Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Good Stuff Continued and Introducing Dusty Thursday: Old Weller Original 107

I'm going to use my end of year tasting of good stuff to inaugurate a new feature here on Recent Eats. I taste a fair amount of old dusty bottles that I find in corner stores or through generous friends. I usually don't write these up since they are hard to find and not something you can run out and buy. But since there seems to be precious few on-line reviews of dusty bottles, I thought I would start an occasional series, Dusty Thursday, in which I will review old, out of production American whiskeys. These whiskeys give us a window into the past both in terms of how whiskey tasted and the business of whiskey since they often involve distilleries that are no longer operating or brands that have been sold, often multiple times.

We'll start this series today with one of my biggest dusty treasures. Bourbon from the closed Stitzel-Weller distillery is pretty much the holy grail of dusty hunting. Today's bottle is Old Weller Original 107 from Stitzel-Weller. The bottom of the bottle carries a "79" so it is likely bottled around or later than 1979. The bottle has a federal and state (Oklahoma) tax stamp, abv is indicated only in proof, there is no government warning and volume is listed in milliliters (though on the bottle and state stamp, not the label). It also includes a Louisville address; the bottle came in a clear plastic box with gold colored trim. All of these factors point to a late '70s or early '80s bottle. Later, this expression was changed to "Old Weller Antique."

After Stitzel-Weller was closed by the company now known as Diageo, the Weller brand was sold to Buffalo Trace. A few years ago, they removed the 7 year age statement and changed the bottle design.

Old Weller the Original 107, 7 years old, 107 proof (53.5% abv). No. 3038-A.

Wow! The nose just screams Stitzel-Weller with lovely caramel and toffee notes and a very slight citrus note underneath. The palate has intense vanilla, caramel and candy flavors followed by a musty note, like old dusty boxes in the attic. It trails off with some citrus/creamsicle. It has a satisfyingly chewy mouthfeel and even a slight puckering quality. The finish is almost Cognac like in its sweetness. This whiskey manages to be light and rich at the same time.

Tasting this time capsule of a bourbon, I realize what a tragedy it is that this distillery is no longer operational. These old whiskeys really do have a unique flavor profile. It's true that there is still Stitzel-Weller on the market; you can get it in the Jefferson Presidential Selection bourbons or the Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year olds, but those older whiskeys have a very different flavor profile from this seven year old Weller. While Jefferson and Pappy are certainly good, they taste much more like other bourbons on the market today. The extra age and the wood influence that comes with it seems to compromise some of the sweet and mild character that these younger Stitzel-Wellers had. Maybe seven to twelve years was the Stitzel-Weller sweet spot, and the additional oak mutes those qualities that made it so special. If you're ever lucky enough to find some of this stuff or one of the equally great Stitzel-Weller bourbons from the Old Fitzgerald line, raise a glass and shed a tear for the distillery that is no more.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Good Stuff Continued: Glenfarclas 40

Glenfarclas is an independent Speyside distillery known for its heavily sherried malt whisky. Last year, they made a big splash by introducing a 40 year old. Most 40 year olds released by distilleries are put into hand blown bottles encased in specially carved boxes made out of antique wood made by forest gnomes. Glenfarclas put their 40 year old in a regular bottle encased in a typical cardboard tube and priced it such that you could get it for around $470 retail. Now, that may seem like a lot of money for a bottle of whisky (and indeed, it is), but it is nowhere near what you will pay for other distillery produced 40 year olds. For instance, Highland Park 40 and Glenfiddich 40 both go for around $2,000. And Bowmore 40? That will cost you $11,000. So in the world of extravagantly priced whiskies, the Glenfarclas 40 is a true bargain.

Glenfarclas 40 year old , 46% abv($470)

The nose on this is really wonderful. It starts with Welch's grape juice and then moves into more classically sherried territory with raisins, but it's also got tropical fruit, some maple syrup and vanilla extract. I could smell it all day. The palate starts with vanilla candy and follows up with soft sherried notes, ending on a slightly bitter note. While it's very nice, the palate is not as interesting as the nose. It feels a bit hotter than 46%. Water brings out some nice woody notes that give it a savory flavor. The finish is sherry and vanilla with maybe a bit of creamsicle.

For being so old, this is incredibly drinkable. It's very well balanced, sherried without being a real sherry bomb. If this were an average priced whisky, it would be something I would want to drink every day. Given the price, that's simply not possible. Still, the Glenfarclas 40 is awfully fun to drink, and the more I drink it, the more I like it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Blue in the Face: Johnnie Walker Blue King George V

Several years ago, I reviewed the standard Johnnie Walker color line: Red, Black, Gold, Blue. My conclusion was that while the Blue was the best of the bunch, it was way overpriced. Well at $170 per bottle, the Blue is downright cheap next to its well heeled brother Johnnie Walker Blue King George V which weighs in at $350.

One of the things often touted along with the King George V is that it includes malt from the closed Port Ellen distillery, but that seems less impressive when you think about the fact that there is still plenty of Port Ellen single malt available for substantially less than the George V costs with its undisclosed amount of Port Ellen.

The fact is though, King George V isn't competing for those of us who might buy Port Ellen. This is status whisky, pure and simple. It's for the broker who had a good year or a piece of swag in the awards basket for the Hollywood star. They don't know from Port Ellen, they know from Johnnie Walker Blue.

But how does it taste? Well, thanks to a sample from my pal at Scotch and Ice Cream, I'm able to tell you.

Johnnie Walker Blue King George V, 43% abv ($350).

The nose on this has sweet malty notes with pineapple, bing cherries and wet grass. On the palate it is malt forward but there are some slightly grainy notes (I first tasted this blind and was pretty sure it was a blend based on these grainy notes) as well as some corn syrup. Despite the Port Ellen, there was no discernible smoke. The finish is very light and short.

This is fine to drink, but it's nothing at all special. It's the type of profile I would probably really like at a higher proof. As is, it's pleasant and drinkable, but at this price, I could probably think of a few hundred whiskies that would be much better. So I implore you, don't buy this stuff, it's not for you anyway (unless you happen to be a Hollywood star, hedge fund manager or someone else who delights in status symbols.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Good Stuff

Ah, the slow week between Christmas and New Year's Day. It's one of the few times in the year when the whole Western world seems to slow down just a little. I've decided to take this time to step back and enjoy life, and that means trying some of the good stuff. Some choice whiskey samples or the bottles I've been saving for a special occasion, because what better occasion than right now. This week will be a celebration of good whiskey (or at least the whiskey that is supposed to be good). Hopefully it will be fun. We'll start tomorrow with something blue.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last Minute Gift Idea: Sweet Confections by Nina Wanat

I was crushed earlier this year when Nina Wanat shut down her awesome candy company BonBonBars which produced some of the best candy anywhere, ever. But Nina must know the old adage, give me some candy and I eat for a day, teach me how to make candy and I eat for a lifetime, because while BonBonBars is no more, she has a new candy making book out just in time for the holidays.

Sweet Confections: Beautiful Candy to Make at Home, is a fabulous book. It's got some of everything: caramels, fudge, marshmallows, toffee, after dinner mints, you name it.

The best thing about this book is that it is very accessible. I've made lots of chocolate but never made any other types of candy, and I was able to jump right in and make some great things out of Nina's book. The recipes are clearly explained and not overly time consuming. And for the most part, you can do them with ordinary kitchen equipment, although you will need a candy thermometer. Lots of recipes also require a stand mixer, but I found I was able to do fine with a food processer. The only caution I have is to watch how much the recipe makes; some of them make quantities that are larger than you may need (unless you're opening your own candy store) so you may want to halve them.

One thing to be clear about is that this isn't a BonBonBar cookbook. Very few recipes for the old BonBonBars appear (the exceptions are some of their marshmallow candies). My guess is the candy bars were just too challenging for the average home cook, so I will have to wait to see if there is a second volume that teaches me out to make those Scotch bars.

So if you're looking for a great gift for a home cook or lover of sweets, check out Sweet Confections, available for only $12 on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011: The Year in Whiskey

Last year, I complained that it was a pretty ho hum year in the world of whiskey. Well, I'm happy to report that this year was anything but. So let's review 2011: The Year in Whiskey.

Buffalo Trace. Buffalo Trace was on fire this year. Their Single Oak Project is perhaps the most ambitious project ever undertaken by a distillery. On top of that, they released a new label, E.H. Taylor, with two expressions. As if that wasn't enough, they reinvigorated the A. Smith Bowman distillery with a new line of bourbons and ryes. Pretty amazing output from one distillery, though, with the exception of the Bowmans, much of BT's new whiskey this year was more innovative than tasty. Still, the level of output from Buffalo Trace this year was beyond impressive.

