Saturday, March 31, 2012

Smoked Whisky: Balcones Brimstone and Corsair Triple Smoke

An excursion into smoked whisky. The idea came from an Andrew Strenio blog post in Serious Eats my pal Cole referred me to called "That's the Spirit: 3 American Whiskeys To Seek Out". In it Strenio reviews Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and two odd smoked spirits: 1) Balcones Brimstone -made from blue corn (and nothing else in the mashbill) which is, uniquely, smoked after distillation (I imagine by bubbling through like bong water - but I have no idea really); and 2) Corsair Triple Smoke - an American pure malt whiskey that is distilled from barleys smoked over 3 different fuels. In my previous post I describe finding the smoked oddities at Le Du - i.e. a special trip because they are hard to find (they are also at Astor Wines - FYI). Now lets put them to review:

Balcones Brimstone - batch BRM11-8 6/22/11 53% abv


Blue corn. 100% corn in the mashbill. The whiskey (not the grain) is smoked with Texas scrub oak.

Color: Amber with henna tints. A rich and lovely hue.

Nose: big intense putty mineral phenol aroma with a powerful sweet aspect; an almost desitin-like sweetness. A bit more nosing reveals mesquite, chaparral, and sugar. There's wood here like sawn pine, but with less resin. There's also distant smoke and char.

Entry is intense with powdered confectionery sugar. There's an ivy herbal note in the sweetness of the entry. Big expansion with plenty of spirit heat, an earthy raw corn flavor and then mesquite shrub, pungent as exotic incense, joins the sweetness and smoke. The sweetness, and ivy herbal note and smoke get big in the midpalate and stay big in the finish. There are tannins in the finish, but they are subsumed under the brush smoke sugar fest. The finish is vastly long - but ultimately simple. Sweetness and herbal scrub oak smoke pure and simple and lingering on and on and on. The sweetness that stays and stays is unusual feature here.

It's richly flavored and certainly distinctive. The giant flavor profile is utterly new, completely American (and specifically Texan). Terroir is all over it: it smells and tastes like a sweet wooded pecan pie made from a West Texas brush fire. Genuine, unique, and big - but is it delicious? Some might say so - but my guess is the majority will not. Personally I'm on the fence. I want to pair it with barbecue. There is clear quality and crafting going on but I miss some measure of complexity in the flavor profile. I also find the nose - intensely sweet smoked as it is - on the edge that divides compelling from aggravating. It's an utterly new and original flavor profile that's intense and distinctive. I might grow to love it or it might get fatiguing. I'll have to keep at it and update this after extended experience. In the mean time I have no problems recommending this as a whole new flavor profile for the gustatory thrill seeker daredevils out there.

*****

Given the crafting and level of originality I'm anxious to try the other Balcones expressions.

UPDATE (June 9, 2012): As I continue to drink Brimstone my opinion continues to improve. Really a lovely and unique flavor profile. I now rate this 4 stars. Intensely smoky and sweet, with and earthy and rich blue corn flavor beneath. Obvious crafting, and surprising refinement. A bit of air and some sense of familiarity helps with the appreciation for something utterly new.

UPDATE2 (September 2, 2012): With time I have come to passionately love Brimstone's unique flavor profile. I find that it is incredibly useful to me as a whisky enthusiast. First of all, it makes amazing cocktails. A Manhattan or Old Fashioned made with Brimstone is utterly distinctive and always sparks a big conversation. Secondly Brimstone pairs incredibly well with high end dark chocolate. Thirdly, the big big flavor of Brimstone stands up to and in some ways out classes huge peat monsters like Octomore. I find that when I put Brimstone into a master class or a flight of whiskies I must always put it last - even after Octomore - because even though it isn't as hot from the palate burn perspective, it is a bigger flavor over all when all areas of the palate are considered. And finally, Balcones has become iconic of what's going right in the American craft distilling movement. I find that when trading with other whisky enthusiasts, especially ones from overseas (where Brimstone is difficult if not impossible to get) they very often ask for a sample of Brimstone. This makes it vital trading fodder for me (because, trust me, overseas they have access to a lot more interesting whiskies than we can get in the USA) - and also a wonderful spark point for additional whisky conversations.

This is a tale of accommodation for me. Initially unfamiliar, I gave Brimstone 3 stars. Over time I moved it up to 4 and now finally 5 stars. A number of factors helped: time and oxidation helped open up my bottle. I had the opportunity to try a very special version of Brimstone: Cask 1200 aka "The Burned Barrel". This intense version of Brimstone helped deepen my appreciation for the odd, intense, flavor profile. Finally, I just drank it enough to become fully acclimated to its power and then fell in love. I now cannot imagine always having a bottle on hand. This is a perfect example of where reviewing from a small sample doesn't cut it. Having the full bottle allowed me enough time and experiences with Brimstone to experience a full conversion.

Corsair Small Batch Triple Smoke. Batch 40, bottle 287/306 40% abv.

This is an American malt whiskey - composed entirely of malted barley. That's unusual - but not as unusual as the triple smoke concept. The malts are smoked over 3 different fuels: peat, beechwood, and cherry. That's the hook that got me; it sounds bloody brilliant. There's no age statement. Corsair operates out of both Kentucky and Tennessee.

Oddly, the bourbon blog review is of a barrel strength version at 59.2% abv. My sample, like Strenio's is diluted all the way to 40%.

Color (in the bottle): lemonaid mixed with iced tea (cloudy). In the glass - amber with copper tints.

Nose: sulfur, yeast, sake wine and soy sauce. With time there's some citrus vinaigrette and raw fish aromas (ceviche - or sushi?). It's an odd and intense nose that is redolent of something extremely familiar that I can't quite put my finger on (but it's not a whiskey association)


Entry is soft and gentle with a rice-wine sweetness. As the palate expands I get a rich complex of odd flavors: rice, fish, malt, sulfur, and finally smoke. But the smoke is gentle and deeply integrated into the body of this malt. The finish is more obviously smoky but stays sweet. The sweetness lingers with cherry notes and toasted char - tannins growing, but never overwhelming the smoky sweetness which lingers on until the bitter end and beyond. There is an unbelievable length of finish with this whiskey. The odd sweet smoky rice wine fishy aspect just stays and stays.

Something about this odd constellation of flavor notes puts me in the mind of extremely young partially aged new make. The back label says "Makes a great Manhattan. Also great for sipping neat." You gotta wonder when the label itself suggests mixing first. Frankly I'm torn. I found Triple Smoke's flavor profile strange and a bit off-putting. I also found it a bit young and raw feeling. Yet, it's so different, so utterly new and distinct that I can't seem to help but admire it for Corsair's audacity. I think Corsair clearly has great potential - especially given their wide array of other interesting and experimental spirits.

**

The sweetness in the finish and the odd smoky flavors are a common thread in these two otherwise divergent distillates. They also share distinction by being completely original and iconoclastic - proof that the US craft spirit movement is the Wild West where anything goes. Frankly, however, neither is anywhere near as smoky as any of highly peated Islay malts. These are sweet and lingering wood smoke flavors.

Bottom line - the Balcones Brimstone succeeds and Corsair Triple Smoke does not.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Visiting Le Du's in the Village

I haven't ever blogged about liquor stores, but clearly I'm going to have to start.  I had been looking for a place in NYC where I could find Balcones Brimstone and Corsair Triple Smoke.  After reading an awesome article about NYC liquor stores on The Whisky Woman blog I couldn't resist a trip down to Le Du's Wines at 600 Washington St. in NYC (a couple of blocks up from Houston just east of the Hudson river).  I had an unexpected treat when I saw the exquisite jewel-like wall of spirits.  Jewel-like a couple of senses: the wall is actually gleaming and beautiful and awesomely lit so the hooch look like cut gemstones; and also the selection is exquisite.  The selection isn't big, but it's obvious that someone who really thinks about spirits is carefully selecting every item; cherry picking only the most interesting and the best at each price point to shine in the limited space.  

The part about price point is important to me - there are inexpensive selections - just the best bang for the buck at those price points (e.g. Rittenhouse Rye 100, plus the rare 25 year old expression; Old Forrester Birthday, and Weller Antique).  There is a clear focus on small craft distilleries.  Rare and hard to find mid-priced American spirit selections include Tuthill Farms, King's County, Smooth Ambler, High West, Balcones, Corsair, Wasmund's, Willets, Breckenridge and Whistlepig.   There's an excellent focused collection of Scotch too - with best bang at each price point.  This includes some Classic Malts selections but also distilleries like Bruichladdich, and plenty of selections from private labels such as Signatory and Gordon & MacPhail (careful selections here), and Compass Box blends too.  At the high end there are  rare single single cask offerings from unusual and rare distilleries such as Ben Nevis and Port Ellen.  The signature of a clear aesthetic is plainly visible.  Wild Turkey 101 didn't rate a spot on the wall, but the Wild Turkey "Tradition" Master Distiller 14 year old tribute expression did.  This isn't a conventional liquor store. 

