Friday, February 5, 2016

Beer Friday #3

Okay, back to the music. I sang Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine a few years ago with the chamber group at St. Andrew's in Newtown, Penn., and lately it's been running through my head. I asked my choir director for a recording, and he pointed me to the Cambridge Singers. Quite peaceful, but at the same time energizing. One of my favorite bass parts, so well-matched to the words.

Relaxing, right? On to the beer!

Hijinx Pitch Penny ESB, 4.7%
My draft for the week, sampled yesterday afternoon at Isaac Newton's in Newtown. I've been to HiJinx and think it's one of the better examples of the recent new crop of breweries in eastern Pennsylvania...but I rarely see their beers. When I spotted this one — on the heels of a discussion with someone about how few ESBs there were available lately — it made what was looking like a tough decision (Isaac's usually sports a pretty great tap list) into a slam dunk.

Nice color; perfect copper penny look of an ESB with a coffe crema head. Not a ton of aroma; what's there is mostly malt. Mmm, and so it is on the palate. Not as fully malt-tilted as Fullers, and that's maybe a style issue (not as big a one as the jackass next to me, who smells like he's a Lebanon bologna that was smoked over Marlboros. Going outside is not enough, fella, try standing upwind of yourself next time!)

Okay, back to the beer. ABV is about dead-on, that's an up-check, the color nails it, another up-check, and if it's a bit too bitter,'s America. I'll tell ya...throw a different yeast in here, give her a touch more malt, maybe tweak the hops a bit, and you'd have a kick-ass altbier. Something to think about. In the meantime, I'd go back for more, and I think it's the best HiJinx beer I've had. Not enough ESBs, as we said to each other in that discussion I mentioned.

Verdict: Good

Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA, 6.2%
I remember when Starr Hill was a little storefront juke joint in Charlottesville, running an old, old JV NorthWest system, with Mark Thompson's energetic good-beer vibes flashing wildly around the place. They had a weirdly grand plan for blending good beer and indie music, and I know I thought, yeah, whatever, good luck with that.

Well, the joke's on me. Starr Hill's been pretty successful with that plan (didn't hurt that Mark won a damned sack-full of GABF medals over the years; good beer deserves success), and the label of Reviver — an octave of piano keys — is a reminder. Good for them! They still put out pretty damned good beer, though, as was the case before, it tends to get overlooked by the geekerie. Let's see if they're right or wrong.

Very aromatic, with pine and juicy citrus singing over it, but not like the Fauré, more like a gospel choir getting real busy...but when I take that first sip...almost all that lively is gone, smacked down in a double shot of bitterness and overdone specialty malt. The happy hops try to break through, like a couple rays of sunlight in the dark blood-red gloom, It's a big enough beer, but it's big like a mean sonofabitch in black overalls. I may not have been as hard on this if the hops hadn't smelled so damned good, and I wanted it to be that way, I wanted that piano to ring out "The Old Landmark" and get Jake to see the light. I'm just not feeling it. If they could have kept this lively and still big, I think I'd have loved it. But I'm left wanting it to be something it's not.

Verdict: Flawed

Deschutes Hop Henge IPA, 8.9%
Hop Henge is a new set of hops every year. Hop research is getting so advanced that this year, two of the three hops in Hop Henge don't even have names yet. That's the kind of shit you can do when you're Deschutes and you're so close to the green gold of hop country. The third hop is Mandarina Bavaria, which is supposed to "lend hits of orange, mandarin, and tangerine." Somebody wake the druids, it's time to try this.

Smells like the non-alcoholic fruit punches my grandmother used to make. She was a genius at combining fresh fruit, canned and frozen juices, and a little bit of soda to make some really delicious drinks. Fresh, fruity, and no pine there a-tall. Nice.

Like drinking sunlight, boys and girls. Honestly, I took a glass, and I had this memory of walking through the woods behind my aunt's house 45 years, sunlight streaming through the trees. Light bright stuff this is, and the fruits are subtle in the mouth, the bitterness is trenchant but balanced (at 90 frickin' IBUs, it's balanced), and the finish does not put the pliers to my tongue, instead there's a lingering sticky resin pull and a nice undertow of those fruits. Sure doesn't drink like 8.9%, either, more like 5.9%. This is dangerously, drinkably delicious.

Look, you get it. I could go on, but to tell the's about 5:15, I'm done for the day, and I'm gonna go drink the rest of this. Cheers.

Verdict: Good

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Scientists Invent Helium Beer! Munchkins Rejoice!

