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Lion’s Pride Dark Rye Single Barrel

My brother Don came home to Maryland for a visit and brought with him a bottle of Lion’s Pride Dark Rye Single Barrel he picked up in St Louis. Lion’s Pride is of Koval Distillery in Chicago, they boast to be the first legal distillery in Chicago since repeal day. This whiskey is a 100% rye grain distillate, aged in American White Oak, felled in Minnesota. It’s 80 proof and this one comes from barrel number 216. The rye grain hails from Midwest farms and the water comes out of Lake Michigan and is charcoal filtered.

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The bottle says it’s a Dark Rye and to look through it I can see where they get that notion from. The color is dark and caramel with a tint of rusty red. It’s unfiltered and on close inspection I can see a few tiny “things” that sink to the bottom as the bubbles rise when I turn the bottle.

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In a snifter the nose struggles to hold back the flavors but the oak slips through as does some cold blackstrap molasses.

On the pallet the flavor pours out. More dark molasses and deep sweet tannins derived from its undisclosed duration in the barrel. This tastes very “hearty” to me with the heads and tails of the cut readily dispatched, leaving only the sweetest smoothest portion of the distillate for the bottle.

This is not the flavor profile of the quintessential rye whiskey that the colonist, pioneers, and cowboys drank. This, I think, is a much more gentle and dessert-like libation. It has a wonderful viscous mouth feel and is delicious but not overly dynamic. The rye fruit and spice are in the background and tend to present on the exhale after a swallow. It’s warm and deep and comfortable like sitting in a bear skinned beanbag chair. (Ok, I may have gone too far with that last analogy)SONY DSC

The finish is nice and of medium length. As the sweetness fades just the slighted bit of black pepper and cinnamon is left to linger in the back of my throat.

This for me is not the bottle I want to drink from throughout an evening of whiskey drinking but rather the glass I want to have to end the night; or perhaps the perfect dram to have on the way to bed.

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Dills Tavern, Part One (The First Ninety Seconds)

Murray met Chuck and I outside in front of the Dills Tavern. He took a long draw from his cigar and beamed with pride over the night’s event that he had planned for us. I go inside as he talks with Chuck by the car and fills him in on some of the details of the evening.

Like countless weary travelers over the last two hundred years I unlatch the cold cast iron box-lock of the solid wood front door with a chunky click. Pushing the door, I feel its weight as it opens. Walking in through the door it’s dark in this unlit front hallway. I was expecting to be met with a warmth common to walking into any building in the 21st century, there is none. It’s as cold in the front hallway as it was outside; maybe colder for the darkness and solid stone walls draining any radiating heat I might have swept in with me from the heated car.

Moving through the darkness I’m trying to strain my eyes which are not yet adjusted from the overcast late afternoon light outside. I manage to find my way through the doorway from the front hall into the next room. I pass by a man in the haze; he’s dressed in a kilt. We exchanged brief hellos as he is following after Murray.

Ghost of the House XXLike a ghost of the house dressed in 18th century garb, the man in the kilt paid no more attention to me than would any tavern patron passing another stranger in these halls. I turned to watch him disappear through the doorway. Out of sight, I hear his footsteps pause at the front door and the sound of the cast iron box-lock echo off the stone walls in the hall as the door opens and closes.

This next room is only slightly illuminated with a glow from the fireplace on the adjacent wall. Cast iron pots simmer in front of the small flame and whatever food is being prepared in them smells great.??????????????????????

I find the next door into the tavern’s taproom, a small tabled room for eating and drinking. I’m shocked by the level of smoke in this room. The window with its glass panes rippled from the years filter in the grey light from the dim sky and adds to the haze and surrealistic atmosphere as I scan the room. The fire is crackling with hot flame and coals and there are a few candles adding some tone to the grey hue as my eyes are finally adjusted. It’s my nose that cues me into the fact that it’s Murray’s fragrant cigar, not the fire or the candles, which has this room thick with smoky ambiance.

The warmth of the fire draws me over and I hold my hands outstretched to it. How often have my exact footsteps been echoed through centuries from the front street to this tavern’s taproom fire, seeing and smelling and hearing those very same kinds of things on the way?

I was mesmerized by my first 90 seconds in the Dills Tavern. I have visited living history exhibits before. I love history and I live in a great area to experience it. I’ve even been privileged to be a special guest at some great historical sites and museums before. But I have never walked back in time like this as I wander through the Dills Tavern.

Murray enters the room and offers me a dram to start off the evening’s exploration of whiskey; Glenkinchie. I sip the Lowland Scotch and slowly turn, examining every detail in this historic place. The whisky is sweet and floral with fruit and cereal. It seems even more intricate and delicate in contrast to these rustic conditions that I am experiencing.

In our modern times of the 21st century when we are constantly blasted with sensory-overload it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate all of the quiet and subtle nuances in a whiskey. Reduce your conditions down to a stone house with open fire and suddenly the flavors in the glass seem to be a work of magic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI continue to take it all in. On the other side of the room are the whiskeys of the evening, lined up, presumably in the order we are to indulge. In all Zulu Whisky Club events there is a theme in the whiskey; a thread that ties the whiskeys to the event or to the evening or to each other. There is always a method to the madness.

I scan for the method in this lineup, I see none. It starts on the left with the Lowland I have in my glass. The far right ends with an American Rye. There is chaos in between. There needs to be a flow to the order of whiskeys at a tasting. The whiskeys need to build on each other, support the next glass to come and at the same time complement the glass just finished. Could it be that Murray got so involved in coordinating this truly awesome historic location that he fell short on the spirit compilation???????????????????????

I take another sip. The food in the cast iron pots smells wonderful and I’m starving! The log burning on the fire rolls forward and the flame doubles in size. I can hear the voices of the rest of my Zulu Whisky brothers coming in from the street. Someone is starting to play bagpipes. This is going to be a great night!

To be continued…Echos of the Past XX

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Johnnie Black and Jack

jack-logoTW is not a big fan of Jack Daniels.  TW’s article I Don’t Know Jack But I Know What I Like captured some of his negativity as he kept running into fans of the Tennessee whiskey on his way to Estonia. Another whiskey bro, ND, gave his bottle of Jack away on a trip to the islands.

On the other hand, TW likes Johnnie Walker Black Label.  In fact, Tarzan and I purchased a whiskey book for him and had it signed by (the) Michael Jackson (the one without the glove).  In it he inscribed “enjoy the Johnnie Black”.  Johnnie Black was even a major contributor to TW’s Zulu Whiskey Club event named Double Fisting,(http://zuluwhisky.com/double-fisting/ ) where we compared whiskies two at a time, starting with Johnnie Black.  We came back to the Black on each flight. “An everyday whiskey” is how TW describes it.

??????????On a recent trip to paradise, I found myself with basically two whiskies consistently available:  Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker Black Label.  From the small hole in the wall side street bar to the luxury accommodations of The Blancaneaux Lodge, virtually every drinking establishment (with one exception) had some combination that contained Jack and Johnnie Black.

evening at Privassion Creek xxThe top shelf at Blancaneaux (above,)  a  jungle retreat  owned by Francis Ford Coppola had Glenfiddich 12 yr, Glen Morangie 12 year, Glen Livet 12 yr, Jim Beam,  Jack and Johnnie Black.  The grocery store in San Ignacio had many dusty bottles of rum, a few vodkas, Jack and Johnnie Black.

long ash in belize  xxAt my cabana on Blancaneaux, overlooking the Privassion Creek, I relied mostly on Talisker,  which I packed in with me.  One night, I celebrated the arrival of evening with a generous pour from the flask and a Cohiba robusto to welcome the first stars which sparkled brilliantly in the Mountain Pine Ridge sky unencumbered by ambient, earthly light.   While I love Glen Livet and Glen Morangie, they are not the best paired with traditional Belizean fare so, I consumed mostly cocktails with dinner at the resort.

flight xxFrom the western border, we drove across the country to catch a Tropic Air flight from Belize City to San Pedro on Ambergris  Caye.  After arrival, I checked out a few bars, grocery stores and The Liquor Box for the whiskey selection.

Once again I found the same situation.  The Road Kill Lounge known for the Panty Ripper had Chivas, Macallan, Johnnie Black and Jack.  The grocery store had a whole bunch of rum, some Jim Beam, Jack and Johnnie Black.  In a liquor store called The Liquor Box the usual suspects were joined by Johnnie Walker Gold and Red Label some J&B, Cutty Sark and a few other Canadian whiskies.

filename-san-pedro-roadkill xxThe Black was  $ 175 BZ while the Gold was $195 BZ which is only a ten dollar difference and much more than in the states.  No matter where I looked, there stood Jack and Johnnie Black like a pair of foot soldiers defending against the total domination of the shelf by demon rum, gin and vodka.

I ??????????understand why whiskey is not as popular as rum in Belize. Actually, the UK and Belize share many things: both are part of the British Commonwealth, both have a mainland and significant land mass from islands and each have the queen on their currency.  But the climate differences are significant.  Cold, wet climates are good for peaty, smoky drinks while the intense sun of the Caribbean is more ideal for the sweetness of rum. I get it!   But why is this pair of whiskies so consistently available?    In many conversations with store keepers and bartenders I was told the same thing: “that’s what customers want”!

I??????????nspired by my curiosity, I decided to do a taste test.  My wife planned to finish yet another book on the beach.  I set out to find a cigar shop and a place to conduct a taste test.  My first  stop was The Rum, Cigar and Coffee shop.  Inside the shop was dark.   Fans circulated the hot humid air. I’m not sure Belize needs humidors, as the whole country is humid!  We entered the humidor and through dim light I could see cigars standing like palisades in rows on the shelves.  I never saw cigars displayed like that before.

I am not an expert on Cuban cigars.  I actually prefer Dominicans, but the storekeeper had Cohibas, Montecristos, and Romeo y Juliette’s.   I asked for a Belinda.  “They don’t sell very well.  I get them in and they sit for months” the shopkeeper informed me.  “But, I will have some in on Monday”.   I made my selection which he quickly took to the counter and offered to cut and light it for me.  I  got the burn going while parrying with him about my need to take home some of his “homemade rum concoctions” that were designed to go with cigars or ice cream?

As I stepped out into the bright light of the midday sun on Ambergris Caye,  I began to inspect my cigar.  I’m not sure this Cuban was from Cuba.  It was kind of a soft roll.  Other Havana sticks I’ve smoked were nice and tight.  The red on the band did not seem quite as bright as other R y J’s I’ve had.  Could this be the reason for the dimly lit environs of the shop?  At least the price was Cuban… and it was a short walk to the Sail Away Café where I planned to do my taste test.

??????????At dinner in the Sail Away the night before, Lionel was our bartender and did a fantastic job.  I wanted a mojito and they did not have mint.  Instead of making excuses he slipped out the back to The Three Brothers Grocery Store up the street, purchased some mint and proceeded to make a great mojito for me and a kick ass margarita for Little Eddie.  I noticed the omnipresent Jack and Johnnie Black on the shelf and decided that the Sail Away Café was as good as any other location to conduct my taste test.

??????????I entered the café with my cigar.  Several patrons were sitting at the bar having coffees or early afternoon cocktails.  Daniel, the day’s bartender assured me that smoking was not a problem….not a problem anywhere on the island.  I ordered a Johnnie Walker Black Label, neat with water on the side.”  You want it with coke?” “Nope, just neat”.  “You don’t want ice cubes in it?”, he asked.  ”No, just water”.  “OK” he said as he turned to retrieve the Johniey Black from  his post.

??????????He placed the JWB on the bar with an ashtray and a glass of water. I placed my note card and pencil nearby and put the glass up to my nose.   This was a blend that I never really paid attention to, but,  I recognized the smell;  soft, kind of woody.  The bartender and the other patrons were watching me.  I took a sip.  It was mellower than I remembered.  I tasted a little fruitiness.   The other eyes in the café watched my movements as  I added a little water and re-nosed.

Daniel approached me. “ Is it OK?”, he asked. ” Oh, its fine”, I said as I took another sip.  With the water just right I got the silky mouthfeel and little hints of caramel or toffee.   I smiled to my audience as I enjoyed the long finish.

??????????“Now I need the same thing only with Jack Daniels”, I stated.  He promptly removed JD from his perch and dispensed another full pour.  The gallery grew more intent as they gazed at the gringo preparing for the next taste with long draws on his cigar.  I gazed at the color in the glasses.  The Jack was a little more orange and a little less amber.  Once again, I took a deep smell from the glass.  Actually, I was pleasantly surprised.  The nose was similar but not as intense.  After adding water I noticed the wood.  I don’t know if it is from the charcoal filtering or the new oak barrels but the woody aroma is there.

My first sip was unexpected.  JD is a whiskey I thought best consumed by doing shots.  But here, in the Caribbean, with a “Cuban”, I found this whiskey smooth and smoky with a hint of corn syrup sweetness.  The mouthfeel was not as rich as the Johnnie Black and the finish not as enduring.  But, this whiskey was enjoyable and not contemptible as my colleagues have expressed.

Up in smoke xxThe onlookers eventually lost interest as I went back and forth from the Johnnie Black to the Jack.  Then Jack first, followed by Johnnie Black. Sometimes, I punctuated tastes with long draws from the Romeo y Juliette.

As the cigar burnt to the band, my taste test was over.  Even though Jack Daniels hails from my home country,  I have to go with the Johnnie  Walker Black. The aroma was a little richer.  The taste was  fuller and  more complex.  The mouthfeel of the Jack seemed a little thin compared to the Johnnie Walker.  I think a useful analogy would be like listening to early Allman Brothers with only 1 drummer and 1 lead guitar.  It would still be great music but without Jaimoe or Dicky would you still get that driving, resonating, blended, jazzy, southern rock sound that became a genre’?

Johnnie_Walker_Logo10The Jack is not bad.  But the Johnnie was just a little better. Jack Daniels is a quintessential American brand.  Old No. 7 has been produced in Tennessee since 1866.  The distinctive square bottle is recognizable and JD is the 8th best selling whiskey brand in the world.  Johnnie Walker comes in various labels: Red, Black, Double Black, Green, Gold and Blue.  Recently the Green and Gold were replaced with the Gold Reserve and the Platinum.  The Striding Man is recognized worldwide.  The labels are placed on the bottle at the angle of 24 degrees to help them stand-out on the shelf.  They definitely stand out: the Johnny Walker family is the best selling whiskey brand in the world.

On my way out of Belize, I stopped at the duty free stores in the Philip S. Goldson International Airport. In one of them, a young man was engaging a customer in a discussion of which whiskey was better than another whiskey.  I didn’t hear the whiskies they were discussing but it started to get heated.  The customer did not agree that the brand the salesman was promoting was better than the whiskey he usually drank.  He left the store empty handed. When the customer left, I engaged Ahlaa, the salesman, in conversation.  He was of Lebanese descent but was working in Belize selling whiskey!

We chatted about whiskey and our personal favorites.  I offered my theory that whiskey is an individual taste and the bottle that one man gives away because he doesn’t like it may be the whiskey another man savors.  I showed him zuluwhisky.com and we chuckled as we read I Don’t Know Jack.  Now,  I do know Jack!

Another customer entered the store as I was leaving.  Ahlaa approached him.  “We got great buys on Johnnie Walker Black and Jack” he said with a big grin on his face!

Bonus Question:  In the text of the post I mentioned that one one place did not have Johnnie Black and Jack.  Here is a picture that was shot through the window of the golf cart dispatchers office at Ramon’s Village.  The bottle is nearly empty! Can you identify the whiskey?  Submit your answers before April 30.  All the correct answers will be placed in  a hat and a winner will be drawn.  Winner will receive a perceived high value gift!

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Shining Some Light on Moonshine

Popcorn Sutton moonshinerContrary to popular culture and TV you don’t have to have a cool nickname or a fast car to be involved in moonshine. In fact, moonshining did not start in the Appalachians by a guy named Tickle with a souped up muscle car.

The original moonshiners were Scotsmen or Irishmen who set up operations in the glens and valleys of their homelands to escape taxation. Taxes were levied by the English government as early as 1608 with varying degrees of success. Lowlanders were more compliant. They had fewer places to hide their operations. Highlanders, on the other hand, had terrain on their side in the game of cat and mouse between the excisemen and the illegal distillers. They often ran their operations by the light of the moon.

Not satisfied by the revenue generated by taxation of a product that was hard to enforce, the English government not only taxed the whiskey but also the stills and malt starting in 1713. This led to more widespread rebellion. Malted grains are also integral to beer production so even more citizens were directly affected by the onerous tax. Lowlanders attempted to circumvent the tax on malted grains by using more raw grains in their mash.

As often happens with government intervention, this led to yet another unintended consequence. Highlanders continued to malt their grains. Their malted grain product was in such high demand that not only did they sell to the locals but developed sophisticated smuggling operations to meet the demand of the Lowlanders who found the malted barley whiskey superior.

Outwitting the excisemen became the stuff of legend. Smugglers not only supplied thousands of gallons of whiskey to thirsty Lowlanders and Englishmen but inspired generations of poets and balladeers with their tales of daring. The Highwayman, Whiskey in the Jar and To an Exciseman are just a few of the more notable works inspired by moonshiners.

No wonder, when the great migration to America from Scotland and Ireland took place, the immigrants who brought spirit distilling skills with them also brought the spirit of resistance to taxes on the whiskey they produced. Scotch Irish immigrants living in the new colonies, met the Whiskey Tax levied against distillers in 1791 to pay for the Revolutionary War, with the same lack of compliance their European ancestors had done.

They, not only refused to pay, but harassed the government excisemen sent to collect the taxes by tarring and feathering them. President Washington, convinced by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, led a 13,000 man voluntary army in the field to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. It was to be the only time in US history a president “led” troops in the field. The hated tax was repealed by President Jefferson only to be re-instated to help pay for the Civil War. This time, however an excise tax on tobacco was added taking away the argument that whiskey was the only “vice” to be taxed.

The debate about the role of regulation and government involvement in alcohol continued for five decades after the Civil War. Eventually the Temperance Movement and Anti-Saloon League gained enough support from prohibitionists to pass the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The Volstead Act banned the sale, production and transportation of alcohol in 1920. Private ownership and consumption was not illegal under federal law! But local and state laws were often stricter and in some cases banned possession.

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This bizarre situation was custom made for the illicit trade of alcohol production and moonshining reached its zenith. With so much money to be made by widespread flouting of the law, organized crime soon controlled much of the bootleg alcohol production and distribution. Bootleggers supplied the speakeasies and an underground industry flourished in the 1920’s. Even the politicians who wrote and passed the laws were known to consume alcoholic beverages on a regular basis. FDR had an “Old Fashioned” almost every night.

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Naturally, some illicit distillers cut corners by using less grain and mostly sugar. This practice merely produced an inferior product. Others, fueled by greed, used dangerous practices like poor sanitary conditions and distillation practices that included deadly components like methyl alcohol in the finished product. This led to blindness and in some cases a miserable death. As often happens with government intervention, the law of the unintended consequence took over.

Alcohol consumption soared. During Prohibition the average drinker paid a heavy price. Prior to the Volstead Act the average American drinker spent 17 dollars per year on alcohol. During prohibition that cost soared to 35 dollars. The result was 3 billion dollars of untaxed illegal income to organized crime with no tax revenues for the government!

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Some of the biggest bootleggers preferred rye. It is rumored that the source of Al Capone’s favorite whiskey was Iowa (Templeton Distillery). This whiskey was affectionately known as “the good stuff” and was smuggled up to Chicago. Augmenting the domestic illegal supply, Canadian whiskey flowed over the border transported by “Hatch’s Navy”. A future president’s family got rich by supplying the east coast with bootleg whiskey from Europe. A booming illegal industry was cobbled together from crooks, shady entrepreneurs and underground distillers.

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In 1933 Prohibition ended and alcohol production went back above ground. But many of the efficiencies of large scale alcohol production and marketing had been lost during the hiatus of Prohibition. An interesting side note: the bourbon distillers had a much better post-prohibition plan than the rye producers. In fact Buffalo Trace was known as the George T. Stagg Distillery before prohibition. They were one of four distilleries to continue producing whiskey for “medicinal” purposes. They emerged from Prohibition as a Schenely distillery with a huge stockpile of whiskey positioned for the return to legal sales.

