Monday, December 30, 2013

Sku Awards: Worst Whiskey Company

'Tis the season for whiskey awards, and like every blogger, I want to make sure I get mine in.  This year, there was stiff competition for our Worst Whiskey Company award with lots of cynical marketing ploys, ridiculous pricing and other shenanigans, but there can only be one winner!

First, the runners up:

  • Jim Beam.  Year after year, Beam is contender for this award. This year, they put in a solid effort with their attempt to charge their loyal customers more for less by cutting the proof of Maker's Mark.  Only in the face of a huge public backlash did they relent, but hey, it's not their fault that there isn't enough whiskey around; they've got to meet the insatiable demand for Red Stag.
  • Diageo.  Another major heavyweight in this category, Diageo was clearly playing to win this year.  I won't go into detail here; just read Whisky Advocate's recent post naming them Distiller of the Year.  That post pretty much summarizes all of the reasons why they should get the Worst Whiskey Company award (and thanks to Whisky Advocate for saving me the effort!)
  • Dewar's (Bacardi Inc.).  A good rule of thumb for companies is not to alienate half the planet, but Dewar's managed to do just that with an ill advised commercial about their character "the Baron."  Aside from being a boring imitation of the advertising personalities for Captain Morgan and Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World, the Baron's heroics involved rescuing a friend from being approached by an overweight woman in a bar (apparently, Dewar's commercials operate in a bizarro-opposite world in which men in bars are in constant danger of getting approached by women they find undesirable).  The blogosphere immediately pounced, and Dewar's ended up withdrawing the ad.  They may have even used the same form apology that Maker's Mark used.
Congratulations to all the runners up, but there is only room in the world for one Worst Whiskey Company, and this year the award goes to:

Michter's (Chatam Imports).  Michter's has long been a Worst Whiskey Company contender both for their mediocre whiskeys and constant stomping on the grave of the true Michter's Distillery in Pennsylvania, which they have nothing to do with.  This year, though, they were not satisfied to rest on their laurels.  No, this year they rose from the ranks of whiskey mediocrity to pure evil with the release of Michter's Celebration.

Before Celebration, no one thought it would be possible to charge $4,000 for a bottle of American Whiskey.  Just doing that would have put Michter's in the running for this award, but they didn't stop there.  They went above and beyond in their effort to insult the intelligence of consumers.  This $4k marvel isn't a bourbon or a rye; it's a "sour mash whiskey," a classification which means...nothing.  It has no age statement, and it's not even labeled straight.  In short, this crap could be anything.  Though media reports mention that it contains whiskey up to 30 years old, it could contain whiskey that is much younger. It could be any type of whiskey.  It could even have added coloring.  And as with all Michter's whiskey, we have no idea what distillery or distilleries made the whiskey. We don't know anything. 

Of course, as the old saw goes, none of that matters if it tastes great, except that no one is going to taste it.  They only produced 273 bottles of this whiskey.  Based on my own observations, I would estimate that only 99.9% appear to remain on the shelf.  Given that and the fact that there appear to be no reviews on-line, perhaps we can take heart in the fact that whiskey consumers aren't as gullible as Michter's may think (they should have put a picture of Pappy on the bottle - then it would have been gold!).

So for shameless cynicism and chutzpah which knows no bounds, I'm honored to declare Michter's the Worst Whiskey Company of 2013!  (Note to Michter's, feel free to list this honor on your website in place of your current headline "Wine Enthusiast Distiller of the Year" since, you know, you're not actually a distiller).

Congratulations to Michter's and better luck next year to all of our other competitors.  Oh, and if I left anyone out who deserves a mention, just let me know in the comments.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Roast Beef and Frozen Custard: Top Round

Top Round is a new roast beef sandwich/frozen custard spot on Olympic and La Brea.  The sandwiches, which you order outside, are Arby's style roast beef sandwiches with various condiments and toppings, but none of them matter so much.  What you should do is get one of the sandwiches with extra beef and then slather it with their horseradish sauce, which had an awesome kick to it.

Then get some curly fries.  Fried in beef tallow, the fries come plain, or with one of a number of toppings: home made cheese whiz, beef ends and drippings or "dirty" with gravy, cheese and caramelized onions.  All of these were great except for the beef ends and drippings, which needed a little something else (cheese?).

When you finish your sandwich and fries, go inside and order a frozen custard concrete (sort of a flurry-type concoction).  The custard here is by far the best I've had in LA, smooth, rich and creamy with a clean vanilla taste.  The toppings are nothing special, but getting the concrete whips up the custard to a great, smooth consistency.  Usually when you see frozen custard in LA, it's soft serve.  This is the real deal and the true highlight of this place.  Sandwiches are good, custard is fabulous.

