Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Iron Hill Newtown: At Long Last

I live near Newtown, Pennsylvania. I tend to tell people I live in Philly; if they're familiar with it, I say northern suburbs; if they ask where, I usually say "Langhorne," because that's my mailing address. But I don't actually live in Langhorne, and we do almost all of our grocery shopping, hardware store runs, takeout food pickup, and post office stuff in Newtown, I go to church in Newtown.

First bright tank off the truck
So a brewpub coming to Newtown, finally, after almost 30 years of living here, is a Big Deal. (No offense to Newtown Brewing, but a tasting room isn't the same as a brewpub.) It's even better that it's an Iron Hill. I've been pumped ever since I heard about it. And when I found out that the brewhouse was arriving today, well, I wanted to go see.

At least it wasn't raining or snowing. Pretty gray day, but the team was already at work when I got there, just taking the first bright tank off the truck. "The team," by the way, is all Iron Hill brewers. They get certified on the equipment, and rig it all. They knew I was coming, greeted me, got me in a hardhat and blaze yellow vest ASAP, and I was introduced to the new head brewer, Pete Corbett.


Pete was pretty stoked
Pete was the brewer at Iron Hill North Wales before. But Newtown already knows him, and not because he already lives in Langhorne. Pete grew up here; he's a Newtown homeboy. "I graduated from Council Rock [high school] in 1997," he said, and grinned. "Back when it was just Council Rock." He was referring to the school district having split into CR North and CR South.

It's not the first time he's worked here, either. Pete originally trained as a chef at the Restaurant School in Philly, and did his apprenticeship at the Brick Hotel here in Newtown. He also tended bar at Marita's Cantina (where El Barrio is now), which means he probably served me a few beers over the years. Funny how things work out. Anyway, after some more cooking ("I still like to cook, but I don't know how chefs do it. I burned out.") he turned to bartending, which is how he wound up at Iron Hill, six years ago.

Loving that mash/lauter vessel!
He worked his way up to brewing from serving, which is The Iron Hill Way. "I loved bartending, but homebrewing was a passion," he told me. "Then one morning I woke up, and realized I needed a career change. I didn't want to be a 60 year old bartender. I could be a brewer! It's like that old saying, love what you do, and you'll never work a day in your life."

Pete started sticking his head in the brewery whenever he could. His homebrewing was getting better, and he won an award with a Belgian type ale he did, Blame It On The Dog (and that's a homebrew name, right?). Iron Hill encourages homebrewing by giving employees free grain, hops, and yeast; "All I had to provide was the equipment, water, and propane," Pete said.

Then Iron Hill had a contest: the server who sold the most mug club memberships got to brew a batch on the house system, to be sold at the brewpub. Pete was motivated, sold like mad, and won. When brewer Doug Marchakitus told him they'd have to come up with a recipe and formulate it, Pete handed him the recipe for Blame It On The Dog, already scaled up. Which kind of made today inevitable, in a way.

Because today is the day that Pete Corbett takes over as head brewer at Iron Hill Newtown. He's running the brewery now, and no longer making the commute to North Wales. "It's only 15 minutes, and no tolls!" He told me with positive glee.

The beer list will have the signature Iron Hill beers like Light Lager, Vienna Lager, Philly Special IPA (a New England IPA, but we beat New England, so it's a PHLIPA), and Pig Iron Porter, but the wheats will be called Farmhouse Wheat and Farmhouse Berry. There will also be about a dozen specials. "I'm opening with a South Eagle IPA (the brewery is on South Eagle Rd.), and the Russian Imperial Stout," Pete said. "We always have five different IPAs on, a fruited sour, a pale lager, a second dark beer. Always two seasonals: I'll be opening with Lemon Cerveza, a Mexican-type lager with lemon juice and zest, not overpowering. And we'll have our Rivet Hard Seltzer, on draft." (Yes, I winced, but I did say brewpubs were different.)

The Iron Hill menu will be largely the same -- all made from scratch at the Newtown kitchen -- but there will be some changes. The menu's gotten a bit long, and they'll be trimming a few items. There will be a beer garden behind the brewhouse (away from the plaza), and roll-up windows in the bar area, which sounds wonderful.

Pete said they're currently on schedule for an April 29th opening, just two months away. If you're looking for a job, be aware that Iron Hill standards are high, and the training program for servers is intense. It works, though: service levels at Iron Hill are high. "That's the Iron Hill Way," Pete said. "Don't cut corners, no doing anything half-assed. Quality is the most important thing."

I'm looking forward to opening day. Cheers!


