Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Golden Mongolian Restaurant: Mongolian in the Heart of Koreatown

Once upon a time, this was a food blog, so occasionally, I like to pay tribute to that with a food post if I find a really interesting place.

For at least a decade, there has been a very small Mongolian population in my Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown, but this is the first time I can recall a Mongolian restaurant opening. (Note that this is not the once ubiquitous Mongolian BBQ style; this is an actual Mongolian restaurant).

Located at the intersection of Wilshire and Virgil, Golden Mongolian Restaurant opened a few weeks ago and also has a sushi menu, though they weren't serving the sushi the day I visited.  The Mongolian dishes are listed as "traditional" on the menu. Mongolian is not a cuisine with which I am readily familiar, so I was excited to give it a try.

We started with a salty milk tea ($1.50); the salty element, which you might think would detract, actually worked very well in the tea.  I'm not much of a tea drinker, but I couldn't stop taking sips, loving the combination of tea spice, milk and salt.

The steamed lamb soup ($9.50) was one of the best lamb soups I've had.  It featured a deeply intense lamb broth with thinly sliced lamb.  Some of the lamb pieces were chewy with connective tissue, but the broth was amazingly rich. It was served with a fried pancake, like a Chinese scallion pancake without the scallions, that was crisp on the outside and tender within - perfect for sopping up soup.

Tsotsgiitei Bansh ($6.25 for 10 pieces) are steamed beef dumplings served with thick sour cream. The dumplings were filled with a nicely spiced beef meatball and went very well with the sour cream. Like many of the dishes, this one felt like a melding of Russian and Northern Chinese cuisine which obviously makes sense geographically.

Huushuur ($5.95 for 3 pieces) are described on the menu as flat, fried beef dumplings (or something like that).  They are large flat dumplings fried in a flour-based dough.  They had nice flavor and were served with a pickled cabbage slaw.

Lastly, Tsuivan ($8.95) is a fried noodle dish featuring home made noodles, beef, peppers and carrots.  The noodles were delightfully chewy and the slivers of beef were very tasty, but the use of red bell pepper was a bit heavy handed and dominated the flavor.  I would have liked just the noodles and beef.  Still, I might order it again just to get those noodles.

All in all, this was a lot of fun and the prices were extremely reasonable.  The lamb soup was probably the stand out dish, but everything was enjoyable.

Golden Mongolian Restaurant
3012 Wilshire Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(213) 263-2141

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Walking Blend: Assorted Johnnie Walker

It's been a long time since I tried any Johnnie Walker whiskies; the last one I reviewed was the King George V three years ago, so I figure it's about time for some new Walker.  I've always considered JW to be sort of zombie whiskies.  They look and smell like whisky, but they are devoid of any soul.  Let's see if any of these blends survived the zombie apocalypse.

Johnnie Walker Swing, 40% ($75)

JW's Swing comes in a wobbly bottle.  That appears to be the most significant information about it. The nose is nice and malty. The palate is very light with malt notes and just a touch of spice, trailing off with some pepper in the finish.  It is completely inoffensive but not at all interesting, although, did I mention the wobbly bottle?   

Johnnie Walker Platinum, 18 yo., 40% abv ($115)

JW Platinum joined the rainbow in 2013, shortly before the 18 year old JW Gold was discontinued. New color, same age, but double the price.  Sounds Diageolicious!  This has a nice nose with malt, sea air, green grapes and some floral notes.  The palate is malty with some musty notes, like drinking in a damp cellar.  The finish is dry with notes of autumn leaves.  This is decent stuff, but nothing I'd pay three figures for.

The Explorers' Club Series

This is a series of blends released in 2012 for the duty free market.  Last summer, a New York court enjoined Diageo from using the name after the New York Explorers Club filed suit; the parties settled in September so these whiskies will remain available.

All three of the Explorers' club whiskies are no age statement, 40% abv, come in liter bottles and include a stupid story about how they were specially blended to represent the part of the world alluded to in the name...whatever.

The Spice Road ($40)

The nose is soapy and grainy.  The palate is very grain forward, with light grain notes, sort of like an Irish blend. The finish is a bit medicinal.  This one is pretty blah.

The Gold Route ($125)

The nose on this one has more in the way of coastal notes with a slight whiff of peat.  The palate is malty with some seaweed and very slight peat and mineral notes that follow into the finish.  This one is decent and at least has some interesting stuff going on, though so does JW Black and it's a lot cheaper.

The Royal Route ($195)

The final and highest priced member of the Explorers' Club, The Royal Route has some decent peat on the nose along with some wine notes. The palate opens with the peat but then turns malty/soapy and diluted, leaving only a trace of peat on the finish along with a lot of soapiness and a bit of bitterness.

Wow, the Explorers' Club was a big yawn.  The Gold Route was clearly the strongest of the three.  The Royal Route starts strong but then goes steadily downhill.

All of today's JW whiskies are pretty much in line with my opinion of Johnnie Walker products.  None are offensive, some are decent, most are boring and all are overpriced.

All in all, it's still soulless zombie whisky.  If you see a bottle, don't open: dead inside.

Thanks to Tyler Patton for the samples.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Worth the Chase? Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014

I've come to hate the fall whiskey season.  I just can't bear the lotteries and craziness, the flippers and gougers, the speculators and the folks who couldn't name the last bourbon they drank but know they must have a bottle of Pappy.  I was lucky to taste my share of Pappy and BTAC when it was easy to get, and I feel bad for the folks who are newer to the hobby, legitimately love whiskey, but have to put up with all this shit just to try a bourbon they have heard so much about.

So I don't chase whiskey anymore. I just don't have the stomach or the will to do it...with one exception.  For at least the last two years, the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch has been the highlight of the fall whiskey season.  Unlike Pappy (well, some Pappy) and BTAC, it's a different blend of whiskeys each year, and each year so far, it's been pretty great.  So I make an exception for it and try to chase down a bottle every fall.

This year's Small Batch is a mixture of 13 year old OBSV, 12 year old OESV, 11 year old OBSF and 9 year old OBSK (E is the lower rye mashbill, B is the higher rye; V, F and K are yeast strains). The oldest whiskey is quite a bit younger than past years, so we'll see how it stacks up.

Four Roses Ltd. Edition Small Batch 2014, 55.9% ($100)

The nose is bursting with caramel and wood notes.  The palate starts with a nice spicy notes, then develops some acid notes which trail off with it. The finish brings back some of the wood from the nose.   This one needs some elements.  Air and water work well with it, bringing out more caramel on the palate as well as some chocolate and mint.  Even more water reveals some pineapple notes.

This is a nice bourbon, but it's not in the same league as its two most recent predecessors. It lacks the complexity and layers of flavor we saw in the 2012 and 2013 Small Batches.  It's certainly worth picking up if you happen to see it, but it's not worth an extensive chase.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dusty Thursday: Old Hickory 20 yo (circa 1969)

Old Hickory was once a very well known Pennsylvania bourbon made by Publicker in Philadelphia. The distillery went out of business in the early '80s and was later abandoned. The brand currently survives only as a blend made by an unrelated company.

Today, I taste a 20 year old which appears to have been bottled in 1969.  You don't see many 20 year old bourbons from that era, so I was very interested in this one.

Old Hickory 20 year old, 40% abv

Some bourbons tell a story; this one told a story right from the nose, a story of how old bourbon used to taste, a story of how it's changed.  One whiff of this stuff brought me back to every great dusty bourbon I've tasted.  The first sniff hit me with sweet butterscotch - liquid candy, followed up with some spice.  It was a little musty, but it was one of those that makes you wonder why they don't make them like this anymore. I could happily nose it for hours.

Unfortunately, the palate didn't measure up to the incredible nose.  It was light and sweet with honey and a bit chewy, but it felt diluted and lost some of the magic.  The finish was spicy and slightly bitter. Shockingly, for a 20 year old, there was very little in the way of oak or wood, and no signs at all of it being over oaked.

The nose on this was incredible, but it just didn't hold up.  Still, I think I'd be happier just nosing this than drinking most current bourbons.