One of the owners of Top Round is Anthony Carron from 800 Degrees pizza.  Carron is a St. Louis native, and this place definitely has a St. Louis feel (my wife's a St. Louisan and I lived there for a year).  You can get provel cheese on your sandwich, which is a God forsaken processed cheese loved only by those who grew up in St. Louis.  And the frozen custard is a clear homage to St. Louis' great Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard stand.  But while St. Louis natives will undoubtedly love this place, so will everyone else.

Check it out!

Top Round Roast Beef
1000 South La Brea (SE corner of La Brea & Olympic - and there's a parking lot!)
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 549-9445

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scotch in New Charred Oak: Glenmorangie Ealanta

Glenmorangie Ealanta, the fourth release from Glenmorangie's private edition series, is a fairly unique Scotch. While many Scotch whiskies are aged in old bourbon casks, this 2013 release is aged in new, charred American oak, just like a bourbon.

Glenmorangie Ealanta, Distilled 1993, Bottled 2012, 46% abv ($130)

The nose is pleasant and malty.  The palate is very straight forward and malty.  There is a slight oak note at midpalate along with citrus, honey, vanilla and sweet wine notes, and it has a sweet, chewy finish. 

This is a good, solid malt, but it tastes fairly similar to any other good bourbon cask Scotch and is firmly within the general Glenmorangie profile.  I was surprised that the new charred oak didn't have more influence.  I had always assumed that the impact of new charred oak would be substantial.  Even the color was quite light, much lighter than most bourbons.  In American malt whiskeys, which are required to use new charred oak, there are often quite severe wood tannin notes that I find unpleasant.  Of course, those malts tend to be very young, often less than a year old, and this one is around 19 years old, so the aging could have mellowed some of those notes if they were there to begin with.

This was an interesting experiment and one I'm glad they did, but the result isn't much different from many other malts on the market.

UPDATE:  Even though the Ealanta label says "heavily charred," apparently it's actually "heavily toasted" according to this article quoting Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden.  Thanks to a commenter for pointing it out.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Latest Tunnage: Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9

Balvenie made a big splash last year with the release of their Tun 1401, a vatting of bourbon and sherry cask whiskeys.  Since then, they have released a number of different releases in different markets.  Each release is composed of a different vatting.  In the US, we saw Tun 1401 Batch 3 and Batch 6.  The latest US release is Batch 9.  This one is composed of 11 bourbon casks whiskeys and three sherry casks whiskeys.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9, 49.3% abv ($280)

The nose is remarkably fruity with grapes, figs and candied fruit.  The palate is rich and sherried with a syrupy mouthfeel.  It starts out moderately sweet but gets drier on the tongue and toward the end the sherry recedes and malty notes emerge.  The finish is sherry, apple cider and bubble gum.

This has great balance and is nearly flawless in execution, and on top of that, it's incredibly drinkable.  It's not quite as outstanding as Batch 3, but I prefer it to Batch 6.

Batch 9 reinforces that the Tun 1401 series continues to be a source of great whisky.

See LA Whiskey Society reviews for Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 9 (most of LAWS likes it even more than I do).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Worst Whiskey Blogs

Every month, I feature a Whiskey Blog of the Month, a blog that I find interesting, humorous, informative or otherwise notable.  Let's face it though, while I like to emphasize the positive, on my Complete List of Whiskey Blogs, there are tons of blogs that are just plain crappy and serve no purpose.  These are the worst:

Whiskey & Corpses.  I'm told that undertakers, as a group, are very fond of whiskey.  In this blog, an undertaker reviews a whiskey each week and poses the bottle with one of the corpses he's working on, along with some personal information about the deceased and an evaluation of whether he or she would like the whiskey. Frankly, I'm surprised he can get away with something like this.

The Glenfiddich 12 Review Blog.  There are some blogs out there that I consider to be a bit verbose, but this one takes the cake.  This blogger started his blog in 2011 with a review of Glenfiddich 12 and has been posting a continuous review of it ever since.  Each day he dives into a different element of the nose, palate, finish, appearance, etc., and dissects that single element; he also pairs the whiskey with different foods and samples it in different glasses, reporting in great detail on the results.

