Friday, September 28, 2012

Brenne: Single Malt Made In Cognac.

Brenne presents an effusively sweet floral nose and a delicious flavor profile with an up front candied apricot-citrus presentation. It's a success, and proves to be the benchmark of a unique Cognac malt whisky flavor profile that is worth seeking out. But the real story here is the craft distiller that makes it - part of a tradition that connects a medieval past with the latest trends in distilling, and the importer who has created the brand who also represents something new with the power to disrupt the old order.

The blogosphere is gearing up for the global launch of Brenne single cask single malt from Cognac, France on October 1, 2012. But sales on Caskers actually began Friday 9/28/12.  [Caskers sells items for limited times.  To see where to get Brenne now you can look at: ]  This will be France's Cognac region's first single malt whisky. It is crafted from two different varieties of organic barley grown on the same farm where it is mashed, distilled, barrel aged, and bottled. "Farm" isn't the right word. It's a vineyard dedicated to the production of Cognac brandy - and has been so for many generations. Centuries ago the winemakers toiling in the poor mineral soils of the region discovered that the thin and rather sour white wine they made formed an excellent basis for distillation and the eau de vie they produced took barrel aging exceedingly well. It produced one of the world's greatest spirits. While large vineyards with their own brands of Cognac exist (Frapin, for example), most of the Cognac we consume is produced by smaller anonymous vineyards, like the maker of Brenne, who sell the entirety of their distillate to large well branded blenders like Remy Martin, Couvoisier, Camus, and Martel. These brands, like the great whisky blend brands, famously age and vat dozens of different component distillates to produce their signature flavor profiles. Allison Patel of Local Infusions, who created the Brenne brand, found one such traditional family owned Cognac producer who had been experimenting with growing and distilling malt. Perhaps he is a whisky lover himself? Patel reports that he had been producing malt whisky initially for his own enjoyment. Perhaps he was influenced by the recent rise of malt whisky production in France, part of a world-wide craft distilling movement.

The Cognac region is not ethnically Celtic, like Brittany's Amorican Penninsula - where malt beverages like beer and malt whisky are arguably part of an ancient and at least partly British cultural heritage. Breton malt whiskies such as Amorik and Kornog have been exciting whisky lovers and earning rave reviews for getting on a decade now. Though not Celtic, distilling in Cognac is traditional and Brenne is produced by distillers with generations of experience producing good liquor. Thus Brenne is produced by being double distilled on Alembic pot stills in the manner of Cognac.

Allison Patel, of Brenne & Local Infusions
Brenne is not the first malt whisky produced in the Cognac region although it is the first single malt. Last year Palm Bay began importing a 5 year old blended whisky made of malt and wheat spirits called "Bastille 1789" (read my full review from May). Bastille is young, and tastes young. And it's a blend and it tastes like a blend. Indeed the medicinal spirit heat and low density of flavor - common attributes of young blends - were my principal complaints. However there were some novel attributes to its flavor profile that were alluring enough for me to recommend it. There is a unique wood management story with acacia, cherry, and french oak which puts some Asian spice notes in. But ultimately its principal allure is the palate, dominated by an apricot citrus note that is fruity, fresh and pretty original.

Brenne is a different animal in a number of ways. It is a single malt. It is a field to bottle product of a single producer. It is a single barrel product, aged for a total of seven years. The first five years are spent in a fresh first fill casks made of French Limousin Oak. This is the wood Cognac is aged in. It's also the spice tree in Compass Box Spice Tree and Oak Cross. The final two years are spent in refill Cognac casks from the estate's own Cognac product. But I'll be darned if that apricot citrus note isn't front & center. This common flavor note says something about Cognac terroir. Perhaps the yeast, or use of alembic stills normally used for Cognac making. Maybe there is cross contamination from Cognac flavors. Almost certainly some of this flavor comes from time spent in ex-Cognac casks. Cognac possesses the orange/apricot flavor in high density. Whatever the source, it certainly suggests the need for a head to head tasting of both Brenne and Bastille:

Brenne Single Malt Whisky 40% abv

Color: gold with coppery amber tints.

Nose: Intensely floral at first: roses, lilies, and magnolia. Then sweet and fruit: candy orange-cream, hint of banana, apricot, sweetened whipped cream.

Palate entry: milk and white chocolate with orange apricot cream. There is the brightness of citric acid at the mid palate expansion. Gentle soft mouth feel is light, but still silky. Surprisingly little oak presence given 5 years in new oak, but rather some grapefruit astringency at the turn. The finish has whispy vanilla, creamy candy afterglow and a warm herbal glow. There are some hints of the spicy heat I was expecting given the French oak barrel aging - but much less than I was expecting. This isn't spicy or hot. Just rich, packed with flavor, and yet light, silky, soft, and incredibly smooth.

Just lovely. Feminine, gentle, flowery and sprightly fruity in a way that is unique and, as it turns out characteristically French.


Brenne (left) vs Bastille (right)

Bastille 1789 40% abv

Color: virtually the same gold with coppery amber tints as Brenne

Nose: similar but thinner, sharper, and with more spice. Medicinal spirit heat more in evidence. Fruits: apricot cream and spices: hints of curry and cumin spices. Some grainy burn. See the link to my full review for more detailed notes.

Creamy entry- more heat and spice. More medicinal heat and grainy alcohol. But, strikingly the major aspect of the flavor profile - an orange/apricot flavor note is clearly in evidence.


Brenne and Bastille are clearly kin in that they share a floral orange apricot flavor profile, but Brenne is a more refined product, sweeter, richer, and clearly more mature. Bastille remains an interesting 3 star. Brenne shows a dramatically floral nose (my first comment on smelling it was "Laddie 10!" - high praise) and a cohesive creaminess and orange candy palate that mark it as the new hallmark for the Cognac flavor profile. It's a 4 star product now, and it's still young at 7 years. I'll be very curious to see if older expressions build on these considerable strengths in future years.

Brenne is Local Infusion's first new spirit brand. Allison Patel is the impresario behind Local Infusions. Her personality and hand are all over this spirit, from its conception as a brand, to its name, label design, and even such decisions as to age and single cask versus vatting which have a large effect on the flavor. An example of this influence is dramatically presented in a handwritten sample bottle she had on hand when we met last week. It contained an early sample of Brenne that was a vatting of younger and older casks. It has much of Brenne's current flavor profile, but thinner, hotter, and with significantly less creaminess and a less floral nose. The distiller had been going down this vatting road until Patel urged him to sell her single cask juice. The clear superiority of the shipping version of Brenne is clear evidence that Patel's input has helped to produce a better whisky. (FYI - Patel is also a whisky blogger. Check out

Brenne's light and floral nature, combined with the fact that the importer is a woman who likes to employ women on the project and has chosen a feminine design (ie a bright blue label) will lead Brenne to be called a "feminine" whisky. Maybe one well suited to women whisky drinkers. Given that I already used the word "feminine" in my tasting notes I concede it makes me a bit of a hypocrite to proclaim that I don't believe there is such a thing as a "female palate preference". Women, in my experience, like robust peated malts just as much as gentle lacy ones. I think it's a case of different flavors for different moods. I'll take a peat bomb on a dark and stormy night and a light and fruity dram on a warm summer day, or vice versa as the mood hits me. Brenne is squarely in that light and lacy end of the spectrum, but isn't overly light or immature like many of the whiskies in this end of the flavor gamut. What makes it "feminine" is that the flavor signature is so floral and distinctly sunny with its bright happy citrus and hard candy notes.

