Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Tragedy of Old Cabin Still

The history of American whiskey is full of stories with all the human drama of Shakespeare's plays.  There are triumphs and tragedies; tales of creation and destruction.  There are also skeletons in the closet.  This is one of those stories.  It's the story of a murder - but not the murder of a person; the murder of a historic brand of Bourbon.  Like in most murders the motive is mundane, indeed prosaic.  It is simply greed.  The general outline of the story is simple.  Old Cabin Still - a venerable brand originally from William LaRue Weller came, via Pappy Van Winkle, to Stitzel-Weller and was a respected brand for decades. Then a huge corporation, Norton Simon, that had been clumsily dabbling in Bourbon found themselves in a jam with a bunch of bad whiskey they couldn't sell so they bought Stitzel-Weller so they could gradually dump the boondoggle failure whiskey into their bottom of the line Old Cabin Still brand.  This ruined the whiskey - effectively murdering the brand.  When United Distillers dumped 70 brands to Heaven Hill in 1993 (who immediately dumped a bunch to Luxco) with Old Cabin Still listed among them, it fell away into the mists of obscurity.  Currently the brand name "Cabin Still" doesn't appear on either Heaven Hill's or Luxco's web site.  It's not distributed in my area (although it is still made and distributed in the midwest and Europe.  It's a moribund brand, while plenty of other brands with less excellence in their histories are still plugging along.  (Update - it is still made and sold - including in New York.  It's not wheater - but is a decent entry level Bourbon in it's current incarnation.  I'll do a comparison tasting in a future post).

A word about the brand's name.   Originally "Old Cabin Still" It gradually dropped the prefix "Old".  It started in the 1950s - with the word getting smaller and sometimes being replaced by "Weller's", until it fully disappeared sometime in the 1970s - apparently after the sale to Norton Simon.  I'll attempt to use the appropriate name for whatever historical period we are discussing.

Old Cabin Still was one of William Larue Weller's brands when Pappy Van Winkle joined the firm.  It wasn't one of the brands registered in 1905 and 1906, implying that it was previously registered - one of the really old brands.   Pappy clearly liked it.  He had A. Ph. Stitzel produce some as medicinal whiskey during Prohibition.  A nice bottle and photograph appear on  They appear as follows:

"Here is a quite interesting - and quite rare and historically fascinating - early machine-made whiskey bottle with the label, original box AND is still fully sealed with around 85%+ of the original contents - all of which date prior (barely) to National Prohibition! The fully intact tax label (covering the cork stopper) notes that the whiskey was "made Spring 1915" and "bottled Fall 1919" - mere weeks before Prohibition was fully in effect in January 1920 (though most liquor was already off the market by early 1919)."

In "But Always Fine Bourbon" by Sally Van Winkle Campbell, Old Cabin Still appears one of the stable of brands produced by Stitzel-Weller Distillery at its inception in 1935.  It was the entry level expression.  The same juice as Old Fitz, but aged less.  It was marketed as the "sportsman's" choice (see the ads, above, sporty with hunting dogs).  I imagine the idea is that sportsman in the field might nip from the bottle or flask without the luxury of the long airing Old Fitzgerald needed.  Having had the opportunity to have tasted some of the Old Cabin Still made in the Pappy era very recently, I can attest it was very good indeed, but more about that later.

My first experiences with it were very different.  Personally, I came across Cabin Still in my Sophomore year of college, 1983.  My suite mate, Kenneth Kurtz, a dazzlingly intelligent man who is now the staff architect of The Brooklyn Museum, had a penchant for it.  But not, as you might expect, have a penchant for it because it was good.  Rather, because it was bad and fading.  His nickname for it was "Stab 'n Kill".  It was an Old Man's liquor - a foul rotgut, and a symbol of what had
Ken Kurtz (in a Belleville, NJ cemetery)
gone wrong in America.  You have to understand that Ken Kurtz is a connoisseur of America's decline.  He hails from Randolph, NJ and starting in 1982 when I first met him he led me on a series of excursions the likes of which have become a staple of "Weird NJ" magazine (but years before that magazine's founding).  We drove to abandoned or semi abandoned industrial facilities, insane asylums, and the like.  We drove to Allentown and Bethlehem PA to witness the rust belt first hand.  In recent years he leads walks into places like the abandoned rail lines of the Meadowlands swamps northern NJ and the rusting drawbridges of Jersey City.  We walk the vast cemeteries of Queens and the industrial decay of Maspeth creek.  There is beauty in such places - but an ironic beauty informed by the punk aesthetic.  It's about acknowledging the rust and the loss and irony.  This is Ken Kurtz's aesthetic.  So his selection of "Stab 'n Kill" for our Friday night 1980s poker 'n bourbon 'n all you can smoke sessions must be understood as an ironic selection too.  I don't remember much about the Bourbon we drank those evenings.  We were shooting it, with grimaces and mock toughness.  We were also just kids getting drunk and I don't remember much about those evenings at all, generally.  But the long term outcome was: 1) I never bought a bottle of Cabin Still ever again.  2) I stopped drinking Bourbon pretty much entirely for about 20
Jersey City
Drawbridge abstract
years.  I turned to single malt Scotch for the most part and never looked back until 2006 or so when Paul Pacult invited Wild Turkey to host a tasting at Keen's Steakhouse in NYC when my love affair with Bourbon properly began.