Thanks to Tim Puett for the sample and photos.

Monday, December 15, 2014

2014: The Year in Whiskey

The year in whiskey 2014 was a tumultuous one.  It started with buy outs and consolidation, shortages and the continuation of what seemed like a boom market that would go on for years, but there was trouble ahead.  By the middle of the year, some unsavory aspects of the American "craft" industry garnered a lot of mainstream press, and the year ended with diminished sales and expectations in the world of Scotch. 

Major business news came early this year.  In January, Japanese beverage giant Suntory purchased the iconic Jim Beam company for $16 billion.  Then, in March, Campari purchased Canadian craft distillery Forty Creek.  Meanwhile, the Bladnoch Distillery, a lowland Scotch distillery with a cult following, went into receivership.

While the American craft revolution continued, there were some bumps in the road.  The issue of whiskey sourcing, well known among the whiskey crowd for years, went mainstream due to a Daily Beast article that went viral.  This led to further publicity and lawsuits targeting well known producers such as Templeton Rye and Tito's Vodka and curiously, a suit against Maker's Mark, which has never misled about its product.  All of this tumult led to some results with  Templeton and Bulleit changing their labels to more clearly state the source of the whiskey.  Meanwhile, other sourcing companies went further in the direction of distilling their own with Willett releasing its first in-house whiskey and Michter's building a real distillery in Kentucky.

Then there was a melt down at Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas, one of the most successful American craft distilleries.  The Balcones Board sued founder Chip Tate, and the suit exposed some of the tensions that can arise among investors in small distilleries.  The battle appeared to end earlier this month with the Board buying out Tate's share of the business.

Demand for aged whiskey continued to outstrip supply in the US, leading Sazerac to drop age statements from Very Old Barton and Old Charter, but there were signs of a slowing market as well.  A crackdown on bribery in China led to diminished sales of Scotch in a market that many had seen as limitless, and this fall, Diageo announced that it would halt some expansion plans after their quarterly report showed a drop off in sales.

 My guess is that the whiskey frenzy, on an international level, is going to start to wane in the next few years.  American whiskey joined the frenzy later than Scotch, so it probably has a few years of insanity left to go, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a continued slow down next year that extends to the American market as well, though the companies will probably be able to make up any difference with sales of flavored whiskey, which remains wildly popular.

All in all, a rocky year for whiskey, but let's see what the next year holds.  Any predictions?

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: New Jack Daniel's, Old Glenrothes and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Brown Forman cleared Jack Daniel's Sinatra Century, a 100 proof JD to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ol' Blue Eyes (proof on label approvals is often just a placeholder but I assume the 100 proof here is a tie in to the 100th birthday).  The label states that the whiskey was "matured with grooved oak barrels for boldness and depth."

A few months ago I wrote about a series of new Ardbeg labels celebrating the 200th anniversary of the distillery: Continuum, Bicentennial, Atmosphere and Anniversary.  They are now joined by another, Perpetuum, which has the same tasting notes as the other four.

A label cleared for a distillery bottling of a 1968 single cask Glenrothes that was bottled in 2013.

WhistlePig released a label for a single barrel version of their 10 year old Canadian rye which appears to be for retailers or other private parties and may be cask strength.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brandy Gifts

K&L and Nicolas Palazzi again dominate my brandy gift recommendations, and for the second year running, some of the best spirits I tasted this year were brandies.

Cognac: I just reviewed Palazzi's great, single barrel, cask strength Gourry de Chadeville ($150), which is as bold and intense as any spirit I've had. If you're looking for a more traditional Cognac with sweeter flavors, K&L's 2002 Claude Thorin ($60) and 1996 Giboin Fin Bois ($55) are great picks that are super-drinkable.  These are great holiday party picks.

Armagnac:  This year, K&L brought back new Armagnacs from what have become two of my favorite houses: Domaine de Baraillon and Chateau de Pellehaut.  One of my favorites of this year's Baraillons was the 1988 ($110) which is still available. At a bit cheaper price point, I also enjoyed the 20 year old ($70). My favorite of the Pellehauts was the 1994 ($70), but they were all good and are all still available.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Whiskey Gifts You Can Actually Buy

The end of the year means lots of "best of" lists and gift recommendations. I get exhausted with some of these lists which typically read like this:

1.  Port Ellen 35 year old
2.  George T. Stagg
3.  Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old
4.  Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition
5.  Brora 35 year old

It's all well and good to taste rare and ridiculously expensive whiskey.  I'm thrilled when I get to taste that kind of stuff, and I'm glad some people have the access and/or funds to do that and write about it so the rest of us know what they taste like, but the truth is, lists like that aren't helpful to 99% of the folks out there.  That's why I've tried to spend some time this year on good affordable whiskey you can actually buy.

But what if you want a special gift for your whiskey loving friend who already has plenty of Henry McKenna?  Well, this year saw some very good new whiskey releases that you can actually walk into a store and buy for a fairly reasonable price.  So here are some of my favorite whiskeys of the year.

Scotch:  I've been very impressed with the Springbank owned Kilkerran Whiskies, distilled at the Glengyle distillery.  I especially liked the bourbon barrel aged expressions, but the sherry casks are also good.  They go for around $60.

Bourbon:  One of the best new release bourbons I tried this year was the Maker's Mark Cask Strength.  While it's not as easy to find as some bourbons, it seems to be more available than many of the other new releases.  It goes for around $40 for a half bottle.

Rye:  It was a good year for finished rye.  High West's Midwinter Night's Dram ($80) is their Rendezvous Rye (a blend of Barton and MGP rye) finished in new French oak and port casks. Willett XCF ($150) is an MGP rye finished in Grand Marnier casks.  These were both good whiskeys that successfully balance spicy rye with a sweet finish.

Irish: At $20, Clontarf 1014 is a great deal for a solid Irish Whiskey.  The slightly pricier Teeling ($40) was a nice, light, drinkable whiskey.

Other:  For a delicious but completely different bourbon, the Corti Brothers Mission del Sol aged Exquisite Whiskey was a real hoot and is still on shelves in California, though its sherry like notes may appeal more to Scotch and brandy fans than bourbon lovers.  It goes for $50 or $30 for a half bottle. 

Splurge:  It is the holidays, so what if you do want to splurge on something?  One of the best whiskeys I tasted this year was Charbay III, the third release of Charbay's original, massively flavorful, hoppy distilled pilsner.  It is definitely a splurge at $400, but Charbay Whiskey is one of a kind and it's still on the shelves after a year on the market.  If you want to try Charbay style whiskey without the big bucks, the R5 (distilled Racer 5 IPA) and S (distilled Big Bear Black Stout) are aren't as good as the pilsner, but they are a lot more affordable at $70 and give a good view of the house style. 

Books:  The good thing about whiskey books is they don't get bought up by whiskey flippers.  This year was another fantastic year for whiskey reading with great books for every level of whiskey lover.  For the beginning whiskey fan, Heather Greene's Whisk(e)y Distilled is the perfect introduction to all types of whiskey; for the intermediate whiskey lover, Lew Bryson's Tasting Whiskey goes a bit more in depth; and for the advanced bourbon geek, Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Strange drills deep into the world of bourbon. And if you're a real whiskey nerd, just do what I did and buy them all!

And while it wasn't a whiskey book, Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book deserves heaps of praise as the best bartending book to come out in years with great instruction on ingredients and techniques.

Happy holidays!

Later this week:  Brandy Gifts

Friday, December 5, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: More from Diageo and Rebel Yell

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Diageo cleared a label for a new whiskey in their Orphan Barrel series, Forged Oak, a 15 year old Kentucky bourbon.

Luxco cleared a new Rebel Yell label for a two year old bourbon/rye blend that appears to be a combination of Kentucky bourbon and Indiana rye.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gourry de Chadeville Cognac

Nicolas Palazzi, aka Captain Cognac - brandy importer extraordinaire, sent me a new brandy, which is always a good thing.  I'm not sure anyone picks their Cognacs as carefully as Palazzi, who is very strict about pure spirit with none of the nasty additives and coloring that are typically poured into mass market Cognac.

