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New Book: 1001 Whiskies

Last Spring I was given a great opportunity to contribute towards the American Whiskey section of a new book put together by noted whiskey writer Dominic Roskrow. Dominic’s objective was to create a different type of whiskey book – one focused less on the reviews and more on the stories and insights of some of the most unique and better whiskeys across the globe.

What’s more, Dominic had the grand idea to accomplish this objective working with both whiskey writing veterans as well as some new(er) faces. Enter yours truly. I was honestly a bit awed by the chance, but I jumped at it. Seeing it in my hands now is a very gratifying feeling for sure.

My task was simple conceptually – contribute write ups and tasting notes on a variety of American Whiskeys that fell under some of the lesser “traveled” categories (beyond Bourbon and Rye). I learned so much in the process, and the end result was on of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Thanks goes to Dominic.

So lets get to the important stuff. How’s the book? At the risk of sounding self serving in any way – the book is extremely well done. There is no doubt that many will debate some of the whiskeys included within, but what can’t be debated is the depth of the stories of each and every whiskey included. Rather than the typical review, rating, and a blurb or two about the distillery, this book dives into the specific whiskey and touches on where it got its name, how it was made, why it’s unique, etc.

Is this book worth you money? Honestly I believe it is. You’ll learn something about whiskeys you thought you already knew everything about, and will read about new whiskeys you might not have known before. If you are in the market for some interesting whiskey reading – give it a try and let me know what you think.

You can order the book here: “1001 Whiskies You Must Taste Before You Die

NOTE: I get no royalties on the sale of this book. It’s just a damn good read.

Perspective: The large vs. small barrel debate

Some of you may have seen the news from Buffalo Trace on their experiments with smaller vs. larger barrels. Long story short – they concluded that small barrels were not optimal for aging whiskey “to maturity”. In order to get these findings, Buffalo Trace aged their standard bourbon (Mashbill #1) for 5 years in 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels.

Many, including me, were glad to see the results of this experiment come through. Noted whiskey writers like Chuck Cowdery, and (I believe) Lew Bryson, were able to actually taste the whiskeys from Buffalo Trace late last summer/early Fall. Cowdery wrote a post on his site as well as an article (available on Kindle or Nook) on the topic.

I have stated my feelings about small barrels over the last couple of years. I don’t believe they are a secret to anyone that reads this site regularly. Smaller barrels (of the 5, 10, and 15 gallon variety) have become the barrel size of choice for most of the micro distilleries popping up all over the place. Proponents claim they “age the whiskey quicker” than the standard 53 gallon barrel used by larger distilleries. I’m no chemist. I’m pretty sure I never got better than a “C” average in the subject. I do know this – age is age. You cannot age something faster, especially not whiskey.

My personal experiences with younger whiskeys aged in smaller barrels aren’t scientific in the least, but they ARE based on smell and taste. At the end of the day isn’t that what matters? In nearly all examples of small barrel-aged American Whiskeys that I’ve tried, a somewhat funky, green wood, and resiny bitterness asserts itself on the nose and palate. Fortunately some I’ve tried have had less of this quality, making them quite enjoyable, but elements of these flavors are still present.

Basically I agree with Buffalo Trace’s end conclusion – smaller barrels do not age whiskey more optimally than larger barrels, especially long term. But do larger barrels produce a better young whiskey than small barrels? Example: to my knowledge nobody has tasted a large barrel and a small barrel side by side at say 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. etc and reported the results. Last week I was able to gain a lot more perspective on this debate……..

Thursday afternoon I received a call from Mike Williams, proprietor of Tennessee Distilling Company, makers of Collier & McKeel Tennessee Whiskey. Since April 2011 Mike’s been distilling (not sourcing), bottling, and selling one of the first whiskeys in Tennessee (since Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel) to follow the Lincoln County Process (charcoal “mellowing”). Mike didn’t call me to come review his whiskey. Instead he had a different proposition for me – - “Jason I’m moving some barrels to our new distillery location. We happen to have a 53 gallon barrel that has been aging for the same period of time as our 15 gallon barrels.” I was intrigued. He then asked me, “Would you like to come try them both side by side?” It took me about a half second to say “yes”. We made arrangements to meet last Friday afternoon.

For some quick background – Collier and McKeel has been experimenting with barrel sizes since the distillery opened. The whiskey was initially aged in 5 gallon barrels with a goal to move to 15 gallon barrels as soon as possible. That goal was met quickly. Within a few months Collier and McKeel whiskey was being aged in 15s.

By the time last Fall rolled around, the distillery had begun producing consistently enough to warrant a look at 53 gallon barrels. Mike sourced some of the standard 53s, and filled one in October of last year. It was this very barrel that Mike Williams referenced on the phone with me. When I met him that day he also confirmed that both barrels were filled the same day in October and aged the same length of time at just over 6 months.

