Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tasting notes: Cutty Sark Prohibition

A while ago -- like, nine or ten months ago -- I got a cheerful email asking if I'd be interested in a free sample of Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition.

At the time, I had already made fun of their "Real McCoy" ad campaign. But free whisky is free whisky --
-- yes, I know, by taking free whisky I'm compromising the integrity and independence of my tasting notes. But my palate is garbage and my tasting notes are nonsense, so what's the loss? And if I really wanted to ingratiate myself with the industry, wouldn't I have written this review nine months ago? --
-- so I said sure. I was expecting a little sample vial, or maybe a miniature, but in fact I was given an entire 750 ml bottle. (I suppose that makes as much economic sense as anything else they do as outreach to bloggers.)

Hard to tell how much is left.
I wanted to do a comparison tasting with the common or garden Cutty Sark, so I kept my eyes open for a miniature (I wasn't about to but a fifth of the stuff just for a comparison tasting). The months went by, no Cutty Sark minis turned up, the bottle of Prohibition got set aside, and... I am on Burns Night 2015, finally getting around to writing my nonsense tasting notes on a Scotch I've already had half a bottle of.

Nose: sweet, orange cream, sherry, touch of green twigs, tiniest bit of sulphur
Palate: Rich, full mouthfeel, I want to say maybe a bit winey or raisiny.
Finish: touch of ash, citrus pith

With a bit of water, floral notes came out, with maybe a bit of marsh gas. The finish was shorter, with more pepper.

I happened to have some trail mix on hand, so I experimented. A few raisins flattened out and soured the taste. A couple of roasted almonds emphasized the sweetness, and maybe brought out a bit of citrus and chocolate. A handful of the mix, including peanuts and M&Ms, and the Scotch was quite happy and satisfying -- or, possibly, it was happy and satisfying because I was at the end of my tasting, and I am generally happier drinking whiskey than explaining what it's like to drink whiskey.

On the whole, I'd say it's a good, robust blend, bottled at 50% abv so it shouldn't get lost in a cocktail*. Not the sort that needs a lot of analysis, it's clearly above the entry level Cuttys and Dewar'ses and such, though not at the level of the 12 yo blends. I'd like to know more about the thinking that went into creating the blend, if it could be done without any of that guff about it being "crafted as a salute to the notorious Captain William McCoy."

* I've heard this doesn't actually mix too well. In the interest of science, I've just mixed a whiskey punch with a bit of sugar, some hot water, two dashes of Fee Bros. lemon bitters, and a dram of Cutty Sark Prohibition. It makes quite a nice, hearty drink, but thinking about it I wouldn't use this for any cocktail that calls for finesse.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A three distillery day

It didn't start out that way.

I was just going to run over to Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, Maryland, to try some of the barrel proof whiskey Edgardo Zuniga had come out with since my visit last month.
Wheat whiskey, corn and rye bourbon, corn and wheat bourbon. All barrel proof.
These have each spent two months in three gallon barrels, which adds plenty of flavor though doesn't age out the new make notes. The wheated bourbon was the sweetest. The 100% wheat whiskey was too intense for me at 120 proof, but with water opened up nicely; it would certainly bring plenty of flavor to a cocktail. The ryed bourbon was my favorite, and Edgardo filled a bottle for me.

Since it was only two o'clock when I left Twin Valley, I hopped on the Beltway to see what all the fuss at One Eight Distilling in Washington, DC, was.

The fuss was huge crowds of children in their twenties packing the tasting room and the tours that ran every ten minutes or so. Given that the distillery only opened to the public two weeks ago -- and, you know, the shots of free booze -- the crowds were expected.

In the background, you can see One Eight's tiny gin still.
The size of the place was not. The tasting room by itself is about the size of Twin Valley Distillers, and the production space is cavernous. They already have three (or was it four, why don't I ever take pictures of these things?) 2,000 liter fermentation tanks, so they should really be able to crank out the spirits (or at least keep their small bottle filling station busy).