It's a gourmet whisky. It's a meticulously hand crafted craft whisky. It's organic field to bottle. Single cask, unfiltered and uncolored. That's a lot of buzz words that suggest a quality story. The story entertains in the telling however. This weekend I found myself in a lodge on a retreat with hundreds of Dads from my community. Predictably I was in a corner with a half dozen whisky enthusiasts and the 10 or so samples I happened to have on hand (and a few the other Dads had brought). We sampled a wide range from high end Bourbons to top notch Scotches (including Octomore 2.1, Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout, Miltonduff 15, Oban DE 1995, etc..). In this raucous session Brenne did more than hold its own. It fairly stole the show. Part of the appeal was the interest of the "single malt from Cognac" story - but the biggest part was that big floral candy orange white chocolate flavor explosion. Some of comments were: "Delicious." "Rich, yet soft and gentle." "Unique". At 40% abv. Brenne was the lowest proof item in the whole session - but it didn't fade into the background. In fact it stood out.

Brenne is a high end whisky that is as soft and gentle and pretty as any in my experience. It's approachable and accessible in a way few malts are. It dances on your tongue like a pretty maiden in a gauzy dress with flowers in her hair.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Lost Spirits Leviathan 1 is a bold new stroke - but very young yet.

Lost Spirits Distillery is a very new and extremely exciting craft distiller on California's coast with an incredibly cool wooden steam still with a dragon head on its soaring Lyne arm and a wonderfully compelling story about local grain, carefully chosen peat and exotic California wine barrels. Never have I seen so much excitement build so quickly about a totally new out of the blue American craft whisky.

I first heard about Lost Spirits distillery in August when there was a flood of blog posts, which started with David Driscoll of K&L's introduction which features great pictures of malt smoking, Canadian peat, and a video interview with Bryan Davis, one of the two wonderfully knowledgeable and whisky geeky folks behind Lost Spirits.

Josh Hatton of Jewmalt did a profile less than a day later with his signature brilliant illustrated symbolic tasting notes.

But the one that really threw me for a loop was the incredibly detailed and lovingly documented interview that Mark Hughes did on the remarkable South African blog Whisky Tasting Fellowship. Hughes gets deep with Bryan & Joanne's story; their history, their decisions, their rationale, and their aesthetics. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this fascinating project read Mark's piece:

Bryan & Joanne were nice enough to send me a bottle of LeviathanI for review. This bottle will he headed to Mark in South Africa directly!

Leviathan I 53% abv Cask #3

100% California malted barley smoked with coarse cut Canadian peat and "stored for under 4 years in reused cooperage (late harvest Cabernet casks)."

Color: rich hazelnut shell brown with golden amber glints - slightly cloudy. This is an extraordinary color:

Nose: Powerful, rich and almost indescribable. The first and dominant aroma is untanned hides and fresh leather. But there is a wealth of aromas, including lightly roasted coffee and cacao, sherry, earthy raw peat, old campfire ash on wet clothes, wet dog, dried wine, and malt whisky. After extended air the hides fade a bit and the aroma of wine becomes more prominent. It's an unmistakable and impressive aroma

The palate entry is huge and off dry with powerful notes of leather, chocolate, yeast, wet animal (like llama or alpaca (my father-in-law keeps alpaca)) and malt sugars. The mid palate expansion introduces a filigree of oak wood with a richly earthy smoky quality and a dark and vinous aspect in the integration of sweet and smoke. There's dark chocolate, and roasted ground coffee beans. A vegetal note creeps in at the turn to the finish like kale or chard. It's an amazingly distinctive flavor profile full of bold and unexpected flavors. The yeast note bothers me, however, and I recognize it as a sign of a very young spirit.

With extended time a bit of honeyed richness wells up in the palate - as often happens to me with malt whisky. But it doesn't banish the yeast and wet animal quality that I find off putting. I get some of this from Wasmund's Copper Fox Malt and I recall a bit of it from Corsair Triple Smoke. I queue up a dram of Triple Smoke for a head to head comparison. Well - side by side they have much less in common that m recollection showed. Triple smoke is dramatically lighter (golden), clearer (less cloudy), lower in proof (at 40%) and lighter in flavor. It has a dramatically lighter flavor density and almost comes off as a conventional younger malt whisky side by side. There are some young yeast notes, but Triple Smoke is gently malty, lightly and sweetly smoked with cherry notes dominating. Leviathan by contrast is dark, rich, titanically dense, and full of these intense flavor notes: particularly the bitter smoky wet animal, roasted coffee and cacao bean quality. The kiss of yeast which I find reminds me of new make and young whisky is a common element - but there is very little else in common; not even the quality of being smoked.

Leviathan1 (left) & Corsair Triple Smoke (right)
Lost Spirits is an extraordinarily innovative distillery and there are marks of brilliance all over Leviathan1 - ranging from unique ingredients and unusual production methods yielding a densely flavored spirit which is dramatically different. However the flavors of new make and some off flavors put me off. I'm reluctant to come down too definitively because I had a similarly negative first impression of Balcones Brimstone and it became one of my favorite drams with time and acclimation. I'm less sanguine about Leviathan. I think I need it to have more time in the wood to conquer the yeast and maybe I need to seek out Seascape to find something with a bit less of the titanic and unfamiliar form of peat. I'm still going to recommend it because it's so obviously crafted and so full of innovation. It is worth trying and there are many who will love this. But at the moment, not me. I will keep an eagle eye on this project, however. It shows enormous promise.


Unlike the reviews at listed at the top of the page which were overwhelmingly positive, I have some issues with the young flavors in Leviathan. I'm not entirely alone here. Yesterday Sku posted a review with some of the same impressions:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Glen Breton Rare 10: Shy Porridge That Blooms In Time

Glen Breton is a fascinating case of cultural transliteration.  Davin De Kergommeaux writes a chapter about Glenora Distillery and Glen Breton (and the "battle of the Glen" over the lawsuit concerning the use of the word "Glen" on a non-Scottish malt whisky) in his superb book Canadian Whisky: a portable expert.  The gist of the story is that the region of Canada where Glenora is located - out in the Northern part of Nova Scotia (literally "New Scotland") on what's known as the Cape Breton Island in a rugged area that looks just like Scotland; has the same climate as Scotland; and is chock full of migrated actual Scottish people.  The Glenora distillery carefully crafts a malt whisky that is as close to Scotch malt whisky as they can make it.  It's a unique chapter in the Canadian whisky story and fascinating story all around.  I knew from the moment I read it that I wanted to try it.  Never mind that the reviews were a bit tepid and mixed and the price was high.