JT Robertson w/Brimstone & Triple Smoke
I had another treat when I ran into JT Robertson - the man behind the jeweler's precision of bottle selection on the wall.   He is incredibly knowledgeable, articulate, and opinionated about the world of spirits, the industry, and the flavors.   As the conversation progressed he genially poured a wee dram of extraordinary Rittenhouse Rye 25, which I hadn't previously tried.  We discussed flavors and I was impressed by his articulate exposition of the flavor profile, "deep plum", "not cherries, more like Kirsch", "the only weakness is the wood becomes a bit astringent at the finish".  He nailed it.  We had a great moment together.  JT talked me into wanting Breckenridge Bourbon but I couldn't swing it at the time - so I'll have to go back.

If you are in the Village and want to score some top notch and hard to find hooch I'd heartily recommend a look at the informed selections on the spirit wall at Le Du's. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Part 3 of Corroborating the Value Whisky Review Water Integration Experiment - more time.

Before I begin I must state that the inspiration for this series of experiments, Ryan of Value Whisky Reviews, has decided to hang it up and stop blogging. I'm sad to see him stop, but respect his decision in light of the personal reasons he gave. However the inspiration of Ryan's approach burns bright. His fascinating empirical studies on the effects of oxidation and evaporation on the flavor of whiskies in open bottles and his water integration experiment particularly captivate me. I will be repeating these experiments, as I had already begun to do - and will endeavor to think like Ryan and bring some structure and rigor in figuring out new experimental approaches to the issues of enjoying and living with these vibrant and mercurial elixirs.

Now, about the water integration I wrote two posts on last week: no, I'm not done, not by a long shot. Where we left off last week was that I had successfully corroborated Ryan of http://valuewhisky.blogspot.com/ conclusion that allowing a rest period of a couple of days after diluting whisky produced a smoother, more rounded, better integrated result. However there were troubling aspects to this conclusion: the nose and the sugar notes of the entry were muted and rounded along with the heat. I wondered, what would additional time do.

I performed two additional experiments for this third installment:

1) Bookers diluted with only 1/8 volume of water allowed to integrate for 9 days. The idea here is to rectify the problem of the unacceptable loss of opening sweetness. Bookers at 7/8 is 111.9 proof. This is, granted, very high. Just the edge off.

Color: medium copper.

Nose: much of the full Bookers nose is now in evidence after a week: brown sugar, cherry compote, molasses, corn pone, tobacco and fresh sawn oak. The nose is more relaxed and less hot than the uncut version - but unlike the previous dilution experiments it comes off as an integrated whole.

Opening is bright and sharp with brown sugar - yes the sugars that were too muted at 4/5 are well present at 7/8 and a week of water integration. Midpalate expansion is sharp and hot with jammy bitter orange, stewed peaches, and rich oak. The mouthfeel is good - not rich but at least as full as the uncut. The turn is full of bitter wood, and the sour tang so distinctive of Jim Beam's mash, and dark char. It's a heady stew. I'm not certain it works as a sipping whisky to rival the really good ones - but it's in the ballpark. Its also noticeably easier to drink than uncut Bookers - still hot but not quite as debilitatingly so. There's no hint that this is a dilution. Unless you had it side by side with the uncut stuff it wouldn't occur to you.

2) Port Charlotte PC7 at the previous 4/5th dilution, but allowed to integrate for 8 days.

Color: Light gold.

Nose: earthy peat with a note of iodine, salt, library paste and a hint of distant mint. There's also some tar and bacon.

Entry is sweet and round and rich with toffee malt, oatmeal and mead. Midpalate expansion is big and forceful with earthy peat arriving in a big way. The fade sees the peat turn to tar and ash with a deep anthracite coal combustion note. This is unmistakably Port Charlotte, but the big burn is gone. Some of the razor sharp sugar intensity is gone too, but without an uncut dram to directly compare you would be hard pressed to notice. This is fine Islay dram that doesn't read as a dilution at all.

The key ingredient is time. A splash of water is not just a splash of water - that's the big lesson here. What begins as thin, watery, and diluted ends up tightly bound with the flavor signature that originally was there. I suspect that congeners and flavor compounds in whisky are not readily soluble in water. When water is first added it doesn't dissolve an essential aspect. You taste the poorly integrated water.  After a marrying period the water becomes more fully integrated with a richer mouth feel, more sugars apparent up front, less spirit heat, and more rounded presentation in general.  As far as I know, this effect wasn't documented before Ryan's post.

http://blog.khymos.org/2007/06/03/new-perspectives-on-whisky-and-water/
There have been some excellent posts on the effects of a splash of water in general, however.  My favorite is  New perspectives on whisky and water by / June 3rd, 2007 in Khymos.  It describes the process as follows:  "Malt whisky contains high concentrations of esters and alcohols with long hydrocarbon chains. When water is added, the solubility of these esters and alcohols decreases, and a supersaturated solution results"... "The over-all effect is a fractionation of volatile compounds upon dilution with water: water insoluble compounds are concentrated in the aggregates (or micelles) of long chain esters, water soluble compounds remain in solution and compounds (probably those which are slightly soluble in water) that were originally trapped in ethanol micelles are liberated. "... "So after all, the popular notion that addition of water “opens up” the aroma of a whisky is true, but who would have thought that the effect is a combination of “masking” (inclusion of some arome compounds in long chain ester micelles) and “demasking” (opening up of ethanol micelles)".

All of this explains how adding water transforms the flavor of whisky both by exposing something hidden,  breaking up congeners locked in micelles, and by muting some other flavor elements by locking them up in bunches caused by supersaturation.  However, the issue of time is not explicitly discussed in the article.  Do all of these things happen at once?  Do they happen over hours?  Days?  Weeks?   

My experience is that big changes happen over the first 30 minutes, but additional changes are clearly detected after 2 days and even more changes are clearly detected after 8 and 9 days.  Things really start to get good after extended marrying time.  Why?  At the moment I don't have a clue.  However these three experiments show me that Ryan has discovered something profoundly true about marrying time for whisky and water.

The final question is "so what"?  Am I really going to dilute and vat my cask strength whisky a week or more before drinking it?  In most cases, no.  The distilleries do that most of the time.  The results of these experiments don't suggest a clear course of action in my opinion.  I will drink cask strength whisky undiluted most of the time.  I have gained the knowledge, however, that marrying time produces a smoother, less hot, more integrated dram.  This effect continues for many days.  This a data point; more information.  Use it as you see fit.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Compass Box - Pacari Chocolate pairing tasting event at the St. Giles Hotel Court Bar.

Hedonism and Lemongrass chocolate
Last week I posted about the press preview for the Compass Box - Pacari Chocolate pairing event. Tonight the event went down. I have already described the pairings in detail, so in this post I'm going to make two key points: 1) the event was FUN! I have been a shy family oriented stay-at-home-Dad for years. Attending the event was a really entertaining experience.  It was a way to get out and play at a cool venue and have some new experiences. And 2) my experience of the tasting match ups changed - and were different this time - which was a real surprise with a significant lesson.

Francisco Vivar discusses chocolate
As before the event was captained by Robin Robinson, the US brand ambassador for Compass Box Whisky and by Francisco Vivar, the importer of Pacari Chocolate.  The event was held at the St. Giles Hotel Court Bar - a cool room on Lexington and 39th, near Grand Central on the slopes of Murray Hill.  The bar was the setting for the tasting event - and is pretty well stocked.  A lot of nice malts were visible behind the bar.  I might have to go back.

Before the event began I hung out with the interesting and sophisticated NYC crowd.  I met a number of fascinating people including George Gensler, a co-founder of the Manhattan Chocolate Society and frequent reviewer on seventypercent.com - a very cool woman who dashingly sports a very male name, and Henrietta of the hip http://henriettashungry.com  Bloggers and epicures - my kind of crowd.

Robin Robinson lights some peat.
When the show got going Francisco Vivar presented the ecological and community focus of Pacari Chocolate - which is very focused on  sustainability, fair trade, organic cultivation, and use of local Ecuadorian ingredients and manufacturing.  Robin Robinson, by contrast is a whisky showman of the first order.  This time he had props: a model of an oak barrel with a charred interior, samples of oak staves, a bottle of caramel color, and a lump of peat.  Each of the props was introduced at the appropriate time.  The peat, for example, came out when the Peat Monster was poured.  Robinson explained what peat was (colorfully) and then lit the peat and let it smoulder.  The intense smoky aroma vividly brought home where the peatiness of peated malts comes from.

