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Jack Bettridge

Branching Off the Label

Posted: Aug 31, 2010 12:00am ET

Just got a bottle of Basil Hayden’s Bourbon (which I adore) and rather than drinking it, I was perusing the label (which I generally deplore, but I’m on duty, and sometimes you have to learn about liquor the hard way—through reading).

That’s when I came upon these words: “You’ll find Basil’s at its best when sipped STRAIGHT or with a splash of branch water.” It’s a message with which I generally concur. At 80 proof, Basil Hayden’s is mild enough (“gentle” is the word on the label) that you can easily drink it NEAT (I like to reserve the term STRAIGHT for the Bureau of Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco’s legal definition of Bourbon: at least 51 percent corn in the grain recipe, aged at least two years in new, charred-oak barrel with no coloring or flavoring added). And if I were to add water (which is actually allowed under the legal definition), it probably wouldn’t much more than a splash so as to savor the unusually high rye content in the Basil Hayden’s mash.

But what of this “branch water”? You hear the expression all the time in old western movies when cowpokes come off the dusty trail, belly up to the bar and ask for Bourbon and branch water. “Bourbon and branch” was also J.R.’s favorite bar call on Dallas, television’s great paean to greed and corruption in the Texas oil industry (except that I think it was dislocated—isn’t Houston about oil and Dallas about cowboys?)

I’d never really thought much about what branch water was, so I went looking for edification in that the great resource of truth and other things that are sometimes, maybe true: Wikipedia. There I found my choice of definitions.

First was:

• Water from a stream (a term primarily used in the southern United States).

Now I have a brook in my decidedly not Southern back yard, but that’s out. First of all, part of the water comes from runoff from a roadway up the hill and, second, well, frogs, you know…swim in it. Besides my well water isn’t even that good and that’s been filtered through the earth.

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Release The Kraken!

Posted: Aug 20, 2010 12:00am ET

…and the Sailor Jerry and the Cruzan 9 and the Black Beard and the Seven Tiki.

Spiced rum, a drink category that virtually didn’t exist before Captain Morgan stormed our shores in the early 1980s, is, well, spicing up the market. New brands are joining the fray and pulling it in new directions.

Which, oddly enough, I think is great.

I’ll admit I’m not the preferred-customer profile for the spiced variety of sugar-cane spirit. Normally you’ll find me lurking in the extra-aged end of the rum pool. But I always applaud category excitement. The rising tide seems to raise everyone to new heights. And you can always expect redefinition of what a drink can be—translation: novel options. If you doubt, just consider what happened to the whiskey world when single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons started turning that category on its ear.

But what can you do to spice up spiced rum? When you’re talking about a spirit whose major presence is personified by a seventeenth century Welsh privateer who sports a saber, a cape and a tri-cornered hat, a lot has to do with image. And the Captain mascot worked so well that sales have boosted every year since its arrival and Captain Morgan is now one of the top-selling liquors in America of any kind with unerring growth for its entire existence.

Well, if you want to trump the Captain for connection to the sea you have to get right in the water. Which is what The Kraken did. The label portrays a kraken, a mythical sea monster reminiscent of a giant squid, swallowing up a galleon from beneath the waves. When the rum hit the market in March, it got a serendipitous boost from the almost simultaneous release of the remake of Clash of the Titans. Possibly the only redeeming scene in the film is when Zeus, played by Liam Neesan, spouts the line, “Release the kraken!” and the beast slithers out.

Elwyn Gladstone, of The Kraken’s parent company, says the timing of the releases (I guess three in all if you consider the rum, the movie and the beast) was a “happy coincidence.” He hastens to add that the name has been floating around at least since the eighteenth century (Alfred, Lord Tennyson rhymed about it).

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Another Slice of Heaven

Posted: Jul 31, 2010 4:45pm ET
Heaven Hill just sent me a pre-release of the whiskey maker’s latest Parker’s Heritage Collection, a series of four (so far) special releases that are a tribute to its distinguished master distiller Parker Beam. The good news is it’s excellent. The further good news is it will sell for $79.99, far more approachable to the wallet than the prior two releases ($200 and $150 respectively). If there’s any bad news it’s that there will be only 4,800 bottles for distribution in the U.S. as well as internationally.