Rye Revolution. The rye expansion continues. There were new ryes everywhere in 2011. Bulleit and Willett brought out LDI ryes, Woodford introduced not one but two as part of their Master's Collection, and Beam announced it would come out with a Knob Creek Rye as well, though it may not be here until 2012. Add to that the Canadian straight ryes listed below, and it goes to show that the rye renaissance is far from over.

Finished American Whiskey. Long a staple of Scotch, wine finishing received some attention from American whiskey this year. The year started with the popular, port finished Angel's Envy and ended with a Cognac finished bourbon from the Parker's Heritage Collection. Given these high profile releases, I'd say we will see more finishing experiments in the future.

Pure Pot Still Power. When there is news from the sleepy world of Irish Whiskey, it usually comes from Cooley, but this year the Midleton Distillery woke us all up with three new pure pot still whiskeys: Midleton, Powers and a cask strength version of Redbreast. It's great to see Midleton playing to the whisky lovers and not just finding new ways to market Jameson.

New Canadians. Canada was also hopping with a 30 year old Alberta Premium, and while we won't get it here, there were a number of American bottlings of Canadian straight rye. Following the lead of last year's WhistlePig, we saw similar ten year old ryes coming from McLain & Kyne (Jefferson's) and the Sebastiani wine group (Masterson's- review coming in the new year). It seems that we're finally getting some good Canadians in the US, though more in the American, straight rye style.

Scotch. The world of blended/vatted Scotch got lots of coverage this year with the highly publicized release of Shackleton's whisky. Meanwhile on Islay, Bruichladdich gave us their first 10 year old from the new ownership, and Kilchoman released an all-Islay whisky which was probably their best to date.

Many of us in California (or within shipping distance) spent our spare time counting our money to figure out how many bottles of K&L's amazing new line of exclusive barrel Scotch we could afford. In one year, K&L gave us a whopping 17 privately bottled single barrels, including two single grains and four offerings from closed distilleries.

More Japanese. Lovers of Japanese single malts have literally been waiting years to get more Japanese Whisky in the US. This year we got the good news that whiskies from Nikka and Suntory's Hakushu distilleries are finally heading for our shores.

I could go on and on. Heck, even those stodgy stalwarts Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniel's came out with new expressions. Let's hope these trends continue and look forward to an exciting 2012!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dear Santa: My Whiskey Wish List

In my experience, most whiskey fans have a wish list of some sort, a list of the rare bottling they missed out on or the white whale they have searched high and low for. The list may be ever changing, but it's there. I'm no different so I thought, since I've tried everything else to track these down, I'd ask Santa.

I've tried to come up with a list that's not pure fantasy. Sure, I'd love to try the Mortlach 70 or the original Shackleton whisky they found buried in the ice in Antarctica, but that ain't gonna' happen. This is a list of things that, while off the market and hard to find, are somewhat realistic possibilities. In fact, I may be able to eventually wrangle all of them if I really put my mind to it. Some are rare exclusive bottlings, but others are just things I missed or came on the scene too late for. So, in alphabetical order, here they are (Santa, I hope you see this - I'm banking on the fact that the one North Pole hit I get for the blog is you and not one of those heavy drinking elves).

Alberta Premium (25 or 30): If I lived in Canada this would be easy enough, but I don't live there or go there and this stuff doesn't make it south of the border. Of all the Canadian whiskies we miss out on in the US, which includes most of the good stuff, this one is probably the gold standard, a 100% rye Canadian blend that gets consistently rave reviews.

Ardbeg Provenance: This 24 year old Ardbeg released in 1997 is one of the most legendary Ardbegs around. It is the single highest scoring whisky on the LA Whiskey Society website, and they've had several tastings of it, but I keep missing it.

Ardbegeddon: The first exclusive bottling by the PLOWED Society, the famed (or perhaps notorious) American malt tasting group, the Ardbegeddon was a 29 year old sherry aged Ardbeg bottled by Douglas Laing's Old Malt Cask series in 2002. Having been lucky enough to sample PLOWED's unbeliveably good Brorageddon, I can only imagine how great this is, but it may be the hardest one on the list to get. I don't even know if there are any bottles still in existence.

Bruichladdich Blacker Still: This is one I just missed out on. I had seen it on the shelf and passed it over due to its price at the time (two or three hundred if I remember correctly). Well, this sherry malt seems to be loved by everyone and may be Bruichladdich's most sought after recent bottling. By the time I caught on, it had tripled in price.

Eagle Rare 101: I've done pretty well in exploring the obscure corners of the world of American whiskey, which is why you don't see that many listed here, but I've never managed to find an Eagle Rare 101. Before the brand was purchased by Buffalo Trace and made into a lower proof, single barrel offering, it was a 101 proofer. Originally produced by Seagram's, it was subsequently made by Old Prentice and then by Buffalo Trace before they phased it out in favor of the newer bottling. I'd love to try any of the oldies.

Pennsylvania or Maryland Rye: I'm a big fan of rye, but I've never tried one of the old Mid-Atlantic ryes from all of those now closed distilleries. Pennsylvania and Maryland rye were distinct genres of whiskey that thrived in the pre-prohibition years but never fully recovered and eventually, petered out and sold their labels to Kentucky distilleries. Every now and then a bottle of Pennsylvania distilled Old Overholt or Rittenhouse does pop up in an auction, but Maryland ryes like Pikesville and Mount Vernon are harder to find. As a true fan of rye, I'd love to try these old whiskeys from the original rye whiskey heartland.

Van Blankel: A private bottling of Stitzel-Weller whiskey for one individual, a bourbon that's allegedly as subtle and nuanced as a Cognac, the best barrel ever produced by the Van Winkles...I've heard all of these said about the famous "Van Blankel" bottling of Van Winkle 12 year old Lot B, a single barrel bottled for Randy Blank, a regular on the StraightBourbon forum. Like the Ardbegeddon, this is a private bottling, so I don't hold out a lot of hope, but you never know. Hopefully, someone out there will spare me a taste.

Now mind you Santa, I'm not greedy. I understand it might be hard to get a whole bottle of these things. A small sample in my stocking would be plenty.

So, do you have a list?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A is for anCnoc, B is for Balblair

Balblair and anCnoc are single malts that have only been on the US market for a little over a year. Both are owned by Inverhouse, a subsidiary of Thai Beverage (ThaiBev) which also owns the Pulteney, Speyburn and Balmenach distilleries.

The anCnoc malt (pronounced "ah-nock"), is made at the Knockdhu distillery in Speyside. They bottle a 12 and 16 year old as well as a few annual special releases. I will be sampling the 12 year old.

Balblair is a Highland distillery which releases malts with vintage statements as opposed to age statements. Their latest US release is the 2000, though they just released the 2001 in the UK. I will be tasting the 2000.

anCnoc 12 (Knockdhu Distillery), 43% abv ($27)

The nose on this is about as light and fruity as it gets. The palate is more malty though still quite light. I can see how this would compete for the Glenlivet/Glenfiddich drinker who wants something a bit lighter and with a bit more fruit, but there's not much substance to it.

Balblair 2000, bottled 2011, 43% abv ($55)

I like the nose on this which has malt with dessert wine notes. The palate is chocolate covered cherries, yielding to malt, wait,'s chocolate malt balls. Mouthfeel is a bit thin and the finish is maraschino cherries. This one is definitely on the sweet side.

My take on the current introductory line for Inverhouse: They are fine to drink, but I'm not going to run out and buy them. If you like these profiles (light and malty for the anCnoc, sweet for the Balblair), you might want to check them out, but I found them one dimensional.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Whiskey (and Spirits) Gifts

If this is December, it must be time for holiday booze giving. Here are my recommendations for some fabulous holiday gifts for your whiskey loving friends and loved ones.

Scotch: There were lots of new Scotch releases this year, but some of the most interesting were from K&L's exclusive casks. I have only made it through a hand full of these so far, but they have all been very good to great. I recently reviewed the Bladnoch ($90) and the GlenDronach ($116) which are both fabulous. While I haven't formally reviewed it yet, my other favorite so far is the 1975 Banff, though it's a higher end gift ($225). You can find them all on the right hand column of the K&L Spirits Blog.

Bourbon & Rye: Another retailer wins the day here. If K&L is the go to place for private barrel Scotch, then The Party Source, in Kentucky, plays that role for American Whiskey. The Party Source's private barrel cask strength Abraham Bowman Rye ($73) was, in my opinion, the best new American whiskey of the year. They also released a couple of Bowman bourbons, all of this from the newly revitalized, Buffalo Trace owned A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia. Check it out at The Party Source.

Budget Bourbon & Rye: For more budget conscious gifts, I'd suggest two new whiskeys made by LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). Willett 3 year old Rye ($36) is a solid, spicy number that will be fun for any rye fan. Redemption High Rye Bourbon ($25) has elements of sweet and spicy and, while the sweet is a bit more dominant, it is an easy drinker and good for the price.

