Monday, January 27, 2020

Some Whiskey Master Class News

I've got some news about events around Whiskey Master Class, and I'm going to pass that on, but the first thing I have to tell you is this:

Now's the time to pre-order the book!


If you haven't already done so, the clock is ticking on the bonus material that you can only get if you order it before the release date, February 18. Follow the instructions here, and you can not only get your copy of this illuminating manuscript, you'll get a bonus PDF full of material that didn't make it in the book (because of space limitations, not quality!), like making whiskey from beer, and a baker's dozen of extra tasting notes. Once February 18 rolls around, that stuff's gone, you can't get it. So get it!

Now, about the events.
I've been busy setting up events the past couple months (with help from my buddy, Marty Duffy, the North American rep for Glencairn whisky glasses (no sponsorship, Marty's just a helpful guy, and I do like the glasses)), and it's time to let you in on it. So I've created a page, here (or accessible through the Events tab at the top of the blog page), with all the currently scheduled events. I'll update it as more are added, and as details are filled in.

Come out to an event! I'll happily sign your pre-ordered book, and we'll have tastings at a lot of these. I'm always happy to meet readers; you guys are what makes this worth doing. Hope to see you soon.

Remember: pre-order now!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Some Whiskey Royalty

Got some whiskey royalty today. I've got Chivas Regal 18 year old, the latest – and last? – release of Crown Royal XR, and the newest wrinkle in the rags-to-riches Elijah Craig story, the new Elijah Craig Rye.


Crown Royal XR – We've been thrilled by the XR releases since 2012, when I had the opportunity to taste this exceptional whisky at WhiskyFest New York. It was one of the short-list, fingers-on-one-hand, if-you-only-have-one-tonight pours of that festival. Crown XR is blended using the very last barrels produced at Crown's LaSalle distillery in Montreal, which closed in 2003. These are old barrels, and we're told they're “the last of the last, the best of best. The barrels are empty, the final bottles are filled, the remaining traces of this spirit never to be tried again.”

They even sent out special glasses with this sample, the Sempli Cupa-Rocks. I have to admit, it may be helping launch this pour into the air, because I'm smelling caramel and dried fruit already. Time to get to it. 

Crown Royal always smells rich and sweet, but the XR has been blended with those LaSalle whiskies to a deeper level, a more complex composition. These whiskies are the master works of the Crown Royal blenders, and the results are obvious. There's light caramel (no burnt sugar, just browned), sweet nut aromas verging on marzipan, and a blend of wood aromas: cedar, aged oak, a hint of cherry. The sweetness that comes across in waves is a melange of the caramel, vanilla, salt water taffy, and a teasing hint of Juicy Fruit gum, like a cocktail in a candy store.

That is one of the sharpest Canadians I've ever tasted. This Crown doesn't pillow your palate, no lush sweetness to fill your mouth. No, the first thing that hits your mouth is structure, a squared wooden framework for the whisky to follow and fill. There's a heat and spice that would be expected in other whiskeys, but comes as a bit of a shock for Crown Royal. The rye is forward, the oak is firm. But the familiar Crown lushness, the beauty of the blend is there, behind closed doors that teasingly open as the whisky warms on your palate. There's a long finish that is warm, peppery, and lined with more of that oak, verging on astringent but not quite reaching it, then relaxing to a lingering note of cedar and, right at the end, some dry cocoa.

If you avoid Canadians because you find them too soft, or one-dimensional, if you find them too apologetic... this may be what you're looking for. It's almost unCanadian, but in a most beguiling way. Farewell, LaSalle. You did your work well. (The glass is fun, by the way, but the way it spins on the table requires some thought about where you set it down!)


Tom, the Chivas, and Pippin
Chivas Regal 18 – This bottle of Chivas just showed up in my mail back in December, unexpectedly. Usually I get samples with the expectation that I will try to write about them somewhere (hey, it's not my fault if these people can't manage their expectations), which I either do or don't; stories happen, they can't be forced. When I queried what was up with this – re-launch, new cocktail recipes, change in concept? – I was told, quite pleasantly, that no, they'd just sent it for me to enjoy during the holidays.

