Beer is NOT the New Wine!

My late friend and colleague, Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter and Whisky Chaser, once stated, “People ask me if I also drink wine, as if beer is a prison rather than a playground.”

With that statement, Michael deftly summarized the problem with headlines like this one, which imply that people might or even should drink one thing over another to the point of exclusivity. Like Michael, I am fond of a glass of wine or whisky, or a pint of dry cider or a well-made cocktail. And even though I’ve written or co-written eight books on beer, I would balk at ever suggesting that ale or lager is categorically better than wine or spirits.

The point being that a multitude of different flavours exists in all three broad categories of alcoholic beverages – beer, wine and spirits, plus cider and saké – and still more flavours might be obtained when any of the above are mixed together into a cocktail. Each of these deserve exploration by curious imbibers, and if one or another proves not to be to your taste, then so be it.

Just don’t suggest to me that because of the size of shape of the bottle, or the trendiness of the advertising and marketing, than any one beverage is the “new” version of another, entirely different beverage. Beer is beer, wine is wine, and spirits are spirits. Period.

Bourbon Basics from Beam

I was just flipping through an old press kit I received from the folks at Jim Beam and came across something I think might be the best delivery yet of the essentials of bourbon.

If you know your bourbon, then the following list will be old hat. But since there is so much misunderstanding about what makes a bourbon legit — Can it be distilled outside of Kentucky? Is Jack Daniels a Bourbon? What about those barrels? — I thought it might be worth reproducing here.

Again, this comes from the folks at Jim Beam, and the only reason I’m typing rather than linking to it is because I can’t seem to find it on their website. (Comments in parentheses are my own.)

American – It must be made in the United States (Outside of Kentucky is okay, though.)

Barrels – It must be aged in new, charred oak containers. (Note: Not American oak, just oak, meaning that Mongolian oak is allowable.)

Corn – It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn.

Distilled – It must be distilled at no more than 80% alc./vol. (Or, in other words, 160 proof.)

Entered – It must be entered into the barrel at no more than 62.5% alc./vol. (125 proof.)

Filled – It must be bottled at no less than 40% alc./vol. (80 proof.)

Genuine – It must have nothing added to it but water. (Hence why Jack is not a bourbon, since it is charcoal filtered.)

About the only basic Beam neglected to mention is that it must be aged for a minimum of two years, but I can’t figure out a key word for that beginning with H!

Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey

Michter’s is a name steeped in whiskey lore. Go ahead and google it, or better yet, pick up and old whiskey book and check the index. You should find that it was once a Pennsylvania distillery, dating from the days when Monongahela whiskey meant something. The company hit hard times on more than one occasion, however, and finally went bankrupt in 1989.

Michter’s was resurrected in the 1990s and bottlings of the old whiskeys were popular rarities for the balance of the century, after which brokered whiskeys began being blended into signature products. Which brings us to the bottle in question, released late last year.

Monongahela whiskeys were generally rye whiskeys, but Kentucky, where the company is now based, is known more for bourbon, which brings rise to the question of what precisely this 86 proof spirit really is. And it’s a question for which I have no answer, unfortunately, since the company is being rather tight-lipped about the whiskey’s constituent parts. But perhaps that’s for the best, since it allows an unbiased approach to the glass.

On the nose, I certainly get more bourbony notes than rye, with plenty of vanilla and caramel and a fair hit of chocolate, besides, along with orange and perhaps canned peach notes. On the palate, it begins soft and filled with vanilla, almost like a candied essence, before blooming into a mix of stewed fruit and caramel and – now, there’s the rye! – peppery spice. The finish is just off-dry and tongue-tingling with a mix of brown spice and pepper.

The company suggests this as “an alternative to bourbon or rye,” and I’d have to agree with that sentiment, since it displays characteristics of both spirit families. I’m happy enough sipping it straight, but am anxious to soon try it in a Manhattan, as well, although I suspect with a pretty robust vermouth.


Laphroaig: An Appreciation

If you had asked me before last week what I thought about the Islay single malt, Laphroaig, my response would have been positive, but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic. For pure smoky strength, I would have told you, I prefer Ardbeg; for balance and finesse, Bowmore; and for curiosity, playfulness and sheer skillful variety, Bruichladdich.

But then I went and visited the distillery, toured the grounds in the genial company of Distillery Manager John Campbell and tasted my way through a range of a half-dozen of their whiskies. And I came away with a much greater understanding of the allure of Laphroaig.

