Memorial Day

Sorry we’ve been M.I.A. for a little while.  Stay tuned for our review of Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey, Batch #2.  Good stuff.  Then we will get back to our Gateway Series with Gentlemen Jack from Jack Daniel’s.

For the Memorial Day weekend, I will be out in Boulder, CO sampling as many micro-brews as I can find.  I was hoping to hit up Stranahan’s new digs in Denver while out there, but they’ve got the weekend off after non-stop 17 hour days since moving.  Maybe next time.

If you’re in Boulder this weekend and see a guy with a handlebar mustache and a chin-strap beard ask him if he’s a whiskey apostle, ’cause it’s probably me.

Since everyone will be breaking out their grills this weekend, I was wondering what your favorite backyard bar-be-que dram would be.  Personally, I grill with a beer in hand and settle in to a nice whisk(e)y after dinner.  What’s in my glass changes with the wind.  This feels like an American whiskey weekend, something smoky and strong, maybe barrel proof.  Four Roses Single Barrel perhaps, or maybe George T. Stagg.  Summertime is also a great time to break out the cocktails.  Something cool and simple is always my preference.  Try a Rye and Ginger, a Mint Julep, or a Lynchburg Lemonade.  Very refreshing.

Raise a glass to the fighting and the fallen this weekend.  Drink well, drink responsibly.

-Matt

Balvenie 17yo Retrospective

Balvenie 17yo Releases in reverse chronological order.
Balvenie 17yo Releases in reverse chronological order.

Friday night, Sam Simmons (known as Dr. Whisky to some) hosted a class at Astor Center, titled “The Influence of Wood Finishing on Whisky: A Retrospective of The Balvenie 17yr.”  Needless to say, I was excited when I first heard about this event.  Since the release of Glenmorangie’s line of wood finishes, I have dreamed of either hosting or attending a class where participants were given the opportunity for side by side tastings of variously finished whiskies.  In my head, this class would include tastings of the finishing barrel’s previous contents.  Sam, it seems, is of a same mind.  Although he used the various Balvenie 17yo releases instead of the Glenmorangie that sparked the idea in my head, I could not have been more thrilled (he is the Balvenie brand ambassador for the US after all).

Sam started the night with little history about the Balvenie and why it is his favorite distillery (family owned, they grow their own barley, they malt their own barley, employ their own coopers and copper smiths, and of course Master Distiller/Blender David Stewart).  Now you may say, “but Matt, he’s the brand ambassador, doesn’t he have to say these thing?”  Well, yes and no.  He tells the truth on all accounts.  The list above is what makes the Balvenie stand out among the myriad of distilleries sprinkled about Scotland.  Furthermore, Sam asserts that his love of the Balvenie started long before he became an employee of William Grant and Sons.  I think we can trust him on this.

Roughly 70% of whisky’s flavor comes from the barrel.  This is why the type of barrel is so important in the initial maturation and finishing of the product.  To that end, Sam started the evening with some neutral spirits straight from the still.  Not straight from the still exactly, the spirits had been cut to 63% ABV as that is what goes into the barrel for aging.  If you have ever had grappa or moonshine, you have an idea what this tastes like.  The nose smelled faintly of fruit with heavy cereal and alcohol notes.  The taste?  Well, the alcohol is strong with some malty goodness buried in the back.

Next we moved onto the actual whisky.  David Stewart created a firestorm in the whisky industry back in 2000/2001 with the introduction of the Balvenie Islay Cask.  Industry insiders, enthusiasts, and casual drinkers were giddy with this “best of both worlds” style bottling.  David being an adventurous man, he responded with, not more Islay cask, but with a New Wood release in 2005/2006.  Since then, New Oak, Sherry Oak, and Rum Cask have all hit the market.  Apart from the Rum Cask (released just last year), the whiskies are very difficult to find and have become collector’s items.  How any man can buy a bottle of whisky and just look at it, I’ll never know.  Our tasting moved in reverse chronological order.

The Balvenie 17yo Rum Cask spent four months in Jamaican rum casks after 17 years in traditional oak.  This is an excellent dram, but I was hoping for something a little more akin to the Glenfiddich 21yo Rum Cask.  Where the Glenfiddich is well balanced, the Balvenie is a little too sweet for my palate.  It is almost cloying in its sweetness.  Perhaps this is a function of age, but I think that the deeply honeyed nature of the Balvenie just goes over the edge here (slightly).  We tried this along with Appleton Estates Jamaican Rum (one of my favorites).  Sam could not confirm the source of the Jamaican rum casks used at the Balvenie, but we were still able to tasted the lineage of this whisky.  The rum imparts the smells and flavors of bananas and coconuts to the already sweet whisky.  If you’ve ever wanted to taste a whisky that smells like a banana split, here’s your chance.

