Archive for the ‘Whisky Advocate Blog’ Category

Whisky Investing…the last time around

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonMy father died four years ago, and I have to say; he was a bit of a pack rat. More than a bit, really. It took us all day to clean out the garage (which hadn’t held a car since the Johnson administration); honestly, why did a man who rarely worked on his own car need five grease guns?

My mother’s been working her way through all the papers and letters he saved, and she found this one, and thought I’d find it interesting. Once I’d had a look, and chuckled, I thought you might find it interesting as well:

 

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It was sent, by air mail (a 4p stamp at the time), to my father’s RD1 address, in April, 1973. To the best of my knowledge, my father never drank an ounce of Scotch whisky in his life, and in 1973, his life savings amounted to his teacher’s pension (which was out of his reach) and about $1,000 in a savings and loan account that we would spend two months later on a family vacation we’d been planning for ten years. We were hardly investors, and certainly not Scotch lovers…yet Strathmore not only found us, but sent a hand-addressed letter to us.

In less than ten years, Scotland would be awash in whisky (which in 15 more years would become the bounty of under-priced mature whisky that some of us swam in, joyfully, for a happy, golden time).

We are being encouraged to “invest” in Scotch whisky again. I feel like I should check my mailbox. And keep a hand on my wallet.

The Vote For Scottish Independence

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has some thoughts about the upcoming vote on Scottish independence. Not surprisingly, they center on its effects on Scotch whisky. Be honest; that’s exactly the way many people who read this blog evaluate it!

At last! At last, the Scotch whisky industry has woken up to the potential dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum (you can explore the issues, facts, opinions, and polls on a BBC site here).

In summary, on September 18th, voters in Scotland will give a YES/NO answer to a simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

The question is a momentous one, involving the break-up of the 300 year old United Kingdom and turning Scotland and England into foreign countries. The debate has run on for nearly two years, with no final and satisfactory answers to questions such as ‘what currency will Scotland use, and on what basis?’, ‘will an independent Scotland be part of the European Union?’ and ‘how will all this be paid for?’

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

The expectation is that if Scotland breaks away it will follow a more left-wing political and social agenda than has previously been the case for the United Kingdom as a whole. The nationalist case is that Scotland, a country rich in natural assets, can well afford to stand on its own. The North Sea oil fields are frequently mentioned as a major source of income, though as the No campaign loudly responds, eventually the oil will run out. No one knows exactly when, but that the wells will finally run dry isn’t in dispute.

That leaves whisky as one of the few remaining national assets that can’t easily get up and leave (a large part of the significant Scottish financial community could well decamp to the City of London). The fact that Scotch whisky has to be made and matured in Scotland means that it will inevitably be a long-term tax target for any future government of an independent Scotland.

The political arguments are good: the industry uses Scotland’s water but currently pays relatively little tax in Scotland itself and, while it creates employment, the high-value management jobs tend to be out of the country. Much of the economic benefit of Scotch whisky flows not to the people of Scotland, but to anonymous global multinational corporations. A tax on water extraction would be easy to measure and very hard to avoid. Why shouldn’t they pay their share?

It’s a seductive argument. What’s more, as well as a water tax, one could easily anticipate a ‘storage tax’ on every barrel slowly maturing in a Scottish warehouse (similar to Kentucky’s ad valorem tax on aging bourbon; you could expect many more NAS whiskies if that ever came in!). The current political administration of the Scottish National Party, who run the present Scottish administration, are also deeply committed to higher taxes on alcohol on grounds of health and social policy, so the price of a dram or a bottle could shoot up after a Yes vote.

You might have thought then that the Scotch whisky industry would have been lobbying hard against the independence vote and stressing the benefits of the union. But until very recently we’ve heard little; the corporate line has been “it’s for the people of Scotland to decide.”

At last, however, they have started to fight. First to break cover was former Scotch Whisky Association chief Gavin Hewitt, who has set out a clear personal position in mainstream and social media. He’s no enthusiast for an independent Scotland. “Scotland would lose influence in the world and the clout that a big country has with [EU headquarters in] Brussels; lose access to a superb network of UK embassies and trade support, and I am concerned about the consequences [of a 'yes' vote] for whisky. If it ain’t broke,” he argues “then don’t fix it.”

But Gavin is just one man. That’s not the case with William Grant & Sons’ donation of hard cash to the Better Together campaign and other pro-Union groups. Earlier this year they gave £185,000 (more than $300,000) and have been vocal in support of the status quo.

Now they’ve been joined by a number of distillers who were part of a joint letter to The Scotsman newspaper signed by 120 leading Scottish businesses which argued the case for the continued union with England. It included some impressive names such as the chief executives of the Edrington Group (Famous Grouse, Macallan, Highland Park), Inver House, Burn Stewart, and William Grant & Sons, as well as smaller concerns such as Tomatin, Adelphi, Ian Macleod Distillers (Glengoyne), and so on.

Well done, I say… and where are Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Bacardi? This issue is simply too important to let go by default. It’s my opinion that the companies are making a mistake: they should have a view and they should express it, quickly and clearly. Their employees and customers deserve no less. This is too important a subject: Scotch whisky does not belong to Scotland alone, and the drinkers of England and Wales, let alone the wider world, want to hear the distillers’ voice: loud and clear.

Scottish Independence, if it comes, may well be good for whisky’s image, yet also, as I have suggested, push up prices. Whisky drinkers may welcome a greater strength of national identity and the proud confidence of a newly-formed nation, but will those drinkers be willing to pay more to toast an independent Scotland?

That’s the key question that no one can answer. But one thing is sure: if Scotland votes to go it alone, there will be no way back and nothing will be same ever again for the nation’s most famous export.

On September 19th we will know for sure.

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

What Is Craft? Wouldn’t You Like to Know?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Author - Chuck CowderyI hate articles that begin with a dictionary definition, but defining ‘craft’ as it applies to whiskey making is our purpose here, so let’s see what the dictionaries say.

