Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Exquisite Whiskey from Corti Brothers

Corti Brothers is a well known and loved Sacramento gourmet store. Owner Darrell Corti is a legend in the California food and wine world, known as one of the pioneers of the modern gourmet food movement. Corti knows his way around spirits as well; they even did a private bottling of 20 year old Van Winkle bourbon back in the '90s.

Corti Brothers recently sent me a sample of their newest whiskey which is set for release in November.  For this whiskey, Amador Distillery, a Central California craft distillery, acquired 13 casks of a seven year old, 2006 Kentucky bourbon (70% corn, 25% rye, 5% barley) and finished it for about eight months in casks which had held Harbor Winery Mission del Sol for the previous 40 years. An Amador County, high alcohol dessert wine that is no longer being produced, Mission del Sol is made from late harvest Mission grapes.

This whiskey will be available in regular 750 ml bottles for $50 and in 375 ml bottles for $30; they will be selling it at their store, but it's possible that it will find its way to some other retailers as well (EDIT: David Driscoll notes in the comments that K&L will be carrying it - and see his blog write up as well).

Corti Brothers Exquisite Whiskey, 7 yo, 42.25% ($50)

The nose on this is pure port with some brown sugar.  The palate is similarly big on wine with fruity port or sherry.  Digging deep, there is a caramel bourbon note underneath, but I can't say I would pick it out if I didn't know this was actually a bourbon.  The port notes increase as it trails off into the finish where it's joined by some oak.

It's not often that I taste something that's totally unique.  Tasting blind, there is no way I would guess this was bourbon. If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it tastes most similar to the Navazos Palazzi sherried brandy than anything else I've tasted.

Usually when I taste finished bourbons, I'm left with the feeling that the finishing was just a method to add some sweetness to an inferior product.  This one is more akin to a sherried Scotch where the wine notes become an integral part of the whiskey.

This is great whiskey and likely one you won't see again.  I'm not sure hard core bourbon fans will like it since it has so little traditional bourbon flavor.  Fans of port, sherried Scotch and brandy, on the other hand, will love it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

As Seen On TV: J.R. Ewing Bourbon

J.R. Ewing Bourbon is a new bourbon which is a promotional tie-in to the reboot of the television show Dallas, produced by Warner Brothers for TNT. Unfortunately, the timing of the product launch was a bit poor as the series was cancelled earlier this month...and now they likely have a lot of bourbon, so much so that they are willing to give away bottles to the likes of me.

Bottled by Strong Spirits for Warner Brothers, J.R. Ewing is a four year old Kentucky bourbon.

J.R. Ewing Bourbon, 4 years old, 40% abv ($35)

The nose has notes of magic marker, solvent, and some fruit juice.  There's some vanilla and other notes, but every time they try to come out they're beaten down by the chemical notes.  The palate starts with light, sweet notes; it's watery.  It has some oak, but it develops quickly into bitterness and trails off with chemical solvent notes.  The finish is bitter and chemically.

If J.R. had given me a glass of this, I probably would have shot him too.

Friday, October 17, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Finished Jefferson's and a New Bunnahabhain

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Bunnahabhain cleared a new label for Ceobanach, a ten year old, heavily peated malt.

New labels cleared for Jefferson's Reserve rum cask finished and Cabernet Sauvignon cask finished.  

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LA's Only Whiskey: Slow Hand Whiskey from Greenbar Distillery

The growth craft distilleries over the last five years has been nothing short of phenomenal.  My list of whiskey distilleries includes over 300 across the country, including distilleries in every state except Hawaii.  Metro areas like Portland, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have scads of distilleries making whiskey. Los Angeles has one.

The Greenbar Distillery has existed as a company making infusions since 2004, but in 2012, they opened a distillery in a warehouse space on the east side of downtown LA.  They make a wide variety of spirits, from rum to liqueurs.  Everything they make is organic and everything is made in-house except for their tequila, which is made in Mexico.  This month, they are coming out with their first aged whiskeys and opening a new tasting room that will offer tours and samples.  Melkon Khosrovian, who runs the distillery with his wife Litty Mathew, invited me to see the tour and taste some samples.