The One Eight Rye Whiskey Warehouse.
They have two spirits bottled for sale -- a rye/corn/malted rye vodka and a rye/malted rye/corn white whiskey. As of today, they have two full size barrels of rye whiskey aging, with a bourbon mash fermenting on the other side of the plant. The rye whiskey has the same mash bill as the white whiskey, but takes more of the tails for the extra dose of congeners. I asked One Eight's COO Alex Laufer, who led the tour I took, whether they were planning on releasing a whiskey at less than two years. He said they might, but weren't really expecting to.

What sourced bourbon looks like.

Of nearer term interest are the thirty-six barrels of 9 year old bourbon they've sourced. Right now they're playing with finishing in sherry butts, and they may try other finishings too before they' bottle it.

They also plan to work on a gin recipe, using a second, tiny still for the botanical runs. At least until they settle on their recipe, they'll be distilling the botanicals individually, then mixing the spirits to get what they want. (Coincidentally, I'm going to be doing much the same thing this year, with infusions, and the juniper will all go into my wife's bottle.)

In the tasting room, I tried both the vodka and the white whiskey. The vodka was smooth with some grain flavor. I didn't care for the whiskey; I thought the flavor was muddled for drinking straight.

After One Eight, I drove around the neighborhood a bit -- the roads of that neighborhood, by the way, are all 2 blocks long and form a network in non-Euclidean space -- and twice passed New Columbia Distillers, which is about as clear a sign as you get most days.

This was my second visit to New Columbia, and while they are still disappointingly gin-based, they have now put up several barrels of rye (which, since their revenues are also gin-based, they're in no hurry to release), and are even about to make apple brandy. I stopped in to try the "ginavit," their fall/winter gin with a bit of an aquavit kick from the caraway and rye. There's juniper on the nose, which thankfully fades quickly on the palate to citrus and other botanicals. I think it's going to make a great sidecar.

So that's three distilleries in three hours and only two bottles purchased. I don't expect to beat that any time soon -- especially the purchases to distilleries ratio.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Proof: The Science of Booze

Wired's articles editor Adam Rogers (@jetjocko) is the author of Proof, and who better to write a book with the subtitle The Science of Booze than a former science journalism fellow at MIT?

The bookjacket says Proof is "higher in Canada."
A former science journalism fellow at MIT who brings a perspective like this to the topic:
The bartender put the glass of beer in front of me, its sides frosting with condensation. I grabbed it, felt the cold in my hand, felt its weight as I lifted it. I took a sip.

Time stopped. The world pivoted. It seems like a small transaction -- a guy walks into a bar, right? -- but it it the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history.... The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It's the apotheosis of human life on earth. It's a miracle.
The rest of the book explores the miracle in less fulsome language than this passage from the introduction, but it's good to know we're in the hands of someone who cares.

Proof takes us, chapter by chapter, through the whole process of alcoholic beverages. Here's the table of contents:
  1. Yeast
  2. Sugar
  3. Fermentation
  4. Distillation
  5. Aging
  6. Smell and Taste [the sensory experience of drinking]
  7. Body and Brain [the biological and sociological experience]
  8. Hangover
While there is plenty of science in the book -- physics, chemistry, biology, mycology, even sociology if that counts -- it's not a science book. There aren't any equations, graphs, or diagrams (even in the handful of places where a diagram would have been helpful). There is perhaps as much history and biography of science as science proper, all in keeping with the theme that alcohol and human culture are inseparably related. (Faulkner's "Civilization begins with distillation" is referenced a couple of times.)

I learned a lot of history in the first couple of chapters -- Pasteur's role, for example, in proving that yeast produced alcohol (fermentation was previously thought to be what we'd call a purely chemical process), and the remarkable career of Jokichi Takamine, who not only figured out how to break starches down into sugars without malting, but also patented adrenaline and paid for those cherry trees in Washington, DC.

I also learned about a lot of places I'd like to visit, like yeast merchant White Labs' tasting room, where
all the beers on tap... are identical except for one critical variable. They share the same barley, the same hops, same water, same temperature. What [head of laboratory operations Neva] Parker hopes to show off is the difference in fermentation caused by yeast alone.
Different yeasts are, of course, key tools in Four Roses' bag of success, and just today an article quoted Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden saying about yeast strains, "Unquestionably in my tiny little mind, that's the next big thing in terms of bringing new flavours to bear."

