Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Education: The Balvenie Whisky Academy

As John Hansell says, “When it comes to whisky, education is key.” And the more I learn about whiskey the more I realize this is true. For someone to truly enjoy the beverage one needs to know about it. Not that a beginner cannot enjoy whiskey on a first time basis, but to continue enjoying it one needs to continually educate themselves on it. When education on any level ends, the consumer becomes complacent and the all of the reasons why whiskey is interesting in the first place is lost. Not to mention, just as Hansell drives home, when “the buyer purchases a whisky he (or she) will like, the retailer is happy, the distributor is happy, and the producer is happy. That’s why I have devoted my professional life to it.”

This is exactly why all striving whiskey enthusiast should be excited about the Balvenie Whisky Academy. At first glance, it is only natural to question any so-called educational experience promoted by a name brand. Yet, as I have delved into the whole experience, as it were, I have found that the Academy has really been made for the benefit of the consumers. The focus, though geared toward scotch drinkers, is not a simple advert to pull you in to drink Balvenie’s products; rather it is to teach people about scotch in general – from the history to the process to actually tasting. If more producers did projects like this, the whiskey world would indeed benefit in large. As as an added benefit to joining Warehouse 24, Balvenie's online site for the Whisky Academy, they will send you a booklet on Balvenie, as well as a pocket tasting notes book for your own use.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Reivew:

“We probably should be grateful that Old Forester is still around. If sales results were the sole criteria, it wouldn’t be, but something else is at work. Look at the label, the answer is there in the signature below the handwritten text: George Garvin Brown. He founded the Brown-Forman Corporation and the family dynasty that still runs it. It is comforting to know that even a giant company like Brown-Forman can be sentimental. Old Forester is still around because it is the product on which Brown-Forman was built.” - Charles K. Cowdery

Old Forester holds a special place in my heart. The week I turned 21 I felt the need to go out and buy some hard liqueur. So with absolutely no knowledge or idea of what I really liked I strolled into my local liquor store and scoured the rows of shelves for my birthday treat. Should I buy Scotch? Irish whiskey? Rum…? I really didn’t know the basic differences between any of them. Yet, I remained determined. Finally arriving at the bourbon aisle I decided it was best that I find my gift here since bourbon, I did know, was an American spirit. But what to get? I soon realized, however, it was less a question of what I wanted get and more of a question of what I could afford. Being a somewhat poor and hungry college student, I found that my options slowly dwindled. Wanting something “classic” without choosing the obvious choice, my hand passed over the bottle of Jack Daniels Old No. 7 and grabbed a bottle of Old Forester. “America’s first bottled bourbon,” It said on the label. Sounds classic enough to me! So there my friends is the legend, now how about the bourbon?

The quote from Chuck Cowdery above is dated almost 12 years now, so I don’t exactly know how Old Forester is selling now, but my guess is, even with the raise of interest in whiskey the last few years, Old Forester still ranks on the lower end of things. Either way I am glad that the bourbon is still around, because it is indeed a classic name with a unique history. 

In the late nineteenth century whiskey was generally sold to bars and grocers by  distilleries in whole whiskey barrels. From here consumers would either buy a drink or fill a container from which they brought from home. Yet the with this practice many merchants would take the whiskey and water it down or add unaged spirits, generally meaning moonshine, which was many times less than safe to drink. George Brown, being aware of this harmful practice and seeing a potential business opportunity, took advantage of the increased mass production of glass bottles and became the first to create a pre-bottled whiskey. Thus Old Forester was born and consumers could now know the purchased elixir inside the bottle had not been tampered with. 

Though originally Old Forester was a blended whiskey, due to the lack of consistency in straight whiskeys at the time, it is now a Straight Kentucky Bourbon. It is owned by Brown-Foreman who also owns the likes of Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve.

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky:
Price: Around $13.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Packaging/Labeling: Standard bottle with all the similar trappings of a mass produced whiskey. Ugly black plastic cap topper.

Alcoholic Content: 86 Proof, 43% ABV. 

