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
Blended whisky. Depending on your pedigree, your exposure to blended whisky products, or simply ingrained personal prejudice, seeing the term "blended" on a bottle can make you sneer or smile. I'm often surprised at the visceral reaction that blended whiskies produce from single malt purists: "Yeugh, not me, I'm a single malt man!" (betraying a staggering ignorance as to blended whisky's origins; also, nine times out of ten, they prefer their desired single malt for the perceived "status" of drinking it). On the flip side, there are people who feel safe with their preferred blends and rarely bother to venture onto the black diamond slopes of single malt and single cask whisky expressions ("blend/brand hobbits"; have a little adventure!).
I think it's just plain silly that we would judge blended whiskies harshly at all. They undeniably have their place in the continuum of whisky crafting, and they are the logical antithesis - and true creative outlet - to the elite specialization (and provenance) of single cask bottlings. Seeing as I've written recently about developments in the single cask space, I thought I'd turn around and do a little fireside chat about something that has truly captured my interest. It'll be an ongoing series, because this is my new thing. I AM HAVING A BLAST DISCOVERING AND EXPERIMENTING WITH WHISKY BLENDS!
It started with the perfect Christmas present for an aspiring whisky blogger (one with a confessed fetish for single malts and single cask bottlings). I received Master of Malt's Executive Blend-Your-Own-Whisky set from some awesome in-laws this year, and was quickly broken out of my shell when the humbling task of blending fell to me. Nothing like on-the-job learning! (especially with whisky; even the failures are exhilarating!). That letter you see addressed to "Dear Whisky Blender" has all sorts of wonderful instructions on how to mix the included samples of grain whisky and malt whisky (all different ages and regions of Scotland) in order to assemble your favorite blends. The set even includes pipettes and measuring flasks for recording purposes. What's more, you can order your favorite blends from the Master of Malt website as actual bottlings, with a customized label. MoM isn't the only one doing this though. Behold, whisky meets Web 3.0!
I'll confess to some self-imposed ignorance of the craft of blended whisky as I was sidetracked by single malts and independent bottlers most of last year. Since my journey of craft blending is just beginning, I thought I'd share it with you and include you, rather than pretend I've been all over this for any longer than... 2 weeks. What is truly delightful is how well the art and design of blending have meshed with Cereal Alchemist's mantra: Tinker, Blogger, Guru, Spy. There's an arcane mysticism (Tinker, Spy) to the art of blending, requiring intuitive knowledge of the production of distilled spirits along with a willingness to communicate with enthusiasm and clarity (Guru, Blogger). I think it's safe to say this blog is entering some uncharted territory! Just as well, "ships at harbor" and all...
I'm going to dive deep into the origin and legacy of blended whiskies in a future post. For now, I wanted to let you know that Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker are totally not the movers and shakers behind blended whisky's revival (if there is one; not dissing the establishment's contribution to the space here) . Blends are being taken very seriously at competitions, and I think I should introduce you to some that have made immediate and lasting impressions upon me as I prep the bathysphere.
I'm going to finish each Will It Blend? series with a rewarding blend that I develop during experimentation. Like any true blender, I'm going to name each one :-) That's half the fun after all. This one's called Cardinal North - Spring.
With Cardinal North - Spring, I tried my hand at a mixture that lingered in my brain after I spent the weekend resampling my collection. I ended up blending Redbreast 12 and Highland Park 15 (for the sherry notes and grain character, in addition to some light smoke) with Talisker Storm (for the Hebridean peat along with some spice and vigor a.k.a. ABV) in a 4:3:3 ratio respectively.
The result is something like a creamy, divinely-peated Irish blend, unquestionably Hebridean in nature. The sweet, fruity character from the sherry and grain are uplifting and graceful. Talisker overwhelms the slightest bit on the pepper, ash, and peat, and I probably could have dialed it down to 2 in the ratio. Overall, it's like experiencing a thunderstorm at sea in the north Atlantic during the vernal equinox, complete with ozone [side note: yes, I actually have experienced all of that in real life]. It carries the promise of new life, while the winds and seas remind you of your mortality. Land has to be somewhere under those black clouds...
The "hyphen-Spring" nomenclature comes from some variations I have planned on this blend - one for each season. My subconscious dreamed this one up in minutes; I guess I'm just longing for the days to get longer here in the northern hemisphere.
Today Single Cask Nation issued the news that they're not going to be acquiring or bottling the cask of Glenfarclas that they proudly announced to Nation members back in November. In an email to the nation, co-founder Joshua Hatton stated that "our ceiling didn't quite meet [Glenfarclas'] floor," which led to a breakdown in final negotiations. While this is disappointing to those of us who were really itching to get our hands on a bottle, I think we'll live just fine. In fact, the more I think about it, the prouder I am of the populist stand that Single Cask Nation took here: "We're okay with walking away."