De Kergommeaux addresses the price a bit in "Canadian Whisky".  Glenora is a small distillery that does much by hand.  Their output is limited.  Meanwhile there is plenty of curiosity and demand for this product - thus the high price.  This item runs $87 at the Ontario Liquor Control Board and $100 at Park Avenue Liquors.  The question of pricing is a different topic than whether it's good, however.  I'm going to address what's in the glass.

2oz sampled at NYC's The Brandy Library.

Glen Breton Rare 10 43% abv

Color: pale honey gold

Nose: very shy with gentle notes of oatmeal porridge with salted butter, and a drift of marzipan. This evokes a powerful sense memory for me of the smell of how my father took his Cream Of Wheat porridge when i was a boy: with salted butter and cream. Its a warm and comforting gentle aroma. Deeper nosing reveals some slight acid and vegetal and floral notes. 

The palate entry is gentle and lightly sweet with a fresh floral meadow grassy vegetal sweet. There are notes of puff pastry with powdered sugar, and whipped cream. The midpalate expansion follows the gently creamy theme. Oats, sweet butter and half and half power through into the finish that had a few light herbal bitter notes almost as a faint afterthought.

With extended air (over 30 minutes) the mouth feel riches and the buttery mid palate flavors sweeten into butterscotch caramel notes. Fruity flavors appear as well, gently floral and faintly sherried. It's shy but when it finally opens it's lovely.

The addition of three drops of water does little to the nose except maybe to lessen it further. On the palate, however, there is a bit of acid bite in the fruit now that is a welcome development to help liven up the show. On the whole, however, I preferred the richer mouth feel and more buttery flavor balance of Glen Breton without water, so that's how I'll refer to it for the remainder of the review.


I had it head to head with Mackmyra The First, which is simultaneously more floral and also more berry/grape acidic and minerally. But both share a similar light body and density of flavor. Glen Breton has a warmer and more savory palate with more simple butter and cream. It has less flavor amplitude but the flavors are appetizing, comforting, and harmonious.  I give a slight edge to Mackmyra for it's more floral and effusive nose and greater complexity earlier on in the tasting - but these are very different drams and Glen Breton Rare is lovely when it finally opens.  It's borderline 4 stars.

Bottom line, this is a competent credible malt whisky which I enjoyed and have no problem recommending as an enjoyable tasting experience.  However, at the current US pricing Glen Breton Rare 10 is in no way competitive with other whiskies at the $100 price point (or vicinity).  Just no way at all.

Update (30 minutes after initially posting): Bruce Fraser (@BruceFraser) of Nova Scotia reports that older bottlings of this were harsher and had a soapy flavor.  This explains the poor ratings and complaints of soapy flavors in the LAWS web site reviews.  Johanne McInnis (@Whiskylassie) confirmed: "...well, I was at the distillery two years ago, and tried it right from the barrels, PLENTY of soap!"  However, this recent bottling was in no way harsh and had no off or soapy flavors whatsoever.  My sole complaints were lack of density and high price.  The flavors that were present were very nice, and became a bit better than nice with extra time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Kilchoman 2006 Turns 5 And Gives Me "Vertigo"

Kilchoman distillery is famous for being the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. It's also famous for being a "field to bottle" operation where some batches at least are made with barley grown on the local farm and malted on site - the traditional and time honored way. (Other batches are made from Port Ellen maltings). This produces a product, so it is said, with a richness and complexity hard to achieve any other way. Furthermore the blogosphere has been awash in loving praise for Kilchoman. So, when I just had my first taste of Kilchoman at NYC's fabulous Brandy Library, I was expecting it to be good. I wasn't, however, prepared for the emotional response.

Why did I wait so long? I admit I suffer from a touch of "ageism". Kilchoman is a new distillery and as such they have been selling new make and plenty of whisky from the earliest time it could legally be labelled "Scotch Whisky" (by law 3 years). Even though response had been positive, I had the ageist sense that it was probably being bottled too young, in order to satisfy people's curiosity and to provide needed cash flow. Furthermore, the cost of these young bottlings was high. It seemed easy to skip.  But it's more than that. The Kilchoman project has so many attributes that I hold dear that I was secretly afraid to try it so young, afraid that if I didn't like it I would be disappointed in more than just the whisky.

The 2006 vintage bottling The Brandy Library was pouring tonight is the first of Kilchoman's bottlings to be aged 5 years. In my mind that turns a corner. I already drink and greatly enjoy some Islay whiskies at this age - for example Bruichladdich's astounding Octomore series. I grant It's not entirely a rational viewpoint (particularly in light of my last post's celebration of Balcones Distillery's ability to make amazing whisky younger than 3 years old. But Islay isn't baking in the Gulf heat like Waco is). After this experience with Kilchoman I'll suck it up and try the younger expressions. The 2006 vintage bottling uses Optic barley peated to 50ppm (I'm pretty sure that means it's Port Ellen maltings. The home made floor maltings are apparently peated to levels less than half that: 10-20ppm). It's pretty hard to find in the US. It goes $75-80 in the UK. In the US it would be a bit more - but I haven't seen in here.

Kilchoman 2006 46% 5 years old.

Color: Pale gold

Nose: lemon curd, unctuous warm and earthy peat with putty, clay, baked lemon pie with caramelized merangue. Underneath are some farmyard notes of manure, straw and mud.

The palate entry is creamy with floral meadow, lemon cream, and some candy sparkles. The mouth feel is suprisingly rich and full given the color. Not quite "rich and oily", but definitely trending in that direction. The mid palate expansion has some oyster, lightly tanned hide (like chamois) and some tidal flat seaweed notes, but is dominated by the peat, which waxes full with tar and earthy burn. What's special here, for me, is that the creamy lemon sweet carries into, and indeed through, the peat bringing a harmonious integration that's pretty tasty and pretty special. I have to say, this reminds me a lot of a really nice Port Ellen. Maybe a bit less tar and a little more sweet but the combination of unctuous mouth feel, lemon fruit, chamois, and sweet driving into peat with tar and tang on the finish is all hauntingly reminiscent of the vanished treasure that was the Port Ellen Distillery and each sip fills me with a nameless joy that this flavor signature might not be vanished from the world after all.

