Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Older Overholt - Pennsylvania Rye circa 1940

I recently compared the current Beam produced Old Overholt to the National Distillers version made at the Old Grand-Dad distillery in Kentucky. Now, a generous soul has sent me a sample of Overholt from 1940. At the time, Overholt was owned by National Distillers, but they were still making it in Pennsylvania. This is only my second tasting of an old Pennsylvania rye, but let's see how it stacks up.

Old Overholt (circa 1940), 4 years old, 50% abv.

The nose on this is really nice with sandalwood and other spice notes along with some vanilla and a dash of maple syrup. That sandalwood carries through on the palate with some soapy type notes (in a good way). The finish is bold and spicy like cologne.

I've only had one other Pennsylvania Rye, but this Overholt tastes much more like that one than any of the other Overholts I've had. As I said then, the spiciness is less in the character of cooking spices, which I detect in modern ryes, and more in the character of wood, soap and subtle cologne. I assume some of that is due to a high rye content and a lack of corn but is probably also due to elements, such as yeast and water, that were specific to that particular industry in that particular location.

Having had two Pennsylvania ryes now, what is becoming clear to me is that Pennsylvania was more than a geography, it was a distinct style of whiskey which no longer exists today and may not be able to be recreated.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finally Getting my Irish on: Redbreast Cask Strength

Well, now that St. Patrick's Day is firmly behind us, I guess I can safely enjoy some Irish Whiskey; Redbreast is the most highly regarded Irish Whiskey among whiskey folks. A pure pot still whiskey from the Midleton Distillery (makers of Jameson), Redbreast was only available in a 12 year old expression for years. Then came a 15 year old and now, the newest in the line, a cask strength version of the 12 year old. The Redbreast Cask Strength was one of the most talked about releases of last year and won all kinds of plaudits, though it is only just now arriving in the U.S.

I must admit that I have never been on the Redbreast bandwagon. It's not objectionable in any way, and I like it just fine, but I've never found anything particularly exciting about Redbreast. Its flavors tend to be fairly bland and I always find it to have too much in the way of pure alcohol notes. Sometimes cask strength can really improve a whiskey that's boring at low proof by bringing out and clarifying flavors (I find this to be the case for a lot of Lowland Scotches) but sometimes the higher strength only exacerbates problems. Let's see how it goes with Redbreast.

Redbreast Cask Strength, 12 years old, 57.7% abv ($65) [Batch B1/11]

The nose is really...Irish. It opens with that sort of muted grain that's familiar from all those Midleton whiskeys. If you keep sniffing, you start to get maltier notes and even some brine. On the palate, it opens with similar grainy notes which yield to a really floral profile, like a meadow full of wildflowers, and those notes follow into the finish. There are also some bitter notes and some pure alcohol notes. Water brings out a bit of acid.

Well, if you are one of those folks who loves Redbreast, you will love this more, but the overall flavor profile is about the same as the regular Redbreast. For my part, I think that like regular Redbreast, the cask strength version is perfectly good but in no way great. Of course, I know I'm in the distinct minority on this (as with just about everything it seems) but I just don't find this whiskey that substantial in terms of flavor, and in the end, it doesn't seem to add much to regular Redbreast other than more alcohol.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Poll Results: Pappy vs. BTAC

It looks like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection wins the poll that pitted it against the Van Winkle line.  The results weren't quite as one sided as our Irish vs. Canadian poll, but BTAC still won handily.  I received votes in the comments section, on Twitter and by email. 

Readers who picked BTAC mentioned both variety and price, and many thought it was an easy answer.  Commenter James opined, "You might as well ask people if they prefer receiving a million dollars (tax free) or a kick in the crotch."  As AaronWF said, "Honestly, I think I'd take the Van Winkle and just hoard all the old-stock [Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye] until it's gone."

But Van Winkle had its defenders, particularly those who thought it was worth getting Stitzel-Weller and the current Van Winkle rye even if those stocks will eventually run out.

It's interesting that BTAC won the day on this given Van Winkle's outsized reputation.  It's true that BTAC has variety on its side, you get a wheated bourbon, two rye recipe bourbons and two straight ryes.  With Van Winkle you get six wheated bourbons and one straight rye.  I was surprised that no one lamented the lack of cask strength Van Winkles in their response, which is another advantage of BTAC. 

Still, given that Stitzel-Weller is one of the most loved of all distilleries, I'm surprised Van Winkle didn't get more votes.