This all jibes with Mike Jasinski's (master dusty hunter) tasting notes for this 1972 Ducks Unlimited ceramic decanter.  When I first met him last autumn he walked me through a tasting.  I blogged about it and wrote this:  

"One of the most provocative things the Mike has said on line recently is that Old Cabin Still is both the best and worst Bourbon he's ever tasted. He attributes this to the fact that it was sourced from Stitzel-Weller glut stocks and, alternately, Seagram's lower end stocks. My impression of this brand is the yellow-label stuff from the early 1980s which my college buddies and I used to shoot. It's not a good impression so I was very curious to taste the difference. Mike lineup up drams of both. The 1980s Seagram NAS stuff was terrible. Insipid, thin mouth feel, harsh alcohol bite, and a flavor dominated by wet cardboard notes. The 6 year old age dated 1966-1972 Ducks Unlimited decanter Old Cabin Still, however, was very much in the mode of the contemporary Old Fitzgerald decanter I had just tasted - but if anything incrementally more honeyed, with a richer mouth feel. All the classic Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon flavors were in play: caramel, toffee, butter braised brown Betty, demerara sugar and rum. Sandalwood perfume, and, on the finish, a clear note of light and sweet coffee and cream. Too much? Not a chance. Brilliance."

(Notice the mistakes (probably my own) confusing "Seagrams" for "Canada Dry".  The whiskey that ended up conflated into Old Cabin Still is not Seagrams.  It's Canada Dry - a different company entirely with only the concept of "Canadian" in common.  That shows you need to take the factual content in this blog with a grain of salt.)

Ads for Canada Dry Bourbon start popping up in the mid 1960s.  Here's an example from 1967:
1967 Magazine ad for Canada Dry Bourbon - Nicholsville
The tone of the ad is one of apologetic regret for how poor the branding is.  The text reads "Fine sounding names are a tradition in the world of Bourbon.  But fine sounding names don't do anything for the taste of Bourbon.  Canada Dry has done something for the taste of Bourbon.  We made it smoother. ..." The tacit acknowledgement that the name (and the label and the bottle and everything) is completely lousy branding for Bourbon is covered by the bluster of their claims for the taste.  But having tasted it, and finding it among the most pathetic and forgettable Bourbons I've EVER tasted it's no surprise that the brand quickly disappeared.  But that left Norton Simon - the huge conglomerate that owned Canada Dry at the time, with a problem.  What to do with a bunch of Bourbon that had tax liability hanging over it?

Canada Dry was a soda company that had started in Toronto in the 1890s by druggist and chemist John J. McLaughlin.  In 1904 he created "Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale" which began shipping to New York in 1919.  The timing was brilliant.  Prohibition meant that many drinkers were getting lower quality liquor and Americans found that most any liquor was pretty palatable when blended in with Canada Dry Ginger Ale.  Norton Winfred Simon (1907-1993), Californian food industrialist of tremendous success and market power (Hunts foods, Avis rental cars, McCall's publishing, Max Factor cosmetics, etc...) , merged his Norton Simon corporation with Canada Dry in 1964.  The bourbon appears the very next year.  I can only imagine some kind of competitiveness with Sam Bronfman (in the whiskey world in the 1960s everything comes back to Sam Bronfman so even though I don't have a shred of evidence for this I can't imagine it not being so).  The escapade was failure and soon Norton Simon is looking for a place to dump the inferior product that didn't sell.

