Monday, June 28, 2010

Father’s Day Whiskey Tasting Part 3: Single Barrel Bourbon


On Thursday, June 17, 2010, Union Square Wines & Spirits held Part 3 In its Father’s Day Whiskey Tasting, featuring Single Barrel Bourbon. 

This evening, all of the Bourbons in the tasting were from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. 

The tasting started with something called Old Charter, an 80 proof bourbon aged 8 years.  Considering its relatively cheap price, it wasn’t too bad, but having said that, be prepared for its roughness – compare it to riding off – road in a four – wheel – drive vehicle without wearing any seatbelts; to say it’s a bit of a bumpy ride might be something of an understatement – but if you can get around that, you may appreciate its sharpness.  In that regard, I suppose that you could say it tastes closer to a rye than a bourbon.  Like all bourbons, it is 51% corn, but unusually, they do not sell their used barrels to Scotland for aging Scotch. 

Next was Buffalo Trace itself; here, you could taste a little less of the corn, but at 90 proof, the extra alcohol content made a huge difference.  If the cocktail you enjoy is a Manhattan, then this would be the bourbon to use (unless, of course, you’re one of those people who prefers to make it with a rye instead). 

Third was Elmer T. Lee, which had a much sweeter taste than either of the first two.  Not sure if this was because the corn was more pronounced, or if there was some other secret they refused to share in either their distilling or aging process.

The hard to get W.L. Weller’s 7 year Special Reserve was next.  This one had the delightful fragrance of a garden, with a taste that was round and gentle.  What I found nice about this one was the fact that it was significantly less sweet than the Elmer T. Lee that I’d just tried. 

Eagle Rare 10 year was the penultimate tasting of the evening.  The New York Times declared this to be The Best Bourbon For the Value.  Of all the bourbons I’d tasted thus far, this one was supposed to have contained much more rye than any of the others, even the Old Charter;  however, in comparison to the Charter, you don’t really taste the rye quite so much for some reason – quite possibly due to the extra couple of years of aging.  Head to head, the Old Charter was much more harsh than this one. 

Finally, ther was Old Weller Antique, a 107 proof bourbon.  Considering the alcohol content, it’s a little surprising that this is a bourbon that won’t knock you on your ass after a single tasting.  This one has a reputation of being a little difficult to get, not unlike Pappy Van Winkle, but is nevertheless worth the effort.  This is the one you want to spend the evening sipping while you’re sitting back in an easy chair. 

The one I took home this evening was the Weller 7yr., because it was the most affordable of all the items served, except for Old Charter – and after tasting the rest of the menu, I was spoiled on everything else after tasting the Old Charter, which, in recollection, was just plain nasty.   


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Father’s Day Whisky Tasting Week – Part 2: Vatted Malt Scotch


On Wednesday, June 16, 2010, Union Square Wines & Spirits hosted Part 2 of their Father’s Day Whisky Week series, which featured vatted malt Scotch. 

The term Vatted Malt Scotch was new to me, so I was glad to learn that it was actually a concept quite simple to grasp:  Single Malt Scotch is Malt that comes from a single distiller; by contrast, Vatted Malt Scotch is a blend of Single Malts from multiple distillers.  Alternatively, a Vatted Malt Scotch can also be referred to as a Pure Malt Scotch (a single Malt from different distillers).  A Vatted Malt Scotch is usually an Independent Bottler – meaning a company that is not dedicated to a single distillery. 

Starting off the evening was a company called Wemyss (pronounced WEEMS, which, I’m given to understand, is Gaelic for the word “Cave”); they have been around for over a century, starting out business by selling barley to distillers.  Barley, by the way, is the only grain used in any Single Malt Scotch.  All of their offerings were 80 proof Scotches aged 8 years; their first one was something called The Smooth Gentleman, from the Highland/Speyside region of Scotland – it’s very full on the palate with the slight hint of peat that you might expect of something from (at least in part) Speyside.  Lighter on the palate was the next one, The Spice King, from the Isle of Skye, which, we were told, is in the center west area of Scotland; the distributor characterized it as something of an iodine taste.  Finally, The Peat Chimney, obviously from Islay; I found it to be a little less smoky than most Islay – based Scotches I enjoy – as a result, I was a little disappointed.