Well, I did, sharing a pour with my buddy Tom Linquist while smoking some salmon for our Christmas celebration. It was good, but shortly after that I was hit again with the sinus infection that's been at me since November. Now that I'm clear, I thought I'd have another look. Good blends are a good thing. (The Chivas 18 Gold Signature has a suggested retail in the $60-$70 range, so we're definitely not talking about buying it because it's cheap.)

Layers of fruit in the nose: dried pear, a bit of berry brightness, even a hint of quince jam. There's some chocolate-honey brickle in there as well, fresh and sweet, along with the maltiness – and just a bare wisp of smoke that I thought I smelled while doing that salmon, but how could one be sure? – that would have Ron Burgundy mumbling about scotchy-scotch-scotch.

Smooth and roly-poly on the tongue, this has a bit of heft to it, not light and skittish. The malt bedrocks things, with a light woodwork of oak about it. There's heat, and that tap of peat, just a nudge to let you know it's there. But you know what I like about this? A quality I've noticed in the Jameson 18, and, come to think of it, in the Wiser's 18 – is there something about 18 years in the barrel? – that could be called roundness, or integration. There's nothing that gets in the way of your enjoyment here, nothing that calls out “Looka me over here, isn't this cool?!”, nothing that irks or particularly pleasures to the point of distraction. Like those other two bottles, I could drink this stuff all day, and never get tired of it, or bored. There's something to be said for that. Actually, there's a lot to be said for that. That's well-made whisky.


Elijah Craig Rye -- Elijah Craig bourbon has been part of my regular drinking rotation for a long, long time. It was the first whiskey I "discovered" on my own, without it being recommended to me, and I told a lot of people about it. I was accidentally responsible for getting it booted out of the PA State Stores for about a year, 10-odd years ago, and for that, I apologize (less said, the better). It's one of the few whiskey's I've "bunkered": when the change was made away from a 12 year age statement, I bought some up (I have one bottle left). It's a favorite, and I've watched every change.

This one is clearly a big change, bringing out a rye under the EC label. I've always seen this as a "step up" line for Heaven Hill, and we'll see if it's a step up from Rittenhouse and Pikesville. Heaven Hill sent samples out with a small loaf of rye bread, which is cute, and interesting. It's also kind of special, because the bread was baked by their master distiller, Conor O'Driscoll. (I've had his baking chops independently confirmed; this was not a stunt.)  I noted on Twitter that when I took a bite of bread, and then a sip of whiskey, that "The whiskey positively detonates with flavor when it hits the bread; first time was shocking…now I'm hooked." Lets get a bit more detailed.

I'm out of the bread; too good to waste. The whiskey, however, does smell like Heaven Hill: lean, pared down, Parker Beam-style. The rye is there, with the mint and spicy hard candy notes I'd expect, and some oaky flooring under it. There's some sweetness that comes with the hard candy, but it's bright and almost brittle.

The rye flavor really blows up on the tongue, but it's not hot, even at 94° proof. The Crown XR at 80° is hotter. This rye is quite pleasant, actually, bouncing around your mouth with bountiful mint, grass, rye oil bitterness, and oaky spice. The finish goes on and on, barrel-rolling flavors as you breathe it home: mint, now rye, now oak, now spice candies, back to mint, more candies, and finally whispering away on dry mint and oak.

Folks, I gotta tell ya...at an MSRP of $30, I may have found my new house rye. I'll have to try this in an Old Fashioned, but I'm feeling like Bo Peep in Toy Story...



*You asked for Conor's recipe, and Heaven Hill was good enough to send it. Enjoy!

