Category Archives: Richard’s Blog

Atlanta whiskey tastings?

Just so we’re clear, I want everyone who visits our site to know that I really hate Matt.  Yes, of course we’re friends and all that but I still hate him.  Why?  Because New York is soooooooooo much more of whiskey town than Atlanta.  More bars, better selections, more niche liquor stores, need I go on?  And now the S.O.B. is doing wonderfully successful whiskey tastings to boot!

So in an effort to liven up the Atlanta whiskey scene and help me hate Matt a little less I’m putting a question/invitation out there.  Is there interest in whiskey tastings in the metro Atlanta area?  If so then shoot me an email.  Bourbon, Scotch, Rye, Irish, or whatever you fancy, it doesn’t matter.  Let’s work to bring more whiskey to the ATL.

– Richard

Georgia and their wonderful Blue Laws

I’m going to try to keep this blog as PG rated as possible.  That said, I’m really pretty pissed off.   Matt and I were talking about our new “Gateway” series of reviews over the weekend and we thought a good way to save money would be grabbing some miniature bottles of some the regulars like Jim Beam, Bushmills White Label, etc.  It seemed more cost effective that going out and dropping $300.  So yesterday I headed out to Total Wine in Dunwoody.  I’ve spoken before about this particular establishment.  It’s well laid out, has a broad selection, and best of all it has a wall of miniatures to buy from.  The selection of these is nice but what I really like is the fact that they aren’t buried behind the counter where you can’t see them.  That’s one of my major pet peeves with liquor stores. 

So I go in last night and notice that they’ve moved things around.  No big deal.  Or so I thought.  By the time I’d walked through the store I noticed that they were missing something.  LIQUOR!  It was all wine and beer.  I asked one of the guys working there and he said that they were told by the state that they couldn’t sell liquor anymore.  The reason?  The way the blue laws are written in Georgia to prevent gas stations and grocery stores from selling spirits is written ignorantly broad.  Apparently, in Georgia if a retail company owns two or more store locations then it is prohibited from selling spirits.  Because Total wine has two locations, they can no longer sell spirits.  How F—–G stupid is that? 

I accept the no sales on Sunday because I grew up here.  I accept that a restaurant has to wait until 12:30 PM on Sunday’s to pour because I figure I can wait.  But this is just stupid.   Maybe one day we’ll pull ourselves out of the dark ages.  Until then, I’d like to formally raise a middle finger to Blue Laws of the great state of Georgia.

Fad Focus 3 – Barrel/Cask Strength

It’s that time again. It’s time for me to highlight another growing fad or trend within the whiskey industry. We’ve discuss rampant peating levels of scotch and the explosion of wood finishes across the industry. Today I want to talk about strength. Not strength of character but rather the alcohol strength at which whiskeys are bottled.The level of alcohol content in a bottle of whiskey is measured in one of two ways. The most straightforward is using “ABV” or “alcohol by volume” measures. If a whiskey states that it is 43% ABV that means that 43% of the liquid content of that bottle at the time of bottling is alcohol. What’s the rest? Mostly water.

“Well then, what’s this ‘proof’ I see on some of the bottle?”

The term “proof” comes from 18th century Great Britain. The idea being that a “proof spirit” was the minimum level of alcohol in a particular spirit that would sustain combustion of gunpowder. The term originated when the rations of rum to sailors were “proofed” by seeing if gunpowder would still light when doused with the rum. This made sure the rum wasn’t watered down. In today’s terms the proof of particular spirits is twice the alcohol by volume. For example, a 90 proof spirit contains 45% ABV.

Originally, whiskey was sold by the barrel. You’d go to your local merchant and fill up your bottles from the barrel. The whiskey you get then was always barrel strength. (Unless the merchant water it down!) Over time distilleries and merchants began bottling the whiskey themselves. For the larger part of the 20th century whiskeys on both sides of the Atlantic were commercially bottled near 40% ABV. Mostly because this was the minimum legal alcohol content allowed if you wanted to call your product whiskey. If you’re trying to maximize your profits then you want the least amount of alcohol in the bottle as possible. That way the alcohol coming out of your barrels will go farther, thus allowing you to sell more bottles and make more money. There were some obvious exceptions to this. Wild Turkey 101 is probably the most well known.

In the last 15 years or so we’ve seen this trend change. More and more bourbon, and scotch distilleries are bottling at higher and higher strengths. They’ve determined that the flavor profile loses something in the process of watering down. This varies by whiskey. Some lend themselves more to higher strengths than others. The most prevalent example in my mind is George T. Stagg. Stagg is an uncut and unfiltered barrel proof bourbon that is part of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection releases. It’s never hit the bottle at less than 64% ABV. Despite the high alcohol content this stuff is scary smooth. Matt bought a bottle of Stagg for me a few years back and he, my wife, and I dusted off half the bottle that night. It didn’t seem like much at the time but the next morning we were all feeling it.

While Stagg is quite wonderful, if you look at the numbers, it can be pretty scary. The lowest proof release was in 2004 at 129 proof/64.5% ABV. There have been four releases that topped 70% ABV. These were referred to as “Hazmat” releases. They were called this because anything 70% ABV or higher can’t legally be brought on commercial flights and is deemed Hazardous Materials. The Hazmat releases culminated n the 2007 Hazmat IV release. It was bottled at a whopping 144.8 proof/72.4% ABV. That’ll wake you up!

