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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Another German malt: Slyrs

I never expected to be doing notes on two German malt whiskies in the first month of the new blog, but here we are. How'd it happen? Fairly simple: we took my son to dinner for his birthday. We went down to Brauhaus Schmitz on South Street in Philly; Thomas said he felt like German food, and that's a great place for it.

When I'm at Brauhaus, the foremost thing on my mind is beer, and at this time of year, it's Oktoberfest beer, festbier, Märzen! I got a half liter of house Traunstein fest going, and things looked decidedly rosy. Then the owner, Doug Hager, came over to the table. He had a small bottle with him.

As you can see, it was labeled Slyrs Single Malt Whisky. There was also some writing on the masking tape holding the cork in.

Can you see that? "Lew's Mouth Only!" Doug said it was to help keep from drinking it all himself; the Slyrs is, he said, his favorite (German) whiskey!

I've known Doug for quite a while, ever since he sang a silly little beer song for the judges at the Philly Beer Geek competition ten years ago (just before Brauhaus opened). This was the first time I knew he was a whiskey drinker. Thanks for thinking of me!

Slyrs is a 43% non-age statement bottling, thought to be around five years old. That would be young for Scotch, but Slyrs is aged in new charred American oak barrels, like bourbon, so it ages faster, picking up color and flavor faster. Let's see how that worked out.

There's a fruity, almost Juicy-Fruit gum aroma to it, along with a firm oak spine. It's sweet, grainy-doughy sweet, but there's some prickly spice as well. The mouth is hot for the proof, but the sweet malt and vanilla-oak comes through quickly and puts the heat in the background. Slyrs is young and lively, not a smooth-tempered contemplative dram. The malt is sweet, the fruit is there, but the oak chases it around the mouth, smacking it on the ass with a barrel stave right into the finish, which is oak-dominated and fairly long.

This could use some more age, though how that would go in new oak is a question. Slyrs is energetic and fresh, but it borders on busy, Might want to take a cube with it.

By the way...this whole "single malt" thing gets me a bit peevish. "Single Malt" seems to be aimed at leading one to believe that this whisky is like Scotch, maybe a lot like Scotch. I feel the same way about American "single malt." Distillers tell me it's because it's all malt, made from a single distillery, just like single malt Scotch, but this conveniently overlooks that Scotch came up with "single malt" to differentiate from the much more widely-sold blended whiskies. "Single malt" is Scotch whisky blended from casks of all-malt whisky, all from the same distillery...a distinction different from American and (presumably) German malt whisky distillers, since the Scots do blend from more than one distillery on a regular basis, something American distillers do not, to the best of my knowledge, do except for the very rare collaboration. We'll be talking a LOT more about American single malt whisky this Saturday, Nov. 2 at Julio's Liquors, in Westborough, Mass.: the American Single Malt Symposium, with people from Balcones, Westland, Virginia, and Sons of Liberty distilleries. If you're anywhere near...get a ticket, come on by!

I've got nothing more German coming up, but you never know...

Friday, October 25, 2019

I Can't Wait: Maker's Mark RC6

I have a table full of whiskey samples waiting to be tasted. I'm working through them. But every now and then...something shows up that I find exciting, and I just have to try it ASAP. That's what happened when I brought home a box that turned out to contain the new Maker's Mark RC6.

RC6 is the 'code-name' of the type of stave used for extra-aging the whisky. Maker's Mark has been working with Independent Stave Co. on a series of staves that can be hung (on special structures of food-grade plastic and stainless steel) in barrels of aged whisky. The staves have been heat-treated in a number of different ways: toasted, charred, infra-red, slow broils. RC6 is a selection by Maker's wood master, Jane Bowie: ten virgin toasted American oak staves.

