Whisky Advocate

What I drank on my 50th birthday. And why.

June 9th, 2010

Well, it was actually my 50th birthday–plus one day. My birthday was this past Monday, June 7th, but I didn’t celebrate until yesterday due to a nasty stomach virus on Monday. I waited 50 years. I figured I could wait one more.

Here’s the line-up. (In order of consumption, left to right, in the picture on the left. Click on the picture to get a larger view.) These were enjoyed over several hours during the evening with friends. I’ll tell you a little bit about what I drank, why I drank them, and how they tasted.

Framboise Boon Lambic (1986 Vintage)

I love Belgian beer and have been to Belgium several times touring their breweries. (I was a beer writer long before I became a whisky writer.) This was our aperitif beer, and what we enjoyed with our cranberry walnut salad. For those of you not familiar with lambic beers, they are spontaneously fermented beers, a Belgian specialty, aged in barrels, often with fruit added (in this case raspberries), traditionally bottled in champagne bottles and corked, and age very well. This one is one of my favorites. I purchased a case when they were brought into the U.S. back in the 1990s. It’s my last bottle, and it was still stunning. It has softened over the years (yes, you read correctly–it’s a 1986 vintage), and the raspberry influence has calmed down, but the balance of flavors and complexity were still there. Belgium’s answer to the finest champagne.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild (2001 Vintage)

Rather than going with the legendary 2000 vintage (which is still too young to drink for this First Growth Bordeaux) I opted for the excellent, yet more approachable, 2001 vintage. And it did not disappoint. After two hours of decanting and breathing, this gem of a wine was bold, yet complex, with great structure, solid tannins, and held up well with the amazing meat loaf (this was not your mother’s meat loaf, mind you), chipotle corn salad, grilled vegetables, and twice baked potato.

Chateau Rieussec Sauternes (2001 Vintage)

I would pay just to smell this outstanding dessert wine. It’s from the classic 2001 vintage, and I understand why the Wine Spectator rated this a perfect 100. Even my wife Amy enjoyed it, and she doesn’t like dessert wines. Sweet? Yes! But very elegant and floral, with complex fruit and just enough acidity to cut through the sweetness. We enjoyed it on its own, and then along with a variety of desserts (creme brulee, Key Lime cheese cake, and Belgian chocolate) just to see how they interacted with the wine. I decided that this lovely Sauternes was just perfect on its own, and needed no accompaniment.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey (18 years old, 46.5%)

This is a whiskey blog, so I better start talking about whiskey.

And yes, this is not a typo on the age statement. For those of you who thought the legendary A. H. Hirsch (a.k.a. Michter’s) bourbon was only sold at 16 and 20 years old, think again. I purchased this rarity at Park Avenue Liquor in NYC back in the early 1990s. There appears to be a label behind the label that’s showing. From what I remember, I believe Herb Lapchin (who used the be the whiskey guy there at the time) told me that the whiskey was originally labeled as a 17 year old, but by the time the whiskey was finally bottled, it was past its 18th birthday so they slapped an 18 year old label over the original label. That’s what I remember, but I can’t say it is 100% accurate. Maybe someone from Park Ave can chime in here?

This whiskey is mellow, soft, and sweet with plenty of molasses and maple syrup to go around. A soothing whiskey, and very much a digestif. I have bottles of the 16 and 20, but none open right now. Eventually, I would like to compare this 18 year old to its two siblings.

(A side note: the cork fell apart when I opened it. I had to decant it, take out all the cork pieces, and re-cork it with a new cork. Some advice to the newbies here: save some of the corks from the bottles you empty. You might need them down the road.)

Longrow, 19 year old, 46%

We left the dining room and retired to a glowing campfire out back. The sun had just set, the wood thrushes were finishing their songs for the evening, and the stars were beginning to shine brightly.

I purchased this classic peated Springbank back in the early to mid 1990s at Sam’s Wine’s & Spirits in Chicago, from the legendary “Joe C.” (Rest in peace, my good friend. You will never be forgotten.)

Yes, this was a last minute change. You will recall I was contemplating drinking a 1973 vintage Longrow, which didn’t have an age statement. Well, I eventually opted for this one. This one is the opposite of the 1973 vintage. It’s a 19 year old, but there’s no vintage statement. (I’m not sure why some of the whiskies from the legendary 1973 and 1974 vintage Longrow, had age statements but not vintage declaration, why some had the vintage declaration but no age statement, and why some had both. Perhaps someone from Springbank is lurking out there and can answer this question?)