His latest is a single cask, cask strength, non-chill filtered Cognace from the House of Gourry de Chadeville, a Grande Fine Champagne estate which claims to be the oldest Cognac producer, having acquired their vineyards in 1619. This Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes. It carries no age statement and weighs in at 64.3% abv, which is huge for a Cognac. There are 330 bottles.

Gourry de Chadeville Cognac, 64.3% abv ($150)

The nose is just huge with chocolate, wood spice and some grassy/earthy notes at the end.  It doesn't smell like any Cognac I've ever sniffed. The palate is dense with flavor.  It comes on sweet then gets some of those chocolate notes with dried fruit underneath.  Then it turns to a bourbon like sweet and spicy mix with lots of big, earthy notes leading into a finish that is fruity on the nose but spicy on the palate.  A few drops of water has a big impact, adding some clove and anise on the nose and lots of spice on the palate.

The flavors here are much more akin to an Armagnac than most Cognacs I've had.  There is lots of spice and much less fruit than the typical Cognac.  It's wonderful, unique stuff with a lot going on.  I keep tasting it, and I keep getting new flavors.

I've howled for years about how I'd love to see higher proof, single cask offerings from Cognac, and it's great to see that we're finally getting one.

This is so complex, oaky and spicy that it will be great for whiskey geeks.  Miss out on BTAC this year? Grab one of these.  Right now, it's available at Astor Wines for $150, and I'm told, it will soon be at K&L as well for $130.

Monday, December 1, 2014

New Whiskey Books by Heather Greene and Lew Bryson

When I first started getting interested in whiskey, good information wasn't easy to come by.  There were some books, but they were fairly specialized. There was Cowdery on bourbon and Michael Jackson on Scotch, but nothing that gave a good general overview on whiskey in all its different forms.

Well, the whiskey boom has changed thing.  It seems like a new whiskey book comes out every month, some good, some not so good.  This fall though, we are lucky to have two general whiskey books from writers who know their stuff: Heather Greene and Lew Bryson.  Both books are general whiskey surveys and include chapters on how whiskey is made, what the different types are, tips on tasting, recommended bottles, cocktails and food pairings.  While they cover a lot of the same ground, the two books have somewhat different styles.

Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life by Heather Greene, Viking Studio (Penguin) ($19)

Heather Greene was a long-time Glenfiddich brand ambassador who now curates spirits for the Flatiron Room in Manhattan.  Her book is definitely written for novices.  Greene has a conversational tone and does a good job covering all of the basics while launching into some geeky detail as well (the impact of hard vs. soft water on distilling, the three tier distribution system, different types of barrels, etc).  The information is presented in a concise, clear fashion with no nonsense advice, and I particularly liked the Cook's Illustrated style sketches sprinkled throughout which illustrate things like the size of different barrels and how to read the label on a bottle of Scotch or bourbon.

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits, by Lew Bryson, Storey Publishing ($14) 

Lew Bryson is a long-time whiskey and beer writer and the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine.  His book contains much similar content to Greene's with a bit more historical background and more detail in some areas.  It's nicely laid out with plentiful photos, charts and graphs. Like Greene, Bryson covers all the basics along with some geeky detail, including a great section on the way in which warehouse location impacts flavor and a very helpful chart of mashbills.


These are both very strong books, but as a whiskey geek, I reserve the right to quibble, so here is some nitpicking.  Greene centers her discussion of Scotch on the largely irrelevant regions of Scotland which I have always thought of as more confusing than helpful to novices.  In discussing bourbon, Bryson resorts to a flavor graph, another staple of whiskey education that I think is wholly unhelpful.

Greene gives short shrift to Canadian Whisky (less than two pages) whereas Bryson barely even acknowledges whiskeys made in countries outside of the big five. And while Greene does have a short section on world whiskey, she makes some odd choices, covering France and South Africa but not Taiwan, whose Kavalan is much better known and well regarded than any South African or French whiskey.

Both books have helpful charts listing the ppm level of various peated whiskeys, but they don't agree on exactly what they are (Greene says Bowmore is 18-25 ppm, Bryson says it's 25-30).

In the only glaring error in either book, Greene has a list of bourbon mashbills that is inexact and error prone (for instance, it lists Eagle Rare as "traditional mash bill" and Buffalo Trace as "high-rye," though in fact, they use the same low-rye mashbill).

All that being said, these are very minor criticisms of two excellent introductions to whiskey which will easily join the top tier of any list of whiskey books.

Choosing a Book

So which of these books should you buy?  You certainly don't need both given how similar they are. Here's how I would choose.

If you are looking for a book for a true novice, I would pick Greene's book.  While both books cover the basics, Greene writes in a more introductory style, always remembering that she may be writing for someone who knows nothing about whiskey.  She is particularly attuned to the possibility of wine lovers trying to learn about whiskey and has a very interesting section on whiskey choices likely to please fans of specific wines.

For the intermediate level whiskey drinker, maybe the one who has had a few whiskeys, knows the basics, and wants a bit more or for the intense bourbon or Scotch lover who wants to branch out, I'd pick Bryson.  He goes a bit more in depth on some whiskey geek type issues and seems to write more for an intermediate level whiskey drinker.

All in all though, you will do any novice or intermediate whiskey drinker who wants to learn more a great service with either of these books. Kudos to both Greene and Bryson for expanding our whiskey library.

Friday, November 28, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Jack Daniel's, Rebel Yell and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Brown Forman cleared a label for Jack Daniel's No. 27 Gold, a twice filtered Tennessee whiskey (a la Gentleman Jack) finished in maple barrels. Apparently, this was released in duty free shops a few months ago.  This label likely means it's headed for the U.S.

Luxco cleared a label for Rebel Yell Rye, a two year old rye distilled at MGP. 

Here's an idea.  Most people think of American whiskey aged in used barrels as sub par.  Instead, just rebrand reused cooperage whiskey as Eco-Whiskey made in "recycled" barrels.

Ever wanted to come up with a good name for a Scotch?  No problem.  Just take two common Scottish terms and put them together, like LochGlen.  Marketing genius!

Balcones cleared a label for a single barrel single malt to "celebrate the closing of another year."  And what a year it's been for them.  I'm thinking this will have a nose reminiscent of a Waco courtroom, a palate of restraining orders, incomplete quorums and unhappy investors.  There's no finish...yet.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Whiskey to be Thankful For

In this age of limited releases, retail lotteries, Pappy mania, declining quality and rising prices, it's good to remember that there is still some great, consistent, affordable whiskey out there.  I don't write about these whiskeys as much because, well, it would be boring to write about the same readily available whiskey all the time, but every once in a while, it's good to take some time to be thankful for the stuff that doesn't require hustling your retailer or taking out a second mortgage.

For Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for these great spirits:

  • Elijah Craig 12 year old ($30).  When I do novice bourbon tastings, I lead people through four or five bourbons and Elijah Craig 12 is almost always the consensus favorite.  It's rich, complex and delicious. Yes, the price has gone up about $10 in the past few years, but it's still a great deal.
  • George Dickel No. 12 ($23).  Oaky, minerally and unique, Dickel is still widely underappreciated, and the 12 is just about perfect.  It's great neat and makes an awesome Manhattan.  I would easily choose it over the more expensive Barrel Select. 
  • High West Double Rye ($40).  With shortages of almost everything these days, it amazes me that I can almost always find plenty of High West offerings on the shelf. The original Rendezvous Rye is still my favorite of their current line up, but as far as deals go, you can't do much better than Double Rye.  
  • Smooth Ambler. I haven't been a big fan of their standard brands, but the private barrel picks of MGP bourbon from this West Virginia distiller/bottler are excellent, reasonably priced, and pretty easy to find, like the Faultline Bourbon for K&L. 
  • Glenfiddich 12 ($27).  I've probably had more of this than any other single whiskey. Glenfiddich 12 continues to save me from plonk at airports, hotel bars, conventions, weddings and other booze deserts. It's always there and always good. 
  • Brandy.  I know I've been a broken record about the golden age of brandy we are in, but to my mind, brandy is the best cure for the whiskey doldrums.  
Which whiskeys (or other spirits) are you thankful for?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Proof Positive? Two Batches of Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

This year's Parker's Heritage Collection is a 13 year old Wheat Whiskey.  Heaven Hill has released at least two dumps at different proofs: 127.4 and 126.8, so I tried one of each to compare.  From what I can tell the 127.4 came out first and was the version sent to reviewers.

Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey, 13 yo., 127.4 proof, 63.7% abv ($90)

The nose has soapy bourbon notes, like a bourbon-bubble bath, then a touch of oak. The palate is caramel sweet with a hint of acid that grows into the finish but keeps some wood to balance it out. The finish on the nose is quite nice, like a good, oaky wheated bourbon. Water adds some nice vanilla notes and gives it some wood spice.

This is exactly what you would expect it to be, an oakier, more complex version of Heaven Hill's Bernheim Wheat Whiskey.  Wheat whiskey isn't for everyone, but if you like Bernheim, you'll love this more sophisticated and very balanced version.   

Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey, 13 yo, 126.8 proof, 63.4% abv ($90)

The nose has brown sugar and oak followed by earthy almost mushroomy notes.  The palate is quite different, sweet first, then quickly acidic, very acidic like it has a squirt of lemon in it.  The acid massively dominates the finish on the palate, but the nose retains the earthy stuff.  The acidic notes are so strong they really put the whole thing out of balance and give it a burning sensation that the first batch didn't have, even though the first batch is higher proof.  Water helps give it some composure and mutes it a bit but doesn't save it.  I definitely would not buy a bottle of this.

It's stunning how different these two batches are.  The first is quite nice and well balanced whereas the second is a bit of fiasco.  Not surprisingly, the freebie bottles that went to reviewers (not me) all seem to have been from the first batch.  I feel sorry for those who, based on those reviews, grabbed the second batch. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Evan Williams Red and Sporty Scotch

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Evan Williams Red Label is a 12 year old 101 proof bourbon that has been on the export market for years but unavailable in the US.  With a new label approval, we may be seeing it in the US.

A blended Scotch label called McCray released a series of sports themed labels. Somehow, I don't think they will find a big audience for Scotch at the Kentucky Derby or baseball games, but to hedge their bets, they included golf as well.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Depression Era Brandy: Domaine de Baraillon 1933

Domaine de Baraillon is one of my favorite Armagnac houses, and I was lucky enough to have enough friends who were interested to make a split somewhat reasonable for this rare brandy that K&L plucked out of France this year. I've done lots of previous reviews of Baraillon Armagnacs, including an even older one from 1893.

This Armagnac was distilled in 1933 and moved to glass demijohns in the mid-1980s, so it had about 50 years in wood.  It was bottled at cask strength.  Unfortunately, it's no longer available, but I thought it was unique enough to be worth recording.

Domaine de Baraillon 1933, 40% abv ($800)

The nose on this is massive and just bursting with fruit.  There's grape, raisin, prune and it just comes rushing at you like a big fruit bomb.  The palate gives a quick burst of sweet then quickly turns dry, spicy and oaky with pepper.  It trails off with light bitter notes that grow into a very earthy, bitter finish, but the fruit is still there on the nose of the finish.

This is a pretty extraordinary brandy.  Like the other Baraillons, it has elements of fruit, spice and oak, but where the others balance them together, this one divides them, giving you one after the other - fruit on the nose, spice and oak on the palate, earthiness on the finish.  While it's less balanced at any given point, the progression is really interesting and makes me keep going back for another sip to start the whole thing over again.   

This is a really wonderful brandy.  Yes, $800 is really expensive, but it's about as much as you would pay for this year's Pappy 20 on the secondary market, so there's that.

UPDATE: A few people have asked me how this can be  cask strength if it's only 40% abv.  Well, it's old and it lost proof over the years.  It's likely that Baraillon was monitoring the abv and moved it to glass when it hit 40% to keep it from dropping any further in the cask.  Interestingly, despite its low proof, it doesn't taste at all diluted, which makes me wonder if there is a flavor difference between a brandy (or whiskey) that naturally reduced to a certain proof over time versus one that had water added prior to bottling in order to dilute it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pike Creek Whisky: Then and Now

Like Lot 40, one of my favorite new whiskies from last year, Pike Creek is a Canadian Whisky distilled at Hiram Walker and bottled by Corby Distillers.  As with Lot 40, the brand was reintroduced last year after more than a decade long absence. It's a non age statement whisky finished in port casks.  I'll also try a sample of its earlier incarnation from the 1990s.

Pike Creek Whisky, Current Bottling, 40% ($30)

The nose is mostly antiseptic.  The palate is slightly sweet and medicinal with a touch of spice and wood before devolving into pure alcohol notes with a kiss of malt.  The finish has a mild sweetness but is dominated by bitterness and alcohol notes on the palate.  Between the heavy medicinal and bitter notes, this stuff is pretty horrible.  

Pike Creek Whisky, 1990s, 40%

The nose on this is quite a contrast to the new version.  It's mild and lightly fruity like a Sauvignon Blanc. The palate is very light but has rye spice, wood and some medicinal notes, trailing off with some beer like notes, like a light lager.  The finish has some rye on the nose and medicinal notes on the palate.  This one's okay.

The difference between these whiskies is surprisingly stark. While the '90s version isn't great, it's fine to drink, whereas the current version is not something I would want to drink.  Whatever they did to it, they should undo it.     

Friday, November 14, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Diageo Orphan Barrels, Japanese Whisky and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Diageo cleared a label for the newest release in its Orphan Barrel series:  Lost Prophet, a 22 year old Kentucky bourbon. This one released over the weekend and has since been written up by Whisky Advocate who notes it was distilled at Buffalo Trace unlike the previous Orphan Barrels which were distilled at Bernheim.

Springbank cleared a label for Springbank Green, a 12 year old.

It looks like we might be getting a new Japanese whisky.  This week labels cleared for Iwai and Iwai Tradition from the Shinshu Mars Distillery on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Breaking the $100 Mark

My last post's complaint about the rising price of whiskey and my proposal to avoid American whiskeys over $100 led to some good discussion in the blog comments, on Twitter and on Reddit (which has a thriving bourbon community). Many agreed and said they already adhered to a similar rule (My Annoying Opinions has laid out a whole scale of what he thinks should be the maximum price for a given age of whiskey).  Others thought it was too late or there were too few people willing to do anything about rising prices, and of course, some folks just think I'm stupid, cuz, you know, it's the internet. 

All of this made me think back to the first bottle I shelled out more than $100 for, surely a landmark in the life of a whiskey nerd.  It was about ten years ago. I had been tasting lots of whiskey, mostly Scotch, and had started reading books and internet forums to learn more.  I headed out to a liquor store known for having a huge selection of independent bottlings.  I probably spent an hour there daunted by the selection, but I indeed found one of the bottles I'd been reading so much about.  It was $130!  I was nervous.  Was any bottle of whiskey worth this much?  I sheepishly walked to the register, fearing judgment, but the shop owner just rang it up.  When I got home, I scratched off the price tag out of my own embarrassment at doing something so frivolous.

That was my first Port Ellen.  It was good.  There would be more, but they wouldn't cost $130.

I'm guessing lots of my readers have broken the $100 mark (and if you haven't, hats off to you!).  Do you remember the first time you spent more than $100 on a bottle?  What bottle was it?  Was it worth it?

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Price of Whiskey is Too Damn High!

Last week, I reviewed two whiskeys that were good but priced far higher than I would want to pay for the quality.  Unfortunately, that's getting to be so much the norm that it feels redundant to constatly say that the price is not worth the quality. We are being asked to pay much more for whiskey that is good but not exceptional.

Scotch has been too expensive for a good decade now, but American whiskey took some time to catch up. Inflation is understandable, but the more recent, more disturbing trend is companies pushing the envelope on prices for relatively young (or no age statement) whiskeys.

