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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 #3

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: Okay

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: Okay

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: Okay

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

Friday, January 8, 2016

Beer Friday: #1

Ha! You were maybe expecting "Foamy Friday"?

I don't do that crap. Beer deserves a bit more r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

Feel free to fire Aretha up while you're reading the reviews. I did while I was writing them, and it made the beer taste better, just like drinking your beer from expensive, hand-blown, wildly-accurate-designed-by-pseudoscientific-principles beer glasses that are "pretentious as shit"!!!, it didn't, not really. But I did enjoy the process more that way. Speaking of the process, here's how I'm going to do this. Unless otherwise noted, these beers are samples sent from the brewery, chilled to proper temperature, and sampled from a sleeve pint glass (because I'm an ornery bastard). I will also be trying to include one draft beer each week.

On to the reviews.

Yuengling IPL, 5.0%
Got some fresh at the brewery on Monday, so you bet I'm gonna review it. They want to see this go year-round; does it have the stuff?

It pours pretty, dark gold with a bright white head. Aroma is fresh lager (fresh-moist white bread, tiniest hint of sulfur!) and piney-grassy hop. Not a hint of skunk; IPL comes in brown bottles, thank you! The mouth is a relatively light lager with that bit of extra body you can expect from Yuengling, and an amount of hop flavor (pine, grapefruit zest, and something fruity...melon?) and bitterness that is definitely more than you expect from Yuengling. At 60 IBU, this is twice as bitter as their long-time hoppiest brew, Lord Chesterfield. The bitterness kicks in about a second after entry, gripping in the back, and turning it up in the finish. It's like a subtly spiced curry; the bitterness builds as you get through the bottle. The first gulp doesn't impress, but by the fourth, you can feel the hop every time you breathe; interesting effect.

This is a hard one to pin down. It seems simple, and you could drink it quickly and say it's simple...but it's not. There's a nice little twist here, and I'm not sure if most of us will catch it. I'd like more malt here, the body lets me down, and I'd like more hop aroma from something calling itself India Pale Lager. That's the problem here: expectations. After Yuengling absolutely nailed it with last summer's weissbier, I figured this one would be bolder. And even though the hop continues to breath-mint me on every inhalation... Damn. This beer is not giving up. A 4-ounce and done sample would not do it justice. The further I get into the bottle, the more I like it. It's no Prima Pils, but it's not meant to be. It's not a killer, but it's no baby bottle either.

I still want more, but it's better than I thought on first look. I'd like it sharpened up, I'd like more body, but it's not going to get "Flawed" for being not up to the expectations engendered by the name.

I'm going to encourage Yuengling IPL to be pleased to walk away with "Yawn," because that's not really that bad. Maybe tweak this before the next seasonal release? Maybe a bit more body? Maybe a bit more aroma hopping? Maybe then you'll have a killer on your hands.

Verdict: Okay...with potential

Allagash Interlude, 9.5%

I've been thinking to myself lately, 'You know, I don't like sours, don't like Brett beers, don't like funk.' But damn it, I know it's not true! Because I liked sours and Bretts and lambics 30 years ago, liked them right up through about 2008, when I went off them for a while after full lambic immersion in Belgium. When I tried some new ones...damn. No. But now, drinking my first Interlude in years, it's coming back to me.

This is almost too complex to describe. First, it's a coppery color, with very little foam. The nose is sharp, acidic; there are barnyard aromas and it's a bit reeky, but there are these sharp fruity notes, even some sweet candy flitting around. The beer's thick at first sip, then thins across the tongue: Brett funk and woody dryness blend with punk-sweet fruit and sour honey. It's like tasting some wild fruit I've never had before. A bit thick, a bit sweet, but mostly beautifully buggy.

And it drinks better and better as it warms (served WAY too cold, unfortunately). Wow. it gets even more friendly as it gets toward room temp. This is the funk I remember. This is the funk I desire. (Served on draft at Manny Brown's in Newtown: $7 for a big goblet)

Verdict: Stellar

Hamburg Hoppenstance, 8.0%

Hamburg Brewing is a small outfit south of Buffalo that opened in 2013. I hadn't heard of it before December 26th, when my brother-in-law Chris gave me this four-pack of Hoppenstance double IPA for Christmas. Happy to dive in; let's have a look.

