Whisky Advocate


The Vinturi Spirit Aerator: a little afternoon fun

February 28th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonJohn recently reminded me that I was going to try out the Vinturi Spirit booze aerator we received about six months ago. Well, here I am on another of this winter’s snow days, and it seems like a perfect time to pull it out and have a go at it.

Comes with a base; doesn't come filled with whisky.

Comes with a base; doesn’t come filled with whisky.

First look: it’s clear plastic, but quite weighty. It looks like Magneto’s prison in X-Men 2, which is appropriate, because the button that activates the valve is not connected to the valve: it works by magnetism, so that no metal parts touch the whiskey, and there are no seals to leak whiskey. Unobtrusively cool, that. The Vinturi’s inventor, Rio Sabadicci, says that the “proprietary material” it’s made from is “more inert than glass,” which is either hard to believe…or scary, I thought glass was pretty darned inert.

Anyway, after fiddling with the magnetic button for a while, and rinsing it well with water, it’s time to play. First up was a Balblair 2001, bottled in 2012, uncolored, non-chill filtered, at 46%. Straight up: orange nougat, wet meadow, wildflower honey, dried pear, and a light piney tang, with some cocoa/fudge in the mid-palate; a thin entry that grows in the mouth. Into the Vinturi with it! The only difference I notice is that the pine backs off quite a bit, and the mouthfeel is a bit fuller. So what the heck, I ran it through again. This time the whisky tastes a bit sweeter, the fruit has backed off somewhat, more malt is coming to the fore, and the finish is warming up.


(Click on the video link to hear the odd sound it makes as the Balblair aerates.)

Let’s try something else: Jim Beam Single Barrel. That’s pretty different: 47.5% single barrel bourbon, around 6 years old. Light orange and cinnamon blend with warm caramel and dry oak in the nose, a pleasantly light corn, caramel, and citrus sweetness in the mouth, spiked with more cinnamon and some pepper, drying with oak toward the finish. Whatever: let’s whirlpool it! Erk. Something herbaceous has crept in, stemmy and rank…and then it’s gone. What happened there?! Now it’s like before, with maybe a bit more orange. The flavor, like the Balblair, seems sweeter after the aeration, and similarly, the finish seems hotter. Odd.

I’m not done, though. I have a new craft whiskey I haven’t reviewed yet: Ranger Creek .44 Rye, one of their “Small Caliber Series” of young, small bottle format whiskeys. This is Batch #1, 7 months old, and 47%, “distilled from 100% rye mash.” Very grassy, oily nose, with a floral touch to it. Crackling bitterness up front, followed by a wildly wrenching transition to a big sweet finish; like the .36 bourbon, this is not for the faint of heart, exciting whiskey. Let’s load this wildcat round in the Vinturi and pull the trigger. The nose seems more minty than grassy now, and the mouth is less bitter, the mint comes out, and again, the finish seems hotter. This is more changed than the other two, but the differences are still rather small.

What to make of this? The Vinturi Spirit sells for $20 on Amazon; $30 at stores. I’m sold on the value of aerating red wine, but on aerating whiskey? Not so much. The results of these three experiments make me think of something a brewer once said to me, after suggesting what I might be tasting in his beers. “They’re dog whistle flavors,” he said. “You don’t really hear them, you hear them because I told you they were there.” I’m not sure there’s really any difference in what I’m tasting pre/post-Vinturi, but there’s supposed to be a difference, so I look for one.

I think the Vinturi is like the Whisky Rocks; something a well-meaning friend or relation will buy you as a gift. You’ll play with it a couple times, and then put it away. That’s what I’m going to do. And then I’m going to finish these whiskies and call it a day!

Diageo Announces Restoration Project at Stitzel-Weller Distillery

February 21st, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWe’ve heard that Diageo intended to make the fabled Stitzel-Weller distillery the “home” of Bulleit whiskey. Bulleit’s been a very successful brand, but that’s starting to become a problem, because Bulleit fans who want to go see where it’s made are finding out that there is no Bulleit distillery. It’s a pretty poorly-kept secret that Bulleit bourbon is made at Four Roses; it’s open knowledge that Bulleit rye is made at MGP in Indiana.

But Diageo had a couple options to solve that problem, and this is one of them. Although the only operating American whiskey distillery owned by the world’s largest drinks company is George Dickel in Tennessee, Diageo also owns the Stitzel-Weller distillery, even if the place has been silent since the end of 1991. So the plan became to develop Stitzel-Weller as the Bulleit home.

Wednesday we learned that Diageo would be investing $2 million to renovate the original administrative building at the distillery, “to bring to life the history of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery through artifacts from the site’s archives; a whiskey education section; an homage to the people, land and water of Kentucky; and a celebration of the heritage, brands and people behind Diageo’s award-winning collection of American whiskeys.” That would be Bulleit and what Diageo is calling their “evolving craft whiskey portfolio,” which includes the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project.

