If you're not in the habit of checking out the Drink section where all the reviews happen... well, who could blame you? The assortment was pretty sparse during the first year. That's all changing though, as I've just finished offering up my notes on the entire Single Cask Nation lineup to date (when the whisky fairy delivers that Catoctin Creek, you'll be the first to know). My latest review on their single cask Glen Moray is especially useful if you'd like to know more about the unique relationship between Scotch whisky and Spanish wine. That's more what the Drink section is - a journal dedicated to whisky dissection, titration, and analysis, apart from the Blog section where science meets politics and anything goes.
In other news, you'll be excited to hear that I've just tasted my favorite pair of tequilas so far, and I've got a mescal tasting to attend next week. Cognacs and Armagnacs are on the horizon, and exciting things are happening with a local vodka distillery (I am trying to arrange a virtual tour). It's all happening here and in the reviews! Catch you on the flip side.
"God made the kitten that man may pet the lion."
I'm sitting out here on the plains, just north of the dry line, tuned in to TVNWeather and watching super cells burst through the cap and roll across the plains. It's shaping up to be a stormy couple of days, but the rain is therapeutic and I'm all in for the farmers working on their red winter wheat (a prime mash ingredient for many of your favorite bourbons). I thought I'd take a break from a string of delicious whisky reviews to get reacquainted with the next round, starting with this mature beauty (one of the last bottles of its kind).
This whisky combined with a rainy evening provides the perfect moment for a little reflection on where I'd like to bring this blog over the next year. For starters, I'm definitely going to lean in heavily on the reviews. I've got bottles lined up for finishing off, but I don't want to drink them until I can memorialize their contents in a worthy update to the Drink section. I have plans for getting creative with the recommendations. Additionally, there are plenty of spirits out there that deserve their day in the sun: cognac, armagnac, pisco, cachaca, and mescal, to name a few. Sun can come later though. Tonight, it's this sweet little peat bomb and anticipation of a delivery from the whisky fairy. It's a thing. Google it. Just don't Google "Irish Whisky Fairy" unless you want to see NSFW whisky pin-ups. I warned you - Irish.
Either way, sometime next week I'm expecting the fairy to drop off a bottle of the Nation's newest release.
I realize we're all grown ass adults here, but it's still okay to get excitable about things. This is how we recall the holiday seasons of our youth: not by worshiping at the altar of whisky, whisky icons, or material possession, but in delighting once again at the joy of surprises, provenance, and giving. Whisky in a box will do that. It occurs to me that we could all use a little more magic in our daily lives, something that reminds us of the mysteries that lurked around every corner of our childhood. We often don't need to sit down and read a blog that claims to give us all the answers (pro tip: they don't exist). Sometimes we just want to love again and believe.
Whisky from the "fairy" is absolutely best when gifted to other people, but if you're lonely - and really want to pretend - you could always do worse than hopping online and shipping yourself the promise of delicious discovery. Just don't be lonely. Message me. You've got a friend (in a non-creepy way).
Stay tuned for Benriach, Kilchoman, and Laphroaig on the flip side.
A blend of distilled spirits news and commentary from around the web. In this edition: The wisdom of the Rum Guru, crafting in Colorado, Cask Master's on the rocks, and a battle without honor or humility. We miss you, Eren.
Feature: A Rum Guru's Wisdom
This will unblock your rum chakras. I'm not sure a more definitive or revealing expose of the secrets of distillation has ever been written. Originally posted on KLWine's Spirits Journal, this open letter from Bryan Davis (Lost Spirits Distillery) to David Driscoll (KLWines) comes across as impromptu but genuine. Posterity demands that I repost the entire tomb.
Everyone wants to talk about age, but in truth the barrel should only represent the final step that catalyzes a chain of chemical reactions and brings all the work together from each step of the spirit production process.
Nobody would ever accuse Lost Spirits Distillery of following the beaten path. To be honest, I was not the biggest fan of their Leviathan II or Ouroboros single malts (uniquely matured and American peated). This description of the process behind their navy style rum is forcing me to reconsider my initial conclusions.