Last year, Greenbar released Slow Hand White Whiskey, a whiskey made from an oat, barley and spelt mash.  For their aged whiskey, they wanted something a bit different, so they went for a single malt distilled in a column still to a lower proof than their white whiskey.  Khosrovian isn't a fan of small barrels so he went in the other direction entirely, aging the whiskey in a massive, medium toasted 1,000 gallon French oak tank.  To spice things up a bit, he added wood cubes made from hickory, mulberry, hard maple, red oak and grapewood.  He wouldn't tell me how long new whiskey is aged, but it's obviously young since they've only been distilling for two years.

The aged whiskey is slated for release later this month in regular and cask strength expressions.  I tried those along with the white whiskey that is already on the market.

Slow Hand White Whiskey, 40% abv. ($35)

The nose has soft new make notes with some vanilla and peppercorns.  On the palate, it's surprisingly delicate and less new makey than the nose.  It's very light and sweet but it lacks much in the way of character.  There's a slight acidity at the end of the palate that trails into the finish where it's joined by some of the peppery notes from the nose.  As far as white whiskey goes, this isn't bad; there's just not much to it flavor-wise. Of course, I don't typically drink white whiskey, so keep that in mind (though I have to say, I'm not sure who does).

Slow Hand Six Woods Malt Organic Whiskey, 42% abv

This is not on the market yet, but I was told it would likely retail for under $50.

The nose has really nice wood grain notes, like an unfinished bookshelf; once it sits a bit, it develops some pine.  The palate is very light with wood notes.  It's less new makey than I would expect for something that is quite young, but it isn't big on flavor.  There's a hint of spice and a hint of citrus, but they are very subtle.  The finish leaves a nice wood note on the nose but only an alcoholic tinge on the palate.  Letting it sit out for a while, it develops a bit more with some mint on the palate and less alcohol on the finish.

Slow Hand Six Woods Malt Organic Whiskey Cask Strength, 57.5% abv

This is not on the market yet, but I was told it would retail for around $60.

The nose on this one has wood and spice and then, after some time in the glass, sweet candy notes with some fruit.  The palate is sweet with vanilla, fruit and wood, then spice; with some air, it develops a distinctive sweet milk chocolate note.  The finish is short but has a nice balance of sweet and spicy. This is quite drinkable, and air really opens it up, so give it a decent amount of time in the glass. 

The cask strength malt is definitely the best of the bunch here.  It's an interesting craft whiskey and one that shows promise, but as with so much craft whiskey, it has the taste of an experiment that's not quite complete.

LA folks interested in these whiskeys can sample them by taking a distillery tour, which is also a great way to see a working distillery without leaving town.  The $12 fee includes up to six sample pours, and their new tasting room is a really nice, open space.  Tours are by reservation only at 5, 6 and 7:00, Tuesdays through Saturdays. You can sign up for tours on their website, but don't bring llamas; they seem to have a problem with llamas.

Monday, October 13, 2014

To Sue or Not to Sue: A Whiskey Conundrum

It's been a tough year for non-distiller producers (aka NDPs), companies that sell whiskey they purchase from elsewhere.  Ever since this summer's Daily Beast article about sourcing whiskey went viral, there has been a lot of attention on who buys whiskey from whom.

It didn't take long for lawyers to pick up the scent and now Templeton Rye faces three lawsuits claiming it deceived customers. Tito's Vodka faces another one claiming that its product is not actually "handmade."

After being mentioned in the Daily Beast piece, I received several emails from law firms asking if they could "pick my brain" about the issue.  I ignored all of them.  I have mixed feelings about these type of consumer lawsuits which don't involve any physical injury.  They tend to end with large attorneys fees awards and a minor discount or coupon for consumers. In addition, many of the targets of such lawsuits are small companies, and I don't have the desire to see anyone go out of business over these issues; that would mean less whiskey for all of us.

On the other hand, those of us in the whiskey community have been yelling about this issue for years without much in the way of results. It was two years ago that I raised the problems of the TTB's enforcement of the state of distillation rule, which should have required that companies sourcing from MGP list the state of Indiana on the label.  Chuck Cowdery has written extensively about sourcing, and citizen-crusader Wade Woodard has been making complaints to the TTB about potential violations.

