Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sorel and Brenne: an Odd and Compelling Synchronicity

Sorel & Brenne together.
Photo: courtesy of Jackie Summers
I'm not really a cocktail guy.  The concoctions I spend time and energy optimizing are pure whisky plays:  the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.  I want to taste the whisky.  Indeed, the only cocktail I've ever blogged here was a banana infused bourbon Old Fashioned.  But there are plenty of other things to do with whisky. For me, it's often about pairing.  Sorel and Brenne is far simpler a drink than even the basic Old Fashioned.  It isn't really a cocktail at all.  It's a pairing.  2/3 Brenne to 1/3 Sorel.  And it's genius.  I first had it at a party celebrating Brenne's first anniversary as a brand last autumn at the West Village bar "Bell Book And Candle".  Allison Patel, Brenne's creator, had invited friends and people who helped get Brenne off the ground to have a birthday cake and some drinks.  I was honored to be on her list.  It was a stellar party.  There I met Jackie Summers, the creator of Sorel. I already had a bottle of Sorel and had been following @jackfrombkln on Twitter.  I was excited to meet him because I knew how much Allison liked him, but I wasn't prepared for how heartfelt, genuine, warm and sweet he is.   He's not just a nice guy, as it turns out, but someone aggresively on the path of wisdom about life (read on).  Someone mentioned the pairing of Brenne and Sorel and I tried it and played with it a bit and I really enjoyed it.  I had been looking for an application for that bottle of Sorel.

From Right: Sorel, Brenne, and the pairing, which is called "The Last Call".
Brenne: (I'm drinking the ethereal and apricot-banana floral cask 257 today - and it makes sense to pay attention to cask number as the variations are fascinating) is delicate, estery fruity floral pretty thing - soft and easy with silky mouth filling lignans from new French oak.  It comes off as sweet, but not from actual sugars, but solely the cues of esters and lignans.  It's so creamy.   Sorel (which Jackie Summers, it's creator, pronounces "sew-REHL" like it was a girl's name; instead of like the tart herb "sorrel" which most people tend to do while reading it) is a lightly alcoholic tincture of hibiscus flowers and a mess of baking spices (clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon).  I say "tincture" because it doesn't drink like a liqueur: it isn't too sweet and there's no syrupy sugar texture here.  Sorel is low proof (15%) but high flavor: bringing its fascinatingly intense, almost medicinal mix of lushly perfumed dark red fruit with aspects of tart sweet rubarb and red currants with those spices nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves to a light and smooth texture with a bit of ginger heat.   Over a few sips that hibiscus floral intensity spice combo builds up and become intense.  This is made to mix.

"Barrel No. 257" today.

The "Last Call"


But when these two mix at the magic proportion of 2 parts Brenne (or perhaps a smidgen more) to 1 part Sorel and allowed to rest and integrate for 15 minutes or so something magic happens.  The color is a russet scarlet mauve.  The nose becomes malt whisky loaded with cinnamon red hots, baskets of roses, and jammy red vinous scents, like a sherry bomb Scotch but with a fruity floral roobios zing while smoking a clove bidi.

The palate of the combo emphasizes the odd and unexpected planes of their union: floral and sweet without being sugared.  The sweetness is a mass of heavy massed tropical floral notes and tons of zing (stealth ginger).  The spices - the cloves, mace, and cinnamon - ride around in a big car made of malt whisky stone fruits made zingy - like raspberry.  Tasting it you'd never guess there were only two ingredients.  It likes some water - or even better - some ice.  This has joined my regular rotation.  It puts a vinous overlay over the whisky in a way that reminds me of a Manhattan, but with a totally new and very Caribbean flavor set.  This pairing has come to named "The Last Call".  It's a drink with a future.  It also likes a few drops of orange water or citrus bitters - but my favorite is neat, 2/3 plus a drop of Brenne and slightly less than 1/3 Sorel.  Just magic.

By the way, visually, something cloudy happens to the spirits in combination.  Although both are totally clear on their own, mottled flavor elements become visibly flocked out.  But adding water disperses them again.

The combination develops ephemeral clouds of
flocculating flavor compounds until water is added. 

The synergy here is pretty cool - but it's actually a much bigger coincidence than it appears.   These are both spirits whose story is hard to tell without telling the stories of their compelling creators.

Jackie Summers
Jackie Summers (Sorel) and Allison Patel (Brenne) are good friends.  They live in the same town and have become stars at the same time for being independent entrepreneurs introducing their own liquor brands.  Both are beautiful and charismatic people who light up a room.  Both are thinkers and independent bloggers before introducing their brands.  The fact that they are on this parallel course and are buddies is cool.  But it's no reason for their drinks to mix well together.  I mean, what are the odds?  Jackie was adapting a traditional Caribbean herbal cure into a liqueur.  Allison had discovered an indigenous French malt whisky in search of bottling strategy, a brand, market, and leader.  Nothing in these two histories suggests they should work (except the fact that they both seem to mix pretty well generally).

Allison Patel
Apparently the pairing came about organically the first time Allison Patel and Jackie Summers met - at a restaurant called Krescendo in Brooklyn.  The two spirits clicked together with such a clear and harmonious lock that it must have felt like fate. The spirits worked together and the creators became instant fast friends.  They are on parallel courses in life in a number of ways.  Allison has been a ballet and modern dancer professionally, a fitness consultant, a marketer of jewelry, a brand ambassador for whisky, a whisky blogger, an importer / exporter of American craft whisky, and now, finally, the creator of the Brenne brand.  Allison's whisky blog:
http://thewhiskywoman.wordpress.com/
Allison's whisky:
http://drinkbrenne.com/

Pic courtesy of Allison Patel
Jackie has been on a voyage of personal self examination and growth and civic philosophy.  He blogs with brutal and affecting honesty about becoming a man on the Tumblr F*CKING IN BROOKLYN He posts about race and philosophy on the fascinating and important web site The Good Men Project.  His body of work there is challenging, intelligent, bravely self reckoning, and generally really excellent.  I highly recommend you read it:  http://goodmenproject.com/author/jackiesummers/
As a great example, this recent piece is a searing memoir of social injustice, institutionalized racism in the judicial and penal system, and the feeling of gut check immediate danger at Riker's.  Just fantastic writing on every level:
http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/slow-motion-skylarks-prison-and-social-progress/
And, of course, he does this little Sorel thing in his spare time - actually making the stuff and also making it rain.
Today, I asked Jackie if he had a picture of he and Allison for this post.  He produced the one below and then added:  "Allison is my sister in alcohol".  Try a Brenne and Sorel.  It's like having everything hip about New York in a glass.  While you're at it, think up a name for this simple pairing.

FYI - there is a similar, but more involved Manhattan version of Sorel with Brenne.  It's called The Brooklyn Blossom:
  • 2.5oz Brenne French Single Malt Whisky
  • 1.5oz Sorel
  • 1oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • 1 Hibuscus blossom
http://jackfrombrooklyn.com/recipe/brooklyn-blossom/

Good buddies that mix well together.
Picture courtesy of Jackie Summers
(All the liquors tasted in this piece are my own bottles.  Sorel purchased at Dry Dock in Red Hook from Brandy Rounds.  Brenne purchased at Park Avenue Liquors from Marlon Paltoo).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seagram's VO Canadian Blended Rye Whisky from 1971 head to head against the current stuff.