Nose: Not expecting a whole lot, this is a really pleasing nose. Kettle corn and a buttery orange sweetness. Maple and Christmas spice.

Tasting: A buttery corn comes through with much of the traditional bourbon flavors – caramels and vanillas. Yet the front palate, though it comes on strong, does not assert itself and almost immediately dissipates. Though it isn’t a fading away, rather it is a disjointed breakup which leaves behind a syrupy sweetness.

Conclusion: The nose is where you will have the most enjoyment. I wouldn’t say the nose is deceptive; rather, from what it's predicting, the palate just doesn’t have the strength to assert itself. It isn’t a bad whiskey, it just isn’t great. It could definitely use a two or three percent addition abv. Sure it is a low price point but I feel that it isn’t interesting enough – I could easily spend 7-8 bucks more and get a much better whiskey. This wouldn’t be anything more than a mixer. Mixer no-less, it will always remind us of the, now giant, Brown-Foreman Corporation's humble beginnings.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Review:

“The amazing herds of buffaloes which resort thither, 
by their size and number, fill the traveler with amazement and terror,” - 
John Filson speaking of herds in northern Kentucky in 1784

Nothing can stir the American spirit quite like the image of  a thousand American bison roaming the great Midwestern plains. When it came to navigating the land and water in North America, herds of American bison, commonly called American buffalo, were some of the surest natives to accomplish the task, cutting huge thoroughfares from seasonal migrations and paths between salt licks and feeding grounds. These traces, as they were called, made by thousands of hoofs instinctively traveling the best routes along watersheds and crest ridges, avoiding the most hazardous winter snowdrifts and lower housings of summer muck, were also utilized by native American Indians as warrior paths and hunting grounds. 

Typically traced from the north and south, there were a few key east-west buffalo trails, such as the Cumberland Gap through the Blue Ridge Mountains to upper Kentucky. Where these trails would be used by explorers and dually adopted by the pioneers years later, these paths would eventually become the permanent residence of the great American railways. Indeed without these trails the rise and subjugation of the Western Territories to the Pacific would not have been possible at such an alarming rate. 

While the devastation of commercial hunting and slaughter of the American buffalo in the 19th century nearly caused extinction, the image and legacy of these buffalo and the trails they traced still live on, no doubt so eloquently in the fantastic American spirit, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The name is quite befitting not simply due to the legends it harkens back toward, but also because it is produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky, a wonderful American distillery, and the oldest distilling site in the U.S., which produces such brands as Eagle Rare, Sazerac Rye and Elmer T. Lee.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon:

Price: Around $20.00 for a 750ml bottle.

Packaging/Labeling: Fairly modern and unique, yet not over the top. It’s been growing on me. I really like the green cork topper.

Alcoholic Content: 90 Proof, 45% ABV. 

Nose: A tightly woven and strong nose – big corn and brown sugar with rye and light toffee. There is a cherry cola note with spices and honey. I also think of dandelion and burdock.

Tasting: The front palette is very satisfying. Oak and warm honey, yet it is not overly sweet nor does the spiciness of the rye overpower. It still has the corn of the front palette which makes its way into a floral creaminess which develops into more wooden bitters oak licorice on the finish.

Conclusion: Even with the syrupy thickness, nothing comes about overbearing, and as I said, it feels in control. This is very pleasant and well worth purchasing at such a reasonable price. This is a wonderful sipping whiskey and, as I just experienced, goes well with a meaty meal!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Portland's New Favorite: St. Jack Reviewed

"Eating snails, I thought that was cool when I was a kid. I think that was like my playing in mud puddles."- Chef Aaron Banett

Last night I had a fabulous meal. Living in Portland my wife and I are never short of good restaurants, but a truly wonderful restaurant experience is something far and few between in almost any city. Good food coupled with good atmosphere is great, but good food coupled with excellent service is something unique – the something which will always get my wife and I to return (and spend more money of course). 