In these boomin' whisky times, some crazy things have happened to the value of aged distillate that have no doubt influenced your ritual search for liquid gold. I bought rare bottlings of Bruichladdich's Octomore 2.1 and 2.2 only a year-and-a-half ago that would be entirely out of my reach now (if I could even find them). Their contemporary bottlings are no better; perhaps I shouldn't have opened them! (... nah). Small town liquor stores are desperately beefing up their connections with distributors to grab even three bottles of Springbank 10, while whisky bastions are seeing old wares fly off shelves faster than they can call for replacements (our local Gomer's has huge, perpetual gaps in the single malt section between lines of high-stock favorites like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet). It's not uncommon for online vendors to strictly insist on "1 bottle per customer" in order to give whisky fans more than a 24-hour window to grab a new or rare release (before it's gone forever). Times they are a changin'.
Now, I'm no redistributionist (whisky makers and bottlers deserve to be rewarded generously for the value of their hard work and talent), but I tend to believe that whisky pricing is getting uber-crazy in ways that do not necessarily benefit new or "part-time" whisky consumers. Avid whisky collectors are obviously the Real McCoy, people capable of setting aside a chunk of their treasure for the acquisition and enjoyment of premium whisky. Small time collectors will still buy their chosen bottles, they'll just have to buy slightly fewer as price inflation takes its toll. Either way, the collector sees whisky as an investment, so some deal of expense is expected. The whisky boom has stunned and dazzled many a collector, but I'm relatively certain that it fails to dissuade. Thus, whisky makers and bottlers will still make handsome royalties.
The real cost of price inflation is that it creates a Jurassic Park out of whisky's attraction.
I'm not bitter or jaded about it, but the more that distilleries use "limited release" creep to make all of their whisky stock rare and premium (think Talisker Storm, Ardbog, Black Art 4, or the rash of single barrel bottlings; no matter that many of these are excellent), the more that those delicious and rare experiences are out of reach of the casual consumer. At some point, the Wow! factor fails to impress and "rarity" reaches saturation incommensurate with objective valuation. Until that time, the premium push will price part-time consumers out of all but the most plentiful stock or mediocre (not to mention low proof!) bottlings. Whisky shows (about the only place where rare whisky can be found and sampled at very decent cost; forget bars or pubs) become our "coupon day."
I adore whisky shows, but I'm not ready for them to be the only gateway to the best our community has to offer. At some level, I really want to share that stellar new Bruichladdich with my neighbor. I actually love to pour that Ardbeg Alligator for the casual visitor who expresses an interest. Do we really have to wonder why big whisky shows are becoming so popular and sprouting up all over the world? It's practically the last place where we can stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow man (rich or poor, sick or in health, classy or ... not so classy) and proudly say "I'll have what he's having", allowing ourselves - even for a moment - to be equals united by love of Provenance: "L'chaim, friend, and shalom!" Not surprisingly, this good will may not last. As whisky shows increasingly shelter their most premium pours behind "VIP" tickets, special drinking tokens, or paid ticket drawings, how long will it be until even that divine experience is back out of reach? What will a whisky industry look like that closes the door on newcomers and reserves its most delectable drams for the affluent and the collectors? I'm thinking... something like the 1990's.
Whisky is sold on the free market (outside of some rather ridiculous taxes and tariffs), which means that ultimately we decide what whisky is worth. If you don't like the asking price, the answer is simple and straight-forward: just walk away. While Single Cask Nation could charge whatever a distillery demands for their whisky and be relatively certain that somebody will buy it, that somebody might not be the members that Single Cask Nation is looking out for.
I'm still sad about the Glenfarclas, but I know that Josh, Jason, and Seth have some great single cask bottlings waiting in the wings and I'm sympathetic to SCN's business philosophy. I don't need the good will of distillers, importers, distributors, or parent companies to trust Single Cask Nation's motives or taste in whisky, and that's enough for me. In fact, it's why I come. Ultimately, community is the human terroir that independent bottlers are so eager to cultivate; I say, long may they be successful!
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!
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)
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.
Just so you know, this is currently a one-man blog dedicated to personal passions and priorities. I don't get paid to write anything in this space, and I don't accept bribes to promote products. Occasionally I'll get industry professionals "on the record" or tap a friend's / associate's brain to give the readers some extra pearls of wisdom; otherwise, I do the footwork and the research.
Except this time - this time I'm writing about a special find that came as a birthday gift! In one fell swoop it dramatically simplified the jumbled contents of my liquor cabinet, and since we're all into the best things I thought I'd share. Introducing...
If you're a sucker for gadgets like me, you're going to love this. It's called Bar10der (OH HO ho ho.... heh.... he... ahem), and yes, it comes in other iPod colors. Aside from a good shaker (and for the record, I recommend utilizing a Boston shaker over shakers with a built-in strainer - something I'll include in a later mixology topic) it's pretty much got everything you need in terms of bar/mixology tools. I'm also pleased to say that it's sturdy, solid, and definitely gets the job done. If it weren't, I wouldn't be giving this thing it's own blog post.
So check it, this thing's got slip-proof grips (a really nice touch actually) and is well-balanced in the hand for multi-disciplinary cocktail work. Where the liquid meets the glass, it's basically 10 tools in one:
This isn't plasticky or eye-candy - it's a real tool meant for real use with fold-out accessories that are well set and well designed. Happy to recommend it for the aspiring zen masters out there.
Would you like to know more?
(What... the actual... f***?)
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!