People Who Misspell Whisky or Whiskey.  As many readers know, in most places, our favorite beverage is spelled whisky, with no e but in Ireland and in most US brands, it is spelled whiskey, with the e.  This blogger has cataloged every time a media outlet, blogger or forum poster has used the wrong spelling and also posts his caustic letters to said media outlets which begin with salutations such as "Dear brain dead hyenas who call yourselves reporters," and get less civil from there.  Who knew there was an entire world of people who collect whiskey corks.  This site evaluates and values hundreds of whiskey corks from the uber valuable to the run of the mill.  Be aware, though, that the blogger is very opinionated and particularly despises people who only buy whiskey to collect the bottle or drink the juice without any concern for the very collectible stoppers.

UPDATE:  I apologize for any trouble people have been having with the links above.  This should be a working link for Whiskey & Corpses

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Crazy Year in Whiskey

It's time for my review of the year in whiskey, and what a crazy year it was.

The year in American Whiskey got off to an inauspicious start with Beam's bungled attempt to lower the proof of Maker's Mark.  Pappy mania reached new heights with a crazy new secondary market opening up (and closing down) on Facebook and a heist of Pappy bottles right from the source.  And Tennessee finally answered the question of what a Tennessee Whiskey is.  But what really made this year crazy were the new releases.

There was a stunning number of new American whiskey releases this year and not just from the craft distilleries and independent bottlers.  Nearly every major distiller had new labels, including Buffalo Trace (Stagg Jr.), Heaven Hill (Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and 21 year old), Wild Turkey (Forgiven and Russell's Reserve Single Barrel) and Jim Beam (Jim Beam Signature and White Label Single Barrel).  Even the staid George Dickel Distillery got into the action with a new retailer offering of 9 and 14 year old whiskeys.  Add all of that to the regular annual releases from Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Brown Forman and Heaven Hill and the growing craft and indie movement and this was a wacky, frenetic year.

Unfortunately, it was also a sad year for American Whiskey.  We lost some giants this year, including Buffalo Trace's Elmer T. Lee, Heaven Hill's Harry Shapira, Angel's Envy's Lincoln Henderson, and A. Smith Bowman's tragically young Truman Cox. Our whiskey world, and the world in general, is a sadder place without them.

This was also the year that Japanese Whiskey finally broke through in the U.S.   We've had Yamazaki for years and a trickling of Nikka whiskies more recently, but this year the floodgates opened.  Now we have Miyagikyo, Nikka Pure Malts and Coffey Grain, Suntory Hakushu and even a Karuizawa from K&L with more Japanese Whiskies to come.

For years, Canada never sent us the best of their whisky, leaving it to American bottlers to try to get their own barrels, but this year we got the new Lot 40 Rye.  Hopefully, Canada will send us more of their good stuff in the future.

The one market that seemed a bit boring this year was Scotch.  There were the predictable regular releases, PC 10, Ardbog, Laphroaig Cairdeas, Highland Park Loki and four figure Diageo releases of Brora and Port Ellen, but nothing that was particularly new and exciting. Critics seemed to acknowledge that this year with Jim Murray saying he'd rather drink bourbon and the Malt Maniacs giving their top award to a Japanese malt. In fact, the only Scotch news anyone seemed to get excited about was Diageo wrangling with Whyte & Mackay.

Have a great holiday season, and here's to an exciting new year in the whiskey world.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Those Were the Days: Prohibition Era Bourbons

It's hard to fathom the impact prohibition had on whiskey production in the United States.  Keep in mind that while prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, it came right on the heels of a wartime ban on spirits production which was in effect during World War I, such that almost no whiskey (outside of the few producers who received medicinal licenses) was produced in the Untied States for sixteen years, from 1917 to 1933.

Imagine if all spirits production in the US halted now and did not resume until 2029 or if we were just coming out of a prohibition that started in 1997.  All of the innovation and development that led to our current whiskey boom wouldn't have happened.  There would have been no Pappy Van Winkle, no Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, no Parker's Heritage Collection, no Four Roses Single Barrel, and no craft distilleries at all.

The enormity of that gap became apparent to me as I tasted through a series of prohibition era whiskeys at the LA Whiskey Society.  All of the whiskeys we tasted were distilled prior to prohibition (mostly in 1916 and 1917) and released either as medicinal whiskeys during prohibition or after repeal. There were six bourbons, three ryes and three simply labeled as "whiskey."  All were 100 proof Bottled in Bond and ranged from seven to seventeen years old.  The tasting included whiskeys distilled in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and their distilleries and brands carried names that are now legendary:  Albert Blanton, George T. Stagg, Stitzel, Dant, Gibson, WA Gaines, Joseph Finch and EH Taylor.