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Conversely, rye was a casualty of prohibition and fell out of favor. Even the celebrated cocktail ”The Manhattan”, designed to showcase rye, was made with bourbon by bartenders across the country. The nations taste for whiskey turned to the now plentiful bourbon and Canadian whiskey. The troops coming back from victory in Europe had been exposed to Scotch and Irish whiskey and rye withdrew to an even smaller niche market.

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Today, moonshine remains deep in the American tradition. Illegal whiskey is still produced. But legal moonshine now outsells its illegal brother. Despite being about 1% of the American Whiskey market even Big Whiskey is getting in the game. Beam just released Jacob’s Ghost, yet another entry into the white or unaged whiskey category. Many question if legal, unaged whiskey which is taxed and regulated is really moonshine. Like many things in our modern consumer driven society, tradition is lost to marketing. Hell, there is even a Moonshine University http://www.moonshineuniversity.com/.

I wonder if their mascot is the “Stillers”!

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My Kind of Whiskey

This afternoon I traveled down to Maxwelton, West Virginia to visit Smooth Ambler Spirits distillery. With my growing desire to seek out great American whiskeys I just knew I had to make the trip down here. Especially since they have a bourbon with a curiously high content of rye. I love rye whiskey best of all American distillates and being a native Marylander I’m fond of the Maryland recipe which tends to have more corn then the Monongahela ryes. A bourbon-rye should fit right in.

So I thought a six hour drive would be worth the reward. To look at the map it should only take just over three hours but the mountain roads double that time. And since Snowshoe Ski Resort is right along the way, I might as well stop in there for a run or two… or a few days… or a week or whatever.

I skied for a few days and then the day that I had planned to visit the distillery it was cold, rainy, foggy and really windy and it ended up a much better whiskey drinking day than a skiing day so it worked out perfect. I let my legs rest from the last three days on the double-blacks and drove the last hour of the way down to Maxwelton.

At the Smooth Ambler Spirits tasting room bar I sampled their gins and whiskeys, (I’ll leave the vodka to those with a better appreciation). I don’t really drink gin but I do like to sample the local made crafts. Here, in addition to their Greenbrier gin, they also have the Still House Collection Barrel Aged Gin that is aged in their used bourbon barrels and it’s very tasty. It has a warm and sweet, buttery, gin-ey flavor to me, but then, what do I know about gin. I was really looking forward to the whiskeys to come.

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Generally, at distillery tastings like this, I love to sample the goods and be able to talk the “whiskey geek talk” with the guys and gals that work it day to day. I got to do this today. But as for tasting the spirits themselves, while enjoying the samples, I try to refrain from making any really strong judgments. Usually, I buy the bottles and give them a better, more relaxed tasting at a later time.

This was exactly what I intended to do this day with their Old Scout Straight Bourbon. I sampled the Old Scout from the tiny, half-shot sized, plastic cups. It was really good and I wasn’t shy to ask for a second and third sample. I was really looking forward to bringing my full bottle back to the hotel overlooking the ski slopes tonight and take my time with this corn and rye bourbon. After several tastes of the Old Scout Straight Bourbon, Yearling Bourbon, and Old Scout Straight Rye, I was ready to tour the facility.

The glass door leading into the still house opened and the smell hit me. A Pro can tell at what stage the distillate is by the smell of the still house room. I’m not to that point yet but I have smelled the different stages and that first whiff always excites me. Walking into the place where a whiskey is born, a whiskey that I have perhaps been drinking or reading about for years, for me it’s like meeting a celebrity. I like to put my hand on the copper still and think, the whiskey I drink today was in here five, seven, nine, or whatever number of years ago.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking into that aroma I was struck with shining stainless steel and copper. What a great sight to see, the towering copper columns and the lumbering pot still. The first thing that came to my mind was that this little distillery, way out here in the Appalachian Mountains, has got some expensive whiskey making tools in here. Copper ain’t cheap and they had it floor to ceiling, fat and wide. It was exactly what I wanted to see; small but uncompromising.

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We talked our way through the process from the grain being brought in and ground here on the premises to the time in the still. Then we headed over to the rickhouse where the barrels were stacked. The warehouse was open and allowed the full wrath of the Appalachian weather to work her magic on the barrels. In the five days that I have been here I have experienced a driving blizzard snow, blinding fog, cold relentless rain, and the forecast for tomorrow is for it to be in the sixties (skiing in shorts and a T-shirt). Kind of sounds like the weather in Scotland?

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I could see the stacks of Old Scout Bourbon resting there in the warehouse. Old Scout was a whiskey that was distilled elsewhere and then discovered by the folks at Smooth Ambler and they thought it too good not to share. Brought here from Indiana they pampered it a bit and matched this barrel with that one and really brought together the best of this whiskey. There’s a real skill and craft in doing that, but it wasn’t distilled here.

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After the tour we went back to the tasting room, had a few more samples and I filled my bag with bottles to take with me. I bought a bottle of the Yearling Bourbon, the Old Scout Rye, and a bottle of Old Scout Straight Bourbon that I intended to open this evening to complete my tasting to share here.

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Back at the hotel I looked at the bottles. As much as I have been looking forward to really getting into the Old Scout I kept looking back at the Yearling Bourbon Whiskey. It’s a young bourbon, only aged a year and eight months, and it’s a multigrain of corn, wheat, and barley. Not what I usually favor; certainly not over a rye. But today I was able to put my hand to the still in which it was created. The folks there did a wonderful thing with the whiskey that they obtained and turned into Old Scout Bourbon and Old Scout Rye and I’m looking forward to breaking the seals on those bottles too, but not tonight. Tonight I am drawn to the whiskey that was created, cradled, coddled, bottled, and sold to me here in West Virginia, Yearling Bourbon.

Opening the bottle I can smell the wheat. It jumps out at you, being one of the lesser used grains by most distillers. I can’t get the image of those copper stills out of my head and maybe it’s that suggestion but I feel like I can taste the influence of the copper. There is definitely a light, young oak taste in there. I love to taste the wood in my whiskey and in this glass I think the cask is balanced nicely with the grain. It’s a 46%er and I added a bit of water to the first taste but find it not necessary on the following fills. It’s warm and smooth. There is just a faint touch of berry on the tip of the tongue, some black coffee with sugar, and then the barley seems to step forward in the finish. This is a whiskey worthy of reflection.

Having put my ski gloves by the heater this morning in the hotel room and cranking up the thermostat to dry them out, the room has become hot so I open the window. I’m blasted in the face with a cool strong wind. The cold, wet foggy blowing wind from earlier today is changing into a dryer warmer breeze this evening. Those barrels that shivered in the air this morning as I walked the warehouse will begin to warm tomorrow as I shed another layer of clothing and get onto the chairlift for another run down the slushy hills.

How many weeks of varying weather like this has the whiskey in this bottle lived through in the last year and a half creating all of those dynamics in the cask? That, I think, is what draws me to this drink tonight. The connection with this time and this place. The experience of this location and driving through those mountains and car-sickening curves and hills and fog covered valleys on the way to the distillery. I love scotch because I feel it connects me with the old country of my Scotch-Irish ancestors. I like this kind of American whiskey because it ties me to what I am here and now. It breathes the air I breath and shivers in the cold rain and sweats in the summer heat as I do. This is my  kind of whiskey.

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Maker’s Mark 51

      With the recent controversy regarding Maker’s Mark considering changing their bottling proof I was reminded of my experience with the last big change that Maker’s Mark did.

The following text was originally written in 2010

 

20 JAN 2010

Makers_Mark_Bourbon_WhiskyAbout two weeks ago I was contacted by Maker’s Mark and informed that they were considering launching a new line of whiskey. “Really”! I said “what’s it going g to be called?” I was told that was the reason they we calling me! I was being invited to be a part of a group to discuss names for the new range of Maker’s Mark. Myself and several other folks were being invited to come to DC to participate in a marketing focus research group for the new Maker’s Mark Whisky.

Of course I responded that I would be happy to participate. So the day of the meeting I drove to Bethesda to do just that. It was put on by a company called Shugoll Research. I was part of a group of 8, we were given lunch and we were all reimbursed for our time. We were shown seven 14”x18” poster-cards with pictures of different bottles of what would (or could) be the new look. All of the bottle shapes were the same but each had different labels or bottle print and names for the whisky.

The basic gist of the whole thing was we spent about 20 minutes milling around the room looking at the different glossy photos of the new Marker’s bottle. We would stand back and look and move up and hold the card, some even held the poster at arm’s length and turned it sideway to envision how it would look when it was poured. We all picked the ones we liked best and the ones we liked the least. After a while we all sat around a conference table and had some pretty detailed discussions about the look and our perceptions of the different conceptions.

Makers glass seal

One point that was brought forward by the group was that instead of having the Maker’s seal simply embossed into the glass bottle; why not actually use the red wax to create an authentic seal. Everyone at the table agreed that at the Marker’s Mark gift shop you can buy just about anything from cigars to rocks glasses and everything in between that has been dipped in the iconic red wax. Why not have the actual “Maker’s Mark”, in red wax on the bottle. The group leader from the research company really grabbed onto this topic and we spent some time talking about it.

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If I can read anything from the graphics we saw and the questions we were asked I would say the new whiskey will most likely be called “Maker’s 51”. (That was how many different try’s they had to do to come up with the perfect recipe, or so they told us). The other names that were tabled were “Limited”, “Land Mark” and “noted.” (Spelled with a lower case n and a period). The new version touts itself as being “matured with toasted oak staves.” Sounds pretty good, maybe it will have little more dynamic flavors like a scotch?

At the end of the discussion our host lined up ten or so bottles of whiskeys on the table, more or less in order of quality from Jack Daniels to Blanton’s. He then asked us to place some of the pictures of the different Maker’s bottle ideas into this “3-D bar-scale” (pardon the pun) according to our perception of price and quality of the new Maker’s. At the end we were each offered one of the bottles used for the exercise to take home, I grabbed the bottle of Booker’s.

All in all, it was an interesting process. It would be pretty cool if some of our input was used for the new whiskey and to sometime soon see the real bottle on the liquor store shelves. I’m really looking forward to finding out what “toasted oak staves” tastes like.

Makers-46 a

Well, we all now know the new Marker’s Mark range was to be called Marker’s 46 and not 51. I suppose they didn’t want to let out exactly what the number they were thinking about although the rest of the art and font of the new bottle is the same. And now we all know what toasted oak staves taste like.

TW, 2013

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Around the World

With all the travel that I’ve been doing lately, I have had the fortune of having some great libation experiences. Unfortunately, few of these have been with whiskey. Most of my trips lately have taken me to the world of rum and cigars and some great happenings there.

On my most recent trip however, I was really looking forward to a real scotch experience. The entire flight I was thinking about this one British pub that I had been to years ago and long before I had developed my love for scotch. I was looking forward to taking full advantage of their scotch inventory with a British bartender to serve me up some whiskey I normally can’t get in the U.S.

Several days after debarkation I finally found myself walking down that street full of people to that little UK town. The smell of fish and chips being fried and the iconic red phone booth helped to fire my anticipation. My wife and I walked into the Rose And Crown Pub; it was just as I remembered it from over 20 years ago. I went to the bar and asked the bartender what kind of whiskeys he had. He said he had Oban, and a few of the Johnny’s and that he had just ran out of Lagavulin. At that point I had to interrupt and politely ask him to “Say that again, I just love to hear the word Lagavolin pronounced with a native accent.” Amused he cheerfully obliged. I urged him to continue with the inventory. He mentioned a few Irish whiskeys and then said “that’s about it.”

“Really, that’s it?” I can get most of that stuff, good as it is, back in DC. I was deflated. I didn’t even order, I was really bummed out. I walked out of the pub, past the tea shop and the English garden and over the bridge to France. Some French cheese and a chocolate croissant helped to cheer me a little. By the time I had some sushi in Japan and a cappuccino in Italy I finally decided that if I can’t be happy in Disney World then where could I be happy??  So the UK pub in EPCOT was a let-down with their whisky selection. It still had a lot more whiskey than most of the places I had been to in the Caribbean over the last few months. And I did get to meet Mary Poppins on the way out, (she would be ashamed of me for my poor attitude).MP 2

In a better mood we continued to circumnavigate around the EPCOT pond, finally arriving in Mexico. Escaping the heat we ducked into the Mayan temple and found La Cava Del Tequila Cantina.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGoing in I could smell the strong smell of tequila. It smelled like the night before some of the worst mornings of my life. Memories of why I no longer drink tequila came crashing back to me.
We found a cozy corner with a leather couch walled in by barrels. There was a solid stone “coffee table” that must have weighed 400lbs.

My wife was looking over the list of margaritas and for a moment I thought about ordering a tequila. Immediately I shook off that thought with a shudder. Perusing the menu I saw they had mezcal. An obscure memory came to me from years ago when I had tasted it but didn’t like the smoky taste. I love smoky now. Looking at the list I went straight to the bottom, which was tops in their selection, Scorpion Anejo 7 Year.

La-Cava-del-Tequila bar
I asked the waiter how it would be served, “is this going to come in a shot glass?” He raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes and said this mezcal must be served in a special tasting glass. Delighted I said bring it on! He then added that he thought that the bottle was near the end and that I might get the scorpion. “Get the what?”I asked. “The scorpion” he said, “there’s a scorpion in the bottle.” “What do you do with that?” I asked with knowing trepidation. “You eat it, most people eat it, you can do whatever you want with it, but most people eat it.” And he walked away to get it.

7 year Mazcal in the glass xx
I looked at my wife and she smiled at me knowingly. She knows I can’t even eat sushi that’s not cooked. The waiter soon returned with a tall stemmed champagne glass filled with a beautiful deep amber-toned liquid. There was no scorpion in the glass. He said there was more left in the bottle and that if I had three more drinks I could probable get it; three more doubles! At 28 bucks a shot I didn’t need to do the math to know that wasn’t going to happen and the little stinging lobster was going to have to wait for someone else.

Scorpion Mezcal Anejo 7 xx
I took a deep sniff. It smelled good. Not overly smoky but there was definitely smoke in there. It had a sweet smell. I have to tell you I was amazed by the smell alone. I was expecting a “high-class version” of tequila but this was something altogether better than that. There was a smell of lightly burnt caramel. The taste was smooth. The oak was present which I always appreciate. This was a real treat!

To put this Mezcal into a perspective of sorts, I would say that I liked this better than a lot of whiskeys that I’ve had and better than any rum I’ve ever tried. However, at $230 a bottle, I can’t say I like it better than a $200 bottle of whiskey. And I’ve never even had a rum in that price range. I liked it enough to want to buy it sometime down the road though. And when I get to the bottom of my bottle I might just eat that scorpion!

Scorpoin in Bottle xx

(I’m not eating that thing!)

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Hot Toddy, It Cures What Ails Ya

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Some drinks are seasonal like Egg Nog. Other drinks are strictly occasional like the Hot Toddy. No able-bodied, healthy person of our modern times has ever walked into a bar and ordered a Hot Toddy. It’s just something nobody seems to think about until we’re sick at home. And even then, seldom do we have the ingredients on hand or the motivation in our infirm incapacitation to put it all together.

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Lucky are those bed bound and surrounded by a mound of crumpled tissues that have a spouse that is willing to go out to procure just the right ingredients to assemble the Hot Toddy. That soothing, fortifying, and spirit lifting proscription which, even in the face of influenza, can bring the slightest hope that this world is worth living for.
With the weather changing into beautiful springtime in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US the trees are in bloom and the nights are still cold. Seasonal allergies are stirring the last (hopefully) of the spring-time colds; the last opportunity for this year’s round of Hot Toddys.

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There are a ton of varying recipes for this drink but the mainstay is always honey, lemon, and whiskey. Really that’s all you need. I’ve made it that way many times before. Pour half a glass of whiskey into a microwave safe glass or mug, squeeze the hell out of that plastic bear shaped jar to goob in a huge glob of honey and then finish off the plastic lemon that’s been hiding behind the salad dressing on the door of the fridge. Heat it in the microwave, stir it all up and sip away your maladies. Like my grandmother Mimi used to always say about whiskey, “It cures what ails ya”.

That’s the simplest recipe and it works! That sweet warm soothing lemon-honey-whiskey mix is just the thing. It’s not too hard to make, even when you’re feeling bad, and it makes you feel better. But what if you’re making it for someone else, why not put a little more inspiration and class into it, right? So that’s what I did with my most recent batch.

I did a little research on the web and found that in a few old recipes both beer and ginger were sometimes mentioned. I decided to add in a little ginger-beer, just to see what that would do. And this time I would use fresh lemon and why not an orange too; nothing wrong with squeezing in a little vitamin C. I picked up some dark Buckwheat honey, (I don’t know, sounded good). Maker’s Mark will be the main effort of the mix.

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Not really measuring anything I mix the liquids and squeeze in the juice. Heat it in the microwave, not too much to cook out the medicinal values of the whiskey, just enough to make it hot. Then pour it into a crystal Waterford rocks glass (just because you have snot coming out of your nose doesn’t mean you can’t have some dignity). The smell of the lemon and honey filled the room and steamed the rim up the glass as I poured. I garnished it with some citrus slices and served it up on the ward.

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Take your over-the-counter cold and flu pills every four hours, stay hydrated and get lots of rest. That’s supposed to help lift your symptoms. The Hot Toddys will help lift your soul, and maybe feel a little bit pampered too. It cures what ails ya.

 

 

 

Sky Diving by the Wind Tunnel at Eloy xx

The Price Of The Experience

About a week ago, my friend Mac calls me and asks “Have you ever heard of Glenfed…Glenfideshe…Glen…”         “Glenfiddich?” I offered. “Yeah that’s it” he confirmed, “Have you ever drank Glenfiddich 40 Year Old”? “No Mac”, I said,”I’ve never even seen a bottle of that.” “Well I’m staring at a bottle of it right now” he says “and I want to buy you a glass.” Mac was in Arizona and I was in Maryland. “That has got to be a two or three thousand dollar bottle of whisky” I said through the phone. ”I don’t care” he interrupted, “I want to buy you a glass of it; you need to get out here.”

I had to go to Arizona for work anyway, so four days later we met up at dawn in Eloy for some sky diving and a little wind-tunnel time. That evening he drove us down to the bar that he had been hanging out in lately to buy me that drink.   The location was the Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain Marana, Arizona. It was a beautiful spot in the desert. It had been raining here lately and all of the desert foliage was turning bright green and starting to blossom.

The sun was low when we reached the hotel and from the parking lot I could hear the sound of a wood flute being played. As we walked around the dry-stacked stone building the valley view opened up. The expanses of the inclines were seasoned with dark volcanic rock and the monstrous cacti that were reaching upward were lit dramatically throughout the entire view. The sound of the flute resonated off the valley walls. As we rounded the building Mac said “There he is” pointing to a hill half a kilometer off in the valley and just slightly higher in elevation. “There who is?” I asked. “The flute guy” he said “over there in the red shirt.”

Th Valley Dark xxI strained my eyes to the next hill over and I could make out a lone individual on the hilltop wearing a bright red shirt and playing the flute that I could hear around me. I was surprised to learn that the origin of the sound was so far away. I could see Mac was excited the flute guy was playing outside on the night that I came here. He’s into this kind of spiritual stuff and so am I, but not too many of our other friends are, so we take advantage of the time when we can have a drink in this kind of atmosphere.

The Whiskey at Dove Mountain xx

We went inside Ignite, the tavern here at the hotel; he wanted to show me the bottle. As we rounded the bar I ogled the whiskey selection. There were so many great bottles, many of which are too overpriced for me to drink except on special occasions.

There was a bottle of Highland Park 25 and Macallan 30. There was also a bottle of Macallan 25 one of my favorite whiskeys that I can’t afford. The last time I drank that one was a glass my wife bought for me on my birthday over ten years ago; I can still remember exactly how it tasted.

Tonight I was going to blow all of those over-indulgences out of the water thanks to the generosity of one of my closest friends. Mac doesn’t even drink scotch; he can’t even stand the smell of it. He likes bourbon and rum but mostly drinks beer and likes good cigars. But he loves to share in my enthusiasm towards the finer whiskeys. That’s just the kind of guy he is, he loves to create and share in exceptional experiences for all of his friends, even when it’s something he can’t appreciate on his own.

Glenfiddich 40 in the Valley xx

I looked over the whiskeys on the shelf and we agreed we should start with a cocktail and get some dinner before we set into that. I ordered a Sazerac Rye to start things off, he got a beer. We took our drinks outside and sat on the terraced patio with other guest in silence as the sound of the wood flute continued to hold mass.