I had this particular theory myself after hearing about Glenmorangie's latest Private Edition release. I must correct an error from my last Nosing the Net post where I said Cask Master's was intended to crowd source Glenmorangie's next private edition. It wasn't. Instead, it was intended to pick the next addition to the company's core lineup of ACE'd whiskies (next to Nectar D'or, Quinta Ruban, and the Lasanta). Taghta will join those ranks at a similar price. Interesting, then, to see the stone that the builders rejected make its way into this year's private edition at a much higher price point. I'll be sure to post my review on Companta in the "Drink" section soon.
The Age of Acquiring Us
No Age Statement (NAS) whisky: a battle without honor or humility. "No Age Statement Will Kill Us All." No it won't. Yes it will. It's a conspiracy. It's complicated. It's business. Don't act like you're not impressed. "What do I say? Yes, the 18 tastes 3 better than the 15?" Who cares? This whisky is 60 years old.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to tour Breckenridge Distillery this week. There are good things going on there, including an outstanding bitters reminiscent of Drambuie and a single malt in the works. Colorado has a great thing going on here, and I'm excited to see what the future brings. Nobody could tell me whether they were experimenting with ACE'ing their bourbon though. How about it, Jordan?
One of my very first reviews on this blog was of Sons of Liberty's seasonal summer release, a craft hopped whiskey. Well, it seems Sons of Liberty's winter release (a pumpkin spiced whiskey) has just achieved the incredible honor of "Best Flavored Whisky" in Whisky Magazine's World Whisky Awards. Regardless of your feelings on flavored whisky, this is a huge win for a distillery I've followed and believed in from the beginning. Look for a review on the winter release (along with cocktail suggestions) in the "Drink" section soon.
Sullivan's Cove won "World's Best Single Malt" with their French Oak expression, which is instantly worth 10 times as much. I'm kicking myself for not buying a bottle when I had the chance. I did get a chance to taste the expression and speak to their master distiller back in January. Super nice guy.
I've never turned to whiskey for self-medication (nor would I ever recommend it), but 4 weeks on, I miss you, Eren.
Someone once asked me,
"Why do you drink so much coffee?"
and I fought the urge to say
if I didn’t drink coffee, it would be whiskey
Because it takes 8 cups of coffee a day
to get my mind racing fast enough
to skip over thoughts of you
But one bottle of whiskey
not only who you are,
but who I have been.
- Author Unknown
"Will It Blend?" is intended to be an ongoing series in this blog, much like my "Nosing the Net" and "Friday's Finest" segments. Partially this is to raise awareness of efforts of master blenders in crafting some of the finest spirits in the world (and in sustaining a huge slice of whisky business, well above 90% in fact). The rest of the time I'll be showcasing the work of entrepreneurs and amateurs, while encouraging you to join in the fun!
Whisky blending is intensely experimental. In fact, as far as the market goes, I'm willing to bet that only a single-digit percentage of blends birthed in the master blenders' hands end up surviving to store shelves. You can be blending from established whisky lines that have not changed production methods in decades, but there's just no guarantee - from one cask to the next - that the quality will always be the same. Maintaining a blended whisky's quality requires an intrepid nose, tons of patience, and a willingness to face failure and frustration head-on. For this reason, master blenders are the unsung heroes of the whisky biz. They are just as deserving of glory as master distillers, while requiring ten times the perseverance to "get it right." The true alchemist's work happens not in the wort but in the blending lab, for single malts and blended malts and vatted malts alike.
There are plenty of ways to sample the work of master blenders, usually involving a trip to the store with an informed recommendation, but tonight I want to focus on the faithful efforts of amateur blenders. After all, it's not as if there's something uniquely magic about blending that shuts out the uninitiated. Just as Ratatouille's Chef Gusto insisted that anyone (even a mouse!) could cook, I am equally confident that anyone can blend! You don't need permission, you don't need practice, you just need a willingness to take risks and experiment. Few blends will turn out exactly as you hoped, but there's some serious fun to be had on the margins of an expertise-dominated whisky scene. Plus, it's a great way to learn more about what makes a good whisky in the first place!