Cognac: At the risk of looking like a K&L shill, my favorite Cognac of the year, by far, was the single barrel, uncut, unfiltered Paul Marie & Fils from Cognac bottler Nicolas Palazzi, sold through K&L's Faultline Spirits label. This is one of the few unfiltered, cask strength Cognacs available, and it is just brimming with flavor. ($130 only at K&L).

Cocktails: If you know a cocktail lover who goes for the classics, you owe them a bottle of the High West Distillery's 36th Vote Barrelled Manhattan. Using their rye, High West makes a Manhattan and then barrel ages it. The ageing takes off some of the sweet edge and gives it a subtle, smooth disposition. Great stuff! ($45).

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good Burgers Great Spuds: Short Order at the Farmers Market

Short Order is the new Nancy Silverton burger spot at the Third and Fairfax Farmer's Market. It features a fairly slim menu of grass fed beef burgers as well as pork, lamb, tuna burgers. A brunch menu will be added in January. And they are working on too sister establishments: Short Cake - a bakery and Single Origin - a coffee bar.

I tried the Frisee Lardon Raft, an open faced burger topped with frisee dressed in a light vinaigrette, lardons and a fried egg. The components were all very good, but the burger didn't come together. It felt like an egg on top of a salad on top of a burger, not a single composition. I also sampled the patty melt with pimento cheese sauce, which was good but not any sort of revelation.

I liked these burgers, but they didn't blow me away, and when you are paying $14 for burgers during an LA burger renaissance, you expect greatness.

Now, the "Short Order Spuds" were a different story. These fabulous nuggets are tater tot sized, deep fried potato chunks (including skin). You can get them with a sour cream and chive dipping sauce or with truffle salt. Fried to a golden brown, the shape of these things (almost like mini-potato skins) maximizes the surface area giving you plenty of crunchy crust. They are highly addictive. I could have eaten a much larger serving than the little pail.

I'll probably head back to Short Order, but I may just get a beer and some spuds.

Short Order
6333 w. 3rd st. (The Original Farmers Market at Third & Fairfax)
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Friday, December 9, 2011

Post-Cognac Al Pastor: El Matador Taco Truck

What's the best place to get cheap eats after a night of Cognac
(or rum) at La Descarga, the rum bar on Western just south of the 101? The clear answer is the El Matador taco truck. Situated in the parking lot of mechanic on Western that advertises "Smog Transmission" just across the street from La Descarga, El Matador is recognizable for the line that forms every night after dark.

There's good reason that people line up, they've got the full menu of meats including sesos (cow brain) and buche (pork stomach). I went a bit more conventional and tried tacos with carnitas, al pastor, lengua and cabeza. All of these were very good, but the al pastor was a stand out. Heavily seasoned pork (not sure if they spit roast theirs in the traditional style) in nicely fried bits with plenty of crunch along with the satisfying spice. Really addictive stuff.

I may go out late just as an excuse to eat here again. And with four tacos for five bucks, you can't afford not to go.

Tacos El Matador Truck (nights)
1174 N. Western Ave (@ Lexington)
Los Angeles, CA

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jazz Age Brandy: Nicolas Palazzi's Cognac Tasting

On Monday night I attended a stunning Cognac tasting hosted by K&L at the La Descarga rum bar, featuring Cognac bottler Nicolas Palazzi. As you may recall, Palazzi is a Cognac bottler who seeks out small growers and bottles cask strength, unfiltered Cognacs with no additives. He is truly a pioneer in the Cognac world who is trying single handedly to move it away from the sticky, sweet brandies that most of us associate with Cognac.

We started the night with a sazerac cocktail made from Paul Beau VSOP Cognac (while the sazerac now usually features rye, the original recipe used Cognac). I'm a big fan of sazeracs so no complaints here, but in a tasting I would usually save a cocktail until later, especially one which includes Absinthe, which can deaden the taste buds.

To demonstrate the difference made by filtration, we moved on to a Paul Beau Hors D’Age, which is distilled "off the lees," meaning it is filtered to remove residual dead yeast. We tasted this side by side with a Guillon Painturaud Hors d’Age which is distilled "on the lees" or unfiltered. Lees contact is said to add richness, body, and flavor to the spirit. I did find that the unfiltered Cognac had more going on flavor wise, including a spicy character, but the filtered Cognac was more delicate and subtle.

We ended with a trio of Nicolas' cask strength, single barrel Cognacs under his Paul Marie & Fils label, beginning with the recent K&L exclusive which I reviewed here. We then moved on to his 58 year old Devant La Porte (51% abv) and finally, the L'Artisan, which was distilled in 1923 (41.6% abv). These three were utterly fantastic Cognacs.

One advantage that Cognac has over whiskey is that there seem to be more really old barrels out there. The 1923 was moved out of barrel last year, so this was in wood for 87 years (the oldest whiskey that has been released is 70 years old). Remarkably for having spent a human lifetime in wood, the Cognac was incredibly fruity with very distinct grape notes. In fact, the dominance of the fruit was such that it came off as lacking in complexity, but it was not over oaked.

My favorite of the night was the 58 year old. Distilled in 1951, the Devant La Porte was released last year and goes for around $600. It was fruity but had some wood and complex, caramel notes; it was probably the most whiskey-like of the Cognacs.

The problem with many spirits tastings is that they cover only widely available, basic spirits lines. It is difficult to find tastings featuring very rare spirits. For the $70 cost of this tasting, we got a chance to try some truly rare and remarkable Cognacs. Nicolas Palazzi and K&L Spirit Buyer David Girard really pulled out all the stops. Let's hope we see more of these types of tastings in LA.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Whiskies Worth the Hype: Bladnoch & GlenDronach from K&L

Sometimes it seems like whisky quality is inversely proportional to the hype surrounding it. I can no longer count the amount of times I've been let down by highly touted special releases. On the other hand, obscure indy bottlings or even budget daily pours are sometimes unpublicized gems. During the holiday season, the whisky hype can get totally out of the control, which is why it is especially refreshing to find some bottles that meet if not exceed the hype.

Earlier this year I wrote about K&L's exclusive barrel series in which the spirit buying Davids of K&L went to Scotland to select their own barrels from both distilleries and independent bottlers. The Davids took up a fair amount of bandwidth talking about how great these barrels were, so expectations were pretty high. Now the bottles are in the store, and I've been able to taste a handful of them, I must say that I agree that, at least with regard to the ones I've tasted, they are some pretty special bottles. Here is a review of two of my favorite so far.

Bladnoch 1992, 18 years old (Chieftain’s), Cask 4195, 270 bottles, 55.3% abv (K&L exclusive $89.99).

A Lowland distillery that was mothballed for much of the '90s and doesn't send its distillery bottlings to the US, Bladnoch is not easy to find. Even finding independent bottlings can be a challenge. The nose on this Chieftain's bottling is of pure, rich malt with a pinch of dried fruit in the back. The palate is also malt forward with sweet grassy notes, fruit cocktail syrup, and perhaps just a touch of a sherry-like quality. The finish is sweet and malty with fruit. This reminds me of some of the best Lowlanders I've had, thick, rich, malty and syrupy (but not at all light, which is the stereotype for Lowlanders that really only applies to Auchentoshan). Good stuff and a very good price for what it is.

GlenDronach 1994, 16 years old, Cask 3186, 56% abv (K&L exclusive $116).

This is the other side of the spectrum from the Bladnoch, a huge sherry monster of a whisky. This whisky consists of two bourbon cask aged malts which were combined and finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask for a short time (around six months). It was bottled by the distillery for K&L. The nose is a full on sherry assault with candied fruit and maybe even a bit of cinnamon. The palate kicks in very sweet; that dissipates a bit s you go, but it stays pretty sweet throughout. You don't get any malt flavors until the finish when the malt really kicks in. Drinking this neat is too sweet for my tastes, but water really does wonders for it, bringing out the malty flavor that's hinted at in the finish. A few drops of water cuts the sweetness and gives it a balance that was lacking when neat.

These are two dramatically different but very good whiskies. The entire list of K&L exclusive bottlings can be found on the right hand column of the K&L Spirits Blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How do you know it's LDI?

I've recently reviewed a number of whiskeys distilled at Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), and a few people have asked how I know the whiskey is made by LDI. Well, it's easy to figure out. First, though, some background.

LDI is a large Indiana distillery that was formerly owned by Seagram's. It is currently owned by Angostura but is in the process of being sold to a Midwest Grain Products (MGP), a large Midwestern maker of neutral spirits.

Located in Indiana just over the river from Kentucky, LDI is the only major whiskey distillery in the US that does not market anything under its own label. They operate entirely by contract. Companies pay to buy their whiskey (or vodka or gin) and market it under their own labels. The LDI website lists the different whiskeys they make, including mashbills.

