Friday, October 2, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Ardbeg, Ancient Age and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Ardbeg cleared a label for Dark Cove, "The Darkest Ardbeg Ever." It is a blend of Ardbeg aged in bourbon and "dark sherry casks."

A label cleared for a peated Glendronach aged in bourbon casks and finished in sherry casks.

Sazerac released a new label for what appears to be an extension of the Ancient Age brand line. Ancient Age Five Star, a bourbon "with natural flavors."

And perhaps nothing epitomizes modern whiskey label BS more than Old Dominick, an 8 year old bourbon released by a three year old company to celebrate its 150th anniversary or something like that.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Teeling Single Malt & Single Grain Irish Whiskeys

Stephen Teeling from the Teeling Whiskey Company was in town a few weeks ago tasting folks on his line of Irish Whiskeys. I reviewed his Teeling Small Batch blend last year and, it's become one of my go-to Irish blends for tastings. Since then, the company has introduced a single grain whiskey and, most recently, a single malt. While Teeling now has a Dublin distillery which ran its first spirit in March of this year (and they are working on a second distillery for grain), the Teeling whiskeys being sold come from Cooley, the distillery founded by Stephen's father Jack which was purchased by Beam in 2011.

Teeling Single Grain, 5 years old, bottled October, 2014, 46% abv ($50)

The Teeling grain whiskey uses a mash of around 95% corn and 5% malted barley and is aged in California Cabernet casks. It has very light cereal notes on the nose followed by sweet cereal on the palate. Mid-palate turns to wood spice notes, and it finishes with dry hay notes.  I'm not a huge fan of grain whiskeys of this type, but this one was quite pleasant and comparable to the better Scotch and Irish grain whiskeys I've had.

Teeling Single Malt, 46% abv ($55)

The new single malt carries no age statement and includes barrels treated with various finishes. The nose has light grain notes, sweet white wine and grapes.  In contrast to the rather sweet nose, the palate is quite dry with some spice leading into a spicy finish. There was a nice contrast between the sweetness of the nose and the dry palate on this one. Interestingly, it lacked much in the way of traditional malty notes. If anything, the Teeling Small Batch blend tastes more like a single malt than this one does, and while the Small Batch might be more approachable, the single malt is a bit more complex.

Teeling is doing some good work in the world of Irish Whiskey, and they aim to continue. Currently, they have a number of older, age stated single malts (21, 26 and 30 years old) available in Europe. They are looking at bringing some of those to the US next year and possibly some single cask bottlings as well. I know I'll be interested to try whatever they release.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Here Comes the Judge: My First Spirits Competition

I've reviewed over a thousand whiskeys and participated in numerous tastings through the years, but until a few weeks ago, I had never judged a formal spirits competition. I've been invited to judge some competitions in the past, but it just never worked out, so I was excited to give judging a try.

When distributor/importer Nicolas Palazzi asked me to be a spirits judge at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco, my first question was how many medals they give out. I'm very skeptical of the spirits award circuit where medals are handed out like candy to nearly every entrant (each of whom pay a sizable fee). Then the companies prominently advertise that they won the triple bronze medal. Not to worry, Palazzi assured me, there are no medals. They either get a Good Food Award or they don't, and only the ones the judges think merit it, based entirely on quality, get the award. There are entry fees, but they are low ($60 per entry compared to over $400 for some competitions).

The Good Food Awards defines "good food" as being "tasty, authentic and responsible." The criteria for entrance are quite strict. In the spirits category, which includes spirits as well as modifiers (bitters, shrubs, syrups, mixers, etc.), the products are required to be free of artificial additives, grown and sourced "responsibly," and largely free of pesticides, GMO ingredients and synthetic fertilizers (I say "largely" because the criteria are very detailed, but the whole thing is very San Francisco). Given those criteria, I'm not sure how many spirits would qualify to enter, but that's not my job to figure that out. I was just there to taste.

And taste I did.  In the morning session, we split into three groups, each of which tasted ten to fifteen spirits and another ten to fifteen mixers.  Each table decided which items from the first set of tastings deserved to be tasted in the second heat, which would be the awards scoring panel. That afternoon, we tasted the items bumped up by one of the other groups, scored them and recommended which we thought merited awards.

