Thursday, December 20, 2012

What I'm Drinking Right Now

As fall is turning to winter, and the holiday season is in full force, I thought it time to discuss the types of booze that one should, in my humble opinion, be enjoying this time of year. 

Bell's Brown Ale-This beer is one of my all time favorites.  Rich, dark, and malty, but with plenty of crispness and a nice hop profile.  A lot of beers call themselves "fireside" "autumn" this or that, but if I had a fire, this simply named brew would be perfect with it.  In fact, at a friend's harvest party we did have some by the firepit.

Mad Elf-I reviewed this beer on Urban Grain last winter.  It's the perfect Xmas beer.  Sweet and boozy, warming, red in color.  Best drunk by the lights of your Christmas tree.

Assorted Belgian Christmas Beer-The cool thing about the Belgian Christmas beers is that they are not in any format, just special beers brewed for the season with random spices and high ABV.  Last year I had St. Bernardus it was very good.  Delerium Noel, N'ice Chouffe...many are available this time of year.

I drink brown liquor all year long, but in the summer you may find me with a Caipirinha or a G & T.  In the winter, it's whisky and whisky cocktails. 

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit-This is the high end of the Wild Turkey regular lineup.  It's single barrel.  Very spicy, rye forward, and very very dry.  I generally prefer my bourbon a bit juicier, but this one would be very nice on a rainy night.  At their traditional 101 proof, you can take it straight, but it has just enough fire that you may want a few drops of water or single ice cube. 

High West Campfire-A blend of bourbon and scotch.  Sounds strange, but tastes great.  I had a shot of this at a new BBQ place in Fishtown.  Somehow, inexplicably, the sweet vanilla from the bourbon chimes with the smoke from the peated malt.  If I could find a bottle I'd snatch it up for winter.

Lagavulin, Laphroaig, other assorted Islay scotch-Islay scotches are the smokiest, and the type of scotch I'd most want on a frigid night.  Rich, peaty, medicinal.

Penicillin-Famous Grouse blended scotch, ginger juice, lemon juice, honey syrup, and a float of Laphroaig, with some candied ginger for garnish.  This is my favorite cocktail of all time.  I am making it for my sister in law's wedding reception.  Spicy, just a hint of smoke, rich in flavor yet refreshing.

Manhattan and Old Fashioned-Some nights you want something a little more than a straight pour, but nothing too involved.  If I have oranges in the house, it's old fashioned night.  If not, manhattans it is (I always have decent vermouth, bitters, and some Rittenhouse Rye on hand).  What I like about old fashioneds is you can use pretty cheap booze, as the orange, cherry, bitters, and a splash of soda water mask a lot of imperfections.  For example 2 weeks ago I made them with Heaven Hill--bottom bottom shelf--and they weren't bad at all.

Upcoming Posts
I have a bottle of Compass Box Oak Cross waiting to open.  Compass Box is sort of the High West of Scotland, they source whisky and then blend it masterfully.  Also look for a review of Col. E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado surviving bourbon.  I will try to get another post in before the New Year, but if not, happy holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, etc.  And whatever is in your glass, Cheers!

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Best Food Ever

I was asked several years ago what my favorite food was.  I love food, and have tons of favorites, but it occured to me that my favorite food is "sandwich."  You can call me a cheat if you want.  But the sandwich is a great invention.  There are limitless combinations of flavors and textures.  They can be very lowbrow and easy to come by, like pb and j or grilled cheese, or can be culinary masterpieces (even a grilled cheese can be elevated).  They can adapt for any meal, as in a biscuit with eggs and bacon or fried chicken.  Mostly they are good.  Here's a rundown of some of my favorite sandwiches.

Roast Pork
While I enjoy a cheesesteak from time to time, the roast pork with sharp provolone and greens (spinach or broccoli rabe) is the quintessential Philadelphia sandwich.  Between a Sarcone's bakery roll, the juicy and flavorful pork and tangy cheese makes for a working man's dinner.

Pulled Pork
North Carolina vinegar style, smoked for hours until it pulls apart.  A little slaw for crunch, a cheap burger bun and you're good to go.

Wawa Tuna Hoagie
I get it with oil, provolone, tomatoes, salt pepper oregano, and bacon.  I know Wawa's sandwich's have gone down a bit, and the rolls suck, but I still love this shorti.

My mother's family serves meatball sandwiches at almost every family gathering.  I like to make my own meatballs for pasta, but love a good store bought meatball parm.

Within the category "burger," you get another list of countless permutations.  Grilled over charcoal for a smoky flavor, cooked in a pan or griddle to keep in the fat, purchased at a fast food counter, or my favorite, a creative gastropub burger.  Take Royal Tavern's.  The meat is tasty and cooked to order, and topped with smoked gouda, bacon, and long hot peppers, with a special sauce and fries with aioli on the side, and you are in carnivore heaven.  I've made my own burger's occasionally, and it's quite rewarding to chop and blend differnt cuts of meat in such a way that results in America's most famous sandwich.  In and Out are the best of the fast food burgers. 

Old Fashioned Italian Hoagie
Smoked cured meats like soppressatta and cappa.  Sharp provolone, oil, onions, and a crusty roll.  It's an old man's sandwich.  And I'm a bit of an old man.

Chicken Italiano
A chicken cutlet, pounded and breaded, with roasted peppers, greens, sharp provolone, and again, a crusty seeded roll.

Jewish Deli
Corned Beef or Pastrami, mounded on rye.   Enough said.

Leftover turkey, stuffing, cranberry, etc.

Chick Fil A Chicken Sandwich
Regular or spicy.  I know the company's leadership is homophobic.  But I can't let this one go.  I have principles but I can be bought when it comes to flavor, quality, and value.

I could go on, but chime in with some of your own favorite sandwiches.

Friday, October 19, 2012

All Time Favorite Albums

Here's a break from my usual alcoholic ramblings.  A list of my top ten favorite albums.  As I am not a music snob or expert, I did not set out to make a "Best" list.  These are simply my personal favorites.  I applied a few simple principles.  I didn't choose artists that I primarily know through Greatest Hits compilations (Guns and Roses, Sublime), and only chose albums that were solid from top to bottom, rather than vehicles for singles.  For example, as much as I love Billy Joel (shut up all haters), he's a singles hitter.  Also, I tried to have a diverse list that reflects my musical taste.  Here they are from 10 to 1:

10.  Talking Book, Stevie Wonder-This is regarded as Stevie's transition from Motown wunderkind to legit artist.  The funk tracks are fun, "Superstition" is one of the greatest songs ever, and there are some strong social themes.  The ballad "You and I" is a poweful love song of the type that you will rarely hear from modern artists. 

9. Summertime Mixtatpe, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Mick Boogie-I might put this higher on the list except I already feel like I am cheating bc/ it's not really an album, per say (it was a free download a couple of years back).  But nothing captures the feeling of summer better than this mash up of hip hop and pop songs.

8.  Kind of Blue, Miles Davis-Jazz afficionados would probably roll their eyes at my weak effort to get some jazz on this list, but cannot deny the lasting power of this record, the best selling jazz album ever. 

7.  Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid, Collective Soul-At at time when grunge bands were singing about--and committing--suicide, and "gangsta rap" was having a moment*, Collective Soul wrote catchy hooks and lyrics about peace, love, and the power of forgiveness.  Their self titled follow up album got better reviews and had more hits, but I'll always have a soft spot for their debut.  Their career hasn't lived up to the promise of their early albums, but I still loved seeing them live a few years back and consider myself a lifelong fan. (*Disclaimer-grunge, rage, and hardcore rap have their places and reason for being, too).