Not long ago, it was not possible for a US consumer to buy an LDI-made whiskey. The closest you could come was Seagram's 7, a blended whiskey whose component whiskey was said to be made at LDI, but blended whiskey is mostly vodka and mostly crappy. Then, just a few years ago, small bottlers Templeton Rye and High West Rye put out some LDI rye (in High West's case it was part of a blend with another rye) to great acclaim. This opened an LDI floodgate and now there are a dozen or so bourbons and rye whiskeys that are made at LDI, and it seems like a new one comes out almost every day. Among the more well known are Redemption Bourbon, Redemption Rye, Bulleit Rye, Temptation Bourbon, the new series of Willett three year old ryes, W.H. Harrison Bourbon, Big Bottom Bourbon, High Whiskey, Riverboat Rye and Smooth Ambler's Old Scout Bourbon.

From time to time, people ask me how I know that a given whiskey is made at LDI, since that fact is almost never disclosed on the bottle and often not disclosed at all by the bottler.

There are lots of clues you can look for to figure out an LDI whiskey. When a new sourced whiskey is announced, the press release will usually brag about its heritage. If it's from Kentucky, they will usually say so since there is cache in releasing a real Kentucky bourbon or rye. So if Kentucky isn't mentioned in the press release, I usually assume LDI (and be aware of general staements like "bourbon country" which can include Indiana).

But the proof is on the bottle. The federal regulations of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) require that whiskey labels disclose the state where the whiskey was distilled. If the whiskey is distilled in the state where the company is located, then the address of the company is sufficient to comply with this requirement. However, if the business address is not in the state where the whiskey was distilled, the state has to be stated separately on the label. (There are some limited exceptions to this regulation, but it applies to most whiskey). See 27 CFR § 5.36(d).

LDI is the only whiskey distillery in Indiana, so if the bottle says "Product of Indiana" or doesn't state where it was distilled but the business address is in Indiana, then you know it was made at LDI.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Woodford Reserve Goes Rye

You'd think I'd have had my fill of the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection this year, what with this almost comprehensive tasting and this follow up. In fact, I fully planned to ignore the release this year, then they went and made rye, and not just one rye, but two. As a rye whiskey lover, I had an obligation, to both myself and my loyal readers, to check these out.

The 2011 rye release is Woodford's first rye and their first time issuing two whiskeys as part of the Master's Collection. They are sold as a set of two 375 ml bottles, so it's the same amount of whiskey as a full bottle, but you get two whiskeys for your $90.

The concept here is similar to the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project but on a much smaller scale. The ryes are the same except that one is aged in a new, charred oak cask and one is aged in a used cask (they also have different entry proofs). Both are triple distilled in pot stills and made from a mash of 100% rye. There are no age statements.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection New Cask Rye, 46.2% abv. This one is straight rye whiskey aged in new, charred oak barrels. The distillate went into the barrels at 100 proof. The nose on this actually has some bourbony sweetness which is followed by a big hit of rye spice. The palate has a lot of rye but is a bit tinny as well (a common Woodford note). The finish is fairly bitter with medicinal notes. This reminds me of some of the craft ryes I've had.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Aged Cask Rye, 46.2% abv. Since this wasn't aged in new, charred oak barrels, it's not technically "rye whiskey" but instead "whiskey distilled from rye mash." These were aged in used barrels that previously held Woodford Reserve bourbon ("aged barrels" sounds a bit better than "used barrels" doesn't it?). The distillate went into the barrels at 86 proof. According to Woodford Master Distiller Chris Morris on WhiskyCast (episode 341), they lowered the proof in order to "coax as much subtle barrel character out as possible."

The color on this rye is much lighter than the straight rye, more of a white wine versus the more typical amber/copper color of the straight rye. The nose is fruity with some white wine notes. The palate has a little bit of that trademark Woodford pot still tang, then some fruit and toward the end some medicinal minty flavors (a little bit of Vicks VapoRub). The rye spice finally comes to the fore in the finish. Overall, there is not a lot of rye character in this rye. Tasting blind, I might have guessed an American malt whiskey.


Point taken. The difference between new and used barrels is huge. I actually like the aged barrel, which had an interesting fruit/rye interplay, more than the straight rye which was a bit harsh.

Should you buy this set? If you like experiments of this type, you might enjoy the comparison, as I did. As with many such experiments, though, the end project is interesting but not particularly good. These weren't bad whiskeys but they weren't particularly good either, and neither was anywhere near what I'd be willing to pay $90 per bottle for. So in the end, I'd recommend this the same way I would the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Collection. If you are a whiskey geek with whiskey geek friends who might split it with you, it will be fun. If you're just looking for a good bottle of rye, look elsewhere.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

More LDI Rye: Willett Three Year Old Rye

It's funny to think that only five years ago there was literally no way for Americans to taste whiskey from LDI. Now it seems that a week doesn't go by without a new release of LDI whiskey.

LDI is, of course, Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. Located right across the river from Kentucky, LDI is a huge distillery but they distill on a contract only basis, so they don't release any of their own whiskey. Formerly a Seagram's distillery, LDI is currently owned by the financially troubled Angostura, which is in the process of selling it to Midwest Grain Products, a maker of neutral spirits.

If you've had Templeton Rye, Redemption Rye or Bulleit Rye, then you've had LDI rye. It's very seldom marketed as such, but there are clues. "Product of Indiana" on the label is a big giveaway. And in press releases for a new sourced bourbon or rye from a bottler, if they don't mention Kentucky explicitly, LDI is a pretty good guess.

Now Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), the biggest independent bottler of American Whiskey, has their own LDI rye, a three year old released under the Willett label. There are a few different versions of this out there which range in abv. This one comes in at 55%.

Willett Rye, 3 years old, Single Barrel (Barrel 6), 55% abv ($36)

The nose is what I've come to expect from young LDI ryes, strong rye notes, pickle juice, caraway. The palate is a huge mint bomb with plenty of spice and pine. It's a good sock-you-in-the-face rye. The only real flaw is a touch of unpleasant bitterness on the finish.

I liked this better than a lot of the young LDI rye I've had. I appreciate that KBD bottled it at cask strength which is likely what makes it more interesting than many of the more watered down LDI ryes on the market. It's a fun one, at a good price, that's worth a try.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finishing School: Parker's Heritage Collection Barrel Finished

I always look forward to the annual release of the Parker's Heritage Collection bourbon. Each fall since 2007, Heaven Hill releases a new version of Parker's, each one completely different from the last. They tend to run from very good to excellent, are reasonably priced and best of all, are relatively easy to find (unlike some brands, Heaven Hill doesn't whip up hysteria with manufactured scarcity).

This year's Parker's is a ten year old, 100 proof bourbon finished for six months in Cognac casks from the House of Frapin.

Parker's Heritage Collection Barrel Finished, 10 yo, 50% abv ($80)

I was wondering if you would detect a mere six months of Cognac barrel ageing, but wow, there it is, right on the nose. The first thing you get is sweet Cognac, followed up by more characteristic woody bourbon notes. The Cognac is equally apparent in the front of the palate, followed up by coffee, oak and then some light minty flavors. There's a lot there, but it doesn't all coalesce. The sum of the parts here may be greater than the whole. The finish is a smoky cask.

This is a good bourbon with some really interesting notes and a very pleasant drinker. Because Parker's is a completely different release each year, it doesn't really make sense to compare them, but I wouldn't count this one among my favorites (a club that would include the first edition and last year's wheater), but it's certainly fun to have around.

Now that I've had a few finished American whiskeys, I'll discuss this growing phenomenon in a future post. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Bitter Pill: Four Roses 2011 Single Barrel

Every year, aside from their standard single barrel offering, Four Roses releases a limited edition single barrel using one of their ten recipes. This year's is OBSQ, which is the high rye mashbill (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% barley) with the Q yeast strain. It's 12 years old and cask strength. The abv varies depending on the barrel but mine was 55.4%. It retails for around $80.

The nose is pleasant, floral and perfumy with some earthy and vegetal notes. The palate is harshly vegetal and medicinal with a strong bitterness which lasts into the finish. It is so bitter and chemically that I was initially convinced it might be tainted and got another sample.

With some time to oxidize in the glass, the bitterness on the palate subsides a bit, but it still leaves you with an overwhelmingly bitter finish with a mouthfeel like you've just taken an oral anaesthetic. Adding water brings out a soapiness.

I like some medicinal qualities in my whiskey, but this one overdoes it, and from late palate to finish, it's downright objectionable. This is a seriously flawed whiskey that I wouldn't drink again. I'm generally a fan of Four Roses and I've even had some decent bottlings from this recipe; this one is different.

Now, I should note that it seems I'm in the distinct minority in my negative opinion of this one, so I urge you to check out the always excellent (though in this case, totally wrong) Sour Mash Manifesto and Sipology for a different perspective.

