Monday, March 23, 2015

Maybe it's in dog years?

The other night, I decided it was time to crack my bottle of "Bison Ridge Special Reserve Canadian Whisky, Aged 8 Years."

It was pretty bad.

Like "this is why people don't like whiskey" bad. Maybe even "this is why people who like whiskey don't like Canadian whisky" bad.

The worst part was how young it smelled and tasted. I know 8 years for Canadian whisky isn't like 8 years for bourbon, but can't it at least be like 2 years? Were the summers too cool? Were the barrels too old? Did the shipment of flavouring whisky not arrive in time for this batch?

I did a quick Google search to see if I was completely off base. It turns out lots of folks think Bison Ridge is lousy, and lots of folks think it's pretty good. I couldn't quite shake the suspicion that Crosby Lake Spirits Co., the Minnesotan bottler, has a financial stake in a ginger ale company.

When the whiskey's own webpage quotes reviews calling it "Mildly flavorful" and recommending you "drink it tall with lots of ginger ale," you know you're not bracing yourself for a world beater.

On one website, I came across the claim that Bison Ridge 8 yo and Ellington Reserve, also aged 8 years and reputedly a big favorite of Total Wine salesfolk, are the same whiskey. I happened to have a miniature of Ellington Reserve 8 yo, so I thought I'd put that theory to the test with a side-by-side tasting.

Pick your poison.
I don't want to leave you in suspense. They weren't the same whiskey. I don't say Ellington Reserve is any better than Bison Ridge. I do say it's different.

Bison Ridge Special Reserve (8 yo) Canadian Whisky
Nose: Faint, grass, sugar, soap
Palate: Medium mouthfeel, not much flavor at all, kind of a bland sweet light grain whiskey flavor (why Canadian whisky doesn't have a good reputation)
Finish: Alcohol prickles, followed by generalized sourness

Ellington's Reserve (8 yo) Canadian Whisky
Nose: Faint, spirity, dishwasher detergent, sweet apple
Palate: Sweet, vanilla (and not in an extracted-from-oak way), peppery
Finish: Short and unpleasant

The Bison Ridge was so bland, in fact, that I decided to try seasoning it with a few grains of salt. (Yeah, I taste whiskey in my kitchen sometimes.) The salt actually did kick up the flavor a bit, especially the sweetness, and the sourness on the finish was all but gone. I suppose if I -- heh, when I use this in cocktails, I might think of adding just the tiniest pinch of salt, if only to be sure I can tell I didn't use vodka.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Art of American Whiskey, by Noah Rothbaum

I am fairly shameless when it comes to asking publishers for copies of books I can review on my blog. I learned a long time ago that the publishing business is nuts, and if that means they'll give me something to read and something to write about, fine by me.

An explanation of the business case for sending review copies to bloggers.

But "fairly shameless" is not "utterly shameless," and when I saw Noah Rothbaum's The Art of American Whiskey in the Ten Speed Press catalog, I couldn't bring myself to ask about it. As much as I would like a picture book of whiskey ads and labels, I didn't think I'd be able to review it. What could I say, "Nice pictures"?

So I just told the Ten Speed Press publicist to keep me in mind for any whiskey or cocktail books they might have in the pipeline, and she replied with a PDF of The Art of American Whiskey. (Emailed PDFs make a whole lot more sense to me that UPSed hardcovers, but as I say: nuts.)

The lesson I learned is, don't judge a book by its subtitle, which in this case is A Visual History of the Nation's Most Storied Spirit, through 100 Iconic Labels. It is both a written and visual history. It does have nice pictures, but also a lot of good words.

The book divides American whiskey history into seven eras: the start through the early 1900s; prohibition; post-repeal; the '40s and '50s; the '60s; the '70s, '80s, and '90s ("a.k.a. the dark ages"); and "the new golden age" of this century (so far). (The book ends just before the bourbon shortage reduces us all to savagery.)

Each era gets a chapter, comprising a few pages of written history, many pages of artwork (mostly labels), and a few recipes for "cocktails of the times," contributed by well-known bartenders. There are also brief profiles of some "distilling legends": Heaven Hill's Shapira family, Margie and Bill Samuels; Booker Noe; and Pappy van Winkle.