Every couple of years, it seems, something gets loose on the Internet about Helium beer; you know, beer that's been gassed up with helium instead of carbon dioxide or nitrogen, and so it makes you talk all squeaky, ho-ho-ho, that's a gas! And then the dreary science nerds come out and say, no, that's impossible, because helium isn't soluble in beer, stupids.

The FUN science nerds at Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly magazine of the American Chemical Society, took that as a challenge. After all, as one of them says in the following video, "We've heard nothing is insoluble; everything has some degree of solubility." They then prove the point by 'heliumating' a beer (a stout, looks like), and describing the results (less fizzy, but also less acidic due to helium's inert nature). Sadly, though, drinking it doesn't make you sound like a member of the Lollipop Guild.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Whiskey Wednesday #4

Feeling better, but pressed for time, so no music this time. Just two recent Canadians.

Alberta Rye Dark Batch, 45%
A couple things to note right away. First, 45%. This steps up for Canadian, which was mired in an 80 proof/40% swamp for years. That's how you got Canadian, son, and if you wanted something stronger, you had to go searching. The higher proof proves that the Canadians are taking cocktails — not highballs, cocktails — seriously. Second, this whisky takes the curious 9.09% law (which says that one part in eleven (9.09%) of Canadian whisky can be...other) and uses it to a flavor advantage, rather than as a tax advantage, or a flavor stretcher, by adding 8% bourbon and 1% oloroso sherry to aged, 100% rye whisky.

To clarify, Alberta Distillers are old hands at making whisky from 100% rye grain, it's their thing (they use enzymes for conversion, not malt). The Canadian rye in this is about half "flavoring whisky" — distilled to relatively low ABV in a pot still, aged about 6 years in new barrels — and about half of it is "blending whisky" — distilled to relatively high ABV in a column still and aged 12 years in used barrels. Davin de Kergommeaux explains it in more detail in this Whisky Advocate blog post. But the key is that this is 91% Canadian whisky, 8% bourbon (guess where it comes from...Alberta Distillers is owned by Beam Suntory), and only 1% sherry. Is that weird? A little? Is it interesting? Yes. But does it work? Let's see.

The nose has wads of dried fruits — apricots, raisins, "craisins" — and a paneled woodiness of cedar and oak; very Canadian, that, as is the underlying sweetness. The whole thing smells like an enchanted forest. The 45% strides strongly into the mouth, carrying armloads of wood, baskets of fruit, and big trenchers of warm, sweet cereal, wreathed happily with the spiciness of all that rye. That's the dominant feature of the finish, too, that spiciness.

I can tell you this: pleasant as it is to sip this stuff (which it is, despite what I'll be telling you next month...wait for it!), it's also the basis for a Manhattan variant that has been my go-to for the past few months. This has been the darling of Canadian mixologists since it came out (it's labeled "Dark Horse" in Canada, and whether that's the only difference or not depends on who you ask, but the bottle of Dark Horse I have sure smells and tastes a LOT like this one).

Seriously Canadian, but in a way that takes advantage of everything the Canadian whisky category offers...including the very reasonable price. Get a bottle and start playing around with it and some cocktail ingredients. You'll find it's quite fun.

Verdict: Good

Canadian Club Chairman's Select 100% Rye, 40%
I've been drinking a lot more Canadian Club recently. Mainly because I've been going to a lot more dive bars, and cash bars at events. When you're at places like that, the beer selection often sucks, and the whiskey selection ain't much better. But you can almost always count on a bottle of CC, and a supply of club soda, and that's my dive bar go-to.

But this is a big change for CC, going 100% rye. Is it worth it? Let's find out. Nose is sweet, spicy, minty, with a hint of cedar/pencil in the background. Smells like a good young craft-distilled rye: sweet, spicy, simple, not overwhelmed by wood. Hmmm...not goopy sweet at all. Balance of rye and sweet grain, some of that rye oiliness, but a nice light finish that hangs on and flavors things. I'd take that in my club soda, and it's nice...but I think I'd rather have the Crown Royal Northern Harvest.

Verdict: Yawn

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Seen Through A Glass

I noticed this morning at mass that today's New Testament reading was the inspiration for the name of the blog: First Corinthians 13: 1-13. It's probably not all that surprising -- to me, at least, knowing how my brain works -- that I wrote the first post in Seen Through A Glass on January 31, 2007, nine years ago, when the Church's 3-year cycle of readings would have brought the same verses up that week.
The Catholic Church doesn't use the King James Bible, of course, but I'm a writer: I do.'s a bit of explanation about why it's Seen Through A Glass. ("Charity" has also been translated as "love," and I choose to interpret it in this context as "kindness," or perhaps the "loving kindness" of the Quran.)

