Posted: Sep 16, 2009 2:52pm ETI had the pleasure of attending a luncheon yesterday that paired a selection of Glenmorangie single-malt Scotches, as well as the Ardbeg Uigeadail, with a slew of food, which included a shrimp dish, chicken, pâté de foie gras, a selection of excellent tomatoes and even French fries. I always love the chance to drink spirits—whisky, brandy, rum, even gin—along with food, and happily attended especially since it was arranged by Jeffrey Pogash. Jeff, who works for the Glenmorangie importer, Moet Hennessey, has long been a champion of this sort of meal and knows just how to put it together. (A column I wrote on spirits and food matching is in the October 15, 2009, issue of Wine Spectator, if you're looking for more insight.)
I was not disappointed. Glenmorangie, a pioneer in whiskies with Sherry-barrel finishes, makes particularly floral spirits that lend themselves well to the process. However, the real bonus of the meal was the attendance by Bill Lumsden, the Glenmorangie master distiller. Bill introduced Sonnalta PX, the first expression in the private collection, and had this to say about it:
Posted: Aug 26, 2009 3:51pm ETNo, this isn't a blog about Sarah Palin and cylindrical, metal packages for storing cigars. Rather, it involves watching cigars on television. Specifically, the classic Western "Maverick."
As discussed in a previous blog, cigar smoking on television or in the movies always captures my attention. That is especially true when the cigar is an important prop in the action and it is used more creatively—and positively—than the stereotype of popping a perfecto in the character's mouth to make it clear that he is a gangster or some other villain. Cigars in the negative were done to death using Edward G. Robinson and then later in the Courageous Cat cartoon with Chauncey Frog, who was clearly based on Robinson. (I will admit, however, that one of the greatest cigars scenes of all time is in a gangster movie: Albert Finney shooting up his rivals with a submachine gun between puffs in Miller's Crossing.)
Posted: Aug 21, 2009 12:39pm ET
I didn’t end up making the aforementioned trip to Kentucky to see the cooperage operation for Brown-Forman, but I also didn’t go to Niagara Falls as my wife had schemed. Where the family actually went (after much begging from my daughter Grace, who is fascinated by all things historical) was Mystic Seaport. At the other end of Connecticut from where I live, it was an easy day trip into a time that occurred many days ago (more than a century would be closer).
Mystic may now be more famous for the cheese pies for which the movie Mystic Pizza was named and for which daughter Abigail begged, but in the nineteenth century it was a bustling whaling port. Now the Seaport historical area (mysticseaport.org) is a recreation of a New England port town, replete with ships, large and small, and the shops, buildings and homes that would have lined the streets.
Lo and behold, it also contains a working cooperage as most goods—notably whale oil--were shipped in wood casks at the time. While the demonstration wasn’t specific to whiskey (as is the one in Kentucky), it was nevertheless educational and dealt with some really old-school coopering as it was all done with hand tools in that era.
The term barrel in the coopering world more properly refers to a cask size than a general term for a wood storage devices. For most purposes a barrel is around 31½ gallons, which is twice the size of the typical metal keg in which beer comes. In the whiskey world, however, a barrel is about 53 gallons. The sizes aren’t well standardized, especially since they mean different things in different countries. A hogshead at twice the size of a normal barrel (63 gallons) is what they used for storing tobacco. Wine typically shipped in pipes, or butts, at twice again that size.
Posted: Aug 13, 2009 2:19pm ETSometimes even the masters return to the basics.
When I was invited to meet Angus Winchester, the global brand ambassador for Tanqueray gin at Raines Law Room for a drink, I was expecting anything but something basic. First, the peripatetic Winchester is a loyal soldier in the cocktail revolution, seen seemingly everywhere, from bars to television to books, promoting excellence in drinking. Second, Raines Law Room is a saloon so far out on the advance guard that it doesn't even sport a sign. And furthermore, Tanqueray’s current slogan is “Resist Simple.”
So, I walked in thinking I’d be greeted with some very exotic drink, perhaps laced with elderflower liqueur, infused with tarragon or garnished with tiger lilies. What I got was a refresher course on making a simple Gin & Tonic.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as all that. And it is very worth taking another look at a drink you might be dismissing. Watch the video as Angus breaks down the rules of making a first rate G'n'T (or in this case T'n'T, with a nod to the sponsor, not the explosive).