On Straight Bourbon there is an old (2004) thread discussing the following bottle of what is labelled "Stitzel-Weller's Canada Dry Bourbon". There is a comment by noted Bourbon historian Michael Veach that speaks straight to this issue and backs up Mike Jasinski's account of Old Cabin Still being ruined by having Canada Dry Bourbon mixed in:

"Right after the [Van Winkle] family sold the [Stitzel-Weller] distillery the company [Norton Simon] also acquired a distillery in Nicholasville, Kentucky that made the Canada Dry spirits. They bottled Canada Dry Bourbon, Gin and Vodka. The whiskey from that distillery was not very good at all and they put most of it into Cabin Still, starting the downfall of that brand. - Mike Veach"

But I received dramatic and fully independent corroboration for the tale from an employee of Stitzel-Weller who made the shift to Norton-Simon and witnessed these events first hand.  The gentleman is named Dale Hamilton.  In his own words:

"I went to work for Stitzel Weller in October - 1970 as Controller/Accounting Manager. When the company was purchased on June 28, 1972 most of the accounting functions were transferred to the New York offices of Somerset Importers. I was asked to take a position in the Finance Offices at Somerset but since I had no desire to live in New York I didn't accept the position. I was allowed to stay in Louisville and set up a purchasing department. I remained as Purchasing Manager thru the mergers with the Canada Dry Distillery Nicholasville, ky. Later when Somerset Importers took over the operations of Distillers Corporation in the U.S.A.  Sometime later I took on the duties of packaging development in addition to the purchasing.  Thru the years the company name was changed to United Distillers Production and later with the purchase of Schenley the name changed to Schenley Distillers , Inc.
The distillery at Nicholasville or Camp Nelson, KY was originally the Curley Distillery and later the Kentucky River Distillery.
Paul Burnside was the President of Somerset Importers at the time and their production operation was the Canada Dry Distillery at Nicholasville, Ky. The operation distilled bourbon and bottled gin & vodka for the Canada Dry brand..They also bottled some brandy for the Domeq brand.
As I recall Burnside had produced more bourbon for the Canada Dry Bourbon brand than was needed and he also wanted to get Somerset into the bourbon business. I was told that some of the bourbon was not of a good quality (musty) due to some warehousing problems. I was not an expert on the quality of bourbon, but I didn't care for the taste of the Canada Dry produced bourbon made with rye ,since I had been used to the Old Fitz bourbon produced with wheat.
Somerset was owned by Norton Simon at the time and money tied up in inventory didn't fit their plan. So now the Stitzel Weller Distillery could cease production for some time and the excess Canada Dry bourbon could be used in the newly purchased Cabin Still brand. The bourbon that was produced for the Cabin Still brand could now be used for some of the other Stitzel Weller brands.
As I recall the Canada Dry Bourbon, Gin, and Vodka labels were only sold in the control states. I don't recall exactly ,but sometime near the end of the brands in seems to me that the soft drink company, no longer connected to liquor division, the Canada Dry named was dropped and replaced with the name "Stitzel Weller" for a short time."

- Dale Hamilton (in several private e-mails.  Emphasis is my own).

 But what about this "distillery at Nicholasville or Camp Nelson, KY - originally the Curley Distillery and later the Kentucky River Distillery"? The Curley Distillery was built around 1880. Sullivan notes it as

"The Boone Knoll DistilleryRD #15, 8 th District Jessamine County, KY"
with the following photograph:
The photograph resides at The Kentucky Historical Society where it is described as follows:
"Curley Distillery at Camp Nelson Bridge, Jessamine County, Kentucky, ca. 1905."

Of this distillery Sam K. Cecil writes: "E.J. Curley & Company RD No. 15, Kentucky River, RD No. 45 Canada Dry.  Built in 1880." But by 1889 Curley's horses and wagons were impounded for non-payment of taxes although it managed to stay open until Prohibition when AMS bought the brands and remaining stocks.  In 1923 the distillery building was converted into a resort.  It was converted back into a distillery after Repeal, operating as "Kentucky River" RD No. 45."  It ended up sold to Norton Simon "sometime in the 1960s".  "Norton Simon continued to operate the plant as Canada Dry until the late 1970s, when they bought the Stitzel-Weller Distillery RD No. 16 in Shively, Jefferson County."  (the actual year of the purchase was 1972, thus showing that you sometimes have to take Cecil with a grain of salt).  The narrative concludes "The distillery building burned, and the warehouses were leased for a time to Seagrams to house production from their Anderson County plant.  Since then, they have leased to Bourlevard of Anderson County for their "Wild Turkey" whiskey".

Chuck Cowdery summarized the history in a post on Straight Bourbon in 2000 thus:  "Built in 1880. In recent times, Norton Simon owned it in the 60s and operated it under the Canada Dry name until they bought Stitzel-Weller in 1972. The distillery building burned down. Seagram's used the warehouse for Four Roses until they built Lotus, at which time they leased them to Wild Turkey."!