Thanks for playing.  If you have an idea for a future poll, let me know.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reader Poll: Buffalo Trace Antique vs. Van Winkle

Okay, here's a new whiskey poll for all of my American whiskey fans. This week's hypothetical scenario is as follows: because of the shortages and general craziness around the regular releases of Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the Van Winkle line of bourbons and the frequent complaints from both consumers and retailers, Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkles have decided that everyone can choose access to one, and only one of these collections.

You have one chance to make a choice, and once you do, it's for life. You can't switch. Once you choose, you will have access to each expression in the release and can buy as many as you like. Assume for the purposes of the poll that no new expressions will be added, however, as in real life, we know that stocks of Stitzel-Weller are finite, so eventually, the Pappys that still use Stitzel-Weller bourbon (the 20 and 23 year old) will be switched to Buffalo Trace distillate.

Just to review, here are the bourbons you will have access to.

If you pick Buffalo Trace Antique Collection: George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas Handy Rye, Sazerac 18 year old rye, Eagle Rare 17.

If you pick Van Winkle: Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year 90 proof, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year 107 proof, Van Winkle 12 year Lot B, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye and Pappy Van Winkle 15, 20 and 23 year old (Sorry, no Old Rip 23, that was a limited release).

So, which will it be? BTAC or Van Winkle?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Meat Market Mania: Mercado Buenos Aires

Part market, part deli counter but mostly restaurant, Mercado Buenos Aires is the place to go for a lovingly crafted meat-intensive meal with exquisite desserts. Taking up the bulk of a small Van Nuys strip mall on Sepulveda, the Mercado's lack of ambiance or even passable service in some cases is made up for by the food. There are empanadas, milanesa, Spanish style egg tortillas and many other choices, but the things to get here are the parrillada.

A combination between Braziailan churrascaria and Korean BBQ, the parilladas are grilled meats piled onto a small grill that is served at the table. As a lover of innards of all stripe, my favorite was the parrillada Buenos Aires which came with sausage, blood sausage, skirt steak, short ribs, pork, sweetbreads and intestine. The skirt steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, well spiced on the outside and tender (particularly for skirt steak) within. The short ribs were sliced kalbi-style, juicy with melted fat. The sweetbreads had good flavor but verged on tough. I'm not usually a big intestine eater (pun intended) but the intestines were nicely charred to crispy with a liver like consistency.

My favorite part of the parrillada, though, was the morcilla, South American blood sausage. Now, I'm something of a blood sausage junkie, but this morcilla was all I ask for in a blood sausage, with a firm, deep black casing giving way to smooth as edible velvet meat mixed with bits of fat. The flavor was deep and intense but quite mild. This quickly becomes one of my favorite, if not my favorite morcilla in LA.

For those who are not as interested in offal, there are other parrilladas with the steak and short rib but with chicken instead of the innards.

Keep in mind while you are attacking the grilled meat that you need to save room for the Mercado's wonderful desserts. Their flan is the perfect texture, creamy but not gelatinous or overly eggy with a nice scoop of dule de leche; it's definitely one of the best flans in town. But the dessert to die for at the Mercado is the panqueques with dulce de leche. It's really a crepe as opposed to what we would think of a pancake, bursting with dulce de leche and bruleed on top to create a textural triptych of crunchy burnt sugar, yielding to soft crepe encasing gooey dule de leche. I may go back just for those panqueques.

While judging from the weekend crowds, this place is definitely popular, I don't hear much about it from the LA food crowd, but I should. If you like meats and sweets, you need to go.

Mercado Buenos Aires
7540 Sepulveda Blvd
Van Nuys, CA 91497
(818) 786-0522

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Rip Van Winkle Decanters (1970s)

When I was a kid, I remember going with my dad to our local Liquor Barn superstore. He would be grabbing some basic stuff, but I would head immediately to the decanters. There was a whole aisle of porcelain containers in wonderful colors and shapes. I remember turkeys and other game birds, old men and even Elvis bottles. These decanters are now collectibles in their own rights, but they can also contain good whiskey. A frequent commenter on the blog was kind enough to send me some samples from two Old Rip Van Winkle decanters he found.

These decanters of Old Rip Van Winkle are wheated bourbon from the Stitzel-Weller distillery. They are both 86 proof and seven years old, with the likely year of bottling noted on the bottom of the decanter. The picture with the blue box is the 1977. They are both four-fifth quart bottles (i.e. a "fifth" in the pre-metric parlance because it was equal to one-fifth of a gallon).

Old Rip Van Winkle Decanter 1975, 86 proof (43% abv), 7 years old.