13: 1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. 

4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 

8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I believe in beer, O Lord; help me in my unbelief!
Why did I subject you to a Bible reading, and what does it have to do with beer, or whiskey? It has more to do with writing about beer and whiskey, more about the intent of the blog. It's an admission that I don't understand or know everything there is to know about these subjects, that I see only parts of them, and those likely imperfectly. It's also an explanation that despite the simple fact that the blog is a marketing tool for my writing and public appearances (surprise!), it's still not really about me, because of "charity."

Drinks writing without charity can be vicious, self-serving angriness, aimed at brewers and distillers, aimed at drinkers, aimed at purveyors and publicists, aimed at other writers. It can be caused by a lack of understanding, by seeing through the glass darkly (a reference to the low-quality mirrors of the day, compared in the verse to seeing clearly, face-to-face), or an overabundance of pride.

I try to practice charity in my drinks writing. I try to see what the brewer or distiller or blender was trying to do, I try to understand it, and I often give them the benefit of the doubt. I don't always succeed, but the intent's there, at least at the beginning. I'd like to see everyone make better beer, better whiskey. I'd like to see better bars, better stores, better restaurants. This is the point of good criticism. It's not to write something snarky just for the personal fun of it. It's to explain what the critic sees as shortcomings as a guide to what may be wrong. At least, it is if it's done with charity.

Charity doesn't mean you don't say what sucks, sucks. Because if it sucks, well, buddy, it sucks. Period. But you try to do it without gratuitous bloodshed. I'm sure you'd be able to find examples of where I've failed to show charity in my writing; I'll admit I'm not perfect. But I try, and I encourage others to try. Give something more than one sampling; give a new brewer a chance to get their act together. Don't prejudge a whiskey just because it has no age statement, or because it's blended, or because you don't like a company's politics. Try to understand a drink in its intended context.

When we exercise charity, when we embrace kindness, we find that people will listen, will try to cooperate, to change. When we try to listen to what a beer has to say instead of yell and boast of our skills and favorites, we learn, about the beer, about other drinkers, about ourselves.

I'm glad that this came along now, as I restart the blog. Good timing. To those of you who wished me well on my health issues; thank you. I'm feeling better, and the tastings will be out on time this week. It's a busy week, too: I'm at a Garrett Oliver panel discussion at City Tap Monday night, Tuesday morning is Groundhog Day at the Grey Lodge Pub (I'll be back after a two year absence, and I'm really looking forward to it!), I've got a ton of writing to do for Whisky Advocate and a collaborative project, and then Saturday I have a private Tasting Whiskey event at St. Andrew's in NYC.

I'll try to do it all with charity.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Whiskey Wednesday Postponed

I have some minor health issues that are going to preclude doing the whiskey (and beer) reviews this week. Not a big deal, and I plan to be back at it next week. Your understanding is appreciated.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Beer Friday #2

As I sit in the bunker — my office is in the basement again, and I know my family calls it The Bunker, I just know it — with the blizzard coming, and Trump fulminating, and Bernie warning of fiscal disaster, well...this seemed legit.

Ergo, nothing but butt-kicking beers will do.

Tröegs Nugget Nectar 2016, 7.5%
The New Label
I bought a case of this beautiful annual release at the Beer Yard in Wayne last Saturday. I've had a couple few some already, and you need to know...oh, hell, most of you already do know, but this is a ripper. Let's open it before someone grabs it away.

First off, beautiful pour. You guys with your "shaker pints are ugly" crap can suck it: copper and cream looks great in a shaker. That juicy aroma comes right off the top, too: vibratingly-fresh citrus, pine (bark, needles, sap, that dark-meat wood in the middle), and yeah, a bit of dank weed. I kinda miss the cat piss I used to get from this one.

Take a mouthful. Not a sip, not with this beer, take a mouthful and hold it. Bitter, flavorful, that pine and pith tearing up my palate and making my glands squeeze. The thing I've always liked about Nugget Nectar is the way it turns my mouth into a boppit clown, those ones you smack and they fly backwards and hit the floor and whip right back up to get hit again (did any of you have one of them? When I was about 10, I'd go down in the basement and just smack the shit out of that thing). Take a drink, wham with the bitterness, and about the time I notice the wham's gone away and the pine's running around in my mouth like a crazy chihuahua, I decide it's time to take a drink, wham with the bitterness, and about the time I notice the wham's gone away and the pine's running around in my mouth like a crazy chihuahua, I decide it's time to take a drink, wham with the bitterness, and about the time I notice the wham's gone away and the pine's running around in my mouth like a crazy chihuahua, I decide it's time to take a get the idea. Clearly the only way I'm going to experience the finish on this one is to drink the whole beer, because I'm not pausing between drinks long enough to experience it.