Mike does know my thoughts on small barrels. In some respects he shares the same viewpoint – we’ve discussed it before. In an effort to make the tasting as unbiased as possible I suggested tasting them blind. I turned my back for 4-5 minutes while he pulled off a good pour from each barrel into a couple of glasses. After giving me the signal, I turned around and moved in quickly so as not to study the color too intently from afar. I cannot tell a lie, my eyes did examine the contents a bit longer than I’d like. The variances were not that dramatic, but enough to clue me in. Color can be a dead giveaway because the larger surface area interaction in the smaller barrels deepens the color in a shorter period of time.

Even before trying Sample B (Large Barrel), a deep whiff of Sample A (Small Barrel) was all it took to determine that it was in fact aged in the smaller barrels. I nodded in the direction of Sample A and then continued with the comparison. Sample A (Small Barrel) demonstrated a far headier sweetness on the nose with much more caramel, vanilla, and wood spice influence. The big backbone of oak and wood resin bitterness helped give it away. Sample B (Large Barrel) in contrast was brighter, crisper, and with that new make whiskey funk (sour grain and cereals) often more prevalent on heavy corn mashbills (Collier and McKeel’s grain recipe is 75% Corn, 15% Rye, and 10% Barley Malt). Tasting each whiskey didn’t do anything to sway my initial thoughts on which was which. It was clear from the start.

Once Mike confirmed my thoughts were correct, he asked for my opinion on which I enjoyed most. Simply put, Sample A (the 15 gallon barrel) was by far the best of the two. It certainly tasted young (it is!) but there was no contest. I even blended a portion of each sample together and gave that a try. The result was the same. The smaller barrel produced the best whiskey at this age. And it was good whiskey. The 53 on the other hand was thin, and still tasted primarily of the new-make.

Mike let me know that Collier and McKeel intends to age more 53 gallon barrels to hold until they are ready. They will continue sampling these larger barrels alongside the 15s to determine at what point the big barrels begin to shine. Until then, they will sell whiskey from 15 gallon barrels. “I would love to go away from 15 gallon barrels”, added Mike. “From a cost standpoint alone, I can get the larger barrels in my hands for 2/3rds of the price of the 15 gallon barrels. Right now the 15′s just make better whiskey at this age range. It’s a balance for us.”

This experiment was a great one for me to see first hand. It also put things into better context for me. Buffalo Trace’s conclusion is still correct. Larger barrels do in fact age whiskey more optimally. They also can age whiskey for a longer period without the adverse affects of too much wood interaction. However, my Friday tasting with Mike was a great example of where the small barrels yielded a better product at 6 months. At what point that changes remains to be seen. I hope to have an opportunity to try the same large barrel in another 6 months to a year and see where things are at that point.

A few weeks ago I posted about the “shades of gray” that exist within the whiskey industry. Add the large vs. small barrel debate to the list. It’s very easy to be on one side or the other of this discussion. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you are a new distillery looking to make the best whiskey you can make, I would still urge you to go with large barrels. However if time is of the essence and you must make the best whiskey you can in the shortest amount of time – small barrels are still your best bet.

Thanks go to Mike Williams at Collier and McKeel for the chance to taste these side by side. It was an education and it was fun.

Shades of Gray

Earlier this week I read a post from David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits, an excellent California based retail store. I’ve frequently mentioned K&L and David because they are an example to what I feel wine and spirits stores need to aspire towards. They educate buyers regardless of the price or producer, bring unique products to attention, and really just make sure K&L is a resource for it’s loyal customers.

The premise of David’s post was the fact that the spirit and whiskey industry is complicated. We get caught up in this notion of “small batch” and “craft” and really – what is that? I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with David over various topics. He’s taught me a great deal about a number of artisan producers – their passion for just simply producing great stuff regardless of volume (or perhaps even profit), and also their relentless pursuit of the best raw materials. We’ve also had some interesting disagreements on a number of subjects. However his post last week titled “It’s Complicated” encompasses a lot of my thoughts about the world of whiskey today.

I urge you to read this if you are in any way “black or white” on craft/micro producers vs. the big boys. David discusses his recent visit from a passionate Grand Marnier representative. Apparently dreading the session, David was immediately engulfed by the guys passion upon hearing him speak (watch the video K&L’s blog a few posts down). I got to thinking about that and I believe the same is true for many of the big boys of bourbon and American whiskey.

The world is shades of gray folks. It’s so common for people to approach both with preconceived notions and opinions that can many times be changed if you are open to it.