On sniffing it, you get that lovely, classic Stitzel-Weller nose with all of its candy shop notes. The palate, though, starts on a bitter note, excessively woody with pine and oak beating up the candy plus a sharp acid on the way down. The finish on this one is back to classic notes with lots of vanilla.

Old Rip Van Winkle Decanter 1977, 86 proof (43% abv), 7 years old.

The 1977 Old Rip has less on the nose than the '75. There are some medicinal notes but none of those classic notes. The palate on this one is an improvement with a decent balance of sweet and oak as well as some of those candy notes that are retained in the finish.

Neither of these decanters offer the best that Stitzel-Weller can offer, though both have glimpses of it. The 1975 was stronger on the nose while the 1977 was stronger on the palate.

WARNING: After drinking this, I did some research and it seems that whiskey from old ceramic decanters can have a significant lead content. Please keep this in mind and be cautious when sampling from dusty decanters. Gee, maybe I should have done that research before I sampled them. Oh well, it's the least I can do in support of the cause of whiskey blogging.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

News Flash: There are Now More Whiskey Distilleries in the US than in Scotland

It's true! In 2009, after observing the American micro-distilling boom for a few years, I set about putting together a list of all of the whiskey distilleries in the United States. When I first posted the two part list (one list for Kentucky and one for everywhere else), I was able to count 36 active distilleries, plus nine more in the works.

I now keep an updated list on a separate page (the list also includes independent bottlers as a separate category). The current count of whiskey distilleries on that list is a staggering 129. Now, some of those distilleries do not yet have anything on the market and many are very, very small, but it is still an amazing number, and it is still growing. I update the list more than once per month with new distilleries that I find out about from combing the news, the net at the good old TTB.

In contrast, Scotland has 97 active malt whisky distilleries, including new distilleries that are not yet marketing whiskey. In addition, there are seven grain distilleries, making a total of 104 whiskey distilleries in Scotland. So yes, there are more whiskey distilleries in the United States than in Scotland however you count.

Of course, there are a number of caveats that go along with that statement. The United States is obviously a much larger country than Scotland, and many of the American distilleries make only unaged "white whiskey" and other young whiskeys that could not even be legally called whiskey in Scotland. Still, given that 15 years ago there were only about a dozen whiskey distilleries in the United States, this is a remarkable growth rate which demonstrates the popularity of the American craft distillery movement.

Here are some fun facts about American distilleries:

  • There are whiskey distilleries in 36 of the 50 states.

  • Kentucky has the most distilleries with 14, followed by California with 12 and Oregon with 11.

  • Eleven states have five or more distilleries.

Now, I've been a frequent critic of craft distilleries and continue to be, but as I try to keep track of them for my list, I can't help but be impressed by the sheer breadth of the movement and the rate at which they are opening. That being said, lets see how many of them last half as long as the average Scotch distillery. That, not the number in existence today, will be the ultimate test.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ireland vs. Canada - And the winner is...

Ireland, by a mile. On Monday I proposed a whiskey apocalypse scenario in which you could only drink Irish or Canadian whiskey for the rest of your whiskey drinkin' days. I received answers on the blog and on Twitter, and Ireland was the clear winner with Canada receiving only a few measly votes (Note to Davin de Kergommeaux, you should have voted).

I used Canada and Ireland because, of the major whiskey producing nations, they are the underdogs. They both produce some good stuff but standouts are few and far between and few whiskey aficionados would put either nations' whiskeys at the top of their list. The oversized margin for Ireland may mean that they are closer to the hearts of whiskey lovers, but it may also reflect the fact that in the US, where most of my readership hails from, we don't get much in the way of good Canadian Whisky.

For my part, though, I cast my vote for Canada, and here's why.

Ireland's advantage is diversity. If you chose Ireland, you would have your pick of single malts (both peated and unpeated), blends, pure pot still and even single grain whiskey. What they have in variety, though, they lack in quality. Some of these whiskeys are good, but I'd say I have yet to be blown away by any Irish whiskey; Green Spot is probably my favorite. If I picked Ireland, I worry that I'd spend my days drinking Connemara and wishing it was Lagavulin.

Canada has less diversity. They have one single malt, which I really disliked, and a lot of blends, but recently, we have been seeing Canadian straight ryes that are quite good. Rye Whiskeys like WhistlePig and Masterson's are bold and flavorful, akin to American straight ryes. Now maybe this is cheating a bit because these are American style whiskeys bottled for American companies, but hey, it's my game and these are Canadian Whiskies so I say they count. I guess it comes down to the fact that I'd rather drink a small variety of very good whiskey than a wide variety of mediocre whiskey.