After about twenty minutes the flutist stopped and disappeared from the neighboring hilltop and was done for the evening. It was curious how everyone continued to speak in whispers even after the service was complete. The scene was that moving.

We went inside and had dinner. I had a Glenmorangie 18 with my meal. After, we retired back to the bar. I had already had two great whiskeys and thought the entire experience was enough without a two score bottle. Mac wouldn’t have it, “That’s why we came here” he insisted. I had no idea how much it would even cost when I placed my order; The Glenfiddich 40 Year Old, neat, in a snifter with a side of water, no ice.

The bartender was entirely nonchalant as he grabbed the bottle and gave it a good measure. I asked if I could check out the bottle and he gladly handed it over for me to read and appreciate. I took the snifter and gave it a smell. It smelled awesome. “Let me smell it” Mac asked. He raised the glass to his nose and gave it a sniff. His head jerked reactively to the left as he moved the glass away from his face. “I don’t know how you can drink this stuff” he said and slid the glass back to me.   Cheers!   And I clinked his glass of Coors Light with the $395 snifter of whisky he just bought for me.Fiddich 40 xxThe smell was definitely Fiddich, there was no mistaking that. But it was much smoother, even in the smell. I was expecting it to be excessively woody and overcooked but it was perfect. The proof was 43-and-a-half and it was like velvet. I dropped in, literally, 2 drops of water. More for ceremony than necessity as it needed no water; even for someone like me who always adds water, even to 43%ers.

The mouth feel was like melted chocolate. It had the sweetness of the 15 year and the character of the 18, but to a much greater and grander level. It was rich and had a fullness and presence that was unlike any other whisky I had ever tasted.

57ChevyBelair xx

The Glenfiddich is one of my favorite brands. A lot of people think their too big to make really good whiskey but I think the proof is in the glass. I have said before that I think the Glenfiddich 18 Year Old is the 57 Chevy of scotch whiskies. The 57 Chevy is not the best car ever built but, it by far and away, most typifies the great American car. To me, The Glenfiddich 18 best represents the quintessential Scotch whisky. It may not be the best, and it’s not my all-time favorite, but it has everything that a real scotch whisky should have; and I love it.

Rolls xx

To that I would say this whisky, The Glenfiddich 40 Year Old, is a Rolls Royce. It’s that exceptional. They say about the Rolls Royce, It’s not a luxury, it’s a privilege. Well I don’t know if drinking whisky is a privilege but this whisky is certainly a luxury I can’t often afford.

We took our drinks outside and found a spot in the shadows to light up cigars and hopefully not be harangued by the hospitality staff for not being in the designated smoking area out front. The desert sky was black now and smelled like sage. We sipped and told stories and remembered places and people we no longer see, and occasionally we would lower our cigars to hide them behind our wrist as the headlights of the hospitality staff golf cart would zoom by on the nearby path. I felt like we were smoking in the boy’s room again, only with twenty dollar cigars.

Tomorrow Mac will be on a plane for his next location and I will be skydiving and working here for a few more days and then will be off, back to the East Coast. I have no idea where or when we will meet up again; I’m sure it won’t be too far off into the future. I’m sure there will be cigars and good whiskey or rum or maybe just a warm can of beer. I’m sure we will laugh a lot and cuss some and try not to get too sentimental remembering our old friends that are gone.

This is how we have always done it. Be it a rum pina colada and a counterfeit Cohiba on a dirty beach on some island, or a Pilsner Urquell in Pilsen with a dried out duty-free Romeo and Juliet, a Jamison and a Guinness in Dublin, or a hefeweizen in Ramstein; anyplace in between, above or below. Lots of times with a rye or bourbon, sometimes with a fine rum, often with a whisky, and occasionally with an imported can of Bud. Now I can add that once in a while, it’s with a forty year old scotch.

So is this whisky worth four hundred dollars a glass? To someone who has that money to spare I suppose it would be. For me it was another evening I won’t forget and that had little to do with the cost of the whisky. I’ve learned the price of the drink does little to affect the value of the occasion. These events are not christened by the alcohol as one might think, but rather the libations are blessed by the experience.

Snifter of 40 xx

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The In-Betweens of a Whiskey Flight

At a recent whiskey tasting that Whiskey America was participating in, Murman and I were to lead guests through a flight of four whiskies. I always taste and become familiar with a new flight of whiskeys before I present it to a group, even if we will taste whiskies that I am completely familiar with. This time was no different; in fact I spent three evenings with these whiskies to learn exactly how they would work together. The reason is that when you taste whiskies you are familiar with next to each other they often present themselves differently then when you drink them alone. In some cases they can become a new whiskey all together. I had four whiskeys to present at this tasting but I had a way that I was going to present them that would be like tasting five.

At all of the whiskey tastings I’ve ever been to there is considerable effort made to try to isolate each whiskey as you move through the selection. There is always water poured, crackers provided, and even spit buckets on the tables so that between each different whiskey, tasters can cleanse their pallet, re-set their taste buds, or whatever they need to do to evacuate any remnants of the whiskey they just tasted from their mouth before moving on to the next. Basically the idea is to try to taste each whiskey of the night as if it were your first whiskey of the night with no affect from the previous whiskeys.

If I were a distiller trying to show off my range of whiskeys that I had created, I too would want folks to be able to judge each one on their own individual attributes.  I think that perspective is largely where the whole philosophy of resetting your nose and mouth after each spirit comes from. But that’s seldom the way anyone ever really drinks their whiskey.  When you go to a tavern, or a friend’s house, or even reach into your own collection with the intention of going through a few different whiskeys before the night is out, do you ever set out water-crackers or ask your friend to provide a spit-bucket?  Of course not, and you have never had a bad night of whiskey drinking for the loss of these things. In fact, those nights were probably pretty good and you probably really enjoyed those whiskies as they blended and criss-crossed in your mouth while you transitioned from one to the next.

One of the themes that have always been present at any of the Whiskey America events has always been to emphasize the experience that surrounds the enjoyment of drinking good whiskey, not simply enjoying the whiskey itself. Everything about the event enhances the experience; the food, the cigar smoke, the fellowship of friends, the summer breeze or winter chill, everything about the night that goes to create an experience that will never be repeated.

To a Master Distiller that has spent the last 20 years making the spirit in the bottle we pour, he may not be too keen to think that the perfume of our waitress or the smoke blowing over from our charcoal grill is affecting his masterpiece, but that’s how it goes. All things blend to create the experience.

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At this particular event Murman and I were to lead several flight tastings that were to showcase the wonderful attributes of four great whiskeys. The selections for the evening were from Catoctin Creek Distillery of Virginia and Smooth Ambler Spirits of West Virginia. Scott Harris from Catoctin Creek brought his Mosby’s Spirit, an un-aged 100% rye and Roundstone Rye, the aged version of the same. John Foster of Smooth Ambler brought their Old Scout Bourbon, a high rye bourbon and Old Scout Rye. One way or another, rye was the drink of the evening and it was great.

I wanted to accentuate the differences of the whiskeys and show off the juxtapositions created during the transitions, the ”in-betweens”. I wanted each whiskey to support the next whiskey to be tasted and each following spirit to complement the whiskey just finished. I didn’t want to try to isolate the individual whiskeys; I wanted to create a single experience.

The first whiskey of the flight was Mosby’s Spirit. It’s an all rye un-aged spirit and is surprisingly floral and fruity. Everyone that sat at the table for the flight tasting had already been sipping the night’s whiskey selection either from small sample tasting cups or in a cocktail. But at our table we were using Glen Cairn glasses which present the whiskeys much better. For the first time some of the guests were really getting to smell the Mosby’s. It made a difference. The delicate fruit, green bananas, fresh cut grass and other nuances were discussed and some really got it, and others played along.

The second whiskey was the Roundstone Rye. It was really interesting to bring everyone along from an un-aged rye spirit into the same spirit aged a year and a half. People volunteered that they could smell the wood and vanilla. On initial sips the fruitiness of the Mosby’s could not be discerned in the Roundstone. “Where did it go” I challenged. The Roundstone is the same thing as the Mosby’s with the addition of some wood aging. The wood is not that powerful that it would bury the other flavors.

There were puzzled looks and silence as we continued to taste. And then someone answered, “It’s still there… the fruitiness, it’s still there. I didn’t taste it at first, but now I do.” I smiled and offered my view that when you’re doing a whiskey flight, you don’t necessarily taste what’s in your glass but rather you taste what wasn’t in the previous glass. In other word, you taste what’s new, you taste the difference.

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With the Roundstone the difference was the oak. And with that came the vanilla and the caramel. But the underlying fruit and flowers that were present was no change from that of the Mosby’s Spirit and so no one tasted it, at least not at first. Once everyone began to settle into this new glass of whiskey all of the attributes began to show. That was when we began to taste the fruit again. So with two glasses of whiskey it was as if we had tasted three whiskeys. The “in between” whiskey was the juxtaposition created between the two. It was fun to taste it this way, and as before, some got it and others played along.

Next in the lineup was Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout Bourbon. This is merchant bourbon that I really like because it really acts more like a rye than bourbon. It’s got a lot of spice and that slow burn that takes a while to sink in like a rye. Some might not think it a good flow to go from a full rye to bourbon. But with these two it worked. First of all, Roundstone has got to be one of the smoothest, nicest, young ryes I’ve ever tasted. And Old Scout Bourbon, for bourbon, has got some balls. It has a high rye mash bill and in my opinion, it’s not cut to be delicate. If you’re a bourbon drinker I might recommend others to you. But if you’re a rye man (or lady), I would have you give this bourbon a try.

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When we nosed it, I saw some eyebrows go up, even from some of my tasters that may not have been completely picking up what I was putting down in regards to the different tasting notes so far. All of the sudden they were presented with a huge new smell. Something that in the last two (three) whiskeys was not present. And remember, what you taste in a flight is not what you have in your glass but rather what is new in your glass. And what was new in this glass was Corn!

There was still a lot of rye spice and rye fruit but nobody was discerning that right now and nobody was immediately remarking that we went from 18 months in the oak to 7 years. None of that was nearly as remarkable as the addition of the corn. For bourbon the corn in this whiskey is very under spoken but when following two 100% ryes it stood out. From the first smell, the corn really jumped out at you. It added a dimension and a different kind of sweetness that even those that were not really buying into the descriptions like spring flowers or green bananas could plainly see there was something different here.

As we continued to sip, others stated that they could taste a deeper, lingering, flavor that stayed on the side of their tongue after the last of the sweetness left their mouth. I offered that they were describing the finish, that this was the taste of maturity and time spent with the oak. The heads began to nod as the jaws worked the up and down and the whiskey was swished and swallowed.

Slowly, as the newness of the corn and the years in the cask became more accustomed to the full profile of the drink came out and the spice and the rye fruit and the warmth continued to deepen.  I remember it was at this point that one gentleman interrupted me blurt out “So this is why people spend money for good whiskey”!  He was staring at his glass and then shifted his gaze to the others seated around him who were momentarily silenced as he circled his gaze finally around to me. “Yeah”… I responded, “This I why we spend money on this stuff.” To be able to discern a thousand different attributes from the same three ingredients, water, grain and yeast. It’s a lot of fun. That’s why we do it.

The next whiskey was Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout Rye.  This time the corn was gone so you could really taste the time the rye has spent in the barrel. By now all of the rye we had been drinking was beginning to offer that satisfying warmth that only the rye grain can give.  Folks that were struggling with drinking whiskey neat at the start were now comfortable with the process. Those that were experienced with the process were really getting the nuances of the differences between the whiskies and combinations of the flight.

At this point everyone knew there were only four whiskeys present at tonight’s tasting but I had professed that I had a fifth whiskey to present, a surprise whiskey. Even my esteemed Whiskey America brother Murman was surprised when he heard me make that declaration on the first flight tasting, that there would be a “fifth whiskey.”

With high intrigue around the table I reached across and grabbed the Mosby’s Spirit again and began to pure the glasses. Murman poured the far end of the table with a smile as he began to figure out where I was going with this. And most everyone else looked on with puzzled expressions.

We already tasted this one was the look on everyone’s face. I answered their unspoken question by restating that you don’t taste what is in your glass but rather you taste what was not in the previous glass, you taste the difference. “You are about to taste everything in Mosby’s Spirit that you couldn’t taste before.”

We had slowly evolved our way from a day old spirit to one of seven years. One might think it was a progression to the top. The fact is each of these whiskeys is at the top. Each one has its own personality and attributes and qualities that make them all worthy of reflection.  Just because we started at the youngest, don’t think that makes it any less dynamic or interesting.

So I poured the un-aged liquid for the second time, the one that everyone had already tasted. The eyebrows went up as it was nosed once again.  It was clean and fresh and very different than before. I even got an “amen” to the “green bananas” description I had offered for Mosby’s at the beginning of the tasting from a few previous non-believers.  But the best description I had to offer was “it was like sitting on bright white painted gazebos during a spring rain”.

Murman looked across the table at me the first time he heard me say it with a look like, “you gotta be kidding me, a freshly painted gazebo???” But some of the others in the group that were going through the flight got it. I got the nods and the “yeah, it’s like rain, it’s clean, it’s fresh” and most importantly, it was different than when we had tasted it before. Remember we had been adding dimensions on top of dimensions as we progressed through the last three whiskeys and when we came full circle back to the un-aged spirit it really presented with an entirely different profile then it did initially when we began the flight. It was flavorful and yet pure. Everyone agreed that this was “a fifth whiskey”.

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Cigars and Aphrodisiac

Still in the West Indies I had the afternoon off today and set out on a mission to buy a stock pile of some local cigars that I’ve been smoking lately and really like. I went into the local cigar shop, I had been in there before but this is the first time that I wasn’t in a rush to get in and out. And this was also the first time that I had been there during the daytime when the resident cigar roller was working his trade.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was picking through the unlabeled hand-rolled’s when the shop owner came over to assist. My Spanish is still pretty bad and I had a hard time trying to explain what I was after. When I was there before I had gotten some really mild and full flavored cigars. I really liked them but with no cigar bands to ID them it was hard to pick them from the 10 or 15 different kinds that are rolled there in the shop and stacked in zip-locs on the counter. I could have sworn the ones I had before were “like these here but a little longer” I said pointing at a loose bundle by the cash register.

I tried to describe them to the shop keep, “ Muy suave, muy Bien, muy grande”. I was pointing at some of the sticks on the counter. “This color but longer I think.” At this point Anthony the shop-keep walked to the other shelf and, mistaking me for one of the gringo’s off the cruise ship, tried to steer me to some commercial brands based off of my few word description. He grabbed a box of La Auroras and with two hands pushed it towards me saying “Muy suave, muy bien”, and half a soliloquy in Spanish I couldn’t understand.

I’ve had these smokes before and they are phenomenal, but that’s not what I wanted today. “No muy bien” I said waving off the high dollar / high margin box and pointed again to the unpackaged un-banded cigars on the counter top by the register.

He then hovered his hand over a box of La Glorias and said something no doubt indicating these were the best cigars for me. The guy working diligently at the cigar rolling table was starting to take notice of our exchange as Anthony and I were both smiling and having fun at our difficulties and getting a little frustrated at our inability to work this out.

I was using every bit of Spanish I had, which wasn’t much, to get some of the great hand-rolled-on-premises smokes that I had bought there before. Anthony, seeing me as a rich tourist, was trying to guide me to some smokes that he figured I was accustomed to and would be happy with and he might make and extra dime out of too.

What he didn’t realize and what I couldn’t explain was that if I could positively ID the smokes I was looking for I was going to clean him out. I had been buying them four or five at a time and now I wanted to fill my humidor. I waved my hands over the un-banded stacks and started to speak as he simultaneously did the same over boxes of Arturo Fuentes and I lost my decorum. “I WANT HIS CIGARS”! I said in a loud voice pointing at the man rolling cigars across the room.

Everyone in the cigar shop stopped and stared at me. The man rolling cigars looked up at me and for a moment froze as I was shouting and pointing at him. The other customers were wide eyed and motionless. It took a few seconds but my point was made. The shop owner smiled and showed me the open palms of both of his hands and spoke the universally understood “Ahhhh” as he now got the point of my search. And the man rolling cigars inflated his chest and a prideful smile grew across his face.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cigar maker abandoned his duty and grabbed a stick from the pile he had been creating in front of him. He cut it and struck a match and came at me, cigar in one hand and the flaming match in the other. He was beaming and practically shoved the cigar in my mouth and brought the fire to it. As I was being treated to the fruit of the roller’s trade, Anthony had moved to behind the counter and was opening zip-loc bags and directing me to the smoother, better of his private hand rolled stock.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cigar roller’s name was Louis and I found he spoke a little more English than Anthony. He was delighted that I was so passionate about his craft. I think that most of the non-locals come in to buy the high-end commercial boxes and maybe get a few of Louis’ cigars for a novelty. He learned to roll cigars for Arturo Fuente and worked there for twenty years and now he’s somewhat of an unsung celebrity here. To know that I came here today to stock up on his cigars “solamente” really made his day.

As I was glad-handing and back-slapping Louis and thanking him for the complimentary smoke, I pulled it out from between my teeth and gave it a look; “this is it!” I took another puff to make sure” this is the one I was looking for” they were stacked up on the top of Louis’ rolling station and not on the counter today. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I want all of these, and some of those too” I asked about some Shorty football shaped maduros that caught my eye and before I could say another word Louis had it cut and put a match to it. I laughed and said I couldn’t smoke two cigars at a time so I transitioned to the new one and passed the first one to my friend who had just made it into the shop.

He took a puff and said “These are the ones we had before!” “I know” I said. “Are you getting some” he asked. “All of them” I explained. And we were given the royal treatment as we pointed out stacks of unlabeled cigars, bagging them by the tens and twenties.

Once our buying frenzy subsided we sat on the couch in the center of the shop and enjoyed the rest of our smokes as Anthony boxed up our selection. Louis had disappeared out the front door in a hurry only to return in five minutes with a new supply of unrolled tobacco so he could start replacing the inventory we had just claimed.

As this was going on I noticed a man crouch down to the floor and tip a huge magnum sized bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label over and pour it into a small plastic cup. I had seen the bottle before and didn’t think much of it. It was one of those monster-sized bottles that sit in their own metal carriage so they can be rocked forward and tipped to pour. I’ve seen them in bars and occasionally at a liquor shop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis one was on the floor in a corner between the counter and a display curio. It was filthy on the outside from being splashed with mop water and collecting dust for who knows how long. It had something inside that I thought was growing in there. I thought it must have been refilled with colored water for a display and had gone organic. I could see all kinds of solids inside with a liquid that was way too dark to be whiskey.

After the man poured from the bottle he stood and tipped back the little cup and drank it in one shot. What the??… did you see what he just drank? My friend was watching and with equaled disbelief and asked to no one in particular, “What IS that?

Anthony, realizing what we were looking at, came swiftly from behind the counter and with emphatic apologies quickly poured two small plastic cups full and gave them to us. What IS this? My friend repeated in Spanish. Anthony had a deep laugh and fired off something in Spanish to Louis and the other man that was helping himself to a second cup and everyone within earshot had a laugh.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMamajuana! Anthony said proudly. “Ahhhh” I said. We had seen Mamajuana before but never like this. There are always small bottles of it in the tourist gift shops that claim to do everything from curing what ails you to being a miracle aphrodisiac. Anthony, like most of the locals, mixed this up himself.

The solids that I had mistaken for aquatic sludge were in fact a mixture of tree roots, bark, chunks of wood, what looked like coffee beans, dried leaves, herbs, spices and who knows what else. Added to that is wine and rum. The formulas vary from house to house and everyone has their own take on it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe small cups were placed on the coffee table in front of us and we looked at each other, shrugged shoulders and took a big sip. Not bad, sweet, sherry like, smelled a little like cough medicine, reminiscent of Angostura bitters, lots of competing nuances of spices on the finish, but pretty tasty. We finished it in one more sip and before we could even share our observations another two cups of Mamajuana were place before us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe employees and local patrons alike were delighted to be sharing this local tradition with us knowing that we were trying it for the first time. Other customers were helping themselves to shots now that all attention has been brought to it. It was as if an impromptu Mamajuana and cigar party had spontaneously erupted in the shop and we were guests of honor. Louis showed us how he worked his trade and let us check out his tools.

With bags of cigars and the aftertaste of tobacco and Mamajuana we made our way out of the shop and into the busy street. Mission accomplished.