“An activity involving skill in making things by hand.”

“Denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company.”

“An art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.”

And then there’s this:

“Skill used in deceiving others.” As in, “He used craft and guile to close the deal.”

That last one is archaic but relevant, because everyone these days wants to claim the word “craft” and apply it to their company and its products. That includes the largest companies in the business. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The world’s largest beer makers have been trying to co-opt “craft brewing” for decades.

In a recent conversation with Chris Morris, he cited the dictionary. Morris is Brown-Forman’s master distiller and the occasion was a press event to launch a new craft series for Old Forester Bourbon. (It’s pretty cool, but more on that later.) Morris said, “The dictionary says craft is about experience, knowledge, and skill. We have all those things.”

Ewan Morgan, a Diageo brand ambassador for whiskies, puts it this way: “Craft is about artisanship, passion, experience, great liquid, great products.”

I’m not going to quarrel with the big guys — not here, anyway — but the problem with their point-of-view is this. “Craft” cannot merely mean “well made.” If everything is craft, then nothing is. The word becomes useless as a way to distinguish something from something else.

If the definitions above are vague as applied to craft spirits, the American Distilling Institute (ADI) has one that is very specific. It defines “craft spirits” as “the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases, where the product is physically distilled and bottled on site.”

Jackie Summers is a craft spirits producer in Brooklyn, New York, who makes an enticing liqueur called Sorel. He doesn’t distill anything. His craft is working with and combining botanicals and other natural ingredients to produce a drink that is original, even as it seems familiar. He is also skilled at crafting thoughts.

Mastering the craft

Mastering the craft

“Before the advent of public education,” he writes, “people learned a trade through the apprenticeship model. Apprentices would begin to study with a master in their mid-teens, and continue into their early twenties. It was not until you took on your own students that you could claim mastery yourself. By this method, generations of skills were handed from one to the next — you honed your craft — based on a simple principle: you don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by doing something over and over again, learning as you go. Greatness is a process. As Aristotle said, we are what we do repeatedly.

“Ultimately craft distillers see themselves as artists, their distillate being their art,” he continued. “Sure, you could start off with a concept, hire food scientists to chemically analyze and then reverse engineer a liquor. But what makes small batch production special is the tiny inconsistencies from batch to batch that give a product character; the miraculous way one bale of wheat may differ ever so slightly from the next, or how actual botanicals play and dance with each other in a way that chemical compounds can only imitate. Remove these tiny fluctuations, and the end result is sterile perfection.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan effects some kind of transformation. For something to be “craft,” an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The craft performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it. And the artisan himself or herself must do it, perhaps with assistance (e.g., apprentices, journeymen), but the unmistakable mark of the master’s hand must be on the final product.

Craft has nothing to do with the size of the company. It is the product that represents the craft, not the producer. A corporation may be a legal person, but a corporation cannot be an artisan. A corporation cannot be a master distiller.

The artisans working at the producers most recognized for their craft whiskeys — Balcones, Koval, Corsair, Few, Dry Fly — do it with their mastery of the materials, equipment, and processes; but also with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven’t been done before and create products unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before. That’s what the consumer wants from ‘craft.’

To make sure you get what you want when you want craft whiskey, get used to asking producers and promoters this question about their craft products: “What’s ‘craft’ about it?”

 

Georgie Bell of Diageo – In 140 Or Less

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother 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 Georgie Bell, Diageo’s luxury brand ambassador (Mortlach’s her main focus). Georgie’s boundless enthusiasm ran us close to the wire on some answers, but we managed. 

 

Where are you based and what’s the view from your office window (if you have one)?

The center of Edinburgh; I have been for the last 8 years. The sun is streaming through the window (a rarity for August) and I have a cup of Vietnamese coffee to hand.

Sounds good: explain Vietnamese coffee, please. And the view from the window?

Picked up some incredible coffee from a Saigon market: very strong, extremely aromatic. View: cobbled streets, old town houses in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town.

Georgie B 3And I’m sitting with some bottled water. Won’t ask a lady her age but you are youthful. Background: what brought you into whisky?

Cocktail industry! Worked in Edinburgh bars for 5 years. Found I had a particular interest in whisky. When I graduated from university I thought, why not give it a go!

Good woman. Career path to here?

Firstly the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (similar to the other Diageo Georgie!): worked with them for 3 years as a bartender, then their global brand ambassador.

And then?

Fueled my ‘geeky’ interest by gaining IBD* diploma in distilling. Then joined Diageo in January 2014 as luxury malts ambassador, looking after rebirth of Mortlach.

Quite intensive. Congrats on the IBD diploma, that’s commitment. It’s been less than a year on Mortlach. Enjoying it so far? 

7 months, still standing! It’s been fascinating working on the launch of a whisky – no 2 days are the same – and everyone in the company and out has been very supportive.

Georgie B1Well, I’ve enjoyed our tasting meetings. What does the job largely involve day to day?

Very varied. Working with markets on launch plans; both at a distance and in market (off to China soon). There’s more…

Okay then: fire away.

Spending time with the whisky creation team, in archives researching the distillery history, special Mortlach tastings & dinners. It’s a lot of fun! I’m very lucky.

You have my dream job. What are your most and least favorite aspects of it?

Least…I’m not a huge fan of hotel laundry services (I prefer to wash my own intimate apparel!), everything else is fantastic.

Such as…?

Love traveling, new cultures, seeing overseas friends, breaking stereotypes, introducing people not only to Mortlach but whisky as accessible & versatile spirit.

You’re so right on accessible/versatile.  The “new” Mortlachs taste great. Any quick insight into how those 4 were arrived at to offer to consumers?

To show distillery character at its best: highlighting unique 2.81 distillation process. All 4 so individual and decadent but a common strain of flavor throughout.

And those characteristics and common flavor strain are….?