S-W MI_Mosaic imageDiageo plans to begin the work immediately, in order to have this first phase finished in time for Derby Day, which is when Stitzel-Weller opened, in 1935. There will be a visitor center and gift shop.

All things being equal, we’d rather see Bulleit get a distillery than a gift shop, but it’s a start. It’s a bit disturbing to hear all this talk about “craft whiskey” coming from the world’s largest drinks company (they referred to this as “another step in our support of and leadership within the American craft whiskey movement”), and we suspect the country’s craft distillers are greeting it with either gloom or hysteria.

But Bulleit has a home, and we’ll be able to walk the grounds of Stitzel-Weller again.

Valentine’s Day: My Dram, Your Dram, Our Dram

February 14th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonToday is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day for flowers, and candy, and cards; romance and quiet dinners, and maybe a nice tot of whisky at the end of the day to put a bit of a glow on things. But when you have a sweetie who doesn’t necessarily love the same whisky that you do, the evening drink can be a time for loving compromise. You might want one thing, they might want another…but you can usually compromise on something that both of you will enjoy.

I asked some of the Whisky Advocate crew how this would play out at their homes, and gave my own likely scenario as an example.

My Dram: Redbreast, because the fruit and the feel is a favorite.

Your Dram: Ardbeg 17, because that’s her bottle (she’s holding out on me, dammit!).

Our Dram: Parker’s Golden Anniversary, because even my peat-freak darling recognizes that this stuff is brilliant.

They got the idea, and here they are, just for fun. What happens at your home?

 

Davin de Kergommeaux

My Dram: Gibson’s 18; something elegant for Valentine’s Day

Your Dram: Black Velvet Toasted Caramel, a creamy sweet dessert whisky.

Our Dram: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, because we discovered it together at a whisky dinner.

 

Sam Komlenic

My Dram: the recently reintroduced Wild Turkey Rye 101, as good as ever.

Your Dram: Maker’s Mark, because she loved the distillery tour.

Our Dram: High West Son of Bourye.  Compromise: the secret to a good relationship (and a happy Valentine’s Day!).

 

valentineIan Buxton

My Dram: a nicely matured old Glenfarclas from the Family Casks series because I love the depth, the richness, the weight (and the price).

Your Dram: a Highland Park 40 year old because Orkney holds many happy memories (and because I’m buying).

Our Dram: a Glengoyne, any Glengoyne, because that’s the distillery we visited on our modest honeymoon, long before we knew the part whisky would play in both our lives! The whisky matters less than the memories for that particular dram.

 

Fred Minnick

My Dram: I’m planning to enjoy some 1970s-era Wild Turkey neat.

Your Dram: I’m fortunate to be married to a woman who loves, and I mean loves, bourbon. When we went to the hospital in December to deliver our first child, Jaclyn was wearing an Old Forester t-shirt. She’s keeping it light, but demands a “proper” whiskey sour, with Buffalo Trace, an egg white, and a dry shake over the rocks.

Our Dram: Booker’s, with a large ice cube. Booker’s doesn’t last long in our house.

 

Terry Sullivan

Valentine’s Day calls for red stuff; roses in most places, blood on the garage floor here in Chicago. So…

My Dram: the very last drops from my bottle of Macallan Gran Reserva, which I’ve been husbanding for years. It’s the reddest thing ever put in a bottle without adding chemicals. You don’t have any, of course, because you don’t husband as well as I do, so you should just get the new 1824 Ruby Macallan.

Your Dram: The Steadfast Monica will go with her usual cocktail, which is as red as South Carolina on election night. Immortalized as The Steadfast some years ago in GQ, it’s a Sazeracish take on an Old Fashioned without the fruit. Here’s how: in a rocks glass, saturate a teaspoon of bar sugar with—yes, really—12 to 15 dashes of Peychaud Bitters and dissolve with a little water. Add a couple of ice cubes and fill with bourbon (usually Evan Williams black or Wild Turkey, because the Steadfast Monica has a soft spot for both Parker Beam and Jimmy Russell) and maybe another splash of water, depending on whether it’s a school night.

Our Dram: don’t tell anyone, but since this February is so cold dogs are exploding in the streets, I plan to pour us both a couple glasses of Phil Pritchard’s cranberry rum. It’s warming and tasty, and I understand it’s quite high in antioxidants.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of us!

Whisky Advocate’s Spring Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

February 11th, 2014

Here’s a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate magazine’s spring 2014 issue Buying Guide. Today we reveal the ten top-rated whiskies. We begin with #10 and conclude with the highest rated whisky in the issue.