A few drops of water and some time ups the cream pretty dramatically. Whipped cream now heaped on the caramelized lemon pie and pitch pots. This creamy sweetness is taking things beyond the Port Ellen resemblance into a unique Kilchoman flavor signature. But the fact remains, this tastes a lot like a Port Ellen to me. I have come to really enjoy Port Ellens - but they are going going almost gone. This Kilchoman 5 year old seems to feel a lot like her. I start having fantasies like the Jimmy Stewart character in Vertigo when he meets a woman who looks just the woman, Madeleine who died earlier in the film. He wants to dress her up and make her into his dead Madeleine. I'm wondering if Kilchoman at 8 years, and 10 years and 12 years will come to resemble Port Ellens even more. But, that thought seems ghoulish - just like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

To make another metaphor, Madelyn Peyroux sounds like Billy Holiday to me. It's not cool, however, to make too much of that. She is her own artist and she arrives in the vicinity of the great Holiday by an honest creative process and her art has it's own merit. And so it is with Kilchoman. No one set out to make a Port Ellen replica here. The fact that Kilchoman 2006 tastes so very much like a really nice unsherried young Port Ellen of the first rank to me comes out of common details of production, materials, and environment (or is simply a delusion on my part). Not everyone is going to get lemons and chamois out of this. Maybe no one will. Indeed, I haven't heard anyone else out there saying so. This appears to be, very much, my personal illusion. Maybe I'm having this illusion because I want it to be her - and it smells like Port Ellen and when the light catches her just right...

No matter. This is just brilliant Islay whisky. It is really astoundingly delicious and makes me tremendously happy on a host of levels. It constitutes an imperative for me to investigate this project's whiskies further. I need to find out how big a role this extra maturation plays in the magic going on here.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Chip Tate's Mad Geeky Genius

Chip's "Rock Star" case.
Chip has brought his current thinking.

Balcones Distillery is doing wonderful work lately. Its core expressions of Baby Blue, True Blue, Brimstone, Texas Whisky, Rumble, and Rumble Cask Reserve are among the best craft spirits being made in the vibrant and effusive US craft whisky movement. It's a group of spirits marked by tremendous innovation in terms of mash bill, barrel management, and production methods. More importantly, it's a group of spirits with a shocking level of maturity and refinement given their young bottling age.

I had a wonderful opportunity to meet with Chip Tate of Balcones Distillery this last weekend and, as Chip calls it "Geek out" about whisky. "Geeking out" means getting into the technical details of the artistry of whisky making - including the empirical science behind some of the concepts. For example I asked about the design of Balcone's famous hand made copper pot stills and what criteria he used. Chip said he did a mathematical analysis: to determine turbulence versus laminar flow he calculated the Reynold's number for the shapes he was considering. We discussed flavors and the chemistry behind them. For example while tasting a fine craft East Coast bourbon from a different distiller (Geeking out involves drinking a range of interesting spirits and discussing them) I commented on an acetone flavor note. Chip identified this note - often found in Bourbon - as Ethyl Acetate, a primary esther composed by the chemical bonding of acohol plus organic acids. The acetate from acetic acid and ethyl from ethyl alcohol. And while every Bourbon has Ethyl Acetate to some extent - the degree to which is appears emphasized has to do with the richness of other flavor compounds to balance it. The conversation ranged over other chemical compounds which appear as flavor components. For example: Butric Acid (a sort of baby puke note in some bourbons), Acetic Acid, (the vinegar in bourbon). Or Nitrosamines with a characteristic flavor formed of sulfur and peat combined via heating.
"Geeking out" tasting session (partial view)

I asked about water and Chip made clear that Balcones uses filtered municipal water prior to distillation and Spring water post distillation. We talked yeast and Chip discussed how careful yeast selection at Balcones gives stonefruit, peach, ripe pineapple and banana notes. The discussion of yeast lead to a discussion of the life and work of Jean De Clerck - Belgian brewer scientist / monk.

Allison Patel & Chip Tate
Following Chip in a conversation like this is dizzying and exhilarating. Allison Patel, The Whisky Woman (who works with Chip as a brand ambassador as one of her many hats), had warned me to bring a notepad when hanging out with Chip. Man, she wasn't kidding.

We discussed barrel management and rapid maturation. The use of small barrels is a big trend in craft distilling that has become a controversial topic lately. Buffalo Trace released the results of an experiment with small barrels where they found the spirit over oaked and declared small barrels a failure. Chuck Cowdery wrote an article which he expanded into a book reiterating the argument and concludes that rapid maturation tricks can make interesting spirits, but not good bourbon. In the book he looks at some (not any Balcones products however) and damns them with faint praise. Others, such as In With Baccus, have ridiculed the experiment as so obviously flawed that its clear intent is marketing against craft distillers (read it by following the link immediately above - it's hilarious). Balcones uses small 20 liter (5 gallon) yard aged white oak casks to accelerate wood extraction. The yard aged part is important because kiln drying harshes the wood. Yard aged wood has more sweetness of the wood sugar left in the wood - and this shows clearly all over the Balcones line. Small barrels such as these are, according to Chip, hard to use. He likens managing maturation in them to "trying to gently and carefully cook a steak on an extremely hot fire. You have to pay attention or they'll burn". Among the really exciting things Chip is doing is empirically testing the differences in flavor in maturation in small barrels versus large barrels. The differences are apparent, but are are far smaller than you might believe (tasting notes below). Balcones succeeds in making very polished finished spirits using small barrels which appears to blow the argument out of the water - but to be fair to Cowdery, nothing Chip makes is quite "Bourbon" in either the legal or traditional sense. What Chip is doing is unique to Balcones.

Chip uses both small 5 gallon and large 60 gallon barrels in his production process, but he uses special yard aged American white oak casks that have been exposed to freezing cycles in Missouri winters to condition the wood. A number of the experiments that Chip is currently doing involve bespoke barrels with special woods to achieve special flavor signatures. Among casks aging now are ones made of a spicy Eastern European oak, Quercus Robur. In the future, Chip informed me, watch for Texas Live Oak bespoke casks. Staves of this wild wood that has never been used for whisky production are yard drying on the roof of the distillery in Waco and will be transported by car roof to Reynold's cooperage in Missouri where winter freezes and strong seasonal changes can properly cure the wood according to Tate's specifications.

Chip is a fertile intellect, and has thought, researched, and calculated intensively in building his stills, developing his barrel management techniques, and honing his mash bills and expressions. As I quickly discovered, Chip hasn't stopped or even slowed down in any of these domains. He is continuing to experiment with materials and tweaks to his existing expressions and he is ambitiously developing new ones. On this trip to New York, Chip brought a rockstar roadie's custom travel case loaded with bottles of samples from single casks selected for awesome flavors, and examples of in-process experiments which illustrate his thought and creative process. Chip has been traversing the country doing this. In fact, I posted about his previous trip to New York back in June where he poured many of these special experiments and selected casks. Chip is a scientist, and he's an artist too. But he doesn't seem to have an insecure bone in his body and he doesn't suffer from the "you can't see it til it's finished" affliction of some artists. Among the things he brought was a bottle of his new rum experiment - just under a scant 2 months old. All over town Chip poured this for everyone - eager for feedback. The immature rum is incredible, BTW. A nose full of buttered toffeed popcorn, intense confectioner's sugar on the entry and a lush mid palate bloom of Maillard reaction butter-cream-cane-sugar caramel cooking in the pan.