Pine floats above the surface with a speckling of fruits tickling the nose. Very clean aromas, and the beer's clean too: bright gold, paper-white head. Take a great sip; and it's bitter but balanced, with a solid slice of hop bitterness backed with a table of malt. It's a well-built beer, nothing wrong with it, but I'm looking for something to make it stand out, and it's not there. There's nothing wrong with it: a small brewery making a solid, local double IPA. I'd love to try it in Hamburg at the brewery tap, nice and fresh.

Verdict: Okay

Jumping On the Netwaves with Joe Sixpack

Yesterday I stopped over to New Jersey, and it wasn't to get cheap, wonderful booze without dealing with the evil PLCB: it was to do the Bar Talk podcast with sports radio star Glen Macnow and Philly beer writer Joe Sixpack. Joe (Don Russell) shot me an email earlier this week and said welcome back to beer, why not join them at the studio Thursday for the podcast; bring a beer.

Well, that was a nice invite, and I couldn't resist. I tooled on over after picking out my beer...and a whiskey, since I knew I'd be catching hell for 'abandoning' beer for whiskey! Good call: turned out Glen enjoyed whiskey, so we were all good, especially when he started telling me about this tasting Scotch video he'd was Richard Paterson! Oh, yeah, I said, I got him to teach my son how to taste Scotch! So here's that link...

And here's the link to my appearance on Bar Talk. My part starts at 19:26, but listen to the whole thing: it's really good! They've got a good loose relationship, the fun keeps coming, and it's not dopey 'duh, beer!' and it's not overly geeky either. I had a lot of fun: thanks, guys!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Craft Beer: Big Enough To Fail

American brewers are ringing the tocsin again: Big Beer is on the march! Mainstream beer has taken some heavy hits on sales in the past eight years as regional and small brewers’ share of the market climbed to over 10%. True to the expected storyline, The Empire is striking back: more consolidation at the top to increase their monopoly power and cut costs; more pressure on wholesalers to drop other brands; more brewing of beers that are not light lagers; and the outright purchase of key regional brewers.

Should Craft Beer Nation tremble in fear? Before you answer, consider this: none of this is new. These are the same tactics Big Beer has been working for almost 20 years. More of the world’s brewing capacity is concentrated in the control of fewer companies. Anheuser-Busch’s “100% Share of Mind” program from 1998 was aimed at compelling A-B wholesalers to drop non-Bud family beers by leveraging discounts and supply of those Bud products. Coors has been brewing Blue Moon since 1995, about the same time Anheuser-Busch tried a series of beers in a wide variety — porter, pale ale, IPA, stout — and Miller tried the Miller Reserve line. And purchases of regional and small brewers date back to about the same time, when Miller bought Celis and Leinenkugel outright, along with a 50% interest in Shipyard (which was later bought back), and Anheuser-Busch bought a share of Redhook, Widmer, and Kona.

Gather round, boys, it's beer!
And none of it worked. As the big brewers arrayed these strategies against what was then a much smaller threat (craft beer had a little over 3% of the market, while imported light lagers like Corona and Heineken had well over 10% and were growing steadily), none of it worked. Though the rise of smaller breweries was slowed for a bit, there were also the factors of an overeager business climate, a lack of skilled brewers and packagers to make good quality beer, a lack of capital for facilities investment, and a young industry that was easily divided against themselves, the one tactic employed by Big Beer that was, arguably, effective (several lawsuits, egged on by Big Beer, pitted small brewers against one another).

Eventually the tactics proved to be wholly ineffective in the face of the rich variety of craft beers. Sales exploded and 100% Share of Mind was forgotten as wholesalers scrambled to defy A-B and scoop up profits, and while Blue Moon joined in the growth, it was hardly a category killer. Almost every bar in American serves non-mainstream beer — to the point where “mainstream” is less useful a term to define beers — and the “pull” of consumers for these beers have brought them into markets large and small. It would seem that these alternative beers have won.