Angel's Envy and WhistlePig are two companies that have been aggressively raising prices with whiskeys in the $150 to $170 range.  WhistlePig's whiskeys at least have age statements, but Angel's Envy is strictly NAS. Willett is another company that is ramping up prices on younger whiskeys as evidenced by the new XCF (a seven year old for $150) and the ten year olds that are now going for over $100.  It's not just sourced whiskeys either. Wild Turkey went three figures on its unexceptional Diamond Anniversary bottling. And then there are the Hummingbird type whiskeys that are so ridiculously priced for what they are that it's laughable.

The truth is, of the American whiskeys I've tasted that were priced at over $100, very few were worth it. More often than not, when I break the $100 barrier, I regret it.  Sure there are some exceptions. Old Rip Van Winkle 23 was $350, but it was a fantastic, cask strength 23 year old bourbon from the closed Stitzel-Weller distillery. But those exceptions are very few.  There are maybe two or three that I can think of. (And of course, I'm talking about recent releases. Obviously, if you are looking for a Very Very Old Fitzgerald from the '60s or a pre-prohibition rye, you're going to pay more, and it may well be worth it.)

The Sku Challenge

The price of whiskey is too damn high, but we can do something about it.  What if we all just stopped.  What if we, as a collective body of whiskey geeks, pledged not to pay more than $100 for any new American whiskey at retail or on the secondary market. (Take that flippers!)  Too extreme? How about no more than $100 for any whiskey that's not at least 18 years old and at least 107 proof? 

Let's pound the prices down!  Who's in?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Syndicate 58/6 Blended Scotch Whisky

There's a detailed backstory that comes with Syndicate 58/6 but suffice it to say it's a blended Scotch whisky composed of 18 malts and four grain whiskies.  They use a solera method of topping off casks and say that it contains "small quantities" of a blend dating back to 1958. It is finished for four years in Oloroso sherry casks.

Syndicate 58/6, 43% abv ($160)

The nose starts with malt and a touch of fruit. The palate is malt forward as well, but it picks up some grassy notes and wine, and there's a nice touch of pepper on the finish.  This is a lighter, malty whisky. Despite the Oloroso cask finishing, the wine notes are very subtle. Tasting blind, I could have easily mistaken this for one of the Compass Box blends or maybe even an Irish Whiskey (due to its light, malty character).

This is a nice blend and certainly worth trying, but it's hard to recommend at this price point.

Disclaimer:  A sample of this was provided to me by the company.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Willett XCF: Orange You Glad It's a New Willett?

Willett XCF Exploratory Cask Finish is a seven year old MGP rye finished in Grand Marnier casks. It appears that this is the first release of a new series of finished whiskeys from Willett.

Grand Marnier is made by macerating bitter orange peel, distilling it and then aging it for two years in bourbon casks.  After that, it is combined with Cognac and sweetened.  The rye in this Willett is aged in the bourbon casks that were used to age the orange distillate before sweetening, so it's not as if the casks has Grand Marnier in them. 

Willett XCF, Version 1.0, 7 yo, 51.7% abv ($150)

The orange spice notes hit you right away on the nose. It's got bitter orange with cloves, like an orange spice tea. The palate is more traditional MGP rye profile with aggressive spice, then some orange comes in, though it's not as strong as on the nose. The finish is typical MGP rye.

This is a really creative and interesting way to manipulate the very familiar MGP rye. The rye spice and orange work well together.  The flavors are well integrated such that the orange is clearly present but not dominant. 

It's too bad the price is so high on this or it would be an easy recommendation.  I know times have changed, but I still feel like if I shell out three figures for a whiskey, it should blow me away. That being said, this is a good whiskey that gets points for being unique.

Willett XCF is currently only available at the Willett gift shop, but it appears that it will see wider release later this fall.

Friday, October 31, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: New Ardbegs, an MGP Label and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Ardbeg released a number of new labels for committee bottlings: Continuum, Bicentennial, Atmosphere and Anniversary.  These are all NAS and appear to be the same whiskey (they all have the same tasting notes listed on the back label).

William Grant cleared a label for Ghosted Reserve, a 26 year old blend of whiskies from the closed Ladyburn and Inverleven distilleries (hopefully they will correct the misspelling of Inverleven before it comes out).

Dewar's cleared a label for something called Scratched Cask.  A variant on their White Label, it was apparently finished in "charred & scratched American oak casks." No telling if this scratching was intentional or if this was one of those disaster whiskeys resulting from a cat that got loose in the warehouse.

Is MGP planning its own label?  The Indiana distilling giant has previously only done contract work, but this week a label cleared for Metze's Medley, an MGP bourbon named for MGP Master Distiller Greg Metze.  It's bottled by Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Kentucky.  It could, of course, be a limited release for employees or customers, but it's interesting.

And barbecue and bourbon are a traditional combination, but barbecue flavored bourbon may be taking it too far.  Bar-B-Q Bourbon is "infused with natural flavors, colored with caramel and paprika."

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

America's Oldest Craft Whiskey: Old Potrero 18

Old Potrero, made by the Anchor Distillery in San Francisco, was one of the first craft whiskey makers on the scene back in the 1990s.  Their ryes have always been some of my favorite craft spirits.  Their Hotaling's series is a bottled in bond rye that they have released at several age points. Like all of their whiskeys, it is made from 100% malted rye.  Last year's Hotaling's release was an 18 year old, making it, as far as I know, the oldest craft whiskey bottled in the modern era. It is aged in a once used barrel.  These are very limited runs, so they can be hard to find.

Old Potrero Hotaling's 18 year old, 50% abv ($190)

The nose is Hawaiian Punch with some brandy notes.  On the palate, it's a huge fruit monster with tutti fruity notes.  The finish is light and sweet with a dash of spice in the finish.

This has a surprising lack of rye character, particularly compared to Old Potrero's other offerings. The last Hotaling's I had was the 11 year old which had much more rye character; I definitely preferred it to this one. While generally good, the 18 year old is very fruit forward without much in the way of rye.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Henry McKenna from Everson Royce

Today, I'll taste a bottle of Heaven Hill's Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond Bourbon bottled for Everson Royce in Pasadena.

Henry McKenna BIB 10 year old Single Barrel, Barrel 6386, 50% abv ($28.50)

The nose on this is really great with caramel and oak.  It reminds me of the nose on the old Elijah Craig 18 year olds.   The palate follows through well; it starts with that nice sweet/oaky balance, and then turns nicely spicy and earthy which is what sticks around into the finish.

This stuff is just really good bourbon. It's complex and rich, elements that are lacking in so many of today's bourbons.  Heaven Hill clearly still has some wonderful barrels in its massive warehouse.

The Whiskey Jug blog recently asked a number of whiskey fans (myself included) what they wanted to see from the whiskey industry.  Most of the answers boiled down to good product at a reasonable price with honest information and no gimmicks or inflated back stories.  Well, here's a prime example.  At a time of the year when people are searching the world over for the privilege of overpaying for a single bottle of Pappy or BTAC, it's comforting to know that you can walk into a liquor store today, pay less than $30, and go home with a great bottle of bourbon.

Disclaimer:  The sample I tasted was given to me by someone who is not affiliated with Everson Royce or Heaven Hill but who received a free sample from the store.

Friday, October 24, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Bulleit Label Changes, Kinsey Whiskey and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Diageo's Bulleit appears to be the latest company to modify its label to reflect its sourcing. Bulleit is a sourced whiskey, but for years, the label stated that it was"Distilled, Aged and Bottled by the Bulleit Distilling Co." A new label approved this week changes that statement to "Bottled by the Bulleit Distilling Company" and "Distilled and Aged in the Bulleit Family Tradition."

The Kinsey distillery was an old Pennsylvania distillery owned by Publicker.  It appears that the brand is being revived as a sourced whiskey by Millstone Spirits in Philadelphia which cleared labels for Kinsey Rye and a seven year old Kinsey Whiskey.  No telling where they were distilled.

And in these days of bourbon hype, it's nice to see a label with some humility (and a sense of humor). Here's a new one for Lowered Expectations Bourbon, which the label touts as "good enough."