The artwork is definitely the focus of The Art of American Whiskey, but the text makes it a complete book. Rothbaum includes a short bibliography -- Veach, Cowdery, Lubbers, you many know the names -- if you need more than an hour's reading on the topic, but he himself covers the story in broad strokes and a straightforward reportorial style, throwing in a bit of editorializing suitable to the subject:
[After World War II, b]rands did everything they could to get bottles back on the shelves. On February 9, 1947, the New Yorker ran a story about the American Distilling Company petitioning the Connecticut Supreme Court to approve its Private Stock Whiskey bottle label. The front label was regal and talked about the history of the brand, but on the smaller label on the back of the bottle was the truth: "Whisky colored and flavored with wood chips. This whisky is less than one month old." The court, fortunately, did not rule in the American Distilling Company's favor.
Life was ever thus.

As I say, though, you get this book for the pictures. With "100 iconic labels," this is a survey rather than an encyclopedic collection, and Rothbaum's commentary is that of an observant whiskey enthusiast, not a graphic design historian or art critic. He provides a little context, maybe a remark on style or motif (old Kentucky and stock certificates are perennial favorites), then lets the reader do their own looking.

I found the Prohibition chapter most interesting. Everyone makes jokes about all the (ahem) "medicinal" whiskey prescribed, but I'd never thought about how medicinal the packaging of the whiskey was required to be -- viz, not at all. Each bottle had to be packaged in a cardboard box, which gave the companies that much more room to call attention to their product. My favorite is probably "Golden Wedding," for the sheer incongruity, though I don't know how appealing a la grippe sufferer would have found it ninety years ago.
Nothing says effective medicine like renewing wedding vows . [1]
While a lot of brands from the 1800s are still around today -- in name, at least -- there's also a good selection of labels for brands that, as far as I know, are no longer sold (the steamer trunks with the recipes are, no doubt, waiting to be discovered). One of the book's panels shows a set of concept labels developed for Heaven Hill brands prior to 1946 (they don't know whether any of these were ever used). It's quite a selection, both straight bourbons and younger. I do like Coon's Age boast, "This whiskey is 1 year old."
I'm going to guess it was generally worth paying the premium for straight bourbon even then. [2]
Um... [3]
A few labels touch on some of the lowlights of the U.S. whiskey industry, made around 1970, but the less said about those the better.

The final chapter does a good job at covering both the major players and the craft distillers, with a wide variety in bottle and label design, from Four Roses Single Barrel and Maker's 46 to Hillrock and Tin Cup.(Implicit in the pictures but not really discussed in the text is the relatively recent increase in bottle variety to help brand whiskeys.)

The Art of American Whiskey will add a key visual dimension to a whiskey book collection -- and a respectable amount of historical information, too, particularly to a collection that's missing some of the classic sources Rothbaum references. Publication date is April 28, 2015; it can be pre-ordered in Kindle or hardback editions.

I'm told I'm supposed to mention that the photos are reprinted with permission from The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
1. Image courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery.
2. Image courtesty Heaven Hill Distilleries.
3. Image courtesy Beam Suntory Inc.
Credit where credit is due. I'd give credit for the "Numberwang" skit, but I'm not even sure what that would mean.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Supply, demand, and decoys

If you've made it this far down your blogroll, you've probably already seen Chuck Cowdery and Fred Minnick argue pro and con -- or rather, con and pro -- on the question, "Resolved: There is a bourbon shortage." (For me, the saddest part of this story is that Fred Minnick has a company; I kind of wanted to believe he made his living just by drinking whiskey.)

You've probably also seen Chuck's Minitrue followup on why the bourbon shortage we aren't having means more bourbon for everyone. In that piece, he links to Professor Cocktail's explanation of the elementary economics behind the bourbon shortage:
The reason that there is a shortage of particular types of bourbon is because they are generally sold at below-market prices.... Were the distillery/distributor/store to raise the prices of these bourbons, the surplus would disappear and an equilibrium price would eventually be reached.
In other words, all those SOBs who have been asking you what your favorite bourbon is have gone off and stocked up on it. If they went to the liquor store the week after the price was raised ten bucks, then that higher price is their own personal baseline. While you wince and hesitate, remembering those carefree prices of yesteryear, they brush past you and grab the last bottle.

Add to that the decoy effect of the higher price-point expressions.1 Suppose you go to the store and see Old Commonwealth Straight Whiskey for $30. It's a decent drink, you like having it on hand, but $30 is near the upper range of its value to you. You still have half a bottle at home, so you pass on it today.

Next week, events conspire to send you to the liquor store again, and you see the same whiskey for the same $30. But you notice that Old Commonwealth Reserve, which you've always found a bit syrupy, went from $45 to $50. Suddenly $30 doesn't seem like such a bad deal for a baseline OldCom. In a sense -- not common sense, but a sense nonetheless -- they've sort of lowered the price, haven't they? At least relative to the fancier expression. And when prices go down, demand goes up.