A distinct umami note (savoriness), rich, ‘thick’ in body and viscosity and muscular with an underlying succulent fruitiness.

The distillation system there is quite complex, on paper at least. Is it easier if you can get to see it?  Mortlach Ambassador Georgie Bell

I think it’s easier if someone explains it to you. I spent 4 days working there and it wasn’t until the final hour that I actually ‘got’ it; it’s quite something!

Does that system make it more expensive to produce? If so, how? Nothing wrong with expensive; just trying to understand.

Not at all! Just a different pattern of distillation from other places. Distilled it this way since 1896. We’re replicating the 2.81 process in the new stillhouse.

Will look forward to hearing more. Scotch generally: some lovely but expensive packaging for older or special ones. Going too far and overshadowing the whisky?

No, it’s giving the whisky the attention/care deserved. Think how pretty you feel in an extra special dress or coat. Whiskies ‘dressed’ as such are extremely special.

Good answer and, as a marketeer, I agree. In that case do you think industry pricing for such things is about right or do you not get much time to notice?

I try to focus on the whole category so if you take account of other factors (18+ years in cask is taking a gamble), the prices reflect the whisky’s rarity and specialness.

True: not everyone gets the high costs behind the long maturation process. You’re enviably slender and one interest is sport. Anything in particular?

Thank you, but beg to differ! Running (a half marathon soon, a great way to explore a new city); general gym work. Spin classes & bikram yoga: exercise keeps me leveled.

That’s not exercise, that’s full-on training.  Is this because you also love food?

I do love food and also spend a lot of my life traveling. Being in shape helps combat any stress of traveling and keeps my energy levels high for presentations etc.

Any particular dish or style of cuisine?

Anything and everything! I love spicy Asian food. I tend to try and stay away from anything too rich though.

I understand you bake. Do you have competitions with Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin?!

I would love that! Although I’m sure she’d win: my attempts recently haven’t been too successful. ‘Freestyling’ a baking recipe isn’t advised…

Okay, maybe we have a bake-off challenge here. The Great Scottish Bake-Off!
You also love travel,  just as well. Favorite country for a) work and b) leisure? Why?

What is leisure?! I’m joking – I’m a beach baby at heart so anywhere sunny – I also love to dive.

And for work?

The U.S. (specifically DC & NYC – lots of friends there); Sweden (incredible quality of living); Canada; Singapore – I haven’t yet been to a country I haven’t enjoyed.

What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of competitors – others in this series have. Only one, mind!

Drams match memories. Had an incredible BenRiach 1988 after Victoria Whisky Festival; Mortlach 25; Monkey Shoulder; anything from Clynelish: I can’t just pick one!

It’s compulsory – one only, please!

Mortlach 25 – decadent, beautiful – for a luxurious desert island retreat!

And we’re done. Thank you.

 

* Institute of Brewing & Distilling

Whisky Advocate’s Fall Issue Buying Guide’s Top Ten Reviews

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

The fall issue of Whisky Advocate will hit the newsstands September 1st. It’s a great issue from cover to cover, and the Buying Guide contains more reviews than ever before. Today we offer a sneak peek at the Top Ten whiskies reviewed. (As always, if the price is not listed in U.S. dollars, the whisky is not currently available in the U.S. market.)

JW&Sons Priv Coll 2014#10 - John Walker & Sons Private Collection 2014 Edition, 46.8%, £500

Smoke begins Jim Beveridge’s public replication of the annual Directors Blend concept, built around Johnnie Walker’s signature characteristics. Peat smoke harks back to Islay, but there’s wood smoke, tobacco leaf, and malt, with a salty richness behind it. The grain just gives it a lift of extra sweetness. Polished, with great structure; red apple, raspberry, and sweet linctus wrap up with a long, smoky finish of cigar stub and peat stores. Clear parallels with Directors Blend 2009, but better. (8,888 decanters released)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#9 - Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, 40%, $45

Although the Prichard distillery is located in Lincoln County, it has a Prichards TN Whiskey Vertical Bannerspecial exemption from using the Lincoln County Process and isn’t charcoal filtered.  The nose reflects that with bright aromas including caramel, cinnamon, and oak. The entry is sweet caramel corn followed by soft cinnamon and black pepper with a boost from some oak. A medium, slightly dry finish completes a very flavorful but still extremely easy-drinking Tennessee whiskey. This is the crown jewel of the Prichard distillery line.—Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

feathery #8 - The Feathery, 40%, £39

Chocolate-covered raisins scoffed on a heathery moor, leather riding tack, intense plain chocolate, malt loaf, mixed nuts, Medjool dates, and traces of wood ash. A gorgeous, unctuous mouthfeel with flavors spun around bright sparks of orange, dark toffee, and rich maltiness, melding to black cherry, stewed fruits, licorice, and charred oak. Named for the leather golf balls packed with goose feathers used in the early 19th century. Sink one for a birdie. From the bottlers of Sheep Dip. —Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#7 - Glenfarclas Family Casks 1988 Cask #434, 53.4%, £345

Quite earthy, with orris root, burlap, and dunnage warehouse notes.  Distinctly meaty—Bovril (beef stock)—then cedary. This untamed edge—think Mortlach or Benrinnes—dominates the palate, but the cask (a refill butt) isn’t overstating its presence. There’s espresso on the finish. Here’s Glenfarclas taking a ramble on the wild side. If your preference is for more robust styles, then look no further. —Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Bakers
#6 - Baker’s, 53.5%, $47

Rich, multi-layered nose: vanilla, cornmeal, berries (black raspberries, wineberries), and broad-shouldered oak. Powerful, but not overproof hot in the mouth; controlled. The berries sing a high counter-melody over the corn-oak beat as the whole experience rocks along. It’s powerful, sweet, authoritative, and finishes with a reprise of it all: berries, corn, vanilla, and stronger oak. Mature, complete bourbon with a 7 year age statement, and a real sleeper in the Small Batch Collection. —Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Lagavulin_1995 Feis Ile 2014
#5 - Lagavulin 1995 Feis Ile 2014 bottling, 54.7%, £99

