Knocking on Death’s Door

Last night, I had the opportunity to try a “white whiskey” from small craft distillery in Madison, WI. Death’s Door (named for the waterway that runs between Washington Island and the Door County peninsula) produces gin, vodka, and whiskey in small batches for a variety of markets here in the US. They only recently came to NYC. I did not try the vodka, the gin was passable (interesting, but still a lightweight in the world of craft gins). Since this is a whisk(e)y blog after all, let’s talk about the whiskey.

As you all know, I am huge advocate of the craft distillery movement. Craft distilleries are raising the bar for all sorts of distilled spirits and whiskey is no exception. However, innovation and experimentation do not always lead to greatness. There are always stumbling blocks.

Death’s Door has an interesting operation. All of their spirits are distilled in the same 90 gallon copper pot still using locally sourced materials (including water from Lake Michigan). The White Whiskey is double distilled, “rested” for three weeks (I assume in a stainless steel vat) and then conditioned in small oak barrels for less than 72 hours (hence the whiskey remains clear or “white”). The rep at the tasting could not tell me anything about the mash bill (she didn’t even know what that meant). When I explained, she said rye (from the taste, a lot of it), wheat, and “something else, but no corn.” The literature from the distillery just says “organic grains.”

The whiskey is interesting, but not my cup of tea. The nose is a little like tequila (I hate tequila). The palate is somewhere between a rye and a tequila. The short aging does not give the whiskey enough time to take much from the oak. On the plus side, the harsher elements of the rye are tempered by the other components of the mash bill. The mash bill may be a winner with a little more time in the barrel. It certainly shows potential.

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I like the smoothness of aged ryes, but I don’t care for all that oak,” then check this out. If you are a tequila drinker looking for a transition into whiskey, this could be your gateway dram. For me, this is nothing more than a novelty act.

I applaud the effort, especially the terroir approach and sense of experimentation. Not my bag though. There are much better craft whiskeys out there. I hope that these guys continue to experiment with their whiskeys. Maybe they will hit on something truly sensational.

Death’s Door White Whiskey will set you back around $35 and is available in limited markets (Chicago and New York for sure). For more information on availability or just to learn more about their operation visit www.deathsdoorspirits.com.

Char No. 4 Redux

The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)
The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)

Back to Char No. 4 with some of my Brooklyn peeps. Like my last trip, I looked at the menu online to

prepare. This time, we sat at the bar and our lithe bartender, Charlotte, repeatedly broke my heart as I rattled off a litany of whiskeys from my online research only to find out that they were out of each one. Battered, but not beaten, I settled in to studying the whisk(e)y list. Although not planned this way, this trip to Char No. 4 became an exercise in inexpensive (mostly) American whiskeys.

I started with the A. H. Hirsch 16yo straight bourbon. I’ve been wanting to try this for a while. This bottling is the very last of the whiskey from the old Michter’s distillery in PA. I don’t really know the history of the distillery, but I cannot believe that they failed due to inferior product. It is always harder for an “off-the-slab” whiskey to compete against the Kentucky bourbon giants, but this whiskey really stands up on taste. The nose is complex and delicate with distinct notes of corn, nuts (cashews?), and Christmas spices. The palate delivers on the promises of the nose and adds some extra sweetness and a little salt. Overall, this is a very balanced whiskey and I encourage you to look for it (not one of the cheap ones though).

Next, we decided to do a little experiment. We ordered some Rebel Yell and some Rebel Reserve for a comparison. Rebel Yell is a wheated bourbon that smells terrible and luckily tastes like nothing. It makes me think of drinking distilled water in the desert sun (wet and tasteless that evaporates the moment it hits your tongue). However, the Rebel Reserve is very drinkable. Rebel Reserve is also a wheated bourbon, but it is made in small batches with a different recipe. The nose is like a lady’s perfume on fresh linen. The palate is smooth and sweet. You can definitely taste the wheat influence. I would not put this in the same class a some of the really high end bourbons, but is definitely stands up to some whiskeys that are twice the price. A very good every day bourbon and an unbeatable price (around $20).

We followed with the mouth numbing Old Weller Antique (107 Proof). With a little water or ice, this is very nice. Plus, it’s almost like getting two whiskeys for one (and for $20!).

Ezra Brooks Single Barrel (12yo) was next on the list. The palate is buttery and sweet with hints of rye and spice. This whiskey doesn’t stick around long, but the finish is pleasant without much burn. The price won’t burn you either (around $30).