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Exquisite Whiskey from Corti Brothers

Corti Brothers is a well known and loved Sacramento gourmet store. Owner Darrell Corti is a legend in the California food and wine world, known as one of the pioneers of the modern gourmet food movement. Corti knows his way around spirits as well; they even did a private bottling of 20 year old Van Winkle bourbon back in the '90s.

Corti Brothers recently sent me a sample of their newest whiskey which is set for release in November.  For this whiskey, Amador Distillery, a Central California craft distillery, acquired 13 casks of a seven year old, 2006 Kentucky bourbon (70% corn, 25% rye, 5% barley) and finished it for about eight months in casks which had held Harbor Winery Mission del Sol for the previous 40 years. An Amador County, high alcohol dessert wine that is no longer being produced, Mission del Sol is made from late harvest Mission grapes.

This whiskey will be available in regular 750 ml bottles for $50 and in 375 ml bottles for $30; they will be selling it at their store, but it's possible that it will find its way to some other retailers as well (EDIT: David Driscoll notes in the comments that K&L will be carrying it - and see his blog write up as well).

Corti Brothers Exquisite Whiskey, 7 yo, 42.25% ($50)

The nose on this is pure port with some brown sugar.  The palate is similarly big on wine with fruity port or sherry.  Digging deep, there is a caramel bourbon note underneath, but I can't say I would pick it out if I didn't know this was actually a bourbon.  The port notes increase as it trails off into the finish where it's joined by some oak.

It's not often that I taste something that's totally unique.  Tasting blind, there is no way I would guess this was bourbon. If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it tastes most similar to the Navazos Palazzi sherried brandy than anything else I've tasted.

Usually when I taste finished bourbons, I'm left with the feeling that the finishing was just a method to add some sweetness to an inferior product.  This one is more akin to a sherried Scotch where the wine notes become an integral part of the whiskey.

This is great whiskey and likely one you won't see again.  I'm not sure hard core bourbon fans will like it since it has so little traditional bourbon flavor.  Fans of port, sherried Scotch and brandy, on the other hand, will love it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

As Seen On TV: J.R. Ewing Bourbon

J.R. Ewing Bourbon is a new bourbon which is a promotional tie-in to the reboot of the television show Dallas, produced by Warner Brothers for TNT. Unfortunately, the timing of the product launch was a bit poor as the series was cancelled earlier this month...and now they likely have a lot of bourbon, so much so that they are willing to give away bottles to the likes of me.

Bottled by Strong Spirits for Warner Brothers, J.R. Ewing is a four year old Kentucky bourbon.

J.R. Ewing Bourbon, 4 years old, 40% abv ($35)

The nose has notes of magic marker, solvent, and some fruit juice.  There's some vanilla and other notes, but every time they try to come out they're beaten down by the chemical notes.  The palate starts with light, sweet notes; it's watery.  It has some oak, but it develops quickly into bitterness and trails off with chemical solvent notes.  The finish is bitter and chemically.

If J.R. had given me a glass of this, I probably would have shot him too.

Friday, October 17, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Finished Jefferson's and a New Bunnahabhain

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Bunnahabhain cleared a new label for Ceobanach, a ten year old, heavily peated malt.

New labels cleared for Jefferson's Reserve rum cask finished and Cabernet Sauvignon cask finished.  

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LA's Only Whiskey: Slow Hand Whiskey from Greenbar Distillery

The growth craft distilleries over the last five years has been nothing short of phenomenal.  My list of whiskey distilleries includes over 300 across the country, including distilleries in every state except Hawaii.  Metro areas like Portland, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have scads of distilleries making whiskey. Los Angeles has one.

The Greenbar Distillery has existed as a company making infusions since 2004, but in 2012, they opened a distillery in a warehouse space on the east side of downtown LA.  They make a wide variety of spirits, from rum to liqueurs.  Everything they make is organic and everything is made in-house except for their tequila, which is made in Mexico.  This month, they are coming out with their first aged whiskeys and opening a new tasting room that will offer tours and samples.  Melkon Khosrovian, who runs the distillery with his wife Litty Mathew, invited me to see the tour and taste some samples.

Last year, Greenbar released Slow Hand White Whiskey, a whiskey made from an oat, barley and spelt mash.  For their aged whiskey, they wanted something a bit different, so they went for a single malt distilled in a column still to a lower proof than their white whiskey.  Khosrovian isn't a fan of small barrels so he went in the other direction entirely, aging the whiskey in a massive, medium toasted 1,000 gallon French oak tank.  To spice things up a bit, he added wood cubes made from hickory, mulberry, hard maple, red oak and grapewood.  He wouldn't tell me how long new whiskey is aged, but it's obviously young since they've only been distilling for two years.

The aged whiskey is slated for release later this month in regular and cask strength expressions.  I tried those along with the white whiskey that is already on the market.

Slow Hand White Whiskey, 40% abv. ($35)

The nose has soft new make notes with some vanilla and peppercorns.  On the palate, it's surprisingly delicate and less new makey than the nose.  It's very light and sweet but it lacks much in the way of character.  There's a slight acidity at the end of the palate that trails into the finish where it's joined by some of the peppery notes from the nose.  As far as white whiskey goes, this isn't bad; there's just not much to it flavor-wise. Of course, I don't typically drink white whiskey, so keep that in mind (though I have to say, I'm not sure who does).

Slow Hand Six Woods Malt Organic Whiskey, 42% abv

This is not on the market yet, but I was told it would likely retail for under $50.

The nose has really nice wood grain notes, like an unfinished bookshelf; once it sits a bit, it develops some pine.  The palate is very light with wood notes.  It's less new makey than I would expect for something that is quite young, but it isn't big on flavor.  There's a hint of spice and a hint of citrus, but they are very subtle.  The finish leaves a nice wood note on the nose but only an alcoholic tinge on the palate.  Letting it sit out for a while, it develops a bit more with some mint on the palate and less alcohol on the finish.

Slow Hand Six Woods Malt Organic Whiskey Cask Strength, 57.5% abv

This is not on the market yet, but I was told it would retail for around $60.

The nose on this one has wood and spice and then, after some time in the glass, sweet candy notes with some fruit.  The palate is sweet with vanilla, fruit and wood, then spice; with some air, it develops a distinctive sweet milk chocolate note.  The finish is short but has a nice balance of sweet and spicy. This is quite drinkable, and air really opens it up, so give it a decent amount of time in the glass. 

The cask strength malt is definitely the best of the bunch here.  It's an interesting craft whiskey and one that shows promise, but as with so much craft whiskey, it has the taste of an experiment that's not quite complete.

LA folks interested in these whiskeys can sample them by taking a distillery tour, which is also a great way to see a working distillery without leaving town.  The $12 fee includes up to six sample pours, and their new tasting room is a really nice, open space.  Tours are by reservation only at 5, 6 and 7:00, Tuesdays through Saturdays. You can sign up for tours on their website, but don't bring llamas; they seem to have a problem with llamas.

Monday, October 13, 2014

To Sue or Not to Sue: A Whiskey Conundrum

It's been a tough year for non-distiller producers (aka NDPs), companies that sell whiskey they purchase from elsewhere.  Ever since this summer's Daily Beast article about sourcing whiskey went viral, there has been a lot of attention on who buys whiskey from whom.

It didn't take long for lawyers to pick up the scent and now Templeton Rye faces three lawsuits claiming it deceived customers. Tito's Vodka faces another one claiming that its product is not actually "handmade."

After being mentioned in the Daily Beast piece, I received several emails from law firms asking if they could "pick my brain" about the issue.  I ignored all of them.  I have mixed feelings about these type of consumer lawsuits which don't involve any physical injury.  They tend to end with large attorneys fees awards and a minor discount or coupon for consumers. In addition, many of the targets of such lawsuits are small companies, and I don't have the desire to see anyone go out of business over these issues; that would mean less whiskey for all of us.