For the tastings, we were only told the type of spirit and proof.  I tasted everything from cucumber vodka (which was surprisingly good) to ginger liqueur. In my usual style, I was very conservative with my scoring, and that seemed to be the approach most of the judges were taking.  Of the 40 or so products I tasted that day, I think I recommended four for awards. Among the best things I tasted were a raspberry shrub syrup and an apple brandy. There were a handful of whiskeys, but none of them made the grade. They tasted like typical, small barrel craft whiskeys. Of course, based on the structure of the awards being divided into three groups, I didn't taste every spirit that was being judged.

I still don't know what I tasted or what will win awards. That will be announced in January along with the awards for the many other categories, from cheese to honey to cider, but I'll be interested to see what we came up with, and it was a fun way to spend a Sunday.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Dusty Tasting: 1970s Cabin Still

Today we have another dusty tasting sponsored by The Whiskey Jug. Yesterday's dusty tasting showed the decline of Old Crow over the years. Another bourbons that was famously ruined after being sold off was Cabin Still. Josh Feldman, over at The Coopered Tot, did a fantastic post tracing the decline and fall of this former Stitzel-Weller brand. He notes that at some point after Norton-Simon purchased the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1972, they started dumping low end Canada Dry bourbon into it.

The bottle provided for this tasting is likely from the mid-1970s (a 1974 copyright appears on the label). The label states that it was "distilled, aged and bottled by Cabin Still Distillery."  That puts it after 1972, when Norton Simon purchased the distillery and stopped using the Stitzel-Weller name, but before the later incarnation, which states "distilled for and bottled by Cabin Still Distillery." Does that mean it could still be old Stitzel-Weller, before the dump of Canada Dry began. Who knows? Let's taste it.

Cabin Still, 4 years old, 40% abv

The nose is caramelly but very light. The palate starts with some nice caramel, but fades away very quickly, and there is only a very faint finish. This isn't bad, but there is very little to it. I actually think this could be Stitzel-Weller, or have some in it, because it has traces of those sweet and creamy caramel notes, though it's very watered down. People forget that not all Stitzel-Weller was great, and Cabin Still was their bottom shelf brand.

Overall, if it was the '70s and I was perusing the bottom shelf, I'd go for the Old Crow.

This was another group tasting, so be sure to check out The Whiskey Jug, The Coopered Tot, It's Just the Booze Dancing, Axis of Whiskey and Bourbon & Banter for more reviews.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Dusty Thursday: Dusty Blogger Old Crow Tasting

Old Crow (right) and new Crow.
No, I'm not tasting dusty bloggers, but I did agree to participate in a dusty bourbon tasting hosted by Josh from The Whiskey Jug. Also participating are The Coopered Tot, It's Just the Booze Dancing, Axis of Whiskey, and Bourbon & Banter.

Josh gave us four dusty, bottom shelf bourbons that he found in his travels.  A comparison of old and new Old Crow, Cabin Still and an old Bellow's. Today, I taste the Old Crow and compare it with modern Old Crow.

Bottle marks date this Old Crow to around 1978, back when the brand was owned by National Distillers before it was purchased by Beam. For further comparison, see my previous review of a 1980s Old Crow, also from the National Distillers days.

Old Crow 1978, no age statement, 40%

The nose is fantastic, candy sweet with some herbal noes. The palate is light and sweet with a shot of spice. It's not complex and nothing really special, but it's very drinkable.

Old Crow, 3 years old, current, 40%

From the get-go, you can tell this is a totally different whiskey. The nose has peanut notes with light sugar. The palate is soapy with artificial fruit flavors, and the mouthfeel is watery thin.  It's very blah, and while it's not horrible, it doesn't have any redeeming features.

Well, this is another clear example of how Beam screwed up the National Distillers brands (they did the same thing to Old Overholt), managing to turn a perfectly drinkable bourbon into a crappy bourbon. Why did you do this to us Beam?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Armagnac Report: Chateau de la Grangerie

K&L recently introduced a trio of private barrel Armagnacs from Chateau de la Grangerie, a small producer in the Tenereze region.  All of them are distilled entirely from Ugni Blanc grapes.

