Monday, October 26, 2015

The Evolution of Kilchoman

Saturday morning over coffee, I learned about the Evolution of Kilchoman event, celebrating the distillery's tenth anniversary, at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC, on Sunday. Jack Rose's Scotch master Harvey Fry said they'd have more than 40 expressions available.

As it happened, I'd never tried any Kilchoman, though I had heard a lot of great things about this young Islay distillery that has mastered young Islay whiskeys. One of my few, brief conversations with Harvey Fry happened to be about Kilchoman; he told be he'd been an early champion, and he told me the "c" is silent. (The "h" is not; it's pronounced kil-HO-man.) If I were to go to a Kilchoman party, I'd want it curated by Harvey.

I bought a ticket. The advertised deal was $45 for "13 1/4 oz pours (including but not limited to the 10th Anniversary and Inaugural Release) beer, wine and light hors d’ouevres," from 4 to 6 pm on the terrace bar. I wasn't sure what the point of the beer and wine was -- 3.25 ounces of Scotch in two hours doesn't leave me feeling parched -- but I didn't figure it would interfere.

I drove in from the provinces and found a parking space half a block away a few minutes before 4 (the luck all the better since the parking garage I'd been hoping to use is now a hole in the ground).

We were greeted at the terrace bar's door with tasting tickets and a Glencairn glass of new make right off the still. The new make was tasty in its own right; if this is their starting point, no wonder they don't need to wait ten or twelve years until their Scotch is ready.

The expressions available for tasting were divided into three groups:
1. Annual Releases
Annual Release Table.

Machir Bay (2011, 2014, 2015)
Loch Gorm (2007/2012, 2009/2013, 2010/2015)
100% Islay (3rd, 4th, 5th Editions)

2. Vintages
Inaugural Release
2007 Vintage
Spring 2011 Release
Islay Pipe Band 2015 Release PX Finish

3. Single Casks
CV Sherry Cask
CV Bourbon Cask
K&L 100% Islay (2009)
K&L (2008)

We were given four tickets to each group, each ticket good for a carefully measured quarter ounce pour. Since I'd never had any Kilchoman, I went for twelve different expressions, but if you knew what you liked you could turn in four tickets and get a full ounce pour of one expression.

There were a few welcoming remarks from the Impex Beverages rep, from Harvey Fry, and from James Wills, the son of founder and managing director Anthony Wills. All agreed that, as far as anyone knew, the terrace bar was the site of the largest collection of Kilchoman expressions in the world. (Another twenty expressions were available for purchase after 6 pm.)
James Wills, left, talks about the family business.

There were two interruptions during the event. The first was to distribute a taste of Kilchoman Feis Ile 2015, the second to distribute a taste of Kilchoman 10th Anniversary and sing "Happy Birthday" to the distillery. (Yes, of course there was cake; how else do you get people to sing "Happy Birthday"?)

My tasting notes, such as they are, with my favorites underlined:
  • New make: 70%; strong malt flavor, actually a good drink, though nose is just spirit (& corn?)
  • Inaugural release: smoky, sweet, simple. Tasty.
  • Machir Bay 2015: very light
  • K&L 100% Islay: Spicy iodine
  • 2007 vintage: sour (comparatively), sort of a vodka/grain spirit feel (not rough/new make)
  • Loch Gorm 2007/2012: sweet & rich, good hit of peat. Yum. Caramel? Cinnamon?
  • 2015 Feis Ile: nicely complex, bourbon fruit & malt spirit
  • CV Bourbon Cask: Most Speysidey/"Scotch" tasting/nosing so far. Good, not sure it shows as Kilchoman
  • Spring 2011: sweet, gentle, peaty. That's good stuff.
  • Loch Gorm 2010/2015: iodine on the nose, a sweet peaty spicy palate. This is why I like scotch.
  • CV Sherry: Wow. Crazy set of baking spices.
  • 10th anniversary: Elegant, maybe not quite Kilchomany? More of an iodine bite, missing the sweetness
  • 100% Islay 5th ed: lots going on. Not sweet, but peat & iodine are there
  • K&L 2008: delicious, sweet, yum
  • Islay Pipe Band 2015 Release PX Finish: last ticket cashed with 10 minutes to spare. Time for cake! A fun, prickly (CS) dram.

Not a stinker, or a too-young, in the bunch. The Machir Bay 2015 was as close as I got to disappointment. I'd heard great things about Machir Bay, and for whatever reason this didn't make an impression on me.
And then some.