Ingredients
1.5  cups rye flour
3 cups unbleached bread flour
1.5 tsp salt
1.75 tsp instant yeast (1 sachet)
1 to 1.5 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
1 tbs molasses
2 tbs butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
0.25 - 0.5 cups water at room temperature

Method

Mix both flours, salt, yeast, and caraway seeds in the bowl of an electric mixer.
Add melted butter, molasses, buttermilk, and 0.25 c water
Mix with the paddle attachment until the dough comes together in a rough ball. Add another 0.25 c water as necessary to ensure all the loose flour is collected in the ball.
Switch to the hook attachment and mix on medium-low speed.
Continue to knead for 5 to 6 minutes. The dough should be elastic and tacky but not sticky.
Lightly oil a bowl with oil, then transfer the dough to the bowl. Roll the ball in the bowl to coat it with oil.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave to ferment at room temperature for 1.5 to 2 hours. The dough should double in size.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently to degas.
Form the dough into a loaf shape, then transfer to a lightly-oiled and floured loaf pan. The dough can also be formed into a boule for subsequent baking on a pizza stone.
Loosely cover the loaf with plastic wrap. Dust the wrap with flour first to prevent it from sticking to the dough.
Proof the loaf at room temperature until it doubles in size and rises a couple of inches above the rim of the pan.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F and position a rack on the middle shelf.
When the loaf has proofed, bake it for approximately 45 minutes, rotating it front-to-back about halfway through.
Remove the loaf from the pan as soon as it is finished baking. It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool the loaf on a rack for at least an hour before serving.


Enjoy!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Crap in my Freezer

Our refrigerator is running out of time -- repairs that mean a new fridge, but don't make it unusable -- so we're taking our time shopping for a new one. It's a welcome luxury, really.

That allows is a reasoned, calm approach to emptying the freezer, rather than just grabbing everything and shoving it willy-nilly into the full-size freezer we have downstairs. That's a chance to get rid of things like blocks of quickly labeled "EMRGNCY BEAN SOUP -- 2/11" and several bags of lima beans I bought on sale in...2013?

Because I'm a whiskey writer, I also found three spherical ice molds, a Corkcicle Whiskey Wedge glass (still full of ice!), a set of Han Solo in carbonite ice cubes, and, inevitably, a bag of Whisky Stones. The one set of smaller sphericals are already on their way to the house in Millheim, the Corkcicle has a fresh charge of ice (waiting for this damned Dry January to be over). The Whiskey Stones? Already in the trash, because DEATH TO WHISKY STONES!!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sierra Nevada is 40 -- an interview with Ken Grossman

Sierra Nevada Brewing is 40 years old this year. They've released a 40th anniversary beer (6.0%, 65 IBU), I suspect there will be much hoopla later in the year, even for a company such as this that is still using labels that look almost exactly the way they did 40 years ago.

Ken Grossman has been at the helm from the beginning, and running things solo for over half that time. He's starting to step back now (more about that below), but make no mistake: Ken made Sierra Nevada what it is, what it became, and what it's been. There have been huge contributions from other folks, but Ken's hand is on the tiller.

I got an opportunity to interview him today, and I wanted to get that right up. I also sampled the 40th, and tasting notes are at the end of the interview. (As is usually the case, I talked to Ken on the phone and took down what he was saying as fast as I could...but some of this is direct quote, some of it is paraphrase. When I had problems, I asked him to repeat himself. Generally, though, he was pretty thoughtful and slow.)

I'm in italics, Ken is in plain type. I didn't do my usual bolding except for the first few words to make it easier to pick out when things stop and start, and a few things I found exceptionally interesting, like the statement on Sierra Nevada hard seltzer, and one of the "argued over" issues, and the Sierra Nevada whiskey that never happened.

Ladies and gentlemen: Ken Grossman, founder and owner of Sierra Nevada. 

Congratulations on 40 years! I've been drinking Sierra Nevada on the regular since 1987, and enjoying the hell out of the ride. But my favorite Sierra Nevada beer is still the Pale Ale, which I never tire of (my wife splits her fave: Celebration when it's in season, Torpedo when it's not). Do you have a favorite year-round or annual from the line-up?