I haven't written this kind of "a new brewery is opening in our town!!!" story in decades. I realize it won't be of much interest to most of my readers, but I'll tell you: after 30 years of waiting, it's pretty exciting for me. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

Back to Work: Egan's Centenary and Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Irish

As I mentioned, I'm getting through a bunch of samples that came in while I was sick. One of those is today's Egan's Centenary Irish Whiskey, packaged in a stunning black bottle (one of 5,995) with the image of Henry Egan on the front. The Centenary marks the 100th anniversary of Egan's passing in 1919; he was the co-founder of Egan's maltings and distillery.

The other whiskey I'm tasting today is one that just came in on Tuesday, Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey. It gets to jump the line because, frankly, the first Kilbeggan Small Batch ('Not a Single Pot Still Because The Law Is Stupid And We Put Too Much Oats In It') (my name, not theirs!) was so damned good, well, I didn't want to wait. So let's see if it was worth it.


My shot: through a bus window on a misty day.
Egan's Centenary 46% -- It's a blend of Irish single malt and single grain whiskeys, finished in XO cognac casks of French oak. Egan's is an old name in Irish whiskey (their malting house still stands in Tullamore; see to the right), but they've been quite open that this is sourced whiskey. The whiskey is non-chill filtered.

The nose is so rich you could live off it. Plentiful fruit: golden raisins, pear, quince jam. Cookie sweetness, sugar cookies with fresh raisins on top. The barest hint of oak, but that hint is stern; this far, and no further, it says, you'll not get anything more until you tilt the glass and taste it. That's not fiction, folks, it's what this whiskey speaks to me.

Taste it, then. The oak blooms on the palate, and you can see what you have from it. It's a banquet the oak has spread, on a firm, wide oaken trencher. Taste that fruit, taste the sweet cereal, and get the French oak all through it, a beautiful integration. As we come to the finish, the oak flexes, takes control, and lifts you into a long embrace. This is quite fine and pleasant.

I have come to believe that there is something about Irish whiskey and Cognac wood that is especially suited. I'll be looking for more like this.


Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 43% -- Double distilled, and proud of it. 2.5% oats in a mixed mash of malted and unmalted barley, and damned proud of that. Kilbeggan is testing the boundaries with some whiskeys that were tested some years back. I can only hope that the results encourage them to continue, because as I said above, the earlier release was just brilliant. I have high hopes for this one.

Quite a different nose from the Egan's. This is edgey, brittle, with a daring conjunction of sweet hard candies -- spicy Christmas candies, fruit pastilles, herbal lozenges -- and a dry minerality. As it warms, the fruit candy is transitioning to fruit puree: berries, crisp nectarines. It started off a bit sour, but quickly became sharp with berries.

Let's try this. Wow. So different from the Egan's malt and grain: this mixed mash single pot is singing and stinging; this is a lot of flavor, barely restrained. Oily fruit and a fresh grassiness spread on the tongue. I'm used to creaminess in beers with oats in them, and I'm wondering if that's what I feel here. But the oak puts some straight edges on the sides, and lays some tannin down the middle, which keeps the sweet fruit in check. The finish is there before you know it, oaky, sweet, and there's the fruit...but it's all fading away, like the end of an amusement park ride, slowing to a stop, and do you want to get in line and go again?

This is what I liked so much about the previous Kilbeggan Small Batch: excitement. Every sip of this is like when I'm sight-reading a fast piece of music, but doing it well: I'm barely staying ahead of the flow, but the music is so good, so well-written that you don't notice the effort, just the joy of the ride...and you're breathless and grinning at the end.


Coming up: beers, at long last.




Friday, February 7, 2020

Overproof Day Part 2: Booker's 2019-02, 03, 04 Shiny Barrel, Country Ham, & Beaten Biscuits

Look, you all know what Booker's is, right? Uncut, unfiltered bourbon, pretty much right out of the barrels, "the way I drink it," as The Man himself said, and now you get different batches four times a year -- because tickers? Well, gee, I dunno, I just drink the stuff -- and they're all different because that's how bourbon works, damn it, and if you don't understand that, you need my new book.

Got that? Right. So here's the scoop -- uncut, unfiltered -- I liked drinking those two barrel proof whiskeys so much a few days ago, I decided to do it again. It's Friday, so what the hell.

2019-02 Shiny Barrel Batch, 124.0° proof, 6 years, 5 mo., and 1 day old: Sweet Red Hots candy and vanilla extract, right out of the little brown bottle in the spice cupboard, cornmeal in the bag, and hot caramel. And for 124° proof, it ain't exactly burning out my nose, either; this is pretty pleasant and almost gentle. I suspect that's not going to be the case once I tip it up. We'll see.