The decoy effect, I'm told, operates regardless of what people think might happen tomorrow, so there will be less OldCom on the shelf by the end of today. Add in the price-aware consumer, who knows whiskey prices are inflating, who foresees an OldCom price hike to match the OldCom Reserve's -- call it gouging if you like, if they can now sell OCR for $50 then OC probably is below market price at $30 -- and buys one or three bottles to bunker.

See? Plenty of whiskey on the shelves!
All of the above is typical (if not economically rational) consumer behavior. Bourbon availability is also affected by plenty of just plain nuts behavior, from more-money-than-sense newbies as well as panicky survivalists clearing out stores when they see something they don't expect to see a month from now. Dirtbag flippers and scuzzballs in the distribution chain help keep the top of the market sailing up out of sight, triggering the decoy effect followed by price adjustments in the undercard. Breathless reporting pumps oxygen into the fire.

So yes, both plenty of bourbon on the shelves and less than there used to be of what you want to drink for what you want to pay. Simple economics meets human nature.

What can you do about it? You can try to figure out your budget and what you're willing to pay before you go to the store, then stick to it (yes, yes, the preacher preaches to himself; I'm working on it). If you're in the has-more-whiskey-than-can-be-drunk-in-a-lifetime boat, you might drink your whiskey (sorry, didn't mean to shock you, sit down until the dizziness passes). You can start telling people your favorite bourbon is Distiller's Pride ("I know, I know, but for the price!"). You can make your peace with the fact that your thing is the hot thing right now and try to muddle through as best you can until the rum or tequila boom overtakes the whiskey boom.

Personally, I'm preparing a tuck-and-roll landing onto the apple brandy field. So far, the best I've found for the price is Hiram Walker.

1.The decoy effect makes Option A look more attractive than Option B by introducing an Option C that is unattractive compared to Option B but even less attractive compared to Option A. In this case, Option B is "anything other than Old Commonwealth Straight Whiskey." Is that a legitimate example of the decoy effect? I don't know, maybe. The point is, it sounds cool. Also, never learn economics from some hack whiskey blog; that's what Wikipedia is for.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Planning for Whisky Live

I've got a VIP ticket to Whisky Live in Washington, DC, next weekend. (As far as I can tell, every ticket to Whiskey Live in Washington, DC, next weekend is a VIP ticket, so it's not really going to my head.)

I've been to a couple of  Scotch Malt Whisky Society Whisky Extravaganzas, so I know what it's like to pass up a free18 yo single malt because there are two people in front of you and the clock is ticking. Whisky Live's main difference seems to lie in having more than a token representation of non-Scotch. There will be plenty of bourbons and ryes, from the Beam boys and Four Roses as well as maybe a dozen microdistillers and NDPs. There should be more than a dozen Irish whiskeys, and I hope at least half a dozen Japanese whiskeys. The Canadians might even muster a respectable showing.

All this is in addition to expressions from ten or so single malt Scotch distilleries, plus some independent bottlers, and who knows what all unadvertised specials. The Whisky Live folks are promising 180+ whiskeys, a lot fewer than the 300+ they promised for Whisky Live New York this week but still quite a bit more than I can get through in a scant four hours.

Also, there will be beer, in case you get tired of pacing yourself with water.

I'm thinking I'll break the evening into different phases:
  1. Start with Irish whiskey, specifically Teeling. I've tried most of the Cooley and Bushmills expressions, though if I spot something I haven't had I'll give it a go.
  2. On to Suntory's Japanese whiskeys (Hakushu, Hibiki, Yamazaki). I've only had one Japanese whiskey ever, as I recall, and I don't recall anything about it, so this portion of the evening may take a while.
  3. Next I want to meet and greet the American microdistillers -- like Sons of Liberty and Barrel, plus the Redemption folks (boy I hope they're bringing some cask strength rye) --  most of whose whiskey I won't get a chance to try outside an event like this.
  4. I'll definitely be parking myself at the Compass Box table for a bit.
  5. After that (assuming it's not already past midnight), I'm not sure. Maybe the Speyside Scotch distilleries I haven't run into yet, but how do I not spend some time with Four Roses? And shouldn't I leave some slack in my plans for the specials, wonders, and single cask IBs that haven't yet been announced? Or even some Canadian; I can't swear to the soundness of all my decisions at this point in the evening.
  6. Finally, the Islay malts. If I time it just right, Simon Brooking will be pouring an exceptional Laphroaig into my glass just as the clock strikes Last Pour at 9:40.
In the 3 hours or so I'll spend in the thick of it (figuring 40 minutes to eat, rest, and replan), I should be able to try about two dozen new whiskeys; if I'm lucky I'll be able to taste the first six or eight before my palate goes completely kaput (I'm hoping the Irish and Japanese are easier on the senses than the American and Scottish). Half that many, with twice the attention and conversation, would make for a great evening too.