I learned a little about making rum in the tropics, and more than I wanted to know about the use by some rum makers of
a "dunder pit," a hole in the ground into which they throw leftovers from the still after production, maybe some fruit or molasses, and sometimes lime or lye to keep down acid levels. They let it sit there. For years. And this muck -- they really call it "muck" -- gets added back into the still.
Sort of puts "sour mash" in perspective.

I learned that the "double dispense" business with Guinness isn't just theater, but helps preserve the head. (On a sadder note, the passage with UC Davis's Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science Charlie Bamforth represented another step in my realization that I never have known and never will know how to drink beer properly. It's just too complicated.)

I learned that the history of distillation... well, let's just say it's complicated, and Rogers goes into a lot more, and a lot earlier, possibilities than I'd previously come across in casual Googling. In particular, Maria Hebraea is presented as a possible (though provisional) inventor of the alembic still that eventually (as in maybe eight hundred years later) led to vodka, brandy, and whiskey. And I learned that St. Albert the Great -- whom Rogers, oddly, refers to as a "philosopher/priest/magician" and "a big shot among...Dark Ages alchemists" -- included two recipes for aqua ardens ("fire water") in his encyclopedic writings.

There are some darlings in Proof I'm glad Rogers didn't kill:
No kidding, [St. George Spirit's master distiller Lance Winters'] apricot eau de vie is the philosophical qualia of apricot. It is like drinking the design spec.
"You will be amazed that water can feel different on your palate."
He's not wrong. I would be amazed.
As for wormwood-free anisette replacements [for absinthe] like Pernod, well, they're fine for poaching shrimp.
...23 percent of people do not get hangovers (the scientific term for them is "jerks")....
He reminds us throughout that he has his own perspective on the subject:
I agree to receive [Terresentia's] free booze, and a couple weeks later, a cardboard box arrived by FedEx, marked "fragile." Inside are seven tiny glass sample bottles, their caps sealed with tape; a gin, a tequila, a citrus vodka, a rum, a brandy, and two bourbons. I open each in turn -- well, I ignore the citrus vodka, because come on.
Rogers contrasts the high speed, high tech "aging" of Terressentia with the old school, deep time approach of the brandy maker Osocalis, whose Dan Farber put his finger on a regrettable effect of the microdistillery explosion:
"If people can say, 'Hi, here's my three-year-old craft brandy for sixty dollars,' it really discourages the longer-term exercises."
(Craft whiskey drinkers may well envy getting three whole years for only sixty dollars.)

I was particularly interested in the "Smell and Taste" chapter, since (apart from unserious home experiments) that's the point where I start getting involved in booze. I felt better after reading how much time and effort was invested in figuring out how to talk about odors and tastes -- with the first flavor wheel invented by Morten Meilgaard in the early 1970s. Unless and until I get good at it, I plan to use a flavor wheel myself when making tasting notes. Even the simpler wheels give me a lot bigger vocabulary than I have left to my own devices, although I won't at all be pleased the first time I realize that that note I can't quite place is "sweaty."

The chapter on hangovers is a record of disappointment and ignorance. There's a lot of interesting information, both scientific and anecdotal, and it all boils down to this:
"What causes hangover? Nobody really knows," says epidemiologist Jonathan Howland. "And what can you do about it? Nobody knows."
What we really want from science is a way to drink as much as we want without getting hung over, though in a pinch we'd be satisfied with an instant cure for hangover. The research is ongoing, and I suppose it's an open question whether we'd be better off as a society if nobody got hung over.