6.  Abbey Road, The Beatles-Rubber Soul may have been their first artistic entry, and Revolver and Sgt. Pepper their masterpieces, but I'd rather walk down Abbey Road.  I know it sounds disjointed, almost like two different albums, but in a way it encapsulates the Beatles whole career--a few great singles followed by a great concept album.

5. Parachutes, Coldplay-It's popular to make fun of Coldplay these days, but it doesn't diminish their greatness.  Parachutes was mind blowing when I first heard it.  My college roommate was studying minimalist piano at the time, and Parachutes' simple, repetitious melodies certainly fit that bill.  The first song, "Don't Panic," is haunting and beautiful, and sets the stage for a fantastic album and legendary career.

4.  Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest-Tribe is the greatest.  Early conscious hip hop.  Midnight Marauders is hip hop's answer to the concept album.  Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed at their pinnacle, taking you on a lush journey through beats, rhymes, and life.  Check out the documentary about the group for an education in true hip hop.

3.  Graceland, Paul Simon-I am forever indebted to my wife for introducing me to this album.  Prior to meeting her I only knew the song "You can call me Al" by way of the music video with Chevy Chase.  There's a documentary that came out last spring about the controversy surrounding this recording, as Simon "appropriated" many of the sounds on a trip to South Africa at a time when the UN had imposed a cultural ban on the country during apartheid.  The title track is one of my all time favorite songs, "Losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you're blown apart, everybody feels the wind blow."  I've seen Rhymin' Simon perform twice, and he's still got it.

2.  Ok Computer, Radiohead-I enjoy a lot of Radiohead's envelop pushing stuff, but this record is the perfect storm of their progressive rock sensibility, technological prowess, and poetry.  Beautiful melodies and challenging themes in a perfect lineup of songs.

1.  What's Goin' On-Marvin Gaye-Motown wanted Marvin to crank out more hits a la "I Heard it through the Grapevine."  But Marvin wanted to sing about drug addiction, racial injustice, and the Vietnam war.  He also gave credit to the Motown studio band, the Funk Brothers for the first time (according to the Wikipedia page).  The title track became known as the black national anthem, and Marvin's mold breaking album is now a consistent top 10 choice in almost any list of greatest albums out there (number 6 on Rolling Stone's top 500).  "Mercy Mercy Me," his song about the Mother Earth, sounds as fresh and relevant today as the day it was penned.  Marvin's vocal range is remarkable.  His lush, soothing voice is in stark contrast with the sounds and subject manner.  Yet it all comes together wonderfully.  His songwriting and producing abilities were finally able to shine on this record.  If you haven't listened to this album, you need to.

Honorable Mentions-Blueprint Vol. 3 (Jay Z), John Legend Live in Philadelphia, On in Five (One Nine Crew), The Score (The Fugees),  Losing Streak (Less than Jake), Chicago III (Chicago), Thriller (Michael Jackson), Upbeats and Beatdowns (Five Iron Frenzy), Viva La Vida (Coldplay), Various Albums (U2), Homecoming (Craig's Brother), Skafunkrastapunk (Skankin Pickle), Diary of Alicia Keys (Alicia Keys)

I reserve the right to modify this list.  I imagine I have made some oversights.  Please feel free to chime in with some of your own favorites.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Jim Beam

Jim Beam is the best selling bourbon on the planet.  I figure it's about time I addressed it on these pages.  I've been watching the FX show Justified for the past month or so, and the main character, Raylan, drinks Jim Beam in almost every episode.  It's funny, when he's drinking with his boss they go with Blanton's, but in his dive hotel room he sticks with good old Jim Beam.  Or "Jim Bean," as he seems to pronounce it with his drawl.  I had already been craving some cheap bourbon, so I picked up a handle of Jim Beam for 30 bucks to pair with an evening (hopefully several evenings) of Justified.  The white label Jim Beam is their basic entry, 4 years old and 80 proof.  Let's give it a go.


Nose-caramel corn

Taste-A lot of young corn.  Very very smooth.  The classic bourbon flavors (vanilla, wood spice, caramel, burn) are there but faintly.  It makes you go for another sip to try to get some more flavor, which I guess is their whole strategy.  It's like the Miller Lite of bourbon.  Jason Pyle says the palate is "flat as a pancake."  It's just a bit young for my liking.

Finish-I actually quite enjoyed the finish.  It fills the mouth in a surprsingly pleasant way for such cheap stuff.  I felt validated in my tasting abilities when I read Jim Murray's review after writing my own, and he said the finish is complex after a sluggish start, describing it as "playful brown sugar stirring things up."

Value-I'd say this is well priced for what it is.  I'd rather save a few bucks and grab Evan Williams Black Label, though.  I think that one tastes just a bit better, too.  Or maybe spend 2-3 more bucks for Four Roses yellow label.

Intangible-For me, what's in the bottle is what counts, but I have to admit I would never want my favorite bourbon to be the best selling one.  I feel like I need some individuality.  Ditto with Jack Daniels and Tennessee whisky.  The white label is just too boring for me, especially after tasting it.

Overall/Final Comments-The thing about Jim Beam is almost all their products are the same recipe.  Jim Beam, Jim Beam Choice, Jim Beam 7 year, Black 8 year, Knob, Baker's, Booker's.  There are pros and cons to this.  The pro is that their flavor is so distinctive and provides a brand identitiy.  The con is, well, it all tastes similar.  That said, obviously the Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 9 year will have a ton more interest in terms of flavor than white label.  I think my favorite Beam product would be Old Grand Dad BIB.  It's the Basil Hayden recipe.  But I do enjoy Booker's, as well.  But I digress.  Jim Beam white is okay in a pinch, and at least you know every bar will have it.  I'm not sure that's a compliment but it's not a criticism, either.  As far as Raylan from the show, it suits him just fine.  He is a simple kind of character who wants a simple kind of drink.

Friday, September 28, 2012

GQ Article Oversight

This month's GQ has a beer feature, "The Pursuit of Hoppiness."  I was pleased to see Philly make the list of best beer cities.  It featured a number of great beer spots around town, from Standard Tap and Memphis Taproom in NoLibs to Monks in Rittenhouse and Alla Spina on North Broad.  But it left out my entire neighborhood.  Here is my response:

Dear GQ,
While I was happy to see Philly get some well deserved hype for being one of the best beer cities in the States, I was very disappointed that none of the points of interests mentioned were in South Philly, which boasts one of the best bar and restaurant scenes in the city. The number one oversight was The South Philadelphia Taproom. SPTR chef Scott Schroeder serves up the best gastropub fare in the entire city. The specials are the best part of an excellent food menu (think grilled pocono trout, fried chicken, and ramen). And the beer list is fantastic. Standard Tap's focus on local beer is cool, but without those shackles SPTR boasts a much more balanced list on an average day, with entries from accross the country and globe, and the biggest Founders account outside of Michigan. Their special events rock too, from the annual Wheat Beer Fest to the Philly Beer Week staple Extreme Beer Brunch with rare brews from Russian River and Founders (like Kentucky Breakfast Stout).
Other South Philly beer spots include POPE, The Bottle Shop, and Brew, a coffee shop/beer takeout joint with the perfect name, run in conjunction with the folks from SPTR. You also may have mentioned that our Beer Week is the original and best.  

Thanks, Greg

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Makers Mark vs. Weller Special Reserve

I have been on somewhat of a "wheater" kick, with the warm summer weathering lingering, a soft wheated bourbon on the rocks can be rather refreshing compared to a spicy, complex ryed bourbon.  Makers is probably the second best known bourbon on the planet (next to Jim Beam).  It's remarkable for its consistency--they only use 19 barrels per batch.  It has mass appeal, due to having most of the pleasant characteristics of bourbon without the stereotypical burn.  It's about as simple and straightforward as whisky gets.  Weller Special Reserve claims to be the original wheater.  It used to have an age statement of 7 years, and is part of the Weller line of bourbons.  For me, this one is the closest comparison as it's relatively the same age/proof (both are 90 proof).  Maker's will run you about $25 and Weller about $21.  I will say off the bat that I think all of the other Wellers are better than the Special Reserve.  The 12 year is nice, and the Antique 107 offers a lot of flavor and value.  And of course, WL Weller is a star in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection each year. 