Last Spring at WhiskyFest 2011 in Chicago I talked to Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Lobby. I think we all may share a feeling that Buffalo Trace is a “big boy”. It was so interesting to hear Kris talk about his desire to finally get BT’s flagship bourbon into all 50 states, and just how small their production really is. It’s clear the passion and care Kris takes in BT’s products. Ask Jim Rutledge of Four Roses where he gets the distillery’s corn and rye. But be prepared to spend 10-15 minutes learning just how critical Jim feels his relationships with the absolute best farmers in the country (or internationally for Rye) are to his finished product. To make assumptions that these guys are using lesser ingredients because they are bigger is very uninformed. To make assumptions they care less simply because they produce tens of thousands of barrels per year is an even bigger mistake.

On the flip side, you have micro distillers like Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox distillery going to the time and expense of floor malting barley at the distillery’s Sperryville, VA location. My numbers may not be exact but I believe there’s less than a half dozen distilleries in Scotland that are floor malting today. Rick knows it costs more, but he doesn’t care – he does it because it makes his product better. Head out to High West in Park City, Utah and talk to David Perkins about the lengths he went through to perfect his new OMG Rye. Having tasted a number of iterations, I know the care and time and energy High West put in to making sure it was EXACTLY the way they wanted. Spend a day with St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and if you aren’t excited about the state of their whiskey program then you are deader than a door nail.

The point is exactly as David Driscoll eloquently stated – It’s Complicated. We screw it all up when we make ourselves choose between the little guys and the big guys. Why in the hell do we do that? Why let romantic notions of the little guy sway our opinions of the bigger companies without facts. Why stay with the “old brand” just because we *think* those little guys can’t possibly be as good because they are not as established.

My suggestion is simple. If you find yourself in only one camp, do some research and try a few products across the aisle and see what you think. At worse you expand your whiskey palate. At best you may just find something you’ll love.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

Reviews Coming Soon

Folks, hang in there – reviews coming soon. I’ve been sick as a dog for the last week and that’s put my tasting on hiatus for a bit. Sip one for me!

Cheers!

-Jason

Canadian Whisky Awards

While I focus primarily on American Whiskeys of various style, I also realize it’s a big wide world out there. Canadian whisky producers continue to put out some excellent, and under appreciated whisky. Just this past weekend I reviewed Masterson’s Rye, which is a sourced product from Canada. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps more so than anyone, Davin de Kergommeaux has helped to prop up the Canadian Whisky industry with his fantastic website, CanadianWhisky.org. In the last week or two, Davin produced his annual Canadian Whisky awards where he outlines the best and brightest from the previous year. Davin’s one of the best whiskey writers out there – take a peek at his annual whisky award link if you are interested in trying something new and different.

2011 Canadian Whisky Awards

Cheers!

Just a hint of pheasant blood…

In the latest (Winter 2011) edition of The Whisky Advocate, Dave Broom (one of the world’s finest whiskey writers) wrote an entertaining article describing a tasting experience with a woman that really knew her whisky. She noted that mature sherry aged whisky has a touch of the same aroma that an indigenous ant (in her area) gives off when crushed. Dave, who has been known to have some wild descriptors, was initially perplexed by hers.

Soon after the discussion, Dave found himself in the woods observing the very ant the woman described. For the good of whiskey geeks everywhere, Dave expedited the ants journey to its maker. He gave the ant a crush and noted the same aroma the woman had mentioned, and clarity was achieved…at least for him.

Dave used this story to illustrate what a big wide world it is, and how important it is to get out there and take it all in. “We all have ants to crush”, he wrote.

Taken figuratively, he’s absolutely right. All whiskey lovers (or aspiring ones) owe it to themselves to get out there and educate their noses and palates. Open up your spice cabinet. Put a flame to a sugar coated banana and find out what it smells and tastes like (you’ll find this type of aroma and flavor in MANY bourbons). Crush sweet southern spearmint and cloves in your hand and see what the combination brings. No doubt this will educate your senses. But crushing ants in the hopes that you can log it away in your sensory rolodex? Is that just a bit too far?

Here’s my ultimate point – if a crushed ant has a slight sweet-sharp acidity to it much like vinegar (which it does according to Dave), why not describe it as such in tasting notes? Would that not be a clearer and much less remote (“out there”) descriptor for the reader? And if so – think of all the ants that would be saved!

Dave argues his approach by stating his reviews would be all too similar in descriptive language if he didn’t push things a bit. He used another example of describing something as “fruity” vs. describing the actual fruit the whiskey smells or tastes like. I agree there also. A red apple and a green apple have very different aromas and flavor profiles – no doubt, but fruits and ants are vastly different in terms of how likely a reader can relate to them. And who is the review for?

For clarification, I believe Dave Broom is as good as it gets in whiskey writing. He is someone I respect a great deal, but as a whiskey reviewer myself I found this article tough to agree with. A point he did make late in the article is using Twitter to write short reviews that worry less about tasting notes and more about the attitude and mood of the whiskey. That I can get behind as it helps the reader get a picture for how the whiskey delivers flavor across your palate.

In closing I pose this to you folks, are whiskey reviewers taking things a bit too far with some of this stuff? What is your take?