How did you find whiskey?

I was thinking the other day about how I ended up as a whiskey enthusiast. From there I started thinking back to the founding moments on my journey toward whiskey. The more I thought about it the more I thought that it would make an interesting topic for my next blog. And since turnabout is fair play I figured I’d rope Matt into chiming in on this one too after his “The Best” blog pulled me in for comments.

Richard’s Story:
For me whiskey began with a series of unfortunate events. The first such event was a long time ago and it didn’t begin well. I think I was around 14 years old when I took a nip of my dad’s bottle of Crown Royal. You have to understand that the old man drank Budweiser and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill on regular occasions so to him the Crown Royal was a special drink. He used to keep it in the little cabinet above the refrigerator. One evening when no one else was home I thought I’d take a bit a little swig. The taste was absolutely awful and it was everything I could do not to spit it out or gag. It went down like bathwater and fire. You may be a big fan of Crown and I‘m not knocking it but to this day I still don’t drink it. Some memories never fade.

The next two incidents had a similar result. The first was my high school girlfriend and I sneaking some of her mom’s Dewar’s. The second was my junior year of college. I had an older roommate who was a big fan of J&B with water. To this day I still don’t drink J&B but Dewar’s has grown on me.

I finally turned the corner right after I finished college. My friend Matt (yes the W.A. Matt) came down from UGA to see me in Atlanta. We stopped in at the liquor store and he talked me into a bottle of Bushmills White Label. From the first sip I was hooked. Matt headed off to Wales for a semester abroad and I dove headlong into researching whiskeys of all varieties. We conversed back and forth and usually it started something like…”if you come across something called Redbreast, you’ve got to bring me some back” which was prior to it being available in the U.S. of course. By the time Matt got back I was hooked, both from a flavor perspective and intellectually. One of my favorite past times continues to be research and knowledge gathering of all things whiskey related.

Matt’s Story:
I don’t know that my whiskey story is all that interesting (at least the one I can tell in mixed company). The short of it is that I didn’t like beer (I’m over that now). I used to go to parties where beer was about the only option. Feeling the need to be drinking something, but not willing to drink something I don’t enjoy, I started looking for a hard liquor option. The first alcoholic beverage that I enjoyed was Southern Comfort (a whiskey liqueur). From there I moved to three of the “Four Js” (Jameson, Jack Daniels, and Jim Beam). Later, I met a madman from Montana who turned me onto some other Irish whiskeys (namely Bushmills and Tullamore Dew). So I called myself an Irish whiskey drinker for a while. I introduced Richard to my way and went off to the University of Wales to discover how deep the well really was. While on Easter holiday, I took to opportunity to visit several distilleries across the U.K. and spent one long morning tasting whiskies and whiskeys with the owner of Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh (go there if you get the chance). The whole experience was very enlightening and deepened my love and understanding for the water of life. When I came home, Richard and I started developing our philosophy and became whisk(e)y apostles.

Ultimately, I liked the way my body handled whiskey and I liked the ritual of it. There is myth and mystique to whiskey. Things like that have always intrigued me. Of course, I have always liked the taste as well. I’ve never been into shots (if you have to shoot it, you shouldn’t drink it). I like to nurse a beverage. Whiskey can mellow a man or it can give him grand thoughts, thoughts of sitting around a camp fire conversing with the old gods. So join me, Richard, Lugh and Arawn. Raise a glass to your health, to all that is knowable and that which is not.

So that’s a little insight into how your Whisk(e)y Apostles started down this ever burgeoning path to liquid nirvana. We’d love to hear your stories about how your journey began either via email or in the comments section of this blog.

Event Notice: Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza

Atlanta is not like New York in so many ways that it seems silly to even make the statement.  One of the differences that is most pertinent to this blog is the relatively few whiskey related events held in Atlanta.  And the few that their are, don’t get much press.  So in an effort to help out my fellow Atlantans I’ll try to post a notice on all the events that come across my radar.  Please feel free to send me an email or post a comment if you come across any that I miss.