Dark red color of Q. Robur in SM2417
I think part of the reason Chip is so easy pouring with this very young experimental liquor is that it's good and he's proud of it. But another part of it is that Chip is evangelizing why it's good. It's no accident that Balcones spirits taste so good so young. It's no accident that they have big bright sweet openings full of confectioner's powdered sugar - seemingly no matter what's in the mash. It's no accident that so many are loaded with rich oak vanilla flavors and oak perfume and incense filigree at an age that many other distillery's products are weak, insipid, rough and raw. Chip wants to explain, scientifically, to you why it's no accident - but even more he wants to show you, empirically. My experience Saturday showed me that Chip has a scientific rationale for each phase of the process and is deliberately crafting his spirits to hit a flavor profile he desires. My first instinct is to look for holes in a any attempt at applied science in such a complex topic. There were moments (particularly when the conversation was going over my head) when I wondered to myself whether maybe Chip might be a fast talking con man. Yet, the proof is in the glass and Balcones has achieved extraordinary success. I'm not just talking about awards (of which there have been many - including Gold at SF and the first Icons of Whisky in the category of Craft Distillery) . I'm talking about the unmistakable presence of a clear house style to Balcones' products - a sense of balance and a flavor signature that spans disparate mash bills. Even more convincing there is a progression over time. What I'm tasting in these new special casks and experiments is a movement towards greater refinement and even greater fidelity to Chip's aesthetic and vision. In a nut shell, and very broadly, the house flavor signature of Balcones runs something like this: a nice nose but the main action is on the palate where you always get a sweet and explosive opening with a powdered confectioner's sugar palate entry and plenty of vanilla floral notes. The mid-palate expansion is richly flavored with the aspects of whatever is in the mash, but is generally off-dry. This balances the sweet of the entry. This is where the august quality comes in - where the best Balcones spirits drink like high end cognac or top tier Scotch. The finish has plenty of oak, with sandalwood incense perfume and sometimes the full blown patchouli you see in Cognac.

The fact that Chip regularly gets this flavor profile and is getting it more and more dialed in as he hones his craft proves, to me, that his science is real. A con man can fake out your mind, but not your palate. What's happening in the glass here is incredible and real. The fact that he achieves all this with spirits that are under 3 years old in the wood shows me that, in addition to being an artist and a scientist, he is, effectively, a genius.

There is a huge expansion going on all over the whisky world with new distilleries popping up. Joanne McInnis recently posted a moving blog post about personal growth, people following their dreams founding distilleries, and making young vibrant spirits worth drinking. The article is, in particular, a review of Mackmyra The First, but other young whiskies such as Kilkerran, Kilchoman, and Penderyn are mentioned. Balcones is a worthy example of a new distillery doing great things with young spirits - and is part of a larger trend in the whisky world in this direction. But the rapid maturation results Chip is getting are way beyond those examples. Only such tropical high heat rapid maturation paragons as Amrut and Kavalan are in this league and Balcones deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

As part of our "geek out" session we did some dramming of various specially selected casks.

European Oak Texas Malt Cask 2417

Aged in an Eastern European oak wood with a unique flavor profile, Quercus Robur, for 6 months and for about 8 months to a year in American White Oak.

Color: rich reddish amber

Nose: Vanilla pods, sandalwood, solvent, a wisp of meaty parma ham, some soft apricot/citrus cognac-like citrus. A very refined and complex nose that tends towards a floral version of a bourbon presentation rather than a classic malt nose.

Quercus Rober European oak adds reddish color
Palate: Rich confectioner's sugar sweet on entry with floral vanilla and vanilla butter cream icing trending into a rich apricot citrus fruit compote at the end of the entry. The mid-palate arrives with a potent expansion bringing a major palate shift to filigreed oak sandalwood perfume and cinnamon-like heat from oak spiciness. The finish is lingering with the slow burn of the Quercus Robur's heat, oak tannins, and a bit of herbal bitter like hops. Big and sweet, with enormous flavor amplitude, but a refined and complex flavor mix with some major shifts and complexities as it moves across the palate. It's not finished yet, but already it's one of the finest American craft spirits I've ever tasted.


Texas Malt SM12-7 - yard aged American oak 53% abv

(Alone among these tasting notes this is a regular expression available in stores - thus it is the only one a proper alcohol by volume percentage has been officially determined and listed.)

Color: Light golden amber

Nose: Gentle vanilla cream with floral esters. A regal and Scotch-like gentle citrus tang melds with the floral vanilla and musk and oak. The confluence of floral sweet, jammy citrus and oak perfume puts me in the mind of mature Glenrothes or Mortlach.

Palate entry is intensely sweet with powdered confectioner's sugar with an effusive explosion of vanilla and camellia floral notes. The mid palate expansion has a glow of spirit heat with white pepper and the emergence of gentle oak tannins. Butter toffee Maillard reaction caramel notes join with the fading sugars and emerging oak spice on the turn to the finish. The finish is malty sweet with tannin squeak and herbal bitter. Just lovely. It's a clear malt whisky with the floral deftness of Scotches in the 10-15 year age range, but also the intense powder sweet entry so characteristic of Balcones and a big big flavor amplitude with aggressive wood spice and citrus notes that read a bit of bourbon. This is a unique flavor profile that is completely American and utterly Balcones.


True Blue Cask 1613

Less an experiment than just a really awesome barrel. I have a note here that says "Lactic Corn"

Color: Rich amber with henna tints

Nose: traces of acetone waft above a richly honeyed deep plum and nectarine fruit compote with complex oak perfume and mixed baking spices. The oak perfume is mostly sandalwood and hatbox wood, but there is some pure Indian incense sticks going on too.

The palate entry is utterly explosive with the highest amplitude confectioner's sugar (except perhaps for Cask 1200). But it's not just the powder sweet here. It's the sweet in a big rich complex matrix of vanilla, earthy blue corn notes, orchid florals and herbal notes. The midpalate expansion brings heat and spice and a new fruit essence to the sweetness it's a sweet and earthy fruity note. It's a bit hard to place so vivid - but it's blue corn all the way. It has a rancio-like cheese rind quality in the waning of the sweet that reads as august and majestic haute cuisine to me. True Blue is true to its nature. It is blue corn - true and through and through. At the turn the oak imposes itself as a pure incense influence. At the turn to the finish the sweet waxes into an herbal bitterness of anise, malt. But these are all facets of the blue corn flavor - reflecting around the intense concentration of flavor elements that marks this remarkable cask.

Just titanic amplitude. Sweet, complex incense notes, spice, wood, heat and tannins. It hits hugely on all cylinders. This is an American classic. Totally original and utterly delicious.


Rumble Cask Reserve 1348 - an extra matured cask

In Rumble Cask Reserve, Rumble (fermented honey, turbinado sugar, and figs) new make is aged in 20 liter barrels and then blended to large barrels to finish maturation. This particular cask has received extra maturation.

Color: lovely amber with golden and reddish glints.

