Saturday, January 23, 2016

Aultmore, The Deveron, Royal Brackla 12 y.o.s

Dewar's recently sent me samples of their three latest "Last Great Malts" they're bringing to the U.S. market. The idea behind the campaign is to offer expressions from different distilleries that supply malt whisky for Dewar's blends. (I can imagine a "here, take my money" deal where they'd sell a blending kit of malts and grains with enough to taste individually and still blend into something not altogether unlike Dewar's.)

The bottles came, I admit, in enjoyably gimmicky packaging, including a sort of self-contained treasure hunt to find the code to unlock... a USB stick with additional marketing information.
Or, you know, you could just find the screws.
They're all 12 year old single malts, from Aultmore (a Speyside distillery dating from 1896), the Deveron (made at Macduff Distillery, which opened in 1962 and is billed as one of the earliest modern Scotch distilleries), and Royal Brackla (opened in 1812 at Cawdor, and surely others have commented on the Macbeth angle between Royal Brackla and the Deveron; pity Aultmore isn't in Birnam Wood).
If it were tasted when 'tis tasted, then 'twere well it were tasted quickly.

No less an authority than Serge Valentin recently wrote:
I need comparisons, and I’m not good enough to assess one whisky out of the blue at any given time... That’s also why so many people find that any whisky just smells and tastes of… whisky. Give them two whiskies, and they’ll become super-good very fast!
As someone who has had a lot of whiskey that smells and tastes of whiskey, I determined to take this advice and try all three at the same time. It's a convenient trio for this, since the colors are different enough that you can keep track even if you forget where you just set down the Aultmore.

Dark to light: Royal Brackla, the Deveron, Aultmore (which in the bottle kind of really does look like pee)

I did not become super-good, or even competent, but it is fun to pretend sitting in the kitchen drinking three whiskeys at once is how you're supposed to do it.

(Prices are from

Aultmore 12 YO (46% abv, natural color, non-chill filtered, ~ $60)
Nose: Honey, grassy
Palate: Light, honey, sweet; a little water rounds it out a bit and brings the honey forward
Finish: Warming and short, a bit sour

The Deveron 12 YO (40% abv, ~ $45)
Nose: Fruit, almonds, oak, maybe chocolate
Palate: Buttery, sweet, a hint of brine (water makes it watery)
Finish: Pleasant and short

Royal Brackla (40% abv, ~ $50)
Nose: Sherry sweetness, raisins, toasted raisin scones; a bit of a waft of sweat or chemicals; water makes it fruitier
Palate: Pretty much what it says on the nose, with a touch of smoke
Finish: First pour, the finish was raisiny rubber. actually kind of nasty; subsequent drinks were much nicer

The take-away: There's all decent, if unexceptional, malt whiskies. (At least once that industrial rubber taste left the Royal Brackla; if it had stayed, I'd've used it for solvent.) Older expressions are available for each, if you're curious about how they might age. The Royal Brackla, with its blast of sherry and raisins, is the most distinctive, but I suppose I'd say the Deveron would be my first choice among them if I were to buy a replacement bottle.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Baltimore Whiskey Company

My plans for last Saturday fell through; my wife's plans did not. This left me with an unchaperoned afternoon, which I decided to spend seeing the sites in Baltimore.

The first site chosen was the Baltimore Whiskey Company. They are open for tours on Saturday from noon till four, and I'd be getting there right around noon.

"There" is the hindquarters of an unpreposessing brick building in Jones Falls. I got the Jones Falls bit off their website; I know almost nothing about Baltimore neighborhoods. The rest of the description of "there" I got from personal experience.
The entrance. You want fancy, go to the waterfront, hon.
I love distilleries that, from the street, could be galvanized chain warehouses. It suggests a small company focused on manufacturing, which is a very good thing to focus on if you're a small company that manufactures things.

Can a whiskey company door get more Baltimore than this?
The Baltimore Whiskey Company, of course, manufactures gin.

Well, and whiskey too. They are building up stock, from a rye and malted rye mashbill, that will age in 53 gallon barrels for two years before it hits the market. I admire them for that, considering very young ryes do sell these days, and some of them are even good decent drinkable. (If they offered samples of their aging rye to select tourists, that would be okay too.)