But the alarm is being sounded again, as the Mega-Merger looms: ABInBev swallowing SABMiller. ABIB threatens more wholesaler pressure, and is angling to outright buy major wholesalers, making control complete (still think you want to see the break-up of the three tier system?). Goose Island cranks out more new beers, Shock Top and Blue Moon develop more varieties. Purchase of regional brewers is accelerating: Elysian, Four Peaks, Lagunitas, Firestone-Walker, Breckenridge, Ballast Point, and we’re told by the true believers that these breweries are “craft” no longer, though the beers haven’t changed.

Now the warning is that true craft beers will be throttled, denied a chance at the market because of the coercive power of the mega-megabrewer, lost in the forest of “crafty” big brewer-made beers, denied sales of raw materials.

Is concern warranted? Surprise! In a switch of how I used to think, I now believe there is a real threat, but not because of these developments. The alternative brewers' beers are still wanted, and the market will find them, if new wholesalers have to be created to move them, or state laws changed to provide them a path. The continued mad success and technological innovation of Goose Island’s Bourbon County shows that “craft” or not, beers continue to be made well by the same breweries, so they're probably not going to dilute or pollute the craft “brand.”

What’s the issue then? Size. Small brewers are finally big enough to fail.

When these brewers were still truly “micro,” big beer couldn't figure out what to do...because the numbers were too small. There wasn't a critical mass, there wasn't a brewery big enough to buy that was willing to be bought, their own beers couldn't catch enough drinkers to ignite, there just weren't enough barrels of this new kind of beer being sold for it to be worth them making it. It's actually kind of funny that they couldn't figure that out.

But now the numbers have reached the point where the big brewers can reach out and buy established regional brewers who have a real chunk of the market. As more and more brewers hit 50,000 barrels of annual sales, they become attractive to the big brewers, who don't have to create a local brand; they can just whip out their checkbook and become the largest local brand. Because no matter how much sales of light lager have declined, they're still HUGE, and that means these guys can bring an avalanche of cash to bear.

Craft beer has become big enough to be interesting, big enough to buy, big enough that it has enough fans who don't really know who owns it, big enough that the market share justifies the cash. We're going to see more of these, and if MolsonCoors is smart, they'll get in the act, and maybe Heineken should consider more purchases.

What happens then? Maybe the mass of customers loses faith in craft beer, when they learn that many of the familiar names are no longer independent. Maybe the word gets out and people are outraged and stop buying the bought brands; but do they buy independent beers, or do they buy wine, or whiskey? Maybe brewers like Sierra Nevada, and Boston Beer, and Yuengling, and Deschutes refuse to sell; hell, maybe the Department of Justice wakes up and says “No!” to some of these mergers as monopolistic. Maybe there are enough new breweries – over 4,000 now – that choices can still be made by the informed consumer, and more consumers get informed, and everything's okay.

Maybe, maybe, maybe...but definitely this: no one knows. This is market dynamite.

What should you do? Decide what's important to you. Decide what you want your local market to look like. Decide if you'd rather have a steady, fresh supply of a few brands, or a dicey choice of small local guys who may or may not make what you want, which is going to depend on what your local guys are like. It's your call.

Me? I'm always in favor of drinking beer that tastes good. If big market beer tastes good, I'm going to buy it, and drink it. But even so, 4 times out of 5, I'm drinking something local and independent. 

That's a lesson I learned 30 years ago when I was staying at a friend's house in Utica, New York and the nightly news said the local AHL franchise had given an exclusive beer contract to A-B. In Utica. Where Matt's was still clinging to life, where guys still punched in to make local beer. Bullshit to that, much-younger-me said, and we went out to the bar around the corner and drank local all night long.

Make your choice. Just remember how we got to where we are, and what we had to go through to get there. It's just beer,'s beer.