A word about Raines Law Room: it’s not a library for legal students. It’s an elegant watering hole hidden down the steps in a semi-basement at 48 West 17th Street in New York City. Note well the number because there is no sign announcing the club. While a number of hip cocktail clubs have referenced themselves as speakeasys, Raines Law Room refers to an earlier legal attempt to curb drinking. The Raines Law was passed in New York in 1896 and prohibited alcohol on Sundays in bars other than those at hotels. Because a lot of people at the time were on a six-day workweek, this would have put a real crimp in an honest laborer's drinking plans. What happened, however, was that establishments called Raines Law hotels began springing up. They consisted of a bar with the minimum number of rooms above to qualify as a hotel. In many cases, the rooms were never actually let out or if they were, they often were used on an hourly basis for—wait for it—prostitution. So once again the solution created even more law breaking.
Posted: Aug 4, 2009 5:00pm ETThe first piece in my master plan is in place.
I have just received a document deeding me a lifetime lease on a square foot plot on the island of Islay.
For those of you who are ill informed: Islay is one of the cardinal whisky-making regions of Scotland (the one that makes all the really smoky Scotch); and my master plan is to one day own a distillery.
This, the initial step in the right direction, comes to me through the largesse of Laphroaig, makers of single-malt whisky on Islay. You see owning a piece of Scotland is part of the Friends of Laphroaig program and comes with purchase of a bottle of Laphroaig and registration at laphroaig.com.
Having fulfilled both requirements, I am now the proud recipient of a lease for one square foot of Islay (plot no. 391520 to be exact). This may not seem like much, but with it comes the agreement from Laphroaig to pay a yearly ground rent to me in the sum of one dram of Laphroaig whisky. Fine payment indeed.
The catch (and there's always a catch) is that I must claim it in person at the distillery. Further, the whisky maker is not offering heritable ownership, nor the right to cut peat, farm sheep nor extract mineral from the plot.
That's okay with me. Now, the problem is convincing my wife to vacation in Scotland this year. Readers of my earlier blog will recall that I've been having difficulty convincing Ellen to tour the Bourbon Trail of Kentucky instead of going to Niagara Falls this summer. This may be a tougher sale, but well worth it considering the dram offered at journey's end.
My only questions are what cigar should I smoke upon payment of whisky (assuming I can convince aforementioned wife that a change of itinerary is in order) and whether I will need to include a Schedule E with my next 1040 to report rental income of one dram should I collect.
Posted: Jul 29, 2009 11:01am ETSam Adams came to visit the other day, which is always liberating. Rather, I should say it was Jim Koch, the mastermind behind Samuel Adams and the Boston Brewery. He has such zeal for brewing that it’s always exciting to talk beer with him. Which is what we did…sort of.
Jim was here to introduce us to the latest version of his Utopias. Describing Utopias as merely beer doesn’t even start to scratch the surface. This is an extreme beer that he started to work on 15 years ago, one of the main thrusts being to explore the upper limits of alcohol content. He first started with Triple Bock at 17.5 percent alcohol (35 proof) I was introduced to Utopias in 2000 at 21 percent alcohol (42 proof), now it’s up to 27 percent, or a whopping 54 proof. Just fermenting. No distilling.
When you consider that 14 percent used to be considered the limit for beer, that’s outrageous. Beer proof typically tops out there because the yeast that creates the alcohol dies out—or gets the microbe equivalent of drunk—when the alcohol level gets too high. Koch’s strategy is get what he calls “Ninja yeast” and convince them to keep fermenting. It takes years and involves much blending of casks.
But lets let Jim explain:
The flavor is interesting—cinnamon, graham cracker, maple syrup, Sherry or Port—but not something you’re likely to mistake for a cold lager. Definitely worth trying, if you have any beer geek in you at all.
Oh yeah, Jim and I had our first smoke together. And this is what he had to say.
Posted: Jul 20, 2009 4:38pm ETMy wife wants to vacation in Niagara Falls this summer.
And I don't.
It’s an argument that I won’t win, but it goes something like this:
"But, honey, Niagara Falls is for honeymooners and we're already married with kids."
"That's why I want to go there—for the kids. They should really see the Falls. It is like a miracle."
Then I quote Oscar Wilde (which I realize doesn't make me sound exactly anymore like the man of the family): "The miracle would be if the water didn't fall. We should take the kids someplace really educational."
She just stares at me and asks: "And where would you rather go?"
"And don't say Kentucky.”
But I do say Kentucky just like I have so many times before, but this time I think I have a compelling argument. And predictably it all centers around the Bourbon Trail.
In the interest of full disclosure, Kentucky has many other things to offer—historical sites, great cuisine, rolling hills full of race horses, Churchill Downs, etc.—but I couldn’t go without a tour of the great Bourbon distilleries. In my case that may seem like a bit of a busman’s holiday, but consider this: lots new has been added to the Tour since I last wrote about it a few years ago. And what with my cigars and spirits seminar being on Bourbon at the Las Vegas Big Smoke in November, I could do with a refresher course.