I drink Pale, but I don't stick with one style. I drink through the portfolio pretty regularly. In the past few weeks, I had Porter, 40th, Bigfoot, Pale, and some of our new Kombucha. I went over to [the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room in] Berkeley and tried some of the small batch beers there. I try to always keep tasting and enjoying everything. I'll rotate through the seasonals when they first come out. I really enjoyed the Bigfoot this year. You know, I get that question a lot, and I usually tell them it's like trying to pick your favorite child.

Yeah, sorry, people ask me my favorite whiskey all the time. But it brings up a sadder question: which Sierra Nevada beer that didn't make year-round or regular annual status do you miss the most? For me: Glissade, a wonderful lager we still talk about. How about you?

Glissade, that was a great beer. There are plenty of them, but the realities of the market, the support you need from wholesale and retail involves a certain velocity. So even if the beer's fantastic, if the volume's not enough, the retailers will pull it, the wholesalers see that, and we're supporting something that, for whatever reason, isn't making it. Do we want a brand that's not in a good growth mode, or something that's more where the consumers' tastes are? And it might be tastes, might be the branding, or it might be something else. Hazy Little Thing took off more than we expected last year, it was 98% growth. It caught us a bit off guard. We'd predicted 40,000 bbls. First year doubled that, and then doubled that again.

The 40th seems to be a very Sierra Nevada beer: a 3C (Cluster, Cascade, Centennial hops) IPA, relatively dry, and a very drinkable 6%. But what about the oats and acidulated malt? Is that a regular thing that I just don't know about, or is it something different for this beer?

We do oats in quite a few beers for the mouthfeel; in intentionally hazy beers we use a lot of them. We do use levels of acidulated malt in a number of beers, just for balance of acid. It's a malt that goes through a lactic step before kilning, it helps with pH balance, gives a softness in the flavor.

The hops...we were trying to go back to 1980. Cluster was the American hop, Cascade wasn't quite as popular then as it would be, and then Centennial would come later, the super-Cascade.

You know, Cluster never really got a fair shake in America. It's been around for years in variants. This aromatic hop, it was so different from what the German brewers were used to using, those subtle Noble hops. The American brewers were mostly German trained, so they weren't used to that in-your-face aroma. But it was considered an acceptable source of bittering, not as an aroma hop. As more aggressive, higher-alpha (acid) hops were bred, the Clusters fell to the wayside. It has a unique character, and we've played with it in various formulations. It's about 6% Alpha, and you've got bittering hops with triple that now. It doesn't yield that well (per acre), and doesn't have a competitive place as a bittering hop. We've grown some Cluster, and we've gone out and picked wild Clusters outside of Chico [in the area of an old hop farm]. It adapted to the climate down here and does well for what it is. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Cascade we used in a lot of our early beers, and Centennial is just a great all-round hop. You've probably heard of beers that are focused on Centennial that are in the top few beers in the country.

It's hard being an established and large craft brewer these days. It hardly seems fair, to have done the hard pioneer work, to be making some of the best beers you've ever made, and see attention and sales go to new, small, "cool kid" brewers. Is there a path to continued success as a large craft brewer? Do you just keep making good beer?

That's table stakes. The majority of the small brewers are now making good beer. To be considered in the competitive set when people pick a beer to buy, we have to make great beer. We've been innovating, spreading our wings. We're looking at other alcohol beverages than beer. We just put on our first hard kombucha. We've got a great team put together for using bacteria and other yeasts.

We're about to release Wild Little Thing, a lactic, somewhat tart beer, should be out in a few months. Just tasted the latest batch. We want to appeal to a wider band of beer drinker. Hazy Little Thing appeals to people who are not necessarily core Sierra Nevada drinkers, may not even be aware of the traditional Sierra Nevada beers.

And we're working in alternatives: Kombucha is one, and we're looking at others. I don't know that we'll do an alcoholic spritzer. We'll want it to have some more meaning and soul, more in line with what we are than just fermenting sugar and putting flavor in it. The Kombucha we hope will appeal to a similar consumer. We worked really hard at making it, the cultures are ones we intentionally put together. Most of them are combinations of yeast and bacteria that just happened, passed on from a friend's uncle. We've been purposeful about that: a little funky but not a lot, lower alcohol, organic. I think it has a lot more to offer a drinker that wants something that's better for them. We wouldn't call it a health beverage, but the things people are concerned about: carbs, alcohol, it meets those needs in an organic package.