Monday, November 28, 2011

High Rye Low Age: Redemption Bourbon

Last year, I reviewed Redemption Rye, a rye made at Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) for Dynamic Spirits. Dynamic also now bottles Redemption Bourbon, a high rye bourbon also made at LDI. Redemption Bourbon is 60% corn, 38.2% rye and 1.8% barley.

While there are a lot of LDI ryes on the market these days, there aren't as many bourbons, so I was interested to try this one.

Redemption Bourbon, 46% abv, "over 2 years old" ($25)

The nose is...young rye with all its vegetal qualities. The palate begins with a huge sugar-syrupy sweetness, then you get those young rye notes, raw and vegetal. The finish is rye dominated as well. This is simplistic, syrupy and vegetal, but I have to admit, it's sort of fun to drink as a light whiskey that you don't have to put a lot of effort into thinking about. It's worth trying and a bit more interesting than the Redemption Rye.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Felonious Bourbon: Breaking & Entering

I've often written about the phenomenon of American whiskey bottlers who don't distill, of which there are many, but lately, there is a growing trend in the opposite direction: distillers who are bottling sourced whiskey. High West and Prichard's started with sourced whiskey prior to distilling their own, but now even some craft distilleries that have their own distillate are looking to buy aged whiskey. Recently, we've seen a new group of sourced whiskeys from craft distillers including a bourbon from Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado, Temperance Trader Bourbon from the Bull Run Distillery in Oregon and Old Scout Bourbon from the Smooth Ambler Distillery in West Virginia. Add to that growing group Breaking & Entering Bourbon, a sourced bourbon from the St. George Distillery in Alameda, California.

The St. George distillery is one of the older craft distilleries. They started with brandies and then spread to vodka, malt whiskey, absinthe and many other spirits. But Breaking & Entering is the first whiskey they have released that was made elsewhere.

According to the St. George website, Breaking & Entering was made from 80 different Kentucky bourbon barrels ranging from five to seven years old. We don't know if those 80 barrels all came from one distillery or were from multiple distilleries.

Interestingly, Breaking & Entering is not designated as "straight" on the label. That could mean that some of the whiskey is less than two years old or that it doesn't meet the definition of "straight bourbon" for some other reason (or they could have simply chosen not to use the term, which is not required).

Breaking & Entering Bourbon, 43% abv ($34)

The nose on this has light rye, peanuts and some savory notes. The palate comes on with dry white wine notes, maybe even some apple in the background. Late palate I get some rye spice which continues into the finish with a bit of bitterness.

With 80 barrels in the mix, this could be a little bit of everything, but the nose resembles some Brown-Forman whiskeys I've had. I would guess there is some Heaven Hill in there as the palate reminds me most of some of the Evan Williams Single Barrels with maybe even some Four Roses in the mix.

This is a pretty unique flavor profile, though overall, it's a bit light to my taste.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm taking a holiday break from blogging, but I'll be back next week with five consecutive reviews of recently released American whiskeys starting next Sunday.

And for a fun whiskey read, check out the excellent discussion about whiskey and water in the comments from last week's post.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pappy Van Winkle: Know Your Bottle Codes

It's Pappy time! That crazy time every fall when the Pappy Van Winkle's get released. Pappy Van Winkle, of course, is one of the most prized regular releases for bourbon lovers. The Van Winkle family, of the late Stitzel-Weller distillery, are known to have a diminishing number of barrels of that prized Stitzel-Weller bourbon. Along with those barrels, they also bottle whiskey made at Buffalo Trace (and their rye comes from a variety of sources).

Of late, there has been much controversy about which bottles of Pappy are Stitzel-Weller and which are Buffalo Trace. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that the 20 and 23 year old Pappys are still made from Stitzel-Weller bourbon, but there has been a lot of back and forth about the 15.

Pappy 15 is the most affordable and some think the best of the Pappy line (which also makes it the hardest to get). Based on statements made by the Van Winkles a few years ago, it sounds as if they made a big (and possibly final) run of Pappy 15 bottles from Stitzel Weller in 2009 that held them through the spring 2011 release. This fall, according to this K&L interview with Preston Van Winkle, the Pappy 15 is bourbon made at Buffalo Trace.

But suppose you happen to find a bottle of Pappy on a dusty shelf somewhere. How will you know whether it is the old Stitzel Weller or the new Buffalo Trace version? The answer is in the bottle code. If you have ever visited Tim Puett's Ardbeg Project site, you know about bottle codes. They are codes placed on each bottle that show the time and date of the bottling and they can help you distinguish between different releases of the same whiskey. Tim has demonstrated huge differences in, for instance, the Ardbeg 10 over the years, but you can't tell when the whiskey is from without knowing the bottle code.

Buffalo Trace uses a similar code which can tell you the year your Van Winkle (or your Stagg, Weller, etc.) was bottled. The code is a very small digital stamp that appears on the bottle, usually below the back label. Here's how to read it using two examples:

Example 1: K0780907:21

Example 2: N3001114:13

The first letter is the bottling line at Buffalo Trace; example 1 was the K line, and example 2 was the N line. I don't know enough about the bottling there to know if there is any real significance that can be gleaned from the bottling line.

The second three digits indicate the day of the year that it was bottled. So example 1 was bottled on the 78th day of the year and example 2 was bottled on the 300th day of the year.

The third two digits indicate the year - this is really the most significant piece of information. The "09" on example 1 indicates it was bottled in 2009, so if it's Pappy 15, it would likely be from the old Stitzel-Weller stocks. Example 2 has an "11" which indicates 2011 when they started using Buffalo Trace bourbon.

The final four digits are the bottling time on a 24 hour clock, so example 1 was bottled at 7:21 am and example 2 was bottled at 2:13 pm (14:13).

If you love your Pappy and your BTAC and especially if you go dusty hunting for older versions, it pays to know your bottle codes.

UPDATE (March 2012)

For the Spring 2012 release, it appears that the order of numbers has switched. In the comments below, a reader gave this example of a bottle code: b1204011:11k.

I would interpret it this way.

The first letter indicates it was bottled at Buffalo Trace. The first two digits are the year, so "12" means bottled in 2012. The second three digits are the day of the year, so "025" means the whiskey was bottled on the 25th day of the year, which would be January 25th. This would be consistent for the spring 2012 release. The last four digits are the time of bottling, in this case, 11:11.  The last letter is the bottling line.


Bottle codes did not start appearing on bottles until 2007.  For hints on dating a pre-bottle code Van Winkle, see my Pappy Van Winkle Timeline.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Turkey Day Cheese

If you're looking for some good cheeses to start off your Turkey Day, here are some I've been enjoying lately:

Toreggio (also known as Roccolo). No, not Taleggio but from the same region of Italy, Toreggio is a cow milk cheese with a consistency more similar to a goat, a bit chalky in the middle, smooth and creamy closer to the rind. It's a washed rind cheese with a subtle, nutty flavor which would go well with any of the traditional cheese plate accompaniments, including nuts and dried fruit.

Caveman Blue. Rogue Creamery in Oregon is probably my favorite maker of domestic blue cheese. Caveman Blue is a creamy, raw cow cheese with a sweet disposition. It plays well with fruit, so slather it on tart apple or pear slices, and I bet it would go down well with either a Riesling or a Beaujolais, if that's how you roll on Turkey Day.

Harbison is a soft, bloomy rind cow cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. Wrapped in bark, the cheese oozes at room temperature. It starts off with a nice nutty character, then you get just a glimpse of some ripe, aged Camembert type flavors; tasty but not the highest of stink.

So happy Thanksgiving and cheese it up!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Recent Reads: Of Scotch and Werewolves - The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

I used to be a fan of vampire stories. I love the gothic reportage of Bram Stoker's original Dracula, the eerily elegant portrayals of the Prince of Darkness by Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella, and the impressionistic gruesomeness of Nosferatu. But then Anne Rice came along and ruined the entire genre with her overwritten prose and dandy vampires. Her silly novels led directly to a world inhabited by the schlocky vampires of True Blood and Twilight. Vampires written for overly romantic pre-teen girls, possibly living in the Victorian era.

But we still have werewolves, and Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf makes the case for the vitality of that sister genre. Duncan's novel is a first person diary of the last surviving werewolf, living among us in contemporary society. Duncan's werewolf, Jacob Marlowe, is smart and real, neither elegant nor overly beautiful. He may be 200 years old, but his disposition is decidedly modern, and best of all, he loves his Scotch. The opening scene has him drinking a 45 year old Macallan as his only friend tells him of the death of a German werewolf that was the only other surviving member of his species. He later imbibes some Glenlivet and suspiciously noses a dram that he suspects is Laphroaig when he ordered Oban.