Cherry cough medicine, oaky vanilla, brown butter, fizzing brown sugar, bananas foster and cinnamon, rye spice and oiliness. Oh, and did I mention the heat? No? It's hot, but as my Uncle Don said about the suicide wings, that night in upstate when all the yokels were leaning in, "Not bad. Could be hotter," and then licked the leftover sauce off his fingers. Because hell yeah, I'm going back for more.

The fire roars higher in the finish...then peaks and splits, like a hot-air balloon on fire rises high above the burning basket on the ground. There's heat high in my mouth, heat all over my tongue, but the fire's gone away in the middle, and things settle enough that you can take another lick, and the more you do, the sweeter it gets, and the fire sits down in the easy chair of your palate, and says, "There, now that's not so bad, is it?" And he's right. In fact, it's pretty much all right.


2019-03 Booker's Country Ham, 124.7° proof, 6 years, 4 mo., and 2 days old: I've heard some great stories about Booker's hams...but they're not my stories. I only have stories about his pork chops, so that will have to wait till that batch comes along. Let's get to work here.

There's brown sugar and cinnamon (lighter this time), sweet vanilla, dried buttercream frosting (you know? Like it's been sitting out for a day, and got kind of crunchy on top?), and just a tiny hint of funky raunch, warehouse candy-style. And now that I think about it, I'm kinda surprised I don't associate that with a big brawly 6 year old like Booker's before. Beam's had a deft touch for picking the rounded barrels: hats off.

All right, I'm ready. Tip it.

Damn, folks, this one might need a touch of water. No, I'm okay. But the heat is by God up front on this one, cracking on before it even properly spreads on the tongue. Rye's coming through hard, but so's the sweet, which is real big, and cushions that hot, spicy stuff. This is where Booker's beguiles you. Sure, it's hot, but the flavors are so big, so enveloping, so much, that you are okay with the heat because you want more of that stuff. Mmmm, cinnamon and orange, brown sugar and vanilla, crackling caramel, and that hard-working rye skinning it back with a spicy, oily note that reels in the oak and dries it up into a way long finish.

Jeez. Is this stuff getting on top of me? Only one way to find out. Punch through to number 3: Beaten Biscuits. The strongest, and oldest of the three.

2019-04 Beaten Biscuits, 126.1°proof, 6 years, 6 mo., and 19 days: Hmmm...I did pour a bigger sample. Maybe there is something going on. There's cinnamon roll in the nose, tell you that, with some nice dough notes, but there's fresh-split oak log in there, too. The Red Hots are there, and a hint of red hot woody, the toothpicks soaked in cinnamon oil, and some brittle sugar cookie. It just opens up more and more, the longer I go at it; a little anise, some hot mint... That's damned good.

Bring it on. Ha! I don't even know where the heat went. (Maybe all that scar tissue on my tongue has something to do with it, but if that's the cost...) This one's oak forward, with vanilla and a little King Syrup, and the cinnamon's hiding in a corner of my mouth because the oak's banging around like a drunk in the basement, hollering and thumping. Old Mister Rye's having his say, fiddling his wild tune and it's slicing through the room, setting the tempo for this hoe-down. Finish? No, there's just the oak, taking a breath long enough for me to take another hit, and he's stomping again. You don't want the finish, you just want this party to keep on rocking. When it comes, it's oak, clogging and stepping, and away he goes, with the roll of the heat.

Well, that was silly, but by golly, that was a good, good whiskey. Third bottle's the charm: this one's the winner tonight.

Booker's is not just a good whiskey. This is an iconic whiskey. If there's any validity or value left to the old idea of something that "separates the men from the boys," Booker's is it. Big, and just a bit wild with it, and unapologetic for every ounce. An altogether appropriate bottle for a wake, a great bottle for a snowbound weekend. Booker's.



*Yes, these full-bottle samples were sent to me by Beam Suntory (or their agents). I have received no other compensation, and Beam probably thinks I'm a skunk for sitting on these for almost a year before reviewing them. I promise you as an ethical writer that I don't really give a damn about another bottle of free whiskey, because when you have so much of it you don't have room for more...it don't matter if you piss off someone with an honest review. Even Beam. Even Booker's. Yes, I know it's unfair that I have three bottles of free Booker's. It's also not fair that I'm going to put in three hours or more work on this and not get paid a dime. Figger it out. 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Overproof Day: Larceny Barrel Proof and Stagg Jr. Batch 13

Two barrel proof, cask strength, overproof whiskeys to taste today as I struggle to clear the tasting table (because Cathy wants it clear). I got the Larceny a while back, but the Stagg Jr. was just last month, so hey, practically immediate, that one. (And before I forget...thank you to both Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace for not putting any damned wax on these bottles!)