*I know I said I was going to do a post on Canadian whisky, but...I put that off for a while and gave you this instead. The Canadian piece is coming, but it's going to be a while.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Whiskey Wednesday #1

No theme today, just a few whiskeys that I've put aside for this first round of reviews.

Here's how I'm going to do this. Unless otherwise noted, these are all samples provided by the distiller/importer/bottler. I'll be sampling them from a Glencairn glass.

Maker's 46 Cask Strength, 54.45%
I've been drinking more Maker's lately; never really took to it much in earlier days, but I have found that I really do like it in an Old Fashioned. I liked the Maker's Cask Strength, as did a lot of folks, which I suppose led to the decision to release a cask strength version of the stave-soaked Maker's 46. Overproof bourbons have more punch, but not just in alcohol strength; there's more flavor, too. Most times that's good, and there aren't many 80 proof whiskeys I'm really nuts about. Let's see how it works here.

Lots of caramel, corn pudding, and sweet orange/candy in the nose, and plenty of heat, too. It's not crisping my nose hairs, but you know it's got some crack to it. The heat's there on the tongue, too, spreading tree-wise across the surface and waking up the flesh as it goes. The extra alcohol is doing weird things with the soaked-up stave content, though: it's emphasizing it, giving it the mike, amping it up. As the whiskey warms, the extra wood hammers at the roof of my mouth. The finish is hot, and a bit bitter, almost astringent. The wood's won, and it's not a great victory. This doesn't taste like the big wood in a nicely aged 18 year old bourbon; it's like an over-oaked 7 year old. Tain't right, tain't fitting.

I like this one much better as Maker's 46. This is unbalanced, and at $40 for 375 ml, overpriced.

Verdict: Flawed. 

Collingwood, 40%
I reviewed Collingwood about five years ago, when it first came out. Since then I've learned a lot about Canadian whisky, and I've honed my tasting skills, so I thought I'd give it another run.

The nose is brightly sweet, with strawberries, red raspberries, taffy, and — with some vigorous swirling — caramel and some maple. Interesting flip of the switch as it enters my mouth: there's definitely a caramel sticky richness here, but then flick I'm getting those berry and candy notes. It all dances around, then swirls together in the finish, where it finally gets a bit woody. The bright bits lift this up out of the ordinary, but there's so much berry, I'm almost suspicious.

Canadian that's clearly worth sipping. Not mired in sweet glop, not begging for ginger ale, and cheerfully bright. But am I going to reach for it? Well...if it's poured for me, sure. But if I have to reach past a whole bunch of other whiskeys I can think of? Not really.

Verdict: Okay.

Hochstadter's Slow & Low Rock & Rye (Limited Release), 50%
Now that caught my eye right away: 100 proof, 8 year old Rock & Rye. Straight rye, honey and orange peel, "and a pinch of rock candy." Now...speaking as a Pennsylvanian, "Rock & Rye" means that glass-brick Jacquin's bottle, with the sugar-encrusted fruit slices inside and a plastic pouring spout inside the neck. North Philly Cough Syrup, and almost all of us have seen Uncle Jimmy working that spout with a knife, trying to get the fruit out and suck the last sweet drops of questionable booze from it. Well, one of the neat little things about the craft distilling and cocktail movements is that little niche bottlings like rock & rye are getting a serious look, and let me tell you: 100 proof and 8 years old is serious!

Let's give it a try. The nose seems to be all honeyed orange, until you realize that the bitterness isn't orange pith, it's rye oil. Keep in mind that Hochstadter's also released a "vatted" rye whiskey, with good stuff from all over (including, maybe...some rye from Jacquin's), and I suspect some of that wound up in here. Mmm...sweet, but not syrupy, and that 100 proof kick grabs your attention. It's all honey and orange and grain sweetness up front, pretty much tamed only by the alcohol, but the rye starts to have a say toward the back of the mouth, and by the time we're sliding into home, it's standing bitter rye and orange, like somehow someone mixed a cocktail in your mouth while you were taking a swallow.