Whisky is a small detail in this work, but it gives me a chance to encourage anyone with a love of the genre to seek it out. It's smart and well written with an ironic sense of humor. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mail Bag...It's Your Whiskey

Here's the latest question from the email bag:

Dear Sku,

My two favorite whiskies are Brora 30 year old and Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old. I like to drink the Brora with Red Bull and the Pappy with Coke (50/50). I know these are expensive whiskeys, but hey, it's my whiskey; I should be able to drink it however I want right?

Coke Fiend

Dear Fiend,

If you pose this question on most blogs or whiskey forums, the first response will typically be reassurance. "Yes," the responders all say, "it's your whiskey, you can drink it however you want."

I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. If I buy a rare Van Gough at an auction and decide to use it as toilet paper, that is not okay. I would be misusing a national treasure and being an idiot. I don't care if I paid for it, I'm still an idiot.

You want to buy whiskey to drink with Coke or Redbull? That's why God (aka Brown-Forman) invented Jack Daniel's. Hell, you can brush your teeth with it like Ke$ha for all I care.

What's the difference? Well, JD is plentiful and fungible. There is plenty of it and the spigot will never run dry; one bottle is the same as the next. Brora and Pappy, though, are scarce resources and international treasures, like the last dodo bird. And each annual release is somewhat different. Even as I write this, there are people wondering how they can get just one bottle of the latest Pappy release without having to go on ebay and pay exorbitant prices to some guy who happened to score a case.

So, no, it's not okay to buy this stuff because you have the means and then drown it in cola. It's your whiskey, but with these rare whiskeys comes a responsibility to the whiskey community to not be an idiot.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Disneyland Dining: Stage Door Cafe

A few years ago I did a write up of the various food offerings at Disneyland. One place I didn't make it to back then was the Stage Door Cafe. The Stage Door is in Frontier Land, just to the right of the Golden Horseshoe ice cream shop. The cafe is a counter where you order food to eat in the outdoor seating area.

It turns out that even more than most Disney eateries, if you can imagine this, the Stage Door is a palace of fried food. In fact, literally everything on the menu is fried, with the exception of the mandatory Disney-healthy-option bag of apple slices. The menu choices are fish & chips, chicken tenders & fries and corn dog & fries. The corn dogs are the excellent Disneyland version available at the Main Street red wagon and the Corn Dog Castle at California Adventure. The chicken was perfectly acceptable and I didn't try the fish.

For dessert, they have funnel cake offered topped with sugar, strawberry topping or chocolate. I had high hopes for the funnel cake. After all, Disney cuisine may have a number of draw backs but their strength is that they know how to fry the shit out of things. The corn dogs are probably the best food in the park, the churros are tasty and the monte cristo sandwiches at the Blue Bayou are legendary. Unfortunately, that deep frying prowess didn't seem to carry on to the funnel cake. Instead of being crisp, it was chewy and stale. I suspect it had spent some time sitting under a heat lamp, which is death for funnel cakes. But the flavor was also pretty non-existent, which is, I suppose why they buried it in strawberry glop and non-dairy whipped topping.

Overall, the Stage Door Cafe is not a bad option if you're looking for something fast and greasy. Just skip the funnel cake.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Quiz Answer: Who Serves the Finest Corn Whiskey?

So, in answer to the quiz question from last week, where is this establishment that serves the "Finest Corn Whiskey"? The answer is...nowhere. As you may have guessed, this being tinseltown and all, this is a facade. It's not from a movie set, though, it appears on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Disneyland.

My daughter is the one who found it one day when she was in line for the ride with my wife. "Look, it says whiskey," she said loudly, "Daddy loves whiskey!" For the rest of the line, my poor wife had to endure the pitifully sympathetic looks from nearby patrons who undoubtedly imagined that the little girl's father was, at that very moment, lying face down in the gutter somewhere.

Had I been there, of course, I would have corrected her..."Yeah, but not corn whiskey."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Latest Sichuan: Taste of Chongqing

Taste of Chongqing is a relatively new Sichuan restaurant on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel. I'm a big fan of the San Gabriel Sichuan stalwart Chung King, so it was hard for me not to compare.

I always start a Sichuan meal with a selection of the traditional cold appetizers. Smoked chicken was fine but lacked the intense smoke of Chung King. Marinated cucumbers were refreshing and nice to eat along with the spicy foods that followed.

Sichuan style fish with peppers is the equivalent to one of my favorite Chung King dishes, hot pot fish, white fish cooked in a spicy broth. The fish at Congqing is tender and nicely cooked but the broth lacks the sizzle of the highly spiced Chung King broth. If you're looking for spice, the deep fried shrimp have it. Big hits of pepper and Sichuan peppercorn, so much so that I had to eat it in very small amounts. Lamb with pickled peppers was one of my favorite dishes with plenty of spice playing well with the gaminess of lamb.

On the less spicy side, sauteed green beans were very nice and they do a fabulous chow mein with a nice smoky flavor.

My initial reaction to the Taste of Congqing is that it is less funky, but also less flavorful than Chung King. I'd rather go for the raw, in your face flavors of Chung King.

Taste of Chongqing
172 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-1357

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Brandy Friday: Nicolas Palazzi's Cognac Mission

I've done a number of Brandy Friday posts over the years, but I haven't stuck to brandy the way I have to whiskey. Part of the problem is the state of Cognac, the premiere brandy. Too much of the Cognac from the big houses is syrupy sweet, and even the best Cognacs have a certain simplicity to them. Added caramel is a given with most Cognac, added sugar is common and very few are released above 40% abv. After my first series of Cognac tastings on the blog, I opined that Cognac was behind the curve compared to whiskey with regard to additives and abv.

But Nicolas Palazzi aims to change all of that. Palazzi is a brandy importer and independent bottler. Born into a wine making family and raised in Bordeaux, he operates PM Spirits in New York, making regular trips back to France to hunt for Cognacs from small producers which he bottles under his Paul-Marie & Fils label. Through buying his own casks, Palazzi is able to release them the way he wants to: single barrel, cask strength and unfiltered. And he doesn't use added sugar, caramel or wood additives (boise) which are common in Cognac production; says Palazzi, "I despise those things."

Suddenly, Cognac is catching up to where whiskey has been for years. Palazzi's first special release for K&L Wines, one of the retailers he works with regularly, was a 58 year old vintage 1951 Cognac that weighed in at $600. Impressive sounding, but at a price that most of us can't afford. Luckily, there were more reasonably priced options to come. Palazzi's latest Cognac for K&L is $130, still expensive, but not outrageous.

There are 200 bottles of this new K&L exclusive. It comes from from the Borderies zone of Cognac, and while there is no age statement, K&L says that it is an XO (XO indicates at least six years old - but I'd guess this is significantly older).

Paul-Marie & Fils Cognac, Faultline Spirits (K&L Wine), 200 bottles, 61% abv ($130 exclusively at K&L)

The nose on this is bursting with fruit, but not just traditional grape/wine notes; there are apples and pears as well and some nice spice in the background. The palate is even more lush with mulling spices, cloves, even some sweet orange, all painted on a canvass of bourbony oak with some pine and fir to boot. Gone is the syrupy sweetness that many Cognacs push to the fore. Instead, there are complex notes of spice and herb. This is a whiskey lover's Cognac if ever there was one, and while it's cask strength, it goes down very easy. A drop of water, as is often the case, brings out the sugar, but makes it lose some of the balance. Drink it neat! The finish is well balanced with sweet wine and oak and then a slight vegetal note, maybe tobacco.

This is a pretty extraordinary Cognac and if you like whiskey, and bourbon in particular, you should give it a try.

I had largely given up on Cognac as anything other than a pleasant but simplistic night cap. Now my interest is piqued. Cognac may finally be getting it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

SMWS Extravaganza: Don't Forget Your Sku Discount

November is when the Scotch Malt Whisky Society brings it's tasting Extravaganza road show to California. Don't forget that as one of my valued readers, you can get a discount at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Single Malt and Scotch Whiskey Extravaganza.

The regular price is $135, but your Sku discount gets you up to two tickets for the member price of $120. To purchase tickets and get your discount, just go to the Society's website and enter SRE2011 in the promotional code box.

Dates and times are as follows:

Los Angeles: Friday, November 11 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in Santa Monica.

San Francisco: Wednesday November 9 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at teh Intercontinental Hotel.

FTC Disclaimer: Sku finally sold out and attends this event free of charge.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Whiskey Quiz: Who Serves the Finest Corn Whiskey

Did you know that white whiskey was big enough to have its own specialty bar? Somewhere in Southern California is the establishment, shown above, known as the Gold Nugget Dance Hall. As you can see from the picture, they claim, "We Serve the Finest Corn Whiskey."

So, where is this place?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scary Stuff for Halloween!

Happy Halloween! Here now, some scary stuff from the archives. Warning: Not for the faint of heart.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Recent Reads: Life on the Line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Chicago chef Grant Achatz has, in a very short time, become one of the most lauded chefs in the United States. Making his name at Trio in Evanston and then opening his own restaurant, Alinea, the French Laundry veteran has become the American spokesperson for modern cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) and an advocate of the dining room as theater, the plate as stage.