I had always thought that Laphroaig possesses a distinctive peatiness, and now I know that it truly does, and why. The whisky is made from 100% peated malt, with roughly 15% of that malted in-house. What makes this important is the process the distillery uses, first peating and then drying the malt, rather than the usual vice versa. It gives the malt a subtlely different kind of smokiness, one easily discernible when you taste the raw malt, and thus affects the character of the whisky, as well. It’s a small change, but I now believe an important one.

Legions of whisky aficionados swear by the Laphroaig 10 Year Old, of course, and now I have a better idea of why that is so. Sampled on its own, the 10 Year is a brawny behemoth, with a surprising fruitiness in the body that becomes only more apparent when you taste its older siblings in order. Which I did, sampling first the 18 Year Old with its sweetly earthy character, rounded fruit and overall flavour that reminded me of the Islay countryside in liquid form, and then the almost tropically fruity 25 Year Old, with its back end peatiness and a finish that brought to mind the flavour of raw cocoa.

After the age-statement whiskies, I turned to the differently casked versions, beginning with the Quarter Cask, a malt composed of 5 year and older whiskies, married and finished for seven months in the distillery’s small quarter casks, which give the spirit increased contact with the wood. The vanilla notes I picked up in the 10 Year are strengthened here, producing an aroma reminiscent for me of Sugar Crisp cereal, which I’m not sure they even make anymore. (“Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp…”) The peatiness is very dry and appealing, more campfire than smoked meat, with a lovely flavour progression from sweet front to dry and appetizing finish. Thereafter I got to try the Triple Wood, which is Quarter Cask finished in oloroso sherry barrels, which I found unsurprisingly orangy and spicy, with an earthy, briny finish, and the PX, a duty-free-only edition of Quarter Cask finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks,  which delivers a curious smoked Christmas pudding character and I thought took several sips to even begin to understand.

In the end, I walked away with a new found appreciation of the 10 Year Old, understanding it better thanks to the input of the 18 and 25 Year Olds, and an improved sense of the place Laphroaig occupies in the pantheon of Islay whiskies. I’ll still reach often for its same age neighbour, the Ardbeg 10 Year Old, but the Laphroaig will now get equal time and attention in my liquor cabinet.



The Good & Bad of the NEAT Glass

In the current issue of Whisky Advocate magazine, I use my regular column, “The Thinking Drinker,” to rail about inappropriate glassware used in bars for everything from wine to whisky and, of course, beer. It’s an eloquent little rant, if I do say so myself, but one you’ll have to buy the magazine to read. Because what I want to recount to you here is not the column’s contents, but rather its aftermath.

Shortly after the magazine was mailed, I was contacted by a gentleman named Ray Pearson, who bills himself as “The Whiskymeister” and runs a site called Whisky Tastings. Ray wrote to tell me about something called “The NEAT Whisky Glass,” which he seems to represent through his website, but which is also sold at He offered to send me a sample to try out for myself, and I accepted.

My first reaction to the appearance of the glass was that it looks, well, a little silly. Said to have been engineered to convey the aroma of a whisky in the truest possible way,  it resembles to me a sort of miniature chamber pot. Truth be told, when I presented it to a group of friends, to a person they greeted it with loud guffaws.

But as much as I appreciate aesthetics, I am also conscious of practicalities, and so set about testing the NEAT glass against the industry standard whisky glass, the Glencairn.

With an ounce and a half of Auchentoshan Valinch, a cask strength, triple-distilled Lowland malt, in each glass, the first obvious deficiency of the NEAT glass is that it appears to contain significantly less, which could compel a person to fill it higher than absolutely necessary. When swirled and nosed, however, the NEAT seemed to offer a more open and perhaps honest aroma than did the Glencairn, it presenting the advantage of being able to hold both nose and mouth above the opening. At 57.5% alcohol, the Valinch is not a particularly “hot” whisky, but one that definitely appears more so in the Glencairn than it does in the NEAT.

The practicalities of sipping the liquid, something I have not had to worry about since I was but a boy, proved a challenge for the NEAT glass, as the whisky has to surmount the not insignificant ridge of the glass before it careens down the lip, causing me to almost have to slurp my first sip. That said, it presents the spirit quite well and, once the mechanics we mastered, actually offers a fairly comfortable grip and a decent enough feel. (Although getting the last sip means having to strain one’s neck upwards.) It might be my imagination, but I find that the lightly fruity and citrusy freshness of the whisky tastes a little, well, fresher when sipped from the NEAT glass.