The most striking thing to me about this tasting was not only how different these whiskeys were from today's but how similar they were to each other. The overriding flavor note on almost all of the whiskeys was a bold, spicy rye. This makes sense given that rye was America's primary whiskey in the pre-prohibition era.  Even the bourbons lacked the sweetness that I associate with today's bourbons, in favor of a hefty dose of spice.  Some of those bourbons had a stronger rye flavor than some of today's ryes, and the rye flavor is of a different character with more sandalwood  and wood spice notes. This was an entire style of American whiskey that was lost to prohibition.

People who taste Scotches from a similar era often note that the peating level was much higher even on whiskeys we think of today as not having much in the way of peat, like Macallan.  Of course, peat is what they used to cook the barley, but the phenomenon of these bold and spicy American whiskeys makes me wonder if perhaps people simply appreciated bolder flavored spirits back then.

It also gave me a sense of how different Pappy Van Winkle's wheated bourbons must have tasted compared to what people were used to when he opened up the Stitzel-Weller distillery shortly after prohibition ended. Today, the sweeter style of bourbon dominates even in rye recipe bourbons, but back then, Pappy's whiskey would have seemed like a true alternative to the dominant (or formerly dominant) style.

Were these ancient whiskeys good?  Most were quite good, some were great, and a few were bad, not unlike many other tastings I've done.  You can find detailed descriptions, bottle photos and links to tasting note in the LA Whiskey Society's post Medicinal Whiskey:  A Tasting from Prohibition.

Photos by FussyChicken.

Monday, December 9, 2013

An American Whiskey in Paris: Blanton's Paris by Day and Night

A few weeks ago I wrote about the best things I ate in Paris.  I didn't drink any whiskey in Paris, but that doesn't mean I didn't do some shopping.

La Maison du Whisky is one of the best whiskey shops in the world.  They have two shops in Paris, the main shop on Rue d'Anjou which is entirely whiskey and the Odeon shop, a three story shop which includes other spirits and hosts tastings.  Even if you are looking only for whiskey, I would recommend checking both shops as I found bottles at the Odeon shop that were not available at the main shop.

Taken in by the selection.
Single malts are the focus of LMDW, and what a collection they have. Along with Scotch, there is a large selection of Japanese single malts, including many from the shuttered Kaurizawa distillery, though they are very expensive.

There are deals to be had at LMDW though, particularly for some of their exclusive bottlings which can only be purchased there (and they don't ship to the US or Canada).  They aren't cheap, but not all of them are super expensive.  I saw reasonably priced exclusive bottlings of Glendronach, Kavalan and many others.

And then there's the bourbon.  Normally, there would not be much reason to shop for bourbon overseas, but there is one big exception:  Blanton's.  Made by Buffalo Trace but owned by Age International, Blanton's only has one release available in the U.S., but they have more expressions in Europe and Japan, including the cask strength Blanton's Straight from the Barrel I reviewed last year.  In addition, LMDW is a major distributor for Blanton's in Europe, so they often have specialty bottlings.

During my visit, they had two LMDW exclusive Blanton's on the shelf:  the 100 proof Paris by Day and the 120 proof Paris by night.  Despite the proof difference, both are 67 euro (approximately $90).

Blanton's Paris by Day, Barrel 21, Warehouse H, Rick 51, 50% abv

The nose is really nice with some sweet caramel and some nice rye spice.  The palate is rich and spicy with brown sugar and clove.  The spice keeps growing to dominate the finish.  This really nice stuff, complex but drinkable and a big step up from our standard domestic Blanton's.  

Blanton's Paris by Night, Barrel 54, warehouse H, Rick 90, 60% abv

The nose is sweet and chocolaty with some maple syrup and light anise notes.  The palate is rich with dark chocolate, polished wood and a slight medicinal note.  The finish a slightly bitter oak note.  A bit of water brings out some sweetness and medicinal notes. It's good, but for a high proof Blanton's, I prefer the Straight from the Barrel.

These are both very good bourbons, but the Paris by Day comes out on top.  It comes together very well, complex and balanced. Then again, I've never been much of a night owl.

If you visit Paris and you love whiskey, La Maison du Whisky should be on your list right between the Eiffel Tower and Louvre.

Viva la France!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Brandy Gifts

It was frustrating putting together my Whiskey Gifts post this year because of the unavailability of so many of the good whiskeys.  Brandy, though, is a different story.  As I've been fond of saying, we are living in a Golden Age of Brandy; the quality has never been better (at least not in my lifetime), the price is insanely reasonable for what you get, and most of it is still on the shelf.  Most of the best new spirits I had this year were brandies.  If you're shopping for spirit gifts, you might want to skip the whiskey aisle altogether.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Cognac Navarre Vieille Reserve ($200). This Cognac from Jacky Navarre includes brandies that are 50 years old.  It's a beautiful, oaky, earthy brandy.  Yes, it's pricey, but it's one of the best things I tasted all year. It's still available at Astor Wines.