Both bourbons pour a yellow/gold color, the Weller having a tinge more russet color

When I toured Makers, the guide said, "Smell it, is it pleasant or unpleasant?"  Not the most scientific tasting, but it is pleasant.  Makers smells like creamed corn and vanilla with an oak veneer.  The Weller offers a bit more complexity on the nose, some corn, fruit, oak bitterness, and maybe a chocolate note.  I'd give Weller the slight edge here. 

Makers surprises with a bit of a punch of cinnamon spice up front.  After the initial rush, it's sweet and simple.  It's not cloying in its sweetness.  There's just not much to it.  The Weller is super simple as well.  Jim Murray points out some "subtle spice," and it's there but distant.  In a straight pour I'd choose Maker's, as it's pleasant through and through, and the Weller tastse ever so slightly, well, cheap.  On the rocks, fruit flavors seems to burst through with the Weller.  Despite, or maybe bc/ of the low proof, I actually prefer both of these whiskies on ice.  I had them in my Glencarin glass but they don't garner enough respect in that format--they just aren't interesting enough to sip and ponder.  On ice, they are both quite nice, but I think the Weller does a bit better. 

Neither offer much on the finish.  Quick fade and gone.  If anything, the Maker's has a slightly unpleasant finish.  I can't put my finger on it but I didn't love it.  Coin flip on this one. Maybe a slight edge to Weller.

I've said it before, Maker's is the Disney of bourbon.  It's simple, sweet, and unchallenging, wrapped up in a neatly packaged wax sealed bow.  Sometimes that's all you want.  But I'd probably choose a few cheaper, screwtop bourbons to satisfy the itch for something simple, like Four Roses Yellow label at about $18.  Weller has the Buffalo Trace backing and a cool history of its own, but as with any product that's one in a lineup, you are bound to have a weak link, and this is it.  I'd give Maker's the edge in the intangibility category, for the same reasons Disney is better than other theme parks.  As far as value, if you catch Maker's on sale it's about the same price as Weller.  Both are good if not great values.

Maker's Mark.  I think it achieves its goals as a product a bit better than the Weller, despte Weller edging Maker's in more of my categories.  But if you want to be a bourbon snob drink the Weller anyhow since less folks know about it, and really it's about the same.  At a comparable price, I would recommend trying the Weller Antique 107 if you can find it; it's better than either of these two bourbons.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Smoking the Butt

For Labor Day, we had a few friends over.  We briefly discussed grilling lamb and doing a Meditteranean feast.  Two issues.  1.  We had never made lamb, and I don't like trying new recipes on guests.  2.  Lamb is almost $20 a pound.  Enter pork butt/shoulder.  Pork shoulder is one of my favorite cuts of meat, any sort of meat.  For starters, it's got fantastic value.  We got a 9 lb shoulder at Wegmans for $12.  You do the math.  Also, it's versatile, and hard to mess up.  For the party, I chose to do North Carolina style pulled pork sandwiches.  North Carolina style is vinegar, rather than sauce, based.  For the primary recipe, I used Stephen Raichlen's from his book, How to Grill, a summertime staple.  First you make the rub, a basic American BBQ rub with paprika, salt, pepper, brown suger, and smoked salt.  You can use regular salt but the smoked salt makes a difference.  I also used some smoked Spanish paprika. 

You rub the butt and let it cure overnight, up to 24 hours.  Then you use indirect grilling to smoke the meat for 4-6 hours.  You do this by using a drip pan with the charcoals on the sides of the grill, rather than directly under the meat.  Then you add coals and smoking chips once each hour.  It is supposed to get charred after several hours, I think I used too many coals initially because it looked like this after only 1 hour.  I was panicked that I had ruined it. You can see the hickory smoking chips on the sides, which have been soaked in water so that they have a slower burn and produce a lot of smoke.  The lid remains closed throughout to circulate the most smoke around the pork.

Additionally, I made a mop sauce from a recipe I found online, it involved apple cider vinegar, apple juice, brown sugar, and bourbon.  Raichlen's mop sauce does not use bourbon.  Each time I added coals, I mopped the butt, keeping it nice and moist and adding as much flavor as possible. 

The end result was fantastic.  After letting the pork rest for 15 minutes, it pulls apart in your gloved hands.  It was tender and juicy.  We mounded the pork onto hamburger buns and topped it with North Carolina vinegar slaw.  My wife made an amazing mac n cheese that involved bacon and potato chips.  Nuff said.  We made a bourbon punch with citrus peels, sugar, club soda.  Sorry there is no pictures of the sandwich and sides, the ravenous crowd must have dug in before I thought of it.  It fed 6 people and we sent everyone home with leftovers.  The process was a little tricky in the rain, but the grill remains mostly closed so the only tricky part is getting fresh coals to light each hour.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to rig a tent to block the rain, as evidenced by the rope in the picture above.  Overall, a nice end to summer.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Thomas H Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey

If you can read that label, you'll see that this baby comes in at a powerful 128.6 proof.  Not that I have to explain myself to anyone, but the bottle is almost empty not because I drank it all, but because I have just rebottled some of my stock (see this link for my post about rebottling).  In any case, I apologize in advance that Urban Grain has become a string of whisky reviews of late, just seems to have happened that way. 

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection that comes out each fall, this one is from 2011.  I was able to get this from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, of all places, for $60, a great value.  In general the Antique Collection bottles are a bit hard to come by, but they are out there.  I believe this whisky is an uncut and unfiltered version of their "baby Saz," a 6 year rye that you can find for about $30. 

Color-For such a high proof I'd expect a darker whisky.  This one is straw/gold in color.

Nose-Nose this one too quickly and you wreck your senses in a hurry.  What comes to my mind is the cinnamon part of a sticky bun, coated in vanilla icing.  Rich and sweet, yet sharp and spicy. 

Taste-I am trying this with no water.  I wouldn't recommend drinking too much high proof whisky with no water, but they bottled it that way so you could try it that way.  The taste is an onslaught.  Again, cinnamon and vanilla, here with some oak in the background.  Like a slice of rye bread with butter and honey.  The alcohol burns through the whole palate into the finish.  But it still maintains a certain softness and pretty full mouthfeel despite the sharpness.

Value-I think the $60-75 price range is fair for the higher end Buffalo Trace products.  They are unique, and their high proof is bang for the buck.

Intangible-I used this in a Manhattan once and it was maybe the best Manhattan I've ever had.  I love the Antique Collection, but I don't love how hard it is to come by.  I think this year I will hunt for Stagg again.  Of the 5 entries in the collection, I think Stagg is generally the most special.  But the W.L. Weller gives it a run for it's money.  Both of the ryes are fantastic but I don't know if they are quite on the level as the other two.  I've never had the Eagle Rare 17, though it's probably the easiest to find. 

Jim Murray's review of the nose says the following, "Any crisper and the glass would shatter: hard as a diamond rye, but oh! so much more of a rare and valuable gem! Rye concentrate."  Then he reprints that description for taste, finish, and balance verbatim.  "I think you may have got the idea," he says.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Collingwood Canadian Whisky: Toasted Maplewood Mellowed

Canadian whisky is, to many, the least exciting major whisky region in the world.  When you think of Canadian whisky, you think of "CC" Manhattans and bottom shelf booze.  Also, I've been burned by boutique Canadian whisky before.  But I read an article by Davin De Kergommeaux in the latest Whisky Advocate mag about how Canadian whisky is good for summer due to its generally lighter profile.  The article points out that despite the trends of specialty bourbons and single malts, "tanker truck after tanker truck filled to the brim with Canadian whisky streams, seemingly unnoticed, from Canadian distilleries into the U.S."  Popular doesn't equal good, but still.  I had been eyeing up this bottle for a while now, and the article pushed me over the top.  It doesn't hurt that it's produced by Brown Forman, makers of Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve.  They know their way around brown liquor. 