Having already written about the specific pairings took the heat off and I could really relax and enjoy the whisky and the chocolate.  Somehow, a number of things struck me differently:
  • Asyla is more than just floral and super thin and blonde.  It has  lychee and citrus herb notes in the nose, a velvety mouth feel and a sweetness, herbs, more lychee, malt sugars and mineral notes on the tongue.  The 70% chocolate it was paired with is smooth if you suck it and not chew it.  It has a rich heady cocoa fermented winey flavor.   This pairing was working better for me today.
  •  Great King St. Artist's Blend with golden berries paired nicely again - the lemon in the Artist's Blend picking up very nicely the citrusy sour/sweet of the golden berries.  It's a citrus note harmonic reinforcement.  The dark chocolate blended nicely with the malt foundation and bakery notes in GKSAB.
    Robin Robinson loves what he does.
  • Hedonism was much more intensely flavored for me today.  Coconut and cocoa butter dominated the nose.  I noticed less of an acid brightness in the flavor - it seemed more smooth and elegant and I got a lot more cocoa and toasted coconut in the flavor as well.  This made me enjoy the Hedonism more to sip - but less as a pairing with the excellent Pacari lemongrass chocolate.  This time the lemongrass dominated the succulent cocoa and coconut flavors of Hedonism and it didn't meld into a new flavor for me today.
  • The Peat Monster was even more monstrous with Robinson burning peat and waving the aromatic smoke around the room.  The pairing with the incredible Pink Salt and Nibs flavor of Pacari was amazing again.  The salt air of the whisky and the vivid salt flakes in the chocolate aligned, as did the smoky richness of the cacao and the rich smokiness of the peat in the peat monster.  These two simply work in harmony. 
  • Orangerie and Chili chocolate emerged as my favorite this time.  The wicked heat and glorious dueling orange and coriander seed aromatics from the scented whisky and chocolate.  Just a brilliant combination.                                                                                 
The fact that so many things struck me differently shows how mercurial the process of tasting is.  Influenced by mood and perception, and also semi-tangibles like temperature, time of air breathing etc... a multitude of factors bears on subjective enjoyment.  This stressed in my mind the importance of repeated tasting before coming to hard conclusions.

This issue of variability didn't get in the way of my fun, however.   I enjoyed most everything tremendously.  It was a tasty experience that confirmed what I had previously discovered: that food and whisky can pair brilliantly.  It is a lesson well worth learning.

Monday, March 26, 2012

E&J Brandy - US domestic price per volume leader.

Last week I put E&J VSOP in the anchor spot in my overview of midrange Cognacs (and brandy: any grape distillate not from the controlled region around Cognac, France is "brandy"). I hated it, one starred it, and literally poured it down the drain. It had a bad fake orange flavor like cough syrup. I have to own that it may have been a bad sample - but even if it isn't I must ask "is this a legitimate representative of cheap domestic grape brandy?"

I remember that, growing up there was always a large flagon of plain brown label E&J, either the oblate half gallon or the more utilitarian shaped gallon (that looked suitable to mount on the back of a Jeep to either revive you from chill or get you to a gas station in a pinch) next to the gallon of vodka and a fifth of bourbon or scotch. Why? I suspect the value proposition had something to do with it. E&J plain currently goes for the princely sum of $8.99 / 750ml. It's the cheapest barrel aged hooch at Shopper's Vineyard - and that's saying something. I don't think my parents, children of the Depression that they were, could overlook that kind of value. I'm not sure I can either. Surely it couldn't have been that bad if gallons came and went. I seem to recall most of it was consumed neat. Surely I owe that once favored snort a proper try.

E&J brandy, 40%abv $8.99/750ml - Modesto, California

Color: medium coppery orange / light amber

Nose: white raisins and dry white wine (Sauvignon Blanc) and a hint of oak. Not bad.

Entry is moderately sweet with some jammy vinous sugars. Midpalate has moderate spirit heat but almost no turpentine nastiness at all. It's actually pretty smooth. The dominant flavor notes at midpalate are a somewhat a muted but credible cognac flavor profile of orange citrus preserve, grape spirit, and some nice sawn oak. The mouth feel is thin - but not unpleasantly so. The finish is relatively short and pretty tidy. There's a trace of bitterness, but nothing too annoying. Knock me over with a feather - this is pretty drinkable. I bet they sell a metric TON of this stuff.

Bottom line, it's an off dry presentation with fairly thin mouthfeel and a tiny bit more spirit heat than would be ideal for the grantedly muted flavor density. But the flavors that are present are not bad. It's not a gourmet experience, but it's fine to drink neat and mixes fine. This is way WAY nicer to drink than grainy cheap scotch, Irish, or Canadian. I put in the same league as cheap bourbon (like Evan Williams White) - i.e. a bargain.

** 1/2

Two stars on taste alone, but for the money it's an unassailable decision - even recommendable.

How does it compare with the Courvoisier and Hennesy VS experessions? The wood in the E&J is more muted - less exuberant and patchouli incensed. The E&J is a bit drier too - but on the whole feels generally comparable for 1/3rd the price.

Spice Tree is a fierce but elegant excursion into the deep wood.

An homage to G-LO.  Can you identify the hero?
This will be my third consecutive post boasting the latin name of the sessile oak:  quercus petraea.  Compass Box features this spicy French oak in a number of their whiskies - but it takes total center stage, and indeed provides the name for the flagship of their regular issue malt whisky line: Spice Tree.  The story of how John Glaser's first two editions of this expression were banned by the Scotch Whisky Association for being non-traditional has been told often.  The gist is that Glaser lined the barrels with interior staves of quercus petraea, but was told to desist by the SWA - with threats of legal action.  Then Glaser produced the work-around of using quercus petraea to form the head (the ends) of the barrels used - the same as in the Oak Cross expression (although Compass Box's web site says that Spice Tree is aged longer in Oak Cross casks that have been more heavily toasted).  This is a blended malt - thus it is composed of a mix of single malts.  The web site specifies that it is "entirely sourced from northern Highland single malt distilleries, primarily malt whisky distilled at the Clynelish distillery.  All 10 to 12 years old."  Clynelish has a wonderful aroma and gingery, almost curried flavor profile - so it's a good fit for very spicy oak - at least in theory.  As far as I know, no one else is using sessile oak to age Scotch whisky - so this is an attribute unique to Compass Box

Spice Tree:  46% abv; $65 at Shopper's Vineyard.  50ml sample proved by Robin Robinson at the chocolate pairing tasting event preview

Color: light amber with some greenish tints.  A nice rich color.

Lovely light amber with greenish tints.
Nose: malt, honey, demara sugar, a bit of meaty note - like Christmas ham (roasted salted pork with cloves and a sugar glaze), a touch of herbal vegetal sap (parsley, cress or burdock), some sherry, and a distant hint of fine leather (as in nice gloves, not cowboy saddle). Classy - very poised.

Opening is sweet and bright with plenty of sugar and also a pronounced herbal note - like a cross between parsley and black mint.  Then it is suddenly and dramatically spicy. The first hint is a complex oaky balsa wood perfume flavor that rapidly broadens into a spike of spice heat that is prickly and numbing on the tongue in the same manner as clove or cinnamon (without actually tasting a great deal like either). At the same time vanilla perfume and a rich sherry note provide a sweet and floral counterpoint.  The transition to the finish is marked by a melding of the sweet and heat which combine to form a flavor reminiscent of ginger.  Then the oak takes over and the lingering finish is a drying and elegant wood fest.  This is the longest finish in the regular release Compass Box line and it's a pleasure.

The heat doesn't build up on repeated sipping, like it would with actual clove, cinnamon, or ginger.  Instead it forms a continuous backdrop to the complex array of flavors balancing sweet and dry, sugars, herbs, spice, and wood essences in a shifting interplay from nose to opening to midpalate bloom to finish to afterglow over and over.  It's a highly engaging and thought provoking and richly flavored dram.  The heat might be a bit much for some (my wife, for example, didn't like it at all - but she's not much for whisky generally).  But those in for a bit of gustatory challenge will be rewarded by John Glaser's excursion in a totally new flavor direction.  This amping up of the wood note is an inspired and entertaining new direction for Scotch - another face card in the loaded Full House hand that is Scotch's extraordinary variability.  Not only is this the archetype of a new flavor profile - it's also a delicious and extremely drinkable success.  Loved it!

*****

Friday, March 23, 2012

Great King St. Artists Blend is a solid effort. Is it a Johnny Walker Black and Chivas killer?

Great King St.'s bottle is Edwardian elegance.
When Compass Box turned ten they announced their intention to launch a new line of blended Scotch whiskies for the mainstream market. The initial product in this new "Great King St." line is the Artists Blend. This inexpensive blended whisky is meant to appeal to first timers, people who don't normally drink Scotch, drinkers of mainstream blends, and anyone looking for an inexpensive easy drinking dram that has a bit more character than the mainstream usual blends (y'know, Johnny Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Passport, Ballantines, Teachers, Grants, Grouse, etc...). I'll weigh in, not only with tasting notes, but also with head to head tasting match ups with market leading blends Johnny Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal 12.

Here's what the Great King St. Artist's Blend (GKSAB from here on in) is made of, according to the Great King St. page on the Compass Box web site:

Whisky Spirit Character Amount (%)
Lowland Grain Whisky Fruity/perfumed 51.4%
Northern Highland Single Malt Malty, Fruity 23.2%
Northern Highland Single Malt Grassy/Perfumed 17.7%
Speyside Single Malt Meaty 7.7%

Cask breakdown:
Wood Type Flavour Impact Amount
First Fill American Oak Barrel Vanilla 62.3%
New French Oak Finish (New-Headed Barrel)
Grilled Marshmallow, toastiness, roasted coffee 27.7%
First Fill Sherry Butt Wine, dried fruits 10.0%

So, GKSAB is almost half malt, and mainly aged in oak but over a quarter aged in the spicy oak cross sessle oak barrels discussed in my previous post. There's also 10% sherry butt - a new thing for Compass Box. Let's see if we taste all this careful blending and barrel management:

abv: 43% Price at Shopper's Vineyard $37. At Union Square Liquors $43.

Color: yellow gold

Nose: Green apple, lemon curd parfait, cake batter or raw pie shell dough, a yogurt or yeast note, and a hint of sherry.  There's a bit of rawness in the uncooked bakery stuff that I don't love - but the lemony aspect is really nice.