Re-reading the post I wrote about the Extravaganza I went to 2 years ago, I see I concluded:
I think I'm at the point in my whiskey travels where I'd prefer a smaller selection of rarer whiskies, or one or two "master class" type events where you go into detail on a single distillery.
I may yet wreck the above plan and do a master class; they haven't been announced yet. I will definitely pass up whiskey I'm already familiar with in favor of, maybe not rare, but new-to-me whiskeys, especially from new-to-me distilleries. I could probably spend the whole night drinking Beam Suntory and Diageo bourbon, but I kind of do that often enough as it is, and if I really want to learn something about Booker's, all I need to do is say something untrue about it on Twitter. (Although if they've got some Beam Bottled in Bond or Pre-Prohibition Rye, I could find room for that.)

And if you're there yourself and recognize me -- I'll be the nondescript middle-aged fellow -- I shall buy you a drink if you greet me with the Weekend Whiskey password for Whisky Live DC 2015: "Have you tried the Lagavulin Cinnamon?"

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Up for the challenge

Peter Lemon is celebrating the fifth anniversary of his blog The Casks in the usual way, with an Internet scavenger hunt of needlessly esoteric whiskey-related trivia. (Traditionally, the first anniversary, as we all remember to our shame, is porcelain.)

Anyone can Google the answers (and they probably should; Lew Bryson's Tasting Whiskey is the prize). I, however, shall apply the deductive reasoning learned from Golden Age puzzle mysteries to arrive at the answers without external assistance.

1. What is the etymology of the word cask?

Trick question. In a properly maintained cask, there are no insects of any kind.

2. Name a distillery located on the banks of an estuary protected by two shoe-making giants.

Giants are principally Scandinavian. It must be Mackmyra.

3. Name a whisky book published before 1990 that was written by a nom de plume. 

Ha! Name one that wasn't!

4. To date, what’s the best Irish whiskey this blog has come across? 

The correct answer is Redbreast 12, although it's possible he has an incorrect opinion on the matter.

5. What is the origin of the name Laphroaig?

Two drunken Scots. Prove me wrong.

6. Who was Zackariah Harris?

I'm pretty sure he's the fellow who hid all those old family recipes for bourbon in steamer trunks.

7. What is the name of the ill-fated conveyance in Compton Mackenzie’s classic novel?

Rosebud. (Sorry, should there be a SPOILER ALERT?)

8. What’s the Latin genus, section, and species name for Mizunara Oak?

Latin? Look, I don't know how they do things where you're from, but this is the United States of America, and in the USA we just call it a tree.

9. What was Sazerac, originally?

The only drink I was going to order that night, I swear.

10. What did Gaston Bazille and Jules-Emile Planchon name “the Devastator”? 

They sound French. While the list of foreign generals it could be is quite long, I'm going to go with the Judgment of Paris.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

For brown spirits, things are tough all over

I've decided my backup spirit -- for when the whiskey boom finally prices me out of the market for Old Grand Dad, Pikesville Supreme, and Islay Mist 8 y.o. -- is going to be apple brandy. In part because apple brandy goes so well with whiskey, but mostly because I'm already a recognized expert.1

So it was with no small alarm that I read a tweet this past Sunday by Bernie Lubbers (@BernieLubbers), Heaven Hill brand ambassador and Bottled-in-Bond whiskey evangelist, about the disappearance of Laird's Bottled-in-Bond apple brandy. In its place, Laird is now selling Laird's Straight Apple Brandy 100 Proof, "100% apple brandy aged a minimum of 3 years in charred oak barrels and bottled at 100 proof."
No "BOTTLED IN BOND." (No age statement either.)

The label was approved last March. I'm not sure when they started shipping it.

A bullet dodged.
It's sad to see a 4 year-old expression quietly become a 3 year-old, though I suppose this is a better response to depleted stocks than "Laird's No. 11," an 80 proof NAS apple brandy (significantly not a straight apple brandy), for which they got a label approved in 2012 (I don't know that this was ever produced).

Just four months ago, Laird came out with the unaged "Jersey Lightning Apple Brandy." On the one hand, that seems a sensible response to the current unaged-friendly market. On the other hand, that doesn't seem to answer the problem of not having enough aged stuff. (Granted, the initial run is reportedly less than 500 cases.)