BT Extended Stave Drying experiment#10: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Extended Stave Drying Time, 45%, $47/375 ml

Richer and fuller when compared to the Standard Stave Drying Time variant in this Experimental Collection. Sweeter too, with creamy layers of vanilla and caramel. The extended drying time influence tames the dried spice and oak resin and is proof that extended stave aging really benefits older bourbons that might otherwise be dominated by oak. Sadly, with whiskey in such demand, I doubt many bourbon producers will take the time to age the staves longer.—John HansellPM10 BottleShot

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#9: Compass Box Peat Monster 10th Anniversary Limited Edition, 48.9%, $130

Peat Monster is a staple Compass Box blended malt whisky, but this raises the bar significantly. The nose is “as you were”: peat reek, seaside, very Islay. But on the palate John Glaser’s added some peaty Highland whisky—probably a signature Clynelish—to add a hint of licorice, a softer, fruitier smoke base, and through some virgin French oak, a delightful spiciness. Compass Box is in a purple patch. Again.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

35YO_Dec_Box_White_Front2#8: Glengoyne 35 year old, 46.8%, $4,640

Glengoyne 35 year old has been aged in sherry casks and just 500 decanters have been released. The nose offers sweet sherry, maraschino cherries, honey, sponge cake, marzipan, and soft fudge, turning to caramel in time, with a whiff of worn leather. Slick in the mouth, with spicy dried fruit, and more marzipan and cherries. Long in the finish with plain chocolate cherry liqueur; still spicy. Finally a buttery, bourbon-like note. No negative cask connotations in this well-balanced after-dinner dram.—Gavin Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#7: Aberfeldy Single Cask (Cask No. 5) 16 year old, 57.4%, $250

From a sherry cask. Bright and lively. Quite fruity, with notes of golden raisin, pineapple, nectarine, and tangerine. The fruit is balanced by honeyed malt and light caramel. A dusting of vanilla, cinnamon, and hint of cocoa, with black licorice on the finish. Lush and mouth-coating. The best of the Aberfeldy whiskies I’ve tasted to date. (New Hampshire only)—John Hanselltalisker1985

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#6: Talisker 1985, 56.1%, $600

This 27 year old Talisker has been aged in refill American oak casks, and the nose offers brine, wood smoke, wet tarry rope, slightly medicinal, with the emergence of milk chocolate. Big-bodied, with lots of peat accompanied by chili and smoked bacon, with sweeter notes of malt, fudge, and apple. A hint of fabric Elastoplast. Long in the finish, with rock pools, bonfire ash, and sweet, tingling spice notes which carry to the very end. A powerful beast, even by Talisker standards. (3,000 bottles)Gavin Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#5: Signatory (distilled at Laphroaig) 1998, 60.8%, £100

Any sherried Laphroaig is welcome, and this does not disappoint. Rich, resinous, medicinal, with underlying soft fruits, the smoke is all-pervading, but never dominant. In other words, it isn’t just complex and balanced, but has that other dimension which elevates it in mind (and marks). With water, there’s antiseptic cream mingling with oxidized fruits and nuts; think manzanilla pasada. The palate shows storm clouds gathering over Texa. Rich dried fruits, cacao, and a ferny lift on the finish. Fantastic.—Dave BroomLongmorn

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#4: Exclusive Malts (distilled at Longmorn) 28 year old, 51.6%, $250

The nose is fascinating, as if dust is cohering into form, and fruity form at that. When it emerges there’s baked banana, fruitcake, citrus peels, passion fruit, mango, mace flower, and nutmeg. A mossy edge anchors it to earth. Even livelier with water, this is a superbly balanced, mature whisky. The palate is pure, with big retronasal impact of the spice. Layered and long, it’s at its best neat; you need the intensity to amplify all the complexity. Superb.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

Bowmore 50 year old#3: Bowmore 50 year old (distilled 1961), 40.7%, £16,000

The whisky is sensational, a glorious mix of ginseng syrup, baked banana, semi-dried tropical fruits, and an exotic smoked edge. Without the last, you could believe it was a delicate Cognac. In time, there’s peppermint and guava syrup. A sip is all you need to reveal perfect, thrilling harmony: light nuttiness, pollen, subtle fruits, gentle smoke, and light fungal touches. It’s stunning, but it’s £16,000! Whisky this great, even in limited quantities, should be fairly priced. Points off.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 95Brora_35yo_2013_LowRes

