All posts by Richard

Founding Apostle

Fad Focus #1: Peat

Whisky, like most things goes through phases. Some of these phases are more macroeconomic like the historical boom and bust periods for whisky sales and their impacts on production and distillery openings and closings. Other phases tend to seem more like fads.

fad – noun
a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., esp. one followed enthusiastically by a group

– Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006

Fads are not necessarily a bad thing. All fads aren’t the equivalent of a polyester leisure suit. In whisky fads tend to be inroads to innovation. This blog will be my first in a 3+ part series discussing the various fads in whisky that have come and gone. Today’s focus will be the continued “peatification” (I just made that word up) of whisky in recent years.

What is peat you ask? Peat is an accumulation of decayed or decaying vegetation that typically forms in damp regions that can be cut, dried, and used for fuel. When it comes to whisky, peat can be used in peat fires to dry malted barley that will go into making whisky. At a very basic level this tends to impart a smoky flavor most prevalent in Scotch. Peat taken from coastal areas may also impart a salty or briny flavor in addition to the smoke.

In years past Scotch was easily categorized by its use of peat. Today the degree of peat used in Scotch production varies widely by region and distillery. Islay tends to be known as the powerhouse region for producing peaty whiskies but peat branched out. Connemara Irish Whiskeys use peat and tend to taste more like Scotch than their Irish brethren.

How do we measure how peaty a whisky is? Peat levels are measured by the phenol level in parts per million, usually abbreviated as “ppm”. Phenols are organic compounds imparted on the malted barley when peat is burned to dry the barley. The higher the ppm level is, the more heavily peated the whisky.

So you may be saying “thanks for the history lesson but this has gone on for decades, why is this a fad?” Well, using peat isn’t. The degree to which we’re seeing peat used is. A long time ago in a whisky industry far, far away whiskies were all easily categorized and labeled. Irish was triple distilled and unpeated. Speyside had very little peat (0 to 10ppm lets say). Islay whiskies were heavily peated (20 to 30ppm lets say). Campbeltown and Highland whiskies fell somewhere in the middle. In this land of yore the Speysides were deemed the most desirable because they were easier to drink without all that peat and more closely resembled the famous blends that sold so well. This is partly how brands like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet became the powerhouses that they are today. The more peaty stuff was relegated to aficionados and blends.
Jump a head a few decades and Scotch started seeing a boom in interest. With the boom came the desire for new and differentiated experiences. Those peaty whiskies started getting more attention because they have a more robust flavor.

With me so far? Good because this is where things start to turn the corner. As the push towards peat accelerated we started seeing distilleries releasing peatier and peatier whiskies. At first these whiskies came from their peatier stocks that may have gone into blends before. However, soon they started making their whiskies peatier. From out of nowhere Bruichladdich comes out with Port Charlotte at 40ppm and Ardbeg blasts out with whiskies like their Uigeadail release. Now peat is really kicked into high gear. Then last year Bruichladdich came out with Octomore at whapping 131 ppm.

Let me just say that I like peated whiskies. I like them a lot. Some of my absolute favorite drams are very peaty. But it’s seems that we’re getting to the point where we’re kicking up the peat notch more and more just for the sake of doing it.

I liken it to hot sauce. I love spicy food. I love hot sauce on just about everything to some degree. But there are sauces out there that take the heat to such an extreme that they sacrifice flavor. I worry that Scotch may head in that directions. 131ppm! When will the madness stop?

– Richard

Doh!

Okay, so I screwed up this weekend. I decided to head out on a whiskey search. Let me tell you that this is no small endeavor. Atlanta is not known as a hotbed of whiskey activity. Finding a quality dram is not as easy as you’d think. Finding a tasty bottle of some rare or hard to find tipple is almost impossible. It’s the nature of the beast. We’re the Grandpoobah of all Blue Law states so what do you expect. But I digress. So I started searching a few of my regular haunts.

First, I went to Total Wine in Dunwoody. This place just opened and it is a new liquor superstore. Think Binny’s in Chicago but with more wine and less liquor. No luck. There was a lot of “been there, done that“.