Start a Living Bottle
One fun way to get started in the amateur blending scene is to create a "living bottle." I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I actually borrowed it from a great blog I've combed through called Vatted. It's run by a guy named Matt and hasn't been updated in a while, but the idea behind a living bottle is solid. Essentially, whenever you finish your next bottle of whisky you empty it, clean it out, and set it aside as a blending vessel. From that point forward, when you're on the last few sips of your favorite whiskies, take those ounces of liquid and contribute them to your living bottle. Over time, the bottle builds volume and becomes a blend of your favorite whiskies. Plus, it's constantly changing depending on what you drink and what you like!
It's possible to vat everything together in a living bottle to see what happens, but I'd like to think a more sure-fire recipe of success would be to segregate whiskies by style. By that I mean you could have a Scotch living bottle, a bourbon living bottle, an Irish living bottle, etc. That's not to say you couldn't cross lines every now and then (i.e. pour your last ounces of highland malt into your bourbon bottle, just to see what happens) but this would enable you to learn more directly about the styles of your favorite whiskies while still getting experimental. You could even segregate the style along other lines if you'd like: particular wine finish living bottles, particular wood finish living bottles, particular grain style living bottles, etc.
The beauty of the living bottle concept is its enduring nature and low-risk approach. It's not like you're putting down lots of money on single malts that may or may not blend well with the rest of your whisky cabinet, and it's a process that can take its sweet time (with whiskies you consistently enjoy). I personally intend to start several living bottles over the next few weeks, as I've got lots of great bottles reaching the end of their volume. I'll let you know how I sort out the styles in future postings.
With tonight's elixir, I went for something a little more complicated than my "Cardinal North" blending series. I wanted to see how some well-groomed Islay malts (peated and unpeated) interacted with an old base grain whisky to round out the rough edges. I'm also doing this "live" (off the cuff), so you can actually trace my thoughts during experimentation. The bottles I've initially chosen are seen below, and as I'm hoping this will turn out rather "campfire and sex on the beach" in style, I hope to christen the ensuing night-cap Sandfire.
I mixed Compass Box's Hedonism, Laphroaig's Port Wood Cairdeas, my 11yo Longrow Wood Expression, and Bruichladdich's "Laddie 10" in a ratio of 6:3:3:2 respectively. I wanted a fruity wine influence (apart from sherry) in the blend, along with a good mix of bright and maritimey peat. Showcasing the peat interaction was really the point of Sandfire, with the Laddie 10 (unpeated) thrown in to add some umami and tropical melon notes. These were all fairly young whiskies, with a great deal of variation between the disparate elements. The Hedonism was there to round out the edges with its grain characteristics and first-fill bourbon notes, as well as to add a light sweetness underneath all the fire. Sadly, it didn't want to make its influence known (I had to keep upping the ratio), with the Longrow dominating the blend much more than I anticipated. Let's see how this one shook out...
The nose is distinctly Longrow/Laphroaig dominant with wooden pencil shavings, a low beach BBQ smoke, and a middling fruit salad play. Bringing it onto the palate reveals those rich, tropical fruit notes I so desperately tried to add (acai, honeydew, cantaloupe, blueberry), but they struggle under the immense weight of oak (why, oh why, in such a young blend overall?). That wood is definitely on fire, with the individual peat characteristics canceling each other out and smothering the blend in a tongue-numbing ash. I guess you can't win them all - looks like I have some perfecting to do with this blend. I could probably start by substituting the Longrow for another bright peat like Ardbeg, while upping the ratio of Laddie 10 in the blend. The Longrow just didn't play nice here. You could even see it in the color after I brought it down to proof - pale, ghostly straw.
Let's get perfecting. Blending is, after all, a work in progress. Gimme a sec while I gather my pipettes...
Now I've substituted Ardbeg 10 for the Longrow, bumped it down to 2 in the ratio, and bumped the Laddie 10 up to 3. Do they play nice?
Sigh... it's a step in the right direction, but the Ardbeg is strong and a little too botanical. I would probably be better off pairing the subtlety of the Port Wood Cairdeas (I know, "subtle" not usually being a word you associate with Laphroaig, but with this expression it fits) with something like Bowmore's Dorus Mhor (young, first-fill bourbon, with subtle Bowmore smoke). I'll still happily drink what I've got in front of me, since it is distinctly Hebridean (with a good deal of salt now, BTW). You're starting to see how this works, right?