Disclaimer: the following description of the process is paraphrased from  The spirit is first triple distilled in copper column stills at the Canadian Mist Distillery (Apparently, Canadian Mist makes two spirit bases, one with Ontario corn and western barley, and one rye based).  The recipes are aged and eventually blended.  When the final result is married in stainless steel, toasted maplewood staves are added to the vats to mellow the whisky a bit further.  This is not unfamiliar territory, as Tennessee whiskies have long been mellowing their product using maple.  It's new to Candian whisky, though it makes sense, as they have plenty of maple up there.  Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown Forman, also recently put out a limited edition maplewood edition of Woodford.  But enough with the backstory.  FYI this whisky is 80 proof.  Let's give it a go.

Color: Light, due in part to the proof, I'm sure.  I'd like to learn more about how mashbills affect color, as well, but not tonight.

Nose: Hmm, a bit astringent.  I get some fruit, like pears.  No noticeable maple.

Taste: The first thing I notice is a pretty rich mouthfeel on this one.  I'd say that's pretty rare on a $25 bottle.  The pear is there in the taste, too.  It's pretty sweet, not in a bad way.  Like maple syrup.  This may satisfy your sweet tooth.

Finish: No joke despite the low proof.  Mellow, yes, but just enough burn to make its presence known.

Value: Solid.  I would recommended this as a low risk change up to your usual lineup.   

Intangible: The first Canadian I've had that I really liked.  I wonder if I gave Forty Creek, a craft Canadian whisky, a raw deal?  Maybe my palate was too accustomed to a certain flavor profile and I am more open minded now.  Then again, no one at the whisky part liked it...Some folks online say the Collingwood bottle looks like dad's aftershave, but I think it's quite handsome.  Takes up some shelf space, though.

Here's the brief description from, for the record: "Dark fruits, Concord grapes, roses and spring flowers with a rich and creamy mouthfeel. Split cherry firewood with earthy rye and tingling hot pepper. Floral & Fragrant." 

I don't know about all that, but it was pretty decent stuff.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ancient Age Taste Off

When I was in North Carolina, I stopped in their state controlled liquor store.  I had hoped to do some real dusty hunting at liquor stores on the way down, but it wasn't meant to be, I'd have to settle for whatever the fine state of NC had to offer.  Most of the mid and higher shelf products, in both scotch and bourbon, were the usual suspects, nothing I couldn't find up here.  Invariably, however, the bottom shelf looks different from state to state.  All of the major bourbon distillers make 1-3 primary recipes, and age, proof, and package them all to have their own identity.  Thus, Benchmark is the same juice as Buffalo Trace, which is the same juice as Blanton's, George T. Stagg, and so forth.  The nice thing about this store was that they had a bunch of cheapos in pints, so I was able to get a few different ones to try for not a lot of coin. 

In addition to the two Ancient Age labels I picked up, I bought a handle of TW Samuels 100 proof bottled in bond, by Heaven Hill.  You might recognize the Samuels name as a famous one in the bourbon business, as they are the family that started Maker's Mark in the middle of last century.  The label is pretty funny, see if you can read the quotes:

I guess I should have known from a bottle with a "built in pourer" that the stuff inside was not likely to be good.  It wasn't.  But you never know, I've had some good cheap whiskies.

I digress, let's taste.  These Ancient Age whiskies pictured at the top are from Buffalo Trace.  The one on the left is 80 proof and aged "thirty six months."  The one on the right 90 proof and called "10 Star."  Who knows what that means, it has no age statement.  Interestingly, the 80 proof version states that it is made by Buffalo Trace, while the 10 Star says it's made by Ancient Age Distillery.  Each costs about 5 bucks.

Color:  Both are very, very light in color, like straw.  The 90 proof has a slightly richer tinge. 

Nose: The 80 proof is very corny, light, and sweet smelling.  The 10 Star has a bit more interest, with some cinnamon and spice.  I don't think it's the higher proof alone, this one must be a bit older.  I just did a quick Google it seems this one is 6 years old.  My nose didn't lie.

Taste: The 80 proof is hard to describe.  It tastes simultaneously good and harsh.  There is flavor there, some vanilla, some fruitiness, but buried under a certain unpleasantness.  Maybe it's too young, or it's a bad "cut."  The 10 Star is leaps and bounds better.  It has the cinnamon spice that was on the nose, and a bit of vanilla pudding.  It has the character of Buffalo Trace, but more like Benchmark in terms of overall quality, in my opinion.  I wrote this post while tasting and a few nights later had the 80 proof again.  It might satisfy a sweet tooth.  Not so bad.

Finish: As you might expect, the 10 Star wins here, with a higher proof and more barrel, it lingers a bit. It has a similar fade to Benchmark, mostly pleasant, on the top of your mouth.  The 80 proof doesn't stick around too long.  Maybe that's a good thing? 

Value: Clearly the 10 Star is the better value, it was pennies more, at least in North Carolina.  I don't think either of these whiskies are particularly bad, but not that good, either.   I'd probably grab Evan Williams Black Label or try something else before going back to either of these.  Jim Murray rates the 10 Star 91.5, that's pretty high for him.  I'm not sure I was that taken with it, but the fact that some connoiseurs regard it that well does speak to it's value.

Intangible: Buffalo Trace puts out great products from the top to the bottom.  Remember my Dad's Hat review recently?  Buffalo Trace's crappiest stock is 3X older than these new upstarts.  It will take a while for craft distillers to make a major impact, as, unlike beer, whisky requires years to truly shine.  What a luxury to have rows and rows of warehouses to dump whisky from.  I can imagine the folks down in Frankfort now, "This barrel is not fit for our flagship Buffalo Trace.  It's okay, let's just dump it into the next Benchmark batch, sell it for a few bucks and still make a profit."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey

A bourbon whiskey mashbill is at least 51% corn, rye whiskey's is at least 51% rye.  For a "straight wheat whiskey?"  You guessed it, at least 51% wheat, in this case exactly 51% of the mashbill is soft winter wheat.  I've only ever seen one other wheat whiskey besides this one, and it was made by a craft producer.  I had this product a couple of years back when I first saw it on local shelves.  I paid $40 at the time.  This time, only $28 bucks.  Heaven Hill has slashed the price, presumably because it has not grabbed the share of market it was expected to.  But I don't really care about that--only if the stuff in the bottle tastes good.  Jim Murray rates it in his "brilliant" range, using descriptors like "smoldering toast from that-day- baked bread."  Intriguing.  Bernheim is a historic distillery, and has produced some legendary whiskey.  I am just starting to get into a bit of bourbon history, like what brands were produced where and when.  It's a rabbit hole I am completely unqualified to take you down right now (check out Chuck Cowdery's blog if the history is interesting to you, he has a book as well).  Just know that there were rumors that Bernheim stock made it's way into some Pappy Van Winkle bottles.  In other words, some good stuff has come off of the still at Bernheim.  This one is 90 proof, by the way.

Color: A bit lighter than your average bourbon, perhaps that is the effect of wheat?  The rest of the mash is corn and a bit of barley.

Nose:  Jason Pyle over at Sour Mash Manifesto gets graham cracker on the nose, and there is a bit of cracker, toast, or something of that nature.  The nose is strong yet soft, if that makes sense.  Pleasant.