We live in SE Portland right off Hawthorne, a district in-of-itself, which is a wonderful mix of socially-conscious families, urban hipsters, and semi-homeless hippies. A melting pot for good cuisine, SE Portland is a foodie’s dream. Now just south of Hawthorne is a small neighborhood district called the Clinton District, named after its stop and go street lined with pockets of small businesses. And recently, just blocks from where we live, a new neighbor has arrived: St. Jack.

St. Jack is a very French eatery, inspired by the revered cafes of Lyon, holding a dual existence as a cafĂ© in the morning and afternoon and a Lyon Bouchon at night. Owned and operated by Canadian native Chef Aaron Banett (via restaurants in Los Angeles, Vancouver, BC, and San Francisco), St. Jack focuses on rustic “traditional pâtisserie” and 19th century home-cooking, meaning while you will see such things as Steak Frites and Coq a la biere, you should come expecting other traditional delights such as frog legs, blood sausage, and stuffed pigs trotters.

Right when my wife and I arrived we were taken in by the wonderful atmosphere. Where Portland seems riddled with loud music hipster joints, St. Jack is inviting and warm. The music ranges from Jazz and light French pop, complementing the candlelit space while never does it distract. We came earlier than our reservation so we could have some time at the bar.  I, knowing ahead of time what I wanted, ordered the De Rigueur, the English twin of the Brown Derby, and my wife ordered the St. Jack Red, a Columbia Valley red wine purchased by the barrel and personally produced for St. Jack by Guild Winemakers. Both were great. And personally De Rigueur, prepared by bar manager Kyle Webster, was wonderful - just tart and not overly sweet. To accompany these two treats, we ordered their very popular Frog Legs en Persillade, frog legs prepared in a white wine, garlic, and lemon sauce with fresh herbs. Wow, these things were wonderful, nothing of what I expected - tender moist and meaty.

And this only got better with dinner. The Onglet Steak Frites for my wife and the… drum roll… Stuffed Ducks Neck for me – duck neck stuffed with pork sausage, apples, chestnuts and sage. Now generally I will do wine with dinner, especially when accompanied by such uniquely meaty options, but I diverged from my wife’s choice, the Quady North Syrah, for Buffalo Trace neat. While having bourbon (or any whiskey for that matter) with your meal is something which is only just becoming fashionable again, I myself have not often done this, especially when it comes to French food. But, not to my surprise, Buffalo Trace complimented the meal wonderfully (And Mr. Webster, who followed us from the bar to the table, didn’t skimp on portions when I was in need of a refill). The moist sausage with pommes puree (w/ lots of butter) went perfectly with dry oakiness and winter spices of the Buffalo Trace. *I review Buffalo Trace here.

My wife and I didn’t stay around for dessert (we had a movie to catch), so we will have to come back for that. But it is a fact that we will come back. St. Jack is well on its way to becoming a Portland favorite. With the wonderful menu and great service it is a great addition to the neighborhood. 

Photos from
Patisserie St. Jack on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wild Turkey 101: A Bird Worth Giving This Holiday

"An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools." – Ernest Hemingway

To actually see a standard bourbon, that is any particular distillery's face brand, at 101 proof is good news. Where so much of the market is dominated by 80 proof standard face-brands (however this is quickly changing) Wild Turkey 101 stands at the front of the pack. Perfect for any cold winters night, Wild Turkey 101 is much of what it seems to promise, knocking your socks off with a wild and spicy delivery, while simultaneously providing a basic 101 class to the Turkey line. This is an entry level bourbon without being entry level. No age statement on this, though I have heard it being around 7 or 8. This is one of those heavy rye forward bourbons, so the spice will come up at the get-go.

Price: Around $22.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Packaging/Labeling: Standard, nothing to complain about. I did buy the 375 ml bottle which has the classic booze shape which is nice.

Alcoholic Content: 101 Proof, 50.5% ABV.

Color: Dark Gold.

Nose: Lots of fall flavors. Oak and honey with that cinnamon spice and dried cherries – almost a fruit cake. You have this hinting of the rye.

Tasting: Wow – the rye in this is so incredibly forward on the initial palette. And this spiciness opens up on the tongue to reveal a spiced and brown sugared honey. There is char and red candy. This comes on thick, yet doesn’t go down as hot as one would think – the heat is all from the rye, not the proof. Everything seems very balanced and in check. This is a strong and sweet whiskey.