Flavored whiskey: let's not mince any words. But exceptional flavors, and pretty damned good whiskey. I'm already thinking about how good this would be while shoveling out my drive (body-warm from the flask, warming my cold nose), or with a cube of ice and a pipe, or the next time I have a sore throat and Nyquil just sounds yucky. I'm going to be reaching for this solid, square bottle.

Verdict: Good.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Back on the Solstice...Up To Selin's Grove

Steve and me at the front door
Selin's Grove Brewing is one of my favorite places; not just favorite brewpub, or favorite bar, but favorite places. It's cozy, it's friendly, the beer and food are exceptional (and the food's largely locally sourced), and it's been that way for years. Which is why I like to be there for their opening-day anniversaries when I can; their anniversary falls on December 21, which is usually the day of the Winter Solstice, making it easy for me to remember. There was one year when I found myself in Harrisburg around 5 PM, finished up with business and wondering where to go...when I realized it was the solstice. Up the river I went!

Just a few weeks ago, I took the day off and headed up the river with three very important women: my mother Ruth, my wife Cathy, and my daughter Nora. We had some Christmas shopping planned, though that would mostly go astray: the shopping in Selinsgrove eluded us. Still, we stopped at Weaver's Market & Bakery in Port Trevorton (thanks again, Carolyn!) and did find some good stuff: whoopie pies, bread, apples, a rug, and some Amish-made sauerkraut that went right into the roaster on New Year's Day. Up the river we went, and soon we were parking above the pub.

Co-owner/brewer Steve Leason was down at the front door, handing out the traditional little gifts handed out on the anniversaries. This year it was a pin in the shape of their running dog logo. We shook hands, talked biz a bit (he assured me that they had no current plans to sell to A-B InBev (nor plans to buy them)), then the ladies and I headed inside.

Have you been to Selin's Grove? It's in the basement of a 200 year old stone house. You enter through the barroom, where you find the fireplace, the small bar, the tiny kitchen (our walk-in closet is bigger), and three other tables. Pass through into the main room, where there are about six other tables. We sat by the window, watching the people come and go outside.

And then, of course, we got beers. I started with a dunkelweizen (I've rarely gone wrong choosing a dunkelweizen), then after a taste of Cathy's choice, followed that up with a Solstice Dubbel. By then we were into dessert, and it was growler time. I got half-gallon jugs of the Dubbel and the Stealth Triple, and a quart 'grunter' of the superb Framboise. The Triple was not overly sweet, and scarily drinkable at just over 9%; the Framboise was densely fruity and delicious.

We had to head home (Nora drove), down the cold Susquehanna valley. But I think I'll be back for the 20th next year; we might have to get a room.

Monday, January 4, 2016

First Day: D.G. Yuengling & Son, America's Oldest Brewery

I am waiting for you, Vizzini! 
You told me to go back to the beginning... so I have.
--Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

As promised, I restarted my freelance career in earnest today, by going back to where things started: the Yuengling brewery, America's oldest, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

You see that sign on the wall? I touched that sign the very first time I ever visited the brewery, way back in the last week of December, 1982. It was closed that day, but I'd be back. I wrote the first story I ever wrote for pay about Yuengling, in a beer store newsletter I wound up producing for seven years, the same beer store newsletter that would get me my first assignment for what was then Malt Advocate, which would lead to my long-time column in Ale Street News, which would lead to Pennsylvania Breweries... 

I wanted to go back to the I have.

I was joined by my old friend Scott Fasnacht, who was with me on a tour of Yuengling in 1985 that was a landmark for me -- my first real backdoor tour of a brewery -- and John Holl, editor of All About Beer, who had never been to Yuengling, and since I'm going to be writing my first All About Beer column about this visit for him, we thought it would be fun if he came along. 

We took the 11:00 tour: the old kegging line, the damp and dark lagering caves, the brewhouse, the machine shop, the canning line, and tasting in the Rathskellar, which didn't look much different from my son's first birthday, when we (his mother and I, and his four grandparents) took him on the tour and got his picture with a man who was there to take the tour for his 81st birthday (if I could find the picture, I'd share it). I got a hand-rolled Black & Tan: Porter and Premium. Still tasty stuff, by God.