Taste: It's very round in mouthfeel, as you might expect from a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey.  Jason Pyle gets lemon candy up front.  There is an acidity, with some sips it is more like candy in others a bit less pleasant.  Once it moves to the back of the tongue there is a nice toastiness, like campfire marshmallows.  It's very warming yet smooth all of the way.  There are some typical bourbon type flavors from the new charred oak, vanilla, some spice and oak, etc.  But it is a unique bird a bit harder to describe than its cousin, bourbon.

Finish: Again, soft and pleasant, but substantial.

Value: I think a fair comparison is Maker's Mark, the most famous wheated bourbon.  Similar in price and both featuring wheat.  Bernheim may have a bit more interest to it, a bit more range of flavors and a better finish.  That's not to say it is better than Maker's.  The folks at Maker's set out to make a reasonably priced, tasty sipping whiskey that has mass appeal, and they have achieved that.  Bernheim and Maker's might both be good introductory type whiskies.  Not too harsh but with nice flavors.  I do think $28 more accurately reflects what this whiskey is than $40.

Intangible/Overall: It's kind of a novelty.  If you like novelty, great.  But in a way, novelty can never trump the association you make with your favorite spirit.  You can say, "that's damn fine bourbon, " not so much "that's damn fine wheat whiskey."  But it could have a place in your rotation, a good change up.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Auchentoshan Distillery Tour

First off, don’t expect this to be as clever as the usual posts by Big Smooth as he is a known grammar maven.

Recently, while on “holiday” in Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit the Auchentoshan distillery. (pronounced aw-khen-tosh-an)  Auchentoshan was built in 1800 and its name is simply “the corner of the field” in Gaelic. It is classified as a lowland whisky, which makes it one of the few lowland distilleries still in operation.  I’ll keep the history lesson brief, as I’m assuming everyone reading this is somewhat familiar with scotch.

on to the tour

this place is real hard to find, even with a GPS we really used the funnel technique to find it. (basically circle around and around getting closer until you eventually get there) We stopped to ask a few locals, they pointed us in the right direction, however their standard directions are "it's just up the road" even if its 15 miles up the winding curvy road.

Once we arrived, we entered an awesome gift shop, they had more merchandise there than I could think of buying (and I thought about a lot).

There were a few different levels of tours you could choose from, anywhere from 1 tasting at the end to bottling your own straight out of a cask, not wanting to spend $250 (although it would have been cool) I decided we would do the entry level tour as most of my traveling companions aren’t nearly as excited by whisky as I am.

I wont go into the process of the distillation very much as Greg has explained it pretty well in his posts of the bourbon trail.
This was a cool poster they had right as the tour began showing the different whisky regions in Scotland.

(the bald guy is my father in law)

The tour starts and we walk into the room where they make the mash. There wasn’t too much to see here since it was empty, but still cool to see the size of this thing.

Next we get to the room where the mash is stored, these were neat to see as they are no more than 2 x 4’s banded together. The guide told us we could look in, but its full of carbon dioxide, so if you stick your head in there and breath you could die or something like that.  He said they have to keep it wet inside even when its empty so that the boards dont dry up and leave gaps between them.

Next we went into the room with their signature 3 copper pot stills.  It is unusual for a Scotch to be triple distilled, and the folks at Auchentoshan are quick to tell you that the triple distillation is key to making great whisky as it allows them to increase the proof of their alcohol with each distillation to make it extra strong.

 After that, we went down to where they store the barrels, I’ll include a stock picture I found online since they wouldn’t let us take pictures in here on the premise that we would explode ourselves and the entire building if we did.  The “angel’s share” is lingering all over the room, it smells like alcohol and a few other things, but its was really cool to see.  Pretty much everyone in Scotland believes that scotch whisky is the best whisky on the planet and other things (for example, Bourbon), shouldn’t be counted.  However, they gladly buy up the fine oak barrels from Bourbon distilleries.  As we walked through the room, to our left there were racks of port and sherry casks, to our right were the bourbon barrels.  I really enjoyed seeing “Heaven Hills Distillery” marked on almost every one, as they manufacture some damn good bourbon here in the states.  Perhaps this is the reason I enjoy Auchentoshan so much.  I did see a few barrels marked Jim Beam, but most were heaven hills.  I did ask the guide and he said those were the only 2 bourbon companies they deal with.

Heading through this storage warehouse and down a hill, we end up in their bar.  It was beautiful inside, very modern with glass cases displaying 40 year old bottles and some other rare bottles they have made throughout the years. 

 The bar itself has every bottle of whisky they currently have in production and we were ready to start tasting.  We were each handed a glass of Auchentoshan single malt 12 year.  My plan for doing the entry level tour worked perfectly, as most people in my party were happy just to smell their glass and then pass it to me. Our guide did explain that you should never put water into your whisky before you’ve tried it, they go through all this effort to make a taste that is exactly what they want, and then you come along and pour water into it to change the taste.  After finishing all the whisky our group had been given, and while listening to the guide explain all the characteristics of this whisky as well as some of the others at the bar, I started to think about what others I’d like to try.

Our guide mentioned that the 14 year is his favorite of all time.  This guide had a strong Scottish accent and absolutely loved whisky, so when he told me that this was the best whisky of all time, I simply had to give it a go.  My dad happily gave him the money (about 7 quid as the locals say) and we both tasted the 14 year old.

It was great, delicate, light, smooth.  At this point the guide knew I was loving it and that I was a fellow whisky lover and he said that I should try the 16 year as well to compare the two.  he poured a small shot and said “this one’s on me”.  BEST GUIDE EVER.  The 16 year was similar, but exactly as you would suspect, a little more mature.  Both were great.

(a closer look at the bottles)

I went back and forth with the guide all the way out of the bar asking questions, and getting input on whisky. Then he lead us down the stairs and into the gift shop where we first began.  It was a great experience.

Also, as we were waiting for the tour to start, a group of “Mexicans” came in.  these were some Scottish guys out for a bachelor party.  Apparently Mexicans are even fun to mock in Scotland.
(the dude dressed as a woman is the groom)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Dad's Hat

Dad's Hat is a new rye whiskey.  It's mission is to return Pennsylvania rye--the orignal rye--to its former glory.  Rye was once made primarily in the Northeast, but died off during prohibition.  Some brands were salvaged, most of which by the Kentucky whisky industry.  Thus, Rittenhouse Rye, with its Philly name and "Pennsylvania style," is made in Bardstown, Kentucky by Heaven Hill.  Philadelphia distilling, makers of my favorite gin, Bluecoat, released a rye vodka a number of years back, and I remember some message boards lamenting the choice, suggesting that they should have re-introduced PA rye (they now sell a white whisky called XXX Shine).  Well, Laurel Spirits in Bristol, PA has stepped in where others hesitated.  The website tells the story of how the founder, a former chemical engineer/businessman named Herman Mihalich--used to live in an apartment above the family bar years ago (Dad's Hat Rye).  I first heard of the project from Craig Laban, Inquirer food critic.  He reviews the whisky here.  I read on Drink Philly that Mihalich did not want to release a white whisky, but due to their rise in popularity and faster trip to store shelves, he decided to release both a white and an aged version.  The whisky is aged in quarter casks for 7-9 months.  I wrote in my review of Hudson Four Grain about the small versus large barrel debate, and am always skeptical of upstarts.  Yet I am so excited about the prospect of local rye whisky that I am hoping it can hold its own.  Okay enough jibber jabber I can smell the pour as I type, let's get down to brass tacks.

You may be able to tell from the picture that it is light in color, almost like a vienna lager.  It had more contact with the wood due to smaller barrels, but for only less than a year.