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An Evening At Flagstaff Brewing Company

This was a view from 9000ft elevation, Truly Breath taking!

 

This view was from a barstool in the The Flagstaff Brewing Company in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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Truly breath taking!

Directions: Get on Route 66 anywhere west of Illinois and keep driving west, it’ll be on your right.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArizona High Spirits Single Malt Whisky. This is the whiskey that brought me to the fine state of Arizona only to find the distillery abandoned, no one returning my e-mails or phone messages and not a single bottle of this to be found on a liquor store shelf.

When I spied this unopened bottle behind the bar I made an offer. “I’m forbidden to sell the bottle” I was told by Eric the bartender. Apparently the bar owner had to buy back three precious bottles from someone he had previously sold them to, and at double the price, just to have them behind his bar. And like many of the rare bottles behind the bar at FBC, when they’re gone, they’re gone! I’ll just have to buy mine one dram at a time then.
It has a nice smell from the mesquite smoking and a fresh flavor with a spearmint-like finish. I would love to find out that there are a few second-fill barrells of this resting somwhere, a truely good whiskey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough I couldn’t reach the owners of Mogollon Brewing Company, distillers of High Spirits, chance would have it that I would be sitting next to Ryan, a former employee. That’s the beauty of drinking a local craft whiskey…locally.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA flight to follow the High Spirits. (R to L). 1- Littlemill, 1991, 20 year, this was a warm bear hug of a whisky following the High Spirits. 2- Caledonian Talisker Selection, 1979, 21 year, had that wonderful Talisker smoke. 3- Port Ellen, 1977, 23 year, 50%, wonderful bitter smoke with a mouth drying finish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo matter where I moved to in the bar, it kept staring at me.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEric, my host and bartender extraordinaire for the evening… really knows his whiskey. Plays Ska music in the bar on Tuesdays and calls it “Scotch and Ska”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, after I mopped myself into a proverbial corner with that last flight, it was a bit of a struggle to figure out where to go next. How about another indie, Silent Stills, Glenlochy, 29 year, 57%, bottle number 42 of only 200, sweet, strong, flavorful burn that tastes like a scotch whisky should taste, great whisky!

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANon-chill filtered! I don’t need my whiskey chill filtered or any other kind of filtered! That’s what my liver is for!
A Murray McDavid Laphroaig, aged at Chateau Margaux in wine barrels, 1999, you can smell and taste the wine plus everything else that is Laphroaig.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATuesday night at the FBC in Flagstaff. Something that I really appreciated at the Flagstaff Brewing Company was that every time that Eric poured me a dram he left me the bottle, every time. I really liked being able to hold the bottle, look at the color, and read the fine print, it added to the experience.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is Chris, good company, told me about the vortexes in Arizona. I didn’t know about the vortexes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen I went with Tamnavulin’s Glenlivet, 22 year, pinewood resin, deep, sweet, smooth with a light and airy finish.

 

There is nowhere to go to from here except back to the hotel.

Egg Nog Wright 1970 xx

The Christmas Egg Nog

Probably the first taste of alcohol I ever tasted was whiskey. I’m not sure because I really don’t remember. I was only a kid and the drink was Christmas Egg Nog. In fact I can’t remember a Christmas at my Grandfather’s without the huge punchbowl full of sweet fluffed white peaks floating on the pale yellow concoction. The meringue topping was completely benign of alcohol so I could scoop it from the top of the bowl and enjoy the sweet nutmeg flavor and no one seemed to mind. But in the process I would inevitably scoop up some of the liquid.

As I said, I don’t remember the first time I did this, only that I can’t remember not doing it; scooping up some sweet whiskey–rum creaminess, hidden under a scoop of the foamy white topping to stave off any adult intervention. I don’t think I ever got much more than a shot glass full throughout the evening but the hook was set, I was to be a whiskey man.

Egg Nog Poloroid xx

Years later when I was in my twenties I decided to take on the family egg nog recipe. My Grandfather had passed and so my Grandmother, Mimi, hand wrote it for me. She noted that it called for a pint of whiskey…but then she held out her hand as if she was holding an invisible whiskey bottle and tilted it several times as if to pour, and in so, silently passed on the unwritten and unspoken step to the formula; add more whiskey!

Egg Nog 60s xx

Now Mimi didn’t mind whiskey one bit and the bottle she always had around was Jack Daniel’s. But I was never advised what whiskey to make the egg nog with. The rum is specified, it must be Jamaican. But the whiskey is left nondescript. I was given plenty of advice on the rest of the process by the women in the family. “if you don’t mix it in a copper bowl all of the whites will go flat in an hour”, “you have to let the eggs come to room temperature before you whip them or it will never work”, “If the mixing bowl is not scrupulous sterile and your hands so clean that you’re ready for pre-op the whole thing will be ruined”, “if egg yolk contaminates the egg whites it’ll all explode!” They put the fear into me and since I didn’t really know my way around the kitchen too well I was taking mental notes and starting to sweat just thinking about it.

Egg Nog 80s xxThe first time I made it was the following Christmas, it must have taken me all afternoon to do. I used Canadian Mist I think. And of course I followed the silent step of adding a little more. I poured it all into clean milk jugs and took it to the party to be poured into the punch bowl. Everyone was impressed by the sight and I think a little surprised that I could pull it off. I poured the first taste for Mimi. I received compliments and congratulations. It wasn’t bad but I don’t think it was the best.

MakersThe following year I used Jack Daniel’s. The process became easier and I was less intimidated. When it was served up I remember my oldest brother exclaiming “Whoa, that’ll put hair on your chest!” Everyone that scooped up a cup had some explanation of how strong it was. Nobody stopped drinking it and everyone went back for more, but it was a strong batch. The odd thing was that I used exactly the same amount of whiskey as I did the year prior. So now I realized, even though it was only a third of the mix, the type of whiskey was important! In years to follow I tried different kinds of whiskey. Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, anything I thought might make a better egg nog.

I was in my thirties before I started to learn about whiskey. Along with my education on whiskey came a history lesson. I learned that before prohibition the whiskey in Maryland was rye. Knowing that, and that my egg nog recipe was handed down through my family (my mother’s side) and that my family roots go back to before the American Revolution, and that they lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it all started to make more sense of the recipe.

Before the Revolution egg nog was usually made with rum; the best rum was from Jamaica. There were other choices for rum. There was rum from other Caribbean islands and becoming more prevalent was rum made of imported molasses and distilled in the American Colonies. But all of that was trash compared to the rum from Jamaica and anyone with money made their egg nog with Jamaican rum. My family owned property and had money and no doubt made their nog with Jamaican rum.

So why then would the recipe in my hand call for one third of the liquid to be Whiskey and only one tiny ounce of rum to be added, specifically Jamaican rum? Well in my culinary-historical exploration I found that an imported rum embargo was established by the British Naval blockade from the beginning of the war. Local made rum soon disappeared too when the molasses became scarce.

So how was a well-to-do family to make the traditional Christmas Egg Nog without Jamaican rum? Whiskey, that’s how. They would substitute whiskey for rum. But if there was no rum in the mix, technically it wasn’t a nog. The word nog deriving from grog, a British Navel slang for any drink being of or containing rum. So if there was even one ounce of rum in the punch bowl it could be called, in good conscience, egg nog.

So that explains the one ounce of rum but why so emphatic with the origin of the rum and not so much as a mention of the type of the whiskey, which at this point makes up a third of the batch? Well as mentioned before, with rum, there were choices; with whiskey there were none. Back at the time that rum became in short supply there was no Bourbon or Canadian or Tennessee Whiskey. There was only whiskey, and in America, whiskey was Rye!

At some point in my annual rotation through different whiskeys trying to find the best for the mix I stumbled upon a local Maryland brand. Well not really, it used to be local back in the 70’s but then it was bought up and the recipe moved to Kentucky and is now made there. But it still touts the claim “Maryland Recipe”. It was Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey, “The Aristocrat of Straight Whiskeys”,(or so the bottle says).

It was cheap, back then before the whiskey boom it was $9.00 for a plastic bottle. I think the price as much as anything else enticed me to give it a try. I mixed it up that year, same as always, tipping the bottle a few more times, mimicking the motion my Grandmother did with the invisible bottle years before. I didn’t expect anything better than any other year.

SONY DSCI brought it in to the party, poured it into the handed-down punch bowl, whipped the whites and added them to the batch and dashed it with nutmeg. Everyone relished in the presentation of the grand punch bowl full of The Christmas Egg Nog surrounded by matching glasses. As always, I would present the first glass to the matriarch (or patriarch) of the family. Mimi always had a smile when she received the opening shot. She always had something approving to say as everyone looked on. I remember her taking a sip one year and looking me straight in the eyes, raising both eyebrows just a little and giving a couple quick, mini nods as she said “that’s good”. At which point everyone’s glass was charged and the Christmas celebration continued on.

On this particular year, the year I stumbled on the rye, I expected no different. I mixed it up to specifications, mixed the whites at the latest’s moment and served it up to the senior member of the family as all watched. Mimi took her first sip and exclaimed “that’s the way it’s supposed to taste!!”

The glasses served, everyone was happy and I was ecstatic. Looking back I think that was the first truly honest opinion of the nog I received. I mean, I think she liked each annual batch but the way she said “that’s the way it’s supposed to taste!” was almost as if whatever polite and encouraging comment she had mentally prepared to offer was instantly forgotten and a childlike blurt belted out of her mouth.

Perhaps the memories of old Christmas’ prior attached to something in that year’s mix of egg nog brought forth a level of excitement that could not be contained. All I know is that this was the first time that I used Rye. And I’m certain that Rye was the whiskey that was used in the mix from the onset of the Revolutionary war until the last distillery left Maryland in the 70’s.

Egg Nog FamilyAnd so the glasses were poured and the bowl was dispatched quickly that year. And that was the last year I searched for a new whiskey for the Christmas Egg Nog.

Historically there are a lot of different ideas on the origin of the drink and even more about the origin of the name. Depending on what you read, the drink is believed to derive from the Whisky Flip, or the Syllabub or German Biersuppe. Some think that egg nog and all of the rest of these drinks evolved from the 14th century drink Posset.

Arguments for the name include the fact that an old name for a small wooden cup from which it was drunk was noggin or nog, which also came to be a slang word for strong ale and which name was also used by the Navy for rum or anything with rum in it.

No one is really sure of any of that. What we do know is that once the variations of all of these recipes and influences came to the American Colonies, sometime in the 18th century there was a collision of an abundance of cows, chickens, rum, occasional cold weather, and people that like to drink booze. That’s all it took and it was called Egg Nog, (not Eggnog).

George Washington hand wrote his recipe and it included brandy, sherry, rye, and Jamaican rum. His recipe was most likely from before the British blockade and he was rich enough to buy those hard to get black market libations even after the war. The rest of the newly forming United States were not so fortunate and had to find a substitute for the imported liquors.

Whiskey was the natural answer. My family’s recipe would be one of those recipes to benefit from the new world’s great spirit rye whiskey; which at that time was un-aged. By the time my Grandfather got the recipe the whiskey would have been an aged Maryland rye. The flavor imparted from the American oak barrel becoming an integral part of the spice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACurious how the egg nog would have tasted with un-aged rye I decided to do an experiment. I selected a craft un-aged rye whisky, one that I really like to sip neat. The brand was Catoctin Creek and they call their un-aged rye Mosby’s Spirit. It’s made in Virginia so that also helped with the geographic authenticity in trying to recreate the old recipe. Mosby’s Spirit is a premium, organic, 100% rye whiskey. It is surprisingly smooth and light and a bit fruity. It’s a real treat to drink by itself or in a cocktail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have to admit that I thought that I might be dusting off the Rosetta Stone of historical egg nog recipes when I began to gather the ingredients for this batch. I thought that by remarrying an un-aged straight organic rye I would be recreating, perhaps for the first time in over a century, the actual drink that our forefathers drank during and after the American Revolution. And in fact I think I actually did just that… but I didn’t like it. The delicate organic rye was a bit too smooth and became lost in the mix. The oaky flavor that had been present at one level or another in all of the other whiskies that I’ve used over the years or sampled in the family egg nog was just not there. Even if this was how my American ancestors drank it, the family has come to expect something a little different over the last century of whiskey ageing.

Not to be defeated I immediately set off to make another batch a day later. This time I used Mosby’s older sister, Roundstone Rye. This is the exact spirit as the Mosby’s only aged around a year and a half or so in the American Oak. Much better! My wife, Father in Law and house guests were becoming connoisseurs by now on different variations of egg nog. They had been drinking the Pikesville Rye versions at Christmas for years now and all agreed the un-aged version lacked something. The aged Roundstone Rye was a step up and was really smooth. Really smooth! Maybe too smooth? My wife loved it and my father in Law was complimenting it as fast as he could suck it down but to me there was something lacking and when I pressed they both acknowledge there was something missing.

So the next night I gathered all the parts needed and made yet another batch, this time with the Pikesville Rye. We haven’t had this version since Christmas the year before and I was curious just how much difference there was actually going to be. Once I put it all together and served up the samples the truth came forth. “That’s the way it’s supposed to taste!”

The Pikesville Rye as a whiskey can’t hold a candle to the craft made Roundstone Rye. But as an ingredient that is to be mixed and coated in cream and sugar the Roundstone lacked that little wicked edge that the cheep Pikesville Supreme had and needed to maintain its proper place in the drink.

I was satisfied. I was back to the recipe that my late Grandmother Mimi validated over a decade and a half ago. It continues on and the Christmas Egg Nog will be handed down to the next person in our family that steps forward to claim the responsibility.

Two hundred years from now, on Christmas day, my family will gather around a punch bowl of milk, cream, sugar, whiskey and a bit of rum to share in warm fellowship and laughter and in the making of cherished memories in the same fashion that my family did two hundred years ago, and as we will do this season.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMerry Christmas


The Wrightson Family Egg Nog Recipe

Mimi's Hand Writen Recipe xxHere you can see the original recipe as written by Mimi. I have doubled the recipe below as that is what you will want to make to fill a punch bowl and I expanded the directions for those not so experienced in the kitchen. I also converted the measurement to meet modern packaging. But trust me it’s the same recipe. If you don’t believe me you can follow Mimi’s hand written note.

One thing about egg nog is that the liquid part with the yolks must be made the day prior to when you want to serve it. Trust me; it’s noticeably better after spending a night in the fridge. George Washington’s recipe says to let it stand in a cool place for several days. I think the fridge overnight is good.

If you’re concerned with the thought of salmonella in your egg nog read what I wrote about it in Egg Nog, Is It Safe, at the bottom of this page. So mix the liquid the day before but the egg whites must be whipped up the day you serve it.

What you need:

  • 12 eggs
  • 4 pints Half and Half (it’s half cream and half milk, premixed for your egg nog convenience)
  • 2 pints Pikesville Supreme Rye Straight Rye Whiskey (experiment with different ryes if you want, it’s your egg nog)
  • 2 oz. Jamaican Rum (I like Appleton)
  • 1 ½ cup cane sugar
  • Ground Nutmeg 1 tsb.

Step 1. Separate the yolks and the whites of the eggs. Put the whites in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight. (Check out this video for the easiest way in the world to separate eggs: http://www.flixxy.com/how-to-separate-eggs-using-a-plastic-bottle.htm )

Step 2. In a large mixing bowl mix the yolks, Half and Half, whiskey, rum, and 1 cup of sugar. Using your mixer, blend these ingredients for at least 5 minutes or longer. While it’s mixing add one dash of nutmeg (most of the nutmeg is for the whites, don’t put more than a dash in the drink)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 3. Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer into a glass bowl or clean jugs. This will remove any of the yolk that is still in a yolky semi solid state, an optional step that the “squeamish of drinking raw egg folks” will appreciate. Cover or seal with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge overnight.

Step 4. (The next day) I usually do this step at my house just before I get ready to leave for the party. Once I get to the party I scoop out the whites and the’re good to go for the rest of the party or for as long as the egg nog lasts. In a very clean mixing bowl with very clean beaters begin mixing the whites. In a few minutes they will begin to turn opaque and thicken. Gradually speed up the mixer speed. Add in ½ cup of sugar. Continue to increase the mixer speed as fast as it will let you without the whites being splashed out of the bowl.

Pretty soon you should be running at full speed. Once the whites really start to get thick stop the mixer once and mix the bowl around scraping the bottom of the bowl with a spatula to get all of the still liquid whites off the bottom and into the fluffy mix. Put it back under the mixer again at full speed for a few more minutes until the beater is making a cool looking and very detailed pattern on the top of the whites.

Stop the mixer and scoop up some of the meringue on the spatula, it should be pretty stiff. Transfer the egg white meringue to a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap to travel to the party. If you’re having the festivities at your house and you’re ready to put it in the punch bowl then just leave it in the mixing bowl for now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 5. Once you’re ready to serve it, pore the liquid mix into the punch bowl. Be careful, it will want to splash out onto your tablecloth. Then scoop the whites in large spoonfuls onto the top of the drink completely covering the top of the liquid with golf ball to tennis ball sized scoops of the stiff meringue.

Step 6. Dust the ground nutmeg all over the top of the egg nog.

Serve the first ceremonial glass to the Patriarch or Matriarch of the family that is present. Enjoy!


Egg Nog, Is It Safe?

If you are among the group that is only mildly curious about the risk of Salmonella (SE) in your egg nog and are going to drink it regardless of what me or anybody else says about the risk I say “Bravo, drink on!” For you I will summarize the rest of the evidence that I have read .

First let’s note that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of an egg contaminated with SE is 1 in 20,000. So the chance of introducing SE into the egg nog by a contaminated egg is pretty low. Furthermore, SE cannot grow in temperatures below 40F and that it also cannot grow in the presence of Alcohol (EtOH).

So if the SE is not there in the egg nog already it won’t just “spring up” in the fridge. And more over, the longer SE is in the egg nog and exposed to the alcohol the less SE there will be until eventually it is absolutely sterile of SE, in about 4 to 5 days. So it’s actually safer to make your egg nog ahead of time.
Now, if you are one of those people that will state that there is still “some” risk of Salmonella in anything that contains raw egg. To that I say, have you ever licked the beater after someone mixed up a cake or a batch of cookies? There is a greater risk of SE poisoning from raw cookie dough than egg nog since there is no sterilizing benefit of the alcohol present in the cake batter or cookie dough. Oh you don’t eat raw cookie dough you say smugly? Well how about French toast, which is almost never cooked enough to harden the egg that is soaked into the inside of the bread, and I could go on.

But if you still don’t want to “risk it” and want to ruin it for the rest of the family at the Christmas party see the CDC link at the bottom, point #4, to get all the ammo you need.
And one final note. If drinking homemade egg nog was such a risk we would see a rise in Salmonella related illnesses during the holidays and according to the CDC there is no such evidence. In fact there are more reported Salmonella cases in summer months than around the holidays.
So buy good fresh eggs. Use good kitchen safety practices. Let the nog sit in the fridge at least overnight or longer and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. (And if you do get sick please blame it on the cookie dough.)

  • Here is a video from NPR about a scientific experiment where the researchers tested store bought eggnog, homemade egg nog, and also added Salmonella into both to see what happens: http://www.npr.org/2008/12/19/98499891/more-evidence-that-eggnog-goes-better-with-booze
  • This link further explains the results from the experiment conducted by a Rockefeller University Professor on egg nog:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081227223340.htm
  • In the interest of total disclosure, here is what the CDC says about egg/ Salmonella safety: http://www.cdc.gov/features/salmonellaeggs

 

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Wood, Fire, Ola Dubh

I recently picked up a bottle of Harviestoun Ola Dubh Ale. I’m not much of a beer guy so I only bought one bottle to try but I was really looking forward to this one. I first heard about it a few years ago when I was doing the research for a blind whiskey tasting using all Highland Park whiskeys.

While I was scouring the internet for information about the Highland Park I came across a link to the Harviestoun Ale web page. I learned that Harviestoun makes a pretty damn good beer and then ages it in Highland Park whisky casks. And what’s more is that they differentiate between the different whisky cask ages in the beers.
Back then they weren’t importing it into the U.S., but now they are. So I bought a bottle of the 16 year Special Reserve; that is, this beer is aged in the casks that housed the Highland Park 16 year whisky. I leaned towards that one because the 16 year whisky is still not available in the States. With my bottle of beer in the fridge I just needed to wait for the perfect time to try it.

