Drinking In A Depressed Economy

Despite the worldwide economic crisis, the whiskey industry continues to see growth. While people are spending less at bars, liquor stores are feeling flush. Unfortunately for the consumer, this means that prices are going up as supply comes down. So, you ask, how am I to expand my whiskey experience without going broke? Well, that is the subject of my latest blog, the best values in whisk(e)y.

Face it, if you are on a budget, you are not going to go out and buy a 25 year old Macallan. However, that does not mean that you have to subsist on Rebel Yell and Bell’s Scottish whisky. You can get some bang for your buck.

Of all the types of whisk(e)y, bourbon is going to give you the best value. If you live in Kentucky, or a state with low interstate and alcohol tariffs, then this is doubly true for you. Finding a decent bourbon for under $25 should not be difficult, regardless of where you live. To my mind, the standard issue Buffalo Trace or the yellow label Four Roses bourbon is the best you can get at this price point. For a few dollars more, you can upgrade to the Four Roses Small Batch or Elmer T. Lee.

If you can handle it, rye whiskey is also a great value. Russell’s Reserve 6yo is quite affordable, but my recommendation is the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100 proof. Russell’s Reserve is still a little harsh for my taste.

You will not see us write about Canadian whisky very often, but one of the best deals in whisk(e)y is Forty Creek Barrel Select. In my experience, you typically need to spend a lot of money to get a Canadian whisky suitable for anything other than a cocktail. Forty Creek is the first affordable (around $25) Canadian whisky that has a great taste and a full bodied profile that stands up to other whiskeys (stay tuned to Whisk(e)y Apostle for a formal review of 40 Creek).

For other whiskeys, we are going to have to go up a bit to get a decent dram, but you still don’t have to break the bank.

If you are looking for a deal with Irish whiskey, I will once again suggest Redbreast. Redbreast is one of a handful of pure pot stilled whiskeys from Ireland. You will never find another whiskey this complex at this price (around $45). The nose and palate are both filled with sweetness and botanicals. If you don’t have a bottle of this on your shelf, shame on you. You can also pick up some Irish blends (Black Bush is my favorite). Stock standard Jameson or Bushmill’s are also great values, but will likely not take you on the sensuous journey that you should expect from your dram.

When it comes to Scottish whisky, most distilleries offer a 10yo or 12yo option for a reasonable price. Chance are, if you like a more expensive version, you will like the economy version. Just don’t expect the same nuance. You can also get a deal on older whiskies by purchasing independent bottlings. However, unless you can taste before you buy or can find a review you trust, you can really get burned on independent bottles that do not retain any of the characteristics of the distillery from which they originated.

Blended Scotches are always an option, but most good blends cost as much as single malts. Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle are trusted brands. If you are going to go with Johnnie Walker, you should be able to find the Green label for less that $50, the Black for less than $40, and the Red for less than $30.

If you want to get the most of your whisk(e)y selections, find some friends who are also into whiskey and coordinate your purchases. Then get together and have a tasting. After all, what use is a good dram if you can’t share?

*Prices are estimated. Actual prices in your area could vary greatly.*

‘The Best’

Inevitably, when we are out proselytizing, someone asks the question, “What is the best whiskey?” For someone new to whiskey, this seems like a reasonable question. “Tell me what is best and I’ll try that,” is the implication. However, what is best for me may be swill for you. You may find the Bowmore Legend to be the finest thing on earth, but I would not touch it with Richard’s tongue. Taste is subjective and much more complicated than one might think. What are we really looking for? The best value? The best flavor? The best bourbon? The best Irish? Scotch? And on and on. So, I recruited Richard and we will be tackling this most perplexing of questions in a our first ever joint blog (not counting reviews).

Matt’s Answer:
I can tell you that I would drink Glenmorangie Original every day and be happy. I will recommend Redbreast Irish whiskey to everyone. And, I could drink anything produced at Buffalo Trace or Four Roses and be contented. The next logical question is, “Why?”

Again, a question more complicated than it seems. Is Glenmorangie Original the best single malt Scotch that I have tasted? Not by a long shot (that is a tight race between a Claret Aged Glen Grant and Macallan 30). However, Glenmorangie Original is a great whiskey at a good price and it holds a great deal of sentimental value to me. When I was a student at the University of Wales, my flat mates would often find me watching rugby or ‘Neighbors’ with my giant mug of Glenmorangie in the common room. It was my time in Wales that really crystallized my love of single malt Scotch. I could get a good bottle for very little at the Co-Op down the road. The selection rotated through the regions and Glenmorangie was my favorite of the offerings.

There are stories behind my love of the other distilleries as well. I have a deep affection, deeper than mere tasting notes, for the distilleries that top my list. Sure, I factor in taste, value, and reputation into my recommendations, but do not be surprised if ‘awesome’ is the only statement on taste I can give you off the cuff.

Richard’s Answer:
So Matt tells me that I’m supposed to co-write a blog about the “best whiskey” out there and my experiences with getting that question. I too get that question a good bit. Another version getting to the same point is when I’m asked “which whiskey should I buy?’

“Best whiskey?”[smirk] That’s a bit like picking your favorite child isn’t it? Maybe it’s not as drastic but you see what I’m getting at. Like Matt I have my favorites. But my favorites are not necessarily going to be your favorites. No matter how high the regard in which I hold my tastes and preferences I’m not arrogant enough to say that something is the best. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

Even between Matt and me there is a good bit of disagreement. We grew up in the same area, like the same types of food, and generally don’t have differing opinions on much…except whiskey. On Buffalo Trace we both agree. I kind of think their distillery manager walks on water but that’s just me. On Glenmorangie, not so much. I like it but I’ll take a dram of Macallan or Highland Park over the product of Tain any day.