It smells very young to me.  Not a lot of vanillins or oak influence.  It smells, oddly, like corn syrup.  Odd bc/ there is no corn in this one, just local rye and malted barley.  There is some pepper, and some floral element to it.  It smells nice, at this point I am accustomed to more cinnamon, vanilla, and barrel in the whiskies I drink, and this youthfulness is a bit aloof to me.  Or am I aloof to it? 

Initially I get a burst of rye spiciness and I am pleased.  As it washes over my tongue, the youthfulness hinted at on the nose is there in fruity, pleasant form.  Craig Laban feels it has some candied apple, and there is an element of that that reminds me ever so slightly of one of my all time favorites, Woodford Reserve.  I'll have to try it in a Manhattan to see how it holds up, there, but I imagine it might be just fine.

The bottle says "not lingering or heavy handed in its finish."  It's funny bc/ that description is a turn off to me, as I love a long finish.  Also I don't feel it's entirely acurrate, maybe it's not heavy handed but it is certainly substantial enough to be noticeable.  Not like a cheaply made whisky that leaves a slight sweetness in your mouth but nothing else.

Here is the problem for me.  This bottle costs just a shade under $40 in PA liquor control board stores.  As always, I could rattle off a number of better whiskies at comparable or even cheaper price points.  But I do feel that this product has a lot of love in its production, and I understand that they cannot compete with behemoths like Heaven Hill and company in terms of output and profit margins.  I like that they support local farmers and are trying to revive a legendary product, and I plan to support them in their efforts.  To that end, Cheers!  Hopefully as they move forward, they will have more entries onto the market, and turn enough of a profit that the value part of the equation is a bit better.

I am probably a bit biased, as I have ripped other newbies for being young or rushed to the market.  That said, I think I can objectively say that this is a promising, interesting product that has a niche market to grow and improve into.  I plan on visiting the distillery for a tour soon.  I also like the story behind it, including the concept of Dad's Hat being the perfect fit. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Beer City USA

Apologies in advance.  It's a long one. I thought of breaking it into two, but thought you could simply read it at your own leisure.

The Beer City poll is run by Charlie Papizan, who wrote The Complete Joy of Homebrewing in the 80s and founded the Great American Beer Festival, so it's a legit title, though it's only been an online poll since 2009.  Asheville, NC has won or tied in all 4 years.  It wasn't the real reason we chose Asheville for our vacation this year, which included camping in the Smoky mountains, whitewater funyaking, and staying in a historic hotel, but the beer scene was definitely a nice addition.  Asheville is a funky little city in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains.  Down every other street are majestic views of mountaintops, quite different than the scenery in Philly.

Asheville is sort of a hippie town.  There is a drum circle every Friday night where people dance around and bang on bongo drums, it's hard to explain.  Anyhow, Asheville and the rest of Western North Carolina has a bunch of breweries, beer based restaurants, and so forth.  I will give you a rundown of some of what I tried.

While camping in the Smokies we had a summer ale from Pigsah Brewing Co. that was very nice.  Maybe it was just the hot weather and the context: we had just set up camp and done a bit of hiking, so we were ready to grill some bratwurst over the fire for dinner, but this beer tasted so delicious and refreshing. 

The next day we went whitewater kayaking on the Nantahala River, one of the most fun experiences of my life. 

Later we went to Nantahala Brewing Co.  Their noon day IPA may have been the best all around beer on the trip.  We also tried an imperial IPA made with lemongrass and local honey that was very nice, from their Trail Magic Series.  Trail Magic is when you do a good deed for someone along the Appalachian trail (or something like that).

Once in downtown Asheville, we hit up Chai Pani, a fast casual Indian place right across the street from our hotel.  They were featuring Asheville Brewing Company's Shiva IPA, which was very solid.  Chai Pani had a funny t-shirt, too: "Namaste, y'all."  Barley's Taproom and grill was a cool spot later in the day.  They have 56 taps in their two story bar, which was a former hardware store in downtown Asheville.  At Barley's I had a wit from Catawba Brewing called White Zombie--it was pretty underwhelming.  For one thing, it was filtered, which is sort of a strange choice for a wheat beer, but also it was just kind of boring.  We did meet a local guy at Barley's who recommended a few more brews to try while we were in Asheville.  You definitely find yourself in more conversations in the South.  Mostly it's a refreshing change from the buttoned up Northeast Corridor, unless it's a homeless person screaming at you because you didn't give her a dollar to support her "food addiction." 

For dinner that night, we ate at the Thirsty Monks.  We shared a smoked trout sandwich and asian pork tacos.  My wife was irritated that the tacos came on flour tortillas, a taco no-no.  But the trout sandwich was very nice, and I had a real good hefeweizen from Sweetwater Brewing over in Atlanta.  The beer was called Waterkeeper and supports water preservation in the Southeast.  My wife had another one from Asheville Brewing called Fire Escape, made with jalepeno peppers.  It was good but too much for a full pint pour.  What shocked me consistently about Asheville was how cheap everything is.  Our bill for 3 beers and two meals at Thirsty Monks came to under 30 bucks.  I don't think I ever paid more than $4.50 for a beer, and most were priced at $4.  Thirsty Monks also had a cool downstairs bar that featured Belgian and Belgian inspired brews on tap:

Tupelo Honey Cafe did a nice job the next day of fighting the hangover from the night before.  This meatloaf is blended with bacon, then baked, then pan fried upon ordering.  Wow. 

We did a self guided historical walking tour of Asheville to walk off the calories.  Then we headed over to the River Arts district, a cool series of galleries along the French Broad River.  Just when we were getting tired of looking at expensive art and hopping along from gallery to gallery in the blistering heat, we came upon Wedge Brewing Company.  We just happened to be first in line for their 2 PM Saturday opening time, but boy was there a mad rush behind us.  We just sat and watched the mayhem and enjoyed a solid wit and pale ale, respectively.  The space definitely fits in to the art scene, with individually designed tap handles, hand blown pint glasses, and wild sculptures and wall hangings.

Then we headed over to Asheville Pizza and Brewing for lunch.  The pizza was good, but somehow tasted a bit like Ellios.  Another Shiva and a Roland's ESB for me.  I liked the Star Wars cantina section:

Then we went back to the hotel for a nap and recovery.  As an aside, I was fascinated by our hotel.  It was a former department store from the early 1900s to the 70s.  Is everything in Asheville repurposed?  Anyhow, the elevators say "4th floor, women's wear."  I thought it was so cool, but when the one elevator didn't say it, I expressed great disappointment.  The guy in the elevator with me was like, "Oh, yeah, because it's was a department store or something."  To me it was the whole reason I chose the hotel. 

For the last hurrah, we headed to the Admiral.  It doesn't look like much, but it may be the best restaurant in town. 

The chef lived in Philly for a while, and the Admiral t-shirts sport a familar logo.

We started with cocktails, mine was a Dark N Stormy made with homeade ginger ale, it was fantastic.  My wife had a Hendricks cucumber/lemon/tonic or something that was also good, if a bit too sweet.  This steak tartare, along with everything we ate, was very good, but also a bit busy.  This description of "good but busy" would fit several of the menu items we tried.  Just look at this plate, you have the pickles, paprika, salt, pepper, sri racha aioli, sri racha, bread, and porter cheese, quail egg in the shell, regular egg on the side...all in addition to the steak.   All good, but a bit much all together.

The green tea gnocchi was perhaps the most creative dish, an Italian palate with Asian paint, if you will.  One complaint about the menu was that they had two sizes, small plates and large plates.  The small plates were not exactly small, and the large plates were large.  It just made it sort of hard to mix and match if you want to try a bunch of items with just two people.  In addition to the cocktails, we had an IPA from Wedge which was good.  As we were leaving they were turning the place into a hipster dance party.  We got out just in time.

