Scottish Whisky on St. Patrick’s Day — Oh Dear!

Speaking of whiskeys as I was, or rather, whiskies, I received yesterday the awards listing for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, a young but plucky competition organized by long-time spirits pro F.Paul Pacult and former Wine Enthusiast exec David Talbot. And there, featured among the five Chairman’s Trophy winners in the Scottish whisky classes – cask-strength, Speyside, islands, Islay and blended — stood a spirit I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, the The Balvenie Peated Cask 17 Years Old Single Malt.

A unique whisky, this Balvenie is the result of several oddball experiments effected by David Stewart, veteran Malt Master at the distillery. As wandering Balvenie ambassador Samuel Simmons put it to me, after Stewart handed over the reins of Master Blender for Balvenie owner Grant’s to Brian Kinsman, we was able to turn his attention full time to the Balvenie distillery. This resulted first in the the 12 year old Balvenie Signature, and then in this most unusual offering. (And, more recently, in a third whisky, as noted below.)

The Peated Cask is not a peated whisky, but rather an aged Balvenie that was tranferred for a short aging period to barrels that had previously held a strongly peated, experimental whisky. The result is a spirit that is not Ardbeg-blow-your-socks-off smoky, but rather a marriage of peatiness absorbed from the wood and the typically Balvenie-esque aromas and flavours of honeyed malt, buttery florals and soft fruit, accented by a black peppery spicy note and a lengthy, smoky finish. A lovely marriage of island strength and Speyside subtelty.

The more recent Balvenie release from the evidently brilliant mind of Mr. Stewart is the 14 year old Caribbean Cask, which I was told by Simmons is the result of  Stewart’s minor obsession with rum. In this instance,  the Malt Master matured his own blend of rum from points unspecified in the Caribbean and then used the barrels to finish a mature Balvenie for a further 4 to 6 months.  This time the mix takes a decided dark fruit turn, with honey and toffee notes blending with notes of muddled plum and currant, raisin and fig. On the palate, all the spiciness of the rum asserts itself in a mix of cinnamon and allspice, nutmeg and clove, with even a hint of coconut coming along for the ride, all ending in a languorous and creamy finish. This one I went out and bought mere moments after my tasting session.

If you’ve missed either of these limited edition lovelies, there should still be time to pick yourself up a bottle or two. Even on St. Patrick’s Day.

For Your St. Patrick’s Day Imbibing Pleasure

Okay, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, which means that many of you will likely be off for a pint of the black stuff later on today. (I know that nobody will be supping green food colouring-adulterated lager, right?) If you fit into this category, make it a good one, okay? Meaning: There are Irish beers out there besides Guinness. Better, even.

Some of you might even fancy a drop of Irish whiskey before the day’s end, and on that front I have two words of very sound advice: Michael Collins. Not the crusader for Irish independence, but the whiskey, or rather, the two whiskeys.

Both have been repackaged and relaunched of late, which means that they now look as good as they taste. (The old bottles were of rather suspect design.) The blended whiskey is the same as before, but I’m told the single malt has been reformulated. Both are worthy of your consideration not just on St. Patrick’s Day, but year-round.

Produced at the Cooley Distillery for the Sidney Frank Company, the Michael Collins Irish Whiskey “A Blend” is double rather than triple distilled, which leaves it with a bit more heart than you might find in, say, a Jameson or Bushmills. Less sweetness, too, notwithstanding the honey-ish, candied citrus notes in the aroma and dried fruitiness of the palate. If you enjoy your drop of Irish on the rocks, or with a splash of water, blended Michael Collins should be your call.

The 10 Year Old Single Malt Michael Collins, also produced at Cooley, is a different beast entirely. Billed as “Lightly Peated,” there are definite notes of campfire and dark chocolate on the nose, along with a whiff of vanilla and brown spice. In the body, the single malt comes on sweeter and fuller than does the blend, with notes of tangerine and tropical fruit mixing with lingering notes of chocolate, buckwheat honey and a subtle suggestion of cinnamon, all buttressed by a soft smokiness that trails through the finish. This one needs nothing more than a glass.

So there you have it, for your St. Patrick’s Day merriment. And while I’m at it, I should mention that you won’t go far wrong calling for any of Cooley’s fine whiskeys, from the Tyrconnell Single Malt to Greenore Single Grain to Cask-Strength Connemara Peated Single Malt.

Me? I’ll be eating oysters and drinking Bowmore. Go figure.