Even when picking a whiskey for myself “the best” isn’t absolute. It’s really the best at that given moment. The setting, circumstances, and company can play almost as much a part in me picking one whiskey over another as the taste.

Why am I rambling on? Because I want to stress that taste is incredibly subjective. We offer reviews to highlight and inform. We don’t see our opinions as the end all be all on these particular drams. If you ask me what the best is then I will always answer with a question. More likely, I will answer with a series of questions. These questions will help me understand what you are looking for or could be looking for in a whiskey. From there I can recommend something that I think you might like. Putting all the ratings, reviews, and pomposity aside; that’s really the best any of us can hope for.

Spirited Swine

Tonight I experienced the melding of two of mankind’s greatest inventions, distilled spirits and cured meat. Astor Center (the event space for Astor Wines & Spirits in NYC) hosted the Bacon & Bourbon Expo. Mr. Cutlet (Josh Ozersky) played host to the event, where I had the opportunity to pair some of my favorite American whiskeys with a sampling of artisanal smoked meats. The title was a bit of a misnomer. There were nearly as many assorted American whiskeys as true bourbons. I assume the title was for alliteration and because Bacon & Assorted American Whiskey Expo did not roll off the tongue half as well.

I envisioned a semi-guided tour where meat masters conferred with spirit sommeliers to determine pairings of specialty bacons with complimentary whiskeys. Perhaps an applewood smoked bacon with Bernheim’s Wheat Whiskey or something of that nature. However, it was a bit of free-for-all. There were plates stacked with bacon and thick cut pork belly, containers of ham sticks, and a handful of distilleries represented (each with a small selection of their line – about 20 whiskeys in total). There was a long lapse between courses of bacon as the plates emptied, but the event was great fun and I got plenty of bacon and some really great whiskey.

The stand-out whiskey favorites were the Parker’s Heritage 2nd Edition 27 Year Old and the Rittenhouse Very Rare 23 Year Old 100 Proof Rye. As always, the Tuthilltown table was packed as Ralph Erenzo worked his charm on the gathered bourbon enthusiasts. He makes great whiskey, but I’ve got to give this one to Heaven Hill (they make both Parker’s and Rittenhouse).

Even at 96 proof, the Parker’s is dangerously drinkable. One would expect a 27 year old bourbon to be overly woody and a 96 proof bourbon to burn your nose and your throat. This edition of the Parker’s Heritage collection is surprisingly balanced with notes of spice, vanilla, and marzipan. I’m going to give this a ‘Must Try,’ but, at $200, it is out of my price range.

The Rittenhouse is intense, smooth, sweet and spicy. There was a time when I shied away from rye whiskey. After trying some really good ryes (like Sazerac), rye became part of my regular drink list. The Rittenhouse is unique and far smoother than any rye has a right to be. Its price point is higher than the 18yo Sazerac by $20-50 depending on the source and I am not sure that it is worth the difference. Definitely worth a try though.

The bacon list was not as extensive as the whiskey list, but it was quality. My favorites were D’Artagnan’s Hickory Smoked Wild Boar Bacon and the pork belly from RUB (a NYC bar-be-que joint). I can honestly say that I could subsist entirely on pork belly and bourbon.

The big surprise of the evening was the Bacon-Infused Old Fashions being served up by PDT (go here for the recipe). It is even better than it sounds.

As I type this, my throat is raw from talking about whiskey all night and my fingers still smell of smoked pork fat. I think I should go eat a salad.

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

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon

45% ABV/90 Proof
Available in the United States and Europe – $30

What the distillery says:
Marrying, or mingling, multiple Bourbon flavors is an art in itself. Four original and limited Bourbons have been expertly selected by our Master Distiller at the peak of maturation to create a perfectly balanced small batch Bourbon that rewards you with a mellow symphony of rich, spicy flavors along with sweet, fruity aromas and hints of sweet oak and caramel. Finishes soft, smooth and pleasantly long. Best enjoyed straight up, on the rocks, or with a splash.

What Richard says:
Nose: I found this whiskey to have a light and delicate nose that only hinted at the sugar and spice within.
Palate: The first thing you taste is sweetness at the center of the tongue. A subtle pepper blanket surrounds the sweetness and the tongue from the outside in. However the pepper is never too much and really plays a supporting roll in the flavor profile. There is a candy note in there that I cannot place.
Finish: The finish is smooth but slightly astringent and medicinal. There isn’t an overwhelming burn on the finish.
Rating: Stands Out.

What Matt says:
Nose: Light, not overly alcoholic. Hints of brown sugar and white pepper.
Palate: I feel like writers often say a whiskey is spicy, when they mean that it has an alcoholic burn. This whiskey is are great example of actual spice, but is perfectly balanced. It makes me think of Christmas with notes of vanilla, cloves, caramel, and kettle corn(?).
Finish: The whiskey’s astringent qualities mean that the finish does not linger. This, and the minimal burn, mean that the experience is over all too soon. Overall, the Small Batch is not as complex or interesting as some of its brothers, but well worth a taste.
Rating: Stands Out.

Overall Rating: This is a good bourbon, suitable for everyday imbibing. It’s balanced character and unobtrusive alcohol make it a great entry into the world of whiskey. It also makes a fantastic Highball. Stands Out