Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sukkah Hill Spirits Liqueurs: Etrog & Besamim

I don't drink a lot of liqueurs, but every once in a while I find one that's interesting. Sukkah Hill Spirits, named for the outdoor shelters from the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, is a small, Los Angeles area company. Like many liqueur start ups, it was started by a culinarily inclined couple who used to blend alcoholic infusions for holidays (hence name). They went into business and are now making two liqueurs:  Etrog, based on a rare citron-like fruit, and Besamim, a sweet and spicy liqueur.

As a base, both spirits use a neutral spirit distilled from cane sugar in South Africa. They use all natural ingredients with no artificial flavors or coloring, and both of their spirits are certified Kosher. They sell for $33 for a 375 ml bottle.

Etrog (38% abv) has a great nose with bright citrus notes. On the palate, it has a light citrus flavor with none of the Lemon Pledge notes that are so typical in citrus liqueurs. As with most liqueurs, it's too sweet for me to drink straight, but it does well in cocktails.  In terms of whiskeys, they suggest adding it to rye, which is good, but I prefer it with heavily peated Scotch since I love the combination of sweet and smoke. It's like a citrusy, smoky Rusty Nail.

Besamim (37% abv) is a delicious, spice mix with tons of cinnamon (real cinnamon, not that Red Hot style flavor you get in flavored whiskeys), clove and ginger; they hand grind the spices for it. It's pretty much pumpkin pie in a bottle, and puts you right at the Thanksgiving table.  There are tons of cocktail possibilities, but honestly, I just like to sip it neat, even as sweet as it is. That warm holiday feeling that it gives me will be perfect when it starts to cool down around here.

Occasionally I'm surprised by something I wouldn't normally like, and these liqueurs are really good. If you have a sweet tooth, I would definitely recommend them. They may have a holiday theme, but you don't have to wait until the high holidays or Thanksgiving to give them a try.

Thanks to Sukkah Hill Spirits for providing samples of their spirits.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Whiskey Law: The Age Statement

Recently, the TTB seems to be cracking down on improper age statements on whiskey labels, so I thought I would provide this brief primer on age statements on American labels.

  • There are no minimum ages for American whiskeys.  However, to be labeled "straight," a whiskey must be at least two years old. 27 CFR §5.22(b)(1)(iii).
  • The age of a whiskey means the period for which it was stored in oak or, where new charred oak is required (as in bourbon, rye, etc.), the period for which it was stored in new charred oak.  So if a bourbon is finished in a wine cask, the finishing period cannot be part of the listed age (though the label can state separately how long it was aged in the finishing cask). Similarly, if a whiskey is transferred to steel tanks, the period in those tanks cannot be included in the listed age. 27 CFR §5.11
  • An age statement is required to be listed on the label if the whiskey is younger than four years old. 27 CFR §5.40(a).
  • The age statement on the label must be the age of the youngest whiskey included in the bottle and the age may be understated but not overstated. 27 CFR §5.40(a)(1), 5.40(e)(1).
  • A minimum age statement ("at least 2 years old") is acceptable but maximum age statements ("aged less than 2 years old") are prohibited. Distilled Spirits FAQ, S11. This is one the TTB seems to be cracking down on.
  • If a label lists the age of more than one whiskey contained in a bottle, it must list the percentage of each such whiskey in the bottle. (TTB Beverage Alcohol Manual, Chapter 8). This is to prevent a label from saying the whiskey is a blend of 2 year old and 17 year old bourbon when there is only a drop of 17 year old whiskey in it.  This has not been enforced in the past, but there are some signs that the TTB has become more strict about it.

Friday, August 21, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: New Orphan Barrels, Maker's Mark and More

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

Diageo cleared two new labels in their Orphan Barrel series. The Gifted Horse 4 year old is another "mistake" whiskey in which they somehow accidentally blended whiskey.  The label describes it as containing "roughly 39% 17-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and 61% younger corn whiskey and Indiana Bourbon Whiskey." They second label they cleared was for Whoop & Holler, a 28 year old whiskey distilled at George Dickel.