Why I Follow the Malt Imposter

You just can’t beat lines like this, from their review of the Glenlivet 18 Years Old, 50 ml bottle size, of course:

On the nose, a lemon studded with cloves that’s just been removed from the cavity of a roasted turkey and is now clutched in the oven-mitted hand of a bedraggled housewife as she menaces her husband with said lemon, threatening to place it not-so-carefully into the least forgiving of his orifices, for having asked four times how long it would be before dinner would be ready.

Then, having already seduced me with their prose, they top it off by rating the whisky in reference to two of my all-time favourite celluloid drinkers, Nick & Nora, even providing a link to a “greatest drinking hits” clip on YouTube.

I enjoy the Imposters — John, Stephen, and Bill — so much that seldom do I turn immediately to their new posts, preferring instead to let several accumulate so that I may, in a moment of leisure, enjoy their all at once. If you’re unfamiliar with these guys, I recommend you remedy that situation soonish.

BS From the BA

The United States Department of Agriculture has released a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, something I would normally note with about as much interest as I would a statement from the Department of Health and Social Services. But then the forces of the Beer Institute, the Brewers Association and the National Beer Wholesalers Association combined to release a joint statement commenting on the Guidelines, and my BS detector went wild.

(You can find the dietary guidelines here. Most of the material regarding alcohol is in Chapter 2.)

Here’s what I see as the most offending part of the statement:

The idea of a ‘standard drink’ is misleading to consumers since it does not reflect how liquor is served or consumed. Not all alcohol is equal, meaning one alcohol beverage can have significantly more or less alcohol content than another. For example, depending on the proof of alcohol used, the mixer, and the bartender’s pouring habits, a so-called ‘standard’ mixed drink may contain 2, 3 or even 4 times more pure alcohol content and calories than the average light beer. It is common knowledge that two martinis consumed over the course of two hours could certainly produce a different effect than two light beers consumed over the same period. Furthermore, the false premise of a ‘standard drink’ is even more confusing considering that significant variations in alcohol concentration exist among the three product categories and even within each category. Beer remains the beverage of moderation with an average ABV of under 5%, compared to distilled spirits, which average between 35 – 40% ABV.

This kind of gobbledygook may be fine for the Beer Institute and the NBWA, since their members are primarily concerned with big-selling beers like Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, each of which is below 5% ABV, as the statement suggests. But for the BA, whose members are responsible for the vast majority of the so-called “extreme” beers, this rings especially hollow.

Let’s look at some of the problems I see:

Not all alcohol is equal, meaning one alcohol beverage can have significantly more or less alcohol content than another.

Very true, and something that applies equally to beer, wine and spirits. Singling out a drink with spirits as having potentially 4 time the alcohol of a light beer, however, is ridiculous, as you would require close to 5 ounces of 40% alcohol spirits to hit that level, and how likely is that to happen, especially without the imbiber being aware of what’s going on in their glass?

(And incidentally, one pint of 12% alcohol barley wine will also meet that lofty mark of 1.92 ounces of pure alcohol.)

It is common knowledge that two martinis consumed over the course of two hours could certainly produce a different effect than two light beers consumed over the same period.

Assuming said martinis were 3 ounces apiece, of course! And the same could be said about two glasses of Californian cabernet or zinfandel, some of which hover in the realm of 14% – 15% ABV, or six 4 ounce tasters of high-octane craft beers.

Furthermore, the false premise of a ‘standard drink’ is even more confusing considering that significant variations in alcohol concentration exist among the three product categories and even within each category.

By which the statement is implying that alcohol content varies wildly among spirits, which are the main subject of the statement. In fact, spirits are without question the most consistent in their 40% ABV, while craft beer is almost certainly the least consistent and thus the most unpredictable in its effect. (Particularly given the habit most restaurants and bars have of not listing the strengths of the beers they carry.)

Beer remains the beverage of moderation with an average ABV of under 5%, compared to distilled spirits, which average between 35 – 40% ABV.

If you look at beer in terms of volume, yes. But if you count up all the individual brands of beer on the market today and work out the average alcohol content among them, I’m betting the picture would be much different. Further, comparing alcohol contents of beer and spirits is ridiculously disingenuous, since the former is normally consumed in 12 and 16 ounce portions — a bottle and a pint — while the latter is typically served in 1.5 or 2 ounce portions.

Now, I like beer, as I’m sure all visitors to these pages know, and I support the BA in its efforts to further the craft beer gospel across the United States and around the world. But considering the members’ products they represent, their signature on this release smacks more than a bit of throwing stones in glass houses.