That was fun, I'll come up with some more reader polls for the future; maybe I'll even use the Blogger polling function to make it official. (Wales v. Sweden anyone?)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reader Poll: Canada vs. Ireland

Okay, here's a game for everyone to play. Let's suppose that, for some reason, all major whiskey production in Kentucky, Scotland and Japan (as well as smaller whiskey producing areas) was wiped out due to...grain shortages, political upheavel, national prohibition, whatever.

In this post-apocalyptic whiskey world, the only countries still producing whiskey are Ireland and Canada. Because line difficulties, rationing, whatever, you must choose one of those two countries to be the source of all of the whiskey that will be able to drink for the rest of your life.

Assume for the purposes of the game that you will have access to any whiskey produced by that country (that you can afford), even if it's not now available to you, so if you live in the US and pick Ireland, for instance, you can have Green Spot. However, while currently available whiskeys will stay in production, no new products will be forthcoming.

So, Canada or Ireland, which will you choose?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Food-Hop: The Latest LA Music Trend

I don't that there's enough songs like this to create a new genre, but food-related hip hop does seem to be growing. Here are two of my favorites:

A tip of the hat to the always entertaining SinoSoul, for highlighting the Fung Brothers' 626 video, a creative paean to the amazing food scene in the San Gabriel Valley based on Snoop Dogg's Young Wild and Free:

And this, a brilliant rap version of Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential Restaurants:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dusty Thursday: For a Relaxing Time...

Not all dusties are bourbon or rye. I found this bottle of Suntory Reserve Blended Japanese Whisky on the shelf of a Hollywood liquor store. According to the label, it was blended and bottled at the Yamazaki Distillery.

After I made the clerk grab it out of the corner, he said, "this looks like the last one. We'll have to order more." Good luck with that.

Given that it lists proof only and has a tax stamp without any numbers, I'd guess it's mid to late 80s, probably right after tax stamps were discontinued.

Suntory Reserve Blended Whisky, 86.8 Proof (43.4% abv)

This opens with syrupy sweet malt notes on the nose, but there's real grain in there as well, almost like a malt/bourbon combination. The palate starts with a very light malty flavor, which grows in richness as it goes down, and ends with a perfume tinged finish; it's hot for its abv. This is a decent enough blend, very drinkable but not very complex. Due to the light, malty character, if tasting blind, I might have even guessed that it was...Irish Whiskey.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed our St. Patrick's Week Japanese Whisky series. Now go get your plastic green hat, and maybe pour some Hibiki into that coffee. Kampai!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Japan's Closed Distilleries: Hanyu and Karuizawa

Like the US and Scotland, Japan has suffered its share of closed distilleries, including some that are deeply missed. As with Brora, Port Ellen and Stitzel-Weller, the whiskies from these distilleries are both highly treasured and highly priced.


Hanyu shut down in 2000 but under the stewardship of Ichiro Akuto, scion of the distillery owning family, there has been a steady stream of Hanyu whisky released under the Ichiro's Malt label. I became a Hanyu convert a few years ago after sampling the 15 and 20 year old expressions and subsequently hunted down as much of the popular, single barrel playing card series as I could find. The best of these were among the best malts I've ever tasted (if you see the pictured 20 year old Jack of Diamonds, grab it!). The more recent releases, which tend to be younger, have left me less impressed. The flavor profiles very from massively sherried to rather straightforward and malty.

Due to its scarcity, it's unlikely that we will ever see any Hanyu whisky in the US, but in 2008, Ichiro started his own distillery, Chichibu, which is now bottling some of its very young whiskey, and he has also done some Chichibu/Hanyu vattings. Perhaps, eventually, we will get some Chichibu.


Like Hanyu, the Karuizawa Distillery closed at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Also like Hanyu, even though the distillery is gone, new expressions continue to be bottled by those who own the old stock which, in this case, is the London based Number One Drinks Company. For this reason, it may be easier to find rare Karuizawas in Europe than in Japan.

The Number One Drinks vintage series of malts, which has gotten rave reviews in Europe, tend to be huge sherry monsters coveted by those who love their Glenfarclas and GlenDronach, but other expressions vary. The standard 17 year old for the Japanese market, for instance, is much lighter on the sherry, less bold and complex than some of the vintage malts but very drinkable nonetheless.