Why barrel proof? I think Booker Noe said it best: so you can taste it the way he tasted it, the way a master distiller or blender tastes it -- full-bore, uncut, unfiltered, untouched. The only thing they do to this stuff is screen out the chunks of char and pick which barrels to pour in the dump trough.

No sense wasting any more time. Let's rip these open.

Larceny Barrel Proof Batch A120, 123.2° proof: No backstory, only this: wheated bourbon. No mash bill is given; guesses are that it's around 20% wheat, but take that with a grain of salt. The label says these are whiskeys between 6 and 8 years old. The batch number is pretty simple: A120, with “A” representing the first batch of that year, “1” representing January, and “20” representing the year 2020.

It's poured and waiting, and I can smell it from a foot away; sweet, smokey, vanilla, evocative of the deep hollers of the mountains. Get the nose in there, and you'd swear you were in the warehouse, it's that rich. This one isn't shy, unlike some other wheaters I've had. I can almost pick out some of that brawling character of the old Heaven Hill Bonded 6. There's a lot of caramel, an edge of burnt sugar, crème brûlée, all those hot, browned sugar things. But there is also a brightness -- a berry acidity -- and unsalted peanuts, with a nip of oak bark following on behind. Intense, but, hey, that's what you get from these heavyweights. Let's pull the trigger.

Heat, for sure, but not killing, and there sure is a lot else there. All that browned sugar, leaning more heavily toward the darker sides, and hot vanilla; that crème brûlée is really coming on strong. But there is some corn now, Indian pudding, the concentrated sweetness of parched corn. There's a big smacky paddle of oak behind it, too, and that pretty much lifts you into the finish, where it dominates that sweet caramel/corn.

Boys and girls, we're looking at a different Larceny here. Even at the standard 92° proof, Larceny is soft-spoken. This wheater is laying it down, and, maybe, is ready to go toe-to-toe with The Wheated Warrior: Mr. William Larue Weller (who, you'll note, delivers that same kind of crème brûlée and corn pudding richness...with less oak). If you've been looking for a wheater with the backbone of a big rye bourbon, this here bottle does it.


Stagg Jr., 13th batch, 128.4° proof: Did someone say "big rye bourbon"? Well, hello there, little fella! And I do like this bottle style: fireplug short, broad-shouldered, solid heft of whiskey in your paw. This one's a bit older overall than the Larceny ("eight years old" by the press release), and darker in color.

Pop it open, and you know it's a different whiskey. Every bit as bold as the Larceny, but without the cushioning sugar-caramel sweetness. Stagg just steps right up and sucker-punches you, BOOM, with a honker full of oak, a touch of wax polish, and bitter rye notes, like a rye bread without the butter or jam. It's lean, it's rippling, it's ready.

Me too. And there's a shock: there's a ton of sweetness lurking behind the austere aromas. Sure, it spreads on your tongue like a wave of blue flame, but now you taste the corn sweetness, the caramel, and the buoyancy of it all makes the heat bearable. The rye notes are like an iron core everything's anchored to, like the supports in an old brick building. Rye shoots through the sweetness, contrasts with it, works with it, and by the time we get to the finish, it's freakin' well waltzing with it.

And you know, after half an ounce of each of these, I'm feeling like dancing too. Two really good whiskeys here, each at a not unreasonable list price -- MSRP is $49.99, for each whiskey -- for a bottle of barrel proof bourbon. I can't tell you what you'll see on the shelf, of course, which is half the fight anymore.

Good luck!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Bell's Light Hearted Ale

I'll admit it: I shamed Larry Bell into sending me a sample of this beer.

I am not embarrassed to admit that. I saw this beer on my friend John Holl's Facebook timeline, and I lusted for it. So I said in a comment, "Hey, Larry Bell! Where's the love, brother?" and tagged Larry. And sure enough, he sent me a sweet little sixpack, tightly-packaged, a thing of compact beauty, and a mere 110 calories per 3.7% 12 oz. can.

But let me tell you something. It wasn't so much the beer that made me want it, or John's loving description.

It was the name

Bell's Two Hearted Ale has been a favorite of mine for years. When it came out in cans, my wife and I giggled with glee, and bought cases of it. Then the Double Two Hearted Ale came out: YOW! I loved it, too, but damn, watch out, you know?

And then... Light. Hearted. Ale. Had to happen. Had to have it. So pitter patter.

Gorgeous light amber, big billowy head. Yum, say my eyes. Fresh bread and sweet citrus aromas. Damn, says my nose. Shut up and drink!, says my mouth.