A distillery building burning down happens from time to time, of course.  Still, I'm struck by the timing.  Norton Simon using this distillery to produce a failure of a Bourbon brand.  Then buying a struggling but well respected distillery (Stitzel-Weller) and then apparently camouflaging the bad whiskey by mixing it into Cabin Still - the bottom of the line expression from Stitzel-Weller starting in 1972.  Then, the now useless distillery burns down.  How convenient!  The warehouses still stand - serving a better purpose holding better juice.

So, given all this history, it probably comes as little surprise that when I came across a case or two of old, sad, dirty, somewhat sun-faded liter bottles of Cabin Still in a scary store in a scarier part of Roseville, NJ I bought a few of the better looking ones, bottle glass stamp dated "88".  I cracked one open and tasted deeply.  "Old Stab 'n Kill" truly.  I also shared a dram of it with Ken Kurtz himself.  Then I attempted to give him one of the liters.  He politely declined.  In light of having recently tasted 1966-72 Old Cabin Still and 1970s-80s Canada Dry Bourbon with Mike Jasinski and having recently completed a survey of Old Fitzgerald from the 1960s-1990s I felt ready to put this late 1980s Cabin Still in context:

1972 and earlier bottlings say "Distilled and Bottled by Sitzel-Weller Distillery".  Afterwards the wording is changed to "Distilled For And Bottled By Cabin Still Distillery" (emphasis mine).

Cabin Still Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey circa 1988 40% abv.  

Color: medium coppery amber.

Nose:  Initially a bit sickly sweet and watery, it opens with air. After about 20 minutes it is malty, and fruity (juicyfruit, and turkish delight) beneath toffee, solvent, and candy corn.  Not too bad.  I'm getting Stitzel-Weller richness in the maltiness.

Palate: off-sweet opening.  Given the fruity nose I was expecting more sweetness in the opening, but it pulls back.  In the expansion there are notes of cherry and malt that recall Stitzel-Weller as well.  But there is a watery mouth feel and lack of density and impact.  As the expansion proceeds there is a tinge of rye prickle - a kiss of Virginia blond tobacco chaw spit in a watered down glass of good S-W whiskey.  This is, after all presumably, a 4 grain vatting.  Then, at the turn there is a bitter cardboard note.  As the finish proceeds the bitterness and cardboard flavor (like a corrugated cardboard box smells) grows and grows.  The finish is disgusting with bitterness, glue, and dry brown paper.  A disaster.  Particularly bitter given the hints of malt and cherry and oak lurking around in there.  There was Stitzel-Weller juice being tossed into the cardboard bitter mess of Canada Dry bourbon even as late as 1988.  It's a crime.  It's a crying shame.   Getting rid of the finish by continually sipping  to keep those Stitzel-Weller flavors detectable in the front end of the palate is the way to go with this stuff.

Adding a drop of water greatly improves the nose which, after 10 minutes to settle down, becomes candied like a full wheater. But it ruins what little body or mouth feel this whisky had, while amping up the undesirable rye spices which don't fit with the wheater sweeter aspects.  Definitely do not add water.

Bottom line - a disaster both for what happened in the vatting and, especially, for the special juice that was squandered here.


(Updated to one star down from two as, in further tasting I can't stomach this stuff at all).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Quick hits - Whisky Live New York 2014

Robin Robinson of Compass Box
with The General
This was on most people I talked with's
highlight list.
Whisky Live continued to grow in 2014.  Packed, loaded, full of life and personalities and loaded with likely and potential drams to taste.  As the years go by I find I'm more excited to see the whisky people.  OK, maybe I'm still pretty excited about the whisky too.  There's always something unexpected and something new at a big show like this.

Here are a blizzard of some of my impressions of the show associated with small pictures.  If you click on one you can see them bigger.

Robin Robinson poured Compass Box The General.  Butterscotch with intensity - particularly after a drop of water and a little time.  Rich and strongly oaked.  Floral, fruity, complex and long finished.  This was on many people's lists to try to get a taste of and I heard it on many people's highlight lists.

Chris Riesbeck is elegant pouring
Gordon & MacPhail

Emily Ross Johnson pours WT
I usually see her running the
Astoria Whiskey Society.

Part metal, part punk, and very Scottish.

Chris Riesbeck, brand ambassador of Gordon & MacPhail, and a wonderful man, poured Glen Scotia sherry cask 21 yo and this year's stunning batch of Caol Ila Cask Strength.  'I could sell ten times what we get allocated' he states flatly.  Sweet, grassy, honeyed, and intense with a beautifully rich clean peat hit.  G&M's cask strength Caol Ila is lovely peat monster.