A 10-year-old, this whiskey is packed with flavor, but doesn’t have the pronounced woodiness that the earlier Parker’s released at 27 years was shouldered with. I found plenty of everything here—sweetness, spice, vanilla, caramel and maple—all layered in a kind of confection.

This year’s Parker’s is a wheated Bourbon from its Bernheim distillery, where Heaven Hill now produces Old Fitzgerald. While Bourbon is typically made with a grain recipe that includes more than 51 percent corn together with a mix of rye and barley, Old Fitzgerald substitutes winter wheat for the rye. That tradition dates to when the legendary Pappy Van Win Winkle owned the label. The Fitzgerald label came to Heaven Hill when it bought the Bernheim facility from United Distillers in 1999 after losing its own Bardstown distillery in a fire in 1996.

As a 10-year-old, the new Parker’s Heritage represents the oldest wheated Bourbon Heaven Hill has produced. (The Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12-year-old is product the company inherited from United Distillers.) The Parker’s Heritage is bottled at a cask strength of 127.8 proof (63.9 percent alcohol) and so has a pronounced tang despite the smoothness that wheat usually implies.

Heaven Hill's whiskies are all aged and bottled in its original facilities in Bardstown. The 52 barrels for this release come from the fourth, sixth and seventh floors of Rickhouse A. Beam says, “It has the caramel and smokes notes that only 10 years in the top floors of our rickhouses can produce.” The distiller adds that it is at this age and proof that a wheated Bourbon shows best.

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Lighting Up Your Man Room

Posted: Jul 14, 2010 3:49pm ET
Who’s your matchbook guy? Who’s your cocktail napkin guy?

These are probably not questions you put much thought into. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t either—that is until by wonderful wife, in one fell swoop, cherried out my man room and enlightened me to the joys of customized matches and cocktail napkins.

A little background: A couple of years ago we went through a house renovation that seemed to last longer than a drum solo, and even then it wasn’t quite complete. Phase Triple Z in the plan was to finish a room in a newly created basement that would be my bar and smoking room. The whole thing had gone on so long that I myself had forsaken the possibility of its happening and was wondering how the whole house had become so girlified.

Then the lovely Ellen suddenly sprung into action. She called back the contractor, had him trick the place out to a fare thee well with a built in wood bar, bottom-lit glasses shelves and—glory of all glories—an icemaker. (This is an appliance that all it ever does is think of me: “I wonder if Jack needs some ice. Oh, he does. I better make him some. I wonder if Jack needs some more ice. No. I’ll just wait here until he does.”) Then the centerpiece arrived: a billiards table. What a great man room.

But, now I was feeling a bit embarrassed—I’d been thinking all these sullen thoughts about how I never get what I want and then the wife comes through like this. What I didn’t know was she had one more trick up her sleeve: the crowning piece.

Last week, they arrived: customized matchbooks and cocktail napkins emblazoned with the words “Chez Buzzy,” a family nickname. What more could I ask for? Well, a well-made Manhattan and a Montecristo No. 2, but I can take care of that myself.
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Of Horse Racing and Traditional Innovations

Posted: Jun 3, 2010 5:58pm ET
I just learned that when the Belmont Stakes is run for the 142nd time in New York on Saturday Woodford Reserve will be the official Bourbon of the race. This I applaud: it’s a good whiskey and I feel that not enough events these days have an official Bourbon. (My wife, however, would add that walking out to get the mail in the afternoon may not be an occurrence worthy of such a official distinction.)

Along with the official-Bourbon honor, Woodford will now be used to make the traditional cocktail of the Belmont Stakes, the Belmont Breeze.

Belmont Breeze
1 1/2 oz. Woodford Reserve
2 oz. Lemonade
1 oz. Pomegranate Juice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge or cherry.