Now, a week later, Saturday, cold and sunny. The kind of day where you put on a jacket to go out and work in the yard but before long you have to shed it in a sweat. And then when the sun ducks behind a cloud you start to get a chill; a beautiful fall day. I had just received my first cord of firewood for the season and it needed to be stacked. While I was finishing that chore I thought this would be a great time for a beer. I’m thirsty and a beer sounds good.

So I went in and grabbed it out of the fridge and took it back out to the pile. I read the little booklet that hangs around the bottleneck. It began “Ola Dubh (or “Black Oil”) is so named because it is gloopy and viscous [sic]”. Not exactly what I had in mind to quench my thirst. Maybe I’ll have a bottle of water and save the Black Oil for a little later.

Evening now with a fire lit in the fireplace. Now I’m in the mood for a substantial ale like this one. I get the bottle opener and a glass, stoke the fire once more and settle into the soft wing chair to finally taste the Ola Dubh.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI open the top and surprisingly don’t get much of a pop. It’s not super-fizzy like the mass-produced American beers. Much smoother, I could tell just by the sound of it pouring into the glass. No head at all save a few brown bubbles that float up and cling to the edge. Black Oil was not an over-reach by the sight; this ale is as black as any I’ve seen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt has an aroma of cocoa. I think the lack of foam on top only helps to emit more nuances to the olfactory as I take my first sip. Creamy mouth feel with only the slightest fizz. It’s bitter on the back of my tongue. I take a big swig and swish it all around in my mouth and swallow. This is one hearty beer!

After sipping for a while I really try to get inside of it. I can’t taste the whisky like I was hoping I might be able to, but I can taste the oak! It has a dark tannin on the front end of the finish and then slides away into a vanishing sweetness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI decide to add a snack, smoked almonds. The naturally sweet flavor of almonds with salty smoke mixes with this ale and really changes the dynamics. I’m surprised that it really brought out the nuttiness of the beer? It tastes like Brazilian nuts with the skin on.

This may not be the beer to quench your thirst half way through a tough job, but this is an excellent ale to saver with the satisfaction of a job complete.

Harviestoun Ola Dub
Special Reserve 16
Bottle Number 65757, July 2011
Link to Harviestoun web site-

http://www.harviestoun.com/OlaDubh

The Perfect Murm

Most Zulu Whisky Club members admit we live in a flawed world. The good guys don’t always win. Despite our status as world travelers, we still have to work, we don’t get together enough and we each have our individual idiosyncrasies!

But on one night, arguably the most flawed member, was perfect. “The Perfect Murm” was a featured cocktail at the second Zulu Whisky Dinner hosted by Tarzan and Jane. Connaisseurs may differ about whether bourbon or rye makes the best Manhattan. One ZWCer proposes that a man can be judged by the whisky he prefers in this libation of historic significance. I think a decision can be rendered, codified and signed into law. The Perfect Murm is a Manhattan made with rye! CRS chose supporting elements of uncompromising quality to create this drink. Any future host should consider this when attempting to approach the high bar set by the evening’s host.

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First, the rye. Less astute drink makers may choose bourbon for their receipe. But bourbon brings sweetness to the drink that conflicts with the other ingredients. Conversely, the peppery spiciness of rye creates the opportunity to showcase the supporting elements. Next, the double marachino cherries. When Tarzan first showed me the drink, I thought he had made some jungle martini concoction featuring skewered black olives. The Luxardo cherries were that dark with flavor!

Truthfully, the first flavor that greeted my tastebuds was the cerise noire! To achieve perfection a special vermouth was chosen. Carpano Antica is an Italian vermouth that can be enjoyed on its own as an aperitif. However the notes of licorice, herbs, cocoa and cinamon put the perfect in perfection. The potpourri of flavor complemented instead of competed with the whisky. Sweet and spicy was balanced with a dash of Perchad’s bitters. Finally, the twisted orange rind set up the nuanced fruitiness of the Whistle Pig.

Reasonable men may disagree and even continue to debate. For me, rye makes the “Perfect Murmhattan” and is the cocktail for me!

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Perfect Murm Manhattan

  • 2 jiggers Whistle Pig Rye (10 yr)
  • 2 jiggers Carpano Antica Formula
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 1 skewered orange twist with Luxardo cherries
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Rye Twins

With a break in all the Christmas celebrating and entertaining, I finally found the opportunity to open the seal on the two bottles of Woodford Reserve Rye that I received for Christmas. It’s snowing outside this afternoon and the rest of the family is all on the couch watching a Christmas movie. So with one hand I grabbed the two bottles by the necks and with the other hand a Rocky Patel and my cigar lighter and went out to the front porch. It’s actually not too cold today and the snow, for as fast as it’s coming down, is only sticking to the grass and the top of the parked cars. It really makes the scenery across the front lawn and the houses and trees beyond look nice.

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For those unfamiliar with these whiskeys they are Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rare Rye Selection. This is their 2011 Master’s Collection release, a rye that I am just now getting around to. And It’s not just one rye but actually two expressions, side by side; twins. These are two 375ml bottles, packaged together and containing the same distilled 100% rye whiskey. These two ryes however, differ by maturation, one is aged in first use barrels (like bourbon) and the other is aged in previously used bourbon barrels (like a scotch would be).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABoth are rye to their fullest. Both have that slow… smooth… peppery burn that slowly sinks into the back of your tongue and the top of the back of your mouth. Born in pot stills and triple distilled, the craftsmanship is evident. Both worthy of reflection. Both great whiskeys. Their names are New Cask Rye and Aged Cask Rye. And their differences are immense.

Aged Cask Rye, ironically, seems the younger of the twins. No age statement is given for these two but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m pretty sure that they are aged the same length of time. I’m also going out on a stretch and say that the aging probably stopped and the whiskeys bottled when New Cask Rye was ready, whether Aged Cask was at his peak or not. And I’m also going to state only my own opinion that the proud parents, who are makers of wonderful American Bourbon (aged in new casks), are a little giddy to show how a whiskey demonstrates so much more flavor with a short time in a new barrel than the same duration in a barrel previously used.

So how exactly is it that these twins, identical from birth, are so different now? Each was sent to fine but very different finishing schools.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

New Cask Rye was enrolled in the School of First Fill American Oak. There he received the greatest benefit from the charred barrel teachers in the study of the Arts. Those talented young staves instructed him and inspired him in their wealth of colors and flavors and very soon turned this child of a whiskey into an earth shattering rock-and-roll dynamo prodigy with flavors well beyond his years. New Cask Rye is perfect and complete. I think he was watched and spoiled and given every benefit of the upper class Woodford Estates neighborhood and when it was his time for the coming out party the date was set.

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The other son, Aged Cask, went off to his university, a more stoic institution, The Academy of Second Fill American Oak. Under the tutelage of Second Fill American Oak professors, he was afforded the benefit of their years of practical and worldly experience as they slowly and deliberately brought him along in the ways of a mature, complete master. He was no doubt top of his sophomore class and he demonstrated absolute potential for his PHD in due time. Unfortunately his time was to be cut short.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAged Cask, the quieter and intellectually deeper of the twins needed more time to develop. He’s the late bloomer, maybe a little more awkward and nerdy in his youth and he was dragged along with his brother to be bottled before his prime. Given his own time to develop, Aged Cask could have been a world renowned rye whiskey.

Unfair? Perhaps. But their Woodford Reserve Bourbon parents were too eager to demonstrate to the world the qualities of a first fill barrel by showing off their exceptionally mature acting, Prom King son and not even notice that the other quieter twin is slowly developing into a fine whiskey in his own right; just needing more time.

For us it’s a great opportunity to see the difference the barrel makes. With all the possible variations that can go into the making of a whiskey it’s a rare opportunity to be able to reduce the differences down to just one or two variables and compare whiskeys at a level that only Distillery Masters usually can. If you have the opportunity do have a conversation with these two, you can learn a lot from either one of them and even more from them both.

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Puntacana, A Whiskey-Man’s Rum

Tonight I’m drinking alone. Sounds pathetic doesn’t it. Actually I have been looking forward to this for a few days now. For almost a week I have been sitting on a bottle of Puntacana Club Tesoro Rum that I picked up in the Dominican Republic and managed to get home.

Since the Zulu Whiskey Club did the rum tasting in Puerto Rico a month ago I have developed a taste and respect for rum. But not until I saw this bottle have I ever been excited to try a rum. The reason? This rum has been aged in whisky barrels. No, I did not miss-spell the word whisky, there’s no E in it. This rum has been aged not in Bourbon barrels but in scotch whisky casks and not just any scotch but Tomatin!

The thing that is so endearing of rum to me is the sweetness. Sometimes I just get a sweet-tooth and feel like something sweet like a Manhattan or a good rum. The sacrifice that usually goes along with that is that the rums I have tried are fairly one dimensional. Not that the dimension they present isn’t great its just that, what ya get is what ya get. There’s not much change or depth or cause to contemplate it beyond the initial sip. You take a sniff, take a sip, and relish in the wonderful sweetness of the cane or molasses. And then that’s it. You go on to relive that enjoyable experience over and over again with each sip like the movie Ground Hog Day.

A good whiskey is a different experience all together. The smell alone takes time. Hints of this or that. Nuances and memories of … its on the tip of my tongue…oh man I can smell it… I just cant put my finger on it… burnt marshh…no… its… And that’s just the smell. The taste takes glasses to completely unravel. The finish possibly something completely different.

That’s what we like about a good whiskey. So, does this single malt cask aged rum bring anything more to the glass than that of any other conventionally aged rum? I want to know, for days now. So I rent a cartoon movie on the TV for the kid, some prehistoric thing with a woolly mammoth that sounds like the guy from Everybody Loves Raymond. The wife is happily occupied doing her thing and I enter the lair. Close the door… slowly… slowly, the kid has a sixth sense for when my whiskey room door closes. Close it all the way and slowly release the spring tension on the door knob. I listen… he’s still watching the movie. I’m in the clear.

I turn to the bottle of Puntacana that I poker-face lied my way through customs with. I take one picture before I break the seal and then get ready to try some Puntacana. I open the bottle and pour some into a snifter. The smell hits me even before I’m ready to make my first assessment. The sweet smell of rum; Very molasses. Cool, I like the molassesy rums more then the cane smelling ones. I stick my nose into the glass. Whisky! I smell whisky! The next smell is rum again. It reminds me of the smell you get standing near a cotton-candy machine at the fair. Under it all is a whisky malty nuttiness.

The door knob turns…its just my wife..the whole night could have been ruined but its just her, the kid is still into his movie. She asks “what are you drinking”? “Rum that has been aged in scotch whisky barrels” I say with a gleaming smile on my face! She says “that’s nice honey” or something patronizing like that and leaves. She thinks I’m silly.

Alone again. This rum has a bite to it, in a good way. Its not all smooth and syrupy like other rums. It has a little whisky pinch in there. Its as if someone mixed rum and whisky together, and it worked! The finish is developing now between sips. Its white vanilla icing. Don’t get me wrong, this is rum, all rum. But it does have nuances worthy of reflection like a whisky. It develops. It has a unique finish and it shifts back into the attack at the next sip. I’m no rum expert but I think this may be the perfect rum for the whiskey-drinking Man!

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One Last Taste of Rum

One last trip to the islands for the season, I’ve been here quite a bit this year. While I’m here my friends want me to do a tasting for them. These aren’t whiskey guys but they’re always hearing me talk about the whiskey tastings I’ve done or been to with the Zulu Whisky Club. Most at some point have expressed they would like to check one out even though they kid me about my geekieness on the topic. So I thought I would put together an impromptu tasting. The problem is that there is just not that good of a selection of whiskey in these parts of the sea; Rum is the drink down here.

So I’ll do another rum tasting. I helped put together the ZWC Rum Tasting in Puerto Rico earlier this year and I thought I could do something that everybody would like. I went to the Supermarcado and looked over the selection. They had a great rum selection! I wanted to get five or so that spanned from averaged price to an ultra-deluxe.

I got the rums and I looked for a place to hold the event, maybe a boardroom. I talked to one of the hotel staff. I told him that I wanted to have a rum tasting and that all I would need is some snifters and a pitcher of water. At that point the suggestions started coming in. Before we were done I was talking with the Hotel Senior Sales Manager, the staff at the Ambassador Club Level and the Banquets folks.

As the conversation went, the ideas started flying. Everyone was excited about the idea of a rum tasting and before we were done the event was out of the claustrophobic boardroom and onto the main patio, out front with the best view of the sea to the south and the sunset to the west.

We were to have two attendants, one to tend to the pouring of the drinks and the other to Captain the table. I was asked to provide the list of rums I had picked for the event and the hotel head chef paired tapas with each one.
The parings:

  • Ron Zacapa Solera 23 – Ceviche marinated with lemon and orange, mango pinton and dressing of orange
  • Ron Barcelo Imperial – Gouda Cheese with olives, turkey ham and a sour cream dressing with passion fruit
  • Ron Brugal 1888 Edicion Especial – Beef Carpaccio with grapefruit dressing over arucula and pesto manchego cheese
  • Opthimus Extra Premium XO – Lamb Carret marinated with fine herbs over potatoes brava and red pepper
  • Punta Cana Club Tesoro – Duck wrapped in ham and cheese with aloe and honey with black risotto

You can imagine my excitement when I saw what the chef had in mind for us. And when I met with the guys setting up for the event on the patio that afternoon I knew it was going to be a much more extravagant affair then I had originally intended. But somehow that’s how these things always work out. It starts with a humble idea for sharing a dram or an impromptu tasting and soon the enthusiasm becomes contagious and everyone that has something to add gets excited and jumps in with both feet.

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Just after sunset the gang started to converge on the deck. Everyone was delighted and impressed with the setting. We sat around the table and the Zacapa was poured. This was a great rum to start the night out with. It’s sweet and smooth. We were drinking neat and adding a few drops of water. Just as everyone was settling into the flavor the ceviche was served.

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The sweet citrus of the lemon, orange, and mango set off the smooth molasses of the rum. What a combination! And what a show opener! Even those among us that were new to this kind of tasting could plainly see how these two complimented each other.

We finished indulging in the first pair and then the Barcelo was poured. With it came the Cheese and olives. I loved the fact that I could hear conversations about the flavor nuances of the rum from the far end of the table in groups of two or three. And these are the same guys that kid me when I start talking about whiskey. Now they were embracing the spirit of the evening full force and really getting into it.

And getting into it wasn’t too hard to do. The third pour was the Brugal 1888 Edicion Limitada. This was a bottle that is not too easy to find, even in this part of the globe. This one had a smooth and complex flavor. Not as sweet as the first two but much more to taste. Caramel, coffee, and defiantly a touch of coconut. Partnered with that was the beef carpacieo and a pesto mancho cheese; a complex match for this complex rum.

Everyone was enjoying the breeze that was coming in off the ocean and the temperature was perfect. We have been here for days now and some of the evenings have been miserable with the heat and humidity, but not this night. This night was one of those nights that are made to sit outside and smoke a cigar with good liquor.

Next in the lineup was the Opthimus but I told our Table Captain to wait before serving that rum, I had a surprise. One of my local friends had given me a Cuban rum the night before, it was a last minute add-in. It was Havana Club and by the time a got it the food parings were already set up and besides I doubted the quality of this rum compared to the rest of the lineup. Still, a rum from Cuba seemed like a novelty and although I didn’t want to break the embargo it was already bought and paid for. So I figured I would expose it for what it was.

It was pulled out from behind the bar and poured for everyone. There definitely was an appreciation for the novelty of Cuban liquor being poured and anticipation that it would be something really special to drink. I think there was a thought that this, like a Cuban cigar, was going to be a step above the rest. I took my first sip and immediately realized I didn’t want to take a second. This rum gives new meaning to the term “Cuba Libre” I poured mine into the pine tree planter. Others did the same.

Next the Opthimus was poured. This is a rum bought and aged by Oliver and Oliver. It is one of their Ultra-deluxe and man was it smooth and sweet. And then the lamb, rich and savory. These powerful flavors fought for dominance. The Zacapa-Ceviche paring was like watching a couple figure skating together across the ice; this paring was like watching a tennis match, from the front row. Each new bit or sip took you from the far right to the extreme left and back again. After a few tastes I realized I needed to throttle these two together; kind of like black espresso and tiramisu. Not that either were not delicious alone but that by using the contrast against each other, you can get a different delicious experience.

A filling sweetness of the Opthamas would resend beneath a delicious bit of lamb. And then the lamb would give yield to the next sip of the rum. And so was this pair, one dominating indulgence after another.

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The final rum for the evening was the Punta Cana Club Tesoro, also from Oliver and Oliver. In fact, I think that this rum and the Opthamas start out the same and then the Punta Cana gets the special treatment. This Rum is aged in Tomatin Scotch Whisky barrels. I wrote about this one before in “PuntaCana, a Whiskey Man’s Rum” and was really looking forward to sharing it with my friends.

I also really wanted to see how this rum would fare following the Opthamas. With the mindset that they started out the same I wanted to explore what the whisky cask maturation really had to add. I was surprised that some of my novice collogues noticed the difference at the first sip stating it was more “Powerful” or “Complex”. It definitely had an impact. And the duck wrapped in ham was heaven.

At this point more than a few of us were ready to light up some cigars. As I had mentioned, the evening was perfect for a smoke. The breeze was slight and comfortable. Enough to keep the sweat from dripping but still let you know you were in the Caribbean. And not too much as to carry away the aromatic cloud of tobacco smoke before you could enjoy it a second and third time between puffs.
We lit up and revisited our favorite rums from the evening- our favorite stories from our past. I will miss evenings like this, rum and cigars under the Caribbean night sky. Until I sail this way again…

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Bullfrog Chicken and Virginia Rye

I have many times before tried to decide what food would pair well with a particular whiskey. Usually it’s scotch and a cheese or smoked beef or pork or even chocolate. Tonight I tried to pair the perfect whiskey with a food. This may seem a natural way to proceed. Wine enthusiast do it all the time, they pick the perfect wine, from a list of hundreds, based on what they have already decided to eat. For me it has always been the other way around. I have always had the perfect whiskey decided upon. Then I think, “What food would go good with this?” So it was a different task for me tonight to pick the dram for the ham.

Okay, it wasn’t ham that I was having, but chicken doesn’t rhyme with dram. I had a farm fresh chicken in the fridge that I intended to do up on the grill. I have a way that I like to do chicken on the grill called Bullfrog Chicken. It’s awesome; everybody I do it for loves it. I will never do a whole chicken on the grill any other way.

So I knew what I was going to do with this chicken, now I wanted to decide what would be the perfect whiskey to go with it. Or at least what would be perfect one from my collection. While I’m thinking about that I fire up the grill. I like to use some briquettes and a lot of real hickory wood, not hickory charcoal but hickory wood. I put it on top of the charcoal in the chimney lighters and start it all together. The briquettes give me the consistency in heat and the wood gives me the flavor.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In all the tastings and whiskey events that I’ve done I have never served chicken. It never really seemed the match to the whiskeys that I’ve served, mostly scotch. I have always done smoked beef or pork or sausage or even lamb; meats that are more savory than chicken. So when I thought about a whiskey to complement chicken, nothing really came to mind. I thought a smoky Islay and smoked chicken would just mush together. And a highland scotch would lose its delicate nuances under a mouthful of hickory smoke. And so my analysis went as I thought through my inventory. Then I spied a whiskey that was fairly new in my collection. It was Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye. I bought it a few months ago when I saw it on the shelf, a whiskey from Virginia, I had to try it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow I get the chicken together. I use a method called “Bullfrog-ing the chicken.” I read how to do it in a magazine.  You basically cut the ribcage along the side of the breast meat and unfold the chicken until the breast side in on the same side as the thigh side. It looks like a giant bullfrog when you’re done. Then I hit it with some olive oil, salt, paprika, and pepper. The chicken is ready for the heat.

The way I like to grill is pretty Mid Atlantic style; direct heat and lots of smoke. In Maryland we like our pit beef and that’s how we do it, over hot coals of real wood. So even though I got the butchering technique out of a magazine and I think it was from one of the Caribbean islands, the cooking technique was East Coast. So a Virginia whiskey already seemed to fit. I had only had a few sips from this bottle before, barely knocking the neck out of it, but I remember that it had rye boldness to it, but with a subtle caramel tone and a rolling spiciness. It’s not smoky so the hickory from the grill can speak and it has a slight citrusy fragrance under the spice and rye that I think might work with poultry. So it’s on!