Then we went across the street where they've almost finished refurbishing the old Yuengling creamery, where they used to make Yuengling ice cream (one of the many things Frank Yuengling did to get through Prohibition). The place looks great, with a huge gift shop area (the brewery merchandise has always been some of the best) and a nifty tasting room with a beauty of an old tap box and what I was told was the backbar out of what had been the oldest bar in Schuylkill County. Neat stuff, opening soon. 

Then we went over to the expansion brewery, the Mill Creek facility. I was very happy to run into Dave Casinelli, the COO, and the man who has a large part of the credit for making the brewery the success it is today (he'd say the main share goes to Dick Yuengling, and it's hard to argue that!). Dave welcomed me back to beer -- which I have to admit, was a thrill -- and I asked him how things were going. I got an honest answer, which I'll be talking about a bit in that column; you'll just have to wait!

We walked on down to the beautiful new bar and hospitality room, where they showed us this video. I have to say; it was well-done, and moving. It's 27 minutes long; take the time to watch it, there's some great stuff in there. Because the really neat thing about Yuengling is that they don't have to make up anything; they've got a story a marketer would kill for. They don't hide anything, they don't try to make what they are or what they do anything except what it actually is.

And then...I drove home. Once again, a freelancer. Once again, a beer writer. Back at the beginning.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Week, plus the STAG Rating Scheme

Here we go...
A look ahead to what's coming this week. Tomorrow, January 4th, is my first full workday back as a freelancer, and I promised myself that on that first full day I would hop in the car and go do what I used to do a LOT when I first started writing: go take the tour at Yuengling. But since I'm working, too, I'm going up with All About Beer editor John Holl (and my old friend Scott Fasnacht), and I'm going to write about the trip, and the 'then and now' aspect of it all, as the first installment of my new web column for AAB. I'll let you know when it's up. Meantime, I'll probably throw up a few pictures and comments here, just for fun...since I doubt that's all we're going to do.

Tuesday I'm going to keep up with the beer then-and-now thing with a report on my visit to Selin's Grove Brewing on December 21st, their 19th anniversary. What changed and what didn't was delicious, and so was the Solstice Dubbel. If I have it finished, I may also drop my thoughts on the new challenge to "craft" beer: I think it's big enough to fail.

Next? I'm going to be doing regular tasting here on STAG for the first time. I'm going to commit to doing at least one whiskey/spirits review every Wednesday, and at least one beer review every Friday...until I decide it's not what I want to do. But I'll be at this for a while, and I'd like to explain my "system." I used to "recommend" or "not recommend" drinks, I've worked with the Whisky Advocate ratings scale, I've done the 5-star thing, and I've struggled with Untappd's 5-star with quarterly gradations system.

I'm not going to do any of that here. Instead, I'm going back to a system I made up in the dark days after 9/11, at a time when we desperately needed something to laugh about. A small number of my friends will recognize the term "GOOD or SHITE?", a snarly response to someone who trashed a friend's thoughtful tasting notes about Marston's Double Drop (remember that, Peter?). 'Who needs all those fancy tasting notes anyway,' I shouted, 'is the beer GOOD, or is it SHITE?' It evolved a bit, into a four-grade system: F****** Shite, Shite, Good, and F****** Good. We had some fun and then moved on, but every now and then...I thought about it, and considered actually using it. But, you know...swearing. Some of you are probably uncomfortable with this much.

I now believe its time has come, with one important addition. I'll be grading the reviews on this scale (the illustrations are provided to give you an idea of just how bad or good things are):


Few to no redeeming qualities. Notably flawed in concept or in execution. Examples: Cave Creek Chili Beer (undrinkably spicy and one-dimensional), Ten High bourbon (too young, too hot, too thin).


Not undrinkable, but with at least one serious flaw that should keep you from drinking again. Examples: most light beers (no flavor), Brenne (just too sweet).