A lovely light gold color.
Entry is sweet with soft baked fruits (apples / pears) but then a firm bright note pops up at the midpalate. Sprit heat, but also a bit of Spice Tree clove and nutmeg - but faint; more like just the tingle with little of the aromatics. There is also a note I recall from Hedonism: an acid almost like citrus, but without the tang which evolves into a touch of coconut and candy. It all rides on a firm grain body and a fairly rich mouth feel - almost creamy. At the turn to the finish there is the lemon parfait note again. It arrives with a suggestion of sherry sweetness that communicates "Scotch" to me. The finish is moderately long. It has an oaky quality, but fades to a slightly bitter finish that doesn't fit well with the rest of the presentation. It's a complex flavor profile, but a soft and gentle presentation overall.  My subjective impression is good.  It's interesting and pleasant to drink.  The complexity is clearly emerging for all that barrel management and blending.  There is oak, there is some spice from the quercus petraea spice oak.  There is the whiff of sherry.  There's a lot going on for a light and sweet dram.  This could hold your interest. 

GKSAB (left) JWBL (right)
So, how does GKSAB fare against Johnny Walker Black Label (JWBL) head to head? First of all, I'll admit that I'm rooting for Compass Box. It's a young iconoclastic artisanal company that has a clear way with grain whisky (look at their Hedonism offering). Johnny Walker is a staid old guard that has sold this flavor profile for a century (could it be coasting?) and makes a fairly nasty lower blend (Red Label).  Red Label shows me that Diageo doesn't have that way with grain whisky.  Costs are close:  GKSAB is $37 and JWBL is $34 at Shopper's Vineyard.  This is close enough to not be a factor, but Johnny is a little cheaper.

Color: GKSAB pale gold. JWBL rich dark gold - granted JWBL uses caramel color and GKSAB specifically states that it uses no colorings and is not chill filtered.
Nose: GKSAB: Lemon yogurt parfait and buttery cake batter and faint sherry. JWBL: Malt toffee, hint of peat, clear sherry note.

Flavor: GKSAB is distinctive and has complexity, but the slight thinness in the body and slight bitter note on the finish do not compare well head to head with JWBL which has a slightly thicker mouth feel and a firmer malt body through the midpalate and a more lingering wooded and graceful finish.  JWBL feels denser and tastes like it has a higher proportion of malt.  (I'm not saying that it actually has a higher percentage of malt - just that it tastes like it does).  It has a sophisticated balance that comes off as more mature.  Part of this might be the peat and bit of smoke in the JWBL flavor profile.  GKSAB feels a bit younger and thinner and more grainy.  So, JWBL wins hands down on price, density, and on hitting the archetypical "Scotch" flavor profile. GKSAB succeeds in being soft, sweet, original, and different. The difference doesn't serve as a better introduction to the segment in my opinion.  I have no problem recommending both - but Johnny Walker Black retains its place as the mainstream default pick in my opinion.  This reminds me of a survey of the ketchup market I read a few years back.  Interesting new artesanal ketchups didn't beat boring old Heinz because Heinz nailed the center of the ketchup flavor profile everyone expects and loves.  JWBL just nails the archetype of the Highland Scotch flavor profile.  GKSAB is something totally new.  It's really not a straightforward comparison at all.

GKSAB (left) Chivas 12 (right)
How about head to head against Chivas Regal 12? Here GKSAB is the clear winner. Chivas is slightly richer in color, but has the thinner nose and less richness on the palate.  Chivas' mild sweet nose is too simple by comparison with GKSAB, there is less going on.  The cake batter note in Chivas puts the flavor profile in the same light sweet doughy region as GKSAB, but with less flavor density, complexity, and heft.  GKSAB has far more interest and complexity, as well as better flavor density, more grain body, and a longer, more interesting finish.

"Artist's Blend is soft and full on the palate"
So, in the context of the both Johnny Walker and Chivas we see Great King St. slot squarely into the pack - but clearly very close to leading.  But the uniqueness of its flavor profile and it's elegant poise makes it a compelling pick.  The lightness and softness of Great King St. is part of the family trait of Compass Box - but it works better with the floral lightness and body-tautness of, say, Asyla than it does here.  I applaud the Artist's Blend for the many things it does right - but I want more heft in the middle and a bit more oak in the finish.  Still, I can't help feeling that these are quibbles.  Great King St. Artist's blend is on my short list of recommended blended Scotches for new Scotch drinkers.

***

---------------------------
Update 4/5/12:  Two weeks later I find I'm enjoying Artist's Blend even more with time.  The brightness and firmness hold up to repeated drinking.  It's a new flavor profile - but with familiarity comes affection.  Great King St. Artist's Blend is working for me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Oak Cross Blended Malt Scotch Whisky from Compass Box - an absolute original.

I'm all over Compass Box this week.  Compass Box is an innovative maker of eclectic Scotch whisky blends.  Many of these are on the gentle and sweet end of things.  I'm a big rough tough man who takes his whisky big and neat and preferably undiluted cask strength and my first instinct is skepticism.  I like my whisky to shoot cannons.  In that spirit, let's proceed.  First up, the remarkable Oak Cross:

Color: glittering light gold with amber tints.

Nose: soft sweet vanilla floral notes lead off. Sweetness joins from below to yield a hard candy quality. A touch of veal aspic. Some distant sherry. Some nice mature oak. The nose is a little like Grandma opening a nice old fancy wooden box of hard candies and offering you one. A gentle and soothing nose - but not a lush fragrance that invites deep extended exploration.

Entry is initially soft and sweet and then zowie - a big midpalate explosion of spice hits. My initial notes described berry acids like jujubes and also bright candy and plum brandy flavors. Those notes were from a pour from a half full bottle (extensively aired). Today, from a fresh sealed miniature I'm getting spicy wood. Maybe that's because now I know what it is.

Oak Cross is, according to info from Compass Box, a blend of 10-12 year old single malts from Teaninich, Brora (they must mean Clynelish) "for fruitiness" and Carron "for weight" (Dailuaine - I imagine). It is blended from malts aged in first fill ex bourbon white oak casks and American oak casks specially fitted with caps made of a spicy french oak called Quercus Petraea - Sessile Oak. (Robin Robinson, US Brand Ambassador for Compass Box, explained this part to me personally) This mixture of oak types is the "oak cross" - as in mixture of oak types. This Quercus Petraea is the "spice tree" in the darker, bigger Spice Tree expression Compass Box also offers. So the explosion of spice in the midpalate is wood - Quercus Petraea oak. G-LO on the Booze Dancing blog calls this spicy aspect "cinnamon altoid" - but the heat I'm getting isn't cinnamon - it's clove, and allspice. Maybe some Mace or even nutmeg in there too. These spice notes mingle with the entry's prominent vanilla floral sweetness and join a honeyed lightly sherried malt richness in the yummy heart of the midpalate glow.

Give this one a lot of time to open up. The entry becomes richer and more honeyed and the spicy explosion becomes bigger and more spicy and aromatic. Those jujube notes are dancing on my tongue now but it took a half an hour of air for them to bloom out of the sealed bottle.

The finish is gentle and brief - a feature of most of the Compass Box offerings that alternately delights, mystifies, and frustrates me. The rich spicy oak fades for a moment into a sandalwood scented incense and lingering sherry sweetness and then as the tannins almost form a bitter note - poof - like a sorcerer - it's gone. There's a faint whisper of flavor after two minutes, like after you've taken chewing gum out two minutes earlier. But the palate is left clean and refreshed - almost as if such a potent dram never happened. Is this a plus? A minus? I can't decide. It's a bit of both. I have the ingrained bias that a "good" whisky has a titanic long finish. Yet clearly Oak Cross is quite good indeed across all phases of it's game; yet it has packed its gear and fully left the field while I'm still panting from the last play... I've wrestled with this and decide that no penalty is called for here. So much of Oak Cross is new - utterly unlike any malt I've had before - that I must treat it as its own animal. The relatively short finish is, at worst, a sin of omission. At it's best it makes it easy to drink, easy to pair, and easy to live with.

Oak Cross is gentle lamb in the beginning, a raging tiger in the middle and a vanishing artist at the finish. It is graced with a delicious and very unusual flavor profile. Will you like it? I did. How do you feel about cloves and mace? How do you like cinnamon altoids?  Ultimately, Oak Cross is true to the gentle and floral "family DNA" of Compass Box but gives me some cannons!

Four stars. Bravo Compass Box! Original, ground breaking, and very very tasty.

****

Update - I neglected to mention how Oak Cross plays from a value perspective.  Oak Cross is $44/750ml at Shopper's Vineyard (a deep discounter in the NYC greater metro region - the source of all the following prices).  This is the low midrange of malt pricing; the same price class as The Macallan 12, Balvenie Doublewood 12, Dalmore 12, Highland Park 12, Glenfarclas 10, Tomintoul 10, Glen Goyne 10, Isle of Jura Superstition, Arran 10, etc...  In my opinion Oak Cross is a solid fit, value-wise, with this crew.  There are awesome malts here - but these tend to be the introductory expressions in their lines.  In the Compass Box line, Oak Cross is the 3rd most expensive expression behind Spice Tree ($65), and Peat Monster ($50) and ahead of Asyla & Orangerie ($40) and Great King St. ($37).  The whole lineup seems well priced - good value for what you get. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Glenmorangie 12 Port Wood Finish - late 1990s bottling: the start of the movement.