The other table featured six different types of Scotch from Compass Box.  Since I’ve previously gone into detail reviewing their product line here, I won’t spend too much time on most of them in this review.  Starting with Asyla, which the company’s representative called a “light, everyday Scotch”, this is also something that would make a good introductory Scotch to someone who either has never tried Scotch before or who claims they dislike Scotch. 

Next was their Oak Cross, a 43% alcohol product aged in a combination of French oak and American oak barrels; the body of the barrel is French oak and the top and bottom are made of American oak. 

A product that was new to me was something called The Spice Tree, which I found even spicier than Wemyss’ The Spice King.  The spicy notes are particularly noticeable on the front and mid – palate. 

This was followed by their extremely pricey Hedonism Maximus, which had a smooth caramel/vanilla flavor to it that some might feel justifies its price.  It has a light color, probably due to the fact that it is aged in new American Oak barrels.  According to the company representative, they base the price on a combination of its age and the rarity of its grain whisky, which is obtained from a single distillery – now closed – which used to supply Johnnie Walker. 

Peat Monster, my personal favorite of their product line, was next; it combines two Islay and one Speyside based blends and is characterized by a very complex and long lasting flavor.  The Compass Box representative called it, “an iron fist in a velvet glove”. 

Wrapping up the evening was their Peat Monster Reserve, which, while expensive, is not nearly the budget – buster as Hedonism Maximus; this product is currently marking its fifth anniversary.  The company representative said he found it to be explosive on the mid – palate; I found it to be smoother and gentler than the regular Peat Monster – it has a warmth to it, but without the burn. 

My recommendation?  You can’t lose with anything from Compass Box:  Asyla for a newbie, The Spice Tree for something different, or Peat Monster if you appreciate a smoky Scotch.  Otherwise, if you can afford it, either Hedonism Maximus or Peat Monster Reserve are most definitely worth trying.



Monday, June 21, 2010

Father’s Day Whisky Week – Part 1 Single Malt Scotch


From June 15 – 19, 2010, Union Square Wines & Spirits held a Whisky tasting as a run-up to Father’s Day.  On Tuesday, June 15th, they featured Single Malt Scotch.

Starting off the evening was a 12 year old and 15 year old Balvenie from Speyside.   The 12 year old was somewhat spicy, with a hint of cinnamon; this one started out its aging process in a whisky barrel, but then was transferred to a sherry barrel for its last six months in the process to soften its taste.  I was surprised to learn that the 15 year old was aged in new oak barrels as I’m given to understand that Scotch is generally aged in barrels that were previously used to age bourbon – thus, it was given the distinction of being a Single Barrel Single Malt.  By contrast, this one had a floral nose with a fruity taste; coming from a different process as well as a longer aging, its taste could be easily differentiated from the 12 year old.

Next up was Highland Park from the Orkney Islands – a 12 yr. and an 18 yr.  Highland Park supposedly spends the most money on oak barrels – more than the other major Scotch producers combined – because barrels are used only once.  Weather – wise, the distributor says that the area from which it comes does not experience any temperatures in the extreme – in fact, he compared it to Anchorage, Alaska.  Highland Park is generally known for its depth and complexity.  The 18 year old spent 15 years in whisky barrels, then winds up in Spanish sherry barrels; this one is much more well – rounded than the 12 yr. old with a complex taste ranging from fruity and chocolaty to hints of cinnamon and smoke. 

At the middle table, they featured Highlands – based Scotches.  They started off with Balblair 1997, but I skipped this out of curiosity about the other offerings presented by this distributor:  Old Pulteney.  There were three of what they referred to as “expressions”, each with a different “flavor profile” (clearly, the vocabulary of the wine snobs being assumed by the whisky snobs):  a 12 year, a 17 year and a 21 year.  Promoted as a Maritime Malt for its saltiness, a characteristic attributed to the fact that the Highland is based in the northern region of Scotland, where the water is particularly salty from the sea.  I didn’t detect too much of the saltiness in the 12 year old, despite the fact that the distributor claimed that this one had the most pronounced saltiness.  To me, it seemed rather gently and mostly had a soft vanilla taste, with the saltiness only making a brief appearance once it hit the front of my tongue.   While the 12 year is aged only in ex – bourbon barrels, the 17 year is aged in both ex – bourbon and sherry casks that were made of Spanish wood; this wood is said to be more porous, allowing more of the sherry taste to come through.  Rather than being finished in the sherry casks, the aging here is a process called “marrying” where the whisky is aged simultaneously in both ex – bourbon and sherry casks for the same period of time, then blended together at the end of the process.  Finally, I tried the 21 year; one of the other attendees said that this one was like “drinking the ocean” because of its salty quality and I do have to agree.  Again, this is aged in a combination of ex – bourbon and ex – sherry casks, but here, the sherry casks are American oak, a wood that is considered more dense.  The taste has less of the sherry; despite its salt quality, it tasted dry and light. 