#2: Brora 35 year old, 49.9%, $750

Maturation of this 1978 distillate has taken place in European oak and refill American oak casks. Fresh and fruity on the early, herbal nose; a hint of wax, plus brine, developing walnut fudge, and an underlying wisp of smoke. Finally, wood resin. The palate is very fruity, with mixed spices, then plain chocolate, damp undergrowth, gentle peat smoke, and finally coal. Mildly medicinal. Ashy peat and aniseed linger in the long, slowly drying finish. Brora at its very best. (2,944 bottles)Gavin Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 95

General-Dieline

#1: Compass Box The General, 53.4%, $325

With a name inspired by a 1926 Buster Keaton movie, only 1,698 bottles produced, and the news that one of the two batches is more than 30 years old, the clues were there that this blend was never going to be cheap. It isn’t, but it’s superb, rich in flavor that screams dusty old oak office, fresh polish, and Sunday church, with spices, oak dried fruits, squiggly raisins, and a surprising melting fruit-and-nut dairy chocolate back story.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 96

Billy Walker of BenRiach Distillery — in 140 or Less

February 7th, 2014

Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from the CEO of BenRiach Distillery.

Author - Caroline DewarWhat’s the view from your window at HQ?

Edinburgh airport. Unfortunately, I don’t just get to see the planes – I hear them too.

But I understand you’re up at The Glendronach today…

Yes, it’s looking fantastic. Weather staggeringly good for the time of year.

You’re originally a chemistry graduate. Did you choose the whisky industry or fall into it?

I chose it, but a bit of inevitability, coming from Dumbarton, home of J&B and Ballantine’s blending and bottling.

What’s been your career path?

Pharmaceutical research; Ballantine’s; Beecham’s; Inver House; then Burn Stewart: bought that out and after 20 years bought BenRiach.

BenRiach ‘04, GlenDronach ‘08, Glenglassaugh ‘13. All Highland/Speyside. Ambitions for more, other regions, new build?

Not new build. If something came up adding balance to the business, we’d consider. Hard at present as many from outside interested in a hot industry and raising prices.

BenRiach: 6 ranges, quite comprehensive. Any more to come? New finishes maybe?benriachMDBillyWalker

No…might be a bit of rationalization.

What of the distillations since you bought it? It’s been 10 years now.

We’ll definitely do something to recognize the 10 year milestone.

You found peated stock on buying it. How much of a boon was that?

Quite a lot. It let us do something not done before on Speyside. Those creative enough to do it years ago were revolutionary. It’s a different style from the islands too.

The GlenDronach – a pity the previous owners removed the coal-firing of stills?

Oh, sure, but they were made to do so by Health & Safety people. But we do get a more even heat distribution with indirect firing – and it hasn’t impacted on quality at all.

You’re doing great things with it. A smaller range than BenRiach – so far.

A more traditional range.  It was very visible for years then marginalized for 10 years to ‘08. It has an uncluttered footprint with the sherry, just us and Glenfarclas.

I loved the 1968 years ago. Has your bottling sold out?

Not yet but it will soon. We have a few more casks of it and the strength is holding up well. Good news!

Future plans there?

Emphasis on brand build. Infrastructure / cosmetic changes, we’ve done those. The location makes it look good. We replaced old wooden washbacks with new ones.

Glenglassaugh: your new baby. What’s happening?

We found the distillery ran very well. We’ve done up the dunnage warehouse, mended roads, landscaped, converted maltings to warehousing.

Is there a stocks gap, and how are you dealing with that?

Now running at full capacity. It’s a long play. We’ll feed out vintage stock and continue Evolution and Revival. A 20 year gap but due to vintages we can get a good income.

Still bottling on site?

No. Need a good sheet filter or whisky loses brightness. No chill filtering but still need brightness. We bottle existing Octave casks too, but we don’t sell any more.

Anything more?

More to come. One will be a blend to commemorate the distillery’s founder, Colonel James Moir, with Glenglassaugh as the base.

Will we see big range development here too?

No, we’ll take time to allow brand’s personality to develop. We’ll see where the journey takes us.

Your brands are at a lot of whisky festivals. Do you speak at them yourself?

I’ve done some and enjoy it. Might do 1 or 2 this year but I don’t enjoy the traveling so much now.

I’m told your interests are football and cricket. Any particular football team?

I’m a Rangers supporter, so there’s a question over whether I’m still a supporter or not!

[For non-UK readers, Rangers was one of Scotland’s top clubs but was demoted a few leagues after some financial scandals. Now having to win their way back up.]

Cricket: might seem odd for a Scotsman but my Dad loves it too. How did that come about?

School, our physical education teacher was an enthusiast. It was part of the sport curriculum and I liked it.

So are your key markets linked to countries with cricketing prowess?!

No, but we’re in South Africa and Australia, and SA is key! UK is important too, as are Europe, North America, and Taiwan. No one place dominates.