A fiery sunset of a whisky
When Dr. Bill Lumsden arrived at Glenmorangie as head distiller in 1995 he launched an ambitious line of secondary wood finished malts that changed the course of whisky history - starting the craze of innovative wood finishing that continues to this day. Initially there were three expressions - all "at least 12 years old" and 43% abv: Sherry, Madeira, and Port Wood finishes. My favorite was the Madeira - which is why I have none left. The Port wood finish was replaced by the Quinta Ruban offering in the current lineup. Let's drink of the old original Port expression and send the old lineup off to oblivion.

Color: rich reddish coppery amber

Nose: A sweet musty mashup of rich port wine - prunes, rancio, cherry cola, and old dusty wood.

Entry is sweet with a dark demerara sugar effusive with floral vanilla followed by a peppery mid-palate expansion bursting with sherry raisin, and black cherry over a big cereal malt foundation. The wood is showing up early and by the end of the mid-palate sandalwood, oak and old dry hatbox are taking over. Plenty of oak tannins. I would believe this was a 15 - maybe a 17. Finish is long and dominated by a peculiar sweet-sour woody finish that is uniquely Glenmorangie. It has a vermouth quality - but dryer and more elegant. With time the body becomes richly honeyed. The sweet demerara syrup hits the vinous notes to form a bitter citrus at mid-palate that devolves into rich woods and that intense peculiar finish. A knock out.

****

Why was the Madeira my favorite? Lighter, more intensely floral and still rich. Sadly I never bought the Sherry. I guess I thought that The Macallan covered the Sherry angle well enough... sigh.  Now I'll probably never know.

Bill Lumsden, again I salute you.

Compass Box Whisky and Pacari Chocolate Pairing event preview

 There's been a growing zeitgeist of chocolate whisky pairing lately in the whisky blogosphere.  Part of it is that there is a growing appreciation for excellent whisky and a growing interest in high end chocolate - particularly ultra dark and high cacao offerings.  But, more than that, there is a growing awareness that fine whiskies can go with food - both to the enhancement of the whisky - and the food.  Here are a couple of recent blog posts that explore this synergy:

http://www.scotchdrammer.com/2012/02/experiment-pairing-chocolate-and-scotch.html
http://www.connosr.com/distilled/issue-2/pairing-whisky-with-chocolate/

Now - that's the zeitgeist.  It isn't me.  Personally, I normally detest having good whisky with food.  I don't want anything to distract from the pure flavors of distilled spirit.  I also find that distilled spirits wallop the palate which pretty severely alters the experience of the food.  However in a carefully wrought pairing, that's the whole idea.  The flavors combine into something new.  I'll admit I was skeptical about this chocolate/whisky pairing thing until I had a first hand experience.  If you're in New York next week, you can too.
 
A fun whisky and chocolate pairing event will be going down on the evening of March 27, 2012: the Pacari Chocolate & Compass Box Whisky pairing event at the St. Giles Hotel in New York from 5-7pm.  Tickets are $35 on line.  That's a pretty decent price to taste an extensive flight of nice whisky - and a group of very tasty chocolate bars and enrobed exotic fruits.  But this is going to be a bit more than just a flight of whisky and some chocolate - some real thought has gone into the specific pairings in this event.

How do I know?  In my capacity as a whisky blogger I attended a press preview of this event and I'll give you the full lowdown (thanks, Whisky Woman, for providing the opportunity!). 

Amanda Diepeveen of ays by the cornucopia of Compass Box whisky and Pacari chocolate.

The whiskies here are the Compass Box range.  These are John Glaser's iconoclastic collection of delicious concoctions of blended malt and grain whiskies, or just blended malt whiskies, or just grain whiskies.  There is some careful barrel selection going on here - but the real magic seems to be in the barrel aging of the blends - in first fill American oak.  The floral vanilla oak notes are a thread which binds the line together.  Another common attribute is a deft light touch and smooth, short, non-bitter finishes.  It's this latter attribute that make Compass Box whiskies so well suited to a chocolate pairing.

The chocolates in the pairing are the organic fair trade Ecuadorian Pacari chocolates.  This company specializes in raw, ultra dark chocolate that has the clear flavor signature of the nibs.  They utilize local and characteristic Andes fruits and spices in their products to bring a sense of terroir.  As a man who regularly eats raw cacao nibs, I really appreciate how closely the flavor profile of Pacari hews to the flavors of whole raw cacao.  It's masterful stuff.  If any chocolate has a chance at standing up to a mouth full of straight whisky it's this stuff.

The show was MC'ed by Compass Box's US brand ambassador Robin Robinson and Pacari's Francisco Vivar.  They are a couple of jovial and informed showmen.  I've caught Robinson's act before.  He's particularly engaging and entertaining.  If you come to the March 27th event you will be entertained and will probably learn something too.

Here how the pairings go down - full tasting notes of the whiskys and pairings:

Robin Robinson, Compass Box Ambassador, pours Asyla.
1) Asyla Malt & Grain blend paired with Raw 70% Cacao: Asyla is pale straw colored with a lightly vegetal (sweet parsley?) and honeysuckle floral nose. Entry is sweet and light with gentle demara sweetness while midpalate brings some malt body with a touch of apple and a chalk mineral almost sauvingnon blanc note and a light flush of spirit heat. Finish is short and gentle. Robin Robinson called it "feminine". I'd agree - she's very blonde and supermodel pretty and supermodel thin. The chocolate pairing is the unflavored most raw and elemental 70% cacao raw - which has the big winey heady flavor of raw cacao nibs and is so packed with raw nibs that the texture was a bit gritty. This is beautiful chocolate for people who like raw nibs because it keeps that flavor and elevates it. The pairing however was the weakest - only adding spirit heat and a bit of malt glow to the more powerful cocoa flavors.

2) Great King Street Blended Scotch paired with Pacari chocolate covered golden berries: Great King Street is a rich golden yellow. The nose is nice and rich with sweet and salted butter, butterscotch, and sultanas (rich golden raisins). Entry is sweet with toffee, midpalate broadens with slight sherry notes, some bakery notes (apple crisp) mild spirit heat and some oaky vanilla perfume. Finish is gentle and short. No grain burn or any trace of coffey still fishy oniony flavor signature detected. Very nice.  (Great King Street is a potential Johnny Walker Black Label killer and I'll be doing a full review including a head to head of that duo in the very near future.)  The pairing worked with golden berries that have a sultana-like flavor and an addictive crisp texture arising out of crystal sugars and the fibrous berry's dried body - nicely draped with a crisp thin shell of intensely flavored inky dark Pacari chocolate. The pairing put the vibrance of the berries in harmony with the soft fruits of the whisky. Great King has more malt body - so it holds up to the robust chocolate better - plus the berries have less chocolate so the flavors were more equally matched and neither overwhelmed the other.
Pacari's Francisco Vivar (left) and Compass Box's Robin Robinson

3) Hedonism grain Scotch whisky paired with Pacari Lemongrass chocolate bar.
Hedonism is pale gold. Light sherry with spiced notes of clove and allspice on the nose. Entry is bright and sassy with sweet white grape. Expansion is quick and light with coconut, cake batter and toffee. Body is very light. Finish has kiss of oak and vanilla floral note. The pairing here is inspired. The Lemongrass in the chocolate is citrusy and highly aromatic. The bright opening of Hedonism picks it up and their symphony is intensely vegetal, rich, tasty and unexpected. The best matchup of the day - but other good ones follow.

4) Peat Monster paired with Pacari Pink Salt & nibs bar. Peat Monster was even better than I remembered: pale gold in color with a rich nose that hits iodine first, then earthy peat and maritime brine with warm sweetness underneath. Entry is bright and toffee sweet like Caol Ila 12. Then smoke and a rich coffee (with cream and sugar) note followed by a salty ocean breeze. Some nice oak and vanilla on the short gentle finish. The pairing here was a scrumptious dark chocolate loaded with crunchy salt flakes and cacao nibs. The rich smoke, earth, iodine salt whisky meshed beautifully with the big smoky peat.  The brine air in the Peat Monster meshed with the mineral loaded pink salt flakes and rich dark cocoa to form a smoky salty rich chocolate caramel confection that hit my monkey bone - hard.

5) The finale was Orangerie Scotch Whisky (a whisky infused with orange zest, cassia, and clove) paired with Pacari Chilli-Spice bar.  Compass Box's Orangerie reminds me of a drier Cointreau (actually very high praise in my book - Cointreau is one of the finest liqueurs).  Pale gold in the glass with a nose full of rich blood orange, Orangerie keeps the spice hidden like a fan dancer.  The heat of the cassia (cinnamon bark) emerges with the fade of the finish as a cryptic glow.  The pairing here is darkest chocolate studded with chile pepper and coriander seeds.  You can see where this pairing is going, rich bitter orange bitter chocolate sherbert with a wicked kick of heat at the finish in both capsicum and cinnamon dimensions.   Another monster pairing.

Bottom line here - 4 out of 5 of these pairings were total winners in my book.  Personally I wasn't expecting to enjoy the combination of any whisky with any food - but I had my horizons expanded - big time.