The next table featured a couple from West Highlands, plus one of my favorites, Lagavulin.  Starting with Oban’s 14 year Distiller’s Edition, we were told that it spent at least the first 13 years aging in ex – bourbon barrel, then finished the rest of the time in sherry casks.  Having a fuller taste, it is compared favorably to the slightly more expensive regular 14 year, considered a “beginner’s whisky”, which is also their most popular.  I spent most of my time with the Islay – Based Lagavulin 16 year; it is aged in ex – bourbon and sherry casks, but instead of being finished in the sherry, it spends half of its time in the bourbon barrels, then the other half in the sherry casks.   By comparison, it has a higher smoke content than Laphroaig; its great color features a deep, rich brown and is said to go very well with certain kinds of cheeses – specifically, blue cheese, gorgonzola and stilton. 

We wound up the evening with Glenfarclas, a Speyside – based Scotch.  They featured a 12 year, 17 year and 105 proof Cask Strength.  Because it was getting a bit late in the evening, I was, unfortunately, not able to taste the last two.  As far as the 12 year was concerned, it has a very light gold color, almost resembling a white wine.  Its taste has a certain sweetness to it when it first hits your lips and the front of the tongue, with just a hint of a burn in the aftertaste. 

Although I wasn’t able to purchase anything on this night (despite the 15% discount offered by the store), I would recommend the Lagavulin, but only if you really appreciate a strong peatiness to your Scotch; if that’s not your thing, but you do want to try something a bit different in a Single Malt Scotch, then I would highly recommend the Old Pulteney – in particular, the 21 year, which is the one I found to have the highest salty flavor. 


Saturday, June 12, 2010

“Drinking Made Easy” Comedy Tour

On June 2, 2010, I attended the “Drinking Made Easy” Comedy Tour with Zane Lamprey, host of my favorite drinking show on TV, “Three Sheets”.  The show was held at a place that is now called The Irving Plaza Theater (because it’s located just north of Union Square, in a section known as Irving Plaza – DUH!), but has since been re – branded as The  Fillmore East, as a nod to the place where many fabled rock groups from decades ago used to play (although this is not the location of the original Fillmore East).

For those of you unfamiliar with Lamprey, he started in show business as a comedian/actor and gained some degree of fame/popularity with the “Three Sheets” TV show that was a cult hit first on an all high – def TV channel called Mojo; after the first three seasons of “Three Sheets”, the Mojo channel went off the air at the end of 2008.  The show eventually found a new home on FLN, The Fine Living Network, where its fourth season ran; unfortunately, FLN is now no more also.  So, technically, the show is right now no longer on the air, but for about a month, (mid – April to mid – May), it appeared briefly on The Travel Channel; rumors abound these days that “Three Sheets” may have another life someday on The Travel Channel, but we’ll see.  For the present, Lamprey is on his 50 – plus city comedy tour called “Drinking Made Easy”, which will also be the title of his new TV show on Mark Cuban’s HDNet channel in the fall; not coincidentally, it is incorporated into the title of Lamprey’s new book, “Three Sheets:  Drinking Made Easy!  6 Continents, 15 Countries, 190 Drinks and 1 Mean Hangover”, which the tour was also promoting. 