As with Hanyu, it's unlikely that we will see any Karuizawa in the US, but we can always dream. (UPDATE: Check the comments; it looks like at least one retailer is going to prove me wrong on this, and I've never been so happy to be wrong).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Nikka Whiskies: Coming Soon to the US

Along with Suntory, Nikka is the other Japanese whisky giant, and like Suntory, Nikka also has two Japanese malt distilleries and makes a number of blends. Nikka is owned by the Asahi beer company.

Nikka whiskies have not been previously available in the US, but the word is that they are currently going through the regulatory process to export to the US. The TTB label approval website show that Nikka has recently had labels approved for both its Yoichi 15 year old and 12 year old Taketsuru Pure Malt. So, with any luck, we will have a chance to buy those soon.


Nikka's Yoichi Distillery is located on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Founded in 1934, Yoichi is Nikka's signature single malt. While less well known abroad, the Miyagikyo Distillery in northern Honshu is the same size as Yoichi but it makes both malt and grain whisky. Miyagikyo has not only made single malt but a popular series of single grain whiskeys labeled as Nikka Coffey Still (though these were originally produced from Nikka's now defunct grain distillery Nishinomiya). Miyagikyo is in the area that was affected by last year's earthquake and tsunami, but luckily escaped without injury, serious damage or ill effects from fallout, according the Christopher Bunting of Nonjatta.

In addition to the two Japanese distilleries, Nikka owns the Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland.


As with most of the world, blended whiskies are the most popular whiskies in Japan. At bars and clubs, they tend to be imbibed in mizuwari, with ice and lots of water (i.e. a highball, often with as much as 2:1 whisky to water ratio).

Nikka is well known for its blends and pure malts (vatted malts), and one of the whiskies which appears to be headed for our shores is an expression of their well regarded Taketsuru pure malt.

While I haven't tried any of the Taketsuru line, I recently compared two Nikka blends and found them both quite drinkable (taking them neat of course).

The 21 year old pure malt is a solid, lightly sherried number with malt notes throughout. It was fine but not overly exciting.

The blend I enjoyed the most was the 17 year old "The Blend of Nikka." The nose kicked off with a bourbon-like grainyness, then malt aromas emerged, and the two notes intertwined. It had a really nice nose that makes you see the value in blends with a mix of corn-syrupy and malt notes. I got something different each time I sniffed, from corn to oat to some maltiness and maybe even a bit of sherry and peat. Unlike the nose, the palate was pretty solidly malty and a bit on the light side like a traditional blend. There was some richness in the back, including some nice peat notes, but it seemed a bit diluted. Still, the 17 was a pleasant and easy drinker that I kept going back to.

So let's wish Nikka luck with our regulatory process and hope that we get some of their whisky soon.

Tomorrow: The Closed Distilleries

Monday, March 12, 2012

Suntory Whiskies: America's Only Choice for Japanese Whisky (at least for now)

Welcome to day two of our Japanese St. Patrick's Week special. Today, a brief profile of the Suntory company.

Suntory is the giant of Japanese Whisky and the only producer currently exporting to the United States. The Suntory company owns two malt whisky distilleries: Yamazaki and Hakushu and also makes a number of blends.


For years, Yamazaki was the only Japanese Whisky available in the US. For that reason, to the extent most Americans are familiar with Japanese Whisky, they are familiar with Yamazaki and, more specifically, the two expressions which have been most widely sold here: Yamazaki 12 year old ($30-$40) and 18 year old ($90-$100).

Located near Kyoto on the main Japanese island of Honshu, the Yamazaki Distillery is the oldest whisky distillery in Japan. The 12 and 18 year olds are vattings of single malts aged in a number of different woods, including American oak, Spanish oak and Japanese Oak (Mizunara). In Japan, the distillery sells single malts made from just one of these types of wood, as well as sherry cask and other variations.

In addition to the 12 and 18 year old, Yamazaki briefly released its Japanese oak aged vintage 1984 whisky in the US a few years ago.

I've had all of the Yamazakis available in the US and am a fan of all three. They are good, malty whiskies that would likely please any lover of single malt Scotch, particularly those who enjoy more rugged Highlanders like Highland Park. What I'd really love to see, though, is some of the bottlings that are still reserved for Japan. I had a fabulous, well balanced 15 year old sherry cask Yamazaki that was heavily sherried but still retained a signifiant malt flavor. The Japanese oak whiskies are particularly popular and it would be nice to see another such release on our shores.