Are you still intent on not selling via supermarkets and large chains?

Yes. We support private, independent retailers. They support us and have done for a long time.

What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of others!

Either BenRiach Authenticus or The GlenDronach 18 year old. If not possible, I’d be comfortable with a vintage Caol Ila, north of 20 years old.

And we’re done – thank you.

DISCUS Briefing Confirms Surging Growth of American Whiskey

February 6th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonAt the annual Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) industry review on Tuesday, February 4, the usual graphs and numbers on domestic sales of distilled spirits and export sales of American spirits were presented, and they told a great story about American whiskey producers. American whiskey is solidly on its way back, after thirty years of steeply declining sales. (see graphs 1 and 2). I started writing about whiskey in the mid-1990s, and much of what there was to write about back then was how the decline in whiskey sales was slowing down (I referred to it as “the glide path” to emphasize that it was a gradual decline, but I must have forgotten that glide paths always end on the ground!), and optimistically noting that there were some small niches in the overall category that were showing growth: single malt Scotch whisky, and small batch bourbon. Everything else was dropping.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Now things have turned around, and the DISCUS numbers were rosy indeed, especially in the export market for American whiskey. Exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion for the first time, and represented 2/3 of total U.S. spirits exports. The top six markets for export growth (by dollar sales) were Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Panama, while Canada remained the single largest export market by far. DISCUS attributed this export growth to economic recovery, a recognition of American quality, a drop in tariff barriers in key markets, and a continuing strong interest in classic cocktails. They also noted the Department of Agriculture’s promotion of American spirits overseas.

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Here at home, total spirits sales were up 4.4%, to $22.2 billion, and a lot of that stemmed from the growth in sales in the “High End” and “Super Premium” categories, the most
expensive bottles. It was noted that whiskey provides substantially higher revenues per standard 9-liter case (an average of $133, compared to $85 for vodka), and the whiskey category’s growth of 6.2%. In volume, total spirits cases sold were up 3.9 million cases, and whiskey’s 3.1 million case increase was 80% of that growth. It’s not all American whiskey, either. While total whiskey volume was up 6.2%, Irish was up 17.5%, “Blended” (which includes flavored whiskey; more on that shortly) was up 14.3%, single malt scotch up 11.6%, bourbon/Tennessee/rye was up 6.8%, Canadian up 2.9%, and blended Scotch whisky was up 2.0%.

Flavored whiskey continued to grow strongly, with 1.4 million additional cases sold, accounting for 45% of the total whiskey category growth. Straight whiskeys, however, accounted for 80% of the revenue growth, so you can bet that the distillers won’t abandon them in a rush to flavors. There was talk of how distillers are being cautious about introducing the rainbow of flavors that has typified vodka sales, and open speculation over whether vodka has gone too far with flavors, jumped the shark; it seems doubtful to me that the bottom of that well has yet been plumbed, but whiskey is going to be a different case. Don’t expect birthday cake bourbon anytime soon.

Where is all this growth coming from? It appears that a good chunk of it is coming from the decline in sales of beer, particularly traditional major brands. The folks from DISCUS saw this as a triumph of their focus on increasing accessibility (by encouraging Sunday sales where restricted and urging modernization of control state systems) and encouraging cultural acceptance of spirits. As spirits become easier to buy, as people don’t have to make a special trip out of their way to buy them, people are choosing them more often than they have in the past. But a lot of it, clearly, is coming from the increased appreciation for whiskey, and the increased innovation and choice presented by whiskey makers, both from the traditional regions and from the increasing number of craft distillers.

You can see the full report at the DISCUS website here.

Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project

January 29th, 2014

John HansellBack in late November, the whiskey media received news from Diageo of the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project, a new series of old and rare limited-edition whiskeys from their warehouses. It’s something we’ve seen from Diageo before, but these are American whiskeys, not Scotch or Irish.

Many of you are aware that Diageo owns and operates the George Dickel distillery in Tennessee. They do not, however, own an operating bourbon distillery.  They own the Bulleit brand, but it’s an open secret that Bulleit bourbon has been produced at the Four Roses distillery in Kentucky; Bulleit Rye is sourced from MGP in Indiana.

Old Blowhard Lo ResBut Diageo does own the Stitzel-Weller distillery (mothballed around 1992), where they have stocks of bourbon aging, some distilled at Stitzel-Weller and some from other distilleries. They also once owned the existing Bernheim distillery (from around 1992 to 1999, when they sold it to Heaven Hill) and a different, older Bernheim distillery (theirs into the late 1980s).

So, in theory, future Orphan Barrel whiskey releases could be sourced from a number of operating and mothballed/demolished distilleries, including Stitzel-Weller, Bernheim (current and older), Dickel, Four Roses, MGP, or their Gimli, Manitoba distillery where Crown Royal is produced. There might even be some additional sources that I have omitted, but for the sake of (relative) brevity, let’s leave it at that.