A sherry-cask Lagavulin, this immediately shows a rich, mellow power with a touch of potter’s wheel, but it needs water to bring out sandalwood, beach bonfire, kombu, Lapsang Souchong, and bog myrtle. The palate is where it shows itself fully; resinous and thick, unctuous even, with that scented pine/juniper tea note shifting into paprika-rubbed ham, membrillo, currants, blackberry. I’ve a feeling that this period will be seen as Lagavulin’s golden age.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#4 - Glenfarclas Family Casks 1987 Cask #3829, 48%, £230

This is the bomb. Savory and lightly meaty, but sweetened by plum sauce; there’s even some strawberry around the fringes. You could see how with another 30 years this would end up like the ’54. Elegant yet powerful, there’s sandalwood incense, marmalade, even a little dried mango. The distillery’s density is balanced by this fruit. Lush with supple tannins and at its best neat. From a refill butt, this is an exemplary sherried malt. —Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

 

FR 2014 Single Barrel#3 - Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel, 60%, $100

Aged 11 years, this year’s single barrel release is a lively mix of caramel and bright, zingy orange on palate entry. Cinnamon, vanilla, and mint emerge mid-palate, leading to polished oak, baked apple, and a hint of leather on the finish. A lively bourbon, with crisp, clean flavors and nicely balanced. Another winner from Four Roses. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#2 - Crown Royal Monarch, 40%, $75Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniv Blend_LR

Monarch, the 75th anniversary limited edition of Canada’s best-selling whisky, raises the already high Crown Royal flavor bar. Zesty rye from an ancient Coffey still is the throbbing heart of this blend, balancing cloves, ginger, cinnamon, glowing hot pepper, and that gorgeous sour bitterness of rye grain against crispy, fresh-sawn lumber, fragrant lilacs, dark fruits, and green apples. Butterscotch, chocolate, toffee, mint, pine needles, and sweet pitchy balsam enrich a luscious, creamy mouthfeel carefully tempered by grapefruit pith. —Davin deKergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

And the top rated whisky of the fall 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate magazine is…

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1954 2014 Series

Glenfarclas Family Casks 1954 Cask #1260, 47.2%, £1,995

A rich amber color and elegantly oxidized notes greet you. There are luscious old fruits—pineapple, dried peach, apricot—and puffs of coal-like smokiness. In time, sweet spices (cumin especially) emerge. Superbly balanced. The palate, while fragile, still has real sweetness alongside a lick of treacle. It can take a drop of water, allowing richer, darker fruits to emerge. The finish is powerful, long, and resonant. Superb, not over-wooded, and a fair price for such a rarity. —Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

 

Craft whiskey in the mountains: Berkshire and Catskill

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonI got a chance to visit two craft distillers in the Northeast last week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers and Catskill Distilling. I took a day off and drove up to Boston for the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Boston Beer Company (the brewers of Samuel Adams), and realized I could easily stop in to see some whiskey being made on my way back. It was a gorgeous day, and after I’d cleared the Boston traffic, a great drive west out the Mass Pike, past lakes, marshes, and forests, then into the rolling folds of the Berkshires. I got off the Pike, headed south, and watched as the roads my mapping app directed me onto got smaller and smaller, until finally the arrow pointed down a long gravel driveway through a meadow.

Bucolic setting of Berkshire Mountain

Bucolic setting of Berkshire Mountain

Nice work, mapping app: that’s where I found Berkshire Mountain Distillers and founder Chris Weld. Things were, as he put it, “a tad crazy,” as they prepared to move to a new building in nearby Sheffield, Mass. The grassy area around the barn where the distillery has been for seven years was littered with tanks, “totes” (the heavy plastic, roughly 1,000 liter container cubes this industry seems to run on), and a malfunctioning auger, all waiting to be moved or salvaged. It was also crazy because while they were mashing in for a run of bourbon, they were eagerly anticipating the first run of their new bottled gin-and-tonic product, due to be done at the new plant in mid-August. (I got a chilled sip: deliciously refreshing and dangerously drinkable at 26 proof!)

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Berkshire’s still; columns are up to the right.

Berkshire runs on a pot still salvaged from Brown-Forman, an odd, capsule-shaped device with internal copper. The new make ages in a variety of barrel sizes; like many craft distillers, Weld is moving away from tiny 10-gallon barrels to larger ones. Too woody, too fast in the smaller ones, he acknowledged. That’s some of the reason they’re moving: more room for barrels. Another reason is that long gravel driveway and the barn. It’s hard for trucks to get back here, and once they’re here…Weld told me a hair-raising story about a parked truck starting to slide, wheels locked, down the snow-covered driveway toward his cottage. They managed to get it stopped, but started looking for another location.

Berkshire has done some interesting collaborations with brewers. I’d actually tasted one the night before at the Samuel Adams event; a whiskey made by distilling Samuel Adams Boston Lager and aging it in bourbon barrels. It was at barrel proof, and only two years old, but with a bit of water it opened right up and gave the floral, spicy hop nose the Lager is known for, without the bitterness in the mouth. It’s still young, and hot; in a couple years, it might be an interesting whiskey indeed. They did another one with Samuel Adams Cinder Bock, a smoked beer, which was aged in barrels that had held Samuel Adams Utopias. I tasted that at the distillery, and didn’t really get much of the smoke; the rich vinous wood of the barrel was more evident.

They’ve also done a series of small bottlings of their bourbon, finished in barrels used by other brewers to age their beers. I review the Samuel Adams Utopias edition in the upcoming Fall issue; Chris gave me a sample bottle of the Terrapin Brewing project at the distillery; there will be ten bottlings altogether. I found the Utopias bottling to be a richer, rounder version of the standard Berkshire Mountain bourbon bottling, and look forward to trying the Terrapin.