Hell, it ought to be snowing now.

Verdict: Good

Abita Bourbon Street Imperial Stout, 10.0%
Not your normal, but I would expect nothing less from Abita. The mash includes oats, for one; and it sure sounds like the beer — the stout — is lagered, "cold aged," for six weeks. Then it does eight weeks in "small batch" bourbon barrels. As a whiskey guy, I'd really like to know what Abita thinks "small batch" bourbon barrels are; craft distillers' barrels, or Beam barrels from their "small batch" series? Or something else? I dunno. To the beer!

Had to let this warm up; it's damned cold out in my garage right now. But even after an hour in deep-bowled Duvel tulip (I know, I know; I grabbed it on impulse) there's still a tight collar of persistent tan foam around the edge, and the aroma is pulsing at me from over a foot away. Let's go. Deep bittersweet chocolate, fresh coffee grounds, toasted pecans, and caramel aromas. Luscious. Ah ha. Not a syrupy, under-attenuated mess at all, this is a scarily light-bodied 10%. In fact, there's just enough body to handle the booze. Chocolate syrup, light bright Kenya AA coffee, sweet rolls, and some of that pecan...but the bourbon barrel character is restrained, an accompaniment rather than a steamroller. It's coming through at the finish, though, and that's nice.

I'd like to like this more, but the lightness is too light. If you're going to go big, barrel age an imperial stout, you ought to go big, I'm thinking.

Verdict: Yawn

2SP SIP (Stigz's Imperial Porter) imperial porter, 8.4%
2SP is one of the crop of new breweries here in southeast Pennsylvania, and this is my draft beer for the week. I dropped down to the Hulmeville Inn again this afternoon, figured to get a taste of pre-storm frenzy...but not in this more working-class bar. Just another day for cable installers, welders, and fire fighters, which is part of why I like going there. The other part, of course, is the truly great draft beer selection, with local stuff like this (and Tired Hands, and Neshaminy, and Yards), and plenty of the best from away as well.

2SP's brewer Bob Barrar is well-known around here and at the GABF for his excellent big dark beers; when he was at Iron Hill Media, they called him The Machine for the clockwork way he won GABF medals. I figured this was the way to go, and I wasn't wrong. This is a big sweet chocolate cake of a beer. Get a whiff; ahhh. Chocolate, cocoa, Graham crackers, and light coffee beans on the nose. Annnnnd...the same on the tongue, with maybe a bit more coffee. Gotta love an honest nose.  Wait, wait...there's hop note on the end, too, just to wrap things up.

Creamy smooth, rich and sweet. Actually reminds me a lot of the Abita, but no barrel is mentioned, which makes a difference. Is it what most folks expect from "imperial porter"? Probably not, in these lupulin-drenched days, but I found it delicious, and could have gone another round if I hadn't still had to pick up sidewalk salt, and the day's mail, and gas for the snowblower, and a nice block of cheddar...just because. Now we're hunkering down, just me and the family, with only a fridge full of food and about 300 bottles of whiskey between us and starvation. See you on the other side.

Verdict: Good

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Whiskey Wednesday #3

Wandering a bit off the path this week: I have two store special selections from Gordon's Fine Wines & Liquors in Waltham, Mass. One of them is the bottle of Dad's Hat Rye that was selected by Gordon's liquor guy Nick Taylor and his boss, Dave Gordon, last year when I was in the distillery (check that out here); the other is a Barrell Bourbon Private Barrel Nick selected. I also have a non-whiskey spirit; hope you enjoy that. I did. Let me know if you'd like more of that. I'm looking to learn.

Dad's Hat Rye Gordon's Private Barrel, 45%
Despite what's been mentioned several places on the Internet, I didn't actually help pick this bottling. I was at the distillery, I tasted all the barrels (as did Nick and Dave, and my friend and whiskey enthusiast Sam Komlenic, and the distillery owners Herman and John), and made comments as we tasted (as did everyone), but when it came down to the actual final selection, we all stepped aside and left that to Nick and Dave, which is as it should be. They chose to blend two barrels, so this is the first time I'm tasting the selection.

Nose of rye grain, oak, and mint, with some sugary sweetness and some of that fresh-cut jalapeno character Nick noted in one of the barrels. Active, fresh, and clearly young, but not unruly. Hot and busy up front — jalapeno, alcohol, rye whack — then it settles down into rye and oak, then the peppery heat returns in the finish to wrap itself around a rye-centered slow-burning oak fire. Impressive stuff for 7-9 months old.