In the meantime, cash must flow. To make their gin, they macerate botanicals in grain neutral spirit (sourced, if we say "sourced" about pharmaceutical grade GNS; their copper pot still isn't ever going to give them a pure enough spirit), run it through the still a couple of times, and bottle it at 100 proof as Baltimore Shot Tower Gin. (The shot tower, a Baltimore landmark, is also featured on their logo.)

On my visit, the open 500-gallon fermenters -- they're cypress, and they're spectacular -- were filled with apple juice bubbling away, post-pressing peels and such floating on top. This will show up this summer as Charles St. Apple Brandy, following some months in used rye barrels. (The barrels are purchased from Speyside Cooperage, which opened a Kentucky office in 2010, so they're probably from one of the major distilleries.) I'm easing into apple brandy as a hobby, so I'm really looking forward to getting some Charles Street when it comes out.

They're also excited about a ginger apple liqueur -- their brandy "macerated with ginger and other botanicals, and distilled ... then sweetened with molasses, sugar, and apple juice" -- that's coming soon. It sounds like it could make a fantastic toddy, or bread pudding sauce.

Apple brandy in its larval stage.

There was no distilling going when I was there, so I got a good look at the inside of their still. The still, mashtun, and fermenters were all made by different independent craftsmen from around the country; the BWC operation is sort of a compounded craft effort, which is kind of cool -- always assuming the whiskey turns out good.

The freshly scrubbed inside of the 250 gallon still.

The outside of the still.
The left side of the still.
The Shot Tower Gin was the only spirit available for tasting. I admitted I didn't like gin. They said they get that a lot and like to hear what non-gin drinkers think of their gin.

It's the juniper that always gets me. Pine trees aren't people food. I'm happy to say BWC's gin is not particularly heavy on the juniper; you'd never take it for a London dry gin. I could even convince myself it tasted more like an herbal infused aquavit than a gin. It's not something I needed to buy, but I wouldn't wince if someone poured me a glass and I can believe Baltimore bartenders are coming up with good recipes that use it. I hope to try the "barrel rested" gin they'll be releasing in several months; I expect I'd be able to make some cocktails both my Sapphire-drinking wife and I would enjoy.

It's a bit sad to finish a post on a distillery visit with talk of gin, but considering that the Baltimore Whiskey Company started distilling in November, maybe it's just as well. I shall watch their future career with interest, and no doubt some investment as the product line matures.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My integrity is not for sale, I'm giving it away

The other week, Dewars asked me if they could send three bottles of their new-to-the-US single malts for me to review on my channels. "Certainly," I replied instantly. Only later did I face the nagging question raised by accepting their proposition:

I have channels?

Some people say taking free samples compromises a blogger's integrity and makes the reviews worthless. In my case, at least, that's not true. All my reviews are worthless. And I'd never write that a free whiskey is better than I think it is just to get more free whiskey. That would only work if marketers read my blog. But if they did that, they'd surely move on to a blogger who hadn't peaked ("hillocked" may be more accurate) with his 2012 hotel room review of Old Thompson Brand American Whiskey. Checkmate, integrity questioners!
This blog's all-time pageview champion. (Yes, the scale is pageviews per month. Yes, that includes Russian spiderbots.)

I got as far as the above with this post after two of the three bottles arrived. That evening, I mentioned to my 18-year-old son that I expected yet another bottle to arrive the next day. He asked, "Who is sending you all this whiskey?"
"What's a doer?"
A reasonable question under the circumstances. After I answered, he asked the question I'd been asking myself: "Why are they sending it to you?"
"I guess so I'll mention it."
"You should! Then you'll get more free stuff!"
He went on to say that I shouldn't be too obvious, but subtle, like, "You might want to give this a try sometime."
The boy's got the angles worked out already.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A taxonomy of "craft" distilleries

The on-going debate over the meaning of the term "craft" in whiskey-making shows no signs of ending. (Even though, as is so often the case, the answer is waiting to be found in the dictionary: "Craft: skill used in deceiving others.")