Nose: floral orchids, lillies, and iris with jammy citrus apricot / orange. There is oak influence, but more mellow and relaxed than the usual Rumble Cask Reserve.

Palate: Entry, big powder sugar, with some regal herbal bitters. Regal citrus apricot fruits in an off-dry presentation. Musky, Texas dust flavors at the mid-palate expansion along with spirit heat white pepper. At the turn to the finish the sweetness fades and anise, and cherry malt slowly surface. This is clearly Rumble Cask Reserve in every detail. The additional maturation adds a roundness and a polish. This provides a peek at what old Rumble Cask Reserve may taste like in the future.

Brimstone Cask 1200 - The "Burned Barrel"

The Burned Barrel was here too. We didn't taste it that day - but did the following night at a special dinner (a post yet to be written). Brimstone 1200 is perhaps the richest and most astounding flavor in an American Craft spirit, and, with the exception of Stagg & Weller from the BTAC, perhaps in all of sprits.

Color: dark ruddy copper
Nose: Cognac caramel and chaparral char: Putty, mesquite char, citrus, apricot, intense sweet.

On the palate 1200 is all the huge powder, dust, ash and chaparral smoke glory of regular Brimstone, but with dramatically richer caramel sweet, bigger amplitude of flavor, and a massively complex sandalwood incense on the finish that lasts and lasts.


1442 Large Barrel Blue Corn experiment

True Blue Cask 1442 Large Barrel Blue Corn experiment.

True & Baby Blue's 100% blue corn mash bill distillate are normally aged in small (5 gallon) barrels and then vatted into larger (60 gallon) barrels for barrel averaging to make a batch. This barrel was aged in a large barrel from day 1. The new make went right into the large barrel in the manner of most mainstream bourbon. While the flavors are a bit rounder and less intense - they are exactly same flavors as regular True Blue. The main effect seems to be the rate of maturation, not the manner, degree, or specific flavor signature at all. This experiment contradicts the received "wisdom" of a "small barrel flavor signature". It doesn't exist in this empirical experiment. Likely it doesn't exist at all - but emerges out of people mishandling the rapid maturation rate of small barrels.

Conclusions: In a nut shell, Chip is a genius. He is a genius because he achieves excellent refinement and maturity in very young spirits using empirical and creative thinking in every phase of whisky production. He's a genius because he proves the artistry of his intent in the common flavor signatures of all these spirits across a wide range of mash bills. He's a genius because the flavors are becoming more and more magnificent with time as he hones his techniques and takes things further. If you had any doubts about Balcones being a distillery to watch, dispel them now and start figuring out a way to get to taste these innovative and excellent American craft spirits.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mackmyra The First: The Shy Tiger

Mackmyra (mak-MEE-ra) is one of the most exciting new distilleries in the explosive World Whiskies segment. After an initial small pilot program started in 1999, serious investment and a serious distillery operation and village was built starting in 2002. Cool details abound, such as cave aging in an old mine. Unique local Swedish materials such as cloudberry and Swedish oak are used in building new and unique flavor profiles. Practically every trick in the crafty craft distiller's book is used: including the use of small barrels with short maturation times, virgin oak used in some barrels, creative finishing and mixing and no age statement young releases. The careful barrel management bears fruit as the components are assembled by the innovative iconoclastic palate of lovely master distiller & master blender Angela D'Orazio. Some of the fancy barrel management is apparent right on the The First's label which boasts 5.4% Swedish Oak, 45% small casks, a hefty 46.1% bottling proof, and Bodas Mine aging. Of course it's organic, without artificial colors and no chill filtering. At the moment The First is the only expression available in the USA. Their web site shows many others - most only available in Scandinavia and quite rare even there.

Given all this you might expect potent flavors and clear statement of the flavor signature - but that's not the case. I first tasted The First about a year ago. I had gone into Park Avenue Liquor to pick up something old and Scottish and unexpectedly met with a tall and striking Swedish blonde looking to pour me an exciting new single malt I had never heard of. The whisky didn't immediately grab me. Freshly poured, undiluted, in a tiny plastic thimble cup the whisky was a bit flinty and tart, with a light body and a bit of young rawness. There were some nice flavors and some lovely refinement on the finish but I smiled and left without picking up a bottle. I felt that it was a brand to watch out for, but not something to get now. As the months passed, however, and excitement built and good reviews appeared in the press, blogosphere, and informally among friends I began to get the feeling I missed something. I ordered it at one of the few bars serving it around here and had a magnificent experience. It was clear that Mackmyra's The First had hidden depths but needed air, time, and a drop of water to reveal itself. Like a fan dancer - you miss out if you rush and leave too soon.

Mackmyra The First 46.1%

Color: Pale gold ("Chardonnay") w/ pale yellow-green Peridot glints.

Nose: Fresh grassy honey heather aromas lead. A young, slightly raw edge fades with time. A slightly acidic fruity note with aspects of green table grapes or gooseberry fights with lusher honeysuckle florals and honeydew melon - reminiscent of a Speyside malt. The tension between acidic and floral fruits holds a special quality that reads conifer to me. Deceptively light and simple at first, but with depths to explore.

On entry there is a dusty chalky aspect to the sweet and floral. Then the acidic, almost minerally white wine quality interacts. There are mineral and conifer notes swirling with floral and grassy sweet. The finish is surprisingly long and tart with a tannic acid quality and a lingering expansion of the conifer-like herbal quality that grows and iterates as the alcohol burn fades into an elaborate filigreed finish of anise and ivy herbs. This is one of the few drams in my experience where the finish is as vividly flavored as the mid-palate (indeed, in the first minute or two of afterglow maybe more so).

A few drops of water transforms this dram. The nose takes on a lush and honeyed quality. The mineral and tart now gives the sense of a noble tempering of the august floral fruity sweet. The mouth feel has become noticeably thicker and in the richness I get lactones, tart, mineral and sweet that meld to a distinct Brie cheese with berry - maybe lingonberry. Yum. The finish had the bitter of Brie cheese rind and hints of citrus peel and echoes of distant pine smoke amid the anise and ivy herbs. Just wonderful.

With extended time the floral aspect becomes marked and the whole presentation takes on an aching beauty skirting the line between dry and off-dry, floral, mineral, fruity acidic grape, youthful freshness, and finesse.

This is $50-$55 for a liter? This is an overachieving dram for the price. But it is slow to bloom: a delicate and subtle dram. You must stop and listen, like a deer in the forest, to catch the rich tapestry that the youthful Mackmyra The First weaves. Go too fast and you'll miss it. That makes it unsuitable for some. What it clearly does for me is flat out become my new whisky crush. It also lays down the gauntlet firmly announcing that Mackmyra is a coming force to be reckoned with and the concept of "Swedish Whisky" is no joke.