Achatz's autobiography, Life on the Line, written jointly with his business partner Nick Kokonas, traces his rise to legendary status in a career in which it seemed nothing could go wrong, then turns to his highly publicized battle with cancer of the tongue and the treatments which left this chef without the one sensation he valued above all others: taste.

It's a fascinating story, and a more jarringly real one than most cooking memoirs: the standard cooking memoir turned nearly tragic. Achatz isn't an emotional guy and his take on his own cancer is refreshingly handled without outsized sentimentality. If anything, Achatz' writing seems a bit too emotionally detached when dealing with his relationship with his children and his first marriage. Overall though, he strikes the right balance and comes up with a memoir worth reading.

My biggest complaint about Life on the Line is that about half way through, co-author Nick Kokonas joins as a co-narrator. From that point, the narration switches without warning between Achatz and Kokonas, and while having the second perspective can occasionally be enlightening, more often it's redundant and a bit confusing to boot. While they usually tip you off in the first sentence as to who the narrator is, I found myself losing track in the narration ping pong that plays out between different sections. The muddled narrator-switching, though, is a small blemish on a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Devil or Angel: Angel's Envy

Released earlier this year, Angel's Envy has been on of the most touted new bourbons of the year. The brainchild of Lincoln Henderson, formerly of Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve, Angel's Envy is a Kentucky Bourbon from an unnamed distillery finished in port casks.

Wine finishing is huge in Scotch but still relatively rare in bourbon. Jim Beam tried it about ten years ago with a few, very expensive special releases, Woodford Reserve finished one of their Master's Collection bourbons in chardonnay casks, a few of the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collections have included wine finishes, and the upcoming annual release of Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage Collection will be a Cognac finished bourbon. As far as I know, though, Angel's Envy is the first bourbon to be finished in port pipes since the Beam releases a decade ago (independent bottler Big Bottom now also appears to have a port finished bourbon). How does port interact with bourbon? Let's see.

Angel's Envy, 43% abv ($42)

The nose is full of sweet, floral notes. It's like a rose garden. The palate is also very floral and perfumy. There's a very light character to it. The port is most evident in the late palate and into the finish, which is where it really shows, so much so that the finish recalls port finished Scotch.

This is a decent enough bourbon, but I don't think it lives up to the hype. I should admit that light and floral are not my favorite notes, so in part, this just isn't my style of bourbon. Beyond that though, it's not particularly complex. If you like light, floral and sweet, give it a try.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scotch & Ice Cream

No, Scotch & Ice Cream is not a new Ben & Jerry's flavor nor is it some combination ice cream parlor/speakeasy that just opened downtown. It's a new whiskey blog, and one you should read. Founded by my pal and regular commenter Regular Chumpington, Scotch & Ice Cream is his place to document his tastings. I always love to read RC's notes because he has a real gift for doing the whole flavor analogy thing (something that's never been my strong point). His reviews are helpful, entertaining and unpretentious.

And there's more than Scotch, including plenty of bourbon and some really interesting musings. So far though, the site is sorely lacking in ice cream. Come on RC, time to live up to your title.

Check it out!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Important Customer Notice: Buffalo Trace Antique & Pappy Van Winkle Distribution

Dear Valued Customer,

We at Sku's Great Big House of Liquor do our level best to try and please each and every customer. In fact, our spirits directors, the Steves, will be travelling to Mexico next month to procure a specially selected, single barrel, cask strength, unfiltered, port-finished Tia Maria, even though we wrote in our blog last week that not everything should be cask strengh and unfiltered, and aren't we losing some amount of whiskey tradition by placing these demands on our spirits, and what is the purpose of drinking in our culture, and do we prove our importance or even our existence through drinking certain whiskeys and what are the sociological implications of that anyway, isn't drinking, like language itself, a mere construct? But I digress...

Unfortunately, it is simply not always possible to please the neurotic, OCD, border line paranoid-schitzophrenics who make up our dedicated customer base. We already have 10.5 million people on our standby list for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the fall releases of Pappy Van Winkle. We have just been notified by Buffalo Trace that we will only be getting one bottle of each of these, so there will, unfortunately, not be enough for everyone. Therefore, we have come up with what we think is a fair way to distribute these very coveted bottles.

Step 1: Lottery. We will pick 150,000 names out of a hat. This will involve the procurement of a very large hat.

Step 2: Quiz. Each of the people who are picked out of a hat will be sent a detailed quiz about these bourbons. Please be familiar with the mashbills, provenance, romantic histories of the various brand ambassadors and other characteristics of these whiskeys.

Step 3: Triatholon. The 10,258 best scorers on the quiz will compete in a triatholon.

Step 4: Cage Match. The top two competitors in the triatholon will engage in a cage match. The winner of the cage match will get the bottle. If it is a tie, the tie will be broken by a game of backgammon.

Remember, you can sign up for more than one bottle, but you will have to participate in each step for every bottle you sign up for, even Eagle Rare 17.

The good news is that everyone who participates gets a free bottle of Rain Vodka!

Good luck and let the games begin. And thank you for choosing Sku's Great Big House of Liquor.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Devil You Know: Jim Beam Devil's Cut

By now, I think most people know the back story of Jim Beam Devil's Cut, which was released earlier this year, but if not, here's the short version: When bourbon is aged, some of the liquid gets trapped in the barrel. After it is dumped, you can sweat the bourbon out, usually by adding water and agitating the barrel. This can reportedly produce liters of whiskey. Beam extracts the trapped whiskey and then blends it with a six year old bourbon. The result is Devil's Cut. The name is, of course, a play on the "angel's share," that proportion of whiskey that evaporates during aging.

I've never been a huge Beam fan, but it's nice to see some new product coming out of them. After years of pretty much nothing new in the whiskey world (excluding flavored whiskey), they've given us Knob Creek Single Barrel, Maker's 46 and now this.

Jim Beam Devil's Cut, 45% abv ($22)

The nose on this is quite nice and very Beam with sweet corn syrup, maybe a bit of cough syrup as well and some fruit candy notes. The palate starts with some nice fruit notes, turns vanilla and then goes flat pretty quickly, becoming thin and watery. It's one of those where you try to hold on to the first taste on the tip of your tongue but inevitably lose it. It's inoffensive but not at all interesting.

It always bugs me when a distillery comes out with an innovation and then blends it with their regular whiskey (see also Ardbeg Alligator). We never know how much of the innovative whiskey is in the bottle or what it would taste like on its own. I'd be interested to taste what the actual "devil's cut" extracted from the barrel, pre-blending, tasted like, but then again, maybe the devil we know is better than the devil we don't.

Monday, October 17, 2011

We All Scream for Sweet Cream

People who are obsessive about coffee insist on drinking only straight espresso or drip coffee. In their view, milk obscures the fragrances and flavors that make the coffee distinct and exceptional. Whiskey lovers are the same numbs the palate, and while a little water is acceptable, neat is preferred. Yet in the world of great ice cream, the trend seems to be to create the most bizarre flavor combinations. Everyone wants you to try their new bacon-wasabi-cheddar ice cream.

Well, when it comes to ice cream, I like fun flavors as much of the next person, but I also like to taste it in its purest form, and that means sweet cream. Sweet cream is the basis of all ice cream. A creme anglaise (a custard of milk, eggs and sugar) with heavy cream. Creme anglaise itself is one of the wonders of the world and I am totally happy to eat it straight, but when you add cream and freeze it, it's sublime. Tasting the core ingredients stripped of any additives makes you understand that all ice cream really is "frozen custard."

When I lived in New England, sweet cream was on offered at all the great ice cream places. I've seen it occasionally since then, but recently it seems to have dropped off menus, or maybe it was just never as big in California.

So now, I make it myself in a little ice cream make I recieved as a wedding present many years ago. My only addition is a few teaspoons of maple syrup which adds to the depth of the sweet element but isn't enough to give a maple flavor.

After 40 minutes in the machine, it's soft, white, fluffy and pure. Ice cream at its most basic and wonderful form. Long live the sweet cream!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project - The First Release

I wrote about the innovative Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project earlier this year when they announced it. Now I've had the chance to taste through the first release, and I thought I'd give you my impressions.

First, the tasting process is really fascinating. Each release has a number of constants and a number of variables. For the first release, the variables were grain coarseness (fine, average or coarse), what part of the tree the barrel was made from (top or bottom) and mashbill (wheat or rye). Everything else was constant. This gave the taster the opportunity to measure these factors alone.

I came away with this with a few impressions. The bottom cut barrels were almost always more intensely flavored than the top cut. This wasn't always a good thing. In some of the rye recipe bourbons, bottom cut barrels seemed to produce more vegetal flavors, while top cuts were more balanced and elegant.