I was delighted to see Emily Ross Johnson - who I normally encounter as the cocktail brilliant person responsible for The Astoria Whiskey Society's amazingly fun tasting events and signature cocktails - behind the table pouring Wild Turkey and  Russell's Reserve.     Bernie Lubbers was delightful pouring Heaven Hill.  I had a nice draw of Henry McKenna 10 yo Bottled in Bond.  When you talk about bottled in bond whiskies with Bernie Lubbers he might show you his tattoo - which is utterly fabulous and makes his feelings about BIB bourbon abundantly clear.  I also had a nip of the new batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.  This one is bottled at 66.6% abv.  That's a good Satanic accident - and the flavors on this batch are richly redolent of cherry, leather and tobacco after a moment of air.  Really lovely.

Bernie Lubbers & H. McKenna 10 BIB
Lubber's BIB tat is definitive.

New batch spotted:  Elijah Craig Barrel Proof at 66.6% abv.
Satanic!  Devilishly good, actually. Cherry candy
leather tobacco bomb.  Maybe the best yet.

Brandy Rounds and friend from Drydock liquors
of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Brandy Rounds, of Drydock liquors in Red Hook, Brooklyn, organized a block of tables for smaller entities (like Van Brunt Stillhouse, and Cacao Prieto).  She is a raging torrent of good cheer and fun.
Daric Schlesselman of
Van Brunt Stillhouse
Van Brunt Stillhouse American Whiskey
Oddly drinkable for a baby craft whiskey.
I had seen bottles of Van Brunt Stillhouse American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Malt Whiskey around Brooklyn and New York but hadn't had the opportunity to try them until tonight at WhiskyLive.  They are young whiskies aged in small barrels from a new urban distillery.  I wasn't expecting much - but I was pleasantly surprised - by the American Whiskey variety in particular.  40% malt, 40% wheat, 10% corn and 10% rye on the mash is totally unique.  6 months in a 10 gallon barrel.  The nose is young and solventy, but the palate is big and soft with lots of apricot-peach stone fruit.  Very easy to drink.  I'll be looking more closely at this.  

So was Mark Gillespie.  He said hello at the Van Brunt table and then proceeded to do an interview with Daric Schlesselman, distiller, there on the spot.  I love watching the WhiskyCast master at work: 

Mark Gillespie interviews Daric Schlesselman

Like most recent shows I've been to, Chip Tate's Balcones dominated the American craft whisky scene with top pours of the night.  This included astounding tastes of French Oak finished Texas Single Malt and the Redemption Cask finished Texas Single Malt.  Rich, complex, and stunning.  A great moment was when Dave Pickerell came by and the two big bearded bears embraced like brothers.

Scott Goldenberg and Ari Susskind
Ari Susskind came down with Scott Goldenberg and the rest of the New Rochelle and upriver NY crowd I had enjoyed time with at the Single Cask Nation event last month.  Ari is a font of enthusiasm and information.  He steered me to a bunch of great pours I would have overlooked - including, in particular, the Sons of Liberty stuff at the end.
Peter Silver and friend
I was fortunate enough to run into my good friend Peter Silver and got to have dinner with him.  We didn't get to have a dram, but I get the feeling that will be happening soon enough.  Peter is the kindest man in whisky... and the best dentist.

Raj Sabharwal of Purple Valley Imports was pouring Sullivan's Cove, Amrut, and the English Whisky Company.  I enjoyed the new American Oak expression of Sullivan's Cove:  sweet, honeyed, lacy, and complex.  This is a rapidly rising Tasmanian whisky that has been hoovering up awards and attention lately.  The curiosity about their offerings was high and Raj's table was busy.  I ran into Rose Robinson pouring Glen Grant.  She is beautiful and enthusiastic and the whisky was delicious as always.  I can even forgive her for being Robin Robinson's little girl.
Raj Sabharwal
Rose Robinson pour Glen Grant
Joe Hyman from Bonhams has a
Jim Beam Cleopatra decanter from 1962
The adorable quiet pride on his face: priceless.

That Cleopatra decanter's 1956-1962 BIB strip

The undisputed highlight of the show (again) was Joe Hyman's Bonham's table.  Joe was pouring dusties, as usual, and he had a bunch of beauties from 70's Cutty Sark, an 80's G&M Connoisseur's Choice Linkwood (honeyed, rich and beautiful at 15 yo), a stunning 6 year old Jim Beam 1956-1962 BIB in a beautiful and kitchy Cleopatra Amphora decanter.  That old Jim Beam was butterscotchy-rich with lacy rye intensity.  Delicious.