For the Sherry Oak release, the whisky spent all 17 years in Oloroso sherry butts.   I am not a sherry drinker.  However, I tend to like whiskies produced in this manner (the Macallan, the Glenrothes).  I was interested to see how the Balvenie would hold up to the sherry.  I have to say, it was a let down for me.  Once again, we have a balance problem.  The whisky smelled delightful (like baked apples).  However, the palate was overly sherried for me.  The proof of the connection was provided by a glass of Oloroso sherry.  After a few sips back and forth, I was sure that the sherry was holding the whisky back.

The New Oak release was quite an experiment.  First David Stewart vatted 17yo whisky from sherry casks and bourbon casks.  Then, he aged the vatted whisky in new toasted oak casks for four months.  My favorite whiskey so far, the nose was like creme brulee with traces of mint.  The palate had mint and the traditional honeyed tones morphed into agave and maple syrup.  We tried this with a 12yo Elijah Craig bourbon (a good dram by itself).  Once again, Sam cannot verify the source of the barrels used in the production of this whisky, but he says that he has seen Heaven Hill (the producers of Elijah Craig) barrels around the warehouse.  That is why he chose this particular bourbon to supplement the tasting.

The New Wood release, featured whisky aged first in barrels that previously held Balvenie whiskey then in new oak barrels.  This is a real wine drinker’s whisky (bright, citrusy, oak and honey).  Tried next to a very oaky Chardonnay, this whisky stands out as unique and interesting.  Not a bold whisky by any means, but a good whisky to complement food or to tempt a wine drinker from vine to grain.

Finally, we reached the Islay Cask.  This whisky is long gone from store shelves and is now relegated to online auctions and collector’s cabinets.  It is really a shame though.  This is the best of the five releases so far, and you can see (taste) why this created such an uproar when released.  We tasted this with Laphroaig 10.  Laphroaig is highly peatly and not very well balanced, but it is reasonable to assume that Laphroaig or something similar slept in these casks before they held 17yo Balvenie.  The alchemy of this release is really interesting.  The nose is honeyed smoke, like a bonfire on the beach at dusk as the wind carries scents of honeysuckle from the shore.  The palate carries on the smokey sweetness and adds butter toffee and citrus.  Truly a delightful whisky.

I am grateful to Sam Simmons for offering this class.  It was really a dream come true for me.  Although I curse him for giving me the opportunity to fall in love with another whisky that is beyond my grasp.

After the “Blend Your Own Balvenie Signature Reserve” class, one of our readers asked if there were any plans to take that class to the UK.  Well Ian, I’m afraid neither that class nor this one will be offered over there.  These classes were both stocked from Sam’s personal collection.  Sorry folks.

Drink well.  Drink responsibly.
-Matt

Gateway Series #3: Jack Daniels Old No.7

This week we continue our Gateway Series with another staple of American whiskey, Jack Daniel’s Old No.7.

Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Sour Mash Tennessee Whiskey
40% ABV (80 Proof), about $20
Available: Most Widely Available Whiskey In The World

What the distillery says:
Jack Daniel’s, the best selling whiskey in the world, was established in 1866 and is crafted at America’s oldest registered distillery in the small town of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Made using the finest grains and pure, iron-free water from our cave spring, Jack Daniel’s is a unique whiskey that is slowly mellowed drop by drop through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal and matured in new American oak barrels to achieve its smooth character.

What Richard says:
Nose: On the nose I get mostly burnt caramel and vanilla. There is also a subtle undercurrent of wildflowers.
Palate: Candied oak? It sounds odd but that’s what it tastes like. Overall the palate is very smooth and almost chewy. Very mellow. So much so that there are not a lot of “strong” flavors that stand out to be recognized.
Finish: This has a much smoother finish than comparable bourbons. There is a little bit of peppery spice but mostly I’m left with an odd sort of tartness.
Comments: Personally, I think Jack Daniel’s is one of the best gateway whiskeys around. It is very smooth and drinkable. In terms of consistency, with the millions of bottle a year that they sell, you really can’t get much more consistent. While I would prefer Jack with Coke, I’m not against drinking it straight. The charcoal mellowing really adds to the smoothness and drinkability over like bourbons. If it wasn’t for that weird tart finish I’d like it even more.
Rating: Average

What Matt says:
Nose: Orange shellac primarily. With water, it opens up to potpourri (more pungent/sharp/floral than sweet).
Palate: Smooth and bland. Old No. 7 is so “mellow” it is difficult to grasp good tasting notes. There are faint traces of oak and orange peel.
Finish: Smooth and dry with very little burn. Does not linger.
Comments: There is nothing interesting or impressive about this whiskey. There is nothing terribly off-putting either. The smoothness and mildness of flavor makes Old No. 7 a better mixer than Jim Beam White Label. What makes Jack desirable (and a great gateway whiskey) is its lack of distinctive character. Do not waste your time sipping this one. Use this for mixers when you are feeling lazy.
Rating: Probably Pass (unless making a cocktail)

Overall Rating: Average (good if you are planning on mixing or looking for gentle entry into the world of whiskey)

Gateway Series #2: Jim Beam Black

For part #2 in our Gateway Series, we’re looking at the next tier in the Jim Beam family.