It is light. Light in feel, light and bright in taste, light and crisply bitter on the finish. It is clearly Son Of Two Hearted, and on a hot day, this is going to be a crusher. And with me looking to lose weight right now? I may have found my moving buddy. It drinks easily, it's bitter without being gaggy (which, sorry, in too light a beer can definitely happen), and the flavor is light and rolling, very, very pleasant. I like the idea of a 110 calorie beer that has some real pale ale flavor.

Thanks, Larry (and thank you, John). I appreciate the sample, and I'll be sharing the other five around. This is good stuff, keep making it!

Integrating the Party: tasting The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 6 (plus Batches 2-5), with David Stewart

I got a couple extra samples of The Balvenie's Tun 1509 on the occasion of the release of Batch 6 of this series. It wasn't really supposed to happen that way, but fun things sometimes come along. I'll quote from the release:
The Balvenie has announced the release of Tun 1509 Batch 6, the latest expression in the highly acclaimed Tun 1509 series. Produced by revered Malt Master David Stewart, The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 6 was married in 21 rare and precious casks from The Balvenie’s aged whisky stocks and comprised in several different butts, for a remarkable flavor profile and finish.
A marriage of 21 casks which have spent 3 months in a traditional marrying tun. The batch is comprised of whiskies from sherry refill butts, doublewood refill sherry butts and ex bourbon American oak barrels - all aged 21 years and older. Only 3480 bottles released in the U.S. Non chill filtered, ABV of 50.4% (MSRP $399.99)
When I read that, I thought...wait a sec, I think I saw some early Tun 1509 samples when I was shifting bottles about in the Bryson Whiske/y Cellar (i.e., trying to make some room in my basement office). I went down and dug around a bit, and sure enough, there were samples of Batch 2 and Batch 3. So I replied to the press release, telling them I'd like to have a sample of the 6 to taste beside my earlier samples. And didn't the good folks at William Grant & Sons send me samples of Batches 4, 5, and 6! (Samples: 50 ml airline bottles. Unlabeled. Hand-filled. Not for re-sale. Which is fine with me, I don't do that shit.)

Better, they sent responses from Malt Master David Stewart to a couple questions I had posed. Let's have a look at those first.

What's going on in the Tun over the course of weeks and months that doesn't take place as soon as Tun is pouring in the barrels? Physically, how is the liquid added to the barrels? Gently? With a lot of splashing? One at a time? Does that also make a difference in flavor and profile?

David Stewart: We generally fill the Tun with the next expression around December each year so that we are in a position to bottle the following spring. Once we have emptied the Tun we will then fill with young Balvenie so that the Tun doesn't dry out. The Tun contents, as you mentioned, is filled into barrels to be taken to our bottling hall. From there, we carefully fill these barrels one at a time so that we don't lose any of this precious liquid; so that filling the barrels doesn't influence the flavour.

How does the character of the whisky change, and – if it's known – why does it change? Does the marrying process add to the cost of producing the whisky, or is it just another step? When you choose the barrels for Tun 1509, are you looking for consistency with previous editions, or a difference? How much of a range of ages in barrels are we looking at this time?

David Stewart: We are the only Scotch whisky company that has these marrying casks called Tuns. Most of our single malts are left to marry in for a period of three months prior to bottling. This marrying period allows the various constituents to mix and settle together. We have many thousands of these casks in our marrying warehouse at the distillery and we feel that this process is valuable; even with the extra labour and double handling involved.
The selection of each Tun expression is created initially in our sample room. We will request many samples to be drawn from individual casks from our warehouses at the distillery. We will sample each individually and then decide on the combination of ages and American and European oak casks. Once we made up the vatting in the sample room, we compare it with previous Tun expressions as we want each one to have its own individual character. Once we are happy, we give the distillery the cask numbers and ages so that they can physically fill the Tun. Generally there could be around ten years or so between the youngest whisky and the oldest.

Is there something that makes this particular batch of marriage special?

David Stewart: Yes, Tun Batch 6 was created by exploring the Speyside distillery’s aged and precious stocks to find 21 unique casks to marry the batch in. The liquid was left to marry for three months before being bottled at the distillery. This rare technique created the perfect environment for the different casks to weave together – allowing each of their composite qualities to mix and create a unique single malt Scotch whisky.


To be honest, not quite the in-depth responses I was hoping for, but that's what I get for sending questions by email! Let's move on to tasting these whiskies.