But despite all of our yelling, it wasn't until lawsuits were filed that we started seeing results. Suddenly, after years of doing nothing, Templeton is adding "Distilled in Indiana" to its label and has disclosed that it uses flavoring additives in its whiskey.  Last week, they've even released a video to try and explain their position to consumers.  I'm sure other companies are taking note as well and thinking pretty hard about whether they are being as transparent as they need to be.  So maybe lawsuits, despite their downsides, are the best way to get companies to do the right thing.

To sue or not to sue, what say you readers?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bender's Rye: A New Canadian Rye

Bender's Rye Whiskey is a seven year old Canadian rye bottled on San Francisco's Treasure Island. When I received this bottle from the company, my initial thought was, do we really need another Canadian rye?  The US has been inundated with Canadian ryes lately, but it turns out, this one is a bit different.  Unlike the 100% rye mashbill of Jefferson's, Masterson's, Whistlepig and others, this one is 85% rye and 15% corn.

The website states that it was "sourced from an independently owned distillery just south of Calgary."  That eliminates Alberta Distillers, the probable source of all of those other ryes, which is in Calgary and not independently owned (it's part of the Beam Suntory empire).

I could have done the hard work of figuring out the sourcing myself, but why reinvent the wheel when I can just call Davin de Kergommeaux, blogger of, author of Canadian Whisky, the Portable Expert or, as I sometimes call him, that guy who cares about Canadian Whisky.  Usually, when I write about Canadian Whisky, I get a long email from Davin listing the many things I got wrong, so I figured maybe I could head that off by calling him before writing anything.

Davin helpfully informed me that Highwood Distillers, makers of White Owl and Centennial Rye, is located just south of Calgary.  Given that Bender's lists the Highwood River as one of its water sources, that sounds like a direct hit.  Thanks Davin!

I tasted the first batch of Bender's which combines a seven year old rye with an eight year old corn whiskey.  The second batch, which is on its way, will combine a nine year old rye and a thirteen year old corn whiskey and will have a higher percentage of rye, around 92%.  (In Canada, unlike the US, whiskey made from different grains is usually distilled and aged separately and then combined as opposed to the US method of distilling from a mash combining different grains).

Bender's Rye, 7 yo, Batch 1, 48% abv ($45)

The nose is light with nice rye notes and vanilla.  The palate has bold rye spice, juniper, then some sweetness.  It's strong for the abv.  The finish turns a bit bitter with gin notes and some cotton candy sweetness in the background; the bitterness lingers, almost like an amaro. I'm generally sensitive to bitterness, but this one didn't bother me as it played well with the bold rye notes.

This is decent stuff and a welcome addition to the Canadian ryes that are available in the US as it has a very different profile from those other Canadian ryes.  The spicy/bitter contrast would probably make it work well in cocktails as well.

Right now, Bender's is only available in California and Oregon, but it is sold by a number of on-line retailers, including BevMo and K&L.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bourbon, Strange by Chuck Cowdery

Bourbon, Strange is the long awaited sequel to Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Straight, which is probably the best bourbon book out there. Cowdery probably wouldn't call it a sequel, but the new book has a similar format to the old, less a single narrative than a collection of essays thoroughly examining a wide range of topics.

Fans of Cowdery and readers of his blog and his newsletter, the Bourbon Country Reader, will find much that is familiar. There is a general update on the world of bourbon, a list of the major distilleries, a discussion of Non-Distiller Producers (a term that Cowdery, himself, coined for those who don't distill their own whiskey), and a tirade against Diageo that is as fun as you would imagine. For the true geeks, he delves into topics such as the three tier system, the impact of fungus on oak barrels and, rather inexplicably, Kentucky cured ham. 

But in his heart, Cowdery is a storyteller, and he is at his best when he is telling the story of American whiskey and the rather odd collection of folks who have made and sold it through the ages. Cowdery's storytelling takes us into the history of many of the most well known companies and distilleries, tracing some as far back as the early nineteenth century. His stories give us a very personal look at the individuals behind the labels and the lives they lived. His stories provide a unique window into the birth of National Distillers, the once great whiskey town of Peoria, Illinois, the importance of Catholics and Jews to American whiskey history and where all those Beams came from.

It should go without saying that if you're a bourbon fan, you need to own this book, but I'll say it anyway:  Buy this book!

Bourbon, Strange by Chuck Cowdery ($20.66 on Amazon/Kindle version $9.99)