What: Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza

When: Thursday, March 12, 2009.  Registration at 6:30 PM, Event from 7:00Pm to 9:00PM

Where: The Intercontinental Hotel, 3315 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30326

Price: $130

What’s going on: Gourmet dinner, imported cigars, and over 80 single malt and other scotch whiskies to taste

Pour list to include: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Ardbeg, Ardmore, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Chivas Regal, Clontarf, Connemara, Clynelish, Dallas Dhu, Dewars, Glen Garioch, Glen Keith, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Johnnie Walker, Knappogue Castle, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Longmorn, Michael Collins, Milford, Scapa, Springbank, Suntory, Balvenie, Famous Grouse, Glenlivet, Macallan, Tyrconnell, and more.

What else: The notice I saw said that this is a more formal tasting.  No sneakers or jeans and jackets are preferred but not required.  You can get tickets by calling (800) 990-1991.

-Richard

Hendrick’s Gin

For this week’s “Taste of” we’re doing something a little different.  In an effort to expand both our horizons and yours, Matt and I are going to review a non-whiskey product.  “Gasp!” you say?  Don’t worry.  We’re still whiskey apostles at heart but it’s good to try new things.  We’ll try to do this about once a month or so.  First up will be a gin.  You can’t get much more different from whiskey than that.  Except for the fact that this particular gin is made by William Grant & Sons.  You may know William Grant & Sons as the makers of Glenfiddich and Balvenie.  Enjoy.

Hendrick’s Gin
44% ABV/88 Proof
Available worldwide for $25 to $35 per bottle

What the distillery says:
This handcrafted gin is distilled for a proprietary recipe which includes traditional botanicals such as juniper, coriander, and citrus peel.  The “unexpected” infusion of cucumber and rose petals results in a most iconoclastic gin.  It is not for everyone.

What Richard says:
Nose: Floral and herbal as you’d expect from gin but almost more so.  It lays out like a well crafted gentleman’s cologne.  When opened up with a little water I find jasmine and lavender with a hint of fresh autumn leaves.
Palate: The palate is very surprising.  It tastes of orange zest in lavender water, more specifically Cara Cara oranges. (If you’ve never had the pleasure I highly recommend them.)  More citrus notes that the average gin.  It’s very pleasant.  It kind of reminds me of Compass Box’s Orangerie aperitif.  Tonic water lends it a sharper more defined flavor well beyond the “alcoholic Sprite” of a lot of gin and tonics.
Finish: Crisp and clean.  It leaves the orange zest in your mouth as the botanicals pass through.
Comments: I’m not really a gin fan but this is a spirit I can truly respect.  And not just because it’s made by William Grant & Sons.  It doesn’t stand out because they turned gin on its head, more likely they pushed gin to its true potential.  Whether a casual gin drinker or a serious connoisseur, I would definitely recommend this.
Rating:  Must Try.

What Matt says:
Nose: Above all this gin smells like it elements.  There are clear notes of juniper, but it’s the coriander and citrus zest that stand out on the nose.  The rose petals and cucumber hang back a little and wait to assert themselves on the palate.
Palate: This is not your average gin.  Richard hit the nail on the head with the Cara Cara orange reference.  The cucumber comes through with a very clean flavor and the rose petals come out just enough to be known.  The coriander and juniper take a back seat to these stronger flavors, but really make the flavor profile dance.  Adding tonic really kicks the cucumber into overdrive (the makers of Hendrick’s suggest garnishing their gin and tonic with a slice of cucumber instead of the traditional lime).  There is a high citrus element, but it is more of a Cara Cara or blood orange citrus than lime like other gins.
Finish: Rose water and orange zest
Comments: I’m an old fashioned kind of guy.  I believe that a gentleman should be drink his martinis with gin and his whisk(e)y neat.  If you are like me and Teddy Roosevelt (or was it FDR?), you’re idea of a martini is a generous pour of gin next to an open bottle of vermouth.  To do this, you must have good gin (you’re drinking it straight after all).  Hendrick’s fits the bill on this one.  I love a good gin and tonic as well and this makes a great one.  This is my very favorite gin.
Rating:  Must Buy.

