Confession: I am developing a SERIOUS THING for solera-aged spirits. Since "solera" is not a term usually thrown about in drinking conversation, I figured I'd touch on it here to peel back the mystery and encourage you to explore this special category of spirits with me. We've entered a bold new era of distillery experimentation!...
... except that solera aging has been with us for around 500 years. Primer: solera is a Spanish word, actually a name for the barrel (or series of barrels) used to age a variety of liquids both alcholic and non-alcoholic: sherry (originally - hence the Spanish etymology), wine, madeira, beer, whisky, rum, vinegar, and brandy. What makes this different from other barrel aging (aside from the fact that solera barrels or "vats" tend to be enormous) is that anytime a liquid is drawn from the barrel, a sizable percentage is left in to age with the next filling. This means that over time - and some producers have been doing this for decades - you have a very complex, very rich, very old liquid that is unlike anything you get from single-barrel aging and maturation. It's basically old and new all at the same time, like a 1964 Mustang running with modern enhancements.
I just posted a review of a magnificent solera-aged rum over on the reviews section, and it's worth checking out if you're interested in what I believe is the best la sistema solera currently has to offer. If you've been reading the Friday's Finest posts you'll see that I've also recommended Glenfiddich's solera vatting on multiple occasions. It's not hard to find spirits aged via the solera method if you really look (I mean, GOOGLE and stuff); however, I think the two you see below are my favorite "mainstream" offerings.
With the giant push behind craft distillation nowadays, it makes sense that many smaller distillers would seek to distinguish themselves with the "Solera" label. In fact, Hillrock Estate has a solera-aged bourbon that I'm very anxious to try (if only they had regular distillery tours while I was living in Rhode Island). Let me know in the comments if you've found a solera expression that you really enjoy, or if you've found a special expression that you'd like to see me review.
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.
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 ;-)