The first three releases, all bourbons, are about to hit the shelves. The press release states that they were bottled at the Dickel distillery, but they weren’t made there. These won’t be the only three releases; at least, this is Diageo’s thinking at present. The two that were mentioned in the November release (Barterhouse and Old Blowhard) are being released first. A third one, tentatively called Rhetoric, will follow on a month or two later. These bourbons will only be sold in the U.S.

I recently had the opportunity to taste all three (along with another separate new Diageo bourbon release called Blade & Bow). All three Orphan Barrel bourbons have identical mashbills: 86% corn, 6% rye, and 8% barley. Whiskey geeks reading this will identify this as the formula from whiskey made at the Bernheim distilleries.

The youngest of the three is Rhetoric, clocking in at 19 years, followed by Barterhouse at 20 years and Old Blowhard at 26. If you do the math, you will discover that Old Blowhard was actually produced at the old Bernheim distillery. This is from the last remaining stocks. There will be no more Old Blowhard releases, according to Diageo. The suggested retail price of $150 is great when compared to other older bourbons and ryes these days—especially from mothballed and demolished distilleries. (Think Pappy Van Winkle and Stitzel-Weller.)Barterhouse Bottle Lo Res

Barterhouse is from the existing Bernheim distillery. My sources at Diageo say there might be another batch release of Barterhouse, and perhaps Rhetoric, down the road. Barterhouse, at a suggested retail price of $75, is also very attractively priced, considering its age.

But how do they taste? My informal tasting notes are below. Because they are informal, and not official Whisky Advocate reviews, I have not assigned a rating to them yet. This will come at a later date and eventually be published in the magazine.

There’s a sliding scale in flavor profile, with the Barterhouse being the sweetest of the three, Old Blowhard brandishing the most dry oak influence, and Rhetoric somewhere in the middle. I list them in that order, not by age.

Barterhouse 20 year old, 45.1%, $75

Surprisingly lacking in oak intensity, given its age. Very creamy and soothingly sweet, with notes of honeyed vanilla, crème brûlée, sultana, orange creamsicle, peach cobbler, and a subtle array of tropical fruit. Soft and mellow on the finish. It’s very easy-drinking and should be enjoyable under most moods and circumstances. Very nice indeed!

“Rhetoric” 19 year old, 45%, $TBD

Situated between Barterhouse and Old Blowhard in oak influence (and flavor profile in general). Firm spice, botanicals, and dried fruit delivered on a bed of caramel. There’s a kiss of honey to marry with the resinous oak grip, with polished leather and a hint of tobacco on the finish. This whiskey does indeed show its age with the oak presence (much more than Barterhouse), but the sweet notes make a valiant effort to keep the wood influence in check.

Old Blowhard 26 year old, 45.35%, $150

Old Blowhard indeed. The most intense of the three Orphan Barrel releases.  Very robust, with leather, tobacco, and roasted nuts. Quite spicy and resinous too. There’s toffee, maple syrup, and caramel struggling to sooth all this robustness, but the oak maintains the upper hand, I’m afraid.  A digestif, perhaps, after a large meal? Unless you are purchasing for a piece of bourbon history, my advice would be to try it before you buy, as it is very woody.

I did not take notes on the new Blade & Bow offering, but this is a younger, more standard offering that will be a regular stock item, bottled at 45% and sold for around $40. I did not ask the source.

In summary, my favorite of the three Orphan Barrel releases is Barterhouse. It’s very versatile, and the price is right for a 20 year old bourbon. Having said this, you may prefer Rhetoric when it comes out if you like more oak in your bourbon. It was my wife’s favorite. Old Blowhard is the rarest of the bunch, but whether you like it or not will largely depend on your oak tolerance. It’s my least favorite of the three, quite woody, and the most expensive.

Gin Meets Whisky (in a barrel)

January 27th, 2014

We welcome Geoff Kleinman, editor of the DrinkSpirits website, as a guest blogger on the subject of aged gin…which can be tantalizingly close to whisky.

Author_Geoff KleinmanAged Gin isn’t a new spirit category, but it’s a category that has been getting an increasing amount of attention. Craft distillers have embraced aged gin as another vehicle for creative expression and as an aged product that can be sold during the long waiting game that’s required for aged whisky. The problem with the category is that, at times, it tends to blur the lines between gin and whiskey, with one product, Pow-Wow Botanical Rye, completely obliterating the lines.

“Early American gin (up through the 1860s) was made in the flavored-whiskey style, and it was often barrel aged. Later, once (neutral-spirit based) English styles took root, that, too, was often aged, but much more lightly,” explains David Wondrich, spirits historian and author of Imbibe!.