Seagram's V.O. was created in 1914 when Joseph Seagram's son Thomas asked distiller William Hortop for a special cask for his upcoming wedding.  Hortop created a custom blend.  The whisky was so good that Seagram decided to launch it as a new expression, according to Davin DeKergommeaux in "Canadian Whisky, a portable expert".  (the link there takes you to the Amazon page for the book.)  My review of that book is here:
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/06/canadian-whisky-portable-expert-by.html

Seagram's V.O.hit the market in 1917 and has been huge, pretty much, ever since.  In the book, Davin doesn't speculate on what "V.O." means.  There are two conventional speculations - with no evidence at all to choose between them:
1) V.O. stands for "Very Own" - because it was a special blend crafted for Thomas' "Very Own".
2) V.O. stands for "Very Old" and was an attempt to reference Cognac's V.S. designation.
I won't bother to speculate either except to note that V.O. is always given with periods on bottle shots and ads from Repeal through the 1980s.  Yet the current bottling and recent ads omit the periods.  When, exactly this happened, and why, I have no idea.  I use periods or not depending on which era's bottling I'm discussing.

Originally V.O. was made at Seagram's Waterloo distillery and was 10 years old, according to DeKergommeaux (whose authority I accept).  In my poking around I haven't encountered a label or an ad ever with a 10 year age statement.  Please let me know if you see one!  The earliest labels I can find date to the late 1920s and already show the 6 year age statement that is standard for the whole sweep of VO's history, with the exception of the final year or two of World War II when it was 7 years old.  Well... the probable earliest label I can find is all messed up, actually, with no proof statement, no age statement, and an apparently incorrect designation of V.O. not as a blend at all, but as a "Pure Rye":
Early (probably 1920s) 2oz. mini bottle lacks age statement but does specify "pure rye".
Photo from http://www.pre-pro.com/
Is this mini bottle real evidence that V.O. once was a "Pure Rye" instead of a blend?  Probably not.  In any case, the provenance is unknown.  It may be a fake.  It may be an error.  Or it may truly be a significant varient.  It poses more questions than it answers.
This 1928 full bottle specifies "Blended"
Photo from whiskyvault.com
This 1928 label shows the basic constellation of features of Seagram's V.O. for half a century.  It is, however, also missing both an age statement and a proof statement, but this 1936 ad shows the bottle and gives both: an 86.8 proof statement and a big red "6" on the lower label:

This 1936 ad shows the 20s-30s bottle style and specifies 86.8 proof.

There appears to have been a 7 year age statement version in the WWII years.  I've seen ads for 7 year old age statement V.O. in the years '42, and '44..  Let me know if you know of other years.  Here's how I can show it:  Here are a trio of ads that bracket a period when Seagram's V.O. advertised the  7 year old age statement - showing how 7 and 6 year age statement editions of the same brand went in and out during this period.  Ads from 1943 and 1946 which show the 6 year age statement flank a 1944 one that trumpets 7 years old:

By 1943 we see the new label, used up until the late '90s with the 6 year age statement
and the 86.8 proof strength statement.

In this 1944 ad we see a 7 year age statement, both in the ad's text and on the bottle.

But by 1946, a scant two years later it's back to 6 years again.  Apparently for good.

That 1946 ad is a wonderful bit of nostalgia today.  The Sci-Fi "New wonders of speech and writing devices by Men who Plan beyond Tomorrow" include two refinements to telegram technology: a phone that spits out telegrams (at bottom) and a curbside telegram machines (at right).  At left there are some very forward looking radio phones that presaged cell phones.  At top we have a typing dictation machine.  While the likes of Dragon Naturally Speaking and Siri have made this a reality, it's still in its infancy, so this particular item was quite forward thinking indeed.

One thing is for sure, Seagram's V.O. was very popular through Repeal and WWII and on through the Mad Men era.  Why was it so popular?  Probably for many of the same reasons rye whisky in general had been popular from Colonial days on: the herbal spicy flavor tastes like whisky to a ton of people.  V.O. brought the Canadian refinements of smoothness, sweetness, and consistency through the particularly advanced Canadian art of blending and extensive use of refill casks.  This gives V.O. a light and smooth aspect that appeals to a lot of people.  V.O. is the jewel in the crown for Seagram's Corporation on through this whole long period.  A titan.

Seagrams, under Sam Bronfman, moved production of V.O. from Waterloo to Amherstberg, Ontario in the mid 1940s.  In the late 1960s a more modern distillery was built at Gimli and production was moved there.  When Diageo took over in 2001 they shifted the bulk of VO's production to Valleyfield.  But, as VO is a blend of multiple whiskies, exact distillery provenance is difficult to pin down.  Parts of VO still come from Gimli.  And in the 60s, parts of V.O. may have still came from Waterloo.



For this tasting I have sourced a 200ml flask of current production Seagrams VO from a train station liquor store nearby.  To give insight into the pre-Gimli flavors, a 1971 tax stamped airline bottle was sourced from a German auction house.

Seagram's VO 40% abv.  Current production 

No visible age statement.  Base whiskies distilled at Valleyfield.  Some flavoring whiskies may still come from Gimli.

Color: pale gold.

Nose:  Creamy white vanilla fudge, mineral dust, some gentle cedar forest aromas, and grapefruit pith.

Palate:  Creamy and sweet on opening.  The vanilla fudge sweetness is here, but gives way to rye spice and herbal and mineral notes along with rye heat and spirit heat on the expansion.  The spirit heat moment at the mid-palate is why VO is typically used as a mixer - but frankly this sips quite nicely as a Canadian blend with all the classic aspects of the Canadian whisky flavor signature.  The turn to the finish is asserts a slight astringency and ushers in the flavors of grapefruit peel pith that wax sweet and creamy again in the moderately short finish.  It's surprisingly sippable for the price.  On the whole, I was impressed.  I was expecting a 2 star mixer but on the balance I'd say it's a 3 star entry level sipper.

***

Seagram's V.O. 43.4% abv. 1965-1971

6 years old.  Amherstberg, with some components perhaps coming from Waterloo, Ontario.   No proof statement on the bottle.  Also, interestingly, no volume statement either.

Color: pale gold

Nose: Sharper, with a clear sweet vanilla floral opening.  Deeper there are notes of fruity bitter hops and classic herbal rye sweet and spice notes.  The extra proof is readily apparent in the nose too: spirit burn.

Palate:  The entry is sweet, with cream and cereal sugars, but is much drier than the vanilla fudge opening in the current version.  Rye shows up as floral herbal flavors of rye grain and, cilantro and cut ivy.  Herbal rye with some real intensity and chili scented spicy kick are all over the mid-palate too, which carries some of the effervescent mouth feel you get with pure rye whiskies.  There is the hops-like bitterness of rye's turn melding into the fruity bitter grapefruit pith flavor note.  The bitterness hangs on with sharpness and vividness through the rather long finish.

This is a different animal; one much closer to a high end rye whisky.  The flavors are vivid.  Well delineated and embedded in a matrix of rye and corn that balance sweetness and dryness.  The main rap is that it's hot - but that's tot unusual for good rye whiskies..  But this is clearly a sipper and pretty nice one.

