Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: Bourbon Curious by Fred Minnick

While we're no longer enjoying a Golden Age of Whiskey, the era we are in now may well be the Golden Age of Whiskey Books. The number and quality of whiskey books has improved by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, and you don't even have to pay secondary prices to get them.

The latest entry is a fantastic new book by whiskey writer/blogger Fred Minnick: Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker. I have to admit that when I first heard about Minnick's book, I was wary. Minnick is a great writer (this is his third book and his second that is whiskey related), but there are so many whiskey books out there that coming up with something original is a bit of a challenge. Well, I'm happy to report that Minnick has more then met the challenge with a refreshing guide to bourbon that will certainly be valuable to novices but has a serious geek streak running through it.

Bourbon Curious is divided into three major sections. The first fifty pages are basic facts and history of bourbon, the second fifty pages describe bourbon production and the last section, the bulk of the book, includes descriptions and reviews of various bourbons. Again, this all sounds fairly standard, but Minnick takes a rather different approach than most books.

His general description section includes many things most geeks will be familiar with; he takes a myth-buster type approach and has little patience with marketing fluff and back stories.  His history doesn't shy away from scandal, discussing the role of whiskey in the plunder of Native lands, cockfighting and prostitution (something covered in more detail in his previous book Whiskey Women).

His chapter on production goes into greater detail than many such books, starting with the grain. He discusses the various strains of corn, wheat, barley and rye, how and where they are produced, and the issues and controversies surrounding GMO and non-GMO corn. He has a similarly detailed review of water and wood, including the best tree types for barrels (clean below the limbs with four to six feet between knots and 10 to 12 rings per inch).

In his tasting notes section, Minnick divides bourbons into four categories based on flavor: grain (mostly young and craft bourbons); nutmeg (mostly traditional rye recipe); caramel (mostly wheated) and cinnamon (mostly high rye).  I don't necessarily agree with those categorizations, but it's an interesting way to think about it.

In most whiskey books, I don't have much use for the reviews. I've had a lot of whiskey and don't really need someone to tell me what Evan Williams Single Barrel tastes like, but Minnick's reviews are different.  Each one includes detailed information about the whiskey that goes beyond the typical age and proof.  For each whiskey, he describes the type of grain used, where the grains are grown, the type of still used and the type of barrel used for aging.  You don't just learn that Eagle Rare is ten years old and 90 proof but also that it's made from non-GMO corn from Kentucky and Indiana and rye from the Dakotas, that it's double distilled on an 84 inch wide copper still and a doubler, and that it's aged in Missouri Ozark American white oak with a number 4 char. He also includes mashbills, even for many whiskeys that don't publicly disclose them. It's a true geek-fest.

And Minnick has come up with a few sourcing revelations as well.  He reports that Angel's Envy is sourced from three different distilleries, that Cyrus Noble Bourbon was distilled at the old Medley Distillery, and that Michter's is largely sourced from Brown Forman (perhaps explaining why I've never cared for it).

The book closes with a set of brief histories of some major brands which is something I've always wished someone would do.  Some of these brands have been through numerous companies, and it's great to see those histories laid out.

As I noted above, this is a great book for both the novice and the bourbon geek, and make no mistake, it is exclusively about bourbon. There is no rye, no Tennessee Whiskey (save for a brief description of what it is), and definitely no flavored whiskey...just bourbon.

For bourbon fans, this one is a must have. The book publishes next week but is available for pre-order.

Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker by Fred Minnick
Zenith Press ($14)

Thanks to Fred Minnick for providing a copy of his book for review.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The New Rittenhouse 100

Since I reviewed the new Pikesville Rye from Heaven Hill earlier this week, I thought I would check up on Heaven Hill's standard rye offering: Rittenhouse 100.

For many years after a fire demolished the old Bardstown, Kentucky Heaven Hill distillery in 1996, Rittenhouse Rye was made for Heaven Hill by Brown Forman.  Within the last year or two, Heaven Hill's own distillate, from the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville which it purchased after the fire, has started to appear in Rittenhouse bottles. I haven't done a formal review since the Brown Forman days so I thought it would be interesting to have a taste.

Rittenhouse 100, Bottled in Bond, 50% abv ($25)

The nose has honey and spice; it smells like the baking aisle in a market. On the palate, the spice is in the forefront followed by the honey and some more perfume type notes. The finish is slightly bitter with a touch of honey sweetness.