Conclusions: Very much my style. This is a very spicy bourbon, but not one which appears out of control. Simply put: if you haven't yet tried Wild Turkey 101 you should go out and buy it. It's value is better than its price.

Monday, December 5, 2011

More Like a Wild Boar Than a Domestic hog: Pig's Nose Blended Scotch Whisky Review

"Designed to be smooth but full of character; character, indeed. After all, a pig’s nose spends most of its days nosing around in shit, mud, and feed."  - Dr Whisky

I'm a sucker for good packaging. Judging books by their cover is something I pride myself on. I have bought more books then I can count based on their covers. Some have been good and others have not. It's not an exact science, but I count it a success with the good ones I do find. That doesn't mean we should only focus on what we see on the outside, but odds are you'll get lucky every so often. The same goes for whisky (or rum for that matter - the first time I saw the Kraken I picked it up faster then you could say, "99 bottles of Rum on the wall," and I don't even really drink rum that often). Lets face it, appearance matters. Now we don't want to simply rely on what the outside shows, nor should our ultimate judgement be swayed by swagger, but as a producer if you value the quality inside the bottle you should value the quality on the outside. Time and care should be used in construction. When I am sitting at the table and I look over at my bar and see a beautifully constructed bottle sitting there, I just feel more comfortable in my ascetic surroundings. Call me strange, but I am sure there are many more of you out there like me. 

And this is exactly why Pig's Nose makes me so happy. It might at first seem like Pig's Nose or the SpencerfieldSpirit Company's other brand Sheep Dip, are no more than fun/collector item whiskies to be bought for a fathers day gift, yet both brands are currently receiving quite a lot of attention. And these great looking bottles are magnified by the fact that they have great owners who take pride in what they do (quality inside, quality outside). Alex Nicol (holding an impressive lineup, including work with Scottish & Newcastle, Glenmorangie, and Laphroaig) and partner Jane Eastwood took both Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose as part of Nicol's severance package from Glasgow based distiller and blender Whyte & Mackay after he left the company a few years back. Though Pig's Nose has been around since 1977, the packaging as well as the content within has been revitalized due to much needed attention from Whyte & Mackay's master blender Richard Paterson. And it's turned out to be a mighty fine and unique blend.

Pig’s Nose Blended Scotch Whisky Review:

Price: Around $24.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Packaging/Labeling: Wonderfully modern and not over contrived.

Alcoholic Content: 80 Proof, 40% ABV. 

Nose: With a rather high malt content of 40 percent there is a prominent malty caramel and young green candied apples. A sherried oak on the back of the nose.

Tasting: Very sweet. Any of the malty caramel is drowned out by the very green and tart apple. Candied orange peels turns into prunes and sherried oak which is covered in a bitter vinegar. You would expect it to level out into a dry finish but the vinegar comes back and remains in the after taste. Peat running through the whole body.

Conclusion: Complexity is sure to be a defining point here, yet I feel there is a battle going on within the glass. Every flavor seems to be vying for attention, each ending up working out their differences in a rather unorganized fashion, not a team effort. The nose, while not overbearing, indicates the battle which awaits.

The question stands thus: how is it then? Well, the debate which has been going on in my head about how I should actually get this down on paper is sure sign that it will keep any whiskey enthusiast enthralled. I would suggest drinking this neat – some ice could actually tame some of the volatile flavors. I would state that this might not be the best thing to use for mixing cocktails, mostly because of the viscous texture, yet depending on your bar-man, it could be tamed. I would suggest Scottish Breakfast by Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

All in all Pig's Nose is, as the title says, more that of a wild boar than a domestic hog. It's young and viscous, but not something I would completely try to dull down. I would suggest that it be bottled at a higher proof, possible 8-10abv which would really bring on some more interesting notes, as well as control some of the complexity already there, but being a blended whisky I never see this happening. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