*****

If there's no proof statement, how do I know the 1971 example is 86.8 proof?  Ads for V.O. show 86.8 proof at least through 1985.  The lowering of the proof happened after that - probably in the 90s.  As evidence I'll leave you with this lovely 1973 ad which displays 86.8 proof and helps put this bottling in a cultural context:
Seagram's V.O. 1973 ad. - an elegant bit of 70s design.
A tinge of feminism? The woman takes the lead on the slope and is the clear
sexual aggressor in the apres-ski which is all about highballs.
Notice that she also has a much larger drink than he does too.
So what can we conclude?  The older version is better.  Why?  There are several obvious factors: now, the age statement is gone allowing younger whiskies to be used; the proof has been lowered from 86.8 to 80 (pretty close to 10%).  Bottle maturation may be making an appearance improving the sweetness and intensity of flavors in the 1971 bottling (which has 42 years in the glass).  And, of course, the distillery was changed not once but twice between the two samples.  There are too many factors changing and not enough data points here to draw any conclusions.  Except this one:  Seagram's V.O. was a popular whisky for years because it was a pleasurable flavor signature that people drank neat, with water, ice, and in cocktails.  With the reduction in quality VO mainly plays in mixer-land, but it still retains a big chunk of what once made it a titan.  It's one of those whiskies you can enjoy neat that you can acquire at an attractive price point ($15 for a 750ml bottle).  The kind you're likely to find at selection-challenged lesser bars where you want to get a whisky.  I recommend having a taste and you may find it joins your arsenal of "basic options".  I was certainly pleasantly surprised with both the interesting dusty mini but also the "plain Jane" new stuff too. .

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why You Should Be Drinking Whisky: The Balance of Alcohol's Effects On Health

CNN featured an article yesterday (December 12, 2013) warning:

James Bond at risk of early death from alcohol, study says


CNN: "James Bond may want to reconsider his drinking habits, a new study says"
http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/12/health/james-bond-alcohol/

Tongue in cheek and serious at the same time, the article was prompted by an actual academic paper published in the British Medical Journal written by a trio of medical researchers where they tallied up the drinking in Fleming's novels and concluded that James Bond ought to be dead.  Just from drinking that is.

Too bad Bond didn't drink whisky.  [Sheepish Correction (thanks Eric): he drinks a ton of whisky in the books.  In the books Bond drinks a variety, but primarily whisky.  In the movies he regularly prefers vodka martinis, shaken, not stirred.  So it's wrong to say "Bond didn't drink whisky".  Now I'd change it to "Too bad Bond didn't drink whisky thoughtfully."]  While slamming back Vespers seems to be the mode of consumption in the white spirits world; and slamming seems pretty prevalent in the flavored booze, and cocktail worlds too, whisky invites a different kind of drinking (and I'm excluding the doing of shots - which I don't recommend from an epicurean perspective).  Whisky drinkers tend to sip slow and take their time.  This way of drinking whisky - the thoughtful way of true tasting - was enshrined in Jason Debly's manifesto "Slow Whisky Movement".  If you've never read it, take a moment and please read it now and then come back:
http://jason-scotchreviews.blogspot.com/2012/03/slow-whisky-movement.html

Did you catch the gist?  Be Zen.  Cut distractions, truly meditate on the totality of the experience, and know from the get go that you are just having the one dram.  That exclusivity... that monogamy with the dram will make you truly inhabit it.  This manifesto wasn't written with health in mind - but it results in truly affirmative healthy drinking - as well as excellent whisky epicureanism.  ...even if you cheat and end up having two...

That's because moderation is the key to enjoying the benefits of alcohol - if you are going to drink anyway.  This is how the Mayo Clinic article on "Healthy Eating" begins to discuss alcohol consumption:

"It sounds like a mixed message: Drinking alcohol may offer some health benefits, especially for your heart. On the other hand, alcohol may increase your risk of health problems and damage your heart.  So which is it? When it comes to drinking alcohol, the key is doing so only in moderation."
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alcohol/SC00024

Today's guest blogger on The Coopered Tot is health writer Claire Gilbert who has taken the time to make a well supported argument for why moderate drinking is good for you.  This is hardly news - but it bears repeating, particularly in light of the more frequent press about how alcohol can kill you.  Make no mistake - the key here is moderate drinking.

Balancing the bad with the good


When taken to excess no one is going to dispute that alcohol in any form can increase the risk of damage to your liver and nervous system. Drinking heavily can also raise your blood pressure, which can cause damage to the blood vessels, increasing the likelihood of heart disease. This habit can equally place you at risk of certain cancers and is also tough on your digestive system. Your immune system doesn’t escape either, as heavy drinking suppresses your immune function so your white blood cells are less likely to fight off infections, which you may be at greater risk of contracting any way if the impact on your decision-making means you take part in more risky activities that leaves you vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted diseases. However, with your altered judgement this may not be the only thing that you regret, as drinking to excess also makes you more likely to have an accident – particularly if you get behind a wheel – or to get in trouble with the law. However, none of these situations are inevitable when you drink alcohol, as the key is how much you drink. If you’re able to moderate your intake, sensible drinking won’t lead to these problems and you’ll gain a range of benefits from doing so.


Health gains from alcohol


Asked which alcohol if any is good for you and most people will say red wine. However, while red wine has been shown to be advantageous for heart health, any form of alcohol can be beneficial for your circulation and other parts of your body. That means if you prefer whiskey or brandy to wine, you can still reap the benefits of drinking sensibly over the week.

Drinking from middle age onward, when the risks of developing heart disease begin to increase, can protect your heart and blood vessels in a number of ways. Firstly, moderate consumption of alcohol increases the production of HDL cholesterol, the form that carries cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver for removal from the body, which helps to retain a healthy blood flow through the arteries. Then there is the fact that drinking moderately reduces the production of fibrinogen, one of the proteins that promote blood clot formation, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a blockage in one of the blood vessels. Levels of inflammation in the body, insulin resistance (where the body struggles to lower blood sugars) and triglycerides (another type of blood fat) – all risk factors for cardiovascular disease – are also reduced.

A number of other chronic health problems appear to be reduced when you drink sensibly. For instance, one or two alcoholic drinks daily have been found to reduce your risk of diabetes by around 30%, while no benefit was seen in people who don’t drink any alcohol. Similarly, around a measure and a half of spirit each day may help to reduce your likelihood of gallstones by about a third. Far from being detrimental to your mental function, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol has also been shown to protect against dementia. Looking beyond your cognitive function, drinking alcohol may help to promote other aspects of your mental well-being, as it has the ability to lift your mood and reduce stress when taken in measured amounts. What’s more, social benefits gained from drinking with friends, family and co-workers can further help to boost your mental health.


Getting the benefits


With all this talk of moderate drinking, what does that actually mean? Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans this translates as up to one alcoholic beverage daily for women and up to two for men. As far as spirits go this is equivalent to 1.5 fluid ounce shot, but if you also like a tipple of something else, for beer, lager and cider this means 12 fluid ounces and for wine 5 fluid ounces. Follow these guidelines and you’ll enjoy more than just a good drink, but good health into the bargain.

- Claire Gilbert.



So - as the Holiday drinking season rolls around, remember to drink your whisky.  But sip it slow
.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Laphroaig's Younger OBs considered. Cigarette?