Verdict: Good

Barrell Bourbon #13 Gordon's Private Barrel, 62.35%
Bottled at 8 years, 6 months of age: cask strength Tennessee whisky (yes, and there's your tip on the source), unfiltered, uncut. As with the other Barrell bourbons...that's all you know. They're sourced whiskeys, and Joe Beatrice ain't talkin'. But...Tennessee. Whisky. Get it?

Mint, warehouse reek, sugary booze, cornbread, berry cobbler (heavy on the cobbler, but the berry's still there) all play happily in the nose, and it's a beauty. Wowzer of an entry, too, as the heat you'd expect from a Booker's-strength bottling is all there, but the mint blows up as it hits the tongue — not all sweet, almost like lightly-burnt mint — followed by the corn, but it's sweet, fresh-ground meal; then the oak sweeps in for the finish, a lushly-paneled hallway leading off into the distance where, hopefully, there's another sip.

There is, of course, but let's try it with water. A good dousing proves that everything's still in place after the fire's put out, and the mint is fine, and there's that berry cobbler in a corner of the kitchen that didn't get burned...and now I can taste that the baker sprinkled cinnamon sugar on top. Excellent. These Barrell selections are setting a high mark on consistent excellence; the Barrell Whiskey I reviewed last year in Whisky Advocate was one of my favorites of the year, and this is a kicker as well. Wise up, stop chasing the hype, and start grabbing some of these instead. But don't flip 'em!

If it weren't totally frigid outside, I'd get a glass of this and drop a big cube of ice in it and hit the deck. As it is, I'm going to settle in by the fire and warm up.

Verdict: Stellar

Germain-Robin Old & Rare Barrel 351, 45.3%
I've been fortunate enough to correspond with Ansley Coale occasionally over the years, thanks to John Hansell at Whisky Advocate having met him; Ansley would occasionally send samples to the magazine, knowing that we likely wouldn't review them. Then last year, things changed. Not only did he send a copy of Hubert Germain-Robin's excellent small treatise on alembic distillation (Traditional Distillation Art and Passion) and some samples of Craft Distilling's very good young whiskeys,  I got a chance to interview him for a Wine Spectator piece I did on artisanal distillers (which Germain-Robin absolutely qualifies as). Great interview, and I hope you can find a copy (it's not online, I'm afraid). He also sent me some samples of brandy for the piece; I needed tasting notes from each distillery. Having never done tasting notes on brandy before, I can only tell you, this was like trying to write your first whisky tasting notes on something like a Brora 35 year old: 0-60 in 30 words or less.

Bless his soul, even after seeing that, he sent more. and I'm going to try to do a couple of them justice. The Barrel 351 is from the vintage Ansley calls "perhaps our finest distillate, a 1987 pinot noir from the Welch vineyard in Potter Valley, 26 years old." This is what makes these brandies different; rather than distilling from wine made from the Ugni Blanc grape (which, apparently, makes so-so wine), Hubert Germain-Robin decided to make brandy from the best grapes, real wine grapes. It shows.

Fruit essence on the nose: quick, bright, intense, sweet but not insipid, and just a bare hint of oaky spice and earthy chalk underneath. Initial entry is delicate and vinous, more wine than fruit now, and you can feel the vaporous heat. Suddenly a warmth spreads over the tongue: creamy fruit, oak, and a gentle hint of vanilla. It's an eye-opener: the brandy seems to gain body as it spreads on the tongue, and fruit blossoms high in the mouth: grape, lushly ripe apricot, and a tricksy bit of anise. The finish is by way of a gentle closing of the day, as slow and beautiful as a sunset as one thing after another shuts down: the big fruits, then the grape, then the vanilla, then the wood, and finally, just the warming heat is left. There's not much of this left (only 120 bottles, from one cask), and prices are headed north of $600, making it the most expensive bottle I've ever reviewed at length. But if you like brandy, I can promise you: you will very much like this.

Verdict: Stellar

Monday, January 18, 2016

All Flippers Go To Hell

And the cry of the Flipper is heard in Hell...

All flippers go to hell.

Starting from the top: what's a flipper? A flipper is someone who takes advantage of a situation that lets them buy a product or item for a price that's below the market price, and then immediately re-sells it for a profit. You may have heard of people "flipping" homes, maybe seen "Flip This House." When people flip homes, often it involves some work and money; cleaning, clearing brush, relatively minor construction or repair. That's a different proposition, and I don't think of those people as assholes; they're doing some smart work, increasing the value of their asset (or taking away a negative from it; same thing), taking a fair amount of risk, and then profiting from their work. 