Steve Zeller, "The Smoky Beast" and Allan Roth of Char No. 4
appreciate the fantastic dusties at Joe Hyman's table.
I did big chunks of the show with my friend Steve Zeller, who blogs The Smoky Beast. He was definitely digging on Joe Hyman's dusty goodness.  Joe had other things on his table and up his sleeve too:

Hyman's Corby's Little Touch 1943: candy rye.
1942 Seagram's V.O. w/ Joe Hyman

Canadian tax strips show the date, plain: 1942

Dram of the night: Joe Hyman's nip of
Hannisville Rye circa 1863.

Sons of Liberty Hop Flavored Whiskey
Summer Release

Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Flavored Whiskey
Winter Release

Ari Susskind, made sure I didn't miss the Sons of Liberty table in the back corner.  Like a number of people I had walked right by thinking the logo looked like Monster Energy drinks.  That was a mistake.  They have a fresh angle on hopped whiskey - making sweet, interesting and very richly flavored drams out of the likes of belgian ale and, uniquely, seasonal whiskies from seasonal brews including the Summer Hop Flavored Whiskey which seemed to have citrus, and the Winter Seasonal Release Pumpkin Flavored Whiskey.  Flavored whiskies are a whole topic, and this stuff is iconoclastic in a variety of ways, but I thoroughly enjoyed them - which surprised the heck out of me.  More about this surprise in the near future.

Steve Zeller had the fun idea of grabbing Chip Tate and introducing him to Joe Hyman, who he didn't know.  They hit it off and it was a sight watching Chip enjoying Joe's dusties and them getting to know each other.  One a master of the old; the other a master of the new.
Matthew Spinozzi pours Bhutan 5
Susanna Skiver Barton pours Brenne

I ran into Matthew Spinozzi, a fun guy I had shared a dram with the previous year when I was working the Gordon & MacPhail table.  Now he returned the favor as he was working as a rep for K5 whisky from SpiritsofBhutan.  It was much better tasting than I was expecting for a vatting of Scottish malt and Bhutanese grain spirits.

I finished my Whisky Live experience at the Brenne Whisky table where Allison Patel and Susanna Skiver Barton (blogger of pouring the stunning barrel 268. Even after all those drams, the Brenne was still fruity and effusively tasty with tons of bubblegum and banana esters with apricot and white chocolate.

Regrets?  By the time I hit the Four Roses table they had run out of the new 2014 Single Barrel Limited Edition.  I'll be excited to try it next month when it hits.  I also wanted to hit Simon Brooking's Laphraoig table for some 18 and 25.  But my two attempts to assault the table were both repulsed by vast crowds.  The mass appeal of Laphroaig is amazing.  I also regret not getting a photo of Joe Gratkowski, blogger of

The really jaded folk groused that there were fewer truly extraordinary whiskies on offer this year.  Whisky in general is a bit younger and the special stuff has become more and more expensive and harder to find being freely poured.  But I found that balanced by effusive creativity in young whisky from the craft segment, and, almost single handedly by Joe Hyman - a walking whisky history lesson.  Good venue, good people, lots of action.  A really lovely night out.

Disclosure:  I attended comped as press (a first for me at any show).  

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Single Cask Nation: It's About Cask Selection

Single Cask Nation (  is a private members-only independent bottling business which is part of the Jewish Whisky Company founded by Joshua Hatton and his partners Jason Johnstone-Yellin and Seth Klaskin about 3 years ago.  Hatton is also a whisky blogger at - a very impressive whisky blog.  Johnstone-Yellin is also a whisky blogger at the perhaps even more impressive

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of tasting the Single Cask Nation line with Josh Hatton (@jewmalt) and a group of very welcoming Jewish gentlemen in New Rochelle, NY.  This wasn't my first time tasting Single Cask Nation's line.  I had had parts of it at Whisky Live last year and at Single Cask Nation's second Whisky Jewbilee last autumn - their phenomenally impressive fledgling whisky show.  This time, however, with a smaller room and more intense focus I finally got it.  I had always wondered about single cask clubs like this.  "Why bother"?  You can buy single cask bottlings from independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead, Wymiss, and a host of others.  Why do I need to join a club?  But with Josh Hatton walking us through the selections I finally understood.  It's not just that each selection is bottled at cask strength in a minimally fussed with way.  (Although this is real difference from a lot of single cask bottlings you find from IBs.)  It's that the selections each have a story - a particular angle on the flavors of that distillery.  This has to do with the palate of the people doing the cask section.  When you join a club like this you are putting a bet down on the palate of the people doing the cask selection.  The idea is that the payoff will be interesting whiskies worth drinking with the risk involved in making selections substantially reduced by the pre-selection going in.  This isn't just marketing talk.  It involves people you can meet, talk to, drink with, and come to trust;  a palate you respect.  It's not, as is the cask of, say, Gordon and MacPhail, a series of contractual relationships that give them access to rare distilleries you cannot get via an OB bottling.  Rather it's that only special casks that really impress the bottlers are chosen at all.  It's a curatorial thing.  You're joining someone on their whisky journey.  Obviously this only works if the selections speak to you.  Here I found each selection a cat and mouse game where there was a twist on some aspect of what you'd expect.