Drinkable, even tasty, won't pour it out; but not something I'm going to look for. So standard as to be overlooked. Examples: Yuengling Lager (I drink it if it's the choice, but...), Johnny Walker Red (okay mixer, but...) Note: this is a change from "Yawn," which I eventually realized sounded too judgmental for drinks that I was essentially grading at C+ to B. I'll be changing the reviews to reflect this.


A definite cut above, a small grin when spotted, yes please. Examples: Penn Kaiser Pils (zesty and well-made), Wild Turkey Rare Breed (overproof in such a proper way)


Conversation stopper/starter. Easiest choice on the menu. Examples: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (archetypal stuff), Redbreast (the standard 12 YO; such as dreams are made of)

It's a bell-curve, like many things, so don't expect too many Crap or Stellar grades, and most are likely to fall in the middle three...probably fewer Flawed, because those don't tend to be the ones I grab anyway. "Yawn" is, I think, the addition that makes the system work. Good...just not good enough to go looking for it.

I'll be accepting samples and buying off the shelf/bar, but I won't double-review; Whisky Advocate gets first dibs on all craft whiskeys, for example, and if I review them there, I won't be doing them here.  Some reviews will be long, some will be brutally short; some will just be tasting notes, some will be more. We'll have some fun, and I'll be as honest and objective as I can.

Thursday? I'm thinking about something on Canadian whisky. I've learned a LOT about Canadian in the past three years, and I've got some thoughts I want to pass along. Don't assume you know what there is to know about Canadian.

Let's Saturday? I have nothing planned. Let's see what happens.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Hello Again

Now this...was a long time ago. Back in my blogging days.
Remember me?

A bit over two years ago, I stopped writing this blog. It wasn't because blogs are dead -- I refuse to believe that -- and it wasn't because I got bored, and it certainly wasn't because I was running out of things to say. Blogs, good blogs, relevant blogs still are vital, and they don't have to be on Tumblr, or run through a microplane grater and splattered onto Twitter, or covered in kitties and posted on Facebook. Blogs are the place to do long-form writing, and I like to think I was able to balance somewhere between a tweet and tl;dr.

No, I stopped writing the blog because I took on a full-time job as managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine, a job I'd been doing part-time since 1996. The magazine had grown tremendously since then, and they decided that they wanted to have some permanence in the position. As for myself, I had two kids in college, and permanence sounded good. And for two years, we did really, really good work. The magazine, in my opinion, looks great, has published some excellent articles, and is, without question, the world's foremost whiskey publication. Period. I'm proud to have made my contribution to that.

But you know how it is. Sometimes when you get too much of something, you find out you don't really want it as much as you thought you did. For me it was editing...and whiskey. The editing, well, it was good work, but being responsible for 12 other people's deadlines wore a bit thin after a while. I was working with the best whiskey writers in the world, bar none, and I believe I helped make their work better (high point was definitely when David Wondrich submitted his cocktail column in the form of an 850 word epic poem and we made it work). But it was editing, and I wanted to write. I got to write, but pretty much only about whiskey. I had agreed to write exclusively for the company's magazines (I did a couple pieces for Wine Spectator), and there just weren't many opportunities to write about beer.
A bit more grizzled, but still grinning.

Beer eventually led me to realize that editing was not what I wanted to spend -- let's be frank -- the remaining years of my career doing. I want to write more, and I want to write about beer, and whiskey, and food, and travel, and even some fiction ideas I have. To do that, I had to cut the cord again...and here I am again. Blogging. Freelance. Writing.

It's good to be back. I'm very grateful for my time with Whisky Advocate as managing editor. It opened many, many doors! Even better, I'm still writing for the magazine, which pleases me tremendously. I look forward to focusing on that part of it, but I also look forward to inflicting my thoughts about beer on the world again. Look for magazine articles, web pieces, and yes, more books. And the blogs, of course, because it looks like we still need to Abolish the PLCB, and session beer, having been born again, needs raising properly. Damned if I'll abandon it to the heavy-hopping hands of American brewers.

I'm back. And I'll try not to use as much boldface this time. I hear it pisses some people off. Come back tomorrow -- if you're interested -- and I'll have a schedule for the week. Busy, busy, busy.