Posted: Jul 13, 2009 2:00pm ETWhat my wife has been warning me about for years finally happened. I have a skull in my home bar.
No, it's not my own pickled skull or that of some wayward guest whom I beheaded for drinking too much of my Chivas Royal Salute. It's a bottle of vodka.
Now I admit, I've become jaded about vodka lately. Seems as though a new clear spirit debuts every month and each one claims outstanding purity and has a more arresting package than the last. But I got a look at one yesterday that made even me take notice: Crystal Head vodka.
I admit that the bottle (if that's what you'd call it) is pretty much the showstopper here, that and its connection to a celebrity. It's not the first time someone has tried to sell vodka through a link to a well-known person (witness the misguided Donald Trump vodka), but in the case of Crystal Head it's a more interesting endorsement. But more on that later, let's look at the package first.
Crystal Head comes in pretty much just that: a crystal head. Well, more like glass shaped into a skull with an abbreviated bottleneck at the top, but you'll get the picture if you look at the picture. The concept is that the package is a replica of one of 13 crystal skulls that have been found throughout the world—from the Yucatan to Tibet—which were supposedly made out of single pieces of crystal over a period of 300 to 500 years, using an unknown process (as there are no discernable tool marks on the heads, and if they were carved they would have been shattered). The seven heads that are today accounted for are claimed to be imbued with unworldly characteristics.
I know almost nothing about archaeology—although my kids seem to think I may have been unearthed from some ancient dig—nor am I debunker of myths, so I won't make any claims to the story's veracity or lack thereof. (A quick Internet search will show you how varying experts fall on the question.) But the point is that Crystal Head would make a pretty cool presence on anybody's bar—especially if you set it up with an eerie light behind it on Halloween.
Posted: Jun 23, 2009 3:07pm ETMy worst fears have been realized.
I just received a press package from Knob Creek and tore off the brown paper wrapper with some anticipation, only to be greeted with a foreboding message on the lid of the box: "Thanks for nothing."
"My god!" I thought, "What have I done to rankle the folks at the distillery?"
I lifted the box top to expose a terrifying sight that rivals even reading the current performance of my IRA: an empty bottle of Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
What kind of sadist would send me such a thing?
It gets worse. With the package comes an apologetic missive from Knob Creek president Bill Newlands. It seems the popularity of this Bourbon, created by Jim Beam's grandson Booker Noe, has been so vast that the distillery is having a hard time keeping up with customer demand. The next batch of the 100-proof whiskey, aged the full nine years, won't be available until November. And Knob Creek won't compromise its quality by bottling anything a few months shy of its age of majority. In other words, we can expect stock depletions at the package store shelf.
Have I done my job too well? Could all my years of championing the amber elixir of the Bluegrass State have been repaid with this: a shortage of one of its finest whiskies? Might the same fate befall Maker's Mark? Wild Turkey? Woodford Reserve? Evan Williams? Eagle Rare?
The blood chills. The eyes glaze over.
I've weathered shortages before. When paper clips were in short supply a few decades ago, I learned to use a stapler. When an oil embargo brought serpentine lines at the pump, I carpooled. I even remembered how to walk. But this is different. What can you do to replace Bourbon?
Wait. This is no time to panic. You could all start conserving. Resist the urge to hoard. Next time you feel like a Knob Creek, instead have a big tall glass of grain alcohol mixed with a few drops of brown food dye. Close your eyes and imagine hints of maple, vanilla and orange peel. Now say to yourself: "I can wait 'til November. It's a for good cause."
Posted: Jun 19, 2009 12:38pm ETI wanted to hate this product.
When Jim Beam announced its Red Stag, Bourbon infused with black cherry flavoring, the purist in me was horrified. What lunatic would want to take something so noble as Bourbon and sweeten it up with fruit? After all Bourbon is the purest of all spirits, strictly produced as a straight whiskey, no flavoring, barrels only used once, no coloring. It isn't vodka for goodness sakes. And what would it taste like anyway? Cough syrup?
Then I got a chance to taste and changed my mind. Bobby Gleason—you may know him as Bobby G, the fastest bartender in Las Vegas—wheeled a bar cart into our offices and started mixing up concoctions that turned my head.
First off it doesn't taste like cough syrup, although I would have to say it isn't really a Bourbon either—strictly speaking. Of course, you get the cherry flavors right up front, very sweet, but not cloying. The finish has a bit of nut on it. But I won't bother to review this as sipping whiskey as I think it is as a cocktail mix where the drink shines.
Check it out at jimbeam.com for more recipes. But I beg of you don't give up regular Bourbon.