But to get back to your question? Just make great beer and keep up with the changing drinker. We have to, you know. The younger folks drink more than us as we age.

Looking back on all that you've done -- starting a successful family-owned business, creating the American pale ale and American barleywine styles, pioneering estate brewing and wet hop brewing, going solar, creating 100s of jobs -- what things are you the most proud of having accomplished?

There is a lot. The industry is nothing like what I thought it was going to be 40 years ago, more than 40 years ago, when I was trying to raise money. (Brewing industry pundit) Bob Weinberg was predicting the beer industry would be down to 2 or 3 breweries in 1990.

I'm proud we were part of the revolution that changed the face of beer in America, and set the stage for a change of beer on a global scale. The breweries here weren't innovating, didn't have the cachet of countries like Czech, Germany, UK. And now it's come full circle, we're known for beer more than those people. I played a part in that transformation, and I'm proud of that. Some of our early labels and tools are in the Smithsonian, from our fledgling industry. And with Boulder (Brewing) closing, we're the last man standing, and haven't been sold, so we're the oldest of the pioneers. 

Any regrets? Anything you wish you'd done, or Sierra Nevada could have made happen, or in the way craft brewing has turned out?

I wouldn't say regrets. I talked to Fritz Maytag about this when I saw him at the Smithsonian. One of the things I wanted to do in 1980, and I still have the copper pot I was going to do it with: I was going to make an American scotch whisky in 1980. We did supply some wash for St. George back in the late 1980s. One of the guys was just saying a couple months ago, 'If you'd done that when you first got here, you'd have 30 year old whiskey now!'  (Would you, though? Would you have kept some that long?!) I like to think we'd have kept at least one bottle!

You've always seemed like a very 'no drama' kind of guy, and Sierra Nevada reflects that: solid, continuing brands, packaging that rarely changes, beers that clearly pay homage to classics, but often make solid advances. Why has Sierra Nevada been so steady all these years, still the same beers at the core, still the same colors and graphics? Is it because of your company culture and your personality, or is it something you could do because you were in this very, very early? Is that a strategy you've followed because it worked, or because it's the way you know? 

Several times over the years we've hired firms to do a major refresh of the pale ale. It ended up being the artwork for the XXX package. That's one of the versions that was done for refreshing Pale Ale. There was internal angst about such a big shift – and I love that label – but our family argued over that. That statement on the sixpack; that's one of the things we argued about! 

We see other brewers – what's the industry saying, every time you do a package refresh you get a 5% sales bump? But I've seen some brewers go through a half dozen or more in ten years and I think it can do damage to brand equity. I don't think it's all upside. Some brands need a refresh, but every year or two seems like a lot. A homebrewer friend did the original labels, he was in the Maltose Falcons club. Chuck Bennett.

You've got 40 years in, more than that, counting start-up. That's a career for most people. Are you looking to hang up your boots any time soon? Is there an exit strategy for Ken Grossman, and what does the company look like on the other side of it?

We hired a CEO, promoted the COO Jeff White into that last year. I've been slowly unloading stuff that I'd rather not be doing. I'm working less, trying to work myself out of the job. I like the technical stuff, so I still play a role in that. I've got two children involved in the business out here. Brian oversees the customer experience side at all three places. Sierra is on the people side and in the leadership group.

I'm just trying to stay out of people's way, and I stick my fingers in where it makes sense. My wife is always after me to work less, so I took a bike ride this morning, I only have one meeting after this, and then I'll head home. I have a woodshop and a metalshop at home. I bought a welder and a lathe, first pieces of equipment I bought, and I've still got 'em both. 

Thanks, Ken. For everything. 