Next, I trotted on down to Pearson’s Wine Merchants in Buckhead. Pearson’s is actually listed as a “Malt 100” liquor store by The Malt Advocate but going in there now you’d never know it. Pearson’s selection must have declined since grabbing the “Malt 100” notation. There was one high point, Ardbeg 10 Year Old. Since Glenmorangie PLC’s purchase by LVMH and the relaunch of their brands the price of Ardbeg has sky rocketed. In Atlanta the 10 Year Old normally sells for around $65. (It’s 10 freakin’ years old!) But Pearson’s happened to carry it for about $42. Sold! But the initial search continued.

Finally, I rolled into Mac’s on 10th & W. Peachtree in Midtown. I thought I’d seen something here a few weeks ago and prayed that it was still there. As I walked down the bourbon isle I saw it…Parker’s Heritage Collection First Edition 1996! Ooh I was excited. They had two bottles. I snaked one, paid, and walked out happily on my way.

Then I got home. The recent issue of The Malt Advocate noted the second edition of Parker’s with a 96/100 and a pretty phenomenal review by John Hansell. I looked at some back issues and found the first edition in the Q1 2008 issue. Uh oh. There were three listed. All titled the same but one was 61.3% ABV (95/100), the second was 63.7% ABV (94/100) and the third was 64.8% ABV (80/100). Which one did I have? Yep, 64.8% ABV.

I realize this is just an arbitrary rating. But that said, I respect Mr. Hansell’s opinion. I found through trial and error that he and I share a more similar palate than a lot of other whiskey writers. But still, it’s the taste right? Well I was so flummoxed that I couldn’t open it. I’ll dive in later this week and post a review. For now I’m a little annoyed, both with myself and a little bit with Heaven Hill. I understand that it’s 95% my fault for not doing my research. However, I do feel Heaven Hill should have distinguished their bottlings a little better. The idea of three separate whiskies as a first edition seems counterintuitive to me. But I’m just me and what do I know? Anyway, I’ll do some tasting and maybe it will all work out in the end.

Cheers!

-Richard

The Jameson Whiskey Martini…

Last weekend I was out having dinner with my wife at our favorite Thai restaurant. When we sat down the waitress placed the menus in front of us and also their drinks menu. I don’t usually order more than the occasional glass of wine at this particular restaurant. It definitely has a 4J bar. However, this time the waitress put my drinks menu down upside down. I glanced down and saw something interesting. “Jameson Whisky Martini” it said. Aside from spelling it wrong (Irish whiskies are generally “whiskey” not “whisky”) the idea of a martini-like tipple made with Jameson piqued my interest so I ordered one.

About three minutes latter the waitress comes walking towards our table carrying a drink that could not possibly be mine. But in following Murphy’s Laws and a few of my own she set the drink right in front of me. My wife and I both just stared. For the love of God the thing was blue! I’m not entirely sure how you make a brown spirit turn blue but that’s what it was. Well, I paid for it and in the spirit of open mindedness I indulged in this aqua colored marvel.

Here’s what I tasted…

• Blue curacao
• Sweet & sour mix
• Peach schnapps
• Cherry syrup (I think)

Oh and there was a cherry floating in the bottom of the martini glass. You know what I didn’t taste? Jameson. I don’t really know how you call it a “Jameson Whiskey Martini” and not actually be able to taste any Jameson. And did I mention it was blue? Really? Blue?

I’m not sure whose idea it was to start replacing vodka with whiskey in cocktails but that just doesn’t cut it. Vodka and whiskey are too VERY different spirits and are in no way interchangeable. When you put vodka in a cocktail you really just want alcohol in what you’re drinking. When you’re working with a whiskey you want the cocktail components to compliment the spirit, not mask it. This blue wonder was a travesty to the Jameson name. It just goes to show that not all whiskey cocktails are created equal. Choose wisely my friends.