In the end, however, I had to conclude that aesthetics and mechanics trumps the minimal increase in performance, and as a result I will continue using the Glencairn glass for my single malts. Which does not mean the NEAT will not again be trotted out — I’m curious to see how it will fare with some bigger whiskies — but simply that it shall not assume status as the go-to glass.


Grant’s True Tales in Toronto

I attended a media edition of Grant’s True Tales over the winter in Toronto and have to say it was a pretty enjoyable night. Now, if you’re in the Toronto area over the course of April, you have the chance to experience it, too.

Here’s the skinny, straight from the press release:

Grant’s True Tales provides an antidote to our frenetic, 24-hour way of life, by bringing people together and connecting them through the ancient art of storytelling. Sharing personal experiences with close friends, family, and work colleagues is what True Tales is all about.

The theme for this round of storytelling is “family,” and you won’t be telling tales purely for fun, either. One person from Canada will be crowned our national champion and taken to Scotland in August to compete in the Grant’s True Tales Festival of Storytelling, part of The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Grant’s True Tales will take place every Wednesday and Thursday evening in April, at The Brazen Head on Wednesdays and The Bedford Academy on Thursdays.

Rum Running Doc on CBC Sunday

I very seldom post as a result of receiving a press release, but this documentary sounds rather interesting:

Rum Running is a half hour documentary that reveals how law abiding citizens of Atlantic Canada were lured into the alcohol smuggling trade. The film depicts the high stakes role that Nova Scotia and the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon played during the (Prohibition) era. Every month rum runners from the Maritimes, would deliver up to 300,000 cases of alcohol – rum, whisky, wine, and other liquors – from St. Pierre to America’s notorious ‘Rum Row’ off the US northeast coast. This thriving trade injected much needed money into dozens of Maritime communities during tough economic times and made many individuals rich.

It airs in Canada on the CBC at noon this Sunday, February 19, but will also be viewable online afterwards at

Buffalo Trace Bourbon!

That’s “Buffalo Trace Bourbon!”, folks, as in, it’s back in Ontario! Sorry for the overt enthusiasm, but I quite like this whiskey and we haven’t had it around these parts for a while now.

But there’s more to this post, and it’s the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, the fourth installment of which will be released later this month. For those not in the American whiskey loop, the Single Oak Project ( is an extensive and ongoing series of experiments whereby Buffalo Trace compares the effect of different factors — wood cut, seasoning and char, warehouse influence, etc. — on singular whiskeys. Neat, eh?

For whiskey geeks, this is a dream come true, providing — and here’s the rub — they’re willing to pay for it. And pay rather dearly.

Here, for instance, are the details of the new release:

In this experiment, Warehouses K and L are highlighted. Warehouse K is a brick warehouse built in 1933 with wooden floors. There are nine floors total in Warehouse K and barrels are stored three high in the ricks. It is considered a good warehouse for different ages of bourbons. It has good air flow, with the first floor being cool and damp for slow aging and the top floor being hot and dry, which ages young barrels more quickly.

Warehouse L is also a brick warehouse, but with concrete floors. It was built in 1936 and has five floors. The barrels are stored six high. Warehouse L is considered the best all-around warehouse by some at the Distillery. The windows on the west side of the building bring a consistent air flow. With its slow temperature changes, Warehouse L is great for slow aging wheat bourbons. Its concrete walls and floors create a very concentrated aging environment.

Two other additional variables will be explored in this fourth release, recipe and grain size. Some of the bottles contain bourbon made with rye and others with wheat. The barrels themselves were made from different trees, each with varying degrees of thickness to their wood grain, from fine to average to very coarse. All other variables in the experimental project remain constant, such as the stave seasoning, tree cut, char level and entry proof.

There are  a limited number of cases of this release and each case contains one bottle of each of the barrels culled for this go-round. Each bottle is 375 ml and the suggested retail is $46.35. Consumers who buy the bourbon are encouraged to register at the website and post their tasting notes.

So it boils down to this: For almost fifty bucks, you can buy a half-bottle of a whiskey you really don’t know that much about and the provenance of which you can only discover once you go online to help the distillery with their research. As much as I understand the expense of the Project and admire the determination Buffalo Trace has shown in pursuing it, that still seems to me a rather high price to pay to become a glorified focus group participant.