I’ve seen Lamprey’s live act a couple of times before at shows here in New York City when he did tours to promote “Three Sheets”, so much of the material that he did at Fillmore/Irving Plaza was not new to me.  In that respect, it was something of a disappointment – nevertheless, it was a good opportunity for hardcore fans of “Three Sheets” to gather, meet and drink (the small theater had a bar!).  The show featured an appearance by Steve McKenna (Lamprey’s college drinking buddy who can imbibe better than any of us), Marc Ryan (a comedian friend of Lamprey’s who was the evening’s opening act) and Pleepleus, the monkey that serves as Lamprey’s drinking companion on “Three Sheets”.  Supposedly, McKenna & Ryan will appear with Lamprey on the “Drinking Made Easy” TV show, which focuses on traveling around the U.S. learning about various drinking customs/traditions around America. 

Just in case you’ve never seen Lamprey’s “Three Sheets” TV show before, you can check out episodes from the first four seasons on Hulu

Like the show and want to watch it on your TV instead of online?  The DVD’s for seasons 1 – 4 are available on Mojo’s site

Information about the book can be found here

Lastly, here’s the schedule for his remaining Tour Dates.  If you’ve never been, you may want to check it out to catch up on everything you’ve been missing – and prepare yourself for the new TV series coming up in the autumn. 


Monday, June 07, 2010

St-Germain Sessions: Spring 2010


On Friday night June 4, 2010, I attended the Spring 2010 version of The St-Germain Cocktail Sessions at Union Square Wines & Spirits


The tasting, spearheaded by St-Germain’s Philip Pepperdine, featured a total of five different types of cocktails where St-Germain elderflower liqueur was the highlight.  While Philip mixed both the signature St-Germain Cocktail and one other, there were also three other bartenders present to represent their own inventions for how they have used St-Germain to create original cocktails. 


Having tried the St-Germain cocktail many times (in addition to making it myself at home more often than I care to admit), I stopped by Philip’s table merely to say hello initially, but making sure to return later in the evening when he would be ready to start making his Salve Germainia, which I had before, in a Buffalo Trace tasting a couple of months ago. 

First stop was to try something called The 10 Cent Pistol, created by Preston Eckman of The APO Bar & Lounge in Philadelphia.  St-Germain gets added to Plymouth Gin, Charteuse “Jaune” liqueur, Averna Amaro and not one but two bitters:  an obscure one (at least to me), The Bitter Truth Chocolate Mole from Germany and the more familiar Regan’s Organge Bitters No. 6.  This drink was shaken in two metal shakers, then strained into either a cocktail (Martini) glass or coupe (the old fashioned Champagne glass).  I was unfamiliar with the Averna Amaro, so I asked Preston to tell me a little bit about that one.  He said that it was an Italian digestif that is normally sipped after dinner; this is done because some of the herbs that make up the liqueur have been known to aid in digestion.  By comparison, it is much sweeter than another Italian alcohol, Campari, which tends to be much more bitter and is usually offered as an aperitif because it has a tendency to make some of the glands in your mouth water, better preparing you for the meal you are about to eat.

One of the reasons that I enjoy attending these events is that I always manage to learn something from at least one of the bartenders.  This time, it was Preston’s turn to educate me on the manly art of cocktail mixing.  As I mentioned above, this particular cocktail was mixed in a pair of metal shakers – a small one and a large one; the small one contained all of the ingredients (including both of the bitters) and then, the ice was added.  All of this was then poured into a larger metal shaker before the two were interlocked, shaken and strained.  It occurred to me that I’ve seen some drinks – both shaken and stirred – made in a mixing glass instead of a large metal shaker, so I asked Preston about this.  He said that there are advantages and disadvantages to both.  Basically, the advantage to using a pair of metal shakers is that this makes the drink colder faster – as a matter of fact, you can actually see this (and feel it) when you’re mixing the drink.  By contrast, the advantage of a mixing glass is simply the fact that because of the fact that it is made of glass, it’s transparent – therefore, being able to see through it, you can actually see the ingredients of the cocktail you are mixing and make a decision about quantity (e.g., Do you need more of one ingredient and less of another?  Is this drink for one or two people?  etc.).