No, I'm talking about beer and whiskey flippers. These are the folks who pick up rare or hyped bottles and immediately turn about and sell them at a jacked-up price for substantial profit, legally or illegally (most states don't allow the sale of alcohol beverages, even so much as one bottle, without a license). 

How come they can get those bottles, and you can't? They may happen to live near the release point of a limited edition bottling (Chicago for Bourbon County Rare, Tampa for Cigar City Hunahpu's Imperial, Craigellachie for the Macallan Easter Elchies bottlings, and so on), or they enter store lotteries to buy Van Winkle bourbon at the quite reasonable list price, or they take a day to follow delivery trucks around to scoop up all the bottles of an allocated beer or whiskey that they can talk ill-informed retailers into selling immediately... Whatever the reason, they buy cheap (and usually the maximum allowed), and then sell as dear as they can. 

They also suck, a lot. If you're a flipper, look in the mirror and see what a huge jackass you are. Sure, you're the capitalist ideal: buy something at a low price in one market (the release point, the store lottery, the unprepared retailer), then move that product to another market, the secondary gotta-have-it-can't-get-it market, and sell it for a substantial profit. It's the way trade makes money, it's how it's worked since the first trader picked up some pretty seashells off the beach and walked inland to trade these amazing magical talismans for racks of smoked meat and bales of furs. He took a risk -- maybe they wouldn't like the seashells, maybe they wouldn't have anything to trade that he wanted, maybe another trader got there first and satisfied the need, maybe he'd get attacked and robbed (or killed, maybe by wild animals) on the journey to or from the secondary market -- and if the risk worked out, he made a profit. 

Only this is more like the Dutch traders who stoked the fire under the tulip bubble in the 1630s (yes, I know that tulipmania may have been exaggerated, but it's an example most people know about). There's trade, and then there's mania, and where there's mania, there's someone who's going to take advantage of it. And once mania starts, the other risks start to diminish in the light of getting stuck with the expensive commodity if the bubble collapses. But with the Internet helping things along, flipping moves so fast these days that getting stuck with a non-salable bottle is just not that likely. And as we like to point out, you can always drink it. 

I first realized there was a potential flipper market in beer back when Troegs first put Mad Elf in the big 3-liter bottles, and John Trogner told me that one day a woman came in and bought ten of them, at $60 each...and she didn't even drink beer. Just thought they would be great gifts at her office. And Stephen Beaumont then pointed out (wish I could find where; little help?) that prices and availability were going to become a problem for beer lovers who wanted the Dark Lord, and the Kate the Great, and the Pliny the Younger, because beer was becoming so hot, so hyped (and it really still is), that others were jumping in. Like this guy:

This wave of crazy demand, some of it from wine drinkers who were not shocked at the idea of paying $30 to $100 a bottle at all, some of it from whiskey collectors who felt they simply had to have a bottle, stoked the prices to the point that the flippers got in. When you look at the payoff, it's sobering. If you can get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old at or near the list price of about $250, you can sell it within two weeks for $2,000 with minimal effort. Even beers can net you $50 to $200, if they're rare enough. Flippers then further fuel the demand by snapping up every bottle, making the quick sales and total clearance that brings panic and desperation on the part of fans, who will then pay even more.

In this way, the flippers are putting upward pressure on the general price of whiskey. Just as the price a whiskey brings at a legitimate auction or the marked-up price at which it sells on a retail shelf affects the planning of the producer for the pricing in the future, so too do the prices that flippers get push the regular retail higher.

Some producers and retailers, bless their hearts, have taken steps to try to stop flipping. These range from simply refusing to sell to known flippers -- ballsy -- to jacking the list price up close to that of the secondary market. That second strategy looks greedy, but I get it: They're making and marketing the stuff. Why should some lower-than-snake-shit flipper profit? Some folks even rat out flippers to the booze cops, and while there's some schadenfreude there, I'll admit, diming someone to the booze cops is Not Cool. Even a flipper. Because the Booze Cops care even less about the booze than the flippers do, and they'll usually destroy the bottles. No one wins.

The thing is, it won't stop. As long as there are people willing to pay the price, because they just have to have that bottle, flippers will prosper. As much as they suck, as much as they're the lowest kind of river-bottom turd, they're not going to go away, because there are people willing to pay the price. I don't blame those people for the flippers' existence; that's not fair. I blame the flippers for doing what they're doing, because too many of them have no idea what's in the bottle, and they don't care, either. If you're buying from a flipper and you're doing it for the reasons the guy in the video're a jerk,

Look, when you flip a bottle, you disrupt the natural flow of the booze from maker to drinker. If you're just helping people who otherwise wouldn't get the bottle, and passing it through for no profit, I got no beef. But if you're only getting that bottle to turn around and sell it? You're a jerk, and you're going to hell.