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 2 (50.3%): A nose of orange slice candy, some oaky spice, a whiff of pine needles, and warm wildflower honey. The whisky on the palate reminds me of the Parker Beam quote I always use ("I make it with corn and age it in oak, and when I taste it, I taste corn and oak!"): I taste malt, and I taste oak. Open the mouth and breathe, though, and the whisky lights up with a cooling touch of menthol, dark brown sugar, more orange honey, and a hint of dried fruit. The finish is more oaky, touched with vanilla and spice.

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 3 (52.2%): Noticeably softer, sweeter nose. Malty, pastry shop (German pastry shop, to be annoyingly specific), sweet dough, light wood (balsa? Maple?), and a hint of cough drop. Don't be lulled by that. Quite spicy on the tongue, but sweet, warm, herbal, and tall, very tall in the space. The finish is quite warm, a touch tannic/grippy, and more of that oaky spice. A dram that delivers a lot more than that relatively unassuming nose promises.

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 4 (51.7%): Fruity nose, with a sugar wafer cookie crunch to it. Dried fruit, light aromas of potpourri, and some light preserves, like quince, or pear. Sparkly on the palate, like little pops of warmth going off. More of the potpourri, deeply dried fruits, some milk chocolate and honeycomb, with drying oak spice lightly present. Like polyphonic music, there's a lot going on here that seems at first to be going in different directions. But on third or fourth sip, you realize it's integrated and aimed. Indeed, this has the most focused finish of the three I've had so far: oak, vanilla, and a touch of dried flower.

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 5 (52.6%): Nose hearkens back to Batch 3, but with more insistence. Honey-soaked phyllo, almost like baklava but not as overtly nutty. There are fruits, but so light that they're almost floral, and with just a slight acidity. Oh, beautifully light on the tongue! Honey, and honeysuckle nectar, and bright sun-warmed spring flowers, and ichor! Makes me think of a line from a favorite poem from my childhood, "The Fish," by Elizabeth Bishop:
"...everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go." 
And as I let this fish go, it rewards me with a finish that flashes sunshine and glory from my teeth down my gullet all the way to the pylorus. Sorry to be so non-specific about exactly what I tasted here, but damn, it was just so experiential.

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 6 (50.4%): Finally, the reason for all of this. Warm cereal nose, with fruit; almost like breakfast, only with the booze heat turned on, and some oak in there. There's a welcoming malt wave that pours across the tongue, then as the heat of your mouth takes hold it ignites like an oven burner coming on. You can almost feel the whoosh! It wasn't just the first time, either, it keeps doing it every time. Guy could get to like that. What's in the whoosh? Reconstituted dry fruit, lively, but still with that concentrated character. The warm cereal, only in a ladle instead of a spoon. Needling oak shoots through it like a strafing run, but the cereal cushions it. The finish rolls on and on, with the oak finally getting a real say, wrapped in vanilla and more fruit, and some solid heat there on the end.

Interesting, varied whiskies. As I like to point out to people who are obsessed about the exact percentages of a bourbon mashbill (hint hint: this is a Whiskey Master Class reference); Scotch whisky has a very simple mashbill -- 100% malt -- and the distillers manage to make quite different whiskies with it!

What does the Tun bring to that, what's the common thread here? Upon reflection, I believe Batch 4 is the key to that: integration. The Tun, and the marrying, brings integration to what could have been an out of control mess of flavor. Things aren't hammered into lockstep, overpowered by a huge first-fill character. They're introduced to each other, given a chance to cooperate, without losing their personality. It's like Richard Paterson's characterization of blending whiskies as putting together an invitation list to a good cocktail party; some authors, some actors, some bikers, some doctors, a few blue-collar poets, and a supermodel or two.

Marrying is a process that adds cost to a whisky. But it also adds strength, union, roundness, integration. It's a decision, and a powerfully subtle tool in the blender's kit.

That was a lovely two hours. My thanks to David Stewart for the work on this project over the years.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Michter's 20 Year Old Bourbon (Bottle 329 of 440, Batch 19H1439)

I have a long connection to Michter's. The original Michter's in Pennsylvania was the first distillery I ever visited, way back in late December of 1982. I've also visited both of the "new Michter's" distilleries in Kentucky, making me a member of a pretty small club of folks who've been to all three while they were operating. We should get a challenge coin made. Or maybe just a hat.

Anyway, I've lost any resentment toward the new Michter's and its driving force, Joe Magliocco. That's largely due to two things: the passion Joe and his team have for simply finding, blending, aging, distilling (and, importantly, filtering; more on that later) the very best whiskey possible; and, well, the whiskey they produce is simply phenomenal.

When the news came out that they were releasing another batch of 20 year old, I asked Joe if I could get a sample. Suggested retail is $700; I asked for 50 ml. Joe wasn't having that, and sent me a full bottle. So yes, I got a free bottle. I get a lot of those. I also am not a huge fan of really old, woody whiskey, so I was going to give this the treatment.