My New Favourite Bar/Restaurant: Mocotó

My first meal in São Paulo, I suspect, may well wind up being also my most memorable. We took a taxi to what I was told is an ordinary, working class neighbourhood in this vast and sprawling city, where we found a “Restaurante e Cachaçaria” called Mocotó.

Utterly unassuming from the outside and in, I knew the moment I crossed the threshold of this packed palace of northeastern Brazilian cuisine that I was entering some place special. I was not disappointed.

So popular is Mocotó among the citizens of São Paulo that the sidewalk in front of the restaurant is almost as crowded as in the inside, with people sitting on a rough-hewn bench or even standing around eating and drinking, some evidently having entire meals as you would have a snack at a cocktail party, precariously balancing drink and plate and fork while trying to keep from being jostled into the street. No one complains, though.

Inside the front door, a pair of bartenders work double time muddling caipirinhas from all sorts of fruits, including indigenous Brazilian ingredients I’ve never before seen, as well as in the lime-based original form. More adventurous souls can choose from a selection of roughly 380 different cachaças, ranging from more straight forward “prata” cachaças to golden or even emerald hued spirits aged in all sorts of Brazilian and non-Brazilian woods, from arirbá to French cognac oak to umburana. (And remember that last wood; we’ll come back to it when I discuss Brazilian craft beers later on this week.)

In between my cachaça tasting – very generously orchestrated for me by Mocotó’s cachaça sommelier, Leandro Batista – I dined on a wealth of delicious dishes, from the sun-dried beef dish Carne-de-Sol Assada to small squares of fried tapioca dipped in a spicy sauce that resides somewhere between chutney and pepper sauce, and sipped the Cervejaria Colorado’s Indica IPA. (More on that brewery, too, later on, after I visit on Wednesday.)

Lunch wound up lasting about four hours, every minute of which was relaxing, thoroughly enjoyable and most memorable. There’s a reason that virtually every significant gastro-visitor to this city eventually winds up at Mocotó, and I’m very glad I was able to follow in their footsteps. If fortune brings you to São Paulo, you should, too.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection

A handful of tiny sample bottles arrived at my office just before I left for Amsterdam last month, so with wistful eyes they were swept aside to be tasted at a later date. Welcome to that later date.

The bottles contain the new Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace/Sazerac, a quintet of straight ryes and bourbons that has historically garnered numerous kudos from the whiskey/whisky press. For me, on the other hand, it is a first encounter, so let us proceed.

Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye: I am a great fan of the regular Sazerac Rye – and was delighted to see it appear recently for the first time at liquor stores in my part of the world –so this was the first of the Antiques I tasted. It’s certainly a whiskey that shows its age, although not always well, with a strong woodiness on both the nose and tongue. Where it does excel, however, is in showcasing the spiciness of the rye grain, with terrific brown spice notes mixed with ample evidence of vanilla and hints of ground coffee in the aroma, and a lean, tongue-pricklingly spicy body leading to a dry, drier, driest kind of finish. Not as lush as I would have liked, but a most enjoyable demonstration of the power of rye.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac: Barrel strength and unfiltered, this is a big rye whiskey with a nose that puts me in mind of Christmas pudding crossed with roasted chestnuts, and a bold, stewed fruit, vanilla-accented and spice laced body that just keeps coming and coming. Cut with a drop or two of filtered water, it seems to lose a step, apparently proving my maxim that every spirit should first be tasted at the strength at which it was bottled. I still like it with water, and in fact love the way the gingery notes start to emerge this way, but the “iron fist in a velvet glove” value of the uncut spirit is not to be trifled with.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old: There is pretty much nothing to not like about this bourbon. On the nose, it offers a rather heady mix of vanilla, orange marmalade, tanned leather and a whiff of pipe tobacco. In the body, it starts gently sweet and a bit flowery before getting down to the nitty gritty of charred oak, dried and spiced citrus peel, pan-toasted walnuts and back to the leathery notes on the finish. A great late night sipper, for whenever your definition of “late night” might arrive.

William Larue Weller: Another uncut and unfiltered entry here, although a bourbon rather than a straight rye. One sniff and I know this spirit will require water if it is to open up, but my maxim being what it is, I forge ahead nonetheless. It is exceedingly tight on the nose, with only mild notes of toasted vanilla bean and dark chocolate, and surprisingly sweet on the palate, with plenty of vanilla toffee, stewed peach and fig notes. With water, the aroma does open up, albeit only moderately, offering a greater fruitiness to accompany the vanilla and now-more milk chocolate, while the body develops a delightful sipping profile, with dried fruit notes of date and golden raisin, a more marshmallow-y toffee character and a smooth, gently rounded finish. Far from its initial fireplace-side austerity, with water this becomes a definite front porch whiskey.