-Richard

The 4J Bar…

I’d like to avoid using this blog as a way to vent my frustrations but I’ve got to bring up the bane of my drinking existence…The 4J Bar. What is a 4J Bar you ask? Oh you’ve seen them whether you know it or not. It could be a restaurant, a pub, a hotel bar, or any other trendy or not so trendy place to grab a drink. You’ll know the 4J Bar because when you look up behind the bartender you only see around four different whiskies. Usually they consist of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, John Walker, and Jameson. This may not be the exact make up of the bar (and I personally have nothing against any of these) but my list is alliterative and you get the gist of what I’m saying. Basically, their whiskey selection doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying that every place that serves alcohol should be a whiskey bar (God I wish!) but especially places that obviously put thought into their beer and wine selections could put a little more effort toward their whiskey.

The kicker is that those four or so bottles of whiskey are bunched in around 400 bottles of vodkas and liqueurs. I’m sorry but you just don’t need that much vodka. You’re paying for the name not the taste (or lack there of). Nine times out of ten that vodka’s going into a cocktail where you can’t tell if it’s Grey Goose or Smirnoff. Show me someone who can and I’ll show you a liar. “But I drink my vodka straight and I can tell the difference.” No you can’t. At best you can sort them into three groups: Premium, mid-tier, and crap. If I line you up with a blind tasting of Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ulitmat, and Stolichnaya and tell you to pick Belvedere out of that group you’ll probably be right…25% of the time.

Why am I harping on this? Because whiskey isn’t like vodka, they all taste different. However, we live in a vodka world. It’s cheaper for the bar to buy and they sell those cocktails for the same price as a quality dram. And the endless herds of Trendy Wendys buy them by the gallons. Buy cheap, sell high, vodka wins every time.

So what can we do about this you say? Say something. Ask the bartender why they don’t stock more whiskies. Tell the manager that you love the food but you’d like to see more whiskies on the bar menu. Mention to the owner what a rising tide there is in the interest of quality whiskies and that they could really capitalize on that with just a little more variety. Make your voice heard. Eventually, if enough of us say something we might start seeing a bottle of Macallan or Rittenhouse.

-Richard

Keeping an open mind…

This being my first blog (both for Whisk(e)y Apostle (and in general).  I thought that the topic should be relatively important. There are a lot of things I could go on about but what I really want to address is an issue that I’ve seen for years and continue to see. It’s something that affects both the seasoned whisky devotee and the neophyte alike…open mindedness. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone snub their nose at one drink or another because of perceived inferiority. Irish whiskey, bourbon, blended scotch, and Canadian whisky come up most often but I don’t think any drink is immune to this phenomenon.
This usually manifests in one of the following ways:

1. “The flavors aren’t as pronounced” – B.S.

There are a multitude of flavors in every type of whisky if you’re just open minded enough to give them a chance. The flavors can be very different from type to type and within types, but that discovery is half the fun. Don’t let anyone tell you a blended scotch is bland. A good blended scotch can be a symphony of layered flavors in the hands of a good blender. You’ll only know if you try it for yourself.

2. “They aren’t made as well” – B.S.

It takes just as much work to make bourbon as it does to make good single malt and it takes more work on the back end to make a quality blend. All the men and women who make whisky, whatever the variety put just a much time and sweat (not literally) into their product as anyone else. Don’t sell their hard work short without at least giving it a taste.

3. “That type of whisky doesn’t taste very good” – B.S.

Have you tried them all? No. Is every iteration of a particular type of whisky good? No. But there are plenty of good ones out there and if you dismiss a category based on one or two bad drams then you’re really missing out.

4. “I just don’t like them” – Fine, I’ll give you this one.

Taste is a personal thing. You don’t have to like every thing. Different strokes for different folks.

Whenever I’m conversing with someone and they make one of these statements my response is to ask “Why?” This usually elicits a quizzical look. I follow up with “why do think blended scotch/bourbon is inferior to single malts?” We’ll go back and forth and if I can convince them to just give it a try 4 out of 5 times they’re very surprised.

My point in all of this? Taste it. Try it. Experience it. Don’t dismiss a whisky without deciding for yourself. Matt and I have had quite a few drams, both together and apart. Do we agree on all of them? No. Is that okay? Yes. Try as many different whiskies as you can and make up your own mind. Whisky, like life is definitely about the journey, not the destination.

-Richard