Laphroaig is the biggest selling Islay single malt according to Bloomberg (accounting for about 44% of the sales of all the whisky from Islay (!)) and it's not a big mystery why.   It is tremendously smoky and peaty, maritime briney, and yet has beguiling stone fruit flavors and plenty of malty sweetness.  The 10 year old expression is fierce, and yet well balanced, and at around $40 one of the biggest values in the single malt world in the flavor density for the dollar equation.  I encountered it, like a lot of malt whiskey fans, very very early.  In the early 1990s after I had tried Macallan, Glenfiddich, and began tasting the Diageo Classic malts I immediately gravitated towards the compellingly simple and classic label of Laphroaig 10.  You can't begin to explore the world of Scotch Whisky without being either seduced or repelled by Islay - the Hebredian jewel where history, mystery, and peat and sea air come together in a magical array of malt whiskies.  Islay malts all tend to have a maritime influence and most have some peat (even if just by cross contamination) - or a lot of peat.  Laphroaig sets an immediate benchmark and it says it right on the label of the base 10 year old expression:  "The most richly flavored of all spirits".  Older Laphroaigs (the 15, which was the flagship OB until 2009 when it was replaced with the 18) are more estery and have a more elegant and polite peat flavor profile.  The younger ones have a forceful peat that is a polarizing flavor.  Some folks absolutely love it and some folks totally hate it.  The flavors of the peat are less about the smoldering earth, wet hemp, or raging wood fire like you get in other Islay malts.  Instead there's a very special almost spicy aspect to the peat's flavor.   And it was this aspect, I confess, that led me to steer clear of Laphroaigs generally for years.  What the heck is that flavor note?  I tend to describe it as a wet tobacco quality - like a cigarette that the rain put out and which you are now lighting up again.  It's a flavor note that I pretty much only get in young (NAS through 10 year old) Laphroaig.  But that's a whole lot of expressions in their line.

Recently I decided to tour through these expressions to reassess how I feel about the flavors of younger Laphroaig.

If you want to know more about the story of Laphroaig be sure to check out Malt Madness' profile:
http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/laphroaig.html

A more effusive narrative, richly illustrated with period photography and some of the amazing tales - including the tale of the attempted Laphroaig replica Malt Mill is found here:
http://www.laphroaigcollector.com/history.htm

For photographs of the active distillery you can't do better than to visit Ernst Sheiner's  Gateway to Distilleries page for Laphroaig:
http://www.whisky-distillery.net/www.whisky-distilleries.net/Islay_L-P/Seiten/Laphroaig.html

Disclosure of the origin of the samples tasted:  the bottle of Laphroaig Cask Strength 3rd edition, and samples of Triple Wood 2012 and Cairdeas 2012 were generously provided by  Ryan of JSH&A Public Relations in November of 2012 (over a year ago!).  The bottles of Laphroaig 10, and Cairdeas 2013 are my own property, purchased at Park Avenue Liquors.

Laphroaig 10 (in front) and Cairdeas 2013 Port Finish (behind)

Laphroaig 10 43% abv

Color:  gold

Nose:  Putty, clay, lime, hemp.  Far beneath: distant melon, stone fruits, flowers and honey.

Palate entry is sweetness instantly eclipsed by dark oily peat burn with tobacco and tobacco ash.  Spicy heat and some meaty notes (salami) on the expansion and a long slow fade to ash and dirty malt glow on the finish.  Big rich big dark Islay flavor.  You'll either love it or you'll hate it.

With a few drops of water, there's more putty on the nose although the melon and floral notes (distant to start) seem to disappear.  There is more lemon citrus and sunny sweet on the palate.   Mouth feel is a bit richer too.   I'd say a few drops and 10-15 minutes of integration should be considered mandatory.

****  

An absolute landmark for value in an entry level single malt Scotch whisky.  This is an iconic flavor profile.  That said, I'm not in love with it personally.  The peat comes off as dirtier than I'd like.  I find the unadorned Laphroaig flavor profile not as satisfying as the varieties that gussy it up with some sweetness via some kind of wine finish.  I feel almost guilty saying so.  It's like saying you wish Jimmy Durante had a smaller nose.



Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength 55.3% Batch 3 Jan 2011

Color: Light amber with coppery and golden tints.   Looks like a young bourbon.

Nose: Honeyed quince, apricot, roobios herbal tea, and window putty are the dominant notes.  But the aroma is both big and subtle: Creosote and heather, cardboard and floral meadow.  Fresh unlit Virginia tobacco leaf and river clay.  A harmonious tottering of extreme contradictions of loveliness and ugliness.

Explosive on entry and huge on the palate.   Honeyed and stone fruit preserves sugar sweet melded from the first instant with a fierce radiant lit tobacco smoky-bitter peat with a kiss of library paste.   At mid-palate the expansion brings in stone and red fruits under the dusky thick smoke reek with covers all from first sweet piercing sip through the long aching ashy smoky finish.  At the turn there are sub rosa fruity notes yield to tar and ashes.

Adding a few drops of water adds some hints of stone fruit (nectarine) and whisks of floral perfume to the nose.  These meld to clay and putty to form a classic Laphroaig peaty sweet aroma.

The water thins the palate, gentles the sharp sugars of the opening adds a bit of thickness and honey to the mouth feel, and amps up the already generous spicy heat, but it shelves down the tar and ash in the balance.   More citrus tang and ocean air joins the fierce peat reek and yields a more approachable, more harmonious dram.   Slightly.  Water is recommended but it drinks just fine neat too.  This is a seriously fierce and peaty monster.  A flavor packed dram for the money.   I can see why so many people are wild for this one.

*****

A really delicious example of an Islay Peat Monster.  I've had the opportunity to try other batches (the current one is 5).  They are all good - Batch 5 perhaps best of all.

The bottle and samples shown here were provided by
Ryan of JSH&A Public Relations

Laphroaig Cáirdeas 2012 "Origin: 51.2% abv

From the cut sheet that came with the sample - this useful information about this expression:

Each Càirdeas Origin bottling has been crafted with whisky from the very first Laphroaig Càirdeas barrel, ranging in age from 13 to 21 years and boasting notes of white pepper and purple heather.  This full-bodied whisky has been blended with equal parts of exceptionally unique whisky, intensely matured in small quarter casks for seven years.  Laphroaig Càirdeas produces an extraordinary blend of hazelnut and earthy notes befitting of the 18th milestone.

Color:  Pale gold with amber glints

Nose: Gentle tobacco, earth, sweet grassy heather, meaty animal sweat, and a hint of stone fruit.

Sweet with the sharp pointed grassy malt sweet of a young Islay like Octomore, or Ardbeg 10.  The rich earthy tobacco burn of Laphroiag's characteristic peat attack comes on immediately.   There's juicy sweetness in the mid-palate with tastes of Sauternes, white sultanas, and fruit gums mixing among the ashy tobacco smolder meets anthracite peat reek burn.  It's a simple gastronomic trick, but I'm seduced.

A few drops of water increase both the apparent sweetness and the considerable peat heat.   The mouth feel richens a tad too.   It's almost a wash.

****
almost 5 stars.  A delicious peat monster with some elegance and finesse.



Laphroaig Triple Wood 2012 48%

The cut sheet that came with this expression's sample included these useful details:

Laphroaig® Triple Wood (96 proof) is the result of a distinct triple maturation process in American Oak ex-Bourbon barrels, 19th Century style quarter casks and specially selected European Oak Olorso sherry casks.  The finish reveals the perfect marriage of peat, oak and sherry notes.  Roughly 12,000 bottles have been produced for the U.S. market and will be available at participating retail locations beginning in October 2012.

Color: Light amber

Nose: Virginia tobacco, earthy clay, distant stone fruit, a farm animal's haunch, fresh sawn lumber.
The palate entry and bloom are dominated by lumber with some kiln dried "craft whisky" barrel flavors and tobacco and gentle malty sweet.  With some air and time cherry candy notes play underneath.   The interplay of fruity sweet with hot, darkly bitter peat is lovely.

Titanic ashy finish. 

***

borderline four stars.  This was my least favorite of the group.  The wood management's complexity left me tasting some barrels that didn't do it for me.