I use the term “traditional” under advisement. If by traditional you mean that the Belmont Breeze has the same sort of longevity that, say, the Mint Julep has had with its unstinting relationship with the Kentucky Derby, well, not that traditional. But if by traditional you mean it’s been the drink associated with the Belmont Stakes for quite a long time, again no. But if by traditional you mean this is the first time it’s been served this way at the race, then, yes, it is traditional.

To be fair, some tradition exists here. The Belmont Breeze has been listed as the official cocktail since 1998 when the barmeister Dale DeGroff invented the drink to replace the former official Belmont cocktail, the White Carnation. The only thing is that when the King of Cocktails first created it, the Breeze was a galaxy more complex and had different base ingredients:

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Worth Its Wait, In Red Wax

Posted: May 17, 2010 9:27am ET
Ever since I discovered the Bourbon with the distinctive red-wax seal 20 odd years ago, I’ve heard rumors of some super duper Maker’s Mark that they were keeping for themselves or selling overseas. Whenever I explained that there wasn’t one, the response was a plaint that there should be because every other Bourbon has its "really good stuff.”

Well, I always thought that Maker’s Mark, which turned the Bourbon world on its ear in 1958 by breaking through the superpremium ceiling, was the really good stuff. But it’s human nature to want to move onto the next big thing and so the market clamored for a new release from the company that hadn’t changed what it does for a half century. (Yes, I know they flirted with the stuff that came in the gold seal bottle, but that was fleeting and it was essentially just a higher proof and not a different taste.)

Now the distiller introduces Maker’s 46, and I have to say it was worth the wait. The whiskey manages to embody the essential character of Maker’s Mark (smoothness matched with big flavors of vanilla, caramel and maple), while revealing a spicy side that it never showed before.

Bill Samuels Jr., president of Maker’s Mark and son of its founder, came by the office recently to introduce me to his new baby and explain its creation. Watch this video to learn about the nightmare that drove him to make it.

 
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From Scotland With Love

Posted: Apr 6, 2010 5:27pm ET

I don’t go to many runway fashion shows, but I’m glad I made an exception for Dressed to Kilt, New York’s annual celebration of all things Scottish, complete with celebrities modeling kilts. There is nothing like a show of nationality to get the blood stirring: proud countrymen dressed in the fine textiles of Northern Britain, eating the local delicacies (thankfully no haggis) and supporting a good cause (the Wounded Warrior Project).

All right, all right. I admit it. I went for the free Scotch. 

Glenfiddich was a sponsor and supplied the whisky as well as the talents of mixologist Charlotte Voisey, who created a trio of beguiling themed cocktails.

But that’s not to say I didn’t come away with a newfound respect for other things Scottish. A profusion of plaids and kilts was in evidence as guests were encouraged to dress for the “Mad for Scotland” theme. The women were bade to wear hats. Many kilts were in evidence, which I’ll admit could be a bit disconcerting when you entered what the sign said was the men’s lavatory, only to be greeted by a crowd of skirts.

Stars walked the runway in kilts and otherwise. Some had obvious Celtic connections—like Mike “if it’s not Scottish it’s crap” Myers, Alan Cumming, Kyle McLaughlin and Andie MacDowell. For others, such as Al Roker, the connection wasn’t as clear. But he danced a jig to prove his fealty to the Highlands. Joan Jett managed to make kilts look punk. Matthew Modine, sporting a huge tam, lugged a bike as well as a bottle of Glenfiddich. Country singer Kellie Pickler represented the Southern Scots. Perhaps strangest of all was Mercedes’ cosponsorship of the event with a plaid hybrid parked outside the venue: M2 Lounge.

Such British textile manufacturers as Begg, Holland & Sherry and Lochcarron lent their support as did such designers as Vivienne Westwood, Deryck Walker, Joey D and Judith R. Clark.

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Romanced by the Stone of Destiny

Posted: Feb 12, 2010 3:13pm ET
I thought they’d all been vanquished, but every once in a while you find one: the single-malt-whisky snob who talks smack about blended Scotch as if the latter had no business consorting with the former. I entertained one the other night.