The Grassy Knoll was a wonderfully refreshing Summer-time cocktail designed by Eryn Reece of The Rye House.  On first glance, it seemed deceptively simple – until, of course, it came mixing time.  Naively, I believed the tasting menu and assumed that it only contained St-Germain and gin – then, I got a wake – up call.  As I stepped up to Eryn’s station, I saw she had two large jugs – no, I’m not talking about her anatomy, I’m referring to another pair of jugs … jugs on the counter, one of which contained sliced watermelon, the other sliced cucumber.  Immediately, I panicked, thinking that we were going to be forced to muddle those guys, but Eryn was quickly able to calm us down.  Rather than muddling, we were encouraged to “very aggressively shake” the ingredients.  I had no idea what this was going to do to the end product, but I did make a mental note to ensure that I was not within close quarters of another attendee when I was about to “very aggressively shake” this cocktail. 

Starting with a couple of generously – cut chunks of the watermelon and a couple of thin slices of the cucumber tossed into a small metal shaker, we then added the sugar cane syrup and lime juice before finishing with the St-Germain and gin.  Finishing off with a small shovel of ice, we poured it all into a larger metal shaker (as with the first drink), then interlocked the two and began our “very aggressive shake”.  The end result was eventually poured into a coupe glass, but not before double straining; the purpose behind this, as Eryn explained, was because, “I want you to sip your drink, not eat it!”.  This made sense, even to me.  So, after initially using The Hawthorn to strain the mix into a glass, we then used a more conventional food strainer to pour it one last time into the coupe.  Ultimately, it looked like a very girly drink – the pink color owing to the watermelon chunks – but the taste, fortunately, was not overly sweet.  So, from that aspect, at least, it was not a girly drink because it wasn’t so sweet that it caused me to make facial contortions as I sipped from the glass; perhaps this was due to the inclusion of the cucumber.  I’m not sure.  Nevertheless, it was a very refreshing drink and I could see myself sipping this during the summer except for the fact that it takes quite a considerable amount of effort to make.  (Slicing watermelon and cucumber, then double – straining?  This sounds like way too much work when you’re on vacation – unless, of course, you’re trying to impress some chick)

Next up was a visit to a familiar face at these St-Germain tastings, Jason Littrell, who I later learned was now tending bar in my very own ‘hood (The Dram Bar).  His latest invention was something called The Accidental Tourist, which contains honey, lime juice, St-Germain, Mezcal and Reposado Tequila.  A drink that contained both tequila and mezcal was a little scary to me – in fact, I admitted as much to Jason when he asked me what took me so long to drop by his station.  However, I am happy to report that my fears were not well founded because this is not the type of cocktail that will knock you on your ass immediately (well, not after only one, anyway).  The key to making this drink great is the mezcal, which adds this incredible smoky component to the drink’s profile that makes it really stand out.  As you may already know, the difference between mezcal (or mescal) and tequila is that tequila must be made from the blue agave plant and made in the town of Tequila, located in Jalisco, Mexico.  By contrast, mezcal is made from an agave plant that does not have to be a blue agave (nor from the town of Tequila).  Jason most definitely had a winner in this one. 

Finally, I wound up back with Philip as he taught attendees how to make the Salve Germainia.  Having tried this before at an earlier tasting, I knew exactly what goodness was to follow – as a matter of fact, since trying it at that tasting in April, I’ve made this cocktail at home a number of times.  This, by the way, is due in no small part thanks to Philip, who gave me his bottle of orange flavored Angostura bitters – a crucial ingredient of the drink, which I can’t manage to find in stores locally (although you certainly can find it online fairly easily). 

In teaching us how to make this cocktail, Philip stressed the stirring.  We stood there making the drink with instructions to stir hard the ice – filled mixing glass containing the ingredients.  “But how long?  How do you know when you’re done”, I asked Philip.  He replied by saying that how long you stir depends on how strong you want the drink to taste; if you prefer more of the bourbon’s flavor, then don’t stir too long – otherwise, stir up a storm, because the harder you stir – and the longer you stir – the more the ice will melt into the drink.  This, of course, will somewhat dilute the cocktail – which may not necessarily be a bad thing, depending on your tastes. 

So what was the best cocktail of the entire evening?  Once again, I would have to pick Philip’s Salve Germainia, but instantly, I would have to disqualify it because I’d tried it before.  That said, if I have to pick best cocktail based on the new ones I tried this evening, then I would have to pick Jason’s Accidental Tourist, if, for no other reason, due to that smoky taste from the mezcal.