Chris had to run at this point, so I thanked him, and headed back down that gravel driveway and west toward the Hudson River. I crossed at Poughkeepsie, had lunch at a brewpub in New Paltz, and headed into another incredibly scenic drive, up over the Shawangunk escarpment and into the Catskills. After 50 minutes of roller coaster-like thrill driving on more two-lane roads, I found myself stuck in a solid mile of backed-up traffic…a mile from Catskill Distilling! What the heck was going on, a run on the tasting room?

My single-mindedness had betrayed me. I didn’t know that Catskill Distilling was just a couple hundred yards up the road from the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a performing space on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival…and Jimmy Buffett was playing there that night. Don’t mess with the Parrotheads! I did finally get to turn off at the Dancing Cat Saloon and Catskill Distilling Company, where I was quickly greeted by the gregarious and friendly Monte Sachs, DVM.

Hardware at Catskill

Hardware at Catskill

That’s right; the owner is a large animal veterinarian. He made his money caring for racehorses in the Hudson Valley and at the track at Monticello, just down the road. I asked him how he got hooked on distilling, and he told me a great story about an Italian girlfriend who took him back to the family vineyard, where he decided to learn winemaking to impress the parents. “But after six months, I learned that winemaking is a lot of work!” he laughed. “What I really liked and wanted to do was make grappa.” The distillation of this Italian spirit fascinated him, and he decided he would make grappa. Someday.

Eventually the opportunity came along when New York passed a farm distillery law in 2008. Sachs jumped on it. He put in a Carl still setup, and got some valuable consulting help from industry legend Lincoln Henderson. (I first heard of Monte and Catskill from Lincoln, who told me that, among other things, he’d told Monte to “keep the place clean and open a gift shop; people want to buy things.” I can report that Monte definitely took that advice; the place was spotless, and there was plenty of merchandise.) Henderson advised him on his aging building, a former horse stable behind the distillery.

This little barrel house is heavily insulated, without windows, and when Monte opened the door for me, I could see it was stuffed with barrels. It was also eye-stingingly heavy with boozy aromas; the angels have to fight for their share of this whiskey! There was a concrete slab beside the building; another aging house is going in soon, and should be up by October.

Monte needs that barrel house, and new tanks, and more barrels (he says he’s got good barrel supply, but has to order in large lots to get it). Not only is the current barrel house chockfull, he’s ramping up production. Through a chance meeting at a spirits expo, he connected with a high-powered consultant with years of experience in major spirits companies who had just retired and was looking for interesting products to work with. Monte sent him his product line and, just as I did in this summer’s Rye Issue, he picked out the Buckwheat whiskey as the most interesting, the most different. There are plans to make the Buckwheat the forefront of the portfolio, and there may be a lot more investment coming in to make it happen.

He’s also doing a collaboration with a brewery, by the way. He connected with Brewery Ommegang, over in Cooperstown, N.Y., and they made a batch of ale for him that’s been distilled and is aging in the barrel house now, with the rampant Ommegang lion stenciled on the barrel head. Exciting times in the Catskills.

And the grappa? He’s still making it. “You see those bottles? They’re all hand-blown, which means they’re all a different size, so I have to measure the spirit going in at precisely 375 ml, and I have to use a tapered cork because all the necks are different, and then I have to wax the corks to keep them in. And it’s not a big seller.” He shrugged, and grinned. “I’m still going to make it! I really love the stuff.”

I don’t like grappa. I’ve tried it, repeatedly, and I don’t like it, or the similar slivovitz or pisco (though I do like marc; go figure). But I told Monte I’d try his, because he’d been so friendly, and because that Buckwheat was so interesting. You know? I liked the grappa (words I’ve never said before, or ever thought I would). It had much more to it than just hot rocket fuel character; it was subtle, intriguing, delicate. It was an interesting insight into how distilling is done here; each product clearly shows its origin grains or grapes, packed with flavor before it comes anywhere near wood.

I left Catskill Distilling, cut back half a mile to elude the Parrotheads, and two-laned it home, managing to make it a hat trick of pretty little mountain chains by driving through the Poconos during a gorgeous sunset. There aren’t any craft distillers in the Poconos yet, but who knows what might happen in a few years?

(Do you like the video? Do you want to see more? Or is it just annoying?)

Paul McDonagh of Bon Accord – In 140 Or Less

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother 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 Paul McDonagh. Paul is passionate about his Scotch whisky and the owner of Glasgow’s finest whisky bar, the Bon Accord. A man who’s enjoying the bar life.

What’s the view from your office window – if you have one?

I don’t have one but I do have some nice bottles of whisky to look at.

Good answer! How long have you been owner at the Bon Accord?

This is my 14th year but it seems like only yesterday that I took over. Am having a great time.

Good to hear. Customers & drinking habits—anything different now from when you took over?

We sell more whisky than before. 14 yrs ago we had only 5 malts, now we have 380; the trend seems to be for more sherried whisky.

McDonagh mans the bar.

McDonagh mans the bar, showing off the whiskies.

That’s some increase! Any thoughts on why an interest in sherry matured?

I think it’s because they may be sweeter and easier to drink.

Fair point—easier than some Islays for some people! Years ago the bar was known for real ales rather than whisky. Still big on beers? Numbers?

We are still big on ales—800 different beers a year and we host 4 ale festivals each year.

Busy life. Noticeable whisky industry price increases in shops in recent times. Have these affected you much, or bars generally?

Not a bit. People who drink good whisky know it comes at a cost and the older, the dearer.

Scottish government keen to get minimum unit pricing for alcohol in shops. If it happens, how would that affect your business: good or bad?

Not at all—people will still want to go out to the pub to meet friends. Most shops don’t sell the range of beer and spirits that we do and I think the plan is a good thing.

Why a good thing?