Jim Beam Black 8yo Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
43% ABV/86 Proof
Available just about everywhere

What the distillery says:
Elegant.  Smooth.  Refined.  That’s what eight years of aging will do to a bourbon.  Until it’s sweet like caramel.  Meant to be sipped.  Savored.

It’s not bragging if you can back it up.  And the Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago gave Jim Beam Black the highest rating among leading North American whiskeys in 2003.  We knew that beforehand.  But it’s nice to have some confirmation.

What Richard says:
Nose: More complex than the standard white label.  There’s a lot of caramel
with a herbal almost medicinal under current.
Palate:
More robust than the white label in flavor but still plenty of
kick.  It continues to be rough around the edges but you can taste the
improvement of age.  There is a sweeter center to the palate but it’s
still peppery with a good bit of alcohol.
Finish:
It goes down smoother than the standard expression but that’s not
really hard.  It is still one of the rougher 8 year old bourbons that I’ve
had.
Comments:
Black label is something that stands up well in cocktails.  Much
more so that the standard white label expression.  You actually get some
bourbon flavor instead of just alcohol content.  That said, this still
isn’t something I’m going to sit and sip neat.
Rating: In cocktails: Average, Neat: Probably Pass

What Matt says:
Nose: More pleasant than the White Label.  Lots of caramel.  With water, the sweetness turns to floral with overtones of nail polish remover.
Palate: A boatload of oak (too much) and much mellower than the White Label.  The sourness present in the younger expression is still there, but sits further back and smooths out.
Finish: I’m with Richard on this one.  Rougher than most 8yo bourbons but much less burn than the White Label.
Comments: Good in cocktails.  While whiskeys like Jim Beam White Label give bourbon a bad wrap, Black Label takes it up a notch (not a big step though).  Again, I’m with Richard.  Not something I would voluntarily drink neat.
Rating: In cocktails: Average, Neat: Probably Pass

Overall Rating:  Probably Pass unless it is for a cocktail

Events Around The World

Just a heads up for our readers abroad and our traveling friends. There are some pretty great events this week.

If you happen to be hanging around the Speyside region of Scotland, you probably already know that the Spirit of Speyside Festival is this week. From May 1-10, there will be special meal deals, parties, distillery tours and tastings. One of the treats this week is a special distillery tour of Glenrothes. Glenrothes is not usually open to the public. If anyone out there gets to do this, Matt will be totally jealous. It’s one of his favorite distilleries. For more info go to www.spiritofspeyside.com.

This Friday (May 8th) is the Spirit of Toronto. There is live Jazz, great food, a cigar lounge, over 100 whiskeys to sample and more. Tickets are still available. For more info go to www.spiritoftoronto.ca. We won’t be able to attend, but say ‘hi’ to Dr. Whisky (Sam Simmons) and Mark Gillespie (WhiskyCast) for us.

As a reminder, the 16th Annual Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza is making its stop in New York City this thursday (May 7th). For more info check out www.singlemaltextravaganza.com.

May is Whisky Month in Scotland. There will be “Spirit of…” events all over Scotland. If you are lucky enough to be traveling to Scotland this month, try to take advantage of the great offerings. For details, go here.

We just got word that the folks from Charbay are going to be at Davidoff of Geneva in New York City on June 24th. No word yet on time or price, but they will be pouring whiskey, rum and port from their Napa Valley distillery. As more information is available, we’ll pass it along.

For our traveling readers, don’t forget to hit up the Duty Free. Look out for the many whisk(e)y expressions available only at travel retail locations. Glenmorangie has a new expression (Sonnalta) that is getting some pretty good buzz. The Macallan has an entire travel retail series, the 1824 Collection. Available now are The Macallan Select Oak, Whisky Maker’s Edition, and Estate Reserve. Balvenie GoldenCask 14yo, finished in Carribean Rum Casks is new to Travel Retail. Also, check out anCnoc and Highland Park 21yo. John Hansell of Malt Advocate broke the news that Highland Park is planning on dropping the proof of the 21yo from 47.5% ABV all the way down to 40% ABV. They claim to have good reason, but this is most likely going to change the character of this very fine whisky. So, pick this one up while you can still get it at 47.5% ABV. There are other interesting drams to pick up at Travel Retail/Duty Free, this is just to get you started.

If you’ve got any events coming up in your area, let us know and we will put it up.