Regardless, I was completely blown away by this whisky. A complete stunner, and my favorite drink of the evening! Complex, dynamic, bursting with peat-infused brine. This is why I fell in love with Springbank’s whiskies, and why I fell in love with the peated Longrow. Indeed, this is why I fell in love with whisky! ‘Nuff said.

Thomas Hardy’s Ale, 150th Anniversary Edition (1987 Vintage)

From the legendary Eldridge Pope Brewery, in Southwest England, which I toured in the early 1990s, to the chagrin of my wife, who was with me for the duration. (Sorry, Amy.) I have a friend (Roger) who used to work at Eldridge Pope (and also at the Eaglesomes shop in Campbeltown where he helped me score the two legendary “Green” Springbanks. It’s a small world, isn’t it?)

Roger is the one who gave me this bottle when he came to visit me in the mid 1990s. He got it when he worked there. In fact, he helped me source many vintages of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, and I still have at least one bottle from most vintages, including the original 1968 vintage.

Unlike standard Hardy’s, this one actually had a cork stopper, not metal. Roger told me that it had a cork when he gave it to me, so I had been aging it on its side to keep it from drying out, but the cork still crumbled to pieces when I opened it up.

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve tasted over 25 different vintages of Hardy’s, and this is the finest one I have ever tasted. An absoluted stunner! The sweetness had softened. There were undertones of delicate sherry, cherry stones, and pit fruit. An alcoholic beverage that transcends category. It is what every Thomas Hardy’s Ale aspires to be, but rarely is.

Finally, we finished the evening, admiring the buring embers of the fire, with a Partagas Series D No. 4 Reserva 200o Vintage cigar, which I purchased on a trip to the Caymans two years ago. I slowly sipped some more Hardy’s, reflecting on 50 years of life.

As Jimmy Buffett sang: “…some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life, all the way.”

Here’s to the next 50, my friends…

No Responses to “What I drank on my 50th birthday. And why.”

  1. Red_Arremer says:

    Man– What a sweet night! Good for you John. Setting an example for the rest of us– That’s how to celebrate. Wish I could get a taste of that desert wine, though, because I generally hate the stuff. I wonder, would it win me over?

  2. A late “Happy Birthday” from me, John. This amazing lineup surely guarantees a great evening. The Longrow 1973 would have been my choice as well, I would guess that the one you finally picked is in the same league.

    Would you care to share the secrets of the meat loaf? Could be an inspiration for my next BBQ ;-)

  3. Gal says:

    Class A act my friend.
    chapeau on the wines , and the whisky.
    you do know how to live.
    u gave me a few ideas for my 50th (not due in the next 15 years, so time to prepare).

    slainte!

  4. JC Skinner says:

    A 1986 framboise lambic? Seriously?
    Just wow.
    Happy Birthday. I won’t inquire as to whether you enjoyed it as I suspect that goes without saying!

  5. Mark says:

    Brilliant! A change of course to an alternative Longrow on your 50th indicates a lively, open state of mind. Cheers!

    • John Hansell says:

      The line-up changed up to the last minute. Other’s that made the short list: Green Spot 12 year old, Fonseca 1977 Vintage Port, Glenfarclas 1960 Family Cask, Krug 1995 Vintage Champagne, Chateau Laubade 1960 Vintage Armagnac, and Delamain Cognac 1950 Vintage. Those will have to wait for another time.

  6. I might have to get my hands on some of those aged beers if they are so special. We do get fruit beers here, but I really really hate them, usually. I have never tried aged beer, but am getting more and more curious.

    Beer is on the rise, I guess…

  7. Chap says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s a good reminder that this stuff is supposed to be enjoyed–and the non-whiskey choices are ones I should try out some time.

    • John Hansell says:

      As someone once said: life is what happens while we’re planning for tomorrow.

      I’ve read about too many auctions where whisky was sold after the whisky-lover died and never had the pleasure of enjoying the whisky he bought. I’m going to do my best to see that this doesn’t happen to me.