On the other hand, those of us in the whiskey community have been yelling about this issue for years without much in the way of results. It was two years ago that I raised the problems of the TTB's enforcement of the state of distillation rule, which should have required that companies sourcing from MGP list the state of Indiana on the label.  Chuck Cowdery has written extensively about sourcing, and citizen-crusader Wade Woodard has been making complaints to the TTB about potential violations.

But despite all of our yelling, it wasn't until lawsuits were filed that we started seeing results. Suddenly, after years of doing nothing, Templeton is adding "Distilled in Indiana" to its label and has disclosed that it uses flavoring additives in its whiskey.  Last week, they've even released a video to try and explain their position to consumers.  I'm sure other companies are taking note as well and thinking pretty hard about whether they are being as transparent as they need to be.  So maybe lawsuits, despite their downsides, are the best way to get companies to do the right thing.

To sue or not to sue, what say you readers?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bender's Rye: A New Canadian Rye

Bender's Rye Whiskey is a seven year old Canadian rye bottled on San Francisco's Treasure Island. When I received this bottle from the company, my initial thought was, do we really need another Canadian rye?  The US has been inundated with Canadian ryes lately, but it turns out, this one is a bit different.  Unlike the 100% rye mashbill of Jefferson's, Masterson's, Whistlepig and others, this one is 85% rye and 15% corn.

The website states that it was "sourced from an independently owned distillery just south of Calgary."  That eliminates Alberta Distillers, the probable source of all of those other ryes, which is in Calgary and not independently owned (it's part of the Beam Suntory empire).

I could have done the hard work of figuring out the sourcing myself, but why reinvent the wheel when I can just call Davin de Kergommeaux, blogger of, author of Canadian Whisky, the Portable Expert or, as I sometimes call him, that guy who cares about Canadian Whisky.  Usually, when I write about Canadian Whisky, I get a long email from Davin listing the many things I got wrong, so I figured maybe I could head that off by calling him before writing anything.

Davin helpfully informed me that Highwood Distillers, makers of White Owl and Centennial Rye, is located just south of Calgary.  Given that Bender's lists the Highwood River as one of its water sources, that sounds like a direct hit.  Thanks Davin!

I tasted the first batch of Bender's which combines a seven year old rye with an eight year old corn whiskey.  The second batch, which is on its way, will combine a nine year old rye and a thirteen year old corn whiskey and will have a higher percentage of rye, around 92%.  (In Canada, unlike the US, whiskey made from different grains is usually distilled and aged separately and then combined as opposed to the US method of distilling from a mash combining different grains).

Bender's Rye, 7 yo, Batch 1, 48% abv ($45)

The nose is light with nice rye notes and vanilla.  The palate has bold rye spice, juniper, then some sweetness.  It's strong for the abv.  The finish turns a bit bitter with gin notes and some cotton candy sweetness in the background; the bitterness lingers, almost like an amaro. I'm generally sensitive to bitterness, but this one didn't bother me as it played well with the bold rye notes.

This is decent stuff and a welcome addition to the Canadian ryes that are available in the US as it has a very different profile from those other Canadian ryes.  The spicy/bitter contrast would probably make it work well in cocktails as well.

Right now, Bender's is only available in California and Oregon, but it is sold by a number of on-line retailers, including BevMo and K&L.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bourbon, Strange by Chuck Cowdery

Bourbon, Strange is the long awaited sequel to Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Straight, which is probably the best bourbon book out there. Cowdery probably wouldn't call it a sequel, but the new book has a similar format to the old, less a single narrative than a collection of essays thoroughly examining a wide range of topics.

Fans of Cowdery and readers of his blog and his newsletter, the Bourbon Country Reader, will find much that is familiar. There is a general update on the world of bourbon, a list of the major distilleries, a discussion of Non-Distiller Producers (a term that Cowdery, himself, coined for those who don't distill their own whiskey), and a tirade against Diageo that is as fun as you would imagine. For the true geeks, he delves into topics such as the three tier system, the impact of fungus on oak barrels and, rather inexplicably, Kentucky cured ham. 

But in his heart, Cowdery is a storyteller, and he is at his best when he is telling the story of American whiskey and the rather odd collection of folks who have made and sold it through the ages. Cowdery's storytelling takes us into the history of many of the most well known companies and distilleries, tracing some as far back as the early nineteenth century. His stories give us a very personal look at the individuals behind the labels and the lives they lived. His stories provide a unique window into the birth of National Distillers, the once great whiskey town of Peoria, Illinois, the importance of Catholics and Jews to American whiskey history and where all those Beams came from.

It should go without saying that if you're a bourbon fan, you need to own this book, but I'll say it anyway:  Buy this book!

Bourbon, Strange by Chuck Cowdery ($20.66 on Amazon/Kindle version $9.99)

Friday, October 3, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Old Scotch, a New Beam Rye and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Jim Beam cleared a label for a new "pre-prohibition style" rye and 90 proof.

A label issued for a 40 year old 1973 Glenglassaugh from The Malt Whisky Company.

Duncan Taylor cleared a label for a 42 year old 1969 Macallan.  

Scottish bottler Blackadder cleared labels for a new series of Irish Whiskeys.  There is a regular and cask strength version of A Drop of Irish, an NAS single malt Irish Whiskey. 

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Export Maker's Mark: Black and Gold

Since I tried the new Maker's Mark Cask Strength earlier this week, I thought it would be fun to try some of their earlier experiments.  Maker's Mark used to say it had only one product (before Maker's 46 was introduced), but in fact, they had additional products for export.  Maker's Black was slightly higher proof than the regular Maker's and included older whiskeys.  Maker's Gold was regular Maker's at 101 proof. Both of these bottles were exports for the Japanese market.

Maker's Mark Black, 47.5% abv (circa 2001)

The nose is all candy bourbon.  The palate is much less sweet than standard Maker's with some oak notes.  Toward the end it gets bitter and medicinal with a medicinal finish on the palate and some nice oaky bourbon notes on the nose.  This is very different from today's standard Maker's and has a lot of commonality with lower end Stitzel-Weller bourbons. In fact, tasting blind, I would have been likely to guess that it was one of those Stitzel-Wellers, maybe a Cabin Still.

Maker's Mark Gold, 50.5% abv (circa 2000)

The nose is light with some Christmas spice, unusual in a wheater, and maybe a touch of BO (or maybe I just need a shower). The palate has honey, tea, some spice and a touch of lemon rind; it ends with lemon rind and mint.  The finish is slightly medicinal.  The spice is nice and unexpected element of this one.

Both of these were certainly an improvement on the standard Maker's Mark of today.  While neither was amazing, they were solid and interesting bourbons, definitely worth a try. That being said, I thought the brand new cask strength Maker's was better than both of these older bottlings.

Many thanks to Kevin A. for the photo and samples.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Maker's Mark Cask Strength

The last few years have been a bit tumultuous for Maker's Mark.  In 2010, they released their first new product in many years, Maker's 46.  Then, in 2013 they famously announced that they would lower the bourbon's proof from 45% to 42% abv, then reversed course after a public outcry.  Earlier this year, Maker's parent company, Beam Global, was purchased by Suntory.  Now, Maker's seems to be going in a different direction and has announced the release of a 113 proof cask strength expression, though for now, it's only available at their gift shop and only in 375 ml bottles.

Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Batch 14-01, 56.6% abv ($40 for 375 ml)

The nose is much less sweet than the regular Maker's, with more wood notes. The palate starts sweet but with plenty of wood balance.  It grows in complexity as it goes down, showing some strong oak notes, wood spice, light medicinal notes and even some old red wine type tannins. The finish is sweet on the nose but oaky on the palate.  This is a wonderfully balanced bourbon with a lot of complexity.  It's hard to believe it's Maker's Mark.

This is something they should have done long ago.  Hopefully, they will release it in larger quantity because it's far better than anything I've had from Maker's.  UPDATE:  Apparently this will be in general release soon.

Having tried the newest Maker's, I'll try some classic Maker's later this week.

Many thanks to Kevin A. for the photo and sample.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 2

This is the continuation of Monday's piece on Doug Dog Philips.