Third time's the charm...
Ah, yes. That's the ticket. The Dorus Mhor takes Ardbeg's place and brings that low, pipe-smoke waft of peat I've been seeking all this time. Rich, Hebridean, fruit-forward, elemental. This is what I've been looking for! Still, I wonder if I could dial the fruit to 11 with a sherried Islay and tone down the tequila by reducing the Hedonism in the ratio...
... but that would be a different blend :-) Maybe next time?
We're taking a page from the Silicon Valley playbook today and posting a Hot or Not: Spirits Edition! Well, hot and not. We're pulling back the curtain on the hippest, trendiest spirits, the best-in-class, and what to avoid at all costs OH EFF RUN WHAT DOES IT MEAN?! It's not crowdsourced, but that's a good thing, because when has the crowd been wise about alcohol consumption, amirite? You deserve the finest dram on the evening of your victory.
Such a huge category, with such a huge emphasis on crafting and terroir. Certainly whisky is going to fetch the higher price points out there, but that doesn't mean you have to break the bank to get something truly amazing. What's arguably more mind-bending is what kind of whisky you're going for: you've got ryes, bourbons, single malts, moonshine, corn, grain whiskies, blends, bombs, pure malts and everything in between. I'm not about to break it down on those metrics, so I'm just giving you some straight-up, best-in-class spirit that you can find in almost any liquor store worth its salt. In the I-just-want-something-really-good-that's-not-expensive-no-big-deal category, you get the finer side of Bulleit.
It's a real beaut, available almost anywhere that you find Bulleit Bourbon. How's that for a slice of fried gold?
In the I'm-willing-to-go-a-bit-farther-to-get-something-special category, we turn to a distillery with a super feminine name which is - probably for that reason - so frequently overlooked. Presenting...
Doubters: I can hear your skepticism from here. Just you find a way to sample that sucker and I'll happily accept your apology. Don't let the name fool you, that's a full-bodied, high-rye bourbon that gets the job done. Look for the neck marked "Private Selection" for cask strength if you can (only available to certain vendors) - it's worth it.
Finally, in the what-the-hell-it's-the-freakin'-weekend-baby category, you've got something I picked up and tried for the first time last night.
It may be old enough to drink itself here in the states, but it's actually more widely available than you'd think. Heaven Hill has some of the most extensive stock over 20-years-old out there at the moment, and this is the follow up to their wildly successful 20-year-old Elijah Craig. I had my concerns that this thing would be an over-oaked spice bomb, but rest easy, it's just about as close to perfect as I've seen in a bourbon (and not badly priced for a 21-year-old). If you've been sitting on the fence with this Elijah Craig because of conflicting amateur reviews (which are about all Google will give you at the moment), I'll be happy to review it soon. I'm just letting you know it's worth it.
Hmmmm, those were all America. I'm not sure if it's the weather, or just a rye fancy, or just a freak coincidence. Oh well, America is rockin' some great liquid gold this year.
Whatever you do, stay away from...
No, just stop.
Also, anything extra-matured in Limousin casks. I have yet to find a whisky that has benefited from such a relationship.
Before my wife and I found out our baby was going to be a boy last week, we had Juniper among many possible, palatable girl names. I was secretly pleased, and not just because it invited cute shortenings ("June" or "June-bug"). You gotta love these dry, Juniper-steeped botanical treasures :-)
My current gin of choice: middle pricing, widely available, and dialed up to 11 on the botanicals. Ideal for mixologists, divine for the Negroni and San Martin.
Whatever you do, stay away from...
...anything Rogue. Sorry guys, but I have no idea how these could be considered (a) "gin" or (b) palatable.
You thought vodka had nothing exciting to offer? You thought wrong. I'm not talking about linen flavor or whatever the next, banal artifice-of-the-month is from [Insert Affluent, Single Female Distillery Hook Name Here]. I'm talking about going back to vodka's roots, literally. Potato vodka: it's big, and mark my words, it's going to get a lot bigger.
Best in class. Far from the "hairspray" neutral spirit that many vodka panners complain about, this virgin potato spirit offers a definitive earthiness and subtle black pepper spice. It's vodka with character, and that's always what counts. This one's hard to find, so if you don't see it on shelves look for this one:
It's the only other potato vodka I've been able to find in the states. Also a world-class vodka.