Also located on Honshu, Hakushu is Suntory's other distillery, founded in 1973. Hakushu creates a wide range of whiskies, included both peated and non-peated malts. Suntory recently released their first Hakushu in the US, the peated 12 year old ($55). I've had some Hakushus but nothing from their peated line, so I can't speak to that one. Overall, I've preferred the Yamazakis to non-peated Hakushus.


Suntory's last entry into the US market is the Hibiki 12 year old blend. A very drinkable blend, Hibiki would rank well among blended whiskies available in the US were it not for the price, which tends to be around $60 (though Hi-Time has it for considerably cheaper).

Hibiki is Suntory's top shelf blend, but they have a number of other labels that are limited to Japan. The grain whiskey is distilled at the Chita distillery, which has also done single grain expressions.

Aside from whisky, Suntory markets beer, rum and soda.

Tomorrow: Nikka Whisky

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Say Konichiwa to St. Patrick's Week

It's St. Patrick's Day week, and you know what that means...a full week of blogging dedicated to Japanese Whisky. Why? Well, Japan makes some excellent whisky that is both under appreciated and under available in the US, I haven't written about Japanese Whisky in quite a while and, besides, I'm a contrarian.

What's that? You want to see a review of Redbreast Cask Strength? Well go take a look at every other damn whisky blog in the universe.

First some basics for those who might not be familiar with Japanese Whisky.

Japanese whisky is in the Scotch style. The industry was founded in the 1920s by a distiller who had trained in Scotland and it's kept that mold. The language of Japanese whisky is the same as that of Scotch with single malts, blends, single grains and vatted malts. In my experience, the quality of single malt Japanese whisky rivals that of single malt Scotch, with the best Japanese malts reaching the heights of the best Scotch malts (of course, as with anything, they aren't all great, and some are downright nasty).

There are only about a half dozen distilleries in Japan as well as a few closed distilleries that still have product. Very few of these whiskies are available in the United States, but I'm lucky to have a number of relatives who travel regularly to Japan so I'll report on some of what I've sampled in the past. Unlike the US, Europe gets a nice selection from Japan, which you can see from perusing sites like The Whisky Exchange and La Maison Du Whisky.

This week I'll be focus on the big two Japanese whisky companies (Suntory & Nikka), the closed distilleries and even a Japanese dusty for Dusty Thursday.

As always, the go-to on-line authority for Japanese Whisky is Chris Bunting's Nonjatta. If you see a fact about Japanese Whisky here, it undoubtedly came from Chris' site or one of his many excellent articles on the subject.

Happy St. Patrick's Week!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dusty Thursday: The Bourbon Heritage Collection

Back in the early '90s, when the bourbon renaissance was just in its embryonic stages, United Distillers & Vintners (the company that would later become Diageo) released the Bourbon Heritage Collection. The Heritage Collection was a series of five whiskeys from the company's US distilleries. These include whiskeys distilled at Stitzel-Weller and labels that no longer exist, so I was pretty happy to find an old set of miniatures (you know I love the minis) representing the entire collection.

I found these in a small Greenwich Village liquor store. They come in a gray, rectangular box with no outside marking and there were two of them tucked away on a back shelf. My guess is no one had opened the little boxes for years. This is a good case of knowing what you are looking for. If I hadn't been familiar with the gray box (or curious enough to ask to see it), I would easily have passed these over. Instead, I grabbed them up for $18 per set. And because they had been tucked away in their gray boxes, the minis were in great condition, just like new.

Here's a run down of the whiskeys followed by some tasting notes.

Old Fitzgerald 12 and Weller Centennial. These are the prizes of the collection, distilled at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery which closed in 1991. After the closure, UDV continued to sell them for a while until it eventually sold the labels off; Buffalo Trace got Weller and Heaven Hill got Fitzgerald, but the minis in this pack were from the old days. While this set may have been bottled after the closure of the distillery, the bourbon itself was most likely distilled at Stitzel-Weller (which we know from the Louisville address on both labels). Buffalo Trace continued to make Weller Centennial for about another decade and discontinued it a few years ago. Heaven Hill still makes the Old Fitzgerald label. As with all Stitzel-Wellers, they are wheated bourbons.

Old Fitzgerald 12 years old, 45% abv

The nose on this has sweet corn and oak. The palate is a bit flat with soapy notes, and it's hot for its abv. Some caramel and candy notes in the background. Finish is sweet and a bit buttery.