Laphroaig Cáirdeas 2013 51.3% abv. Port Wood Finish

Color: An extraordinary light amber and rose wine pink.   Salmon.

Nose: Virginia tobacco again, clay, honey malt, raspberry-cherry compote in a sawn oak box.

The palate is raucous and sweet.   It opens with sweet cereal sugars, berry and citrus tartness, honey and red fruits and then explodes into fiery burning tobacco peat and spirit heat.   The finish brings in grapefuit pith tartness and the fading prickly burn of peat redolent of potter's clay, hemp, salt air, and rock mineral.   It's a classic swimmer (at 51.3% abv it fairly cries out for a drop).   Water adds sweetness to the palate and honeyed richness to the mouth feel.  It also amps up the fruit acids and the dynamics of almost every flavor element.  Water and at least a quarter hour of water integration time are necessary for this whisky to open up and strut its stuff.   It's not elegant.   It's not sophisticated.   Heck, it's not even balanced.   It's a raging peat monster with a lovely fruity sheen added by the port cask portion of the double maturation (the remainder being bourbon barrel). 

****
Rich and big and with some lovely fruits.   I slightly preferred the 2012's more floral presentation, but there's little doubt that the port wine finish's zip and tang and extra sweetness take the Laphroaig flavor signature somewhere interesting.

Conclusions: young Laphroaigs are big aggressively peated flavor bombs.  The quality of the peat has a clear tobacco aspect that is polarizing.   I don't want it all the time - but when I do there is no substitute. What's missing in this review? Laphroaig Quarter Cask.   Introduced in 2004, Quarter Cask - a NAS edition that is younger, aged in more aggressively wood infusing quarter sized casks, is the second largest selling Laphroaig expression, accounting for about 15% of total sales.   I didn't taste it here because I'm not sanguine about the small cask shorter aging period idea.  Maybe I'm making a mistake? If I taste it and find it to be so I'll definitely update this review.

So have I come around to liking the tobacco flavor aspects of the peat in younger Laphroaigs?  Yes I have.  I have come to love it.  Just not all the time...

Note: a similar survey was recently performed by Terry Lozoff at Drink Insider: http://drinkinsider.com/2013/02/laphroaig-triple-wood-cairdeas-10-year-cask-strength/

Monday, December 2, 2013

Blurred Lines: Having Fun Pouring Whisky and Skirting The Edge of the Ethics of Whisky Blogging

Pouring Smooth Ambler at Whisky Fest NYC October, 2013 -
Photo courtesy of Greenie McGee (in my pocket) (@greenietravels)
I've been taking risks lately.  These include biking through urban Newark, NJ late at night to get home from a distant train station and biking in traffic in New York City.  I've hit the pavement a few times (luckily without injury so far).  I've been taking risks in the whisky domain too - and I'm not talking about drinking a lot.  I'm talking about toying with the limits of accepted ethics for whisky bloggers.  But I'm doing so for a reason - although the primary reason is "for my own amusement".  But there's more to it too.


What I've been doing is pouring whisky (and whiskey) at events and at tastings - sometimes in the apparent role of Brand Ambassador.  I've brought home samples of the whiskies I've poured and I have every intention of writing up critical tasting notes and then posting them to this blog as if I were an impartial and honest whisky blogger.  Impartial - yet on one or more particular evenings I've stood behind a table and poured these same whiskies and schmoozed them to a the paying public.  And, in a few cases, I've received an hourly payment for doing so.  The payment was considerably less than I usually make for working and given the work and incidentals wasn't very lucrative and certainly wasn't why I did it.  In most of the rest I've received the dregs bottles.  That's nice - but it's also not why I did it.  Personally I have quite a bit of whisky and I'm way behind in my tasting and writing.  Believe it not, a bag full of half full bottles aren't a compelling reason for me to spend several hours on my aching feet after a full work day while tons of people pack in and hold their glasses out.  I did it for a complex of reasons that center around the following:

Pouring Gordon & MacPhail at the Whisky Guild "Whisky on the Hudson" cruise
Fall, 2012.  I'm nervously talking up a really awesome Mortlach cask strength to
Malt Maniac Peter Silver (right) & Dr. Brian Silverman
Photo courtesy of Greene McGee (@greenietravels)

1) I wanted to see what it feels like to be on the other side of the table.  Part of me thinks it might be kind of interesting from a journalistic perspective - like George Plimpton pretending to be a QB in the NFL in order to write an "insider's perspective piece.  

2)  I wanted to feel an "insider's" sense of belonging in the whisky community.  The industry people have a tremendous esprit de corps and sense of belonging.  I wanted to feel that too.  Indeed, since I've poured and done events, I have been accepted by industry people to a much larger extent than I was formerly.  That feels good - and it also gives me access and insight into their ways and their world.  This has been fun and gratifying.  It's also grist for the blog.  I want to party in the scene to so I can kiss and tell.  (Granted I'm way behind in telling these stories).

3) I really enjoy talking about whisky with people.  Pouring at shows has been a blast because I get to teach people about whisky and share some of the passion from an implied position of authority (because I was the one doing the pouring).

But the burning question I must address here and now is whether this stuff compromises my ethics as blogger.  Will this lead me to write some puff ball reviews of the whiskies sold by the people in my #whiskyfabric?

The issue of the ethics of whisky blogging has been a hot topic lately.  On October 2, 2010, Oliver Klimek of Dramming wrote a manifesto called:  

The Ethics of Whisky Blogging

In brief - the commandments were:
1. I will not accept free offers that require or expect me to bend my opinion.
2. My future writing will not be influenced by free offers of the past or advertising money
3. I will not ask for free offers
4. I will tell you when I write about something I received for free
5. I will plug my own blog only if I have something worthwhile to contribute
6. I will not ask for links to my blog


I read this post early on, was influenced by it, and have attempted to honor its tenets in all my actions.  Nothing in this list prevents me from pouring whisky as a pretend Brand Ambassador.  But when I put the question bluntly to Oliver Klimek he was clear and unequivocal in his reply:

" I guess we all agree that bloggers should not be industry whores. But how close is too close? It seems ["Preacher'] thinks that any visible connection to the industry already compromises the writer. I would not go that far, the real issue is how you deal with it in your writing. How honest you are and how strong you are to also express criticism about products of someone you are close to. But there is also the public perception. People may think you are corrupted just because you are actively endorsing a brand. It is a very fine line. And my personal opinion is that For a blogger it may be better to keep a visible distance to that line to avoid any misonterpretations. For example I would never pour for a company on a public event."

But Oliver is a Malt Maniac.  He's also a judge at the Malt Maniac awards.  He can't afford to be too cozy.  I'm not under those same constraints.   But I am under some very real constraints and this was brought home to me forcefully in a comment made by a friend of mine, Tim Read, blogger of Scotch & Ice Cream, in the comments section below an important and potentially influential post about whisky blogger ethics written by a different friend - the blogger of My Annoying Opinions, who prefers to remain anonymous, and who I call publicly by the nickname "Preacher" (because his Twitter Avatar used to be a black and white picture of a country preacher before it became his awesome free-hand line drawing of a hand-holding-the-glencairn.)  Here is the meat of Preacher's argument:

"Lifestyle journalists can’t question the industry very much because the publications they write for (mostly on a contract basis) are deeply reliant on the industry for advertising, materials etc.. Whisky journalism therefore functions mostly as a celebration of the whisky industry and everyone’s happy with the quality and quantity of reciprocal backscratching (or wanking, if you prefer).