Here, though, are the broadly accepted definitions of some other terms you may hear used to describe your favorite new distillery:

  • Grain to glass: A distillery that turns grains into bottled spirits. In other words, a distillery. Even MGP is bottling these days.
  • Flour to flask: A distillery that couldn't afford a milling machine but does have a gift shop.
  • Soil to slainte: A distillery that grows its own grains and has a tasting room. Just as well, because after all the pretensions about growing their own grain, you really need a drink.
  • Tanker to tasting: A "distilling company" that "produces" its "own" spirits, often according to an "old" "family" "recipe."
  • Cradle to grave: Diageo's vision statement. Resistance is futile, or at least discouraged.
  • Farm to under-the-table: A moonshiner.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A trip to Fishpaw's Marketplace

I just want those who could have told me about Fishpaw's Marketplace, but didn't, to know that I forgive you.

Some people go skiing between Christmas and New Year's, some go to Disney World. And some people go somewhere fun.

Whoever it was who left a comment I read on some blog post, stating that Fishpaw's -- in Arnold, Maryland --  is a good place for private selection whiskey,  thank you.

What I didn't realize, as I used part of a vacation day to drive the forty miles to Arnold, is that they would have four different single barrel whiskeys, all of which were available to taste. If I had, I would have brought a designated driver. And maybe left my credit card at home.

The lunch menu. (Photo stolen from their website.)

I was particularly interested in the Eagle Rare, since I'd had a private selection ER at Dry 85 in Annapolis that was probably my favorite bourbon of the year. Then I saw the Four Roses, and realized I was facing a quandary. The single barrel Crown Royal Coffey Rye was also eye catching. And what could be wrong with a single barrel Knob Creek?

The tasting bar serves 1/2 ounce and full ounce pours. When you're forty miles from home and you need to pick up your wife, who didn't get the week off work, in a few hours, you don't order full ounce pours. I'd have preferred 1/4 ounce each, which would be enough to make a purchasing decision, but I can adapt.

I started with Four Roses and Eagle Rare. The Four Roses was an OBSV.(as their non-limited edition single barrels are), 115 proof, and a lot more interesting and complex than is appropriate for standing at a tasting bar next to a wine distributor trying to make a sale to the owner. I would have liked a bottle, but in the end I wasn't ready to pay the premium for this bottle over the regular 4R SB.

The Eagle Rare disappointed me. Maybe it was because it came on the heels of a barrel proof Four Roses, but it came off as muddled and not pleasant to drink. Especially disappointing, since it was on sale for $35. (Yes, yes, I should have bought two bottles and waited for my palate to improve.)

An ounce of cask proof whiskey on an empty stomach was enough, so I took a break from booze shopping to get some lunch. (I picked up a bottle of Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 006 and a bottle of Fiore Sweet Cranberry Maryland Moonshine, which earned me a, "So you're buying moonshine instead [of 4R SB]?" at the cash register.) Just up Route 2 is Cafe Mezzanotte, which has a $15 lunch special and delicious cream of crab soup. (The crab soup isn't quite worth the trip alone, but I will definitely try to time my next visit to Fishpaw's around mealtime.)

Worth a taste, but maybe not the best whiskey of 2015.
Refreshed and with a reset palate, I came back to Fishpaw's ready to try the Crown Royal and Knob Creek. (The owner asked the server if I'd tried the Four Roses. She said, "Yes, but he bought Laphroaig instead." I said, "You keep saying 'instead.'")

The Crown Royal is a single barrel Coffey rye, a flavoring whiskey distilled on a Coffey still that's a main component of CR. It's quite an interesting drink, sweet and creamy, but there's something a bit off (soapy?) right at the beginning of each sip. It's definitely worth tasting, especially at a discounted $3 per 1/2 ounce, but alas, it's not the discount barrel strength Whistlepig I was kind of hoping for.

The Knob Creek -- following the complex, muddled, and unusual whiskeys I'd already tried -- was just a tasty bourbon that brought a smile to my face. The bottle was sold before I finished my first sip. I'll have more to say about it after I've had a chance to drink it under controlled laboratory conditions at home.

Longrow Red (Cabernet Sauvignon, 11 yo)

The Judge's Bench is a great local pub in Ellicott City, Maryland. It has around a dozen rotating taps of craft beer, and over 250 different whiskeys (including the largest selection of single malts in Maryland, they say). It's the kind of place where, when someone walks in, the bartender says, "Hey, we've got a new porter on tap," and pours them a sample before they've even reached the bar. (There's also that couple, sitting in the two stools closest to the door, that are doing their own thing. Last time it was Coors Light; this time it was pinot noir. What can you say to such people but, "Cheers!")