Joshua Hatton is a compelling presenter.

Arran 12 54.8% - Spanish oak pinot noir cask.

Color: pale amber
Nose:  Lush sweet floral rose, vanilla, and turkish delight (fruity with powdered sugar on it).  Rancio, figs, and sherry lurk beneath and some earthy loam and mineral dust beneath that.  Layers and layers in this nose.
Palate:  Sweet honeyed malt on the opening, with a rich beautiful expansion that brings out dense layers of nectarine fruit, fig jam, lemon candy, green apple, sherry, estery floral melon and yellow fruits, vidalia onion, sweet oak and sandalwood perfume.  The finish is long and gently spicy with tannin heat.  Layers and layers of fruit, wax, flowers, malt, tannins, heat, spice and oak.  This is a 12 year old?  This is an Arran?  And extraordinary cask.  It's more complex than any other Arran I've yet tasted.

With a drop of water things get more meaty on the nose, with animals and minerals more in evidence.  But things open up with more richness on the palate.  The mouth feel becomes more silky and the spice is enhanced.  This is a rich mouth filling experience balanced between unctuous fruity florals and black pepper spices and dark toothy oak.  This shows Arran squarely hitting mainstream Highland Scotch flavors (while, granted Arran is an Island malt), and achieving flavor density and balance in the process.


Glen Moray 7 58.8%  Full maturation in a Fino sherry cask

Color: medium amber with coppery glints

Nose: Iodine, vanilla, oak.  The lingering note of iodine speaks to the youth of this dram.  If you let it air out a lot, it retreats and more mature aromas of figs and bourbony charred oak come to dominate.

Palate: sweet vanilla opening, sherry rancio fig expansion, turn has smoke and earth and rising oak.  The finish brings back the young note of the nose with a touch of iodine, lingering oak tannins with some sandalwood oak perfume.  Tartness and fruity sweetness vie.  With a drop of water there are white grapes and strawberries on the opening.  But the expansion is darker with complex spice, caramel, fig cake, and brown betty flavors in the mid-palate but the same drying finish.  Big - nay, hugely flavored with elements of wine cask, old oak, and some of the iodiney flavors of youth too.  This very young Speyside whisky turns most everything I thought I knew about maturation on its head.  Normally only peated drams are bottled this young in carefully selected single cask bottlings.  But this is not a young hot peat monster.  It's a young complex, sweet wine drenched dram that alternately tastes young but then very mature indeed.  Fino was an interesting choice here.  Fino is dry.  Indeed, this doesn't come off as sherried.  It comes off as fruited and regal.  Tasted blind I would be hopelessly confused.  It doesn't really taste like any recognizable genre of Scotch.


BenRiach 17 53.2% abv. 2nd fill ex-Bourbon barrel

Color: pale gold

Nose:  Putty, clay, peat, medicinal bandages, honey heathery meadow.  Deeper there are herbal vegetal notes.

Palate - opens sweet and lemony and then glows in to rich earthy peat.  This is superficially Caol Ila or even Port Ellen territory, but the lemony here waxes into a more fruity profile with air and time.  There are layers of tart apple,  pineapple, and quince  and white melon underneath.  The expansion shows a smooth, clean, earthy and warming peat.  This is a mature Highland malt whisky that drinks like a good Islay malt of decades past.  Tasted blind this would fool a lot of people.  BenRiach is known for its peated expressions.  Somehow this doesn't taste quite like any of them.  It's hard to say what this tastes like.  It's pretty unique.


Dalmore 12 46.1% 12 years in refill bourbon barrel then 10 months finish in PX Spanish oak cask.

Color:  Medium amber with gold tints

Nose:  A dry nose of sun baked earth, dried flowers, bresaola, alfalfa, and fragrant sawed yard aged oak belies the explosion that awaits.

Palate: a titanic blast of treacle sweet honeyed figs, fig cake, fig newtons and fig compote leap out a the opening and just get bigger through the expansion where notes of rancio, more black fruits and baked figs with port add up.  At the turn the oak asserts - lovely old oak.  The finish is long and sherried and oaken.  Wonderful.  This is 46%?  This is a true cask strength experience.  Why aren't all Dalmores this big?

A drop of water ups the air cured meats in the nose and adds an herbal undercurrent.  But the palate is sweetened and enriched further.  This is a lush, succulent, over-ripe candy-sweet dessert dram of high order.  This is a 12 year old?  An inspired cask selection.