As a wise Scotch whisky distiller once told me, something I've repeated over and over: "We make the stuff to drink." Stop buying it for resale. Enjoy it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Beer Friday #2

Don't expect music every week, just because I had Aretha in that first one. That said, I'm gonna hit you with some more this week; an old favorite rockabilly tune I just rediscovered on the InterWebs, which made me so happy, I wanted to share it.

Jack Scott (according to Wikipedia) has been called "undeniably the greatest Canadian rock and roll singer of all time", for what that's worth; he was from Windsor, across the river from Detroit. This song was only his second on a national label, and hit #11 on the U.S. charts...and it was a B-side. I had a box of my Aunt Carol's old 45s from when she was a high schooler in the 1950s: this came out a year before I was born. Good stuff, great sax. Have fun.

Yards Golden Hop IPA, 6.0%
I got this case from brewer Tim Roberts, part of a complicated trade of whiskey and beer we did just before Christmas. Golden Hop was brand-new at the time, and I had a draft while I was waiting. One thing I noticed right away was the aroma, a sweet blend of fruits: grapefruit, sweeter citrus (mandarine? clementine?). The hops are Amarillo, Mosaic, and Cascade; they're working well here.

I wanted the taste to be as good, but it's not, quite. I like it, and it's slowly disappearing from the garage (now that the cold weather's finally arrived), but... The mouthfeel is light, and the fruit character from the hops comes off as almost tart rather the flavorful intrigue the nose set me up for. There's a slightly medicinal pull to everything, strongest at the beginning. I do like that it doesn't blow me away with bitterness, but I'd almost like some more of it. It's just...not quite, and definitely not living up to the promise of the nose.

Verdict: Yawn

Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter, 6.0%

Time was, you wanted Icelandic beer, you went to Iceland. You know, it was a bragging rights kind of thing. Especially with the price of beers in Iceland; whoa, Nelly! But it was worth it, because not only did you get the beers (and the Untappd badge to prove it), you got to go to Iceland! Now it seems you can get Icelandic beers pretty easily, which is kind of cool, considering beer's only been legal in Iceland since 1989. My first trip to Iceland was because of beer: Ölvisholt Lava smoked imperial stout, to be specific, which was definitely worth the trip, but know, Iceland!

Iceland! Iceland!
So that's a roundabout way of saying I got this beer from a friend who knew I'd been to Iceland and wanted to share it. It's a "toasted porter" made with Icelandic-roasted coffee. Surprisingly, it appears to be bottle-conditioned (sediment stayed in place; the beer's pretty bright, if quite dark in color). I've been smelling it for the past 15 minutes while I opened it, wrote this, found the two pix (from the brewery and my last trip to Iceland, respectively), and got ready to taste...and it smells great. Dark chocolate, coffee, pastries, more coffee, flowing out of the glass, doing a Bugs Bunny grab-me-by-the-nose-and-drag-me-in thing. I give up; gotta have a sip.

Well, that's pretty good. Good mouthfeel, plenty of coffee and chocolate, and a nicely fresh character that's appealing in an imported beer. I like porter, too, and this is the kind I like: not a dark IPA masquerading as a porter. The hops are properly restrained. Finish is a bit sweet, but also has a hint of ashes, which is kind of cool coming from the land of volcanoes. The problem is that the whole thing's pretty sweet, and I'm having a hard time getting around that. I think this would be good with food (beef stew, chicken molé; desserts especially), but just at a bar, drinking? I want it dried out a bit more. I don't think this is a flaw, but I do think it makes it less than it could be.

Verdict: Yawn

Spring House Session Pale Ale. 4.2%
I did mean to get this out earlier in the day, and to that end, I stopped at the Spring House Taproom in Lancaster on Monday, on my way home from the Farm Show, to get a beer. I do want to include a draft in each week if I can. But...then I forgot that I HAD taken these notes until I went out late this afternoon to get a draft beer to review and saw the you get a double.