The good news is that a response to an email inquiry (in addition to telling me where I could score a bottle of Jersey Lightning) says Laid does hope to get back to selling BIB apple brandy when their inventories increase.

1.Who, you ask, recognizes me as an apple brandy expert? I didn't catch the fellow's name, but he was behind the bar at a microbrewery down South that I stopped in one evening last month. I was staggered to see a small sign, below the large board of on-tap offerings, that stated "House Distilled Spirits." In addition to a flight of beers, I ordered an apple brandy, which smelled like six week old apple brandy distilled at a microbrewery but actually tasted like three or four month old apple brandy. The bartender asked if I had had apple brandy before, and when I said yes, he really opened up. "There aren't a lot of people around here who are familiar with it," he said, and he seemed genuinely interested in my opinion.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Drinking With[in 30 feet of] Bourbon Legends

They did say, "Please."
As soon as I heard about the "extraordinary Meet & Greet with the living legends of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail" at Jack Rose Dining Saloon on February 3, I was determined to attend.

It certainly was an impressive guest list -- for Washington, at least; I suppose in Kentucky events like this are called "Saturday" -- and I did want to meet Jim Rutledge to shake the hand of the man who said, "If you ever see a bottle of Four Roses with cherry flavor, you know I’m retired." And sure, it would be neat to meet Jimmy Russell, and if given the opportunity I'd thank Bill Samuels Jr. on behalf of my brother-in-law, a Maker's Mark devotee.

Except -- well, it's a "Meet & Greet," right? You walk up to a fellow in a bar and say... what? "Thank you for making whiskey?" "What's the variability in pH as a function of warehouse location?" "Do you even own a still yet, you fraud?"

Apparently, what you say is, "Will you please sign my bottle?"

I can understand doing that if you buy a bottle at the distillery, and the Master Distiller happens to be there. But it seems odd to me to bring a bottle I already own to a bar in order to get it signed.

"What do you do with a signed bottle?" my wife asked. I told her I didn't know.

I said the same thing to the woman sitting next to me at the Jack Rose bar, while her boyfriend was waiting to have his bottles signed. She shrugged and said, "You put it on a shelf and look at it."

I answered, "You should drink it, refill it with tea, and then look at it." She thought that sounded sensible.

Is that...can that be... @WhiskeyLibrary1?
All this is special pleading, though, since bringing a book I already own to a bar in order to get it signed makes all the sense in the world to me. I keep books even after I read them, or at least far more often than I keep bottles after I drink them. And I just happen to have a copy of Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend, by Bourbon Hall of Famer Al Young, so I'd at least be able to have a brief conversation with him (and, presumably, Jim Rutledge too).

Unless, you know, I forgot to bring the book in all the commotion of getting home from work and back out the door on a weeknight evening.

But there are worse things than being at the best whiskey bar in the world without talking to the famous people sitting a few feet away from you. In addition to some coffee and an apple and cranberry cobbler -- so now I can't use the "Jack Rose has food?" joke -- I tried five new-to-me bourbons. Here are my notes as I tapped them into my phone:

1. Old Forester Bottled in Bond from the 1990s
Nose: sweet, raisin toast, with time there was a dry floral note
Palate: savory, with some banana bread
Finish: lightly peppered
Overall: Great bourbon, my favorite of the night.
2. Old Heaven Hill 8 yo (43% abv)
Nose: nothing much
Palate: cherry cough syrup, medium mouthfeel
Finish: more cough syrup, plus dry oak
Overall: Not for me, my least favorite of the night.
3. Maker's Mark Cask Strength (Batch 14-01, 56.6% abv)
Palate: roasted, coffee-like
Finish: astringent, then way at the end some vanilla milkshake
Overall: Tight when first poured, opens nicely with a splash of water.
4. Four Roses 125th Anniversary (51.6% abv)
Nose: lemon zest, caramel/burnt sugar; with time, floral notes and cherry juice
Palate: dry, a lot of fruit
Finish: dry, more as a texture than a taste
Overall: Frankly, too fruity for me, but I can believe fans of their fruity yeast would love it.
5. Larceny (46% abv)
Nose: sweet
Palate: very smooth
Finish: fruity
Overall: A pleasant drinker, a good nightcap after more complicated bourbons.

Even without meeting and greeting anyone famous, it was a good night in town. After the great things I'd heard about it, I was surprised by how little I liked the Four Roses 125th Anniversary, though having heard Old Forester BIB is coming back I was delighted by the 1990s version. Maker's Cask Strength needs some wrestling with to figure out the right amount of water. The Old Heaven Hill is not something I'd want to drink again, but if I saw Larceny at a good price when I'm out shopping I'd pick it up.