Next I set the coals up on the grill. It’s a good day for this kind of grilling. It’s just barely raining, not so bad that you don’t want to venture out but enough that you don’t want to grill something that you have to babysit the whole time it’s cooking. A whole chicken gets lots of alone time with the smoke so I can come out once in a while and check on it.

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The grill looks ready so I grab the frog by his back feet and swing him forward up off of the platter, flinging olive oil in the process, letting him swing up and then down in front of my waist once and then back up towards the sky to plop down on the hot grate. He sizzles and the oil flares up the coals into an inferno. That’s what you want, but just for a moment. Let the hickory embers get one last breath of fresh air, turning orange red before I bring down the lid with the vent half closed. The embers then choke out huge gulps of thick gray smoke and pull their heat back to the right temperature. So much smoke that it forces its way out of the crack separating the lid from the kettle bowl. (Check out the Smoke)

Now I can turn my focus back to the whiskey. I go inside and grab a glass and the bottle. I decide to take it back out to the grill. I want to taste this one out there with the smells of the now sizzling chicken fat and paprika and hickory smoke. As I walk over I take a deep breath. There is a huge flowering cherry tree that usually shades my outdoor kitchen area and it’s a day past its full glory. The pedals are beginning to fall in this afternoons rain and the fragrance is strong even in this drizzle. The sweet smelling blossoms blend with the savory smoke from the grill and it smells great. Not a very good place to conduct an objective tasting of a whiskey but the perfect environment to mix the smells together and create an experience.

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I open and pour. The spicy smell of the rye to me fits into the savory smell of salted frying fat and smoke and the flowering cherry blossoms like three final pieces of a puzzle. This is going to be good.

I take a sip and it IS good. Better than I remember. I think this whiskey is growing on me. The first time I tasted the Roundstone Rye I was a little surprised. It tasted a little more smooth than I was used to in a rye. It has a mellow, sweet flavor that was new to me and now that I’m having my third glass I’m starting to get a jag for it. And I’m starting to think I made the right choice to pair with my frog.

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The smoke is drifting into my face and the pedals are dropping here and there, on my head and into my glass. The rain has almost stopped and it’s great to just hang out here by the grill. I spend some time enjoying the moment. I have another glass and go in to get the thermometer. Check the chicken, almost; another ten minutes. Another glass. The peppery spice is starting to sink into my tongue and the top of my mouth. I check the temp again, it’s ready. I grab the frog with my welder’s gloves by the legs and fling him up off the grill, let him swing down once and then back up onto the platter ever so softly. (I did this move once a time before and one of the charred legs snapped and I almost lost the whole thing).

I take him inside, let him sit for a couple of minutes and then give him a slice. It’s perfect inside; it always is, I’m telling you this is the way to grill a chicken! I steal a piece, a piece with some seasoned skin, close to the surface with lots of smoke and a nice swag of white meat underneath. I pop it in my mouth and chew it once or twice. I pour in some Rounstone and chew it up together. The saltiness and the smoke and the sweetness and the spicy… it all goes so well together! I carve some more, bite and sip, bite and sip. So this is it. This is the match; the pairing for chicken. Hickory smoked, grilled Bullfrog Chicken with Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye.

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The Mofongo Select Oak

I’m in the Caribbean again, this time it’s the Dominican Republic.  I’m looking out over my balcony at the ocean watching the freight ships slowly parallel the coast line.  Below me on the edge of the beach is an open air restaurant that serves up mofongo.  I’ve traveled the Caribbean often enough but until last night I had never tried mofongo.

Last night as we walked into that restaurant, the Caribbean breeze felt great compared to the weather in New York from the day before.  The steady flow of air snaked around as it crept in from the south pushing before it smells from the different angles of its approach.  The winding breeze shifted around and carried the smell of the ocean then instantly changed to the spices from the diners tables then back to the sea, then shifted to bring in that stinky smell from the pier nearby, then the culinary spices again and sea and spice and stink.  And the occasional waft of burnt plastic, the universal smell of developing countries like the Dominican Republic, Panama, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and all the other places a soldier would have traveled to in the last twenty plus years. To me it smelled like home and brought back memories of friends and places I no longer see.

MofongoThe cooks were smashing the plantain into a pasty pulp behind the bar as we were moving to our table.  We ordered a round of Presidentes and our entrees.  Something made me feel adventurous and I got the mofongo with Dominican sausage.  It came piled high in a wooden mortar with the sausage and bean soup on the side.  I mixed it all together on my plate, but like the smells of Hispaniola, the flavors didn’t mix but rather played off of each other remaining independent and creating new flavors between them. It was delicious.

Tonight we went to the old Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo and had dinner at a table on a cobblestone street. We then smoked hand rolled cigars that we purchased at a shop on the walk to the restaurant.  The cigars were mild and smoked long.  I smoked them with Jed and Mac, two of the greatest guys I’ve ever met and we laughed at old stories of Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic and other places we had been to together over the years.

colonial-zoneThe cigars were great in the open night to the point that a diner at a nearby table commented.  He said he was coerced into quitting the big smokes years ago by his wife and now only smokes cigarillos, small cigarette sized cigars with a filter. He produced an open pack of these diluted excuse for the indulgence we were reveling in as if to prove he was telling the truth.   He said our aroma that shifted in on the breeze to his table reminded him of days when he used to smoke Churchill’s and Lonsdale’s.  His wife looked on un-approvingly.

Now it’s 3 A.M. and I’m back at my balcony, the sliding door wide and the smell of burnt plastic reaching me at the tenth floor. I pour Macallan Select Oak that I bought in the Duty Free at the airport into a Glencairn glass that I always travel with.  I say glass because that’s what it is; not one of the nice crystal Glencairn glasses that the Zulu Whisky Club has at its tastings but rather a freebie that I got from attending the Whiskey Live. This glass is chunky in your hand and is much more durable and travel worthy.  I think it does the same justice to the spirit.

Out past the beach the freighters now rest at anchor. I pour again. The wood in this glass is pungent. There is a lot of wood in this glass and it gives me an image of the soggy wood from the inside of the casks that housed this whiskey for years and how those staves would be stinky like the pier if it were not for the preserving qualities of the spirit that sloshed inside.  Sitting here on the balcony the whisky smells like wood and vanilla and sherry and burnt plastic and Caribbean breeze and wood again.

Christina Agularia playing from the tinny-sounding laptop speakers and the sound of a commercial air-conditioner on the adjacent roof establish the din.  I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the cafe con leche I had hours ago or maybe it’s the malaria pill I took this morning.  The sound of a dog’s bark to the north and the growl of an isolated truck downshifting on the road to the south, the sounds bounce off the buildings like the flavors of the whisky; blending together to make new sounds and flavors without losing their own identities.  The wood and spice and vanilla and the dog’s bark and the burnt plastic and the music that’s playing on the laptop, the air conditioner and the freighter’s light reflecting across the ocean and memories of old campaigns become the experience.

I pour again. There’s no way I’m going to be on time tomorrow. This morning is March 27th, World Whiskey Day, and I’m experiencing both.

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I Don’t Know Jack, But I Know What I Like

I’m on my way towards Eastern Europe and my friend I’m traveling with says he’s going to get some Jack Daniel’s on the plane to put him to sleep. “Put you to sleep”, I say “that would just make me air sick!” He protests and says Jack is awesome. I’ve tried to bring him into the ways of good whiskey before but he just won’t have it. He’s too A.D.D to take more than 5 seconds to pay attention and taste what he’s drinking. He just gets his Jack Daniel’s and water and makes fun of me for spending time and money on good booze. The Oak Barrell SSP

After a long boring flight we end up on a layover in Finland and find the closest airport bar. It’s a whiskey bar called The Oak Barrel and looks pretty cool. It has a large mock-up of a copper pot still inside and has a decent selection of single malts. He gets a beer, I get a Lagavulin. I get into a conversation with the bartenders about the whiskeys. One bartender is a local and the other is from the U.S.  In the midst of the conversation the American bartender makes reference to “the best whiskey in the world” and holds up a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I thought he was joking but he was serious.

My friend elbows me and says “see that, must be pretty good stuff”.   So we catch the plane to Estonia, find the hotel, unpack and decide to go out into the old part of town for some food and drink. Wondering down thousand plus year old alleys we find a bar, Nimeta Baar. It has three large front windows hand painted. Two of the windows are painted with the name of the bar. The other is painted with a Jack Daniel’s bottle label. My friend nods towards the window as we walk in and says “See, must be pretty good stuff”.

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Inside we all get beer. They didn’t have to good a selection of whiskey and I wasn’t getting Jack. As we’re sipping and taking it all in I glance around and then look up. Above the bar is a line of empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s. They circle around the top of the bar and the rest of the room on a small shelf near the ceiling like a freight train stalled on the tracks.

As I’m staring, almost straight up at this, mouth half open, I come to my senses and snap my head down to level. Too late, he was watching me and looked up to see what I was looking at. Seeing all the empty bottles displayed like trophy heads he elbows me and says “Must be pretty good stuff”.

I look at him; “You know what? I’m going to drink some Jack Daniel’s. I’ve been talking down about it but I haven’t drank it in years, and everybody on this side of the earth seems to think it’s some kind of imported nectar of the gods so before I leave this country I’m going to taste some Jack. And I mean really give it a fair tasting like I would a high priced bottle”. “Really” he says excited. “You want to do a shot right now”? “Hell no” I tell him, “I’m going to have to get myself mentally prepared for that”.

A week goes by and it seems every bar or restaurant we pass or go into has a sign advertising that they serve the esteemed Jack Daniel’s Whiskey. It really is considered top shelf over here, and my swill-drinking colleague won’t let me live it down. So finally, days later with the evening off, the opportunity arrives. I ascended to the Horisont Bar at the top floor of the Swiss Hotel in Tallinn, it was pretty dead but it was still early. There were a few customers here and there and the bartender was mixing a drink. I bellied up to the bar and asked for a glass of Jack Daniel’s in a snifter, a double.

At first the type of glass was lost in translation, the bartender presented a small double glass, I repeated “snifter” and pantomimed the shape of the glass with my hands. He reached up and found the right vessel and reflected the smile on my face when I saw it and nodded. I could tell he was intrigued that I was planning on tasting something special. But when I repeated my request for Jack Daniels, a double, he kind of crinkled one eye, raised the other eyebrow and tilted his head as if to say “all right, I guess, if that’s what you want”?

He measured a pour into the glass and repeated the procedure. He slid over the specimen as I dug for a pen and a piece of hotel note paper I brought for the occasion. I gave the glass a good deep smell. Nose prickle! Ouch, son-of-a-bitch-make-it-stop nose prickle! Okay, I haven’t been drinking too much whiskey lately so maybe I just need a few sniffs to settle into this one. I take another sniff, ouch, son-of-a-bitch, this burns! Okay, no problem, I’ll bring it down with some still water, like I would with a cask strength.

I add a little water and take another sniff. I can tell a few of the other guests are trying to figure out what I’m doing. The bartender asks in slightly broken English “Trying to guess what’s in it?” I try to explain that I’m giving Jack a fair test. He is not as overly optimistic as I would have expected from the enthusiasm towards Jack Daniel’s by the rest of his country. But then he has a little better selection to draw from at his back than most other bars around here. The shelf behind him has the Johnnies, Red through Blue, Royal Salute, Livet, Fiddich, Glenmorangie, Talisker, Laphroaig, The Macallans 12, 18, 21, 25… and Jack Daniel’s. Despite my selection he has figured out that I am into whiskey as I check out the dark color and also that it has some pretty thick and strong legs.

I finally take the first sip. Sweet… then burn. At first it’s smooth in the throat as a peppery burn not unlike a rye sets into my palate. Slowly the burn descends down into my throat and then it’s hot from lips to gullet. I retire from the bar stool to a cocktail table off to the side of the room. I continue to sip. After a while I get past the alcohol and can start to taste vanilla and some honey. There is a slight desirable bitter taste in there. The bar is filling up with people dressed to the nines. This is a pretty cool place overlooking the Baltic from hundreds of feet above the street.

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I finish my glass. I’m still not convinced and decide to stay strong my commitment to give this one a good, fair tasting. I order a second Jack Daniel’s double in a snifter. I take a sniff…son-of-a-bitch-nose prickle! Okay, now I know it’s not me, this is a strong alcohol smelling whiskey.

As I’m adding some water for my next sip the bartender looms in with a shadow and introduces a new snifter with a shot in it. I look up and he says “tell me what is this” and walks away. He’s challenging me! Okay, be cool, I can do this. I take a sniff and get a smooth smell of malt. I know it’s a scotch, and a nice one. My immediate association was Glenmorangie but a sip or two later the malt gets more pronounced.

Now I’m thinking Macallan. I catch myself and decide not to try to guess the distillery but try to narrow down the region and maybe the age. It smelled and tasted like a Speyside to me, and a nice one. It really tasted smooth and malty, but then after the Jack that’s not too hard to do.

I’m thinking a Speyside and something older than a 12. I start to look at the choices and my mind starts to wonder what he would give me. I no longer think it’s Glenmorangie. Maybe Macallan, (not a Speyside but a Speyside at heart, as they say). Not chocolate like the 12 and definitely not the 21 Select Oak. I take another sip and I’m really enjoying it. I know it can’t be the Mac 25 because I know he’s not giving away free shots of that. I’m thinking maybe the Mac 18. I reach back in my memories. I used to always have a bottle of the Macallan 18 on my shelf, it was one of my favorites ever since a friend gave me a bottle for helping him build a fence but I haven’t had a bottle of it for over a year.

I search back, I take a sip and close my eyes, I imagine I’m back at home in my whiskey room sipping Macallan 18; it seems right. I’m still not sure but I’m going to go for it. The bartender walks over. I tell him “Definitely a Scotch and a single malt, 18 years old, The Macallan”. He says with an accent “you got type of whiskey right and year right but wrong distillery. It is Glenlivet 18”.

Well, I failed. But I think I still impressed him if only by his watching my calibrated process, wrong as it was. I coughed up that the Jack Daniel’s numbed my taste. I really think it did. But that’s an excuse.

I take the last little bit of the Glenlivet and enjoy it and smile at the fun I had with the challenge. I look at the deep snifter of Jack sitting there staring at me and I make a face. I can’t do it. I tried, I really did, I gave it a good try but I just don’t like it.

I walk over and set the glass on the bar and announce “I can’t drink this shit”. The bartender laughs and says “That is called up-selling.” I furrow my brow and tell him to give me a Macallan 18. I introduce myself. His name is Henno.

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I could tell he really felt good about himself as he dumped the Jack down the drain and poured the expensive stuff for me.  A sniff, a sip, I’m in my memories again.

I take my glass and my water into the cigar lounge, Henno follows. He suggests a Montecristo, Open Regata. He lights it with all perfect protocol. I’m in the cigar lounge alone for the moment. It’s dark in here with black leather and ebony hardwood. The cigar is perfect, suede and coffee. A lady enters the room for a cigarette and her perfume blends.

Henno returns after a while eager to hear my critic of his suggested cigar. We talk a little, he is busy but I can tell he would love to sit and talk about whiskey and cigars. He’s a pro and it shows. I could tell that even before he poured my first drink, when I first walked in and saw him mixing that cocktail. I always judge a bartender by the way he handles the mixer, Henno had the over the shoulder technique down. And to watch him present, cut, light and re-present a cigar was a delight.

Henno returns to the fray of the filling barroom as a few others enter though the smoke into the cigar lounge. I enjoy the scene. There is the smell of tobacco, leather and sweet perfume with sounds of foreign tongue and smooth jazz. The ladies were dressed to kill.

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I finish the  Mac 18 which I truly enjoyed. I need another whiskey to finish with my cigar but don’t want to spend all of my kid’s college money in one night so I decide on The Balvenie Doublewood. Henno brings it and it’s great.

After the Montecristo I return to the bar. The room is now filled. I walk over to the small cocktail table where I was sitting before; it’s now the only open seat in the house. But there is now a small plastic sign on the table that says “Reserved”. Henno catches my eye from across the room and gives me a nod and I knew he put that sign there for me.

After drinking my Balvenie I go to the bar to finish the night with an Island, Talisker. Around the bar there are a couple of guys drinking from snifters like me. They are bearded and dressed like beer drinkers, (am I a bad guy for saying that?) They’re drinking whiskey, I can hear parts of their conversation and they’re really into it. I watch a few more minutes and walk around the bar. As I approach they glance over and I ask “Do you mind if I join in your experience?” Not at all they say and we exchange introductions.

They introduce themselves as Billy and Chris. I knew right away by the accents that Billy couldn’t be a real name. Birgin confessed that Billy is the name he goes by when talking to Americans since Birgin is hard for us to pronounce. These guys are Norwegian sailors assigned to a minesweeping ship that removes mines from the Baltic Sea. They like whiskey and I can guess why. When you’re snatching up bombs that can lift a ship out of the heaving sea on a daily basis, I can see how a dram would be nice to calm the nerve.

But these guys aren’t just whiskey drinkers, there enthusiasts, and more. They know their stuff. I never profess to be any kind of a whiskey expert but I usually don’t run across folks that know as much as me about scotch in a random bar. These guys definitely did. I sipped my Talisker and they talked about whiskeys I had not even heard of. I wish I could remember half of what they shared with me about scotch.

Chris bought the three of us a round of Glenlivet 18. I told them how my night started out and how it was The Glenlivet that ripped me willingly away from the Tennessee torture I was working through. I got Henno to snap a picture of me and the Norwegian Minesweepers as last call was announced.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the bar emptied I finished my Talisker. A failed attempt to connect with a whiskey from my homeland ended up with me connecting with a Pro-bartender and two whiskey-expert sailors from an ocean and a continent away.

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Double Fisting

SONY DSC      The main thing I set out to do during this tasting was to try to alleviate the tendency of “picking your favorite whiskey of the night” that we all tend to do at events like this. Whether we’re tasting three, six, or in this case eleven different whiskeys, we always seem to subconsciously pick our favorite whiskey of the night. By the time the hangover is gone the next day, that’s all we seem to really remember, one whiskey.

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So instead of starting at one end of a long lineup and sequentially moving , one whiskey at a time, down the line, I did it a little different. This time we tasted two whiskeys at a time and so compared those two to each other. In our tasting and conversation we would now inevitably pick our favorite one from each pair. Everyone got two glasses and we had a different whiskeys in each glass throughout the evening. We were literally “double fisting” as the expression goes.  This way each person would hopefully walk away with “several favorites” from the evening.

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Our two glasses were marked with red or yellow tape. The red glass was filled with the whiskey on the right and the yellow with the one on the left of each pair, so they didn’t get mixed up.

But before we got into the booze we had to eat. The menu was Smoked Pork Tenderloin stuffed with Italian Sausage. Does that sound like a pain in the ass? Well yes it was! You have to cut a hole though a pork tenderloin long-ways and then insert an Italian sausage through it. We also had lamb chops and grilled acorn squash with a bourbon glaze, some sautéed green beans, parmesan potatoes and the obligatory Hawaiian glazed grilled shrimp, all done on the ranch kettle over hickory wood. Everyone was full of meat going into the tasting which was a good thing.  But I also always have a second wave of food for around midnight. This time I had an artisan cheese plate assembled.

Back to the whiskey:

The first comparison of the night was Johnny Walker Black Label and Johnny Walker Double Black Label. I wanted to start with the Black Label because I buy into the concept that it’s the standard by which scotch whisky is measured. It’s also a great way to calibrate your tongue for the rest of the bottles, and it’s a great blend for the price.  When compared to the Black Label, everyone really loved the Double Black; it definitely had double of what we like in the Black Label.  I have to say I was pretty tickled to be serving the Double Black to my Zulu Whisky Brethren for their first time. Although it’s available in the U.S. now, at that time I had to have it brought in. (But there was one more “first” for the ZWC to come.)

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As you can see in this picture to the right I was only uncovering the bottles two at a time as we went along. I had the entire selection concealed under a table-cloth and it was a surprise known only to me. In every tasting I’ve done I have always had at least one whiskey concealed until the appropriate time; everybody loves a surprise. And in this case it also helped folks enjoy the great whiskey they had in their glasses instead of looking down at the end of a lineup, anticipating one of the more expensive select bottles to come.