Whatever you do, stay away from...
... well, just about everything else. Don't get me wrong, there are good neutral spirits out there, but unless you're mixing up a greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice) I just don't see how they can be as fun as spirits with character. Side note: if this flavored spirit thing (whiskey with honey?) starts catching on in the whisky space, may God have mercy on our soul. And it will be our fault.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of El Dorado 21.
"But, it's 21 years old!" I don't care. Buy it. You won't regret it.
If you can't spot that one (it is pretty rare), here are a couple other greats.
Or just take a winter vacation somewhere close to the equator and see what you can find :-)
Whatever you do, stay away from...
... anything with captains, monkeys, coconut flavors (you're just going to mix it with Coca-Cola anyway), or any other Pirates of the Caribbean character that would diminish the seriousness of this noble spirit. Also, bad pisco (yes, I know it's actually a brandy, but people think "South America!" and start talking rum and cachaça; I have a Peruvian friend who I'll invite to give his take in this space sometime).
If you're gonna go agave, let the agave shine. For that, you want blanco (new make tequila, as opposed to reposado (rested) or anejo (age) which spend some time in ex-bourbon barrels). Specifically, this blanco.
All of the flavor, none of the burn. Avion has accomplished something truly exceptional with its "silver" (many thanks to their harvesting, cooking, and distillation processes), something that helped put the distillery quickly on the map. What's more, it's widely available and modestly priced.
Whatever you do, stay away from...
The most overrated "ultra-premium" spirit of all time. Don't cave in to the celebrity endorsements (applies to life as well as spirits). You can do so much better with your money.
(Drink it neat with slices of ginger)
Sometimes it's hard work scouting out places that sell the things we talk about. After all, many liquor stores (sadly, especially the state-owned ones) are content to provide only the bare basics, as if collecting, acquiring, and intensely savoring unique spirits was something no reasonable citizen would aspire to. Well, nuts to that! This Friday's Finest is our Liquor Online edition, the place where we reveal the secrets of internet liquor sleuthing and acquisition. At Cereal Alchemist we salute hard-working men and women, and although not all of us aspire to be "collectors" of fine spirits, we believe that everyone deserves the finest dram on the evening of their victory.
Who Can Do It?
Take a look at the map above. If your state is red (and I don't mean a "red state" politically, though many if not most of these are) then this post is going to be a bit of a let-down for you. That's because these states' laws prohibit the shipping of alcohol to your residence. I know, it sucks. But it's getting better with the help of movements like Free the Grapes! The bottom line is that - for at least America's near future - we still elect the government we deserve. If you don't like the law, change how you vote and make sure you're not a low-information voter. After all, you read this blog! Individual responsibility is huge at Cereal Alchemist. It's the guerdon of a discerning, sophisticated adult; it doesn't come any other way.
For all you other-staters, this is your chance to branch out and get the world of fine spirits at your fingertips. Online retail is putting big box stores in the ground, and swift is the wind that brings similar tidings to comfy, monopolistic liquor franchises. I know how it is - there are many places in America where you don't live within an hour or four of a decent liquor store. It's time to make online shopping do your hard work for you and vote with your wallet.
What You Can Find
Everything. I'm not kidding; from aged gins to independent bottlings to craft distillers and rare / exclusive releases, the interweb is shaking up spirit accessibility. It's a beautiful thing. You want that Tasmanian whisky you just tried at Whisky Live? It's out there. You need that aged gin that's marketed exclusively in New England? Hit me up, postman! You want that expression of Talisker that's only being marketed to Canadians? Your reach no longer exceeds your grasp. They'll call you "the spider," friend. Plus, there's always a special rush that comes when you hear the "Liquor Fairy" knocking on your door asking you to sign for delivery. Here's a photo collage of some of the best things I've acquired online over the past several months.
Don't get me wrong, the costs associated with shipping can be a deterrent for people who are looking for a value shopping experience. There are ways to get discounts (join a club or a rewards program), but sometimes the cost is worth getting something that you just can't get anywhere else.