Grain coarseness is not something I could really pin down as having a distinct impact, though I liked the average grain bourbons better than both the fine and coarse grain.

Interestingly, this whole project is probably less likely to produce a single "perfect bourbon" (as was originally touted) than to give Buffalo Trace an extremely specific idea of what elements produce what flavors, allowing them to fine tune their vatting and know more specifically how to produce desired flavor profiles.

The whole tasting process is fascinating, and I intend to taste through the whole 192 bottle series (splitting it with a group). Should you? In most cases, I would say no.

These are not the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. None of the bottles I tasted in the first series was great. They mostly ranged from good to pretty good, but I can't say I would recommend running out and buying any of them. If you can even get them individually (many stores are selling them only by the case) and you want to get a glimpse of the project without investing in 12 bottles, I would recommend getting a pair of bottles with one variable. For instance, barrels 99 and 100 from the first release are both wheaters with average grains, but one is a top tree barrel and one is a bottom. Taste these two and you will get some sense of the impact of the part of the tree the barrel comes from. You could make similar match ups based on any of the variables which will give you some of the experience.

Would I recommend getting the whole set to anyone? Only the most serious whiskey geeks who have whiskey geek friends to share with. There is no way I would be doing this if I wasn't splitting it. It's just too much not-great bourbon. But if you are a serious geek and have some geek-friends, you will have a unique educational experience.

I'll be tasting through the second release soon, and I'll post my reactions.

Monday, October 10, 2011

No Fry Zone: (fōnuts)

Fonuts, or (fōnuts) as the proprietors spell it, is a shop on West Third Street that sells non-fried doughnuts (i.e. faux-nuts, get it?). It's hard to understand what would make someone make a non-fried doughnut. The first guess might be that they would do it for health reasons, but given that these are decked out with thick, syrupy toppings, filled with creams and even sprinkled with bacon, I'm thinking this wasn't a health decision. Whatever the reason for the decision, they should reconsider.

Like most doughnut shops, Fonuts has cake and yeast varieties. The cake do fine, they are cake after all. The unfried yeast doughnuts have a taste and consistency similar to Portuguese sweet bread. It's not offensive but it doesn't have the yeasty zing of a good yeast doughnut, plus that type of bread has a perpetually stale mouthfeel.

It's sad because the toppings at Fonuts are remarkably good. The Hawaiian doughnut is a round yeast doughnut filled with an almost mousse like coconut cream with a strong coconut flavor; it's rolled in powdered sugar and just a touch of salt. The sugar/salt/coconut combination is unexpectedly brilliant. The salted caramel doughnut has a wonderfully thick caramel topping with a creamy consistency. The maple bacon doughnut has a white glaze which tastes more of vanilla than maple and a nice sprinkling of bacon; it catches the sweet/smoky/salty balance exactly without any unwanted grease. The PB&J has a rich, dark filling with a strong burst of peanut butter. While they run quite sweet, the flavor combinations are wonderful and are clearly made with great care. The problem is that they lose out to the flat flavor of the bread. While eating them, I couldn't help but think, my God, this would make a really great doughnut, like Doughnut Plant great. Eating at Fonuts is like living a pastry tragedy.

I get that this is an innovation or gimmick (the difference can be hard to tell), but please Fonuts, get a fryer and make us some real doughnuts.

8104 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 592-3075

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Big Mac Daddy - Macallan 30

Macallan is one of the most storied single malts. The consummate sherried malt, it's one of the only widely popular malts that is also well respected among whisky geeks. Now, personally, I've never been a huge Macallan devotee, but I generally like the stuff, so when one of my whisky pals and blog commenters, the Regular Chumpington, offered me a sample of the 30 year old, I was more than happy to accept (he also took the professional quality bottle shot to the right - and see his own thoughts on Mac 30 on his new blog).

The Macallan 30 is 43% and goes for a whoppin' $1,000. Needless to say, I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The nose had grape juice and sweet sherry. The palate was quite sweet with sherry and soap and the finish went fruity. The whole thing was rather thin and lacking in complexity. When you pay $1,000 for a bottle of whisky (well, even when someone else pays $1,000 for it), you expect something profound. You expect to take pages and pages of notes, trying to document the complexities, the deep flavor profile, the ethereal notes that are hard to pin down. None of that was here. In fact, while I didn't do a side by side, my recollection is that the 18 year old is more complex on the palate that this one.

Now don't get me wrong. It wasn't a bad whisky. It was perfectly drinkable, but when you get up to the four figures (or even the three figures), you demand a lot more than something that is unobjectionable.

It seems like Macallan just phoned it in. Hey, they know people will pay huge bucks for a Macallan 30, so dump whatever old, imperfect casks they've got and bottle it up. Very disappointing. Come on Macallan, you can do better than that.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Compass Box's Newest: Great King Street Artist's Blend

John Glaser of Compass Box has long been known as a rebel and innovator. He nearly single handedly brought the vatted malt back to prominence and was an early champion of grain whiskey. While Glaser has also made traditional blended Scotch in the past, he is now making a serious push to rehabilitate the long derided category with a new series: Great King Street.

The first release in the Great King Street series is the Artist's Blend. Per the Compass Box web page, the Artist's Blend is composed of:

  • 51.4% Lowland Grain Whisky

  • 23.2% Northern Highland Malt

  • 17.7% Northern Highland Malt

  • 7.7% Speyside Malt

This doesn't tell us that much about the specific distilleries. Many of the big grain distilleries are in the Lowlands, but we do know that Compass Box previously used Port Dundas grain whisky for last year's Double Single. And knowing Compass Box, it's probably a pretty safe bet that one of the Northern Highlanders i Clynelish.

The various whiskies are aged in American Oak casks, French Oak casks and sherry butts. The abv is 43%.

Compass Box has done two big things right in marketing this. First, they've priced it very competitively, second they've released a half bottle. Locally, the 750 ml bottle is going for around $40 and the 375 ml for $22.


This has a really wonderful nose. It's very fruity with grapes and cherries and white wine notes. The palate is rich with vanilla, fruit and oak and just a bit of sherry toward the end and lasting into the finish, though the finish is on the short side. Upon tasting, I'd say there is definitely some Clynelish in there because it has some of that Clynelish richness.

It's got a certain lightness and a feint grainyness that let's you know it's a blend, but a really good one, not hugely complex but a real easy drinker. Something you don't need to think too much about but that would be pleasant anytime (and probably do well with ice, soda and such), and I especially appreciate the 375 ml option.

Based on this, I'm interested to see where Compass Box will go with this series.

Monday, October 3, 2011

RIP: BonBonBar - But Still a Chance to Get One Last Order

BonBonBars are so good that I've written them up several time. Nina Wanat's Bay Area based one-woman candy company makes amazing chocolate bars and marshmallows. She is a true artisan and a whiskey lover to boot, doing crazy things like making a chocolate Scotch Bar with Talisker and a Bourbon Bar with George T. Stagg. Her standard caramel nut bar may be the best candy bar I've had anywhere.

I suppose all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately, BonBonBar is no different. Nina announced today that she is closing down the shop. All orders must be in by this Thursday, October 6, so this is your last chance to enjoy these fabulous candies. Get some now!

The saving grace is that Nina just published a candy making cookbook which will hopefully allow some of us to recreate her wonderful creations. I've ordered mine and will post a review when it comes in, but for now, I'm stocking up on the last set of BonBonBars.

Good luck to Nina and I hope she's abel to continue to pursue her passions.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fair Warning: Eating Carefully at the LA County Fair

As an annual pilgrim to the LA County Fair, I have learned certain lessons about fair food. If you're not careful, you can leave disappointed and nauseous. If you do it right, you can find some really good eats, but you have to be careful.

Beware the latest deep fried or chocolate covered novelty. With the exception of the excellent deep fried Snickers, these things are almost always sub-par. In particular, the over-hyped Chicken Charlie's, home of the annual "Look What Crap They're Deep Frying Now" news story, is pretty uniformly bad.

Remember, just because you can deep fry it or cover it with chocolate, doesn't mean you should. There are a reason people have been deep frying potatoes and onions for centuries, because they're good, and the homemade chips at the Tasti Chips stand are as good as any you'll find.

What the Fair does have are a number of stands from great local eateries. A carnitas torta from King Taco or a Pink's hot dog beats out pretty much all of the other crap. This year, I was pleased to see that Harold & Belle's, the South LA Creole/Cajun restaurant, also had a stand. So, yeah, you could get a three foot long corn dog and a plate of french fries as big as your head, or you could get a perfectly spicy gumbo, a rich and succulent crawfish etouffee or a shrimp po-boy and a bread pudding with Jack Daniel's sauce (pictured).

Finish it off with a scoop or two of Dr. Bob's ice cream and you will leave knowing you have conquered the culinary obstacle course that is the LA County Fair.