But I also told Joe that if I was going to review the whiskey, I wanted to talk to Andrea Wilson about it. Andrea is Michter's Master of Maturation, the person who oversees the aging process, does the blending, the person who takes the sourced barrels Michter's bought (prior to 2015) and what master distiller Dan McKee makes and turns it into whiskey. I did a presentation on American whiskey history and production with Andrea at the Smithsonian last October, and we worked well together. I was looking forward to talking whiskey with her again.

After getting healthy, we finally set a date and talked this past Wednesday: Andrea, Joe, and myself. I had a pour of the 20 year old handy, as did Andrea; Joe was chagrined to find there was no 20 year old available at his New York office!
(As is usually the case, I talked to Andrea and Joe on the phone and took down what they were saying as fast as I could...but some of this is direct quote, some of it is paraphrase. When I had problems, I asked them to repeat things. I did the best I could, but it is not a direct transcript.)

Is there anything you can tell me about where this came from? It's all Kentucky, and it's all at least 20 years old. Anything else? 

Joe Magliocco: We talk about the three phases*; obviously, this is Phase I whiskey, before we were cooking in someone else's kitchen. This is whiskey from a long time ago, when we were going around Kentucky buying things. We had to sign a confidentiality agreement. The environment in those days was much different. People were just happy to unload stuff.

The Phase I sourcing was me going around with Dick Newman*...and Steve Ziegel (Joe's long-time head of sales). Like me, Steve's not a production person, he just likes whiskey. We wanted to pick something we liked. This was in the late 1990s, and there was plenty of good stuff available. We didn't know we'd ever get to the point where we could produce by ourselves, but we wanted to pick a style we liked and could emulate. It's rich, a lot of flavor, and also interesting: a flavor experience, on the front, different on the palate, and different again in the finish. Steve said, we want it to warm, but not burn. This fit that bill.

(We talked here about how a 20 year old gets picked, and when they decide to do one.)

JM: A lot of people visit us and ask why do you have steel drums [for storing whiskey]? It's one of the things we do that makes our older stuff special. Andrea?

Andrea Wilson: We have a Quality Control system, and part of it is the drums, like mini-tanks. If we taste something, a barrel, that's at peak, and we don't think it's going to get better, we'll take it out and put it in the drums. (Transferring to stainless steel drums halts aging, preserving the whiskey.) We'll use that as a tool. Not every barrel goes through that process, but we use it so we have a uniform, delicious final product. Everything we're doing here is to produce the best American whiskey. We've had to look after these barrels for many years, and we're known for that, for not letting them get over-oaked. [This was news to me; I didn't realize Michter's was buying new make and aging it in their barrels. Makes sense, in retrospect.] 

JM: If Andrea feels that a barrel is good, and not going to get better, even if it's 19 years old, we'll take it out and that stops the clock. But we don't want these whiskeys to be wood bombs. When it gets to our older offerings, we don't really know what we'll have, because we don't know what's going to fit our protocol. Some years we don't offer 20 year old, we don't offer a 25 year old, because we don't have it every year. When people get a 20+ year old from Michter's, it's going to be really good, not just 20 years old and maybe it's good or not.

You have a barrel-by-barrel approach all through the process. 

JM: It was [former Michter's master distiller] Willie [Pratt]'s idea to maximize the size of the tanks to the contents of 24 barrels: maximum. Even our small batch products, like the US-1, they're very small batch. And if you have one bad barrel out of 15 or 20, it's going to taste terrible. If every barrel isn't just right, they can't use it. And if we have a bad one, it gets sent to a company that re-purposes it as fuel alcohol. We don't blend it off, or sell it as whiskey, it gets rejected.

How do you select the barrels to do a 20 year old? Who's involved, and when? Is it just you, Andrea?

AW: We have a tremendously skilled team. We don't make decisions in isolation. The collective experience of the team is leveraged to make those decisions. Joe always has focused on the importance of having a great team around you. That's a critical factor of the success of Michter's. We've tried to encourage a culture here. You don't leave things to chance, there's a control. We have people in our department who have the mentality of a chef. They test everything, they have a discipline and an artistry. We talk a lot about chefs here.  

The bottle you sent was #329 of 440, Batch 19H1439. What does all that tell me? 

AW: 19 is the year of the bottling, 2019. H is the month, August. And 1439 is a proprietary bottling code for us.

Is the code a tracking code?

JM: You could say that's what it is.

How many barrels went into this batch? 