One of the first contemporary entries in the aged gin space came from Ransom Spirits, in Sheridan, Oregon. With Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, distiller Tad Seestedt helped resurrect a “lost” style of gin and in the process helped kick off a new wave of the aged gin category. “The idea was initially to replicate the short amount of time that the gin would have historically spent in barrel during transport over land or sea to its final destination. We also realized afterwards that the barrel aging had an obviously pleasant effect on the gin,” says Tad Seestedt.

agedginRansom’s Old Tom Gin soon became a darling of the craft spirit world, and it opened the door for more craft spirit companies to follow in the aged gin space. “One of the most challenging aspects of “craft distilling” is that the big boys make outstanding products – aging gin allows me a chance to not only be creative but create products that the big boys fhave to play catch up, like with Beefeater’s Burroughs Reserve,” says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller of FEW Spirits.

Many craft distillers don’t have the ability to truly rectify spirits and scoff at using neutral grain spirits for their products. The result can be a malty botanical spirit with similar characteristics to a young whiskey. “The primary difference, besides the addition of the botanicals to the spirit, is the distillation proof of the base spirit. As you know, whiskey is distilled to a much lower proof off the still, so there are fusels and other congeners in the whiskey distillate that aren’t there in the base of the gin distillate,” remarks John Little, head distiller of Smooth Ambler Spirits.

Seeing this intersection between aged gin and aged whiskey, Amir Peay, CEO and founder at Georgetown Trading Co., created Pow-Wow Botanical Rye. “We took a fine, mature whiskey and then infused it with whole botanicals over an extended period of time. My idea of a good whiskey is one that is complex and balanced, and I wanted to see if we could take a great whiskey and add new layers of botanical complexity that worked in concert with the existing flavors.”

The dividing line between a botanical flavored whiskey and an aged gin may be murky, but it’s there. “Aged London dry style gin, or any gin that’s based on neutral spirits, is not aged whiskey, it’s aged vodka. If you make your gin with an unrectified grain spirit that’s been distilled to a relatively low proof, as the Dutch do with their moutwijn, then it’s a flavored whiskey,” explains David Wondrich.

While aged gin is predominantly seen among craft distillers, this year Pernod Ricard got into the space with their limited Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve “Barrel Finished Gin.”

“Aged or rested gin opens up another drinking occasion for gin. Most people wouldn’t think to sit and enjoy a glass of neat gin with a cheese plate after dinner, but with Burrough’s Reserve on the market now we can,” says Nick van Tiel, Pernod Ricard’s English gins brand ambassador.

Whether or not whiskey drinkers will embrace the aged gin category remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a category that deserves exploration. Paul Hletko best sums it up: “It is a wide open place, and much of what we do is education on what ‘brown gin’ is and why it’s brown.  But the opportunity to be creative is worth it.”

But Is It Malt Whisky?

January 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhat is malt whisky? Pretty simple question; almost stupidly simple. It’s whisky made from malt. If you put anything else in besides malt, it’s not malt whisky. That’s why single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky doesn’t have a “mashbill.” It’s 100% MALT. Just malt.

Barley

Barley

Well, then, what’s malt? We use the term generally to refer to malted barley: barley that has been wetted (“steeped”), allowed to germinate while being turned, and then kilned to drive off the moisture and kill the sprout (before it eats anymore of those valuable starches that will become the water of life).

But other grains are malted as well: rye and wheat, mostly, but other grains like oats and triticale can be malted, even corn. The Scotch Whisky Regulations wisely specify that barley malt must be used to make single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky, but the U.S. Standards of Identity have a few more loopholes for other malts. They note that “malt whisky” must be 51% malted barley and “rye malt whisky” must be 51% malted rye grain…but they don’t specify what the other grains must be. There’s also that odd little catchall phrase that they tuck in there: “…and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.”

I’m thinking that a whisky made from a mashbill of 51% barley malt, 35% rye malt, and 14% wheat malt would qualify to be labeled as “malt whisky” in the U.S., and that it could further have a fanciful name like “All Your Malts Are Belong To Us!” or “Malts-a-Million,” or simply “Malts Whiskey.”

If you’re wondering what got me thinking about this, it was a sample that came in for review from Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Colorado, their Tenderfoot Whiskey. They’re calling it ‘our single-malt whiskey,” and it’s made with 77% barley malt, 10% wheat malt, and 13% rye malt. I guess it’s “single-malt” in that it’s all made at their distillery; me, I’d call it a “single-triple malt.”