These are some of the highlights of Proof, and there's a whole lot more science, history, booze personalities and anecdotes to be found. I highly recommend the book to anyone who would read this far into this post (I'll mention that mine was a review copy, in case you want to weigh that with my recommendation). In the introduction, Rogers provides his own reason for reading -- and for writing -- the book:
If you love something, my theory is, you're supposed to ask what makes that thing tick. It's not enough to admire the pretty bottles filled with varicolored liquids behind the bar. You're supposed to ask questions about them-- what they are and why they're different, and how people make them.
Asking the questions, and finding out the answers, makes scientists of us all.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A disappointing president

When I was young, Thomas Jefferson was my favorite Founding Father. Mostly because we had the same first name, but then, I was young in an era when the Founding Fathers were all pretty much superheroes.

So I'm not so much angry as disappointed to read the following from his pen:
I think it a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines, as a tax on luxury. On the contrary it is a tax on the health of our citizens.
So far, so good, you say? But see where he's going with it (with added emphasis):
It is a legislative declaration that none but the richest of them shall be permitted to drink wine, and in effect a condemnation of all the middling & lower conditions of society to the poison of whisky, which is destroying them by wholesale, and ruining their families. Whereas were the duties on the cheap wines proportioned to their first cost the whole middling class of this country could have the gratification of that milder stimulus, and a great proportion of them would go into its use and banish the baneful whisky. Surely it is not from the necessities of our treasury that we thus undertake to debar the mass of our citizens the use of not only an innocent gratification, but a healthy substitute instead of a bewitching poison....

These, dear Sir, are the thoughts which have long dwelt on my mind, and have given me the more concern as I have the more seen of the loathsome and fatal effects of whisky, destroying the fortunes, the bodies, the minds & morals of our citizens.
A total coincidence, no doubt, that Jefferson was a winemaker.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Just Say No to Scottish Marketing Gimmicks for U.S. Whiskey

It's not really a hobby until you've got a crank minority opinion among hobbyists.

I have found my crank minority opinion in being dead-set and vocally against referring to whiskey made in the United States as "single malt."

Malt whiskey made at a single U.S. distillery is not single malt whiskey. It is malt whiskey. Oh, and by the way, our malt whiskey "is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent ... malted barley." Our malt whiskey could be their grain whiskey.

"Single malt" is just Scottish marketing gobbledygook that's been around so long we don't even notice it. Maybe it makes sense for Scotch, so the 1,000 single malts aren't confused with the 7 vatted blended malts. I'll leave that to the Scots.

But it's an absurd affectation on any bottle of American whiskey. Is the marketplace afloat in blends of malt whiskeys from multiple U.S. distilleries? Of course not. Is there a single American blended vatted malt whiskey? Maybe, but I bet there aren't three.

So why are American distilleries pretending that American $ingle malt whiskey is a thing?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On the NAS Boycott of 2015

Ralfy Mitchell's announcement that he wouldn't review or buy "no age statement" single malt Scotch whiskies in 2015 inspired a number of other people to join him. (I don't know if that number is ten or ten thousand.) The goal of the boycott is to push the industry to produce only "proper, matured, age-stated whisky at an intelligent price."

The problem, again, is not quality. As Ralfy says,
...there are some good non age statement whiskies out there. But their reputation is being dragged down by the increasing availability of overpriced, mediocre stuff.
I wonder whether it might not be the other way around, that the good NAS is buoying the reputation of the mediocre stuff. I don't think I've ever seen an online conversation about NAS that didn't have something along the lines of, "But.. A'bunadh!" (Come to think of it, A'bunadh gives cover to both mediocrity and dopey Gaelic names.)

In any case, the very fact that it's not about quality shows how blunt an instrument a boycott is. There's nothing wrong with NAS per se. What's wrong is the release of improper, immature whisky at a stupid price.

Will age statements on all Scotch malt whiskies -- identifying the Scotch in the bottle by the youngest whisky included -- fix that?

Maybe so. I'm not sure how much a single number will tell the consumer, though if my 6 y.o. malt whisky had some 16 y.o. in the bottle, I'd want to indicate that on the packaging to distinguish it from the other guy's 6 y.o. with nothing older than 7 years (not easy to do with current Scotch whisky labeling requirements). And maybe not being able to use that crackerjack 5 year and 9 month barrel will be worth it, to producer and consumer.