Weller Centennial, 10 years old, 50% abv

The nose on this is really sweet and caramelly. The palate is sweet and woody with a fair amount of acid. The finish is sweet bourbon. I have had a number of bottles of Weller Centennial, both Stitzel-Weller and Buffalo Trace, which were excellent, but this one doesn't quite live up to those.

The Old Fitz is fine and the Weller is good but neither of these match up to the better Stitzel-Wellers I've had. They both had a certain flatness to them.

Old Charter Proprietor's Reserve and I.W. Harper Gold Medal. Since I don't know when exactly these bottles date from, I'm not sure if these two were made at the Bernheim distillery or the old Belmont distillery. Both labels were made by Belmont until UDV bought the distillery and tore it down. In its place, they opened the Bernheim distillery in 1992 and then sold it to Heaven Hill in 1999. The Harper brand is still owned by Diageo but bottled only for export, and the Charter brand is now owned by Buffalo Trace. Trace discontinued the Proprieter's Reserve label around the same time they got rid of Weller Centennial.

IW Harper Gold Medal, 15 years old, 40% abv

IW Harper is probably the least well regarded of the collection. The nose is light but has nice blush wine notes. The palate is a bit on the harsh side with lots of bourbon-corn and alcohol notes. The finish is salty/savory. It's not bad, but it lacks much depth.

Old Charter Proprietor's Reserve, 13 years old, 45% abv

This has a nice rich nose with some floral notes. The palate starts rich with candy notes then turns to chewy, woody notes which last into the finish, accompanied by caramel. It's definitely one of the nicer whiskeys in the set.

George Dickel. Dickel is the only American distillery that remains in the Diageo portfolio. I'm a big fan of Dickel, so I was excited to try this no longer available version.

George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve, 10 years old, 43% abv

The nose has that nice Dickel woodiness. The palate opens well with wood planks (tastes like Home Depot) but then it develops a diluted quality and water seems to drown out the flavor. The finish brings back some of the wood and some maple syrup, but the whole thing doesn't come together very well.

I was excited to find this mini collection (and they say there aren't any dusties in Manhattan!) but overall, while all of these whiskeys were decent, none was that exciting. The Weller and Charter were the best, followed by the Fitzgerald, the Dickel and then IW Harper bringing up the rear.

The thing about dusties is that sometimes a weird old mystery bottle turns out to be great but sometimes a fabulous find turns out to be just okay.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Classic BenRiach

BenRiach is one of the more interesting distilleries around today. Located in the Speyside region of Scotland, it was traded among big companies for many years before being purchased by an independent group of businessmen in 2004. The same group now owns the GlenDronach distillery as well.

One of the things I like about BenRiach is that they make mini bottles of more than just their youngest expression. They sell two four-mini bottle sets: (1) the Classic Collection includes the no age statement Heart of Speyside, 12, 16 and 20 year olds; (2) the Peated & Classic Collection includes the 12 and 16 year old along with the peated 10 year old Curiositas and peated 21 year old Authenticus. Both sets run from $24 to $30, and they are available at Hi-Time and Binny's.

Since I've already written up Curiositas, I thought I'd dive into the Classic Collection (prices listed below are for full sized bottles).

BenRiach Heart of Speyside, 40% abv

I didn't include a price for this non age statement version of BenRiach because I couldn't find it listed for sale on any of the US sites. It may be that the miniature is the only version available here. The nose on this is all fruit with pears, green grapes and Riesling. The palate is white grape juice with malt in the background. The finish is short-lived, a bit fruity, a bit soapy. This is a very light, fruity malt. Not exactly my style but not unpleasant.

BenRiach 12, 43% ($40)

The nose on the 12 year old definitely has some of the fruity notes from the Heart of Speyside, but they are more muted and have more malt. The palate is less fruit juice than fruit wine with some more complex fruit notes, such as berries, overlayed on a malty canvass. The finish is more malty than fruity.

BenRiach 16, 43% abv ($70)

At 16 years, the malt has overtaken the fruit on the nose, but there is still substantial fruit. The fruit on the palate is now more of a dried fruit variety with plenty of malt on all sides; there's also a slight sulphur note. It still has a fairly light character and is quite sweet.

BenRiach 20, 43% abv ($100)

The nose on this one is quite mild with floral notes. The palate has shed its fruit in favor of sweet malt. It's definitely richer than its younger siblings, with malt and just a whisper of ash. The finish gives you lingering malt and a bit more of the floral note that was on the nose.