Overall Rating:
From the moment you see it on the shelf, you know that Hendrick’s is different.  It’s strangley shaped dark colored bottle and artfully rendered label look more at home on the shelf of Victorian apothecary than a liquor store.  As you investigate, you find that even the distillery claims that this gin “is not for everyone.”  Today, you are in an adventurous mood so you decide to pick up a bottle.  You are greeted with flavors you have never tasted in a gin.  You are not quite sure what to think.  Then, as the gin swirls around your mouth and your nose is filled with rich botanicals, you become enthralled.  There is a reason that the Wall Street Journal voted this the “Best Gin in the World” in 2003.  More and more, I’m seeing Hendrick’s offered in bars (they don’t usually have a slice of cucumber though), right next to the Tanqueray Ten and Bombay Sapphire.  The word is spreading.
Must Try.

Fad Focus #2: Wood Finishes

Today I want to talk about the next part of my multi-part series on the notable fads in whiskey today. I started this series a couple of weeks ago talking about the growing levels of peat used in whiskey production. Today I want to talk about wood finishing.

What is wood finishing you ask? Wood finishing is the process of taking mature whiskey from its aging barrel and putting it into another barrel, hogshead, etc. to impart additional characteristics on the whiskey beyond its normal profile. Barrels that previously held different wines and other spirit are used to varying degrees of success to add some part or character of the barrel’s prior occupant to the new whiskey. Port barrels can add color. Rum barrels can add sweetness. Some of the previously seen variations include Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tokaji, sherry, port, rum, etc.

Glenmorangie was one of the first major pioneers of this technique. They originally came out with a range of 12 year old single malt scotches that included finishes in sherry, port, and burgundy wood among others. Many distilleries, mostly scotch distilleries picked up on this trend as a way to offer new and different varieties of their spirits in a relatively quick amount of time. Remember, for scotch most of their product doesn’t see the light of day for at least 10 years. That’s a long lead time for innovation. Whiskey can be wood finished for any amount of time from around 6 months to 6 years or more. Glenmorangie’s wood finished range spent 10 years as regular Glenmorangie and then spent another two years in wood finishing. Even in their case two years is a lot quicker turn around than ten.

How did all this innovation and creativity turn out? Originally, not too bad. There were and still are a number of products that really did well with wood finishing. One of my personal favorites is the 21 year old Glenfiddich Havana Reserve which was finished in Havana Rum casks. Mmm..tasty stuff. But as with most things, over proliferation leads towards some less than stellar examples. We’ve chided Glenmorangie on their Burgundy Wood finished whiskey and it really was pretty bad. “Was” being the appropriate word because they have since discontinued it. Another humorous example of how far this particular fad went was an attempt a number of years ago to finish scotch in used Tabasco barrels. The resulting product was an undrinkable concoction that was repackaged and sold as condiment called Hot Scotch. Jumping the shark a little? I think so.

So where is wood finishing now? It seems to be on the down swing. There are still a number of products out there, both good and bad that tout wood finishing. There continues to be a few new ones popping up from time to time. However, you may not recognize some of these newer ones. “Wood Finish” has become passé in the scotch industry. The new nomenclature? Glenmorangie, the granddaddy of all wood finishers now refers to their products as “Extra Matured”. My personal favorite is Bruichladdich. They refer to their program by the acronym “A.C.E”, meaning “Additional Cask Enhancement”. Wood finishes aren’t dead yet. This particular fad hasn’t quite played out. What will come in the future? Who knows? One particular bright spot seems to be Buffalo Trace. Bourbon wood finishing? Yep. They have a new line of very limited releases under their Experimental Collection. I have not had the opportunity to try any of these but I hear good things.