A big Session Beer Project Thank You! to Spring House for calling this "session pale ale," the "session IPA" handle gives me the gripe. This is a bright, light pale ale, and I liked it. It's pale yellow, with a zippity nose of brisk lemon pith/zest and tropical fruit. A well-attenuated light body, but a nice grip; a bitter glove on the tongue that coats and holds the whole mouth...but the next sip opens it up again, fresh and tasty. Finish is clean, even a little fruit on it. That's an all-nighter. ($6 for a 20 oz. glass at the Taproom)

Verdict: Good

Cigar City Puppy's Breath Robust Porter Nitro
Cigar City is one of the most hyped American breweries going right now, and my experience with it has been a mixture of extremes: beers that are just boring, and beers that are just fantastic. When I saw this at one of my favorite local bars, the Hulmeville Inn, I had to try it.

It looks like you'd expect: dark, dark brown with a creamy tan nitro head. Smells like you'd expect: a bit of coffee, some baker's chocolate. But it's not what I expected in the mouth at all, given "robust" porter! This is sweet, smooth, and even a bit rich, like a whoopie pie in a glass. See the Einstök above; there, the sweet's not right, not full-on. This embraces the sweet, it knows it and goes with it. It's like the difference between a slightly sweet peanut butter and Nutella. Or those gross King Hawaiian rolls and a sticky bun. This is like eating a donut; if I feel like it, I'll have another and grin.

Verdict Good.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Whiskey Wednesday #2

I've reviewed bourbon, rye, Canadian, craft craziness, and flavors...time to take a swing at some Scotch. I've got two relatively similar ones here, both malty Speysiders aged (mostly) in sherry casks, and so, so friendly. Good stuff. I just got something else in the mail this afternoon, may pop back on later tonight and add it; or maybe wait till next week. (Next week; and it's worth the wait, I think.)

The Macallan Edition No. 1, 48%
The Macallan, like some other Scotch whisky brands, is somewhat a victim of its success. The demanding grabbers, the people who just want to know what "the best" is (so they can buy it and tell everyone that what they have is the best), flocked to The Macallan, and bought it, and supply and demanded it through the roof. Classic example of one of the whiskies we knew about, and then everyone found out about, and now we can't afford it anymore.

But them folks by the Spey know we love 'em, and they came up with this new release, priced at a more affordable — for Macallan — $90 (although I see stores are already jacking you for it at $130 and up!). Okay, it's an NAS bottling, like the 'color' Macallans. But let's give it a fair chance, hey? It's a lot less than the $300 Rare Cask, also an NAS.

No surprise: sherry wood on the nose, like plum honey, wine brittle, buzzy fruity beeswax. This is blended from seven sherry casks and one bourbon cask, so the sherry sings. As it should: that's what we love about Macallan. I could damn near sit here and sniff this for another half hour, but work demands that I keep it moving. Trembles on the tongue, as if hesitant, and then thins and explodes into first that shimmeringly sweet sherry, followed by pepper and spices and soothing malt. The finish doesn't let up, either; it stays quite warming and sprightly, right on down the throat. I'm really wishing they'd sent more than a 50 ml sample; this is tasty stuff.

Is it amazing? No. Is it Macallan? Most definitely. Is it worth $90? Depends on what you want. If you want Macallan, it's worth it.

Verdict: Good

The GlenDronach Revival 15 Year Old, 46%
GlenDronach's been around for a long time (190 years), but it's the recent history that is most important, for two reasons. First, that's what we've got to drink! Second, it's because Billy Walker's group from BenRiach has bought them and is running things properly. Which means this stuff is simply awesome. I've already had it, used it in several whiskey dinners, and bought myself this bottle as a farewell gift from my job at Whisky Advocate. Yeah, really: I bought a bottle of whiskey. Look, it's from some of the last coal-fired distillation of Scotch whiskey anywhere (GlenDronach converted to steam heat in 2005, do the math), aged in Oloroso sherry butts, 15 years old, and just beautiful. So strap in, here we go.

Nose is deep and rich: fruit and chocolate candy, deeply sweet orange marmalade, vanilla and fleeting hints of sulfur. The sensation on the tongue is just about the opposite of The Macallan Edition No.1: it detonates on the tongue with hot white pepper and stinging orange, then dumps soothing toffee and chocolate-orange sweetness to snuff the fire. There's more pepper at the end, with some tightening from wood, but mostly it leaves your mouth suffused with fruit and chocolate and sherry wonder, but in a beautifully restrained way, not beating you over the head with it. The body is oily and supple, a real tactile whiskey. It is as the supplied tasting notes suggest: dynamic. From the moment it's poured in the glass to the last whisper as it finally fades, this one's never at rest, because there's so much here.

Now...I'm told that there's not a large supply of this, at least not for a few years. I'm seriously considering snapping up another bottle myself. If you like lushly sherried Scotch, and the price doesn't get nuts, you should get some yourself.

Verdict: Stellar