But this is precisely where I think bloggers have the opportunity to open up room for critique that the industry–the distillery owners/marketers and the major publications–cannot or will not give us; to write about issues, and from perspectives, that don’t align with those of the industry. I’m not suggesting that this is what bloggers should write about all the time–I myself spend all my time writing fussy tasting notes that a handful of people read; but keeping the theoretical space open seems important. This independence and potential critical perspective is what it seems to me gets lost very quickly when bloggers so happily jump in the pool with the professionals; and indeed many bloggers seem happy to be co-opted in this way, it seems proof of their success that the industry acknowledges and “rewards” them with access."

http://www.myannoyingopinions.com/2013/10/23/annoying-whisky-bloggers/#comment-3850


In this context, my recent spate of pretend Brand Ambassador gigs, and cosying up to industry folks makes me guilty of this specific form of whisky blogging ethics treason.  (The following brilliant image is taken from Shane Helmick's brilliant review of Cromwell's Royal Box Scotch Whisky - which is guilty of the sacrilege of being a Scotch Whisky in a box)  I've borrowed it here to represent my heresy):

SACRILEGE - Blurred Lines association
on Shane Helmick's "How to Drink Whisky" blog.
http://www.howtodrinkwhisky.com/cromwells-royal-de-luxe-scotch-whisky-40/
The text of Preacher's post is potent - but perhaps even more potent to me was Tim Read's comment that reads, in part:

Josh Feldman (left),
Ellie (of nycwhisky.com)
and John Little, Master Distiller
Photo courtesy of Greenie McGee -
WhiskyFest NYC 2013
"There’s a problem I as a reader and consumer have though, and I’ll call you to a pair of specifics. You said: “But as I’ve said elsewhere, when I suit up for an amateur Brand Ambassador gig, I’m thinking of it being like being a pretend quarterback ala Plimpton’s Paper Tiger, than being a blogger who has crossed the line into overt brand advocacy.”
Here’s the problem I as a consumer have with suspending my disbelief. I know you have a basic contract you have to sign and you’re acting as a representative for the company. No one’s going to want the brand ambassador who, as he’s pouring the mainline NAS release, says to the recipient, “This is a mess and it’s a real shame the distillery has made this their primary entry-level whisky.” Presumably, given your professed desire to stay involved in this promotional capacity, you’re going to broadly make nice. I don’t personally have a problem with it – IF THE RELATIONSHIP IS KNOWN TO THE READER. You gave Smooth Ambler’s year-old bourbon high marks, and then a few weeks later, there’s a photo of you in an Ambler shirt pouring at an event. Boy, I wish I’d known that you were cultivating or had a relationship with these guys."

To which I replied:

"I wrote the Smooth Ambler blog post several weeks prior to agreeing to pour for Smooth Ambler. I fully disclose my warm personal relationship with John Little in the Smooth Ambler blog post. At the time I wrote the post that’s as far as it went. If I had a pre-existing relationship with Smooth Ambler I would have divulged it. Later on, I asked John Little if needed help at Whisky Fest. He agreed to put me on the list. I poured Smooth Ambler and took a dregs bottle of Old Scout 10. Other than that dregs bottle and admission to Whisky Fest (which I saw little of, between pouring and having my sister in town) I was otherwise not compensated. When I review the Old Scout 10 I’ll divulge the source of my sample."

I won't tell you that didn't sting a little.  But it was important for me to hear and to rebut.  I reiterate: I've never signed any contracts or made any assertions or agreements that I'd give anything a good review in exchange for anything.  I haven't - and I never will.  That said, the fact that Tim jumped to those conclusions is proof of Oliver's warning that "People may think you are corrupted just because you are actively endorsing a brand."  Oliver was right, and Preacher was right too.  The warning and the issue in general is clearly valid.  My response is to try to counter with clarity and some statements of good intentions:

1) I'm going to abide by Oliver's Klimek's 6 points of whisky blogging ethics.

2) I'm going to stand up here and now and promise to myself and to you that I'm going to tell the unvarnished truth about any and every whisky I blog about.  I will not soft ball whiskies I don't like just because I have a relationship with the importer, distiller, or ambassador.
Pouring Purple Valley Imports at The Casker's Showcase, November 2013 -
Photo with my own camera by the Casker's event staff photographer
 (while I held his camera)

3) I'm going to review my dregs bottles and I'm going to be completely honest where the whisky came from - just as I have been very honest about the source of all the whiskies I've reviewed so far.  If I've been given a sample or if I swapped for it I say so.  If I don't bother to say where I got it - it's because I bought it in a store.
4) If and when I pour whisky at a show and you happen to walk up to me, I'll tell you the truth about the whiskies I pour.  Ask anyone who has come up to me at a show and had me pour them whisky.  I tell the truth about what I'm pouring.  There have been some whiskies that aren't as good as the others and I've said so.  However, the rare times I pour, I pour whisky that I'm interested in because I think it's good or I think it has some redeeming feature that makes it worth trying.

Photo courtesy of Wes @wmoe1
4) If I have a relationship with the importer, distiller, or a brand ambassador, I will be honest and forthcoming about that fact.  Look back over my reviews and you will see that this has always been the case.

5) I will not let personal relationships interfere with my telling the truth about whisky.  I'm going to post a lot of reviews in the coming months and years and I'm going to describe what's in the glass to the best of my ability in each case - no matter what my relationship to the person(s) who brought the whisky into being.

6) And, finally, I won't let any of the aforementioned get in the way of me doing whatever the !@#$ I want to do.  And if I want to hang with whisky people and maybe even pour their stuff that's what I'm going to do.  If I start judging for the Malt Maniacs awards I may reconsider this position.

So, what's it like pouring whisky at a big event?  It's loud, frenetic, often repetitive - telling the same story about what you're pouring over and over again, and involves hours standing in a way that makes your feet tired.  It's also a wonderful opportunity to geek out with a huge cross section of the whisky community.  I get to meet and discuss whisky with bloggers and passionate insiders, and also beginners and partiers and sometimes obnoxious inebriated people.   It's a fascinating experience being on the other side of the table.  It makes you feel a kinship with the whisky that you don't normally experience.   Now, the challenge will be seeing if that feeling of kinship affects my ability to write about these whiskies impartially.  I say "no".  Check back and find out.   And don't be afraid to call me on it if I seem to be straying into "bogus".


Monday, November 11, 2013

Old Ren Bonded Bourbon: An Antique And Delicious Mystery That Ranges From Chicagoland To The Ohio River To A Texas Tiki Bar And Back.

What is Old Ren?  It is a straight bourbon distilled at Graham Distillery Company (Illinois Distillery No. 6) in the Fall of 1936 and bottled in bond by a company called W.P. Squibb Distilling Co. Inc. of Vincennes Indiana (I.R.B.W. No. 9) in the Spring of 1944.  It was a one-off contract order for a magician whose name I didn't know  (but I sure found out) whose picture appears on the bottle, smiling in a top hat and tux and pulling a white rabbit out of a hat.  The magic theme is in the motto:  "There's Magic In Its Taste".  Apparently the magician used the bourbon for promotion of his magic show.  After his death a quantity of it was found in the basement of his home.

(see the more detailed bottle shots near the bottom of this post for the labels showing the distilleries involved and the years)

A case of Old Ren whisky showed up at Bonhams in the October sale in NY this year as lots 187-190.

http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21015/lot/187/

There is definitely what I'd categorize as "a little mystery to figure out".   As it turns out, there is a ton of interesting tidbits to this story - and a kind of crazy low weave that seems to connect various bits and pieces of it in that "it's a small whiskey world" kind of way.