To sum it all up...Like all beer and food scenes, you have some hits and some misses.  The food was really good, and cheap.  I still think in terms of food, you get a bit more diversity in a larger city, in terms of what constitutes upscale, ethnic options, etc. (this could be a whole series of posts).  And I still feel Philly is a better beer drinking city, but as the young man we met at Barley's attested to, "Asheville is the vaction spot for alchoholics."  It was a lot of fun and will definitely take some time to dry out.

Brews not mentioned: Highland Gaelic, a nod to the Scottish settlers of the area.  Green Man ESB.  Rocket Girl Lager.  Pisgah Pale Ale.  Nantahala Up River Amber (California Common/Steam Beer), Nantahala Bryson City Brown (English Mild)

Final thought: Locals from here which I saw down there were basically limited to Victory, Weyerbacher, and Dogfish.  The bottle shop we stopped in had a bunch from Weyerbacher, not just Merry Monks.  But on tap, besides Dogfish IPAs I saw only Victory Lager and Prima Pils.  One guy was steady going to the Prima Pils, which is a good beer but nothing so special.  Interesting how beer markets work.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon

All bourbon is made with at least 51 percent corn (most of them are more like 70+), 10-15 percent malted barley, and then a secondary flavoring grain, usually either rye or wheat.  The most famous wheater is Maker's Mark, but you may have heard of the Weller line of bourbon, Old Fitzgerald, or Pappy Van Winkle, all wheated bourbons.  Hudson Four Grain has intrigued me for a while, as, you guessed it, they use both rye and wheat in addition to barley and corn.  Hudson whiskies are distilled in New York at the Tuthilltown Gristmill, which according to the bottle is a National Historic Site.  I like to try boutique or "craft" whiskies at times, but, as I've stated before, unlike the beer world, in whisky the little guys are still playing catch up in terms of quality, and it's always a risk.  I haven't tried it yet as the price point is about $40 for a 375ml bottle, that's more $ per drop than most high end bourbons, including the giant George T. Stagg and the rest of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (granted they are harded to find).  But after the guy in the store talked up Tuthilltown and said they were offering $2 off, I bit the bullet.  I am drinking batch 14, bottle number 405, 92 proof.  The corn is a New York heirloom variety, and makes up about 60 percent of the mashbill.

Jim Murray's review says the nose is "a problem."  I don't find it particularly problematic, but it is on the sharp, alcoholic side rather than the soft, warming side, as far as noses go.  I found the nose more just a bit weak than anything else.  It's not particularly dark in color at 92 proof, it looks gold-like.

This is pretty good stuff.  Hudson uses smaller barrels for shorter aging, and I do think that has a negative impact.  There is a reason the better bourbons are aged for 6-8 years or more.  While smaller barrels allow for enough contact with the oak, something else happens in the magical aging process that I'm not sure you can replicate with smaller barrels in less time.  Here's further reading on it--small vs. large barrel debate--but this whisky is slightly rough around the edges.  I do think the four grains interplay nicely, you get a bit of rye cinnamon spice but it's still like eating wheat bread, soft and round and sweet.  Jason Pyle finds notes of rum and sourdough; there is a sort of "rumminess" to it.  One other thing I am getting is, well, paper.  Not in a bad way, and not that I've eaten a lot of paper.  But it's the only way I can describe it.  I guess paper is made from wood, maybe it's the oak I am getting, like a dryness.

Medium, pleasant.  No burn, for good or for bad.  Lingers shortly but too low a proof to have too much impact. 

It's a cool bottle, and it's always fun to try something made from a more local, small batch mindset.  I think it's real good stuff.  Jim Murray's Whisky Bible states, "Sort out a few gremlins and this promises to be a whisky to watch."   For me the main gremlin is the cost.  I just can't see putting down another 40 bucks or more, or even to try one of their other entries.  Jason Pyle from Sour Mash Manifesto says this is their best entry, so I'm glad I chose it.  But 375ml is only 7-8 pours, not the best value in my book.  I always compare whiskies to others first by taste and then by price point.  Is it better than Buffalo Trace's flagship brand.  Possibly.  Is it 3-4 times better?  No way.  As with any good bourbon, though, it does grow on you.  As I finish this post I wonder if I am being slightly too hard on it, because I am quite enjoying this pour.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Our Own Personal Beer Week Event

For our last beer week event, we decide to stay in, as we were partied out.  That doesn't mean we couldn't put together our own event, a beer dinner.  I am reading Garrett Oliver's book, The Brewmaster's Table, about beer and food pairing.  Oliver is the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, and it's a good read.  Look for a review post when I ever get around to finishing it.  Anyhow I wanted to try my hand at pairing some courses with some decent beers for my last event of Philly Beer Week 2012.  Here's the rundown:

Burrata with Snow Peas

For this course, we chose to crack open a bottle of homeade limoncello from my sister in law as an apperitif.  I imagine a good beer mate might be a refreshing wheat beer or crisp pale ale, something lemony and light.

Bloody Beet Steak, Steak

The bloody beet steak is a recipe from Farm and Fisherman, a nice byob in Philly.  My wife figured it out on her own last summer but has since found the recipe.  You cook the beets under a brick so they get flat and crispy, and serve them with crisy shallots.  Then we had an actual steak, a ribeye, with grilled green onions and roasted carrots from the farmer's market on East Passyunk.  For these courses, I wanted a beer with some heft, roastiness, and nice caramel malt flavor to match the caramalization of the steak and the beets. 

Enter Flying Fish Exit 8, Chestnut Brown Ale.  It was very rich and smooth, and did a nice job complementing the flavors of the food without overpowering them.  The Flying Fish Exit Series is great, I wish I would have stockpiled more of it, as each exit is limited release. 

Stilton with Berries and Apricot Honey

Port is stilton's friend in the wine world, so I wanted something boozy and sweet.  Enter Rogue Double Chocolate Stout, made with Dutch chocolate and coming in at 8% abv, in a nice painted bottle, I might add.  I enjoyed the beer, the cheese, and the berries, as well as the apricot spread.  I'm not 100% that the beer was the right match, but it was a good effort. 

I think it's great fun to improve your culinary life on all fronts, from knowing quality ingredients and cooking prowess to palate awareness and learning the principles of beverage pairings.  It can add a lot of enjoyment to everyday life--we need to eat everyday, we may as well learn to do it well.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Philly Beer Week (part 2)

Four Seasons With Love Beer Garden
This is supposed to be the homebase for the entire beer week event, a place to meet up with some friends before hitting some other events.  They have representatives to point you in the right direction if need be, and sell grilled burgers and a featured local brewer each night of beer week, along with Victory Summer Love all 5 weeknights.  It's a nice setting:
But I don't love paying $5 for Philadelphia Brewing Co. beers that are $22.50 for a case.  I had the Fleur de Lehigh, which used to be one of my favorite summer beers made with ginger and lemongrass.  I swear they've changed it though they tell me they didn't.  Maybe my taste has changed.  Anyway it was nice to meet up and then hit two more events.

Sierra Nevada tap takeover at Percy St. BBQ
Sierra Nevada is sort of overlooked in the craft scene, but when they came on the scence there were less than 100 breweries in the U.S; now there are well over 1,000.  Percy St. was pouring a bunch of their beer for $3.  We tried two rare ones, a chili chocolate stout that was very good and matched very nicely with the brisket sandwich, and one called Foundation, which was the beer that was the foundation of the recipe of a collaberation beer they did with Russian River, before brett yeast was added. 