  8. sam k says:

    A well-written missive on what sounds like a most extraordinary evening. Congratulations!

  9. Lavinia Turnbull says:

    Nice work there John..many congratulations and of course, it would have been rude not to have tried all the desserts :-) Good advice on the corks…I keep all mine in a large glass vase. It is more ornamental than practical but there have been a few times when they have come in handy!!

  10. Lando says:

    John,

    You will be sad to know that Sam’s Wine and Spirits is no longer. It was bought out by Binny’s, which is another group of fantastic liquor stores in the Chicago area.

  11. Louis says:

    Happy Birthday, John,

    And don’t worry about hitting 50. Having hit that milestone myself last year, I’d like to pass along the best thought I ever saw on the subject. The closing lyrics of David Gilour’s On an island album are: ‘we’ve come so far, so far to go’. I’ll bet that when you were 25, you never imagined how the next 25 years would go.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  12. Ralph Biscuits says:

    Sounds like a great and memorable day with some great and memorable beverages. Here’s hoping that you have many more such days.

    I love beer too and the Lambic sounds fantastic.

  13. Ernest says:

    Great beer choices Jon and Happy Birthday. I have one bottle each of the ’86 and I believe ’94 vintage. I’ll have to check when I get home. Opened an ’86 about ten years ago and it was wonderful. Glad to hear it’s still ageing nicely. You are spot on about lambics and how they age wonderfully as well. Cheers. Ernest

    • I would be interested to know how big the effect of bottle aging of those beers is. I just found the 2004 vintage in an online store and I think I’ll give it a try.

      • Ernest says:

        Good question. 99% of beer does not age well. Oxidation is the main reason save for old ales, strong ales and some barley wines which seem to benefit from a little oxidation like a port wine or sherry. At any rate, lambics seem to show little or no oxidation. I’m not sure if this is due to the acidity levels or the wild yeasts, such as brettanomyces. IKve been drinking aged lambics for years and I have only encountered one that showed oxidation. It was a Giardin Gueuzd (black label) which was surprising in that it’s such a fine lambic and not one I would have guessed would not age well. In Antwerp back in 2000 I had a 1978 Eylenbosch (sic?) that was extraordinary. Also had a Moriau from the 1970s that was delightful. Both producers are now defunct, and were back in 2000 as well. I would suggest sticking to the more traditional lambic producers if you’re interested in aged lambics. Some of the “non-traditional” ones have been know to add saccharin. Traditional producers are: Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Boon, and Girardin. DeRanke makes a nice blend called Grand cru but they are not a lmabic brewer or blender strictly speaking.

        • Ernest says:

          Geez, sorry for all the typos. My new Blackberry gives a better look ( all the borders, etc) to web pages but it cuts off half this box and I c,’t see what I’m typing.

  14. Congratulations, John.

    From your descriptions, I feel like I had quite a night last night, too.

    Salut to 50 more…

  15. Benny says:

    Very nice way to celebrate your birthday John! Makes one think about the way one should pass these special days in a lifetime..
    As a Belgian guy I love to read you enjoyed both Belgian beer and Belgian chocolate!
    Congratulations once more!

  16. nicolas vaughn says:

    john hopefully i have this kind of incredible lineup when i turn 50! great choice on the Longrow! Can’t wit to break open my vintage one’s on a special occasion!

  17. H.Diaz says:

    Looks like you slept well, my friend. I enjoyed reading your break-down of each drink. Moreover, I admire the way you purchased for yourself the beer and whisk(e)y then stored them away for many, many years. The Ale was a very nice gift – even nicer to have connections like Roger. My Hardy’s are babies at 5 years old.

  18. nikos says:

    you are a happy man after that!! well done… do you know where we can find this ale you had ?

  19. Jerome says:

    I’m glad that you were able to experience such a stunning whisky on an important day in your life. Thanks for all the great work you do here for us!

  20. Marc says:

    A little late here, but wanted to wish you happy birthday John and all the best for the next 50! Thanks for sharing your birthday story with us and the lovely accompanying drinks.

  21. Sounds like a wonderful evening. Cheers!

  22. Alex says:

    Happy belated birthday, John! Thanks for sharing the details of your libations – sounds like a wonderful celebration.

  23. Iorwerth says:

    Penblwydd Hapus!

    Extremely belated, but better late then never!

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