Tasting Notes on Sierra Nevada 40th Hoppy Anniversary Ale -- Oh, that beautiful fresh yeast smell. Nothing like a Sierra Nevada ale. Beer's a little bit hazy, with an apricot nectar color and a crunchy white head. Noses pine and pith, with a bit of orange candy. It plays slick but sharp on the tongue, with firm hop flavor -- that pine and citrus again -- but not the gripping bitterness of a Celebration.

In fact, this is a beautiful feat of brewing: they've taken the basic building blocks of their brewing, a brewing tradition (you can certainly say that after 40 years of it) that includes Pale Ale, Bigfoot, Celebration, Torpedo, Tropical Torpedo, and Hazy Little Thing...and once again they've taken those basic ingredients and created a beer that slides into that formation without infringing on any of the others, and yet clearly belongs in that formation. These are all beers that are individuals, and only Bigfoot does that by being hugely different. 40th does it almost all with mouthfeel. Well done!


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Booze Tariffs Are Going To Affect YOU

Hey!

I'm about to start tasting notes again, finally. But this comes first, because it's important and there isn't a lot of time left. For what? For you to help stop the crazy booze tariffs that are looming.

There's so little time left, less than a week, that I'm going to tell you what to do first, and then you can read the explanation below. But trust me: DO THIS NOW. Send a (pre-written) email to the US Trade Representative here, telling them to knock off this unfair, job-killing action (this is easy, and all you need to do is add your name and address to it, like I did). Then go here and drop a comment directly in the Trade Representative's face, official-style. Click on the "Comment now!" button in the upper right corner, and leave your comment in the next screen that pops up. It can be as simple as "I oppose the imposition of tariffs on European wine and spirits in this action. Such tariffs will directly hurt US companies, and US jobs." (That's what I submitted.) Or you can get more ideas here.

Okay. Did you do that? NO? The deadline for comments is January 13! Let's go, step it up! Do it, now, and then come back here and read the explanation below.


Here's what's going on. 

Tariffs of 25% on single malt Scotch and Irish whiskies are already in place (and if you haven't felt them, well, thank your friendly importers), similar taxes (yeah, tariffs are taxes. Anyone who tells you differently is lying or stupid) are already in place on European wine.

But that's not all. The EU has retaliated against US-imposed tariffs (that's why they call it a trade war) on European steel and aluminum by throwing a 25% tariff on American whiskey (among other things). And the US government has let it be known that they are contemplating significant increases on booze tariffs: 100% on champagne, unspecified increases on whiskies.

I'll be honest. I stood aside on this because these tariffs were sanctioned by the World Trade Organization. What?  The WTO saying, "Sure, go ahead, lay that tariff down, momma" ?? Well, it's because of this:
What's that wind under our wings? EUROSUBSIDY, mon ami!
After several years, the WTO has finally decided that Airbus was being unfairly aided by subsidies from European governments. (Indications are that they will rule that Boeing was also being subsidized, but that hasn't come out yet.) The remedy was an invitation to the US government to impose billions in tariffs on European goods.

So I stayed out of this, because say what you will about Trump's other tariffs, this one was actually sanctioned, allowed, righteous, and deserved. But someone from the Distilled Spirits Council of the US called me this morning, and asked me why the hell I wasn't on board.

Well, Airbus, I said. This is justified.

Really, she said? Subsidies on aircraft should be equalized by tariffs on whisky? And think about it: some of those European whiskies are owned by US firms (like Brown-Forman), imported and sold by US firms, and directly create American jobs. And they aren't airplanes, are they?

She had a hell of a good point there. This is bullshit. And I don't care if you like the President or not, remember this: he's a rich teetotaler. It ain't gonna hurt him at all.

But it IS going to hurt you. Directly, because everything is going to cost more. That's simple, and easy to understand. But indirectly, because if the price goes up, sales will go down, and guess what? We don't get the allocations anymore. Because France, and Taiwan, and Canada, and Germany, and Japan are all going to be buying up the good stuff because suddenly we aren't, and the distillers are going to be all, hey, why should we send anything nice to America? They screwed us.

So...if you haven't actually sent the email (it's so easy!) and left your comment (please feel free to use mine), would you please go do that? Thanks!