JM: We don't talk about things like that. When you get stuff that's really old like this, you may get a barrel that's almost empty. I know from experience, you can have a barrel with very, very little left.

AW: That's why we evaluate every barrel individually to get the ones that are going to work well together. It's part of the artistry of blending. It's about creating a beautiful product. We talk about the art and science of what we do; this falls into artistry. It's like making perfume. You can have a lot of beautiful floral scents, but they won't necessarily come together to make something beautiful. It's about assembling a symphony of flavor.

What kind of bourbon do we have here? Wheat, rye, a combination? 

JM: We're not going into the mashbill. Some people will tell you every detail. Willy always felt that some things should be secrets. 

Andrea and I after wowing the Smithsonian.
AndreI know you're very particular about filtration.** What do we have here in those terms? And why? 

AW: They do get their own custom filtration. They're very old whiskeys, with a tremendous amount of complexity, but they're very delicate. So we use a looser grade of filter, and add very little water. It's a very careful set of decisions.

Is that why 57.1%? Is that barrel proof? 

AW: The complexity of the bonding of the flavors is much more... [long pause here]

What do you mean by bonding of the flavors? 

AW: When you are working with older whiskeys, the complexity of the chemical bonding of the whiskey is much tighter. When you add water, you risk breaking the bonds that took years to develop in the aging process, and it's something to be mindful of.  

How long is it going to be before we see a Phase III 20 year old? I hope I'm still allowed to drink by then!

JM: Let's think about this. 2035, right Andrea?

AW: That's right, we started distilling in 2015.

JM: You want to buy a few bottle futures?! [general laughter ensues]


Tasting --

I gotta say, the color is just gorgeous. 

AW: We had samples lined up on a table, and the color...it was just stunning.

It smells sweet. Can a thing smell sweet? That's a taste, isn't it? 

AW: Sweet is a taste more than an aromatic, but there are scents that come forward from sugar, from butter, from cream, that make you smell sweetness.

It's lush, sweet, caramel, creamy on the palate. There's a berry brightness, too. Some nice nut aromas.  

AW: I don't get berries in bourbon. I get cherries. Everyone's different. Reminds me of being in Savannah and having pecans; roasted, candied pecans. 

Not a lot of heat for the proof. Soothing on the tongue. 

AW: It does have a really long finish, like a syrup experience, where it coats a bit.

I've really only had a few whiskeys at this proof that were this smooth, not hot. That's special. 

[That was all we had to say. I thanked them for their time, and got to work on this. And then today, I revisited the whiskey.]

Clearly an older whiskey with the spires of oak soaring through the nose, but the spires don't overshadow the hall packed with a full array of bourbon aromas below. This has maintained its youth well: roasted sweet corn, vanilla, that buttery creaminess, and okay, berry and cherry, and roasted nuts. That is a treasure chest full of delight, that nose.
The palate is easily recognized from the aroma, but to my surprise, there's actually some fresh grassy character there! How does that happen with a 20 year old? The finish rolls on after, a runaway freight car rolling down a seven-mile incline that just cannot be stopped, only receding into the distance.
This is going to be a hard bottle to save and savor. I want to have more later tonight, let alone tomorrow. Well done, Andrea; well done, Joe, Dick, and Steve. Well done, Phase II.

Oh, and by the way, my Dry(-ish) January is over. 


*Michter's is following a plan of whiskey production. Phase I, the earliest bottles they put out, were whiskeys that Joe, Dick Newman (former CEO of Austin, Nichols (which owned Wild Turkey) and the head of the Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, and Old Taylor brands when he was at the old National Distilling), and Steve Ziegler (Joe's head of sales) selected barrels for bottling. As Joe said, things were different then, and whiskey was easily found and purchased. 
Phase II involved Joe and his distillers going out to distillers with excess capacity and having them make distillate to their specifications (which they'd honed in those years of buying Phase I barrels). Again...back then there were places that were happy to make some money making spirit for someone else. 
Phase III came about when the market heated up, and it was clear that the line moving up labeled "Does it make sense to build our own distillery?" and the line moving down labeled "Does it still make sense to stake our future on buying spirit from others?" were going to cross pretty soon. So Joe and his brothers (silent partners) built a distillery just outside of Louisville (an historic distilling area, near Stitzel-Weller and Early Times), and since 2015, they've been making their own spirit...which is going to be ready fairly soon. No 20 year old Phase III for a while, though!

**Willy Pratt experimented with different types of filtration, and found that not only did they result in different flavor/aroma effects on the whiskey, but they affected whiskeys differently based on how old they were. It sounds like bullshit, frankly, but I've blind-tasted it at Michter's and it's pretty clear.