How I feel drinking Mackmyra The First.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die By Ian Buxton

I'm not going to beat around the bush here, Ian Buxton's 101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die is utterly indispensable for both serious whisky enthusiast and the casual malt sipper alike. There is essential information on the explosion of new whiskies transforming the universe of malt that you will not find anywhere else - certainly not presented in such a cheerful, accessible, non-threatening fashion. Furthermore, in a subtle and not immediately obvious way that I will discuss later in this review it is an important whisky book - perhaps the most important in years. You need to own this book.

101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die
101 World Whiskies is, initially it seems, very like the extremely well regarded tome Ian Buxton wrote a few years prior, 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die, which did so very much to fan the flames of Scotch appreciation in its current renaissance of popularity. Ian Buxton is a distinguished writer of many books, articles, and columns in top whisky magazines such as Whisky Advocate. He's the kind of guy who knows absolutely everybody and is one of the folks who gets invited to taste and describe those $20,000 bottles that mortals like us never taste. As for the "101 Whiskies" books, these are both excellent works that, paradoxically, move me alternately to flights of delighted appreciation and spitting fits of wrath and rage as will become readily apparent. Both of these books are more collection of profiles and brief tasting notes than conventional 'whisky books'. By that, I mean that many common features of whisky books are absent. There are no ponderous chapters on whisky philosophy, production details and methodology, or history, and only a brief one paragraph on "how to drink" with no instructions on deciphering your own palate such as maps of the tongue. All this stuff is almost inexcusably omitted (or refreshingly so, depending on your perspective). Also missing are detailed history chapters that explain the roots of an industry, or even very detailed histories of various distilleries. You also will not find extensive and carefully written tasting notes. Buxton, indeed, sometimes omits tasting notes altogether; sometimes for the most important distilleries listed. An example is Highland Park, where Buxton not only fails to give us any tasting notes at all - he also cannot be pinned down to a recommended expression either - otherwise a firm rule throughout the book(s). I mean, if it's 101 whiskies you HAVE to taste before you shuffle off this mortal coil you should have 101 of them. Instead Buxton suggests, in the case of Highland Park, that we just have "all of them" - a suggestion he acknowledges as patently absurd even within that very chapter given the explosion of limited collector's releases and the fact that the 50 year old expression he depicts on that chapter's front retails for £10,000. This last part is particularly galling given that he assured us in the introduction that he would give us a tour of whiskies for drinking and that absurdly priced drams £1,000 and up flatly wouldn't be considered. Tasting notes, when actually provided, are often inexcusably brief - although I'll readily grant that what little is there is usually spot on. Furthermore, you don't get any scoring or rankings at all. Each chapter is illustrated with frontally nude bottle shots and nothing else - no illustrations of distilleries or images of the faces of the personalities mentioned. Images of lovely barley fields, castles, and malting floors are totally MIA.

But this isn't what really burns me up. What really gets me mad and confused and toss the book to the floor in a rage periodically are the facts that Buxton 1) doesn't like peat - but appears guilty enough of this that he includes a number of peat monsters ***in case YOU do***. 2) Sometimes includes whiskies he hasn't even tried or that don't even exist yet! 3) includes items that aren't even properly (ie legally) whisky. 4) Seems to evangelize major blends that I'm busy ignoring because I'm a whisky snob and look down my nose at major manufacturer blends in favor of rare single malts and interesting craft whiskies. To give you a taste of what I'm talking about let's look at # 1: Bakery Hill Cask Strength Peated Malt from Australia. Fascinating stuff. However, as Buxton readily admits, he hasn't actually tasted it. He provides us some tasting notes from the cut sheet. **Bam** - sound of book (Kindle, actually) hitting floor in a rage. How about # 78: Buffalo Trace, White Dog - Mash #1. Wow, a fascinating unaged new make that doesn't qualify as a Bourbon because it's new. It's technically whiskey - in the old sense of our colonial forebears. Well, if Ian Buxton is putting this in the 101 Whiskies you MUST try before you DIE he probably thinks it's pretty damn well good, right? Not so fast. I'm going to actually quote Mr. Buxton on this one:

"Apart from the curiousity value, though, what do you actually use this stuff for? Well, enterprising cocktail experts have been mixing it into some innovative and truly unusual cocktails where the very high strength has some value and, er, that's about it."

"Rather than buy a whole bottle yourself (even allowing for the fact that it comes in a half-bottle size), you might want to consider buying this with friends and using it to kick off a tasting session. Nothing will more clearly demonstrate the role of barrel aging and the impact of good wood on whisky. After which you can quickly move on to the proper stuff!"

**BAM** (sound of kindle hitting the floor in a rage... again... poor little e-book reader). There are so many amazing whiskies, and Buxton is having me buy something that's maybe good for cocktails (like gin or vodka) but isn't so fine on its own (as new make) so I should plan on splitting it with friends rather than own a whole bottle. Is this just me or is this august gentleman looking for a kick in the shins?

Now, where was I? Oh yes, you absolutely must read 101 World Whiskies. Why? because it is a superb profile of where the world's malt whisky distilling scene is headed at the current moment. Interesting and worthy new malt whiskies are coming out of crazy places such as Holland, Germany, France, South Africa, the USA, Australia, England, Spain, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Wales, and even (this may shock you) Scotland. Buxton describes scores of distilleries and expressions I've never even heard of - and I follow this stuff somewhat avidly. Buxton does more than list these revelations, he describes their context and why, exactly, you want to taste them. Why you need to, in fact. He does so with merciful brevity, an infectious good cheer, and a friendly aspect often missing from enthusiast's narratives. This is one part of the magic of "101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die". He makes you fall in love with a new whisky on virtually every page. He very quietly fills you with a passion for the malt and its people and its houses both great and small. He attacks your biases, (seemingly no matter what they are) yet he evangelizes the whisky topics I, personally find most vital: whisky tastes better bottled at higher strength, for example, and the less messed with the better.

But 101 World Whiskies isn't simply a catalog of obscure and weird drams.  It's far too varied.  Rather it's a catalog of what you should want to try - and why. And, yes, there are tons of weird obscure drams you've never heard of - but there are also tons of mainstream blends you may have been too snooty to desire lustfully (I certainly was). Buxton fixes that. There are some non-whisky items here too, a liqueur and a whisky fruit/spice infusion. Buxton leaves you lusting hard for those too. Indeed, it's this quality if inciting interest and lust, all without hyperbole or rants or volume of any kind that is on the whole, rather remarkable.

Did I mention that each short chapter is exactly the right length to enjoy while "using the facilities"? This "bite size" aspect makes reading Buxton feel a lot like feeding from your favorite bag of chips ("crisps" if you come from one of the countries where people drive on the wrong side of the road - like Ian Buxton). 'Once you pop', so to speak, 'you can't stop'. And you emerge revitalized and incredibly aware of a whole brave new world, with such wondrous drams in it. There is a special talent in being able to convey a great deal of information in a very small number of words. Buxton is a master at it. His brief profiles tell you a tremendous amount, almost without you realizing it. He has an ability to pack a dense amount of information into few words but have it feel breezy, conversational, and, above all, friendly.

