they would have probably guessed the 40-65 crowd. If you asked that same question now, your response would be dripping with cultural symbolism. Someone who enjoys power, or someone who appreciates the finer things in life, or someone who knows what they want and has arrived, or someone who understands that distillation is as much an art as it is a science. They don't care about age. WE don't care about age. What the 18 to 30-somethings in America care about is a story.
We're the Millenials and Generation X-ers. We're disillusioned, we're idealistic, we're spoiled, we're go-getters, we're contradictions. We rebel against the past (progress!) but we recall fondly the sunny days of our youth. We tell the government to take away our parents' wealth, but we want all the fine things that we've watched them enjoy for ourselves. We're a mess, but can you blame us?
We grew up using MS DOS prompt and playing 8-bit Reader Rabbit, and now we surf the web on tablets more advanced than anything Star Trek could come up with. Somewhere along the line the future happened and we didn't even notice. There's precedent for these sorts of socio-political shifts, but they have Weimar Republic overtones. We're all just struggling to understand our history before it's too late.
Hence the explosive growth of the "go back to nature using massively available information and affordable technology" movements. The paleo diet, minimalist footwear, locavorism, Under Armour "wicking" clothes, pop-up craft breweries, craft distilleries, "certified organic", health and wellness podcasts, YouTube cooking celebrities, you name it - we seem to share an idea that technology and progress are supposed to put us more in touch with the natural world, not less. We just want something that will slow us down and let us appreciate the time we have: something real, something tangible, something unique.
Whisky, especially single malt whisky, is the perfect expression of that something. Whisky is place. It is art. It is a spirit that has grown up as quickly (or as slowly) as we have. Each bottling has its own unique and marvelous story! If you're still reading this blog, odds are that you enjoy hearing and communicating little pieces of that story yourself. If you don't know the story, or if you down the dram and absolve yourself of any professional curiosity whatsoever, where's the fun anymore? Head the words of G.K. Chesterton:
“Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.”
One More Thing
Even the term "dram" - which I'll be damned if that isn't communicable - is working its way deep into our socio-political consciousness. It isn't that I'm entirely opposed to the idea of quantifying pours through the concept of an established colloquialism. It's just that this should be seen - in all respects - as wholly unnecessary.