The Graham Distillery in Rockford Illinois appears in the text of a booklet titled

INDUSTRIAL AND PICTURESQUE ROCKFORD. 
EUGENE BROWNE AND F. FORD ROWE. 
PRICE, 50 CENTS. POSTAGE ON THIS BOOK, FOUR CENTS. ROCKFORD, llili.: Forest City Publishing Company.
June, 1891.


The online text has obviously been OCR'ed and not proofed.  It reads:
"Graham's Distillery. This firm consists of Julius, Freeman and Byron
Graham, with a capital stock of $150,000. They manufacture sour mash whiskies. The annual product is $300.000. They employ forty-five hands, with an annual pay- roll of $30,000."
http://www.archive.org/stream/industrialpictur00brow/industrialpictur00brow_djvu.txt


Their invoices in the first part of the 20th century look like this (from a recently completed auction on Ebay):


There is thread on Straight Bourbon where people are busy tracking down where in Rockford the distillery was located and where the locally famous Graham house is:
"The Graham-Ginestra House was constructed in 1857. The original owner, Freeman Graham, Sr., was a prominent local businessman who built the first sour mash distillery in the State of Illinois, and achieved a national reputation for his whiskies. Graham was also part owner of the Rockford Cotton Mills, and his home at 1115 S. Main Street was located approximately midway between the Mills (202 S. Main) and the Graham Distillery (1602-08 S. Main)."
http://www.waymarking.com/gallery/im...8-06df0d00f0a1



But there's not much I could find about the whiskey itself or how the distillery fired back up after Repeal - and when it stopped operating.  Rockford IL is in the greater Chicago region - a region that had a number of distilleries to provided that whiskey thirsty city.  The lingering reputation isn't really one of quality - but the proof is in the glass.

The bottler's story is a bit more iterated.  For the history of the Squibb Distilling Co. - the Indiana Brewing History site "IndianaBeer.com" has the following very dense paragraph.  I'm going to present it in its entirety because it's so redolent of the kind of connections among brands, names, cities, and history that turn me on so much in this field:

"William P. and G.W. Squibb started a distillery in Aurora in 1846. Kosmos Fredrick joined them in 1867 building a new distillery in Lawrenceburg that could process 300 bushels of grain per day. This was at 2nd St. near Main. Fredrick sold his shares to W. P. Squibb in 1871. He went on to form a new distillery with Nicholas Oester.
In 1885 they installed a continuous still. When the two Squibbs both died in 1913 they left the distillery to their seven sons and cousins.
By 1914 four of the sons and one cousin build a new distillery on the same site.
From 1937 until 1949 they also used the defunct Eagle Brewery in Vincennes.
This operation produced Chimney Corner, Old Dearborn, Rock Castle, and Gold Leaf Rye.
It was called the Old Quaker distillery. "Old Quaker Distilling Frankfort KY, Lawrenceburg IN, and Fresno, CA". The motto is "Old Quaker is in tune with today's growing preference for mildness and mellowness. You don't have to be rich to enjoy rich whiskey."
Just before prohibition ended Schenley bought the plant and rolled it into a new conglomerate along with the Schenley, Finch, Ancient Age, James E Pepper, Blanton, Old Stagg, and more distilleries.
Legend says they made 80 barrels of whiskey eight days before prohibition ended and the whiskey was ready in 1936.
During WWII they made penicillin at the plant."
http://www.indianabeer.com/History/IH-SE.html

So - the Squibbs started in Aurora, Indiana.  This is the next town downstream from Lawrenceburg, Indiana (which is, itself just a dozen miles barely over the State line from Cincinnati Ohio).  Then from 1867 on they were in Lawrenceburg, IN.  Yes, THAT Lawrenceburg, IN - the one where Seagrams made Bourbon and Rye and where LDI/MGP makes it now.  But this was bottled in the Vincennes plant - which was the former Eagle Brewery.  According to a 1998 history of the city, titled, eponymously, "Vincennes" by Richard Day and William Hopper, one Julius Hack was president of Eagle Brewery.  "Always well dressed, Julius was nicknamed "Dude."  When Prohibition came in 1919, "Dude" tried to convert to low-alcohol "near beer" but the brewery closed in in 1930.  From 1937 to 1949, it operated as W.P. Squibb Distillery, then was acquired by Vincennes University and used for classrooms until 1994."

The oval sticker says:
"Texas State Tax Paid / Liquor / 1/5th Gallon / 25.6 cents"
But what of Old Ren himself.  "Ren" is a nickname of "Reginald".  At first, searching for Chicago area magicians named "Reginald" went nowhere.  The key was the little tax sticker for Texas.  Ft. Worth Texas had a magician who was active at the time.  His name was A. Renerick "Ren" Clark.  A quick search hit instant undeniable pay dirt in the form of the exact same photograph that's on the whiskey bottle appearing as the cover of Genii magazine (a major magazine for magicians - and perhaps the oldest):

Ren Clark was featured on the cover of the June 1942
edition of Genii magazine - with the same photo that's on Old Ren



There is a richly detailed bio of Ren Clark in the MagicPedia. It reads as follows:

Ren Clark (1904-1991), M.I.M.C. with Gold Star, served as president of the IBM (1947-48) and was one of the founders of the Texas Association of Magicians.[1]

He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the Texas A. and M. College and later served as banker and as an executive for several oil and gas companies.[2]

He first became exposed to magic in 1910 when Willard the Wizard crossed through Cross Plains where he was growing up.

Clark moved from Kansas City to Rockford, Illinois, and helped formed a local magic club, which later bore his name during its active days.

In 1939, he joined the Society of American Magicians, Chicago Assembly No. 3. When he moved back to Texas and settled in Fort Worth, he transferred his membership to the Dallas Assembly.

In 1940, he joined the I.B.M. and later became the I.B.M. convention Chairman in 1942, overseeing the convention in Fort Worth. He then served as International President in (1947-48) where he worked hard to make a true international organization by visiting many countries.

With friends in Austin, Ed Deweese and Doc Mahendra, he helped form the Texas Association of Magicians in 1946.

Clark would entertain friends, perform for his fellow magicians, donate his services to church groups, boys clubs, civic and fraternal organizations, and during the war years to the entertaining of hospital patients and to military personnel. Ren developed an Oriental act due to the influence of his friend Herbert J. Collins (Col Ling Soo) of London.

At the age of eighty one, Clark was still attending local club meetings, and the occasional national conventions .

Clark was made an Honorary Life Member of the following magical organizations: Texas Association of Magicians; International Brotherhood of Magicians, the British Ring; I.G.P. Club de Azteca of Gaudalajara, Mexico; I.B.M. Ring No. 15 of Fort Worth, Texas, Swedish Magic Circle; Circulo Magico Argentino; El Circulo de Magos Mexicana, Mexico, D. F.; All India Magic Circle; and the Singapore I.B.M. Ring No. 115 of Singapore.[3]

The IBM Ring No 15 in Fort Worth, Texas is called the Ren Clark Ring in his honor. He was a member of the I.B.M. Order of Merlin, Excalibur (50 years) and the recipient of the highest award that can be bestowed by the Board of Trustees of the I.B.M., the Medallion of Honor.

He was featured on the cover of The Magic Circular, May 1990.[4]"


http://www.geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/Ren_Clark

(note, I.B.M. here refer to the "International Brotherhood of Magicians" - not International Business Machines).