Unfortunately, not all whiskey is George T. Stagg. I’ve found none that are as smooth at that strength. In my opinion, bourbon tends to hold up better at higher proofs than other whiskeys. Scotch, Irish, and Japanese seem too subtle and delicate of flavor and balance in most cases to drink above 50% ABV. So what do you do? You add water. Which really gets us back to the 40% or so ABV that the whiskey used to be bottled at. There’s nothing wrong with bottling at 40% to 43% ABV. Some of my favorite whiskeys are bottled in that range.

There are arguments both ways. On the one hand I like being able to pour something from the bottle and drink it. I don’t like having to monkey around with water to get it to an enjoyable balance. On the other hand, you get more for your money when you buy at higher strengths. The whiskey lasts longer.

Then there are those that want it at cask or barrel proof for the “purity of the spirit”. The easiest example I can think of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They buy and store their own barrels and always bottle uncut and unfiltered for their members. More power to them. It’s just not my thing.

It’s really up to you to decide what you prefer. If you like to drink it from the pour like me, then the ever escalating proof can be annoying. If you want the value or the barrel purity then it’s a boon for you. Either way, you should drink, enjoy, and proselytize.

Slainte,

Richard

Lost apostles?

Some of you may be thinking…”Aren’t there two guys that run this site?” 

Yes, you are correct.  I’ve been pretty derilict in my duties lately.  Matt has been picking up my slack admirably but I’m way overdue for some contributions.  I’ve got a few blogs on tap that I hope to post soon.

But what about the other missing apostles?  Confused?  I’m talking about all of you out there.  Matt and I run this site for the love of the dram but we’d also like to know that we’re being helpful, informative, amusing, or whatever.  To do that we need feedback from the readers.  We’ve got a few enhancements and resources in mind for Whisk(e)yApostle.com but we’re always brainstorming for new stuff.  What do you folks like?  Dislike?  What types of resources and content would you like to see added? 

Drop us a line.  Comments to the posts or emails directly to us are always welcome.  Let us know what you think.

– Richard

The Beating of the Blend: Artist vs. Craftsman

I generally try to be diplomatic about whiskey on Whisk(e)y Apostle. I think that if you have a website providing something resembling educational or informational content then it’s only good form to be as nonpartisan as possible and clearly state that something is your opinion when it is so and not speak in absolutes.

Today I’m going to break ranks with that and say the typical American single malt drinker is (notice the definitive verb there) a snobbish idiot. There…I said it. I’ve been thinking it for a long time. I just couldn’t keep it bottled up inside any longer. “But aren’t you an American single malt drinker?” you may ask. Yes I am. And I went through a phase of this a number of years back. It was when I was trying cigars, drinking more single malt, and generally thinking I was more sophisticated than I really was. In short, I was an idiot.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well, it’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. What finally sent me over the edge was a post I saw on a forum that I’m a member of. This question was posted:

“Do you guys ever drink single malt scotch on the rocks or do you consider the very idea an affront to all that is good, decent, and proper about whisky?”

Granted that’s a loaded question but there are gentlemen on that forum with good taste in liquid libations so I was curious to see the responses. What followed were general answers like this:

“Single Malts on the rocks is indeed a waste of money. If you want to drink it on the rocks, save money and buy Blended.”

“Honestly, you’re just throwing money away….And as much as that sounds like liquor-snob posturing and “look how macho I am, drinking my whisky straight from the bottle,” I’m really not trying to be. There are some fine blended whiskeys out there that go well on the rocks, and I drink them too.”

These responses annoyed me on two fronts. First, as we say here over and over again, drink it how you like. No one else’s opinion (and it is an opinion, not some mandate from God) matters. I understand the points made in the prior example. Yes chilling the whisky numbs out some of the flavors. But so does not adding water. As long as the water is room temperature it will open up flavors and aromas that you can’t fully appreciate at bottle strength. Do I like mine with water? No. I don’t like it with ice either but we’re not talking about my drink. We’re talking about yours. You’re buying it. You’re drinking it. You get to have it however you want.

But what really bothered me was the left handed slight toward blended scotch. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people rattling on about the superiority of single malts versus blends. “Oh blends are where you start. Once you’re ready to really appreciate scotch try single malts.” “Blends just don’t have the flavor or complexity of good single malt.” And on and on and on. It’s a pile a crap. Just because YOU don’t like blends doesn’t make them inferior. You just don’t like them. That’s your opinion not a fact.

Are there crappy blends out there? Sure, but there are just as many crappy single malts too. It’s not like I’m measuring Dewar’s Signature against Big Al MacLeod’s discount malt. There are plenty of single malts out there far inferior to regular blends like Johnnie Walker Black.

Truth be told it takes as much if not more skill to make quality blends than it does to make good single malt. It may take different skills maybe but not fewer skills. You have be able to source and pull together dozens of different single malt and grain whiskies into a solid uniform piece, balancing and marrying flavors into cohesion. Is it hard to play the trumpet? Yes. Is it less impressive to pull together an entire symphony? I don’t think so.

I think of it like this: The master distiller is the true craftsman, but the master blender is the true artist. Are either the artist or craftsman lacking in skill, talent, or focus? Of course not, they just create differently. The blender is the symphony conductor pulling together all the pieces and parts into what you hold in your hand. They are taking all the different instruments and making something greater than the sum of its parts. Think about that the next you try a blended scotch.

Slainte,
Richard