We have a problem in this country and in others with alcohol that we should do something about. Pricing is not the only answer but it’s a start.

Fair enough. You’ve won many awards as a whisky bar. How important are they and do they help increase business?

It’s great for me, staff and customers. We take pride in the pub’s achievements. The more you win, the more new customers come, but it’s hard work keeping high standards.

Much to live up to! Your best selling whiskies? And the rarest / most expensive?

Best selling: Macallan, Bowmore, Dalmore. Rarest is 70 YO Glenlivet at £900 per 35ml measure.

That one’s not for my pocket. What info do you have in bar to help customers choose a whisky?

Whisky menu on iPad with tasting notes, whisky distilleries and region map…and great staff!

Good innovation. How important is staff training on whisky and what form does it take?

Staff get basic training from day 1 and for the rest of the time they are here. They go to whisky tastings, distillery visits, but most training takes place in-house.

Does that include in-pub training sessions from brand owners too?

Yes, we have a lot of tastings in the pub with brand owners; we also have 2 whisky clubs that I run—and staff can join in—and 3 other whisky clubs which meet here.

I was going to ask about the Whisky Clubs: what do they do?

At my two, we have dinner and a 6-malt sampling. I do most of the tasting but bring in brand owners too.

And the other clubs?

The other clubs don’t have a meal each time, but always a 6 dram tasting with brand owners. The 5 clubs have a combined membership of 320.

Wow! How much tourist business do you get and does any one country predominate?

We are a global pub in terms of brands and customers. We get a lot of people from the US & Europe as we’re in various guides.

I hear one outside interest is football. Any particular team and why?

It’s Glasgow Celtic. I was taken along to Celtic Park aged 8 and have been going ever since: 47yrs. It’s in my blood; just like the pub business.

Giving away your age! Another interest is dining out. Where’s the best place you’ve eaten a) at home and b) overseas?

Best place in UK, Roux at the Landau: 5 courses and 5 malts, private dining room with Albert Roux as host. Overseas: the Waldorf Astoria, New York.

Good taste. From any international travels, do you think issues for bar owners are pretty much the same everywhere?

Yes, we all want more trade mid-week and have too much at weekends, but we must always stay on the ball with new trends and products/producers.

Any ideas gathered or lessons learned from bars elsewhere?

You always pick up something. Every bar has a unique selling point. Was in an Amsterdam bar and they let me go behind the bar to get my photo taken. Been doing that 20 years.

Anything you’d like to do at the Bon Accord that you currently can’t?

No, I’m very happy with the way we are trading.

Any future ambitions there?

Ambition? Yes: to do what am doing for as long as I can. This is THE LIFE.

Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Just one!

Old Pulteney 23 YO sherry cask. There’s a picture of a boat on the label; that could be handy! LOL.

Oh, very funny…

John Campbell of Laphroaig – In 140 Or Less

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother 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 Laphroaig distillery manager John Campbell. (This was a special one for me, as the brand’s former marketing manager from some years ago.)  

What’s the view from your office window?
I have a great view, looking out over Laphroaig bay and it’s a beautiful day today on Islay.

Lucky you. We know you can get all 4 seasons in one day! Did you always want to be a distiller?
Yes, we can have variable weather, and nope:  I wanted to be a mechanical engineer first!!

Really! What was your career path to becoming Laphroaig’s manager?
Well, I started off on that path when I was 16 but it was too soon, became a lobster fisherman on Islay, then a distiller.

So did you ever expect to be Laphroaig’s manager, then?
No, not a chance.  I started off stenciling the numbers on the barrels, but have just kept sticking my hand up as time passed.

A serial volunteer, then.  Islay distillery managers seem to be more involved with consumers/visitors than the mainland ones? Would you say that’s right? If so, why?  
I am not sure, we probably are and it’s because we have much more charisma.  Oh, and we are nosy!

John Campbell and his son Murray.

John Campbell and his son Murray.

 

Very honest! You seem a very quiet person. Do you enjoy all the public facing part?
Ileachs [Islay natives] are very open too…I am quiet and understated, just like Laphroaig….but I enjoy meeting people and having fun. Who doesn’t?

True. Under Beam there were more new expressions of Laphroaig. Will this continue under Beam Suntory?
Not sure if the strategy will change under new ownership, we will be integrating shortly, then we will know.

Of which expressions, from your tenure as manager, are you most proud? Do you get involved much in the creation process?
Yes, sometimes involved.. so Triple Wood, PX or An Cuan Mor are the best. Had to choose all 3!!

What have been trade and consumer reactions to Laphroaig Select and An Cuan Mor (I prefer the latter)?
We generally get positive reviews. These 2 are for different types of consumers. Select is for novices, not purists.  An Cuan Mor gives fantastic European oak effects.

And it goes well with food too. Friends of Laphroaig now has over 600,000 members and is quite an online community too. Are you aiming for world domination here?!
Yeah, whisky does work well with food. FOL has given us world domination in peaty whiskies, yes… Ha ha – you guessed!!

I was just thinking you might take over and run the world from Islay. What about John Campbell off duty. I hear you play golf – much time for that?
Islay is the center of the universe, right? I used to play a lot of golf, not so much now…run a little and muck about with my kids.

The running: just for fitness or marathons?
Just fitness right now, but I will see where it goes, never know… if my knees last.

I’ve just spent a week walking round Paris; no knees left. I’ve noted family and travel as other interests. What do you like to do as a family?
Well, I like to take my boys and do fun stuff, so live sport is always good, football, rugby, American football, and generally just have wee adventures.

Sounds magic. I have little nieces but they live overseas so we don’t see them often to do stuff. Favorite place to travel for a) work and b) leisure?
So, fave place I have been to for work is hard! I like the U.S. a lot and I will say Seattle and for leisure I love Portugal – food and weather are great.