Maker's Mark cleared a label for a cask strength version of Maker's 46.

American whiskey bottler Frank-Lin cleared a label for Medley's Private Stock, a ten year old Kentucky bourbon.

Last week I wrote about new labels for the Diageo 2015 special releases.  Add to that another for Dailuaine 34 year old.

Gordon & MacPhail cleared labels for Glenlivets from 1961, 1966 and 1977.

Balblair cleared labels for a number of their vintage malts ranging from 1969 to 2003.

Brandy fans will be happy to see a label for a new version of Gourry de Chadeville Cognac.  Last year's Gourry de Chadeville was one of my favorite spirits of the year.

What kind of whiskey are you department: Here's a new label from the Panther Distillery in Minnesota for a...well, I'm not sure. It's labeled Saint Paul Rye Whiskey but the description says it's "Three-year-old cold weather aged rye corn whiskey bourbon."  What is "rye corn whiskey bourbon"?  I don't know, and the back label just furthers the confusion referring to it as a rye whiskey and then stating "Distilled from a Bourbon Mash."  What is this stuff?  How did it get approved by the TTB? Does anyone out there know what they're doing?

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, August 19, 2015

K&L Sale Scotches

K&L has recently lowered the price on a number of their exclusive barrel picks, so I picked some up...because I'm a sucker for a sale.

BenRiach 1994 Peated, 19 years old, Cask 7187, Bourbon Barrel, 53% abv ($110)

The nose has heavy, sharp peat. The palate has sweet peat notes and then gets a bit sour.  It has a great peaty finish on the nose.  This is very BenRiach with its sharp peat notes.  It's a bit one note, as the peated BenRiachs tend to be, but it's quite decent.

Bowmore 2001 Signatory, 12 years old, Cask 1371, Refill Sherry, 59.1% abv ($59)

The nose opens with honeycomb candy (or Bit-O-Honey for those that remember that). Then, there are some fuel type notes, like you dropped your Bit-O-Honey in a mysterious puddle at the mechanic's shop, plus peat and sulfur. The palate opens with a similar mix of flavors - lots of honey plus peaty, fuel type notes. Then there are some sulfur notes which come to dominate the late palate. The finish is mostly peat.  This one is a bit weird, but I like it. It's sweet and bold and leaves you feeling peaty, and for $60, it's a great deal.

Laphroaig 1998 Signatory, 15 years old, Cask 700386, Refill Butt, 59.1% abv ($127)

The nose has tropical fruit. The palate is pure peaty Laphroaig with a very light fruitiness that stays on the palate for the finish, but the nasal exhale of the finish is pure peat.  If this was indeed, aged in a sherry cask, it must have been used multiple time as there is almost no sherry character, but it's quite good as a straight forward Laphroaig...tastes like something that could have been a distillery bottling.

That's three very solid peaters from K&L.  They were all good, but the Laphroaig was my favorite, followed by the Bowmore and then the BenRiach.  That being said, I generally tend not to favor BenRiachs as much as some others do; if you're a BenRiach fan, you may well like that one the best.

Monday, August 17, 2015

American Single Malts: Westland and Cut Spike

Two of the most well regarded American single malts are Westland from Washington State and Cut Spike from Nebraska. Today, I taste new offerings from each of them: Batch 3 of Cut Spike and a K&L barrel from Westland (which seems to be sold out).

Cut Spike Single Malt, 2 yo, Batch 3, 43% abv ($60)

I reviewed Batch 1 of Cut Spike last year and found it quite good. Batch 3 is brand new on the market.

The nose has prominent gin notes, then some vanilla. The palate is very raw with sweet grainy notes. The juniper notes come back in the finish.

Unfortunately, this couldn't be more different from Batch 1, the earlier batch which I liked (I tasted them side by side as I still have some of Batch 1 left). It has none of the depth and complexity of that bottling. Instead, it tastes like a pretty run of the mill craft whiskey, young with raw wood.  I'm hoping this is an aberration. 