But what interested me (in the context of having just written Whiskey Master Class) was a note from my Maker's Mark contact that "Jane Bowie spent years perfecting the finishing proof, and it's really special." Proofing, the act of deciding what proof the whiskey should be cut to before entering the bottle and then executing that decision. Here's what I said in the upcoming book:
Adding water changes the alcohol level, which changes the aromas that come forward. More alcohol will carry oak tones; lower the alcohol and the oak backs down, allowing the richer vanilla notes to come out. Distillers will proof whiskeys to different levels to find the optimum aroma profile or to find the level that brings out the particular flavor they’re looking for.
Adding water doesn’t change what flavor components are in a whiskey, nor does it take them away or add them. Adding water changes how whiskey presents itself to your senses, shifts what you sense first or more intensely.
It’s like a person changing her wardrobe. The person is the same, but your perception of them is different.
Jane decided that this whisky, finished with 9 weeks of cold-conditioned RC6 character, was best-dressed at 108.2° proof. Let's find out.

The heat's there, packed full of Juicy-Fruit gum, nutmeg, light clove, and dry cocoa. I drew in a big snoot-full, and got stung by the fire; beware. Light and frisky on the tongue: more spice, sweet pastry dough, and brighter fruits. The alcohol fire is there too, and I wonder...let's add some water. Call me a philistine, but that's lush with the water, more spready on the tongue. To me, it is...yummy, to use Bill Samuels's target phrase.

These limited offerings will be coming out once a year. Should be an interesting class in oak innovation.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Stories, Legends, and Lessons: The Duke, a smoky German, and Wild Turkey's Master's Keep Rye

I can't keep up the level of the Little Book extravaganza every post. I do have more fun ones coming, but there are a LOT more of these straight-up reviews; mostly whiskey, but some beer as well, and maybe a tequila or cognac as they come over the transom.

Without further ado, then.

Duke Kentucky Straight bourbon - Duke Spirits. Since "Duke" is John Wayne, you know there's going to be a story here. Stripped to its essentials, Wayne liked bourbon, and his son Ethan recently found a collection of all his old scripts and old bourbon bottles. He took the bottles to someone who knows whiskey, and apparently asked them if they could figure out what Duke liked, and blend up a bourbon like that. This is the result: a 5 year old Kentucky straight bourbon at 44%.

Well, you know. Interesting story, and even an interesting idea to recreate what bourbon John Wayne liked by blending up something from the evidence of his drinking. But to then call that an "original recipe" dating from 1962 is more than a stretch. It's a story, little better than the "grampa's family recipe" stories that the marketplace is littered with in these times.

In this case, the whiskey should have been where they put the emphasis, because it's not bad at all. There's a nose full of spicy old-timey hard candies and hard oak. It lands well with a good firm mouthfeel, and a mouthful of blueberry cobbler, cough drops and brown sugar. A bit thin on the finish, but I almost feel like I'm searching for a problem. That's pretty good for a 5 year old bourbon. Lean on that.

Palatinatus Single Malt - Destillerie Thomas Sippel, Pfalz, Germany. Aged in American oak, peated malt, distilled in 2014
This time the story is mine. I got an email from an old high school friend, Don Hershey. He'd been to Germany on vacation, and they decided to take in a distillery tour. While doing the tour, he saw a copy of Tasting Whiskey, and mentioned to the tour guide that he knew the author. One thing led to another, and they asked him to please take me this bottle to taste.

Don agreed, and met me for a (perfectly conditioned) glass of bitter at Bulls Head pub in Lititz, PA. He told me the story and gave me the bottle, we got caught up, and I went home to try this German malt whiskey. 

45%. It pours a pale gold. The nose is a fruity smoke, with hints of menthol and leaf smoke. Light and youthful, but not green. Sweet and light on the palate, with bacony smoke up front that backs off to allow a clean maltiness to come through and again, the fruitiness. This is light and pleasant at 5 years, and I'm curious where aging will take it. It could use more integration, and that's exactly what time should bring. The Germans are doing a lot of whiskey-making, and they certainly know their malt. Keep your eyes on them.