George T. Stagg: And finally, the biggie, 15 years old and 71.5% alcohol. A bourbon to challenge my maxim if ever there was one, but I shall proceed onward nonetheless. Far from austere, the nose of this goliath offers an enticing mix of candied nuts, sultana raisins, fresh cigar tobacco and medium dark chocolate – just don’t get too close or you’ll risk singing your nose hairs. The body is remarkably approachable even without watering, offering an entry that reminds me faintly of candied corn and a body filled with flavours of dark to light chocolate, sweetened espresso, stewed plum and crème brulée.  Reducing the proof does little to change the aromas and flavours, but of course makes them more approachable and rounded, not to mention positively enticing.

In the end, I have to say that this is a most exceptional collection of whiskeys, and one I’d recommend buying as just that, a collection. If you can only afford one or two, however, rest assured that you will not go far wrong with any of them.

Stupid Statement of the Day

In response to the new, attention-getting Skyy Vodka ad below, a spokesman for the Marin Institute named Bruce Lee Livingston had this to say:

“This is just ridiculous, it’s porn-a-hol. Underage kids will look at this and associate sexual prowess with drinking Skyy.”

Thank You, John: That Goes for Beer, Too!

If you don’t know who John Hansell is and what he knows, you should. Especially so if you ever drink whisky, be it American, Scottish, Canadian, Irish, Japanese or other.

But even if you never touch a distillate, there is reason to pay heed to what the Malt Advocate publisher and prolific blogging voice has to say, for it oft times applies equally to beer. As in this recent post, read by me only today on account of my having ignored the blogs I follow during my recent travels. Check it out, and while you do, think about substituting “brewers” for “distillers” and “beer” for “whisky” throughout!

Announcing My New Blog: Beaumont Drinks!

For the past four years, I’ve been responsible for the Beaumont’s Beer Blog over at After some recent discussion, however, the powers-that-be at TTS and I have decided to fold the Beer Blog and replace it with a new blog focused on all things beverage, whether beer, spirits, cocktails or wine. We call it…

Beaumont Drinks!

We took it live just this week and I’ve two posts up already. The first deals with the question of value in beer, wine, spirits and cocktails, while the second takes to task the drinks columnist in the new issue of Sharp Magazine.

Check them out, and if you like what you read, leave a comment and/or subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking the icon in the address field of your browser. (We’re still sorting the page out and a proper subscription link is forthcoming.) I look forward to seeing you there!

The Modern Mixologist

Since I’ve already been talking about Negronis and Tony Abou-Ganim (here, too), I figure this morning is as good a time as any to tell you about Tony’s new book, The Modern Mixologist.

This has been sitting on my desk for far too long, as I have repeatedly tried to figure out a logical place in which to discuss it. You see, most of my cocktail book reviews go into trade journals like Nation’s Restaurant News to be read by people already “behind the stick,” as my mixologist friends like to describe life working the bar. And for a couple of reasons, The Modern Mixologist doesn’t seem to me to quite fit within that space.

First off, there’s the fact that my editor at NRN says I’ve been talking about books a bit too much lately, which may be true. But more significantly, I don’t really see this as a book for established mixologists. Aspiring one, certainly, for reasons that will become clear below, but not necessarily those already in the biz.

(I should note that a lot of people in the bar business will be buying this book anyway, because Tony is a definite icon in such circles. And well they should, too.)

The Modern Mixologist is a bit of an enigma in cocktail books in that it is: a) fiercely personal; b) well-suited to the newbie cocktail aficionados; and c) a recipe book containing some rather advanced drinks, including ones made with relatively obscure spirits like arak and others that call for home-made liqueurs and infused spirits. As such, it slots neatly into neither the “bar basics” category, like the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, nor the “drink ‘n’ learn” class, like Dale DeGroff’s excellent The Essential Cocktail.

So what do I make of it, you ask? Well, after pouring over the book’s easy-to-follow recipes and gorgeous photography — cocktail porn is fast becoming as much an art as food porn has been for some time! — I have reached two conclusions. First, if, like the IT genius who helps me out from time to time, you believe that the ability to shake a proper cocktail can be a gateway to the fairer sex, then you should definitely seek out this book and read and reread the first 83 pages. If there exists a better, more concise and definitive primer to mixology, I have not yet seen it.