I listened for a while, tempted to interject something about the palate-boggling experience I had recently been treated to with the Royal Salute 38-Year-Old Stone of Destiny. If my guest had only stopped prattling on for a moment about the “undeniable” superiority of some peat-bomb Islay he had just discovered, I might have let him have sip. Instead I told myself to let him remain blissful in his ignorance. And I'm the happier in not having wasted any of my small sample on a lout.

But I will share with you—if not a dram—my thoughts on it. In short, it's a mind scrambler.

This new release from Chivas Regal is the older brother of the company's standard Royal Salute (21 years old), which was already one of my favorite blended Scotches. The Stone of Destiny is the oldest Chivas has ever issued, save for a 50-year-old commemorative version released in 2003 to honor the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The Stone of Destiny tops the 50-year-old in one significant way: it is planned for continued production, while the other was a one-off edition.

Don’t expect your local store to be flooded with it, however. Brand ambassador Michael McLaren, who introduced me to the Stone of Destiny, explains that it is a limited allocation with only 600 bottles in the first release, with only a third of them coming to America. He says the company settled on 38 years old as an age at which it could continue to produce on a regular basis.

The whisky marries a dozen single malts with one grain whisky for an exceptionally high malt content. Barrels filled for the third and fourth time were used to achieve its advanced age without the whisky being overpowered by the wood. Once blended together the product was allowed to marry in barrels for two years.
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A Scotch Master Looks Back

Posted: Dec 21, 2009 6:54pm ET

What to call John Ramsay? His title is master blender. But given that that is a pretty common spirits-industry term defining a person who oversees blending, perhaps for Ramsay we need something more. It may seem redundant, but how about master master blender?

You see, John, who is now retiring from Scotland's Edrington Group after 43 years in the industry, is the genius behind the Glenrothes Vintage program as well as being the master blender of such prestige blends as Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark and one of the malt masters of The Macallan and Highland Park. And that's some pretty tall—well not cotton, but lets say—barley.

A couple of weeks ago, I tipped glasses with John who was doing sort of a farewell tour of New York. The obvious first question was what was his proudest of the many Scotch variants he has created. He mentioned The Macallan Fine Oak Collection and, of course, Glenrothes , but interestingly his final answer was not a single malt, but a blend. That would be his 30-year-old Famous Grouse, which topped an international spirits competition in 2007.

Asked about the number of whiskies he's designed, he rolled his eyes and said, "A lot, some successful, some come and gone." One of the main changes he notes in the industry over his more than four decades is the number of variants the market demands. "Every marketer and his dog seems to have it in his mind that he can make a whisky that will overtake the world." Few do, but Ramsay has had a hand in his share.

Another huge change occurring during Ramsay's career was the widening of the Scotch market, particularly in Asia, but also in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. He said that he just come from a tour in the Czech Republic, where they have long been Highland Park fans and have recently been introduced to Glenrothes.

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Seeing Is Believing (In the Big Smoke)

Posted: Nov 24, 2009 12:25pm ET

My first Big Smoke came in New York in 1997, when I started at Cigar Aficionado, and it blew me away with the great smokes, drinks and food. But mostly it was the fun and camaraderie of the guests that struck me. Here were all these stogie fans having a great time celebrating their passion for smoke and knowing they were with like-minded people. I thought: "It don't get much better than this."

So I guess you could say I was unprepared later that same year at my first Big Smoke Las Vegas where I saw all those same qualities amped up by a power of 10. Well, knock me over again, because I've just returned from the 14th Big Smoke Las Vegas and the event hasn't lost one quantum of enthusiasm—from the guys who line up hours before the doors open to the to those who treat it like a costume party to those who come as a club, a team and, in one case, a syndicate. Check out these flip videos I took as proof (and hold on until the end to see an enthusiasm of a different stripe):

 

Also, I read someone griping on the forums about the quality of drinking at this year's Big Smoke. Maybe he went to a different event than I did, but this video (and my inability to keep my hand steady while recording it) seems to suggest a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Not only could you drink well, but if you went to the Patrón Tequila you could get your picture taken with young lovelies. Whatever happens in Vegas…well, you know the rest:
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