So what does all this mean? A wider variety of whiskey to enjoy. That’s never a bad thing. However, as with all whiskeys it is a good idea to try before you buy. Just because you love Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year old doesn’t mean the Burgundy Wood should be a staple of your home bar.

Drink wisely my friends.

– Richard

Taste of… The Collector’s Cabinet

Matt and I have discussed, at length the merits of offering reviews on whiskeys that are no longer available.  The argument against it is that if we review a dram that is out of this world then it would offer nothing to our readers but frustration at not being able to procure such a fine spirit.  This was our stance from the outset of Whisk(e)y Apostle.

As time went by we started thinking about this idea in a different light.  We realized that there is something to offer our readers by reviewing the occasional rare whiskey.  From a collector’s standpoint there are other resources available offering assistance in how collectable or valuable certain whiskeys are but rarely anything on taste. (As a general rule, we here at Whisk(e)y Apostle do not advocate the collecting of whiskey.  It is made to drink after all!)

So if you find a rare bottle of whiskey, how are you to know if it’s worth purchasing for the purpose of consumption?  That’s where we hope to offer what little assistance we can.  Matt and I aren’t exactly rolling in dough so this will not be a regular part of our reviews but we’ll do it whenever we get the opportunity.

To kick us off we thought we talk a wonderful whisky from Compass Box called The Spice Tree.  There is an unfortunate story behind why this great whisky is no longer in production.  I’m not going to reproduce the sad tale here but if you are interested further information can be found here (in the “Past Whiskies” section).

The Spice Tree

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Formerly produced by Compass Box Whisky Company
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky46% ABV/92 Proof
Discontinued

What the distillery says:

A natural, deep, gold-brown color and a rich nose with spices such as clove and nutmeg, and sweet stewed fruits. Palate is soft, sweet, deep and rich with a malt whisky fruitiness embellished by rich spice. Very long.

What Richard says:

Nose: Scotch rolled in a warm bourbon blanket?  If I didn’t know what this was it would really keep me guessing.  Water opens up the nose to honey and floral sweetness.  Quite lovely.
Palate: The wood is the first and last thing you taste but not in the way you might think.  It’s not the tired over wooded flavor of an over aged whiskey.  It’s more like carrying your dram on a walk through the forest.  It’s a fresher wood taste.  There is a minor honeyed sweetness that almost hides from you.  The spice there but much more understated than the name suggests.  There are a lot of nutty flavors and at the very end of the palate I swear I get a hint of spearmint.
Finish: Much smoother than I expected but that really is par for John Glasser’s work.  Spice, nut, and wood remain after the palate is emptied.  It’s almost like peppered walnut bark.
Comments: As unfortunate as it is, this is a discontinued product. If you happen across a bottle at a reasonable price I would highly recommend picking it up.  I can’t give it a “Must Buy” because of the scarcity but it really deserves top honors.
Rating: Must Try

What Matt says:
Nose: Fox glove honey, caramel, wildflowers, and cardamom.
Palate: Like drinking a nice cup of mulled cider by a fresh cut Christmas tree.  Wood, evergreen, mulling spices, cooked fruit (apples and apricots).  The ultimate ‘comfort’ whisky.  Complex without being uppity.
Finish: Oak, white pepper, and pecan husks linger with a touch of caramel sweetness.  This whisky is incredibly smooth with very little burn on the tongue or in the throat.
Comments: My official rating for this will be a “Must Try” for the reasons that Richard states above.  However, if you see a bottle of this, buy it.  If you see two, let me know.  I will buy the other one.  I love this whisky and lament it’s passing.  When the last drop falls from my bottle, I will shed a tear.
Rating: Must Try

Overall Rating:   Must Try

Closing Comments: A lot of discontinued whiskeys are phased out due unpleasant factors (Glenmorangie Burgundy Wood Finish) or diminished stocks (Ardbeg 17 Year) but the Spice Tree is the unfortunate victim of politics.  There is little lacking in this quality dram.  If you are fortunate enough to come across a bottle or dram, by all means drink up.

Slainte!