And two, in this lovely hardbound edition we have a cocktail book that may be more than simply referenced, but read from cover to cover. To each bit of advice, each innovative recipe, each admonition, Tony has added a usually highly entertaining story, some quite short and others more embellished, but each a worthy read on its own. All of which makes The Modern Mixologist an ideal book for the novice or advanced cocktail consumer. And yes, it does contain a recipe for a Negroni, made with Anchor Distilling’s Junipero Gin.

The Negroni Challenge

As many of my friends and regular readers will know, in addition to pale ale, IPA and fine pilsner,  I enjoy a good cocktail now and then. And like my buddy Tony Abou-Ganim, one of my regular tipples in that regard is a Negroni.

It’s not a hard drink to make, as I noted at World of Beer’s Facebook page earlier today. Take equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth — add an extra half-part gin, if you wish — mix them over ice and serve as such, or strain neat into a cocktail glass. Aside from a dry martini or glass of good champagne or traditional lambic, there may be no better aperitif.

But not all gins are created equal, as Tony so ably pointed out in his Cheers Beverage Conference presentation earlier this year, and what might be a good one for a martini might not work so well in a Negroni, and what is ideal for a Negroni might fail in a G&T. So I decided to take four solid, reliable gins — Tanqueray, Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength, Plymouth and Hendrick’s – and put them to the Negroni test, making each drink the exact same way, even down to the precise length of time spent stirring it over ice, and serving them all neat. To maintain temperature, I stuck each in the refrigerator as I made the others.

As I fully expected, the mild-mannered but quite delicious on its own Hendrick’s was utterly lost beneath the Campari and vermouth. The Miller’s, on the other hand, while a fine martini gin, was a tad too overpowering for the other ingredients. So that left just the Tanqueray and the Plymouth.

And the winner by a nose was…Tanqueray. There is just something about this gin that suits it ideally to the Negroni, integrating beautifully with all the other flavours as it does to form a cocktail much greater than the sum of the parts. Not that I would turn down a Plymouth Negroni, mind you — it’s quite delicious and I’m finishing it as I type — but it didn’t mix with the flavours of the Campari quite as well as did the Tanqueray and left a slight edge on the finish.

I may well repeat this later on this summer with different gins, and perhaps more tasters than simply myself. But for now let it be known that the judges at the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge were right, when ordering a Negroni, call for Tanqueray.

A Lesson in Freshness, Courtesy of Rogue Spruce Gin

We all know about the importance of freshness in beer, right? About how all but a small fraction of beers – and wines, for that matter – taste best when they are consumed soon after packaging?

Of course, we do. But what about spirits?

For many of us, spirits are considered bullet-proof. Open the bottle, pour a shot or three and stick it back in the cupboard for a later time, occasionally a much later time. Do it again in a few months, and then again a few months after that, and before you know it you have a bottle of whisky or rum or gin that’s been open and exposed to air for over a year. Which is precisely what happened to me recently.

I have a rather large liquor cabinet – that’s not bragging, just a consequence of the job I do – and because of this fact, bottles occasionally get, well, lost in it. I don’t mean for it to happen, it just does. Sometimes to bottles I’d really rather be drinking than avoiding.

And so it was that when I went to place a new bottle of Rogue Spruce Gin into the cabinet recently, I discovered hidden in the back of the clear liquors shelf an older bottle of the same spirit, probably about eighteen months or so old. I honestly didn’t know it was there, and bemoaned the loss of the inch or so of gin sitting in it, but, ever the opportunist, recognized in it a chance to experiment with fresh and stale flavours in gin. So out it, and the new bottle, came.

I poured about an ounce of each and first nosed, then tasted them, after which I closed my eyes, moved the glasses around enough that I forgot which was which and did it all again. Here’s what I found.

There was no question as to which was the older gin. In place of the fresh evergreen aromas that pretty much leap from the glass of fresh gin, the unintentionally aged spirit showed more of a menthol and mint character, and a flatness of aroma and taste that I associate with dried herbs that have passed their use by date. (Remember, kids, never let your spices see their first birthday!) Where the new spirit has a liveliness and vivacity that makes it dance on your tongue – and how the Rogue Gin do dance! – the older one just sat there, being alcoholic and drab.

My friend and Malt Advocate publisher John Hansell places tight restrictions on how long he allows an open bottle of whisky to remain on his shelf, hosting regular tastings and social occasions to use up the good ones that have been hanging around too long. This is why. Liquor is not bullet-proof, and the character of some, like the fragrant beauty of a good gin, is even more fragile than that of others. End of lesson.