Westland Cask 300, 60.8% abv ($90)

Westland has been popular for a few years now, but this is the first one I've tried. This is a special, cask strength, fino sherry aged bottling for K&L.

This has an odd nose with Butterfinger and pralines & cream ice cream. The palate is full of sweet toffee, a more literal toffee flavor that is found in bourbon, which often has toffee-like notes.  The toffee note comes on strong but then fades quickly and you're left with a very vague sherry note on the finish. Water tames the sweetness a bit but also brings out some sulfur on the palate.

This one was a mess. It was sweet but without depth, and it didn't retain any positive notes from the sherry aging.

I was really looking forward to this tasting since these are two of the stars of American single malt, but both of these were disappointing.  I have another few Westlands in the tasting queue, so I'll see if this one was a fluke or not.  As for Cut Spike, I know they can make good whiskey, this batch just didn't live up to the earlier one. I hope, as they have become popular, they are not rushing out barrels that aren't yet ready.

Thanks to Funky Tape for the samples.

Friday, August 14, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Lots of Scotch and More

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

Diageo cleared labels for this year's special releases.  They include Brora 37, Port Ellen 32, cask strength NAS Clynelish, Dalwhinnie 25, Caol Ila 17 unpeated,  Lagavulin 12, Pittyvaich 25, and The Cally, a 40 year old single grain from the Caledonian Distillery.

Glenmorangie cleared a label for Milsean, the seventh release in its private collection consisting of "single malt whisky matured in ex-bourbon casks and then extra-matured in former wine casks, re-toasted for the purpose."

William Grant cleared a label for a 36 year old Glenfiddich distilled in 1978 and Ghosted Reserve, a 21 year old blended malt that includes malts from the shuttered Ladyburn and Inverleven distilleries.

The current Kentucky Tavern is a Sazerac label straight bourbon distilled at the Barton 1792 distillery. This week, Sazerac cleared a label for Kentucky Tavern Special Reserve, labeled "bourbon whiskey with natural flavors." I guess the natural flavors make it special.

Looks like K&L will be bringing in some more Scotch grain whiskeys, including a 50 year old Invergordon bottled by Sovereign.

A label cleared for a single malt from one of Scotland's newest distilleries: Wolfburn.

There are a lot of mystery malts out there, but you don't usually see them as old as this Ainsley Brae 49 year old Highland malt distilled in 1964.  It's bottled by Alexander Murray, so don't be surprised to see it at Costco or Trader Joe's as they are the bottler for these chains. 

I've seen whiskeys finished in maple wood and maple syrups aged in whiskey barrels, but I think this Roundstone Rye from Catoctin Creek is the first time I've seen a whiskey finished in a maple syrup barrel.

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, August 12, 2015

Younger Armagnacs from Baraillon and Darroze

Today I taste two Armagnacs from two of my favorite producers.  

Domaine de Baraillon 10 year old, 2003 42% abv ($53)

Domaine de Baraillon has blown me away with some of their older vintages.  This is by far the youngest Baraillon I've tasted.  It was bottled for K&L.

This has a really nice nose with honey and floral notes.  The palate is sweet and fruity and the finish has raisins. With the sweet and fruity notes, it's more like a Cognac than a typical Armagnac.

This is light and sweet and not very complex but totally enjoyable.

Darroze Les Grand Assemblages 20 year old, 43% ($100)

Darroze is the most prominent independent bottler in Armagance.  Most of their bottlings are vintage bottlings which disclose the (usually very small) distillery.  This is age stated but there is no distillery listed so it is likely a blend of Armagnacs from different distilleries.

The nose is spicy with a touch of fruit slipped in between the spicy notes. On the palate, it's rich and spicy with a touch of sweetness, a typical Armagnac mix.  The finish surprised me with Christmas spices, especially ground ginger but also some clove at the end of the finish.

As with the Baraillon, this Armaganc is not overly complex, but fun to drink with a nice balance of sweet and spicy notes.   

Thanks to Funky Tape for the samples.