Where You Can Find It
Most people interested in ordering online start their search... online! I can tell that if you do a Google search right now you'll probably be able to find 30 "vendors" in no time flat. The hard part is finding a vendor that you can trust, who'll deliver quickly and professionally, who manages inventory well. I am frequently asked on this blog "Where do you buy your whiskey, man?" Well, lots of places. Probably a quarter of my collection has been found online; however, I've been screwed by several online vendors, so you have to be careful. After a great deal of popular demand, I'm ready to go "open kimono" here and post Cereal Alchemist's personal list of online recommendations. Many Bothans died to bring us this information:
Master of Malt - Not only do they have one of the best selections of world whisky of any online vendor I've come across, but they're an independent bottler to boot. MoM gets the product to you quickly and safely (their packaging is awesome) for about the same shipping cost as anywhere else. What's more, they carry about every other kind of spirit as well, and their selection never falters. It's not uncommon for MoM to get access to rare or limited releases from time to time, so check back frequently if they don't have your dream item in inventory at this moment. They often sell "try before you buy" samples of their whiskey, just in case you don't want to plunk down that much cash on something you're unsure about. They also have pretty sweet gift sample collections (Mrs. Alchemywife got me a rare Islay sampler for my birthday), and their "Whiskey Advent Calendar" (samples for every day of Christmas) is a holiday favorite.
K&L Wines - Based in New Jersey, K&L Wines have made a name for themselves in wine and spirits. When I can't find a spirit on Master of Malt, I always give K&L a try, and they usually have it. Having ordered from many established online vendors in the U.S., I can honestly say that K&L is the only one that has never given me a snag or a headache. Given that it only takes one bad experience to lose my business, K&L deserves kudos for earning my enthusiastic endorsement.
ForWhiskeyLovers - ForWhiskeyLovers is a small online community whose website is a bit rustic, but the beauty of the organization is your chance to earn "Flovers" through your membership (membership is free). Flovers are basically reward points (fairly easy to accumulate with simple online activity - commenting on the blog, posting on the forum, uploading photos, etc.) that get you discounts on orders / shipping or free Glencairn glasses with your order. The online store isn't huge, but if they have what you want you can usually find it here for cheaper (and if you ask nicely, they can sometimes give you access to some pretty special stuff they don't advertise).
Caskers - a super slick website for the dedicated collector / enthusiast, I have yet to find an online vendor that offers so many independent / craft spirits for such a good price. There's a "membership" required (I just signed up with Facebook), but that membership opens the doors to a massive world of whiskies you never knew existed (and it's not just whiskies! - gin, tequila, vodka, rum is there too). Be sure to join one of their kick-ass collectors clubs to routinely have delicious craft spirit delivered to your door.
Single Cask Nation - my independent bottler of choice, a subsidiary of the Jewish Whisky Company that sells all bottlings from their website. I instantly signed up for a SCN membership as soon as I tasted their whiskies at Whisky Live NYC. It was there that I met Joshua and Seth (founders - you may know Joshua from the famous blog Jewmalt), who are just all-round, pretty cool, whisky-lovin' guys; they refused to take my ticket and just kept pouring me samples! Membership in the Nation costs money, and I'm not even Jewish, but I was happy to sign up for access to what I consider to be amazing, one-of-a-kind whiskies. Their Arran Pinot Noir cask is just pure de-LUSH-us. So far SCN has bottled only Scotch whiskies (from some pretty amazing distilleries), but I happen to know from public record that they've got some bourbon in the works. I can't wait!
Happy trails to you this weekend!
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?"
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.
Some self-described experts will tell you that there's only one correct way to nose or taste a spirit. I'm not going to argue that there are some "best practices", but I am going to argue that you need to know more than just "stick your nose in the glass and breathe side to side". Today we're going beyond the basics of nosing and tasting, uniting the disciplines into something that's actually inspired from a bit of Yoga: pranayama.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit conjunction: prana meaning "life force", and ayama meaning basically "expansion of that life force". Stick with me now, this is fun! :-) It is basically what amounts to the cultivation of awareness and willpower through a controlled sequence of Yogic breathing. The idea already works on a metaphorical level with the purpose of nosing and tasting, and what could be better than striving to become a distilled spirits Zen Master?