Did you catch that he lived in Rockford, Illinois? I wonder if that influenced his decision to buy whiskey from Graham Distillery? Well, Ren Clark also shows up in the history of Tiki cocktail culture because of a restaurant he had called "Ren Clark's Polynesian Village". The following description appears in Humuhumu's Tiki-Wiki:

"Ren Clark was a magician, and held several posts in magician groups in the 1950s. For entertainment at his Polynesian Village resaurant he performed a magic act; as a souvenir, patrons could purchase a grotesque mug of a severed head -- this mug has become one of the more sought-after tiki mug collectibles, despite it not being really all that "tiki."

Ren Clark's Polynesian Village

Ren Clark's Polynesian Village was in the Western Hills Hotel. It is not known what years the Polynesian Village was open, but the hotel was open from 1951 until it burned down in 1969.

The location is currently a Winn-Dixie Marketplace."

http://critiki.com/location/?loc_id=56

Severed head mug?  Yes "ren clark severed head" pops up on Google as a frequent search and there are plenty of them on Ebay (with sale figures topping $800) and there's lots of history and commentary about them as a cultural topic.  

A Ren Clark Severed Head Tiki Mug (photo from an Ebay auction)
A couple of years ago Fort Worth Weekly did a piece on the Fort Worth Magician's club.  The piece is about the club now, and some recent events, but it cannot help but linger over Ren Clark - who really set up magic in that town.  Check out the details about Ren's magic act:

"In terms of magic’s history, the Fort Worth club is probably most notable for its founder, Fort Worth oilman and philanthropist A. Renerick “Ren” Clark. Remembered as a sprightly man with a bald pate and a penchant for oriental décor, Ren Clark first became acquainted with the art of magic as a young boy, via a traveling post-vaudeville magic show featuring a famous entertainer named Willard the Wizard.

Willard, known posthumously as “the last of the big tent show magicians,” traveled in an extensive caravan of trucks, touring small venues and conventions across the Southwest. Clark graduated from Texas A&M University in 1924 with a degree in electrical engineering and went into the oil business, but he never forgot his fascination with Willard’s show.


His career in the oil industry took him to Canada and across the Midwest. While living in Parsons, Kan., in the ’30s, Clark wandered into a magic shop and bought a coin trick. Soon he was skilled in the sort of sleight of hand that had thrilled him as a child. Before long, he had joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians and in 1940 started the Fort Worth club as its 15th chapter. As oil boomed, so did his business, the Double Seal Ring Company. The resulting wealth enabled him to treat his passion as something more than a hobby.


In 1947, the oil magnate-cum-man-o’-magic became president of the brotherhood and immediately began a five-month international jaunt promoting the art of illusion in clubs around the world. As his reputation as an ambassador of magic grew, so did the number of local magicians’ groups. Soon, magic clubs were appearing across the globe like doves out of a hat. Upon word of an upcoming visit by Ren Clark, club leaders would scramble to invite new visitors, hoping that the oilman’s personality and passion would inspire them to become members.


His enthusiasm for magic was at least as ardent at home as it was abroad. According to friend and longtime club member Bob Utter, Clark loved coin tricks. “He’d start with one and then all of the sudden he’d show 10 in his hands,” Utter said.


Clark was also famed for his Asian-themed productions. “Ren really liked Asian things. A lot of his tricks involved long, flowing Asian silks, umbrellas — he’d make umbrellas appear out of nowhere,” Utter recalled. “He went all out — he would dress in these Chinese costumes, put on the eye makeup, the whole nine yards.”


Clark’s act was more than just small-scale sleight of hand. “His production had all kinds of intricate folding boxes that he’d had made special in Japan, and he used a lot of birds too,” Utter said. Indeed, Clark’s home boasted an aviary, with a motley flock of exotic birds.

As if cockatiels flying out of kimono sleeves weren’t enough, Clark’s penchant for post-war exotica spread to other interests, particularly in the Western Hills Hotel (now long departed) on Camp Bowie, notable for its tiki-themed Polynesian Village restaurant and Sunken Galleon bar and equally famous for its “mermaid,” a woman who swam in costume in a giant aquarium behind the bar. Clark had a stage built in the Galleon, big enough for his elaborate act.

The hotel was a hit among socialites, in part because of its then-trendy design scheme, but also because of Clark’s business partner, none other than Desi Arnaz. In other words, Clark was one of those mischievous grandpas who produces quarters from a kid’s ears, except that he did it in a fantastic tiki room and the kid was Desi Arnaz Jr."


http://www.fwweekly.com/2011/10/26/fort-magic/

Well, Ren Clark really sounds like a fun guy and his act sounds like it was blast.  But what about the whiskey?



Light through shows the extreme color on this whiskey.

Old Ren 100 Proof (50% abv) 4/5 Quart

Color: Dark amber to chestnut with red copper glints.

Nose:  The nose is huge, pungent, and very very rich. Vanilla - iterated black greasy pungent aged high end bourbon vanilla pods.  Molasses.  Malted milk balls.  The wineyness of of malted milk trending into Cognac - but a nice rich old XO cognac dripping with rancio.   There are over-ripe squash notes and baking spices that made a guy at Bonhams exclaim "pumpkin pie"!  The longer it airs, the more the vanilla comes to the fore.  I've never encountered an aroma on a whiskey more hugely redolent of vanilla.

The vanilla and malt story are big on the opening.  Sweet, floral, and rich.  But the body surprises by being thinner and hotter than you'd expect - with a big hit of rye spice that comes across as the heat from cinnamon, cloves, and allspice and a big twist of cracked black pepper.  Time and air open and thicken the palate.  The progression is this:  molasses, malted milk, and vanilla extract sweetness jump all over the opening.  The mid-palate waxes big and spicy with rye heat and rye herbal notes, with plenty of leather and cured tobacco.  Oak begins to own the palate at the turn with oak tannins driving the drying at the finish.  As the finish fades all the powerful aspects of the nose return:  black greasy bourbon vanilla pods, malted milk balls, cognac rancio, black strap molasses, cloves and allspice.  They come back and then - 5 minutes or so after the sip ended, they paradoxically wax larger and larger.  You can't stop tasting this.  The finish gets stronger for about a good quarter hour after you stop drinking it.  Weird.  Weird and wonderful.



Something immediately jumps out at me as a result of all of this.  Normally, when you think about a guy buying a run of anything to be used as a promotional item you'd think it would be done on the cheap and maybe not be of the best quality.  I must admit that was my first thought when I heard that this was a run of whiskey for promotional use and it was distilled in Illinois.  But a couple of details don't fit that scenario.  1) Why use straight bourbon?  Blended bourbon was all the rage in those days and it was much less expensive.  2) Why use Bonded bourbon that was aged over 7 years?  This stuff is a full 7 and a half years in oak.  That had to add significantly to the expense.



The answer, having read Ren Clark's bio and the additional detail that he operated a Tiki bar and restaurant suggest something else.  Ren Clark probably loved bourbon.  That would explain why he selected a very mature bonded bourbon for his bottling.  The fact that he lived in Rockford during the period this bourbon was maturing suggests that he may have known, tasted, and enjoyed Graham's bourbon first hand.  Indeed, perhaps he even put the batch under contract at that time.  I have no idea, but the fact remains - Old Ren is very good bourbon indeed.  There IS magic in its taste.

FYI - an update to this post speculating about the word "Straight" canceled on the labels here with a pattern of red squares is blogged here:
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2014/03/old-rens-vanilla-flavor-conundrum.html