I liked Seattle too. Lovely relaxed feel to the place. Where will the next Laphroaig Live online broadcast come from (if there is to be one)?
There is and I am not sure if I can say yet. It will be in Sweden tho!!! Whoops ☺

The frozen north! Any plans yet for the distillery’s bicentenary in 2015 or are those a secret?
Not secret, just not fully completed yet, but we’ll have stuff throughout the year to celebrate with.

So we’ll look forward to hearing more before 2015 and for next year’s Islay Whisky Fest. Social media – friend or foe?
Social media is instant, so can be both… but mainly positive I feel.

Lastly, what would be your ideal desert island dram? It can either be one of your own or from somewhere else.
Bit boring and maybe predictable with desert island dram, but it has to be 10 year old Laphroaig. It has a depth of flavor that you get in only 3 or 4 other single malts.

A Journalist and a Bartender Walk into a Publisher’s Office…

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

author-matthew-rowleyWilliam Faulkner is supposed to have said that civilization begins with distillation, but Adam Rogers isn’t having it. “I’d push even farther,” he writes in his new book Proof, “beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, sake…all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.” Rogers argues that understanding humanity’s relationship with alcohol is about understanding, well, everything, really: chemistry, biology, cultural norms, even the origins of civilization. Readers of Wired magazine, where he is articles editor, will recognize the tone: approachable, witty, and a bit obsessive.

Proof Cover - hiresProof expands upon Rogers’ 2011 article “The Angel’s Share” about the mysterious black stain that appeared homes and other surfaces up to a mile away from Canadian Club’s whisky warehouses. The culprit, a fungus from the newly named genus Baudoinia, does what some of us only wish we could do; it thrives on the angel’s share escaping wooden whisky barrels. The unmasking of Baudoinia is just one of dozens of tales Rogers tells as he covers botanical, chemical, biological, technological, and historical facets of our spirits’ move from field to bottle.

It’s a lot of information to cram into one book and at times it can feel as if we’re lurching from topic to topic. If you enjoy James Burke’s old The Day the Universe Changed series, however, or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos reboot — as I do — you may find that conversational approach makes complex narratives that span millennia a bit easier to swallow.

Among his stories, Rogers tells of distillers and technicians trying to break the supply logjam of aging spirits by speeding the process. Smaller or honeycombed barrels, loud music, and a combination of forced oxygen and ultrasonic waves to remove unwanted congeners come into play. Though results are less than compelling, Rogers doles out plaudits for the technology. He traces one of distillation’s origin myths to ancient Alexandria and demonstrates just how plausible it was that the city’s engineers created early stills.

“Aroma wheels” now exist for Scotch, cognac, tequila, gin, and other drinks, but agreeing on the vocabulary of olfaction is an undertaking so difficult that a workable lexicon of how things smell only emerged in the last thirty years. California distilling consultant Nancy Fraley has developed one for small distillery craft whiskeys. “It’s one of the hardest things,” she tells Rogers, “I’ve ever done.”

The Bar Book medresReading Proof may build a powerful thirst. No worries; Jeffrey Morgenthaler will set you right.

It’s been a century and a half since publication of America’s first bartenders’ manual. Filled with recipes for cocktails, highballs, shrubs, nogs, punches, and countless other coolers and phlegm cutters, the thousands of drinks books that followed in its wake are ubiquitous on the shelves of today’s cocktail cognoscenti. Morgenthaler’s masterful The Bar Book, released this week, is the universal instruction manual for them all.

Despite more than 60 illustrative recipes, The Bar Book is a not a recipe collection. Rather, it is a grammar of sorts that explains — in clear, precise detail — techniques for preparing drinks. In just under 300 pages, Morgenthaler covers the intricacies of ice, how to select and prepare fruit, working with dairy and eggs, measuring, straining, shaking, and more.

If I had owned The Bar Book twenty years ago when first attempting to open a cold shaker, I’d have been spared one wicked blood blister; there’s a diagram showing how to pull off the maneuver. Yes, it works. So does the one for the dry shake. Between considerations about temperature, dilution, extracting flavors, filtering, manipulating texture, using sugar, and other common bar procedures, he calls out, by make and model, the equipment he prefers and explains why. It’s refreshing advice that stands in contrast with recipe books whose editors bend over backwards to avoid naming brands.

My own culinary library contains thousands of food and drinks books spanning centuries. When deciding what volumes to add, a constant consideration is whether, if I could only have a single book on the topic, the one in my hand covers everything I need to know. Cheers to Mr. Morgenthaler for allowing me say: Yes. Yes, it does.

 

Jeffery Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg (2014) The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. Chronicle Books, $30/£18

Adam Rogers (2014) Proof: The Science of Booze. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26/£15

The Kentucky Bourbon Affair — a first year’s experience

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWe were invited to attend this year’s inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a set of events put together by the Kentucky Distillers Association (the KDA) and its members. As KDA president Eric Gregory explained it to me back a few months ago, it was something they’d tossed around as an idea, and they put it up to the individual distiller-members. The challenge: come up with an event that would give the guests a fun, inside look at some aspect of the bourbon business, of the making, the people, the places. The twist was that while everyone wanted to know what the other distillers were doing…but the KDA didn’t let that out till all the ideas were in. The result was a one-upsmanship competition that delivered a set of somewhat over-the-top experiences.

I missed the opening event, an evening gala that was to be held outdoors at Hermitage Farm, a gorgeous horse farm northeast of Louisville; that is, until heavy thunderstorms were predicted (and accurately, too; they were violent) and the decision was made to shift to the art-filled and whiskey-savvy 21C Museum Hotel. I also missed “The Golden Affair,” the black tie wind-up at the Pendennis Club. What an evening, with an array of bourbons (including “premium and rare” bottlings), a panel discussion with master distillers, the premiere of a new documentary (“Kentucky Bourbon Tales”), and a performance by renowned Irish tenor, Anthony Kearns.