Laphroaig 6 57.8% 

Color: straw

Nose: Lemon, fresh grass (hay), putty, some fresh ocean air.  With more air, some goats in the distance.

Palate: big soft gentle lemon-cream chiffon opening, with some pointed grassy sugars and fruity acid that adds zing and salivation. After the soft creamy opening there is a strong expansion with heat and peat that shows you this is cask strength.  The peat is a clean earthy peat reminiscent of Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte.  Earthy, and burning, but not the usual cigarette note encountered on young Laphroaigs.  The turn is marked by the creamy lemony quality driving through the peat's gradual turn to ash.  The finish is long and gentle, alternately malty, ashy, and slightly herbal.  
Josh challenged us to some blinds later on.

Tasted blind I would guess Port Charlotte, Kilchoman, or perhaps a young Port Ellen.  I would never guess Laphroaig.  Unusually clean and pure and lemony for Laphroaig.  A really special cask.

Water amps up the animal and clay and putty of the peat in the nose.  But it adds a richness to the mouth feel and a honeyed aspect to the palate opening that are vital.  With water it's more herbal and creamy on the opening, bigger and spicier on the expansion with a peat that has become more polite, but also richer, with more spice less burn, enriched by a delicate chamois animal skin flavor.  Rich and ashy on the turn with a finish that lingers even longer on road tar, blowing ash and soft herbal bitters.  A grand slam.  With water this is drinking almost like a mid 1970s example of a young Port Ellen.  Powerful, yet poignant.


Kilchoman 4 58.2% - Buffalo Trace ex-Bourbon barrel

Color: straw

Nose:  coal tar, road dust, sweet cream, a hint of mint.  Underneath there is some broth and some oregano.

Palate: explosive, sweet and instantly herbal with effusive licorice, verbena, and lemons.  The lemons wax towards the end of the opening, becoming creamy and sweet with white chocolate and buttery graham cracker smores.  The expansion to the mid-palate is big and prickly, with plenty of lemon acid, sweet cream, and a growing surge of peat heat that smolders with earth and clean anthracite.  At the turn the peat is turning to clean ash and herbal bitters with lingering black licorice, lemon pith and rind and a soft creamy aspect still carrying through.  This is classic Kilchoman - but with the intensity of cask strength.

Water brings up animal skins in the nose, like the Laphroaig before it.  But here it's more about the herbals and licorice and coal tar on the nose.  Water amps up the sweetness of the opening and adds viscosity to the mouth feel.  This is rich, creamy, lemony, and aggressively peated stuff with real Port Charlotte PC7-like anthracite coal notes in the peat.  This is high praise coming from me.  Rich, cerial sweet and creamy on opening it rapidly transitions to peat monster burn and then turns to ash, lemons, and burning earth at the turn.  The finish is long with ash, tar, licorice root and wormwood.  Sophisticated and rather august.  This drinks like one of the cask strength monsters of Islay - which, indeed, it is.


Conclusions:  Impressive.  Each selection epitomizes something and also plays a twist on the expectations you'd have for each distillery.  A host of things jump out at me.  Most of these whiskies drink way older than their chronological ages.  Some, like the Glen Moray play with your head, exploding your notions about maturation.  They also tend to belie the usual flavor profiles for their distilleries or even their regions.  But the bottom line for me is that they are all good - really good.  I'm sold.  Indeed, I was sold.  I became a Single Cask Nation member that night.

Part of the excitement with the Jewish Whisky Company are the special bottlings associated with Jewbilee.  Last year there was a 15 year old Heaven Hill single barrel bourbon that is extraordinary.  You can see the bottle to the right in the image just above and in the image at top.  We tasted it (and I have a bottle I bought at the Jewbilee last year).  It's very special.  Rather like you might expect an Elijah Craig 18 or 20 might be at full cask strength if they offered such a thing.  There were 87 bottles and they sold out instantly.  This year there is a special unique blend from High West that features rye whiskey vatted with an oddly flavorful oddity called "Light Whiskey".  We got to taste it too (blind).  I guessed it was a mature 6-8 year old rye finished in Sauternes cask.  I was wrong.  New society-only bottlings include a 2 year old single barrel rye from Cacoctin Creek in Virginia, as well as a 20 year old single barrel Scotch.  There is an effusive creativity and an American perspective going on with Single Cask Nation, beyond just some good Scotch whisky palates.
Disclosure:  Josh Hatton generously gave me samples of each whisky so that I could leisurely write formal tasting notes at home.  However I purchased a membership on the spot with my own money.