Stoudts and Krauts at Brauhaus Schmitz
At the German beer hall on South St., I drank a liter of Stoudts' double maibock, a challenge at 7% abv.  It is brewed with honey and it was delicious.  A bit cloying by the end, but I got it down alright ;)

Stillwater at Hawthorne's
Stillwater makes some killer saisons.  We had dinner here before going to a port and dessert party.  We tried 3 of them here.  Ourside is a cross between Mikeller Stateside IPA and Stillwater Stateside saison.  A great mix of hops and herbs, earthy and rich but still refreshing.  My wife had Cellar Door, the summer entry from the Stateside lineup, and we shared one with honey that I can't find the name of right now but it was grassy and sweet and also good, definitely didn't taste like 9%...Hawthorne's make some solid food, too, the crabcake sliders with a side of crab topped "poutine" fries were great.

Maybe I will get in another event but to be honest I'm worn out.  Work has been crazy and I have been partying it up during beer week, burning the candle at both ends.  In any case, it's been worth it so far.  I love beer week.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Philly Beer Week (part 1)

This past Friday marked the beginning of Philly Beer Week.  I really wanted to maximize the first beer week weekend, as next weekend I will be out of town.  Here's a rundown of the events I was able to hit up.

World's Smallest Toast
La Chouffe (The Gnome) is one of the first Belgian beers I ever had, one fateful night at Eulogy Belgian Tavern, where we ordered Hoegaarden and the waitress called it beer for "pussies."  I digress.  On Friday if you went to Pub on Passyunk East (POPE) and ordered a Chouffe you could keep the glass.  It's pretty fun it says "Magic Chouffe" in reverse letters.

Cirque Du Saison Block Party
Tapestry is a bar on 5th and South which I drive by all the time but I've never been too.  I love Saisons so we decided to check it out.  They had live music and about 20 saisons on tap, featuring Stillwater, a bunch of Belgians, a bunch of which I'd never heard of.  I had the Stillwater Hoften collaboration called Bronze Age, it was pretty good, a bit dark in color for a saison and had quite a bit of tartness.  From there we went to dinner at Tashan, an upscale Indian restaurant.  It wasn't a beer week event but I did have a really interesting beer from Uncommon Brewers that was a Belgian dubbel brewed with coriander and kaffir lime.  Great match for the curry.  Also a solid pale ale from Maine called Peeper.

Craft Beer Day on East Passyunk Ave
EPunk is our 'hood, we had to stroll the avenue and support the local scene.  We started at Le Virtu, a real nice Abruzze Italian restaurant around the corner from us.  They were serving local beers from local startups Prism, Round Guys, and Evil Genius brewing, as well as some from Ommegang from Cooperstown, NY.  I had a Belgian IPA from Evil Genius which a friend of ours described as "juicy."  I also tasted the collaboration beer from all of the local brewers that were present which was a black belgian ipa.  I thought it was a bit underwhelming.  The Le Virtu staff were grilling up small plates for $5 each of vegetables, panchetta, and lamb.  They have a really nice garden area which was great until it started raining. 

It was still fun after we were jammed under the tent to stay dry.  We met some crazy Canadians and a couple from Utah who had just moved into Philly and were raving about how great Beer Week is.  They were fairly drunk at 2:30 PM; the one guy shattered his iphone face, I wonder how their day wound up...After Le Virtu we walked up to Stateside at the fountain for the Victory BeerBQ.  My wife and I shared a bone marrow sausage sandwich that tasted surprisingly light.  None of the Victory selections jumped out at me so I tried the Hibiscus Gose from Goose Island.  Gose is an underdone style which I think could catch on a bit, beer and salt are a nice combination.  From Stateside we wandered back down to Birra, a pizza place featuring American and Italian craft beers.  Their event was called IPA Day Tap Takeover.  I tried two IPAs, one oak aged double IPA from Southern Tier and Hopslam from Bells, which was probably the best beer I had during the whole weekend.  I could taste the honey, and had forgotten that it is indeed brewed with honey in addition to six hop varietals.  It has enough malt and alcohol content to balance the bitterness, and send me home for a nap.

Tonight I detox and then rally for hopefully a few more events this week.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lagavulin 16 year

I'm writing this as I taste it.  Having been a "friend of Laphroaig" for a few years, I've been eager to try other
Islay malts that can match it pound for pound.  I had Caol Ila in a bar and it was good but I can't remember it all that well.  And I've had Ardbeg, which is regarded as one of the 3 great Islay malts.  Frankly, Ardbeg wasn't quite for me; it has a light sweetness that pairs with the heavy peat content that is somewhat jarring to me.  I think I'm kind of an all or nothing guy, give me the peat, oil, brine, etc.  Or something non-peated but with tons of flavor, like Aberlour A'bundh.  It's not to say Ardbeg is lacking in flavor, but somehow the combination of flavors wasn't my favorite.  I digress, on to Laguvulin.  I'd be lying if I didn't confess that one reason for moving it to the top of my list of whiskies to try was that it's what Ron Swanson drinks on Parks and Recreation.  He generally pairs it with lots of red meat.

Lagavulin 16 is 86 proof and will run you in the $70-80 range.  I won't try to get into the science of peat and the ppm numbers--phenol in parts per million--let's just say it's a lot of peat in this beautiful green box, packaged as part of Diageo's Classic Malts collection.  I guess their concept is you could drink your way through 6 Scotland whisky regions and stay in their brand portfolio.  But the entries are legit, e.g. Glenkinchie, Talisker, Oban.  Laguvulin pours a deep gold color, and leaves legs in the glass (I'm using a Glencarin glass).  On the nose, you get lots of peat, assertive but somehow still soft.  On the second sniff you get the rich barley, like a malty beer.  A third sniff kills my sense of smell but keeps giving off the peat.  First sip...This one is a heavyweight.  It has a lot of bite somehow, though it's only 86 proof.  Not in a bad way.  The soft peat is there through and through.  But behind it are fruit flavors, maybe some melon?  Michael Jackson describes the palate as "oily, grassy" and "salty" and says that Lagavulin has the "driest and most sustained attack of any readily available whisky."  You definitely are transported to the warehouses which are "battered by the sea," and are immersed in a depth and breadth of flavor  In any case, it's pungent.  I don't really get much sherry.  The finish is solid but maybe not as sustained as you might expect from the initial punch in the mouth.  It's quite pleasant, like a campfire. 

Verdict?  It's really good stuff.  I usually like to write my reviews on the 2nd or third go round, so Laguvulin maybe isn't getting it's full fair shake.  If you read Urban Grain you know I'm a big value guy.  So how does this one stack up to my favorite malt of all time, Laphroaig, which is about $25 bucks cheaper?  It certainly holds its own, and some might choose it.  I would still go with Laphroaig, probably even if they were equal in cost.  Something about Laphroaig is so over the top and wonderful.  If Lagavulin is a heavyweight, Laphroaig is a super heavyweight.  That said, Laguvulin has all the things I fell in love with in Islay malts, oil, peat, brine and salt, and a cozy finish.  Great stuff and deserving of the lore and hype.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hancock's President's Reserve Single Barrel

A quick and brief live blog tasting during halftime of game 6 of the Sixers-Celtics.  No format, just a few thoughts.  I bought it for $35 bucks, on sale.  It smells like vanilla.  Tastes like a classic Buffalo Trace.  These distillers all have one or two recipes and trot them out in 80 different formats.  This is 88.9 proof, almost identical to the flagship brand in that regard.  Tastes like it too, albeit slightly smoother.  Sweet and oaky.  A bit of cinnamon on the finish.  A nice solid whisky, with an awesome decanter style bottle, almost like cut glass.  It's in the same vein as Elmer T. Lee, Buffalo Trace, etc.  For me this is probably a one timer, not special in any notable way.  Too low proof and not enough flavor on the whole for the price.  I could name a dozen whiskies cheaper that I'd rather buy.  I won't right now, but I could.  It's decent, but you may want to pass it up in favor of something with more bite or more interest.