Insiders at Bernheim

Insiders at Bernheim

Poor me: all I got to go to were five memorable events that took place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (May 15-17). The fun started at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim distillery, where about ten of us (the lightest-attended event I would attend; the other times at Heaven Hill were sold out) started with a backdoor tour of this big, usually closed-to-the-public facility. We tasted mash, listened to the roar of the big beer stills, tasted new make right out of the spirit safe, and then boarded a van to the new Evan Williams Experience on Main Street.

After the impressively well-done multi-media program on the historical Evan Williams, we got a rare hands-on tour of the pot still-equipped microdistillery on the premises; one of the guests got to bung the day’s barrel of production (signed the bung, signed the log, pretty cool experience for him!). Then we sampled whiskeys in the speakeasy with brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers, and went up to the gift shop where the guests got a bottle of Heaven Hill’s “Select Stock,” an 8 year old wheated bourbon, finished in cognac casks (I took the opportunity to buy a bottle of Rittenhouse).

Bobby G mixing 'em up at Fred's Man Cave

Bobby G mixing ‘em up at Fred’s Man Cave

I had to run, and after picking up my car back at Bernheim, I drove down to Booker Noe’s house in Bardstown; I’d been there before, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect today. What we got was a chance to hang around in what the DIY Network show “Man Caves” had made out of Booker’s garage: big leather chairs, fireplace (good thing, because it was chilly that week in Kentucky!), big TV, and of course, a full bar. Mixology legend Bobby “Bobby G” Gleason was making drinks, and after I braced myself with a Knob Creek Rye Manhattan, we had the main event, another show of the long-running Great Whisk(e)y Debate, talking about Scotch vs. Irish vs. Canadian vs. Bourbon. It was a lot of laughs and good whiskey, and at the end, there was a nifty cocktail-making set handed out to all the guests.

Not kidding at all: we shot skeet!

No bourbon involved…till later

After recovering overnight, I drove down to Lawrenceburg to the Wild Turkey distillery, where there were skeet-shooting traps set up right on the distillery grounds, and each of the guests got a chance to shoot some clays (after some excellent coaching, and before anyone had even the hint of a drink). I hadn’t touched a gun in over 20 years, and it all came right back to me; I had a blast! We went into the warehouses with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, rolled some barrels that were just arriving from the distillery, and sampled 101 and Russell’s Reserve in Warehouse A, the first warehouse on the grounds that dates back to the 1800s. Then we had lunch at the new Visitor Center, and Jimmy and Eddie answered any questions people had and signed bottles for the guests.

Creating cocktail mixes at the flavor lab - Science!

Creating cocktail mixes at the flavor lab – Science!

That evening I took in some craft distillery whiskeys at an event at Epicenter Distilling’s Moonshine University. This is where I noticed something pretty cool was happening. Not only did I get to taste some great whiskeys from the likes of Willett and Corsair and Old Pogue (and the bang-on accurate and fun taste of Limestone Branch’s Moon Pie Moonshine — I kid you not, it tasted just like Moon Pie!), I was running into people who’d been at the other events, and we were friends, we were bonded. I’ll tell you, you shoot skeet and drink bourbon in a warehouse with someone, and you’re catapulted into a certain level of friendship! (We also mixed up our own custom cocktail mix at the flavor lab next door; I made Dr. Lew’s Real Good Medicine, and it tastes pretty fair with a dose of rye.)

Stitzel-Weller: silent, and likely to stay that way.

Stitzel-Weller: silent, and likely to stay that way.

One more event was on my schedule — after an early breakfast with fellow writer Fred Minnick — a visit to the grounds of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the offices and grounds are being groomed and landscaped as a home for Bulleit whiskeys. Tom Bulleit was there to greet us, with a big bowl of punch that we were only too happy to partake of (at 9 a.m., hallelujah). The stillhouse is off-limits (I understand that there are problems with asbestos), but we did get to see the filling room, where the new make would flow from the distillery to be barreled. The workers had chalked up milestones on the wall — when the company was sold, when the last operational day was — and it was as if they had just walked away. In fact, we were allowed to nose a glass of “new” make that the folks from Diageo had discovered still in the pipes at the filling room when they started to do renovations last year. That’s what we were told, anyway, and it was a heady moment; pouring out a tiny bit of white dog and rubbing hands to release the still-fresh corny aroma. Stitzel-Weller juice! Diageo’s spruced up the offices, and while it was largely about Bulleit, there was one room dedicated to new product launches (currently done up in Orphan Barrel designs).

So…what did I come away with? First, this isn’t cheap; most events were at least $100. But that bought the kind of backdoor access and personal time that usually, to be honest, is the province of writers and media types. These few days, you could get in the same parts of Bourbonland that we do, and hang out with Jimmy, Eddie, Tom, and Fred. If they could give that kind of access to every bourbon drinker, I’m sure they would, but then it would be hard to make the whiskey! So this is a chance to get inside; as more than one person put it, a kind of fantasy baseball camp for bourbon.

If the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is wide-open and sometimes seems more about Bardstown than about bourbon, this is maybe the other way. This is bourbon for bourbon aficionados, people who want to get their hands into it, and, as I said earlier, maybe a bit over the top with it for some. I think there may be room for something in-between, but this does make a welcome addition.

As it stands now, this was an industry-controlled happening, not like the numerous “Beer Weeks” that have spread across the country recently. There were a relatively small number of events, pretty much ‘invitation only’ by arrangement with the KDA and the member distillers. It was also spread out very widely; from the western edge of Louisville well down into bourbon country, and loosely headquartered at the eastern Louisville Marriott, miles away from downtown. There was a lot of driving involved. I’m wondering what this could be if participation was opened to the growing number of bourbon-focused restaurants and bars in the area, with more effort to link the far-flung sites with a shuttle service.

But that’s for next year. This was the first year for the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, and it was a rollicking beginning. We’ll have to wait and see where it goes.