Recently Steve Urey (Sku) wrote about the end of whisky's 'Golden Age' on top American whisky blog Sku's Recent Eats. His point was that the explosion of popularity of whisky has resulted in prices shooting through the roof, and hard to find expressions becoming unobtainable. There's also the question about the loss of complexity in the flavor profiles of whiskies over the past few decades because of mechanization (or perhaps deliberate choice) - such as the one I frequently wrestle with as described in the article Has Whisky Become Better, Worse, Or Just Different. These discussions can lead to a sense of loss. The implications of these narratives is that the epicurean opportunities of the Whisky world are becoming diminished. 101 World Whiskies is an antidote to these feelings. Reading Buxton fills me with a contrary "sense of gain". There is a huge world of new whiskies, and new expressions, and even new flavor profiles and some of them are really good. And there is more of this new good stuff going on than you knew about, or even had hopes of in your secret heart. And, furthermore, this new good stuff is coming from all over, including established brands and even stuffy mainstream blends that you wouldn't think of at all in searching for what's new. Reading Buxton makes me feel that the golden age is yet to come.  This optimism creeps in many parts of the lovingly detailed descriptions in many areas of the book, such as Whisky Castle from Switzerland, where Ian's prose waxes into the beauty of true affection. In this radiant light the true impact of 101 Whiskies becomes apparent: an almost seditious expansion of whisky's world view. This isn't Ian Buxton's invention, but with this book he has taken up the mantle of an evangelist for a kind of positivism about the future of whisky.

But, wait, there's more.  In a subtle and almost sneaky way, the biggest and most disruptive aspect of Buxton's 101 Whiskies books isn't the text narrative, factual content, or editorial perspective. It's the selections themselves. In choosing a set, Buxton is making an argument. As it is, the argument is as personal and subjective as an argument can possibly be. Buxton bends over backwards to say so in the introduction and at various points. However, Buxton isn't making his decisions lightly and it shows. He is carving a set and they stand like the stones of Stonehenge - individual and hewn - but in a common configuration and forming a common whole. This common whole, that you don't immediately see until you've read and understood and thought about the set of selections, is a powerful statement about how to appreciate whisky. In this aspect 101 World Whiskies stands head and shoulders above its brother and emerges, in my opinion, as an important book. Buxton wants you to be rounded. He wants you to be worldly. He wants you to transcend your own limitations and the blinders of preconception that hinder virtually every community of drinkers I've ever come across. That is the special genius of this book. This is why I picked up my kindle off the floor and resolved to grab a bottle of Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 - tail firmly planted between my legs - and take my medicine. I know that if I follow Buxton down all these paths I will grow as a whisky drinker. It's a little bit like the part in Karate Kid where the master has the kid picking up the coat over and over. The logic isn't immediately apparent - but one day it's going to be the margin of glory and honor.

So buy 101 World Whiskies. Buy it as a bathroom read. Buy it as an excellent shopping list. But most of all buy it to have Ian Buxton lead you to become bigger inside. Buy it to have Ian Buxton fill your heart and your sails with the joy of discovery and the delicious anticipation for what is yet to come.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Canadian Club 6 vs Crown Royal De Luxe

Probably the two biggest selling Canadian whiskies, representing two contrasting interpretations of the corn-rye blended mash bill style of Canadian whisky cry out to be compared head to head. Here I am stuck on an airliner over the Atlantic for 8 hours with an airline bottle of each. It's time.

Davin De Kergommeaux, in the beginning of Chapter 7 of his landmark book Canadian Whisky, The Portable Expert writes

"The Canadian approach to making whisky is to develop the different flavor elements separately and then bring them together to create the final product that is new and unique, while at the same time evincing the brand's house style.  A new Gibson's whisky will always be creamy and voluptuous; Crown Royal will always have elements of bourbon and vanilla; Canadian Club will always be known for its fruitiness..."

How will these two low cost base expressions evince these big brand's house styles?

Canadian Club 6 40%

$13-$15/750ml in NYC area for a NAS labelled version.  This 6 year age statement labeled miniature came off an airline beverage cart.

Color: Pale Amber

Nose: Soft vanilla fudge, medicinal alcohol, distant cedars.

Palate: soft sweet creme caramel, and fruity notes of prune and apricot, yielding shortly to a surprising amount of spirit heat for a 40% abv. spirit.
Medicinal rubbing alcohol flavors make an unwelcome intrusion at the mid-palate. Grapefruit citrus and evergreen scented oak show at the turn to the finish. The finish itself is rather nice - soft and malty with gentle cherry malt and wheat flavors - and of a surprising duration given how light the flavor signature is up front. However the rubbing alcohol flavors of grain neutral spirits that appear in the nose and mid-palate spoil the show for me. Drinkable, particularly mixed, but not worthy of recommendation for sipping neat.


Crown Royal 40% "Fine De Luxe Canadian Whisky"

$24-$28/750ml in NYC area

Color: Pale Amber

Nose: Bourbony notes of corn driven stewed peaches, nougat, creamed corn, soft vanilla cream soda,

Palate: sweet bold opening with gentle tangy pink grapefruit citrus and vanilla cherry-cream fudge and some creamed corn flavors meeting a pleasant effervescent spirit heat. The mid-palate blooms with herbal and pine notes joining the vanilla fudge sweetness. Some rubbing alcohol notes of grain neutral spirits are noted, but only slightly - they aren't as distracting as in the CC 6. The
turn to the finish has the soft cherry malt and vanillin notes creamy, sweet, meet a muted grapefruit bitterness and a hint of tannic bite. The finish is gentle, malty cherry vanilla sweet with lingering grapefruit bitter notes and is medium short. Not an epicurean experience, but distinctly sippable for a blend and full of characteristic Canadian whisky flavors of the corn base whisky school. My main complaint is the waft of grain neutral spirit rubbing alcohol in the mid-palate - but it's not a fatal flaw for me. Unusually, for me, Crown Royal is much more vibrant and fully flavored freshly poured, without the period of airing time that I usually find mandatory when dramming.


I don't need to paint this out, right? Canadian Club 6 is the bottom rung on on a substantial ladder of CC products which include some seriously premium selections.  It hits a very low price point put promises to have some of the flavor profile which has established this line for over a century.  However it is unbalanced by too much raw alcohol flavor.  It is clearly intended as a mixer and that's all its good for.  Crown Royal, another classic and bottom rung on a big series is clearly meant as a sipper.  It's almost twice the price, but the premium appears justified.  I enjoyed sipping it neat and will certainly do so again.

Update:  I realize I should compare Canadian Club Classic 12 with Crown Royal for price parity.  That would be a fairer fight.  I'll have to revisit this in a future post.

(Note: airline plastic cups are pictured depicting color for fun - as part of the airline theme of this post.  Such cups are useless for drinking whisky, however.  All aromas are lost and the flavors are seriously muted.  I know, I tried.  I carry a mini-glencairn "perfect dram" glass for such situations).