The event didn't quite end there.  The full line of Compass Box whiskies were up at the bar and I enjoyed tasting Oak Cross Malt and The Spice Tree malt.  These were my hands down favorites (except maybe the Peat Monster).  I obtained samples so these will be the subjects of full reviews in the coming days.  I feel privileged to have had a preview of this tasting.  It was a great introduction to the concept and practice of whiskey-chocolate pairing.  If you can make it come to the main event on March 27th.  I'll be there.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Corroborating the Value Whisky Reviews Water integration experiment part 2 - PC7

For background on Ryan of Value Whiskey Reviews' hypothesis about time integrating water please see my previous post "Corroborating the Value Whisky Reviews Water integration experiment - part 1" or read his original post here. I'd like to emphasize that Ryan's hypothesis is specifically that water integrates with whisky over time, reducing apparent spirit heat at the same level of dilution as freshly poured water. Integrated water also has a thicker mouthfeel, better body, and longer finish, to go with the reduced spirit heat. Ryan is NOT arguing that dilution is better or worse than not diluting - or making any argument about how much dilution is appropriate for a given whisky. The argument is solely whether time produces the smoother, thicker "integrated water" effect.

In yesterday's post I performed the integrated water experiment with Bookers bourbon. I found that the integrated water effect is readily detected with Bookers. Unfortunately I confused the issue somewhat talking about whether I enjoyed the level of dilution (1/5 - 50.8% abv) or not. Specifically, I did not enjoy that level of dilution with Bookers - but that was besides the point of the experiment. I'm so used to reviewing drams for enjoyment that it was tough to stay on topic. I'll discuss both topics tonight (whether the integrated water effect is detectable; and whether 1/5th dilution is enjoyable with PC7) - but I will keep these topics separate under distinct headings.

1) Integrated water experiment part 2: Port Charlotte PC7. PC7 is a superb cask strength Islay dram from Bruichladdich that is heavily peated (at 40ppm). It is 61.5% abv, which dilutes to 49.2% abv at 1/5th dilution. Integrated Water (IW henceforth) has been resting for 82 hours (about 3 1/2 days).
Recently Poured Water (RPW) is
the same filtered water at the same temperature added right before first tasting:

IW: Nose: iodine and peat with good presence.
Entry is rich and sweet with strong mouth feel and rich flavor. Plenty of spirit heat at the midpalate expansion but it comes on gradually and feels connected to a good sense of grain. Finish is long and flavorful.

RPW: 0-15 minutes of dilution: Nose is very polite - aromas missing in action. Entry has razor sharp sugars like the uncut. Big spirit heat at the midpalate expansion - much hotter than IW at the same proof! Body is thin and watery. Finish is lively, but noticeably shorter.

RPW- 30 minutes after dilution:
Nose is warmer and beginning to show iodine and peat notes.

Entry is noticeably less sharp - but still retains some of the intense sugars of the uncut product. Body is noticeably less watery - still slightly more watery than IW sample. Finish is fuller, but still dramatically thinner and weaker than the IW
sample.

RPW - 60 minutes after dilution:
Nose still weak but incrementally improved. Entry still rich, vanilla notes prominent now. Body still noticeably thinner than IW and finish less robust, but differences are smaller than at 30 minutes to a small degree. This is becoming enjoyable.

2) subjective analysis of whether dilution is pleasing.

PC7 succeeds on a number of levels: powerful grain sweetness on entry, rich earthy peat at midpalate, and seductive mix of oak, peat ash, and bituminous coal note in the looooong finish. These multiple attributed seem to hold up better to dilution than Bookers intense up front sweetness does. The IW sample in particular comes off as a rich and tasty dram you might encounter commercially and happily buy. The RPW samples suffer from watery body more, but after 45 minutes or so are quite enjoyable at this level of dilution. However, a nip from an uncut sample shows a vivid intensity that both diluted samples miss. Like the Bookers example, I would still choose to drink this dram uncut - or diluted to a smaller degree.

Conclusions: Ryan's Integrated Water Hypothesis is corroborated again. Allowing marrying time measured in days results in a diluted dram with dramatically altered properties as compared with a dram diluted to the same degree but without marrying time. Integrated water is smoother, richer, has fuller mouthfeel, and a stronger longer lasting finish than any of the RPW samples (although the RPW samples become more IW-like over the course of an hour). The IW water benefits come at the expense of some of the entry's sugar intensity compared with the RPW sample. Smoothness and roundness seems to polish the entry as well as the other phases. Fascinating!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Corroborating the Value Whisky Reviews experiment with integrating water - Part 1

I sure love the flavor density and intensity of cask strength whiskeys (and whiskys). However, they can be difficult to drink. The heat, power, and intensity of alcohol at cask strength can overwhelm the palate and the senses. The traditional solution - adding water - is problematic. As Ryan at Value Whiskey Reviews explains:

" I don't like to add water for three main reasons:
1. It never seems to do anything positive - just makes it more diluted and blander.
2. Even when you add water to tame a high-proof whisky, it doesn't seem to "integrate" and take the bite away. So now you have less flavor, and it's still too intense.

3. It's too much work figuring out how much to add and keeping track of that. KISS is my strategy whenever possible: Keep It Simple, Stupid."

I've always found that to be the case too. I allude to it again and again in various reviews on this site. For example, in my review of Bookers bourbon I wrote:

"Wow! I'm after another sip right away, but at this high a proof I must take my time. The first big question is "can I use water"? You always can, but sometimes it robs a whiskey of its heart."

In my review of Port Charlotte PC7 I wrote:

"The explosion of flavors is unusually intense and I want more right away. However the mouth sear from the high proof makes me slow down and have a drink of water every 3rd or 4th sip. Early on this intense young cask strength heat made me tempted to put water in it. Doing so cuts the heat but also dilutes the intense sweet salty smoke intensity that wows me. I opt for interspersing sips of water to cut the fire in my mouth and take this whiskey neat."

Ryan, figured out a solution - for Redbreast CS Irish whiskey anyway. He wrote up this fascinating experiment with the periods of time involved in integrating water into whisky using Redbreast 12 cask strength on Sunday, 3/11/12:

"...two days ago I poured 10 mL of bottled water into an empty 50 mL miniature bottle, then filled the rest up with Redbreast 12 CS. The end result - if I did the math correctly - should be 46-47% ABV, plus or minus. The exact number isn't too important. The important part is that that sample has been "integrating" over the last two days, and tonight, I am filling another sample bottle with the exact same ratio of water, and then pouring a dram immediately (well, after shaking to mix the water). So I am going to compare and see if there is any difference between "recently poured water" (RPW) and "integrated water" (IW)."

Ryan discovered that the sample that had been diluted with 1/5th water and allowed to sit and "marry" for two days ("integrated water" (IW)) was smoother, mellower, and more richly flavored than the sample that had just been diluted (recently poured water (RPW)). I wondered if Ryan's method of integrating water would work on the cask strength Bookers bourbon and Port Charlotte PC7 Islay Scotch single malt whisky expressions that I had previously attempted to water down - but without ideal results. So this Tuesday I put up four 50ml bottles. Two of them were filled 4/5th full of Bookers. In one of those I added 1/5 water. In the other I left 1/5th empty to allow me to mix water in at the same proportion immediately before the testing. The other two 50ml bottles were filled with Port Charlotte PC7. In one of those I added 1/5 water and in the other I left it 1/5th empty for the addition of water at the time of the test too.

So, lets see if Ryan's discovery that water integrates better with cask strength Irish whisky over time works with cask strength expressions of bourbon and Scotch whisky from Islay.

Water integration Experiment: Bookers 3/15/21012 6pm - 60 hours of integration.

Integrated Water (IW) has a noticeably muted nose. Less hot and sharp, but also less sweet and less woody. Corn and vegetal notes now prominent.

Entry is much smoother, but sweetness intensity greatly reduced. Body is thinner than uncut - but dramatically thicker and less watery than RPW. Midpalate expansion is still hot. Finish is still nice and long with Jim Beam sour note.

Recently Poured Water (RPW)

Nose is sharper, sweeter, more like uncut Bookers.

Entry has obvious watery note but the razor sharp sweetness of Bookers is plainly detectible. Midpalate heat is greatly reduced compared to uncut - but still hotter than IW. Midpalate flavors are fresher and more vivid too. Mouthfeel is much more watery, however than IW. Finish is noticably impacted. The spirit heat burn remains but the sweet and wood which dominated the finish are substantially reduced, as is the Beam diagnostic sour note.

After 30 minutes the body has noticeably improved. Sweet entry still in evidence. Midpalate still hot - but finish is getting better. After 45 minutes minor advancements on this line.

For me this is much more of a mixed bag than Ryan found. The RPW had more of uncut Booker's nose and sweet intensity on entry, but at the cost of a watery mouthfeel and an impaired finish. IW was substantially shelved down in the nose and missing the brown sugar intensity of Booker's entry. However it had much better thicker mouthfeel, midpalate corn structure, and a richer, more satisfying finish. What a conundrum. It's almost a tie - with neither one winning. Neither dilution did uncut Bookers any favors. In the future I'll still take my Booker's neat even if it means going slow and enduring the sear. However, if I do decide to cut Bookers my conclusion is the opposite of Ryan's: it's better to add water just before sipping and give it 30-40 minutes to rest and marry. Longer integration robs it of too much of it's nose and front end.