As far as our tongues go, our sense of taste is pretty limited.
Your taste buds have four dominant sensory zones, as you see in the photo above. Four; we might as well call them taste duds. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if left only to the tongue's devices, whisky tasting and notation would be a pretty truncated business. "I'd say the spirit has hints of bitter, but ... more sour than the last one. There's this fascinating interplay between sweet and salty, with the bitter becoming more dominant after that preliminary hit of sour." You might still be able to get a few of those "mouthfeel" comments, but really, a global measuring tool for whiskies that involves a set of only 4 metrics is pretty useless.
But of course you knew this. Take some food into your mouth, pinch your nose, and then chew and swallow. What do you get? Pretty much, nothing. I tried tasting some new whiskies like this last night, just to see how far I could get, and the results were horrendous. The truth is, whisky writers and enthusiasts owe so damn much to those awkward protuberances on the front of our faces. Have we given ye olde nostril the credit it is due? Some quick internet sleuthing reveals some amazing things.
Did you know...
When it comes to whisky tastings, many people think it helps to place the spirit into a vessel that will help concentrate those oderiforous esters and whorls into quantities that raise them to our detection threshold. That's the point of the Glencairn glass, after all, which situates the spirit in a wide bowl and then uses an elongated, tuliped flair to concentrate its vapors at your nose.
It is during inhalation that nose's contribution to smell happens - that's no mystery to anyone. But it's during exhalation that the contribution to flavor occurs (the part where you suddenly taste so much more than salty, sweet, sour, bitter). So while smelling a whisky is a fairly straightforward process, tasting it can be an entirely different discipline. That's where pranayama comes in.
After you've poured the whisky, feel free to do your smelling. Rocking the glass side to side in order to see which nostril is dominant is a popular technique. Use this time to set the stage for what comes next. Many whiskies taste and behave differently in the mouth than the nose lets on.
Now that you're ready to taste, let's clear the senses and your palate once again. Take a sip of some cool still water if it helps. Then, start your Breath of Fire (breathing in and out through the nose quickly - concentrate on the exhales, as the inhales will come automatically). Try to inhale and forcefully exhale about twice a second. If you're in a crowded room, or at a whisky tasting, or in a library (good for you! flask?), or your wife is already concerned enough about your drinking habits, maybe don't do Breath of Fire.
Now, at the end of your Breath of Fire, or before taking the spirit into your mouth, take a deep inhale over 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Hold it in for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Now exhale slowly for 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. This deliberate, greatly-reduced breath count will help focus your mind on the present, on the now (it's not just Yogi wisdom, it's actually supported by psychology - it is frequently used for treating anxiety). Now that you're centered and refreshed, it's time to take a sip.
Bring that fire-water into your mouth. Now breath in again over 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, moving the spirit over your palate the entire time. Hold the inhale for a bit at the top. Are there any initial impressions, any immediate flavors jumping out at you? Take note of the mouthfeel while you're there. Don't be surprised if flavors and impressions are different on the inhale stage; I have found it to be so. Now let it out - exhale for 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Whisky pranayama! I'm loving it!
My experience during this exhale phase (which is supported by the study of human olfaction) is that the flavors change dramatically. If you have a spirit that was ACE'd in a red wine cask, especially the sumptuous, unctuous finishes like Pedro Ximinez (sometimes called PX), port, or even pinot noir, I have found that those winey, grapeskin notes come blaring out of the spirit on the exhale. They coat your mouth and sinuses like a tar, or a rich, tanniny leather. Heavy fruits tend to strike a dominant presence against the sweetness, spice and fire. Subtle malty notes become cereal signatures. Smokes just curl and bellow. It's a beautiful, sensory universe.
Final note: Don't forget to keep breathing! While the spirit graces your palate it's in and out, sloooowly. Be mindful of the living Force. Your diaphragm is a billow, and it wafts you to and fro between subtlety and hemorrage. Intense? Yes. Poetic? Absolutely. And here's a pro-tip for the close: keep the breathing up for a while after you've swallowed. Sometimes the most interesting flavors raise their head only after the spirit has already "left the room", which really should encourage you to go on back for more.