The only problem is that Ellicott City isn't particularly local to me. It's about a half hour's drive, in a direction I never go after work and rarely go on weekends. What with one thing and another, I only get to the Judge's Bench once every year or two, though I'm always happy when I do free up a couple of hours and drop in.

They have a few dozen bourbons, but the single malt selection is why I go. (Say what you like about the state of the industry, 2015 is a time when a few dozen bourbons on the menu can be met with a shrug.) On my visit yesterday, I decided I was in the mood for some Campbeltown, and settled for a Longrow Red.

By coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing, this morning I came across a post at The Lyne Arm that gives the history of this expression:
Some years ago J & A. Mitchell & Co, the owners of Springbank distillers and Cadenhead became aware of an Australian wine company using the trademarked Longrow brandname to market some of their wines. This didn’t go over well with the Scots and a trademark dispute ensued. Long story shot, the vineyard was granted permission to use the name in return for a lot of ex-wine casks and some cases of wine. These casks were filled with Longrow spirit and in time became the Longrow Red bottlings.
The Springbank website says, "Our Longrow Red, always bottled at cask strength, is released annually in small quantities and every year a different type of red wine cask is used to mature the whisky." My drink spent 7 years in ex-bourbon casks, followed by 4 years in Cabernet Sauvignon casks, then was bottled in 2012 at 52% ABV. The nose is salty, lots of figs or raisins (sort of like a Cabernet jam), and a little smoke. The taste is big and rich, with a bit of that figgy sweetness. The finish is more of the same, and is respectably long.

It is an unusual whiskey. I'm glad I tried it, though I wouldn't want to drink a lot more of it. I'll probably only revisit it if I happen to be with someone who's interested in tasting it for themselves (or, of course, if I completely forget I've already tried it and again think, "Hm, this sounds interesting.").

Still, the point of these excursions to Ellicott City is to try something I haven't tried and probably never would otherwise (except if by chance I point at the same thing on a menu at some other whiskey bar). People who don't order from multi-page menus of malt whiskeys would never imagine a malt whiskey would taste like Longrow Red. And yes, okay, a lot of the people who do order from those menus might say malt whiskey shouldn't taste like Longrow Red. But finding these things out for myself is the fun of it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A couple of young ryes

When I was just a few years out of college, I heard someone speak a word of wisdom that has remained with me to this day, one of those common sense observations that puts into words what we all inchoately feel:
This business of work really shoots a hole in one's day.
I feel this most keenly when I'm taking a few days off around Christmas. There is no way I could be simultaneously working and dropping by a bar for a quick one with a beer back. (Yes, there are jobs that  involve dropping by bars for quick ones with beers back. I have chosen a different road.)

All of which is introductory padding for brief comments about two young ryes I've ordered before 5 pm this past week.

Mississippi River Distilling's Cody Road Rye Whiskey has a 100% rye mash and is distilled, they say, "very cleanly so you can experience a sweet fruitiness that is unexpected from rye." This makes me curious about whether they planned that sweet fruitiness from the start or just wound up distilling it that way and decided to claim success. Either way, they have produced a spice-rearward rye, with an emphasis on the sweetness grain spirits can have. There's citrus peel on the nose, for what that's worth, since I didn't notice it carry forward into the taste. It does smell and taste young -- not in a raw or new spirity way; but like a finished product in a distinct category of, call it "Young Rye Whiskey." It's not bad, but it's not a style I'm looking for when I order rye.

On the other hand, the glass of Few Spirits' Rye Whiskey I had did taste like an underdone rye. My first thought after my first sip was, "This needs more time in the barrel." There was good rye flavor, but it was mixed with a lot of unpleasant grain spirityness. My guess is this could mix successfully, given a recipe that emphasizes the rye and hides the rawness, but neat it was bad stuff.

Which leads me to wonder about ordering new and young whiskeys from microdistilleries. I don't know what sort of variability there is from batch to batch, nor which batch any particular bar might have at any particular time. That Few rye tasted like an early attempt, in a way I don't remember Few bourbon tasting, so it may be what they're bottling today is much better. It may be, but I won't be spending money to find out.