It's clear that I'm observing the same effects that Ryan found: extended time for integration yields a rounder smoother nose and front end and richer body without sacrificing the finish. However it seems that Ryan found this transformation served Redbreast 12 CS well and I found it ill suited to Bookers. The intense sweet nose and entry are Bookers greatest charms. The gains in smoothness and body and finish do not compensate for their loss in the case of Bookers bourbon.

Tomorrow we will see what happens with Port Charlotte 7...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Octomore 4.1/167; peat monster or gentle cask strength dram?

Octomore 4.1 is the 5 year old version of the extreme peated expression of Bruichladdich.  It is bottled at 62.5% abv and, famously, boasts peat levels of 167ppm - currently tied with Octomore 4.2 as the highest measured peat levels of any whisky... ever.  I certainly enjoy peated malts and I'm a big Bruichladdich fan - so why haven't I tried every one of these Octomore expressions?  Fear maybe - or just frugality.  They go for $150-$200+ a bottle around here.  The 4.1 expression here is $175 at Park Avenue Liquors.  That's beyond where I'm usually willing to stretch.  Enter samples from Belgium's http://whiskysamples.flyingcart.com/  
They sell inexpensive 30ml samples.  I'll be trying a number of these over the coming weeks.  I started with the Octomore 4.1 because the curiosity is burning in me - like a raging 167ppm fire.

Color:  pale chardonnay

Nose:  Peat (duh), but less than I was expecting.  It's a clean simple earthy peat on top of some spirit heat, very reminiscent of Connemara Turf Mor - but more.  There are iodine medicinal notes, and a slightly sweet vegetal quality like watercress, juniper, or gentle cilantro.  With extended time in the glass some sweetness comes to the nose - integrated into the peat like sugar beets in the earth.  Its a warm and pleasant nose - but remarkably simple and gentle considering the fearsome reputation that precedes this dram.

Entry is richly sweet, razor sharp and big.  Cereal sugars and rich malt toffee are the dominant first note.  The midpalate expansion is like a rip roaring explosion.  This is clearly a very young cask strength expression.  Peat comes on like a wave at midpalate, but gently.  The peat's presence builds and builds - first notes of peat in the earth with sea breeze above, then it evolves on the coated tongue into a rich savory of road tar, then ash, then finally a bituminous coal combustion note (that I've come to know and love as a characteristic of the new Jim McEwan Bruichladdich - and not just the peated ones.  Even the unpeated Rocks expression has that coal note.)  There is more going on here - vanilla notes from the oak are felt, and the oak is detectable on the finish.  But sip after sip the peat marshals its forces and sweeps the field.  The peat is gentle and late to arrive but this is the king of the peat monsters and its eventual victory is as inevitable as the tides or as the rise of the Sun after a long and dreary night.  The peat grows sip after sip, slipping its tendrils into your nose and throat.  As I work my way through my dram the peat begins to own every phase of the flavor blast - yet even in the road tar ash of the decaying finish everything is well behaved.  It's not bitter or overbearing.  It's powerful and yet graceful.  The peat monster as a kind of Michael Baryshnikov.  

Scotch of this powerful cask strength suggests a drop of water.  Doing so lightens the already light nose into a more subtle and even more youthfeel feeling state - not a benefit in my book.  On the tongue, however, a drop of water moves the sweetness into a more heathery floral direction.  The heathery ethereal meadow of the forepalate now floats above the roaring wall of massive peat that dominates the midpalate expansion and then settles back into the slow burn from earth to tar to ash on the palate that progresses in a stately manner over the next 3-5 minutes.  

Do I need to say that this whisky has a long finish?  I can't imagine a longer finish.  I suspect I'll be tasting this for days.  Yet for all its power, Octomore 4.1 wears its youth on its sleeve.  It's raw, sweet and simple.   Those expecting a ton of complexity will be disappointed.  What it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in raw power, but also restraint and grace.  Bottom line, it's a nice sweet dram that's quite tasty to drink - but with a wicked kick and a monstrously peaty finish.  I have no qualms immediately giving this five stars.  I better start saving up...

How does this compare to the younger Octomores - or the 4.2 expression that came after?  Not having tried them, I cannot say.  Based on my extensive tasting of the Port Charlotte line (which has many similarities), however, I imagine that the vanilla note from the oak is stronger now and the intensity of the peat has diminished (scary).  I look forward to learning more.

*****

update 4/1: Octomore 0.1.1 and 4.2 Comus were recently reviewed (click on the links at left to see them).  More 4.1, 2.1 and 2.2 Orpheus are in the house and will be reviewed soon.  Look for more reviews and comparisons in the near future.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The King of the Irish: Midleton Very Rare (2011)

When Paul Pacult published his massive book of spirit reviews "Kindred Spirits 2" in 2008 he held a tasting session at Keen's steakhouse in Manhattan modestly titled "The Ten Greatest Spirits in the World". It was an astonishing night but perhaps the biggest surprise and delight was the penultimate selection - a rich and buttery waxy whisky with a luscious bananas foster flavor and an amazingly polished and elegant manner. I had to be told twice that it was an Irish whisky. Most in attendance had the same incredulous reaction. "Did he say an IRISH whisky?"

That was my introduction to Midleton Very Rare - the flagship of Irish Distillers (a division of Pernaud Ricard) - the makers of Jamesons and Redbreast (among others).

Midleton Very Rare comes in a high fallutin wooden box with a plaque. It is limited in production to 50 casks a year and each bottle is individually numbered and labelled with the vintage year of bottling. A card is included for you to register your bottle by mail. Over the top? Absolutely. That night in 2008 we enjoyed the 2008 (considered a good year - but not, perhaps, as good as 2006 according to Pacult). The current review is of the 2011 issue. I'll be the first to tell you that the 2011 isn't as good as the 2008. It's still darned good -same flavor profile- but isn't quite as succulent and rich. Unlike a lot of fish tales, I promise to put this one to proof. I have a bottle of 2008 in storage and someday, when I finally open it, I will do a head to head and write it up. Meanwhile, here is the 2011:

Color: rich old gold with coppery / amber glints.

Nose: A very distinctive and Scotch-like nose like a very elegant Highland malt: salted butter, butterscotch, toffee malt, heather and gorse, clover honey and bee's wax and a whiff of distant sherry.

Entry is like sugar sautéed in sweet butter then banana (bananas foster). Midpalate lays sweet cream, peppery heat, a hint of mint, yellow and red fruits, quince, gooseberries and a touch of pineapple on top of a well built chassis of richly honeyed firm cereal. Finish is gentle and drying - long and clean and elegant without a trace of burn or bitterness. Over the long finish the highland Scotch quality keeps showing itself in the malty-sweet and lightly oaky and salty combo of flavors.

Hard to believe it's an Irish, but the midpalate hint of mint is a diagnostic. Dryer, leaner, tighter in structure - hewing close to it's sturdy frame of robust cereal grain flavors - this just comes across as rich, refined, and poised. Bottled at 40%, this richness and long finish is coming out despite dilution.

This stuff is $118 at Shopper's Vineyard and $135 at the local store. Is it worth it? This is a sweet and gentle 40% abv dram - an IRISH whisky. Did I mention that it's a BLEND? It's not a "bomb" or "monster" of any description. It isn't "intense". Rather it is "elegant", and "refined". Let's put it this way, my companion that night has had three bottles and I have restrained myself to only two.

Top of the Irish by a country mile and a convincing argument for why Irish whisky deserves a spot among the great spirits of the world. A five star if there ever was one.

*****

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Midrange Cognac overview

I sure do enjoy a nice Cognac from time to time. Cognac is a grape brandy made in the controlled region of that name a bit north of the famous Bordeaux wine region in France's central west coastal region. They make a thin light white wine, distill it twice in special "alembic" stills and then age the distillate in French oak casks in carefully atmospherically managed caves. The better cognacs are bursting with citrus and vinous fruits, densely floral, syrupy rich in texture and redolent of nuts, leather, sandalwood and oak. Some of the cheaper ones are afflicted with a turpentine-like burn.  Cognac comes in, broadly, three main varieties VS (aged at least 2 years in cask), VSOP (aged at least 4 years), and XO (aged at least 6 years - but typically far older).   Another major variation is the region of grape production.  Grand Champagne and Petit Champaign are in the heart of the region - adjacent to the town of Cognac, with the best soil which is chalky.  Grand Champagne's soil is less compacted than Petit's.  Borderies is just to the North and is a clay and flint plateau.  Fins Bois is a wider ring around these three.  It has a different kind of soil - red clay and limestone.  Bons Bois is a wider ring going out to the limits of the controlled region with similar soil to Bons Bois - but more sand in it.  There is a western maritime zone further out called Bois ordinair where the soil is primarily sandy.  I've yet to see a cognac that mentions that region by name.  Supposedly the quality of the grapes is better in the chalky Champagne Crus - although opinion is not unanimous.
The map of the Cognac Cru regions from the wiki article on Cognac
 FYI - the word "Champagne" here has nothing to do with the Champagne region of the North of France where the bubbly wine comes from - it's just a word for "countryside" in Latin.  Cognac runs a color gamut from marigold yellow through orangey copper on to amber and then all the way to hazelnut shell brown.  These color variations roughly correspond to age with VS tending to be in the yellow to light orange range, VSOP tending to be in the dark orange to amber range, and XO tending to be in the amber to reddish brown range.