The next two in the lineup was Tomatin and Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban. This is also where the “thesis” (if you will) of the evening develops. Both Tomatin and Quinta Rubin are aged in two woods / casks. The former in  American oak bourbon casks and then Spanish sherry and the later in American oak and then Ruby Port. These were the “Two Woods” and this theme would develop throughout the evening. In the pictures you can also see that I had put together a placard for each pair with a picture and a few facts about each bottle. I thought it gave the setup a nice professional touch and when folks went back to re-taste their favorites after the guided tasting ended and the free-for-all started there was information to remind everyone what each whisky was all about. Most of all those placards meant that I really didn’t have to memorize too much about the whiskeys to lead the tasting, it was all written out.

Then we moved to the Auchentoshan Three Wood and The Balvenie Signature, and these were the “Three Woods”.  The Auchie is aged in American oak bourbon casks, then Oloroso, and finally Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. The Balvenie is aged in Oloroso, then a first fill bourbon and then a second fill bourbon. I remember really liking The Balvenie much more than the Auchie and being surprised when N4D adamantly said he liked the Auchie head and tails above the Blavenie; that’s what’s great about these kind of things.

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The following pair moving down the row was The Glenfiddich 18 Year and The Glenlivet 18 Year. Stepping away from our “Wood” theme for a moment I put these two in the selection because I think we scotch snobs sometimes have a tendency to overlook two of the most prominent ranges in the scotch world. Or maybe I’m doing what the psychiatrists describe as Projecting and I’m really talking about myself. I used to think I was too good to drink Glenfiddich. Not anymore! I really like the Fiddich 18, it’s become one of my favorites.

Moving along we had The Macallan Select Oak and Johnnie Walker Blue Label.  The Mac Select Oak is a favorite of mine and is also difficult to come by in the States. It was new for a few of the guys. It fit right into the evening’s wood theme and I really like it because it really is sweet and smooth and at the same time REALLY has a lot of wood in the taste. I chose it for my World Whiskey Day whiskey last year and wrote it up in The Mofongo Select Oak (link at bottom).

My thought was that my ZWC Brethren would really like it too and then I would shatter their whiskey-world by pairing it against a lowly blend. Okay, let me start by saying that I love the Blue Label, it’s not that complex and it’s not really multifaceted and it IS overpriced but I love Johnnie Walker Blue Label and the snobs in my whisky club don’t like blends. So now I’m going to put one of the smoothest, maturest, “woodiest” scotches that I hope they have recently tasted up against a “lowly” blend. And just by coincidence, Murman was shit-talking the Blue Label only moments before I unveiled it, saying it was over priced and all that. If I was a rich guy I would bath in Blue Label… and drink it … but not the stuff I was bathing in…

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This was also a good time to introduce some dark chocolate into the experience, Lindt, 85% and 90% cocoa bars. This really set off the sweetness of both the Mac and the Blue. I think I shed a new light on the old Blue to a few in the group. And yes, it’s over priced but it’s really good too. The Mac Select Oak, that’s just a whisky that’s always there for me in the duty-free shops of the international airports. On my many travels I often return to this old friend. With that familiar malty taste and the definitive kiss from the American white oak tree. That no matter how far I may roam I can still taste that towering American oak that sunk its roots so deep into my homeland so many years ago. Ironic as it may seem, Mac Select Oak, a Scottish whisky, has become my “taste of home” on my travels around the world.

The final whisky was Laphroaig Triple Wood, the wood theme still present. I was once again delighted to not only be able to present this whisky to all of the members of the ZWC (including myself) for the first time but one of the guys even confessed that he had not even heard of it before (and he’s a “Friend”(FOL)). I had my eye on this one for over a month waiting for it to be released in the States and the week before this tasting it was. Perfect timing!

When I was putting this lineup together some of the pairings came naturally and others were a bit difficult.  I have to admit that it took a while to find a match for the Black Label until I came across the Double Black. The  Laphroaig Triple Wood was pretty tricky also, what whisky can you pair with that? My most immediate Rorschach’s reaction to Laphroaig was Lagavolin, followed by Ardbeg. But a triple Wood! I don’t think the Universe has a pairing for an Islay Triple Wood like this.  So I thought this would be a good time for a cigar. I paired the Laphroaig Triple Wood with a Monte Cristo Cigar.

The event was held outside under a large tent with one side rolled up. It was great because we could smoke at will. We all lit up a stogie and enjoyed the Laphroaig. The Triple Wood was exquisite, it had the ass of an Islay and the finesse of a Speyside. We always seem to end our tastings with an Islay. Once the guided tour was complete I brought out the cheese and everyone went back and re-tasted whiskeys from the line up. We told stories, insulted each other, made stuff up and lied a lot. Later somebody grabbed the leftover meat from the fridge and we ate more of that, continued to drink and smoke more cigars.

At some point, one by one, members began to drift away from the light shinning out of the tent and find their way to sleeping bags which were pre-staged at strategic territories. The garden shed is always prime real estate followed by the lawn mower shed and then the barn.  Occasionally someone can’t find their sleeping bag at all and is found snoring in a lawn chair when the sun rises.

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Spirits on the field

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On most nights this would be an adequate offering for the Zulu Whisky Club to share their love of whiskey and military history. But June 9, 2012 was a special night. Members of the ZWC were invited to a night of whiskey and civil war history at the Pry House on the Antietam Battlefield as part of the first annual fundraiser for the Civil War Medical Museum in Frederick Maryland. The Zulu Whisky Club meeting occurred after the fundraiser which included three cigars from Davidus Cigars and spirits ( unusually generous pours of aged and unaged ryes and gin) from the Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, VA.

In keeping with previous meetings of the ZWC we attempted to have a theme and an educational requirement in addition to the spirit we love. However, for this meeting the connections may have been a bit thin. Each bottle had a tie in with the civil war. The first bottle, Old Crow was obvious. This was one of the first brands to achieve brand loyalty in the country and gained allegiance from none other than the commanding general of the Union Army. Old Crow was General Grant’s preferred whiskey. Unfortunately, today’s Old Crow is cut with grain alcohol and retains very little of the characteristics which the future president admired. Next up was Hudson New York Corn Whiskey. This seemed like an ambiguous choice to represent the regional distinctions of whiskey.

Conventional wisdom says rye whiskey predominated the northern recipes while corn, in the bourbon style, was favored in the south. The featured rye at the fund raiser was from the south! So, why not corn whiskey from the north? Catoctin Creek is a Virginia (therefore southern) distillery that makes a great rye . We sampled the Roundstone Rye which lived up to its name. It is a smooth whiskey with no harsh edges: a real round, solid rye. As Scott Harris, CEO of Catoctin, demonstrated in his Manhattan’s earlier in the evening, there may be nothing better to go with sweet vermouth and bitters than his expression of rye.

Naturally, with a meeting in Maryland it would be sacrilegious not to include Maryland’s favorite son: Pikesville Rye. Marylanders may have been fickle in their allegiance to south or north during the war but their taste for whiskey favored a style that was more closely related to the Monongahela Ryes. Even though Maryland was south of the Mason Dixon Line locals made a whiskey with the sweet pepper of rye associated with western Pennsylvania. Despite being made in Kentucky, present day Pikesville, at under 15 dollars a bottle can have even the stingiest Yankee enjoying a rebel yell.

This is where it starts to break down. Next was the Triple Wood from Laphroaig. Adversaries on the battlefield use three separate tactical applications to gain advantage: move, shoot, or communicate. Laphroaig uses three different woods to marry flavors and gain an advantage over other Islay whiskies with their Triple Wood Scotch. Okay, Okay weak I know. But not nearly as weak as the final rationale for inclusion of a whiskey. Oban, Double Matured…. “Well, we don’t have any O’s yet”! This is what TW used to talk Murm into including an Oban Double Matured in the night’s offerings. He could have said. Wow, that whiskey is expensive and I’d really like to try it. But he didn’t. He said. “Well….we don’t have any O’s”. Worse than that weakly veiled excuse to get me to buy a whiskey he wanted to try, was the fact that it worked! Actually it should have stood for OMG as this was the start of the 2d half the Zulu Whiskey Club meeting on 9 June 2012. Now here is a review of the 1st half.

Songs, Stories, Cigars and Whiskey,

June 9, 2012

Earlier in the evening the Zulu Whisky club participated in the 1st annual Songs, Stories, Cigars and Whiskey night at Antietam battlefield. The event was hosted by the the Civil War Medical Museum and was attended by folks who had an interest in civil war medicine, whiskey, or cigars. Several in attendance may have been “induced” to attend by a spouse but most quickly got into the spirit of the evening after the Catoctin distillery started to pour some of their offerings.

Two members of the Zulu Whiskey Club spoke of the experience of whiskey soldiers shared from civil war times until present deployments. The plan for the evening was for SMEs (subject matter experts) to share their knowledge of their particular subject and how it related to the civil war. The stage was set for a night of sippin’, smokin’, singing, and spinnin’ yarns!

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It started with George Wunderlich, CWMM director giving a history of the Pry Farm and its role as a civil war field hospital. George was the chief storyteller of the evening and played a mean vintage banjo. Davidus Cigars of Frederick, MD provided cigars. I expected some dried out loosely rolled civil war version of dried corn silk and leaves but the complimentary cigars turned out to be the Antietam, the Monocacy, and the Fredericktowne which in reality tasted a lot like Rocky Patels of modern tobacco fame, but with custom labels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASmoking was not allowed in the barn. But it soon became obvious where the most interesting conversations were taking place by the volume of smoke rising above the participants in still humid air of the hot Maryland evening.

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Scott Harris from Catoctin Creek Distillery provided 2 expressions of rye whiskey and a craft gin. If smoke marked the spot of engaged conversationalists, oohs and aahs marked the site of the introduction to Catoctin’s fine spirits. Scott shared the history of rye whiskey and the development of the distillery from concept to future plans. But best of all, he shared his whiskey. I happened to be looking toward my ZWC buddies when Scott announced he didn’t want to return any unopened stock to Purcellville. The next few gulps were bigger and the smiles wider as my comrades settled in for a night of endlessly re-charged glasses.

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Catoctin produces 2 whiskies. The unaged expression is Mosby’s Spirit. This unaged rye surprised my palate like Colonel Mosby riding up on some unsuspecting Yankees about to be be relieved of supplies or their lives during one of his famous raids.

While the nose is serious alcohol and rye whiskey, the palate is friendly. I tasted fruitiness like peach or mango. The finish is smooth. It was nothing like the moonshine I expected from a bottle of white lightening. After exposure to Minnesota oak an even more mellow, well….rounded taste appears. Maybe this accounts for the name Roundstone Rye which has the classic pepper of rye but with soft edges. The final spirit was Watershed Gin. Their gin is made from a second run of the rye spirits which produces a lighter spirit to which botanicals are added. Wow! The taste is like getting hit in the face with a canister shot of flavor. I am not a gin drinker but found myself returning to reload the cannon for another round of juniper and spices.

As folks circulated to the food table where Applause Caterers supplied enough delicious meatballs and cheeses to feed a regiment of hungry confederate irregulars, the Zulu Whiskey club began their part of the evening’s program. The ZWC are subject matter experts for enthusiasm about whiskey. They were invited to share their enthusiasm for whiskey and some of the experiences of drinking contraband whiskey around campfires during deployments to various locations in the world. Enthusiasm and experience for whiskey need little rehearsal!

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With charged glasses in hand, TW and Murm put the role of whiskey into the perspective of soldier life in the civil war. There were two roles for whiskey during the war: clinical and coping. Clinically, whiskey was used as a stimulant to fortify the body and soul. The myth of men having whiskey poured down their gullet prior to amputation is untrue. The walls of the Civil War Medical Museum attest to the fact that anesthesia was available and widely used by both sides during the war between the states. The primary use of whiskey during the civil war was in coping with the harsh realities of life in camp away from home and loved ones. Whiskey has the inherent quality of bringing people together. TW gave examples of some creative efforts of civil war soldiers sipping whiskey from watermelons buried under their tent floors to modern versions of enjoying a contraband dram in a remote location.

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Though 150 years after the battle of Antietam, whiskey worked her magic again. Small groups of people formed to discuss the spirits or something they had in common. One group wandered to the hilltop overlooking the battlefield taking the opportunity to witness a spectacular sunset while sipping a Roundstone Rye.

After observing nature’s show on hallowed ground they discovered mutual interests while wandering back to the barn with a new acquaintance. After re-charging their glasses that discovery led to the formation of a new temporary group of guests marked by puffs of fragrant smoke which rose to signal the start of of a new and interesting conversation. As the night progressed, conversations about General Dan Sickels, the B.O Railroad, or Phoebe Pember at Chimborazo waxed and waned as new folks entered the dialogue or moved on to the next discussion groups. If there was a lull, George tuned up the banjo or re-counted a favorite request from his repertoire of stories, historical facts, and tall tales.

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Naturally, sitting in the dark, on a battlefield, the conversation turned to ghost stories. George described a frequent visitor to the battlefield. He detailed his appearance down to the weave in his mismatched uniform and the origin of his kit. Known to park rangers and others who have wandered onto the battlefield for a late night campfire this visitor also has the ability to vanish before your eyes. Mutual interests became conversations with other guests which drifted into the night like smoke from the Davidus cigars.

The Zulu Whiskey Club played their role. They were frequently seen re-charging glasses with spirits. They enthusiastically contributed to the rising smoke signals marking the site of tall tale telling to new friends or embellishing the details of old stories that have become the oral history of the Zulu Whiskey club. Just like the whiskey they enjoy, members of the ZWC served as amplifiers. They helped bring people together. No doubt the grenade pins got deeper and the alligators a bit larger as the stories were re-told and new friendships forged. It was a wonderful evening boys. Cheers!

Whiskey stories drift
like cigar smoke into night,
spirits on the field.
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Wild Boar Bacon and Templeton Rye

A while ago I had a chance encounter with some bacon, cheddar, and rye whiskey. It was almost like one of those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials, remember those, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter”; a mishap causes a taste phenomenon. When I put together a haphazard nighttime snack it turned out to be a great combination.

At the suggestion of John Peris (AKA, the Savory Gourmet) I decided to see if I could take the dish to the next level. Murm picked up a slab of Wild Boar Bacon from The Savory Gourmet shop and I got a block of premium aged cheddar. And since I had previously used Pikesville Supreme, the Aristocrat of Whiskeys, I decided to kick that up a notch too. This time I would use Templeton Rye.

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I cut the bacon as thin as I could with my salmon filet knife. Some of the slices were still thicker than store bought sliced bacon, and that turned out to be a good thing. I then began to frizzle it up in a pan. It smelled great and it was killing me not to eat it as I went. But I didn’t want to eat it hot from the pan but rather frizzle it extra crispy and put it in the fridge for the late night snack.

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Hours later I came hungry to retrieve my little pork candy bars. Out of the fridge they came and I made a stack on a plate and laid on some thick sticks of the cheddar. Into the microwave for a minute or so, just enough to heat it up and start to melt the cheese. Plated with two slices of an artisan farmers rye bread it was ready to be married with the Templeton.

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The smell was rich, salty, smoky and, well, …bacon. I grabbed a slice that was semi glued to another slice by a stretching melted piece of cheddar and stuffed it all into my mouth. My mouth was filled with the rich flavor of both pig and cheese. I added a big sip of the Templeton Rye Whiskey and chewed it up together.

The bite of the rye cut through the greasy mouth-coating richness of the bacon and cheese. Just as before the flavors really worked together. As I was chewing I began to notice something else. This bacon had a chew to it. Not toughness, but a nice chew. It didn’t just disintegrate like normal crispy bacon. It stayed on your tongue and in your teeth as the mastication proceeded. If chewing regular crispy bacon is like chewing a stack of Ruffles Potato chips this was like chewing a juicy slice of sirloin steak. Both have the great bacon flavor but this meat spends more time in your mouth and is much more enjoyable.

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By now the smell had brought in the viddle-vultures and they were working me at the floor level from two angles.

One from my right flank and the other from straight under the table between my knees. They had set up a hammer-and-anvil ambush and were waiting for the first piece to descend to their level.

It was a delectable dish. I can’t really bring myself to call it a snack anymore. Once again the Bacon and Cheddar with Rye really delivered!

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How to dig that Lagavulin

Rob sent a comment stating that although he likes Bourbon and Rye, he just can’t get into the Lagavulin. I began to reply to his comment but in my usual form I got long-winded and it turned itself into a full-blown post instead. Apply the following twelve step process to any whiskey you’ve been struggling with and let me know how it works out.

Rob writes “…My first was Lagavulin, of which nearly the entire bottle sits on a shelf downstairs, you can probably imagine why. I probably started with the wrong whisky, so perhaps I’ll try something else”.

Rob,
An Islay Whisky like Lagavulin is not necessarily the wrong place to start. I can attest to this because it was this very scotch that first got the hook into me. And, I have always thought that Rye was the last bastion for the whiskey drinker but you are already enjoying that.
It’s true that some whiskey drinkers just don’t like the smoky whiskys. And some folks associate the peaty smoky whiskys with cold weather and don’t have much of a hankering for it in the summer; kind of like hot chocolate in July. There’s nothing wrong with that and in both cases I could suggest that you try a Speyside. But since you already own a bottle of Lagavulin here’s an experiment you can try if you care to do so.

1. First, wait until you have some time by yourself, no distractions and hopefully a time when you’re relaxed and maybe even feeling a bit artistic.

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2. Hydrate! Most folks that drink beer or some mixed drinks enjoy that fact that those drinks are thirst quenchers too. Even though we all know that alcohol will dehydrate you, a cold beer or a margarita is really great when you’re thirsty. Whiskey neat does not have that same effect and will seem even harsher to a new drinker when you’re not completely hydrated. So step number 2 is to drink at least a bottle of water before your tasting.

3. Use the right glass. We use Glencairn glasses at the ZWC tastings but, truth be told, I like a snifter at home. I have a set of large snifters that I can get my big fat nose into while I’m sipping. You can use a wine glass too. What you want is to have that “tulip” shape where the glass rolls in at the top to trap the smells. And like mine, if it’s large enough to sniff and sip simultaneously, all the better.

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4. Use the power of suggestion in your favor (at least in the beginning). Read what the Pro’s say about your whisky. Read the notes on the bottle carton or on the bottle. Some scotches come with a little booklet describing the flavors and nuisances of that whisky. Go online and read the propaganda on their web site. Read about the historic fishing island the distillery sits on and how the salt air and cold wind blah blah blah. We all know it’s marketing but at this point remember, they want what you want; for you to really enjoy this whisky.

So read about the distilling process and the peat and the aging and especially read the tasting notes and try to taste what they taste as you do your tasting. Also look at the tasting notes on www.whiskyfun.com, Serge, the writer of that blog also first fell in love with Lagavulin. Or check out this dude, Michael Yblamn, he does tastings in his bedroom (or his cell, not sure which) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGRAQHu9rNo

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5. Add water to the whisky. You have to find your happy place here. Too much and it will water it down but the right amount will actually give you MORE flavor then if you drink it straight. Try to start with a mix of H2O and Scotch that has a little burn initially but still feels comfortable when you move it all around your mouth. The main thing is to go with your taste. If you put a little water in and it seems okay, put in just a little more. If it then seems like it’s weakened, pour in a small bit of scotch until you have it just right for you. Don’t feel like an amateur adding water, the Pro-tasters add a lot more water than most of us; in some cases as much as fifty percent. So find your spot and try to make a mental note of what the formula was so you can try to be somewhat consistent glass to glass at first.

6. Do it five nights in a row. Why five nights? I don’t know I just made that up. But I know with my own experience I was sipping a small amount of scotch for two weeks straight. I’ll get into that story some other time but I really think that when you first start drinking whiskey (and Rob I know you already do drink some whiskeys but just go with me on this one) at first all you get is a blast of alcohol. You don’t taste much more than that. But after a few nights, and I’m only talking about an ounce or two (or more, your call) each night, you get used to the alcohol taste and begin to taste things beyond that and really start to be able to taste all the stuff that they say is in there on their web site.

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7. Okay, seven steps is already too much so let’s just put it all together. Get your glass. Get your bottle of Lagavulin. Drink a bottle of water and grab another bottle for adding to the whisky. Find a comfortable place where you can concentrate on the flavor. Take your laptop or I Pad and dial in the Lagavulin web site. Pour some and add just a little bit of water (you’ll add some more in a minute). Take a sniff, It might burn your nostrils at first so be ready. I know with this one you won’t have any trouble smelling the smoke. But can you smell iodine? (Or mecuricome, if you’re old enough to remember poisoning yourself, one cut at a time, with that stuff). Now let’s reach deep; do you smell sea salt??? I digress. Take time smelling it. Like, a lot of time. Read the tasting notes and smell it. DON’T SIP IT YET. (you already sipped it, didn’t you, damn it, now you ruined it) Okay good, you didn’t sip yet. Just read and smell, smell and read.