This is quite different than my memories of the Rittenhouse distilled at Brown Forman and not in a good way. The sweet honey notes are a bit too prominent for my tastes. The honey gives it a floral/perfume note that hides some of the spice, and I don't generally like a lot of perfume in my whiskey. It's a very disappointing result for a whiskey that used to be an old standby at a great price.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Pikesville Rye 6 year 110 proof

Heaven Hill recently introduced a new 110 proof, 6 year old version of its Pikesville Rye.  Pikesville is an old Maryland brand long owned by Heaven Hill and made in Kentucky.  For years, it was a very good budget brand. I've always been a fan of Heaven Hill ryes so I'm excited to see how this one measures up.

Pikesville Rye 100 Proof, 6 yo ($50)

This has got a nice, spicy nose with just a touch of honey in the background. The palate starts with bold rye spice and then develops some sweetness. It's a spice bomb with mint, clove and ginger. The finish is sweet and spicy with lots of ginger, but then it turns medicinal and bitter. Oh, and don't add water, it brings out bananas and other, weird fruity notes.

I was hoping to be blown away by this, but it was not to be. It's not at all bad (though the finish is a bit out of balance), but I found it underwhelming. That beings aid, it will make a fine addition to the ryes on the shelf today, and it's good to see a higher proof rye offering.

Friday, July 17, 2015

New Whiskey (and Brandy) Labels

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

MGP of Indiana, the only major distillery that doesn't have any of its own brands, has a new label for a limited release, which would be the second they have done. Metze's Select, named for MGP Master Distiller Greg Metze is a blend of three MGP bourbons: 59% is 2008 low rye (21%) bourbon, 38% 2006 low rye bourbon and 3% 2006 high rye (36%) bourbon. MGP doesn't have its own bottling facility so it is being bottled by an Ohio bottler.

Remy Cointreau cleared a label for Octomore Edition 07.3. It's five years old and 169 ppm.

Edrington cleared a label for The Famous Grouse Smoky Black featuring "rare peated Glenturret."

Pernod Ricard cleared a label for Longmorn Distiller's Choice, a no age statement Longmorn.

Kilchoman cleared a label for a 10th Anniversary release, and while there are a lot of 10s and years on the label, it appears to be NAS.

Duncan Taylor cleared labels for a number of old grain whiskeys including a 42 year old Port Dundas, a 40 year old Girvan, a 27 year old Invergordon and a 23 year old North British.

For all you brandy fans, there have been a lot of interesting new labels lately from Charles Neal, the dean of brandy importers. Neal cleared a range of labels for two Armagnacs I've never seen in the US: Domaine de Jean Bon (five vintages ranging from 1979 to 1999) and Domaine de Maouhum (an XO, 1983 and 1987).  He also cleared a label for a 1964 Leon Beyries Armagnac. UPDATE: According to David Driscoll from K&L, the Jean Bon and Maouhum are K&L exclusives.

Also in the world of brandy, a label cleared for a new Navazos Palazzi expression, a Spanish brandy aged in Amontillado sherry casks. Palazzi's import company also cleared a label for an 18 year old, cask strength Calvados selected by cider baron Eric Bordelet.

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, July 15, 2015

Sku's Guide to Whisk(e)y Glassware

I've never felt compelled to do a comparison of whiskey glasses, but the other day I received a quite alarming email:

To: Sku
 From: International Federation of Whisk(e)y Bloggers
Dear Sku, the International Federation of Whisk(e)y Bloggers is the international body which regulates the whisk(e)y blogosphere. It has come to the Federation's attention that you have never carried out a comparison of whisk(e)y glassware. Pursuant to the Federation's revenue enhancement agreement with the International Association of Whisk(e)y Glassmakers, every whisk(e)y blogger is required to conduct a comparison of whisk(e)y glassware. Aside from enhancing the revenue of both of our organizations, these comparisons provide an important tool to the whisk(e)y drinking audience, who without our sage advice, would have no idea how to consume whisk(e)y.  
As such, you are hereby required to conduct a whisk(e)y glassware comparison within thirty (30) days of the date of this communication.  Failure to comply will result in the immediate termination of your blog. You have been warned!

Well, I am certainly not one to refuse to comply with important international laws and treaties, so I give you: Sku's Guide to Whisk(e)y Glassware.

Choosing a glass for your whisk(e)y is perhaps the most important decision you will make in your whisk(e)y drinking life. A proper glass can enhance your whisk(e)y experience, while an improper one will destroy it. If you are unwilling to spend at least as much on glassware as you do on whisk(e)y then you can just stop reading right now, because you are doomed to a life of mediocrity.