Most cognacs have a much narrower range of variation in flavor profile than scotch does (although the wider world of brandies has considerably more variation than you'll find in Cognac alone - including some lovely leather and fig Spanish, refined sweet South African, and very distinctive Armenian ones).  However the  sweep of variation from bad cognac to really nice cognac is breathtaking.  So, sadly, is the hype and marketing goo goo.  Ranging from pseudo-imperial French pretension with a predilection for insanely expensive bottle materials (i.e. gold, platinum, uber crystal etc...) to a weird contemporary hip-hop connection, the way Cognac is sold can be stomach turning in my opinion.  Nevertheless, the issue is, as always, what's in the glass when the gauzy models, leather clad rappers, and fancy packaging are left behind and out of mind. 

Tonight I'll be looking at a few of the the market leading cognacs across the age and region spectrum to take a quick survey of the segment.  The purpose here is to see 1) do I really notice or care about the differences among VS, VSOP, and XO, 2) to sample a few of the major brand leaders.  The 4 leaders in Cognac are Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Hennesy, and Martel.  Together they sell about 90% of all the Cognac sold world-wide.  3) I wanted to throw in a fairly inexpensive domestic brandy to see if it could compete.  A single data point isn't definitive - but it's better than nothing.  I chose E&J VSOP because it was handy and regular E&J was the dominant quaff in my childhood home in California.  Clearly I should have chosen something else (and will in the future).  Here we go:

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Courvoisier VS 40% abv - lacks the Cru region statement that the other Courvoisier's have. $34/750ml (prices all from Shopper's Vineyard in Clifton, NJ - right near me)

Color: coppery gold (light orange)

Nose:  Marmelade, honey, some light sandalwood - pretty weak.

Mouthfeel is very light.  Entry is sweet with vanilla and a vinous simple sugar note with a prominent sawdust wood note with an incense perfume aspect (patchouli).  Midpalate expansion is mainly a mild spirit heat.  There's not much depth here.  Finish is very short, mainly spirit heat - but also some wood in the fade-out.  It doesn't suffer from the turpentine burn of bad brandy - that's the upside; just from a lack of depth of flavor. 

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Hennessy VS 40% abv: $30/750ml

Color: orangey amber - also lacks a Cru region statement.

Nose: Light sandalwood / patchouli incense perfume is the dominant lead off note.  Slight citrus note, but not much else past all the incense.

Like the Courvoisier VS, entry is sweet and light - dominated by a sweet simple sugar vinous note and a burst of fresh sawn wood with a patchouli incense flavor.  Spirit heat is even more present here than with the Couvoisier VS in the midrange.  This stuff is hot.  There's a little hint of the turpentine notes.  Ironically, the finish is a little longer with some nice almond notes, less bitterness than the Courvoisier VS in the finish, and some nice oak.  

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Remy Martin VSOP 40% abv. - all the grapes come from Grand and Petit Champagne. $40/750ml


Color: orangey amber

Nose: nice jammy orange, honey, dates, prunes, figs, and black currants initially. There's a little oak wood sandalwood perfume. Noticeably absent are floral notes. With time, the intensity of the nose fades, unfortunately. Still, what lingers is pleasant. I could nose this for a while.

Entry is vinously sweet, spicy and a bit woody. Midpalate broadens into tasty sherry notes, vanilla floral notes and big oak spice. The finish is medium in length with lovely fading cabernet with some nice grape seed astringency. With extended time the mouth feel becomes a bit thin but the flavor profile is pretty tasty and distinguished. It's not intense - but it presents the clear strong flavors of grape spirit, oak sugars, and oak wood notes.

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Courvoisier VSOP 40% abv - a "Fine Champagne" meaning over half the grapes come from the Champagne region. $38/750ml

Color: orangey amber

Nose: jammy citrus and candied orange peel.  Blackberries, walnuts, red currants.  


Entry is sweet and a bit spicy.  There's vanilla and a nice cognac jam-like citrus and grape rancio taste.  Midpalate expansion is hot (a sign of young spirits mixed in).  Mouthfeel is light - belying the darker color.  Finish is medium short with spirit heat, rather than oak driving.  There are some vanilla and oak notes in the finish that are clearly part of the good cognac flavor profile.  However there's too much admixing of lower quality spirits here.  This is a disappointment.

[Update: the following day I drank another sample of this and enjoyed it better.  Lighter, less spicy, less flavor dense, and rounder than Remy or Frapin, it still was flavorful and nice to quaff.  I stand by my original assessment - that Courvoisier VSOP comes last comparison with Remy Martin VSOP and Frapin VSOP - but "a disappointment" is a bit too harsh.  It's not unpleasant to drink.]
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Frapin VSOP 40% - all the grapes come from Grand Champagne Cru - specifically the Frapin estates. $62/750ml

Color: light orangey amber

Nose: crystallized orange, faint citrus flowers, cognac spirit, sultanas, distant oak.  The best nose of the VSOPs in this segment.


Entry is sweet with white raisin grapey syrup. There is glory and rich mouthfeel in the sweet thrill of this opening. Midpalate blooms quickly with jammy citrus notes of orange and lemon, spirit heat as peppery boldness, and also a confectionery candy quality with somewhat faint floral overtones of honeysuckle and jasmine. In the transition to the finish things rapidly darken as floral oak turns to tannin bite. This emerging bitter note meshes well with the crystalized orange as an candy orange rind feeling. Finish is moderately long with a cilantro note in the back of the throat at the fade out and lingering vinous sap.

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Frapin Chateau Fontpinot XO - all the grapes come from the single plantation at the Chateau Fontpinot in the heart of the Grand Champagne Cru. $105/750ml at Park Ave, $90 on line.

Color: dark orangey amber - henna tints

Nose:  august floral vanilla with a big floral component that includes honeysuckle and some rose notes.  Confection in the form of marzipan (candied almond paste), plus darker nuts (walnuts or hazelnuts), and dark caramel.  There's a big wood perfume aspect too:  oak, and sandalwood.   This is a rich and luscious nose that you can bury yourself in for literally hours.

Entry is rich with dark burgundy, quince, black figs, and plum/prune flavors,  The midrange expansion brings in tobacco, walnut skin, and sandalwood perfume.  The finish is long and dominated by vanilla, sandalwood oak perfume, and rancio (grape noble rot with cheese-like overtones).  It's a rich and heady pudding.

Clearly Frapin Chateau Fontpinot XO needs to be considered among other XOs.  The purpose of putting it here was to represent the class and see if it clearly outclasses the other offerings.  The answer is yes, indeed - and how.  This stuff is a whole different ball game.

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E&J VSOP Brandy 40% abv - from Modesto California.  $10/750ml
California grows some of the best wine grapes in the world, so the brandy ought to be excellent, however the leaders, Korbel and E&J never did it for me.  I haven't tried Germain-Robin, which is well reviewed.  I figured I'd give E&J's upscale "VSOP" variant a try:

Color:  yellow-orange

Nose: orange creamsickle

Entry note is cough syrup.  Chemically, medicinal, and gripped by an artificial orangy flavor.  This is going right down the drain.

FYI - the base expression of E&J was better.  See my review here:
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/03/e-brandy-us-domestic-price-per-volume.html

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So, let's review:  the two VS offerings were light, hot, and unbalanced in that they had too much patchouli incense and spirit heat and not enough body, complexity in the sweetness up front or the nose, and enough wood in the finish.  They weren't undrinkable; but I'm not going to seek VSes out.  At $30-35 they don't compete with bourbons or even Scotch in this price range.  In the VSOPs things are different.  There are VSOPs that satisfy and compete successfully with bourbons and Scotches of comparable price.  Remy is less floral and citrusy than the Frapin VSOP, but doesn't strike any off notes. Given that Remy VSOP goes for $40 around here and Frapin VSOP goes for over $60, that's fine. The Frapin VSOP is close to entry level XOs in quality and price - and is more a transitional form between VSOP and XO.  Part of its expense is that it is composed solely of Grand Champagne grapes.  Frapin VSOP was the best of the VSOPs in this test, but Remy VSOP isn't embarrassed by the the Frapin VSOP at only 2/3rds the price.  Furthermore, Remy VSOP has superior mouth feel, flavor density, and balance to Couvoisier VSOP which is very close to the same price.  The less said about E&J "VSOP" brandy the better.  The sole XO here, Frapin Chateau Fontpinot, stole the show and is a highlight experience.  I'd have to say it represents excellent value at its relatively high price.  Spirits that cost in the vicinity of $100 should wow you.  This one absolutely does.

Bottom line Remy Martin VSOP is very much the winner here in the mid-range price segment.  I learned that I like the best quality (surprise, surprise).  But for an everyday Cognac, Remy Martin VSOP is like Johnny Walker Black Label - it comes close to a stylistic archetype via extensive blending and achieves that at a very realistic price.  Cognac is enjoyable and satisfying when you spend long green to get special examples.  But Cognac is also enjoyable and satisfying at mid-level prices too.