Posted: Nov 19, 2010 12:00am ET
I'm not much with digging into my emotions, yet I think I'm having one right now. My wife says it's guilt, but I'm not sure I trust her because that's what she thinks I always should feel.
Anyway, it has to do with all this Scotch I've been drinking-specifically some of the greatest single-malt whiskies in the world. It started when I toured Scotland in June, visiting Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Glenkinchie, Macallan, Cardhu and Laphroaig, all in the space of a week. Everybody was generous with their most outrageous malts, but we had one especially idyllic experience on a boat off the shores of Islay, sipping 30-year-old Laphroaig as we looked in at the distillery on the shore, puffins flying by and seals diving off of rocks. Thank you, John Campbell.
This sort of Scotch immersion hasn't stopped since as I've written a column in Wine Spectator on the subject, my Cigar Aficionado story is in the current issue and I'm in the midst of tasting just about every malt imaginable for Wine Spectator. Not only that, I just hosted a cigar and malt pairing at the Big Smoke Las Vegas with six (count 'em, Auchentoshan Three Wood, Glenlivet Nadurra, Macallan 18, Glenmorangie Signet, Bowmore 15 and Ardbeg) single malts.
But wait, there's more: A month ago Bowmore visited with an opportunity to taste its 40-year-old and the trilogy of Black, White and Gold. These are all classics of exquisite qualities and I teetered on the verge of a psychic explosion as I tried them in succession.
Then last week Malt Advocate, our new sister publication, hosted its WhiskyFest, which offers dozens of malts and also brought on a handful of separate tasting opportunities. Richard Patterson invited me to a dinner for Dalmore's new Mackensie release and he snuck me a chance to taste the 40-year-old: a mind scrambler.
So when Michael Herklots of the New York Davidoff store called me the other day to go to a cigar and Glenmorangie dinner, including master distiller Dr. Bill Lumsden, I was feeling an embarrassment of riches. I couldn't possibly take advantage of another Scotch tasting like that. How could I justify hogging yet more malts when people are forced to drink sake in Asia?
Posted: Oct 25, 2010 12:00am ET
I rarely encounter promoters who admit they don't know much about making their product. But I did Thursday in the person of Mr. Martin Miller, who is just recently getting around to promoting his own gin.
Miller, if you don't know, is a Brit entrepreneur who is a self-described dabbler. He started by publishing Success With The Fairer Sex, went on to promote rock concerts and try his hand at photography before creating Miller's Antique Price Guide. In 1999, he turned his sights to making a spare-no-expense, premium gin, which at the time was a far crazier venture than it might seem today. Vodka was king and getting more powerful. Gin had been losing market share for years. "The perception was that it had had its day," says Miller. But he saw the vodka market as too crowded and decided gin was where he wanted to put his name down—literally. Now two such spirits, the standard Martin Miller's Gin (80 proof) and the Westbourne Strength (90 proof)—are branded with his moniker.
Of course, the popularity of classic cocktails has now turned gin into a must-have ingredient for anyone who claims to keep a passable home bar. The young mixologists who were proponents of the movement looked to the past to forge the future, and revived the traditional recipes that date past Prohibition. What they found was that most of the cocktails in which vodka is so often substituted—first and foremost the Martini—called for gin (vodka wasn't even generally available in the U.S. until the late 1930s).
So Martin Miller stepped in it at just about the right time. But what's this about his not knowing anything about gin? He claims he doesn't, and his ignorance doesn't stop there. Miller's lips part and his formidable teeth reveal themselves in a devilish grin: "I knew nothing about antiques or publishing when I started." But he and some friends had an idea: that the world needed a good gin. "I'm not really a worker," he says, "I love concepts."
Posted: Oct 12, 2010 12:00am ET
As immersed in single malts as I've been lately—a trip to Scotland that has me writing back-to-back feature stories in Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator—it's little surprise I've become obsessive (my wife says excessive) on the subject. One of the things that fascinates me about malt (and malt drinkers) is the aha! moment.
Everyone seems to have one—anyone who can remotely claim membership in the international brother-and-sisterhood of single malt Scotch lovers, that is. It was that instant when you first really connected with malt. It wasn't necessarily your first-ever dram of malt. In fact, it probably wasn't. But it touched you and left you forever enamored. The gates opened and you saw the light, a convert.
Single-malt is like cigars in that they are a journey of discovery. You warm up to their charms in steps. And then one time, you take a sip or draw a puff and you just get it. Their depths of flavor reveal themselves to you and after that you never approach a dram or smoke the same way. You begin to identify flavor notes more easily as you have this frame of reference in the aha! malt or cigar that opened your eyes.
What's interesting is how often that change comes in one moment, with one revelatory cigar or malt. I know it did for me. I've started collecting stories for possible inclusion in the Wine Spectator story I've mentioned above. If you'd like to share, please send me an account of your personal aha! moment in our drink forums by clicking here.
Posted: Sep 8, 2010 12:00am ET
The problem with fantasy camps is they all assume a level of experience or ability that I don’t have. You probably want to have swung at a fastball some time recently before you go off to baseball camp to face down a major league pitcher. And if you’re going to rock’n’roll fantasy camp, you might first want to have spent some time jamming with other musicians, not just strumming chords in your basement while the cat wails.
Now, a lucky few are going to enjoy a fantasy that is right up my alley. The Glenrothes single malt Scotch is holding a contest that will determine four winners to attend a week-long experience at its distillery in Speyside, Scotland in May. They may not call it a fantasy camp per se, but that’s how I’m thinking of it.
Winners learn the art of creating “Scotland’s quintessential elixir,” says the promotion.
Skills acquired will include: testing the water source, milling, mashing, fermenting and distillation. Not only do you lay down casks for maturation, you also get to nose them to select whisky for bottling your own selection of The Glenrothes, labeled with their own hand-written tasting notes.
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds better than getting chin music from Nolan Ryan.
Ronnie Cox, The Glenrothes brand heritage director, who will host the event, says the physical level of involvement will be based on winners’ fitness levels. “We’ll fit the tasks to the person. Nobody is going to get crushed by a cask.”
Even better. I won’t even have to pack my back brace.
The contest will start October 15 and winners will be chosen from entrants who visit www.theglenrothes.com/whiskymaker and tell the judges why they are uniquely qualified to undertake this exciting, immersive task.
If “immersive” is the operative term here, I think my qualifications are obvious, given my personal level of literal immersion in the liquid subject matter. But I’m not trying to sway the judges—yet.
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.
• 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.
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).
Posted: Jul 31, 2010 4:45pm ETHeaven 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.
Posted: Jul 14, 2010 3:49pm ETWho’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.
Posted: Jun 3, 2010 5:58pm ETI 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.
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:
Posted: May 17, 2010 9:27am ETEver 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.