As part of this review, I tested over 100 whisk(e)y glasses, each with 10 different styles of whisk(e)y so that I could compare the nuances of each whisk(e)y glass experience. From those, I chose the top three performers to feature in this post.

3. The Pint Glass ($4.99)

This glass is the preferred vessel for ales and lagers throughout the world.  I found it had some definite advantages as a whisk(e)y containment device, offering sturdy engineering and a nice grip. While the glass received high marks overall, there are some flaws. For instance, each time I finished a testing session, I felt a bit woozy.  This may be due to toxins present in the glass or some other design defect. I will explore the issue further and report back. 

2. The Whisk(e)y Bottle ($15-$2,500)

As everyone who is not a total idiot knows, a whisk(e)y glass should be tapered at the top to maximize aromas. I found this model to have a wide base and a narrowly tapered opening, and many of them come pre-filled.  I should warn you that while these glasses are quite common, there are wide ranging price differences between similar models.  At one store, I found differences of hundreds of dollars for the exact same glass! In addition, while most bars carry these glasses, I did not find one that would let me use it to actually drink the whisk(e)y.  Honestly, what is the use of carrying these glasses if customers are not allowed to sip from them...just more fetishization of whisk(e)y I suppose. 

1. Pyrex One Quart Bowl ($8.75)

Here it is. The clear winner of this review, and the only whisk(e)y glass you will ever need. It's durable, microwave safe and has a base large enough to stick your whole face into, allowing you tobecome one with the whiskey. And the best thing about this glass is, you don't even have to use your hands.

Well, I hope you found this glassware guide to be really neat.  I'm going to sign off for the night and have a few bowls of whisk(e)y.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon? Who Cares!

It happens almost like clockwork.  Every month or two, on some whiskey forum or Facebook group, someone asks if Jack Daniel's is bourbon or asserts that it is or isn't, and a massive flame war breaks out.  I saw one of these on Facebook last week and there must have been 50 comments, all vigorously defending their position and demeaning the idiots who disagreed.  Chuck Cowdery, who must be getting tired of constantly explaining the issue, even responded to it with a post on his blog, yet again laying out the issues very clearly, but I'm sure next month the same argument will happen again.

One strange thing about these debates is that there don't really seem to be any factual disputes. At this point, everyone on whiskey forums seems to understand that bourbon doesn't have to be made in Kentucky, and they mostly seem to understand the Lincoln County Process of sugar maple charcoal filtering that Tennessee Whiskeys go through. The only argument is whether those facts make Jack Daniel's a bourbon. And so people go back and forth about the TTB regulations, the statements in foreign treaties, the Tennessee state law and the various labels that have been approved.  All of this, for some reason, while getting angrier and angrier.

But why? Given that there is no disagreement about how Jack Daniel's and bourbon are made, who cares?  Why is this important at all?  I mean sure, as a lawyer, I can see it as a slightly interesting, very technical legal question but not something to discuss every month and certainly not something to get riled up about. (Although I guess there are a bunch of people out there who get mad when you call Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old "Pappy" too, so you never can tell).

If you are someone who thinks that whether Jack Daniel's is bourbon or not is important enough to merit this kind of passionate debate (or if you have a theory about why other folks do), please, tell me why.

Friday, July 10, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Springbank, Ladyburn and More

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

Springbank cleared labels for an 18 year old "fresh rum" cask whiskey and a 19 year old "fresh sherry" cask, a 19 year old refill bourbon  cask, a 20 year old "fresh port" cask and a cask strength 12 year old Longrow finished for a year in "fresh New Zealand Pinot Noir casks." The Springbanks say they are exclusive bottlings for importer Pacific Edge Wine & Spirits while the Longrow will be available worldwide.

William Grant cleared a label for a 42 year old Ladyburn.

Glenlivet cleared a label for a NAS Nadurra finished in peated whiskey casks.

Woodford Reserve cleared labels for what a malt whiskey aged in used barrels and Double Double Oak, a bourbon finished in heavy toasted new oak. They are labeled "Distillery Series," so they could be gift shop items.

Hey Look, it's Old Scenter Bourbon...based on an old family recipe. How unique! Of course, they never tasted the old stuff, but they smartly imagined that it was "the perfect combination of corn, rye, and barley mashed together then aged in wood casks long enough." How long is long enough?  Well, they knew it would probably have to age for "years at a time," but...oh screw it, we'll just bottle six month old MGP.

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.