320px-Ear_of_rye

Rye

It just makes me think. The Scotch Whisky Regulations were updated in 2009, and made some substantial changes. There have been no changes to the Standards of Identity in almost 20 years, nothing at all since the explosion of whiskey experimentation that has been taking place at distilleries big and small. We still don’t have good definitions to cover the unaged “white” whiskey (or the aged and filtered stuff, like White Owl and Jacob’s Ghost), the multiplicity of grains, and experimentation with wood.

So should the Standards of Identity tighten up, with sharper definitions designed to let consumers know more exactly what they’re getting? Should they stop insisting on new charred oak barrels for everything (everything with prestige, that is)? Should they have an outright “Experimental Whisky” category? While we’re at it, should they recognize that this is America, and start using the “whiskey” spelling in the regs?! There is increasing interest in changing the Standards of Identity: who gets to write those changes?

It’s Friday; have at it.

 

Barley image: © Lucash / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Rye image: © LSDSL / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Finnish whisky (not a whisky finish)

January 23rd, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonOne of the very great pleasures associated with this ‘job’ of mine is finding new whiskies—good ones—in some very unexpected places, made by interesting and engaging people. But I would never have expected to find an exciting new distillery in a small provincial town in the east of Finland. As it turned out, “new” was a misnomer because the fine folk at Teerenpeli have been making their whisky since 2003. Only now they are ready to share it with us.

With a logo that looks suspiciously like a grouse, production that they freely admit was inspired by Highland Park, stills built by Forsyths, and the plant commissioned with the help of William Meikle (formerly manager at Glen Ord) you might expect to find Teerenpeli in a Scottish glen somewhere.

But no, it’s in the basement of a restaurant on the main street of Lahti, a quiet city of around 100,000 some 60 miles north-east of Helsinki. A pleasant train ride of about an hour will get you there from Finland’s capital, and it’s well worth making the trip.

Owner Anssi Pyysing began by brewing beer in a micro-brewery in 1995 but has long been interested in whisky. First he imported casks of it from Scotland, which were finished in Finland and then bottled. Demand and interest grew and in 2002 he took the first steps to creating the distillery, one of the very first micro plants constructed by Forsyths of Rothes.

052038_MG_4672On a trip to Scotland he had met William Meikle, who encouraged him to believe that distilling was not only possible but could be done well. By 2003, Teerenpeli was in production. But they didn’t tell anyone except a few locals, and the very small quantities of whisky they sold and bottled were in effect test products, only available in Pyysing’s restaurants and a bar he owns in Lahti. So, outside of a very small group, no one knew.

The plant is relatively straightforward. A mash tun of 350 kilos capacity feeds a single pair of stills with the wash still holding 1,500 liters and the spirit still a modest 900 liters per charge. At full capacity, Teerenpeli could theoretically produce around 15,000 liters of spirit annually. Fortunately for the distillery, Lahti is a major center for malting and from the start the distillery has used locally-sourced Finnish malt, currently peated to a modest 7 ppm of phenols.

Early output was modest and, as befits a patient and painstaking self-made man, Pyysing was in no hurry to release the spirit before he was entirely happy that it was ready. After all, as he says, though they “needed something warming in the winter” his goal was to produce a whisky that was “inspired by Highland Park but with a taste of its own: truly Finnish whisky.”

2013 saw the release of Kaski, a 6 year old expression which has been exclusively matured in specially-coopered small sherry casks. There are also plans to experiment with some more heavily peated malt to achieve smokier notes in the whisky. Limited quantities of a delicious 8 year old are also available.

I’m told that Teerenpeli means “flirtation” or “dalliance” in English. Well, there is nothing flirtatious about this whisky: it is serious, well-made, and an inspiration to other craft distillers.063070_MG_4517

In fact, significant expansion is now underway. Pyysing’s brewery business continues to prosper and the brewery is being enlarged. That will make available space to install a new still room within the brewing complex, increasing spirit production tenfold to around 150,000 liters annually. The original distillery in the restaurant will continue to produce and the new stills at the brewery will be modeled as exact copies of the originals. The order for equipment has been placed and, before long, the stills will start to take shape at Forsyths.

The expansion means that Teerenpeli will start to look at expanding its international marketing efforts over the new few years, looking for distributors in Russia, a number of European markets, and possibly the U.S. A U.S. launch might even begin in Upper Michigan, where a good number of inhabitants can trace Finnish ancestry; plans remain to be decided. It will always be a premium, niche product but, because of Pyysing’s patience and long-term view, I feel sure that the quality will be maintained.

Highland Park may have been the inspiration but this pioneering Nordic spirit is rapidly making its own way and, once better known, seems set fair to occupy a distinguished place in world distilling. Enthusiasts will have to make room for another distilling country, but one which can hold its head up in distinguished company.

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