I had intended the night to end with the Ezra Brooks, but one of my compatriots insisted on treating me to a dram of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23yo. Who would say no to that? This was a great whiskey (not cheap). However, the consensus around the table was that the 20yo is better. The extra three years smooths the edges a little too much.

I know that most people don’t have access to a place like Char No. 4 in their neighborhood, but I encourage you to seek out some of these cheaper whiskeys and let me know what you think.

BTW – I think I figured out the pricing at Char No. 4 (I have complained of gouging before). The selection was built on the owner’s personal stock. Therefore, much of the pricing is collector pricing that has little to do with the list price of the whiskey. You may find things there that you can’t find anywhere else, but you will pay dearly. But what’s money compared to a once in a lifetime dram? That’s for you to decide.

Drink well and drink responsibly.

-Matt

El Dorado Special Reserve 12 Year Old Rum

40% ABV/80 Proof
Available in the United States and Europe – $25 to $30

What the distillery says:

This fine aged Demerara Rum is produced by Demerara Distillers Ltd., master distillers since 1670. Matured for at least 12 years is oak casks, this rum is hand-blended to achieve it’s uniquely smooth, rich, award-winning character – straight or on the rocks.Honey in color.

What Matt says:

Nose: It has your typical rum notes (vanilla, caramelized sugar), but there are also some botanicals in there. It is almost like a craft gin married with a somewhat typical rum.
Palate: Vanilla, the sugar moves a little toward burnt from the nicely caramelized nose, there is also an oak component.
Finish: Here the sugar moves all the way to burnt with a long alcoholic burn.
Comments: Rum has never been my favorite alcoholic beverage. In my youth, I had too many encounters with inferior rums like Captain Morgan or Bacardi. I did not really appreciate rum until I spent some time in the Caribbean, where rum is a part of the culture. I discovered that rum can be really good. Indeed, rum is starting to become part of the craft distillation movement. This means that rum will be increasingly drinkable as a stand-alone. This rum lives up to those standards. This means that it holds up to being served neat. However, compared to other craft rums, this lacks a little nuance on the palate. The palate just does not deliver what the nose promised. This makes the rating a little difficult. By the standards of every rum on the market, I would say that it stands out, but compared to craft rums it is only average. In fact, I would recommend Appleton’s, a widely available macro-rum, above this one.
Rating: Average

What Richard says:

Nose: Burnt caramel, vanilla, candied apricots, honey-dipped oranges, a hint of mint, floral notes of lavender and…rose? Very, very sweet. You can almost taste the sugar cane through the nose.
Palate: All sugar and alcohol. As lovely as the nose was, the palate is very two dimensional.
Finish: Heavy on the alcohol. It kind of finishes like a strong cough syrup.
Comments: I am admittedly not the most well versed rum drinker. That said, this stands out against your baseline Bacardi and Captain Morgan. That palate and finish aren’t noteworthy but nose is exceptional. But we buy it to drink it not to smell it.
Rating: Average

Overall Rating: Average

Amaro Nonino

Amaro Nonino
Amaro Nonino

I was at a wine bar the other night (not my idea, but I didn’t put up too much of a fight). My wife and I went with a couple of friends. I’m only telling you about it, because I fell in love with a delightful liqueur that night.

We were at Veloce below Spring St. in Manhattan because one of our friends knows the sommelier. While we were waiting for our drinks and food, Nathan (another follower of the malt) and I noticed a squat little bottle filled with red-gold liquid. We were intrigued. Luckily, at the end of the night, my new friend Douglas (the bartender) introduced us to the golden-colored liqueur called Amaro Nonino.

Amaro Nonino is an herbal liqueur made with water, neutral spirits, brandy, herbs, and sugar and aged for 5 years in oak barrels. At first, the nose is like Red Hots candy with a trace of alcohol. As the liquer oxydizes, the cinnamon and sugar notes give way to smells remniscent of a Chinese herb shop. The palate was very cordial-like in texture (syrupy and chewy) and tasted like Red Hots. Cinnamon and sugar were the overwhelming flavors, but I immediately had an affection for this drink that extended beyond such simple flavors. I don’t want you to think that Amaro Nonino tastes like cinnamon schnapps, because it does not. There are notes of licorice and burnt orange buried beneath the cinnamon spice. The finish is long and satisfying.  It is dangerously drinkable and is equally good before or after dinner. Amaro Nonino is sold as a digestif and is around 35% ABV.  It will set you back $35-40.  I encourage the adventurous to go out and find it, if only for those few nights you don’t want whisk(e)y after dinner.

-Matt