8. Once you think you’ve gotten all you can out of the smell, take one final nice deep smell from the glass and just continue to tip it back and take a sip in one long process. Don’t swallow yet (you didn’t did you?) Good. Hold the whisky in your mouth. Now move it around to all of the places in your mouth that you usually try not to let alcohol touch when you’re drinking the cheep stuff. When we drink the cheep stuff we tend to make a little canoe down the center of our tongue and run the devil juice down our gullet with as little burn as possible. In this case hold it in your mouth. Move it all around your tongue. Front and back, top and bottom. Take a little mini swallow, not really swallowing the liquid yet but just letting a drop or two coat the back of your throat. And now breathe out through your nose.

9. Swallow. Now think about it. Did you like it? If you didn’t can you still discern the attributes that were described in the tasting notes? Even if it turns out that Lagavulin is just not your cup of tea you can still hone your tasting skills that will in turn serve you when you’re drinking a whiskey or a wine that you do like.

10. Okay, we are at step ten and you just took your first sip. (It shouldn’t be this complicated.) Let’s just go with it from here, float with the universe a little. Sip. Enjoy it. Think about it. This stuff is sixteen years old, what were you doing sixteen years ago? Keep sipping. As you continue the alcohol smell and burn will diminish and the sweet sea salt and honey smoke will begin to present itself.

11. Adjust the water like I described before. Make it right for you. Remember you want to do this five nights in a row so don’t push it; it will get better every night. Just one small glass is plenty the first night.

12. Well we’re at step twelve and I think the laws of nature explicitly state that all programs must end with twelve steps, (if that parody offends you, you probably shouldn’t be reading a whiskey blog) so let’s end it. Each night I think you will find you will get accustomed to the initial more offensive aspects of an Islay whisky and begin to taste beyond to the delicate attributes that I love about Lagavulin. See if it grows on you. Remember, nothing worth doing is easy, (or as Homer says “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing”???) And most of all, Enjoy the experience!

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High West Distillery

High West Distillery in Park City Utah. Yes, that is a working ski lift in the background. You can ski Park City all day and then literally ski right up to the distillery for dinner and whiskey, and I did.

High West Fire Pit  xxAll You Need To Know xx

The fire pit on the heated patio greets you as you come off of the slopes. In the basement the whiskey is born. The grain is ground and the mash is stewed. There is a lot going on down here under these historic old buildings.

Lab xx

High West is not fearful to experiment with unusual vatings and mixes of different whiskeys. Here in their lab they propagate their special yeast.

Small Still xx

In this micro-still they experiment with prototypes for different and new libations that are worked under the highest scrutiny of quality. This is all you really need to know.

Mash xx

This mash will someday soon become High West Silver, an oat and barley un-aged whiskey. I was able to taste this “beer”and it has a sour-dough flavor on the tongue. The after taste, (I just can’t use the word finish while describing soupy oatmeal) the after taste had some of the banana qualities that are found in the Silver. The pot and columns.

12 Yr and Ryan xx

Pot xx

Ryan gave me a great tour around the facility and introduced me to the last bottle of High West 12 Year in the distillery (and possibly the world) I made sure this bottle did not see another day.

 

So long 12 Year, it was great…

The Last of the 12 Year xx

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The Great Humbling

There have been a couple of references to an event I hosted a while ago which has hence come to be know as The Great Humbling. Here’s the story of how it came together.

I had already hosted my first event with the Zulu Whisky Club a year before and we had a couple more since. We had started having fun referring to ourselves as a “whiskey club”. We weren’t then (and I really don’t think we are one now) but we had a good time getting drunk and forcibly voting somebody into being the club president or threatening sanctions or fines against somebody else for a violation of some rule that was made up on the spot for a club that didn’t exist.
My thought was “so you guys think you’re Charter Board Members of a whiskey club? Let’s put it to the test”. I would do a blind tasting. See what we could do. So I set off to put together the lineup.

I had previously wanted to do a vertical tasting of a given distillery. One of the reasons I thought it would be a good idea is that instead of having to buy 8 or 10 high end bottles of scotch, which is pretty expensive, I would only really have to spend a lot on 1 or 2 bottles at the top end of the distillery’s range. Then I could fill out the rest of line up with bottles from the lower end of the range. In other words, if my friends were coming to my house for a special evening of whiskey tasting I was not going to serve them a bottle of a 12 year old entry level scotch, BUT if I’m doing a vertical tasting that 12 year is the perfect start of the lineup. (I have had to figure ways to keep up airs as a whiskey snob on a limited budget).

So with this idea in the back of my head and a desire to do a blind tasting I decided to do both. The guys and I had recently been introduced to Highland Park at the Whiskey Live in NY. We were completely okay with the claim that HP18 was the best scotch in the world. I thought Highland Park would be a good choice. We haven’t had a Highland Park at any of our ZWC tastings yet and they had a pretty good range AND I had recently seen a bottle of HP 25 Year in a liquor store nearby.

I worked a pretty good deal at the liquor store for a bottle of 12, 15, 18, and the 25. I felt like I needed one more. Luckily I have friends traveling internationally for work so I thought I would get one from the Duty Free market. I was thinking about the 21 but when my friend called from the Frankfurt International Airport he said they had the 16 I told him to grab it for me.

So now I had Highland Park 12, 15, 16, 18, and 25. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I then set off to figure out what the point of the blind tasting was going to be, what would be the questions.
I never thought that any of us would be able take a sip from an unlabeled glass, swish it around a little and declare “Highland Park 16, drawn from the top of the cask, poured from 5 inches above the glass…on a sunny day.” I did think at the time somebody would at least guess it was Highland Park though.

What I really wanted to see was this: if we are all so enthusiastic about spending 100 plus dollars on a bottle of scotch and look down our noses a little at folks that drink Glenfiddich or Macallan 12 year, (admit it guys, we do, or at least we used to), could we tell the difference between a 12 year old and a 25? Would we choose a $300 bottle over a $45 bottle in a blind tasting? This is what I wanted to know. I came up with a bunch of other questions for the sake of an in-depth discussion starting with some easy ones leading up to some tough ones.

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The day of the tasting my wife and I were getting the house together; she is always a big help when I have the ZWC over. We had to do all the things you would expect to have to do to get ready for company in a house with a four year old, four dogs and two cats. Our plan was to sleep in a little, (knowing it was going to be a late night) get up, have our coffee and set out to transform the disheveled abode into a show house worthy of a classy event.

I also had to cook the food and set up the whiskeys. So we finished our second cup of coffee, grabbed the vacuum and put the tenderloin in the oven. And that’s about the time we heard a loud pop from the transformer on the front street and all the lights went out, and stayed out until about 30 minutes before the guest arrived. But that’s a different crisis, I mean story.

That afternoon while I was cooking the pork on the grill outback, which I actually prefer but had originally decided to use the oven to make things easy, Lisa set up the whisky for the tasting. Per my instructions, she poured each bottle into a crystal decanter marked only by a color coded band around the neck. So even I did not know which whisky was which.

The only clue I decided to give would be that all of these bottles were from the same distillery; five whiskeys, one distillery. I would begin with a gimme, just to get things going. The first question was what was the origin? And I did elaborate on the question clarifying that what we were looking for here was where this whiskey was from, i.e. America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and Japan.

Next I asked the region, I figured that the second question would sort of give away the answer to the first question. The third question, guess the ABV of each whiskey. Then put the whiskeys in order by age. This was the big question of the night, the one that really mattered. This was also the only question that I did not know the answer to. Could we tell enough about them from the taste, smell and sight to put them in order of age, and ultimately of price?The next question was to try to guess what the age of each was once they were in order. And the final question was simply what your favorite is?

Each of us had five Glencairn glasses, also color coded for each decanter, filled with each whiskey from the outset. This way everyone could taste and compare all of them as they wished. The glasses were grouped for each person in front of the decanters on a table in the middle of the room. I had a whiteboard with the questions written out. And so we began.

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C2, the ZWC President at that time, (yes, it was forced on him), immediately took control of the group and began talking us through the logical deductions with everyone chiming in. I enjoyed the whiskey along with the rest, keeping my knowledge of the range to myself.

As I tasted from the five glasses I got a little nervous. I thought I would be able to tag them all immediately, knowing the five that I had in front of me. And I have to admit that I could tell the 25 Year from the color alone. But the rest took a bit of work. The 15 was the next one that I identified, the sweet eggnog nuances came out after sipping it a few times in a row. I realized at that point that tasting and comparing them all side by side was making it even more difficult. I suggested that we take one whiskey and sip it for a minute or two, to let it sink in, then go to the next. Even with this I was still straining my way through the rest. I was really reaching out to find that Highland Park 18 Year. The 18 was one of my very favorites at that time.

As I was going through my own silent tribulations the rest of the club was working as a team. I thought the first question would be an easy one; what is the origin? Although everyone did agree it was a scotch, it was not the knee jerk response I had expected. It actually took a little deliberation. My blood ran cold as I actually heard the word Bourbon mentioned. Did I go too far too soon with this blind tasting?
But then, as the initial sense of overwhelming subsided and we all slowed down and spent a little more time on each one, began to enjoy them, stop analyzing them and actually began to taste them, things started to fall into place. The consensus formed and it was declared to be Scotch Whisky.

Next at hand was to name the region. Someone leaned forward in the process and offered The Balvenie as a possibility for the distillery; and so the region was declared Speyside. I think this suggestion threw everyone off a little. From that point forward every newly discerned attribute was inevitably measured against Balvenie. Once everyone got that into their minds it was hard to be objective. But we still had the golden question to come. Even if the group was convinced that this was Balvenie, could they place them in order by age, and ultimately by price.

When it came to guessing the ABV everyone correctly agreed the 16 was a little weaker and thought that the 25 was a little stronger. And by now the ABV of all of them was kicking in and we were having a good time. We had the whiskey books out and the internet resource at hand. We were trying to narrow things down and comparing what we had to Master Distiller’s tasting notes. We were collectively overconfident one minute and ready to throw in the towel the next until someone took another sip or a sniff that sparked another memory of a previous whisky tasted and got everyone back on track. And as always we were relentless with the jokes and insults and good humor thrown around the room. It was a great time.

So now, over an hour into the tasting we ordered the five by age. We got three of them dead on, but thought that the 16 was older then it was and thought that the 18 was younger. We essentially switched those two in their places in the lineup. I think what might have actually taken place is that we were thrown off a bit by the lower ABV of the 16, making it seem a little smother in comparison to the rest which intern was mistaken for more maturity. And when I compared them I thought the 18, although much better, tasted closer to the 12 than it did either 15 or 16. It didn’t have the sweetness the 15 and the 16 did. So maybe that’s what made us place the 18 right after the 12 then followed by the 15 and 16. Does that sound like an excuse? Okay, I guess it’s an excuse. But I did learn not to confuse smoothness or sweetness with maturity.

We then all picked our favorite. I liked the 15; I was into the smooth sweet eggnog finish at that time. CRSchulze liked the 25; he always did like the in-your-face whiskys. N2D, Murm, and C2 picked the 16 which is a pretty good balance of the range. So there we have it; most of us picked a $75 bottle over one that cost almost $300. And I picked one that was closer to $50. As for CRSchulze, he always did have expensive taste.

As I brought down the bottles from upstairs and placed them beside their prospective decanters to reveal what was inside, there was a quiet collective groan ; “Highland Park, of course”.

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As I made another trip up and down the steps to place the rest of the bottles everyone had a big smile on their face to see what we had actually been drinking. We spent some more time tasting each of them again, now knowing exactly what they were. I hooked the laptop to the flat screen TV and we went through the tastings of each whisky again with Gerry Tosh on You Tube. Then we retired to the back porch to finish our glasses and smoke cigars.

The mutual harassment intensified, the conversation turned political and in less than an hour we had solved every major problem in the entire world (and that does include the universe). If only we could ever remember any of our brilliant formulas the next morning we wouldn’t have to redo the same debates each time we drink together.

As for doing a blind tasting it was tougher than I had expected, but I liked doing it. And take this as a warning guys… I WILL BE DOING ANOTHER.

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ZULU Whisky Club Infiltrates Puerto Rico

After a few minutes of sleep I was awakened by tossing and turbulence. The C130 was banking hard left and dropping altitude rapidly. This was followed by climbing and turning hard right. I looked for a barf bag in the rigging of the aircraft. The bumpy ride continued. It had been 9 years since I rode in a military aircraft. I recalled the lead-in to many parachute jumps included NAP of the earth. This technique, commonly referred to as the “vomit comet” involves flying at a low level and contouring the plane’s altitude to terrain features on the ground. It is a sure way to induce nausea among the paratroopers in the rear of the aircraft.

Fortunately, my flashback did not materialize. We were merely skirting some bad weather on our approach to Ponce, Puerto Rico. The ZULU Whisky Club managed to strap hang (slang for added to flight list) onto a flight going to Puerto Rico. Made up of aged and aging soldiers our ID cards made it possible for us to fly space available with a National Guard unit going to PR to train for an extended week-end.

Seeing how the modern army operates was eye opening. We arrived at the departure airfield in civilian clothes. Everyone else was in civilian clothes. No one traveled in uniform. Even more amazing was the fact that no formations were held. Back in “the day” formations were how information was disseminated. We would “fall in” and “the word was put out”. Somehow these soldiers seemed to know where to go, at what time. The movement was smooth and organized without people standing in a row on the tarmac!

Another big change was that everyone stared into personal electronic devices. Kindles were read, emails sent, movies watched, games played, and texts sent and received by virtually everyone on the plane. In the modern electronic army communication is efficient and ubiquitous.

We landed in Ponce and picked up our rental vehicle. We exited the airfield past the Don Q Distillery adjacent to the airport. Stacks of barrels, destined to age rum, stood in formation like soldiers used to do. They saluted our departure for San Juan as we embarked on the rest of our mission.

The Zulu Whisky Club was in PR to learn about whisky. It may seem strange to go to PR to learn about whisky. But, one constant in our somewhat unstructured tastings is the link to whisky. Each member is responsible to conduct a tasting. The member comes up with the concept or theme, sets a date, coordinates the resources and serves as the host of the tasting. This approach coupled with our diversity of interests in whisky has lead to many unusual experiences.

We have sampled whisky unavailable in the US while smoking Cuban Sigilos. We have shown up at a cabin in the woods guided only by grid coordinates to sample the whiskies of Islay. We have dined on a gourmet meal prepared from the recipes of the Inn at Little Washington. We have stood before a table filled with a massive collection of fine whisky like kids with Glencairn glasses in a candy store. We floated the Potomac River in leaky canoes and drank whisky in the rain while swatting mosquitoes.

One event was a bonfire with whisky. I was awakened the next day by licks to my face by a Scottish Highlander cow. The name of one event was the Big Top Two at a Time Tasting. We even flirted with calling ourselves experts. That is, until we put our knowledge to the test during a blind tasting dubbed “The Night of the Great Humbling”! Henceforth, we became whisky enthusiasts because expertise was not something we could claim. The factor that united all these events was fun. Drinking whisky with friends is fun!

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Whisky Float Rowing Team

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Whisky Float Line-Up

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Night of the Great Humbling

 

Puerto Rico was a target of opportunity. It came together at the last minute. How does one tie in whisky and Puerto Rico? The ZWC tasting compared three whiskies that were finished in rum casks. Three distilleries offer a whisky that spends 4 months to a year in a rum cask. How ironic that some of the American white oak barrels that age bourbon are diverted from use in aging scotch whisky to age rum. Completing the circle, after service mellowing rum, these barrels are used to finish whiskey again! We set out to determine how that affected the whisky.

But first, we had to study rum. We arrived in San Juan, dined and retired to the bar. The operations order had a few holes in it. One big hole was a venue to hold our tastings. At the bar we met a bartender named Terry who has been serving rum to visitors for 10 years. His knowledge of the drink of the island was surpassed only by his enthusiasm for our plans to try it.

The ZWC sampled local rums. We benefitted from Terry’s knowledge of distilling processes, characteristics of rums and suggestions of brands we may want to try. His most important contribution was a location to hold our tastings. A quiet corner of the beachside bar would be suitable. Despite the fact that a smoking ban on the property existed he assured us that he could facilitate a successful event.

The following night with gentle breezes blowing in from the ocean, the ZWC conducted our first ever rum tasting. We tasted 3 rums from the Don Q distillery and Bacardi’s new Reserva Limitada.  Don Q Anjeo reminded some of the tasters of cane sugar more than molasses.  The Don Q Gold was more like dark molasses with cane sugar and raw bread dough.  It had a spicy finish and a lingering sweetness on the very back of the tongue.

The Don Q Gran Anjeo tasted like chocolate chip cookie dough but with out the chocolate chips.  The star of the night was the Bacardi Reserva Limitada.  There were aromas of caramel.  This rum had a velvety long finish with a hint of vanilla pudding.

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Rums of the Don Q Distillery                            OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

Terry, Courtyard Marriot, San Juan, PR

The next day we toured the Bacardi distillery. Much of the rum process is the same as distilling whisky. One difference is the aging process. Even though American white oak barrels that have aged bourbon are used, the length of time is different. The rum does not need to spend as much time in the barrel to mellow and develop the rich, sweet flavors of rum. The heat and high humidity of the Caribbean climate accelerates movement in and out of the wood. Bacardi moved the operations from Cuba to PR prior to the revolution in Cuba. Now rum is distilled on the island then transported to Miami for bottling and distribution to the world.

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Armed with new knowledge about the aromas and flavors of rum we were ready to determine how our favorite spirit would be affected by time in a rum cask. Don’t get me wrong; rum is a fine spirit. The rich sweetness is savory. The smokiness of the Bacardi 8 comes through. The Bacardi Reserve Limitada has a maple sugar sweetness. It tastes like pure maple sugar from Vermont. It has a clean light sweetness rather than Aunt Jemima imitation maple syrup sweetness. But the thing you remember is the sweetness.

Whisky is more complex. Fruitiness, even ripe vs unripe fruit sometimes comes through. Smoke, peat and sea are in there. Maybe it is the longer time spent in the wood. Maybe it is the fact that water flowing through peat derived from different sources produces a more complex flavor. It is that complex aroma and taste that we find so appealing and sometimes hard to describe. Scotland, an island known for exporting mercenaries and a harsh liquid did not a develop vernacular to describe their national drink. The Scots eat sheep innards and drink whisky to celebrate festive occasions! I found myself anticipating the attack on my palate that only whisky provides.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst up was the Balvenie 14 year, Caribbean Cask. It was difficult to see the color in the subdued light of the beachside bar. We were nestled into the shadows so as not to draw attention to the fact that we were not drinking house rums. One of the members described the fruity aroma “like raisins”. We added a little water. This brought out more of the malty flavors and one person thought he tasted brown sugar. The finish was long with a little molasses. But, we were definitely back to whisky!

Next up was Bruichladdich 17 year Rum Cask. This whisky spends 16 years in bourbon casks and then is transferred to a rum cask for the final year. This whisky seemed lighter. It was fruitier to the nose. On the palate it was way more complex than the rums. Unlike the Balvenie expression where the rum taste was upfront, the rum taste in the ‘laddich is more in the finish. This whisky’s sweetness was more bourbon oak sweet with the rum contributing at the end.

Finally, the Glenfiddich Gran Reserva, 21 Year was opened. For those that favor “sweet smoke” this may be the perfect whisky. The dried fruit and smoke came through to the nose. The sweetness on the palate was more honey than molasses sweetness. This last whisky best displayed the complexity of peat, smoke and sweet.

We negotiated with the security personnel at the bar. A small crack in the rules would allow us to smoke cigars if our feet were on the beach. We moved our chairs forward and lit up. As the night wound down and the ocean breezes picked up our impressions of the whiskies were captured. The conversation turned to the real mission of the Zulu whisky club: friendship.

We continued to sample the various bottles as we shared stories from the past. Glasses were filled, drained and refilled as the night and the stories unfolded. Some stories are retold at every whisky tasting event. The banter back and forth shows the weakness of some arguments and strengthens the bonds between the members.

The Zulu Whisky Club has not yet attained a level of expertise to which we aspire. But, as whisky enthusiasts we are well on our way.