If You Thought China Might Not Be Influencing the Booze Market

Check this out:

Rémy Cointreau has reported a 235% increase in profit, from €14.1 million ($22m) to €47.3 million ($63.3m), for its first half ended September 30. Excluding non-recurring items, net profit totaled €61.5 million ($96m), up from €50.6 million ($79m) in the same period last year. Current operating profit, meanwhile, rose 27.3% to €106.2 million ($165.8m), as net sales grew nearly 11% to €474.9 million ($741.6m).

What’s that to do with China, you might ask? Onl;y this:

The group’s Rémy Martin Cognac led the growth, posting a 27.6% increase in operating profit to €91.2 million ($142.4m). The Cognac brand benefited primarily from “a thriving Asian economy”—particularly in China…

Cognac sales are once again on the rise elsewhere — France, Germany and Russia are also mentioned — but considering that global sales have been flagging for years, a 27% bump is massive, and yes, it’s fueled largely, perhaps exceptionally, by China.

While those words sink in, consider this story and its potential impact on the global wine market.

We are indeed entering interesting times in the alcoholic beverage world.


Time Out for a Cocktail

I receive a bunch of spirits and mixology press releases almost every day and, I’ll admit, trash most after a quick scan. This morning’s missive from Leblon Cachaça, however, caught my attention because:

a) I am a big fan of cachaça in general and Leblon Cachaça in particular; and

b) This looks like a great seasonal cocktail, and is one I suspect I’ll be testing out before the week is through!

Camparinha at the Bitter Bar, Boulder, CO

Brazil is obviously the world’s biggest market for cachaça, but few bartenders know that it is also the world’s 2nd biggest market for sake and the biggest market for Campari. Award-winning bartender Mark Stoddard, of Bitter Bar in Boulder, took this useless piece of trivia from our recent Leblon masterclass in Colorado, and used it as the inspiration for this delicious bittersweet cocktail. Like all bartenders, we love the Negroni, but as a first drink of an evening, we’d take the Camparinha’s aromatic and refreshing charms over the faithful Negroni any day. It’s a quick and simple cocktail that is a great way to introduce guests to Leblon Cachaça.

1 oz Leblon Cachaça
1 oz Campari
1/2 oz gomme syrup
3 lime wedges
1 grapefruit wedge

Muddle the lime, grapefruit with gomme syrup in a shaker. Fill the shaker with ice and add Leblon Cachaça and Campari. Shale vigorously, and pour all into a rocks glass. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge

But Nobody Drinks Spirits Anymore…

You know those friends you have — we all have them — who, when you visit them for dinner or a friendly drop-in, offer you a drink but don’t seem to have anything you might want to drink? Or, when you ask for a gin and tonic, say, “Thank goodness someone will drink these spirits. Lord knows neither of us do.” They are the type who leave you thinking that outside of the rarefied confines of whisky aficionados, mixology hounds or general spirits enthusiasts, no one is drinking plain old booze anymore.

They’re also wrong. The evidence? It’s here:

Beam’s Sales Rise By 10% In Record Third Quarter

That’s from yesterday’s Shanken News Daily, and it’s a prime indicator that all is actually very well in the spirits world. Even for cognac.

Yes, cognac, that much-respected but little-consumed famous French brandy, sales of which have been in rather precipitous decline these last few years. Beam’s brand is Courvoisier, and its sales have just jumped through the roof, up almost 25% in volume year-to-date, according to numbers compiled by the Symphony IRI Group. Maker’s Mark isn’t doing so badly, either, buoyed by its line extension to a  23.3% climb in both volume and dollar sales. And those sales haven’t cannibalized either of Beam’s main or premium lines, with Jim Beam up 8.7% in volume and Knob Creek growing by 25% in volume.

All in all, rather encouraging news for those of us who like our spirits in addition to our beer and wine. But don’t bother trying to tell that to those friends; just bring your own bottle next time.

Lifestyle or Problem?

From Gaz Regan’s Ardent Spirits enewsletter:

“The practice is to commence with a brandy or gin ‘cocktail’ before breakfast, by way of an appetizer.  Subsequently, a ‘digester’ will be needed.  Then, in due course and at certain intervals, a ‘refresher,’ a ‘reposer,’ a ‘settler,’ a ‘cooler,’ an ‘invigorator,’ a ‘sparkler,’ and a ‘rouser,’ pending the final ‘nightcap,’ or midnight dram.”  Life and Society in America by Samuel Phillips Day.  Published by Newman and Co., 1880.