Or maybe we should just take a Sharpie and write "3 y.o." on all NAS bottles.

Still, the root cause of the problem doesn't lie in a whisky bottle. It lies in the willingness of distilleries to engage in behavior like producing improper, immature whisky and selling it at a stupid price, and that willingness will remain even if all the NAS malt whiskies are taken away.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Blackwater Distilling

I take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Annapolis to Maryland's Eastern Shore a few times a year. Most times, I have a moment of wistfulness as I pass the first exit on the eastern side of the bridge, Exit 37 in Stevensville, because Blackwater Distilling -- maker of Sloop Betty vodka and the first of the new microdistilleries in the state -- is just a mile up the road.

On one trip last year, though, I was wistfree, since I'd finally managed to budget enough time for a visit to Blackwater. It wasn't during regular tour hours -- Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 4:30 pm -- but Blackwater's Director of Marketing, Andy Keller (@andyhkeller), was willing to show me around. He was at the distillery that morning to have the place open for the workmen who were installing a new tasting bar.

And did I take a picture of this elegant, copper-topped bar? I did not. Did I take a picture of the 500 gallon production still, or the 100 gallon development still, or the vodka filtering set-up, or the bottling line, or my gracious host? I did not.

Did I take a picture of anything at all? Of course! Blogging is a visual medium, after all.
Take a look
And you'll see
Into your imagination.
Blackwater is in an unprepossessing business park; the new bar makes a visit more of a social and less of an industrial activity. Andy showed me the whole works, from the sacks of wheat to the corking station.

They've been selling Sloop Betty Vodka since 2011, and just about a year ago added Sloop Betty Honey Vodka. The vodka is made from wheat and sugar cane; the honey vodka is a slightly cloudy infusion with raw honey. They're 80 and 70 proof, respectively.

The name comes from the sloop Betty, captured in the southern Chesapeake Bay by Blackbeard in 1717. I'm not myself a fan of the pinup on the labels -- inspired, the press kit says, by "tales of our grandfather’s time in the pilot seat of a C-47" -- but then I've never had to catch the attention of the vodka buying public.
The sweeter one's on the left -- no, I mean... there's really no way to avoid innuendo here.

When I visited, they were experimenting with rum and rye. They've now settled on their rum recipe -- made with raw cane syrup and a yeast strain isolated from natural sugar cane fermentation -- and within a couple of weeks should be releasing Picaroon white rum. A gold rum (made gold by adding caramelized sugar) will follow soon after.
Before there was Maryland rye, there was Maryland rum. And the occasional pirate.

Once they get those production lines fully operating, they'll turn their attention back to rye. Maryland was, of course, once famous for its rye whiskey, though I've only ever seen vague descriptions of how "Maryland style" rye differed from the Monongahela style, which has either evolved into the ryes we know today or disappeared as well, depending on whom you ask.

In any case, Blackwater hasn't worked out a rye recipe to their liking yet. Past experiments didn't age properly, and I suppose it's to their credit that they didn't go ahead and bottle it anyway. They are, though, ready with the name -- Mr. Haddaway's Maryland White Rye -- and the label once the product is good to go. (The back label, if you can read it, tells the story of Mr. Haddaway.)

Labels via TTB.
As for tasting notes: Sloop Betty vodka tends toward the "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color" standard of vodka identity -- as opposed to some microdistilled vodkas, that let a lot of the grain taste through. But there is a bit of wheat nuttiness on the nose, and a bit of sugar sweetness on the palate, with one or the other or both cutting down on the sour spirity aftertaste a lot of vodkas have.

Sloop Betty honey vodka is pretty tame on the nose, but a taste fills the mouth with honey flavor without any of the honey stickiness. The mouthfeel is slightly thicker than the plain vodka, but only a little, and the honey doesn't linger in the finish. There's a definite honey punch, but it doesn't feel like you're drinking a liqueur.

Both are well suited for mixing, with the honey vodka adding its own sweetness and making a decent honeybuck (honey vodka, lime juice, mint bitters, ginger ale or ginger beer).