8 Years of Love: Jim Beam Black

Two generations of Beam family distillers: Booker Noe and Jim Beam
“All choices lead you somewhere.
Bold choices take you where you’re supposed to be.” – Jim Beam

Owned by Beam Inc. and produced in Clermont, Kentucky, Jim beam, as is easily noticeable, is one of the best selling bourbons in the world. Ever since its inception in 1795 Jim Beam has served seven generations of Beam family heritage as well as the “interim” period of prohibition, the name actually deriving from James B. Beam who rebuilt the business after prohibition.  Originally, at its inception, Jim Beam was produced by Johannes “Reginald” Boehm (changing to “Beam” after his immigration from Germany in the 18th century) who produced a corn whiskey under the name of Old Jake Beam at the Old Tub Distillery.

Coming out of the huge inventory in the Beam family lineup, Jim Beam Black is one of those overlooked bourbons – most likely due to its easy availability. Jim Beam Original, as with most bourbons, are generally aged 4 years. These extra four years in Black transforms an OK bourbon into Jim Beam Black: something quite enjoyable in its own right. And as I have come to know this bottle better, my first time harsh opinions have come undone.

Jim Beam Bourbon Black Review:

Price: Around $17.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Packaging/Labeling: All the trappings of a large branded bourbon. I always love a square bottle though!

Alcoholic Content: 86 Proof, 43% ABV. 

Nose: Subtle grain, oak, and sweet pistachio. A distinct corny earth quality with some cherry cola on the back.

Tasting: Oaked corn and grain is prominent in the introduction. Turns into a very discerning Liquorice and spice flavor. Nicely robust for 86 proof. Wonderful lasting sweet finish.

Conclusion: Both the nose and the palette are very distinct. The nose could possibly be more discerning, yet what can be done about that? The palette is rather enjoyable and unique from many of the standard bourbons – that liquorice is just wonderful, and I don’t generally care much for liquorice. For the price point and quality (possibly one of the best deals in the bourbon industry – remember: 8 Years!) this is a great whiskey for added flavor to cocktails or, as I used it, a short a nice weekend at the beach!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bushmills Original Blended Irish Whiskey Review:

“So long as the presence of death lurks with anyone who goes through the simple act of swallowing, I will make mine whiskey.” – W.C. Fields

Blogging takes time. I have realized as of late what a commitment it is to constantly post and keep things going and just judging by my posting history the last few months I haven't been doing very well. As I always have said, I don't take this too seriously. Yet I do want to remain consistent to keep posting, because each new post I add is part of my learning process as a whiskey novice. So hang in there and don't forget about me, because I haven't forgotten about you. Lets get to it, shall we?

From the most northerly distillery in Ireland, the Old Bushmills Distillery, owned and operated by Diageo, this particular Bushmills is the basic 1608 blended whiskey. No doubt one of the standard Irish whiskey's, with the Distillery attracting 110,000 visitors per year, Bushmills is tends to be more mellow then its counterparts across the way in Scotland. Honestly I hadn't sampled the standard 1608 Bushmills until recently. I have been a long fan of the Blackbush for quite some time and since I had already reviewed some of the lesser popular Irish whiskey’s I thought it was about time I review its predecessor.

Bushmills Original Blended Irish Whiskey Review:

Price: Around $24.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Packaging/Labeling: Very much a branded product, Bushmills does claim to have originated in 1608, yet this was when Bushmills was granted to the license for distillation. The distillery started producing much later.

Alcohol Content: 80 Proof, 40% ABV. 

Color: Carmel, yet the e150e is not overly used.

Nose: Creamy green apple, vanilla – almost a chardonnay. The nose is actually quite wonderful with this underlying tone which mimics a bourbon, with its oak-ness and vanilla. Here mellow means subtle complexity rather than lack of a nose.

Tasting: Comes on much more dry then I would have expected. With a gentle fudgness which has some wood and spice. There is a gentle, though not wobbly, balance here. 

Conclusion: Arrives, developes and finishes all in the same manor. This is one of those whiskey’s that is an enjoyable dram if you want to spend a small amount at the local bar. Easy introduction to Irish whiskey yet good enough to not snob away from.