I was impressed by the plan of the event. A quarter ounce every ten minutes gives you a good two-hour survey of a distillery's expressions, and if you're smart enough to not have to drive home any time soon you can always stick around to explore further or revisit a favorite. And, as always, the Jack Rose staff took great care of us.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Get whiskey quick

A few weeks ago, Chuck Cowdery blogged about yet another get whiskey quick scheme. He concludes:
Until you can make something that tastes better than Evan Williams and sells for less than $15 a bottle, you have nothing. You're just wasting your time and ours.
This sounds like a reasonable test, if you're selling a process for creating a spirit that competes directly with straight bourbon whiskey. If your process can't match the quality and price of Evan Williams Black, then your process doesn't do what you say it does.

Granted, two guys with a dream and some fancy equipment in a bay of a light manufacturing park may not themselves be able to scale costs per proof gallon to hit the $15 price point, but it would have to be possible at least in principle.

On the other hand, you may not be selling a process to investors. You could be selling a product to consumers. In which case, look! Patented techniques! Space! Oceans! Grandpaw's secret recipe!

A while back, I came up with my own test for buying a bottle of some craft whiskey:
Why am I buying this instead of Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond?
If I don't have a good answer, I'm not supposed to buy it.

Of course, some days, "Because I don't already have a bottle of this," counts as a good answer. "Because I'm standing in the distillery salesroom," will probably always be a good answer.

Increasingly, though, "Because I've never tried it and it's less than fifty dollars," doesn't cut it. And I think I'm past the days of, "Because I'm investing in these two guys with a dream, with my return being much better whiskey in a few years." (A corollary: I don't think I'll be buying many more $40+ bottles of craft vodka.) When a brand new distillery pre-sells out of their first MGP bourbon run at $92 a bottle... well, that market doesn't need me and I don't need it.
The OGD standard.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Time for a new hobby?

In the grocery store yesterday, I noticed an off-brand of pancake syrup. I checked the bottle. It said, "Produced in Cincinnati, Ohio."

"Ah," I thought, "but where was it made?"

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Showing your age

A brief taxonomy on age statements for whiskey:

Age: The length of time whiskey spends in a barrel. Once bottled, whiskey doesn't age further (chemical reactions that affect taste do continue at a very slow rate, accelerated in the presence of light, but aren't counted as aging.)

Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle of the age of the whiskey in the bottle. Expressed in years, except for some young American whiskeys that state their age in months. When the whiskey is a blend of whiskeys of different ages, the age statement is the age of the youngest whiskey. Age statements are typically found on bottles of whiskey that are aged significantly longer than the law requires (e.g., 10 years and up for single malt Scotch, 6 or 8 years and up for bourbon)..

No Age Statement (NAS): Describes a bottle of whiskey that does not have an age statement. This term is most commonly applied to single malt Scotch, which traditionally included an age statement, and to expressions that formerly had an age statement.

New Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle of the universal harmonics achievable with the whiskey in the bottle, if you're open to it.

Old Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle that the whiskey in the bottle isn't nearly as good as it used to be.

Middle Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle that the whiskey in the bottle should be consumed in moderation, especially in the vicinity of wedding reception dance floors, karaoke machines, and cell phone cameras, because geez, Dad.

Middle Ages Statement: A declaration on the bottle that's in Latin, I guess, probably something about bringing it out when the abbot has a cough.

Stone Age Statement: Dark water good. No hunt tomorrow morning.

Underage Statement: A declaration on the bottle that, if you're going to sneak something from the liquor cabinet, sneak this, leave the good stuff alone -- and do not replace what you take with water, that's just going to ruin it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lies my whiskey told me about stealing someone's legacy

So you want to be a rectifier, but don't want to go to all the trouble of waiting for your grandchildren to be able to represent yourself as having been in business for generations.

Then check out a site like's trademark database (or the less-subtle Poke around until you find a sexy sounding trademark with a status like
710 - Cancelled - Section 8
900 - Expired
Then search for that trademark again, in case some other freeloader has beaten you to it.

Hard to believe "the whiskey without regrets"
is yours for the asking.
You may find a gem like "Pa Wilken's Special Straight Bourbon Whiskey" just sitting there for you to appropriate. Are you really going to rest easy tonight now that you know this once-great nation has left "Mello Age" to lie mouldering in the grave?

If that's not enough to call your rich college buddy about starting up an NDP, I have two words for you;

Fan Dango.

So nice they canceled it twice.

Don't tell anyone, but I've got my eye on Old Pimlico. Maybe with a horse on the label. Who could object?

If you need some suggestions for defunct whiskey brands, you could do worse than tour the MiniVodkaGuy website.

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.