A lot has changed since Doug bottled the original green and black ink ryes in 2006.  For one, Doug left California.  Seven years ago, Doug decided he wanted to be closer to where they make the whiskey; he considered moving to Scotland but settled on Kentucky.  Now he lives not far from the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto where he generously hosts friends on his porch.  He continues working as a glass worker, including doing some work on distilleries throughout Kentucky.

But the whiskey world has changed too.  Willett, which had been Doug's source for all of his barrels, discontinued its private barrel program. After being impressed with the barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bottled for Kenwood Liquors, Doug contacted them about doing a private barrel for him.

Old Scout is Smooth Ambler's brand for its sourced whiskey from MGP in Indiana. Doug liked the idea of trying some Indiana bourbon which he finds to be a different animal than Kentucky bourbon, lighter and more refreshing with finesse and complexity but still with those dark, brooding qualities that he favors.

Doug picked an eight year old from Smooth Ambler that he felt had that same room-filling aroma that has characterized his favorite picks.  He liked this one because it had a comfortable entry but then grew warmer and into a very long finish.  In that way, he admits, it's a bit out of balance, but he likes a whiskey that improves as you go.  Instead of 10 points each for the nose, palate and finish, he prefers a progression of 8 points on the nose, 9 on the palate and 10 on the finish.  He also likes a whiskey that starts sweet and finishes dry because it keeps you going back to renew that sweetness on the next sip.

Doug kindly sent me a sample of his new Smooth Ambler bourbon, titled DougDogz and emblazoned with green ink in a tribute to his original "green ink" whiskey.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 8yo ("DougDogz"), Barrel 900, distilled 4/21/06, 122 bottles, 61.9% abv

The nose has lots of sweet candy, like caramel covered candy corn, with some strong oak notes mixed in. The palate maintains all of that candy and more with a good measure of oak. Toward the end, it develops spicy and savory notes. It's meaty! The finish is long and rich with a little bit of everything all mixed together - sweet, spicy and even some umami. With a few drops of water, the nose becomes less sweet and much more spicy, but the palate sacrifices some of its complexity.

True to Doug Dog tradition, this is a big, bold and unique whiskey, and as he suggested, it moves from sweet on the first sip to a long, dry finish. It's delicious, and tasting blind, I never would have guessed that it was only eight years old; it tastes much older.  Like the Van Blankle, this isn't something that will be available to anyone who doesn't know Doug, but it sure is good.

I've had a number of Doug's other bottlings, both bourbon and rye, and I've definitely liked some more than others.  I join the chorus of praise for that first green ink rye, which was one of the best whiskeys I've ever had (I never got to try the "black ink" rye).  Most of his Willett bourbons have been quite good, but they are very oak forward, and one was just too woody for me (and I have a high tolerance for oak).

The Smooth Ambler certainly isn't at the level of the original rye (despite the green ink), but it is of comparable quality to Doug's better Willett bourbons.  That being said, my tastes in bourbon tend to align with Doug's love of big, bold, oak monsters, and all of those whiskeys are distinctively Doug Philips in that way, products of the bourbon legend who started out as a bonsai enthusiast.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 1

A few months ago I wrote about Randy Blank and his legendary Van Blankle private bottling of Van Winkle Lot B.  Just as legendary are a series of rye whiskeys bottled for Doug Philips (aka Doug Dog) a few years later.  Unlike Randy Blank, Doug Philips kept buying barrels and recently bought a private barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon distilled at MGP.  For folks who have only heard the legend of Doug, I thought it would be fun to tell his story, so I chatted with Doug about his life in whiskey.

People come to whiskey from all different directions, but Doug Philips may be the only person who came to it through bonsai trees.  Yes you read that correctly, bonsai trees.  In the late '80s, Philips was a Northern California glazier whose hobby was bonsai trees. Doug was quite well known in that field, teaching classes and giving lectures around the world. One of his fellow bonsai enthusiasts was a single malt aficionado who turned Doug on to the world of Scotch.

For the next decade, Doug became entranced with single malt, tasting everything he could.  One day, while perusing the Scotch shelves around 2002, he happened upon a bottle of Joseph Finch bourbon, a brand he'd never seen at a price point that was more similar to Scotch.  Intrigued, he started learning about American whiskeys, formed a tasting group and, around 2005, joined the forum.

He was one of a small group of early dusty hunters, pledging to visit each one of California's nearly 6,000 liquor stores, though he only made it to about 3,400 of them before he moved out of state. Those were the salad days of dusty hunting; Doug remembers picking up A.H. Hirsch 16 year old with the blue wax cap for $45 a bottle when they were five deep on the shelves.

As he got to know American whiskey, Doug developed a taste for big, bold, oaky, cask strength bourbons, but in those days, there were very few American whiskeys on the market fitting that description.  He knew about Randy Blank's Van Blankle and decided that he too should buy his own barrel.  But it wasn't that easy.  He couldn't find anyone who was willing to work with him on an uncut, unfiltered bourbon.

One night when Doug was in Kentucky for the 2006 Kentucky Bourbon Festival Bardstown Sampler, he was hanging out with Randy Blank, Willett's Drew Kulsveen and LeNell Smothers, proprietor of a much loved but now defunct Brooklyn liquor store.  He overheard Kulsveen and Smothers talking about tasting some ryes for a private barrel for LeNell's (what would later become the famous LeNell's Red Hook Ryes).  Doug told Kulsveen he was trying to find a good barrel of uncut, unfiltered whiskey and wondered if Willett could help him out.

At 10:30 the next morning, Kulsveen picked Doug up at his hotel and took him to the Willett warehouse for a tasting of some rye whiskeys from the old Bernheim Distillery. Philips remembers very distinctly the second barrel of rye they opened. As soon as Drew knocked off the bung, the aroma of rye filled the entire warehouse. Doug sensed immediately that this was exactly what he had been searching for and that barrel was his first pick.  Back home, he put it in a blind tasting for his whiskey group with George T. Stagg and some other high proof whiskeys, and that cask of rye was the unanimous choice as the best of the bunch.

That cask became the legendary "green ink" bottling of Doug's rye, so named only because Drew Kulsveen's sister, who was labeling the bottles, happened to grab a green pen on the day she filled out the labels.  Doug would select a second barrel based on samples Drew sent him that would become the "black ink."

While he was waiting for Kulsveen to bottle his whiskey, Doug was surprised to see that Malt Advocate magazine (now Whisky Advocate) had rated his rye, a private barrel he had purchased, and awarded it 96 points.  Worried that someone had absconded with his barrel, Doug immediately called Drew Kulsveen who told him that the Malt Advocate crew had been in the warehouse while they were bottling Doug's rye, and Drew had poured them a sample...and so the legend began. [NOTE: See the comments for Whisky Advocate editor John Hansell's version of these events].

Over the next years, Doug bought a total of seven barrels from Willett:

1.  Kentucky Straight Rye, 22yo (Green Ink), Barrel 618, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 263 bottles.  Labeled: Ed Ledger's Liquors or Doug Philips.

2. Kentucky Straight Rye, 22 yrs-11months-3weeks (Black Ink), Barrel 8, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 216 bottles. Labeled: Neal & Dougz.

3. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 4yo (Doug's Gold Wax), Barrel 2, 125.4 proof, distilled 5-21-03, 216 bottles. Labeled: Toddy's & Dugz Fall Festival 2007.

4.  Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1564, 148.4 proof, distilled 4-30-91,71 bottles.  Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

5. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1605, 145.8 proof, distilled 4-30-91, 98 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

6. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8550, 118.4 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 147 bottles. Labeled: Dougz&Willyz.

7. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8551, 117.2 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 99 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

Doug's taste is very specific.  He likes big, bold, woody whiskeys.  He loves whiskeys that fill the room with their aroma, just like that first barrel of rye, and he enjoys a long, dry finish.  While he has high standards, he doesn't just drink his own stuff.  Among recent releases, he's been impressed with the Elijah Craig 12 year Barrel Proof bourbons.

In part 2 of this story, we will learn about and taste the newest Doug Dog whiskey.