I can't say I'm overly impressed with the BenRiach line. Sweet and fruity is simply not my favored flavor profile, but if it's yours, you may want to dig into these. I did enjoy the less fruity 20 year old, but at $100, there are many other malts I would pick ahead of it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Jonathan Gold's Gift to Koreatown: Sun Ha Jang

Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold's last big project for the LA Weekly before moving (back) to the LA Times was a massive paean to my neighborhood. His 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know is a tour de force of culinary completeness, showing the type of mastery of a single cuisine and ability to both highlight well known stars and seek out lesser known treasures that had been absent from many of Gold's recent compilations which seemed like so much warmed over retreads of earlier work.

As I gazed through the list though, one thing spoke to me: Duck Bulgogi. I rolled the phrase around in my brain thinking there was no finer combination of words in any language. Duck Bulgogi showed the promise of gamy meat grilling in its own fat, like a Korean confit with chili sauce. My usual policy is to hold off for at least two weeks before going to anything reviewed by Gold to avoid the "Gold rush" that occurs at an establishment subsequent to his reviews, but I couldn't resist the pull of Duck Bulgogi, and besides, with a full 60 reviews in one issue, the Gold rush effect would likely be muted.

Finding Sun Ha Jang, the site of the dish of my dreams, was a bit challenging. It lies in an Olympic Boulevard strip mall, just east of Crenshaw, but the only English is in very small print on the strip mall sign post. Luckily, I had my Korean speaking daughter with me, but while the English name doesn't appear on the actual restaurant, there are pictures of ducks on the windows, so just drive down the street and look for the ducks. Sure enough, the place was pretty much empty when I got there (though I had come early on a Sunday evening, just in case).

Duck bulgogi is a bit of a misnomer, at least based on my assumptions about bulgogi. The dish you want is listed as "roasted duck" on the menu, and it's unseasoned, more like a duck version of the roast gui you can get at Dong Il Jang and similar establishments than seasoned beef bulgogi.

As usual when tackling a new Korean BBQ dish, I let the waitress set us up. She used a wad of kimchi to plug the grease drain in the pan. "Not for eating," she told us. Then she lit the flame and put the duck slices on with a handful of garlic cloves. That's when the magic happens. The duck cooks down and releases massive amounts of fat which roast the garlic. Most of the panchan provided are actually for directly accompanying the duck as opposed to eating alone. There is a lettuce and onion salad, scallions with chili sauce and wonderful pickled onions (they need to get those into some cocktails pronto). You take a piece of duck, dab on some chili sauce, and then scoop up some combination of salad, scallions and pickled onions with your chop sticks, letting it all roll around on your tongue. The acid of the onions and the heat of the chili cut the pure fat of the duck and make for a balanced combination. On top of that, the little slivers of duck fat that fall off the leaner meat fry in their own grease until they become delightfully crispy little duck chicharrones.

As with roast gui, after the meat is gone, the waitress makes fried rice from the remaining fat, meat bits and panchan. As my wife often asks, is there anything that's not better fried in duck fat? Well, I'm not sure I know the answer, but fried rice is definitely better in duck fat, the rice soaking up the intense duck flavor, the grains blending with the little bits of fried fat. It's like grease with texture.

We ordered some regular beef bulgogi as well and it was very good (barbecued in the kitchen), but the thing to get hear is the roast duck and that's what every table was eating.

It's an amazing meal, though not for those who shy away from fat or worry about the state of their artery blockages. Thanks to Jonathan Gold, and good luck to him at the Times.

Sun Ha Jang
4032 W. Olympic Boulevard.
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(323) 634-9292

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Taylor 86 (circa 1982)

Old Taylor from the National Distillers days seems to be one of the more prevalent dusties out there. Back in the 1970s and '80s it was made in at least three versions that I've seen in stores: 80 proof, 86 proof and Bottled in Bond 100 proof. Today I sample an 86 proof.

Like Old Crow and Old Overholt, Old Taylor was a National Distillers brand that was sold off to Beam which promptly ruined it. The brand was recently sold by Beam to Buffalo Trace but the standard yellow label Taylor may still be made with Beam bourbon.

Old Taylor 86 proof (43% abv), 6 years old, 500 ml bottle.

The nose is chock full of caramel and toffee notes...candy all the way with just a touch of spice. The palate is rich and syrupy with maple syrup, vanilla extract and just a dash of clove, followed by some citric acid. It's full bodied and full of flavor. The finish is pure vanilla.

I've had a number of these Old Taylors and they all seem to have a lot of flavor going on. Given that they are among the more available dusties, I would definitely recommend picking one up if you see it.