First a warning, these need air.  When I tasted them fresh out of the bottle, they had a lot of bitterness.  Five minutes in the glass made most of that dissipate, and the following notes reflect tastings after that five minute period, so pour and wait. I'd even be tempted to decant these.

2001 Chateau de la Grangerie, 13 years old, 45% abv ($50)

The nose is dry and spicy with wood spice and just a hint of fruit. The palate is dry with faint grape notes which develop into a deeply earthy palate and a long, earthy finish, just bordering on too bitter, with bay leaves on the strolling through a damp forest after the rain. This one is bold, complex and earthy.

1994 Chateau de la Grangerie, 20 years old, 45.5% abv ($65)

The nose has mild, fruit juice flavors. The palate is dry and earthy but those notes are fleeting. The finish has a strong menthol note. This one feels a bit undeveloped; the flavors on the palate aren't particularly strong, it seems watered down and the strong menthol note on the finish puts it out of balance.

1964 Chateau de la Grangerie, 50 years old, 44% abv ($150)

The nose on this is just fantastic with honey and orange rind, even some sherry. The palate opens with lightly sweetened tea, then spicy black pepper notes. It turns dry, earthy and chewy just as it transitions to the finish which has pleasant dry fruit note, think apricots and red grapes, but without the sweetness.

These are really bold, earthy Armagancs. The 2001 was my favorite. It was complex and earthy, with layers of flavor that made me keep wanting to take another sip. At $50, it's a steal.  The 1964 is probably more of a people pleaser as it had a more traditional brandy flavor profile. It's very good, and it's certainly reasonably priced at $150 for a 50 year old (When was the last time you could pay $150 for 50 year old anything?). Overall, though, I thought the 2001 was more interesting and had more complexity. Compared to these two great Armagnacs, the 1994 seems out of place. The palate had weak, diluted flavors, and the only real distinctive notes came in the menthol on the finish which was way out of balance.  But hey, two out of three ain't bad.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Fourth Tier and the Uberization of Liquor Sales

Since the end of prohibition, most of the United States has had a three tier system for sales of alcohol. A producer sells alcohol to a distributor (i.e. a wholesaler) who then sells it to a retailer who can sell to the public. The booze sees a mark up at each step so each player can make a profit. Many, including myself, have suggested that the three tier system is outdated and needlessly complicated and should be eliminated. However, rather than moving in that direction, it appears that the system is growing more complicated, and more expensive, with an emerging fourth tier.

Have you ever gotten one of the emails from Caskers offering high priced whiskey and claiming that nearly everything scored higher than Pappy Van Winkle? Meet the fourth tier. Companies like Caskers are not producers, distributors or retailers. In fact, they don't handle any alcohol. They are marketing firms. They advertise booze and solicit sales for retailers, who then complete the orders. It's an Uber-like system, where Caskers acts as the app and individual retailers sign up as drivers. Alcohol delivery sites like Saucey, DrinkFly and Drizly appear to use a similar model (though Saucey employs delivery couriers).

One area that's unclear is how payment works.  If these companies sell alcohol, they would need to be licensed retailers.  If you purchase a bottle on Caskers, they take your credit card information like any other site, but their terms state that they do not sell alcohol and that all sales are made by the vendors. It will be interesting to see if the government sees it the same way.

These companies may be a good thing for people in states that don't get large selections on the shelves, but the fourth tier adds another complication and another party that needs to get paid, which presumably explains the high prices. It would be much easier if retailers could ship directly across the 50 states, but unlike Caskers, licensed retailers are subject to the liquor laws of their states and shipping can be a grey area. Prominent retailers like The Party Source and Binny's have stopped shipping spirits in recent years. Caskers benefits from being able to access multiple retailers in different jurisdictions who are subject to different shipping laws, though there are shipping restrictions on each bottle they offer.

Given the complications of retailer shipping, we are likely to see more of these companies in the future. So on balance, is the emergence of a fourth tier of alcohol sales a good thing or a bad thing? What do you think?