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.