Domaine de Baraillon 1985 ($116).  This K&L exclusive shows the best qualities of Armagnac; it's at once fruity, earthy and spicy.  It was one of my two favorite Armagnacs this year.

1996 Chateau de Pelleahut ($60) This was my other favorite Armagnac this year and also a K&L exclusive (kudos to K&L for jumping on the brandy brandy-wagon with both feet in their excellent exclusive barrels program).  Deeply earthy, it tastes much older than its 17 years.  At $60 per bottle, this is the best spirit deal of the year.

Osocalis Brandy The Heritage ($130) is the masterpiece of this California distiller, but their whole range is great.  For a budget pick, it's hard to beat their Rare Alembic Brandy ($43).

Navazos Palazzi Brandy de Jerez ($80 for a half bottle).  Nicolas Palazzi's sherry aged brandy is rich and dry, a perfect brandy for lovers of sherried Scotch.

Domaine D'Ognoas 2000 ($56).  Another K&L exclusive, this is a bold, assertive Armagnac that's a great deal at the price point.

So don't despair of the state of whiskey. Drink brandy!

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Whiskey Gifts

'Tis the season for holiday gifts (well mostly Christmas because someone made Chanukah start in November this year, but hey, there are still a few days left).  Here, then, are my whiskey gift suggestions.

American Whiskey

It was hard to come up with American Whiskey gift suggestions this year, not because there weren't a number of great new whiskeys released but because they are so hard to find.  I would love to recommend the new Elijah Craig Barrel Proof or either of the Four Roses Small Batch or Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Editions, but good luck finding those.  (And if you came here looking for Pappy Van Winkle, be sure to check out my post on Pappy Van Winkle alternatives).

There were, however, a number of new American whiskeys that are quite good but easier to find.  K&L's Faultline Bourbon, an MGP bourbon blended by Smooth Ambler, is a nice one at $40.  Similarly priced is High West's American Prairie Reserve, which blends MGP and Four Roses bourbons.  For something higher proof, Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is a spicy whiskey at 110 proof and around $55.

One of my favorite new whiskeys this year was the George Dickel 14 year old from Park Avenue Liquors.  The new Dickel retailer exclusives are a series of 9 and 14 year old bourbons selected by specific retailers.  The first Park Avenue release that I reviewed is sold out but they have a new one in stock ($90), and The Party Source also has good versions ($46 for the 9yo and $66 for the 14 yo, though they no longer ship out of Kentucky).  I love the dry, minerally profile of Dickel, and these more aged expressions have all of that along with a bit more oak that you'd expect from an older Dickel.

On the rye front, there wasn't as much action this year, but the new Angel's Envy Rye, finished in rum casks, is a sweeter take on MGP distilled rye, though it's a bit pricey at around $70.


After a few years where sherry seemed to reign supreme, most of the best Scotch I had this year was peated.  Among those I'd recommend would be the Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 004 ($60) and the New Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition ($60).  On the higher end were Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte PC 10 ($150), the Springbank Calvados Finish ($110) and a new Kilchoman from Binny's ($80).  And for the budget recommendation, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the Smokey Joe Islay Malt ($35) available at Total Wines.

If you're looking to avoid all the smoke, I really enjoyed the  Mortlach 1990 bottled for Binny's ($100), a sherry cask aged malt that tastes more like a bourbon cask malt.

Canadian Whisky

I seldom recommend Canadian Whiskies during my gift posts, but I'm very fond of the new Lot 40 Canadian Rye ($60) that's just showing up on American shelves.  It's got some nice rye spice but it's not as aggressive as the WhistlePig/Masterson's/Jefferson's Canadian Ryes. It's one of the best Canadian Whiskies I've had.

Whiskey Books

This was a great year for whiskey books.  For anyone interested in bourbon, rye or American craft whiskey, Clay Risen's American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is a must have.  For those with a historical interest, Michael Veach's Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American History is a great survey course on bourbon history.  I haven't read it yet, but I have heard very good things about Fred Minnick's Whiskey Women:  The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey.  And for those looking for more of a story, there's Rob Gard's engaging memoir Distilling Rob: Manly Lies and Whisky Truths.  So drink, but read too.

Later this week:  Brandy Gifts