Wild Turkey Master's Keep Cornerstone Rye
 -- Wild Turkey Master's Keep collection. If this is the one you opened the blog post for, well, I'll be honest: me too. I've been a Turkey fan for years (though I've called them out when they take a wrong turn), and this just sounded like a killer. "...a backbone of 9 year old barrels married with a selection of very rare 11 year old barrels."

This is Eddie Russell's selection, his whiskey, and proof that he's learned what I believe is his father's best lesson: old whiskey is just old whiskey. Some folks seem to think rye is just getting started at 9 and 11 years old. Hogwash, and this stuff gives them the lie. Don't buy into that narrative. Taste and see for yourself.

54.5%. Hello, nose. Baked goods (vanilla, honey, nuts, baklava?), fruit pie crust, bit of anise. Open up: I'm tasting spicy hard candy, more honey, hot but not breathless heat, some of that pastry - well-baked and browned - and dry peppermint pastilles. Oak is present but doesn't intrude. Finishes long, with dried fruit, oak, and spices. At 52% rye, this almost drinks more like a high-rye bourbon, but the dryness of the rye makes it different, and delicious.

A great addition to this Master's Keep collection.

Just to keep you interested. While I was tasting whiskeys, Pippin was tasting rawhide. He found this 4 month old American beef hide quite tasty.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Little Book: Tasting the 3 Chapters with Freddie "Little Book" Noe

Chapters 3, 2, 1; left to right
Pulling Apart Beam's Little Books

Just a warning: we've got seven whiskeys to get through, plus comparisons, plus some reflections on blending. So why not get a drink before starting? 

Beam Suntory (hereafter referred to simply as "Beam") turned out three surprising and excellent whiskeys over the past few years. The "Little Book" bottlings are named for the man who blended them, Freddie Noe. Freddie is the son of Beam master distiller Fred Noe, the grandson of distilling icon Booker Noe, and the great-great grandson of Jim Beam himself. He's said to take after his grandfather, and so he's been known as "Little Book." 

That's all interesting Beam family and company history, up to the point of the release of the first "chapter" of Little Book. Because at that point, two things happened. 

First, "American blended whiskey" took a huge leap upward in respectability. We were used to thinking of things like Kessler's, Four Queens, and the old, pre-Kirin Four Roses, and Seagram's 7: a little bit of whiskey and a lot of grain neutral spirit. 

That's not what Freddie had in mind with these blended whiskeys. He wanted to try things, work with different characters of spirit, while maintaining full transparency for the drinker. While Four Roses has been blending their ten in-house bourbons for years, we don't really think of Four Roses as blended whiskey. Freddie didn't dodge that label, and the industry has responded.

"It's new stuff," he told me a couple weeks ago. We were on the telephone for an hour or so, each of us with a supply of these three whiskeys, and the component whiskeys of Chapter 3 (more on that later). "Our competitors are talking to us and each other, asking questions. It's been real cooperative."

Freddie's been using his position as Fred Noe's grandson to take advantage of tasting widely of what Beam has to offer. "I have a curious palate," he said. He's been tasting whiskeys in the warehouses for years. 

"I get to taste the whiskey through its full lifecycle; I know what they're like at different ages," he said. "I see all the levers you can pull for flavors." It was interesting to hear that; "pulling levers" is a bit of jargon I've started hearing in the last two years from blenders and distillers alike. 

That's the second thing. When that first Little Book hit, those of us who were watching immediately started taking Freddie seriously. He was obviously more than just Fred Noe's son working on a vanity project. 

Freddie started talking about age, and time. "There's a lot of time in blending," he said. "I'll spend a lot of time working on the blends, and then spend a lot of time not working on them. Step away. You have to be able to get away so that the whiskey isn't just your expectations. I have to make sure that the levers we pull still make it Beam. 

"And that means that you've got to know what defines your whiskey," he said, sounding awfully damned experienced for his age. "Even new distilleries have a history. We're all doing it for a cause, a tradition, or a passion."

Then you can take what Freddie called "asset liquids," the core barrels that contain the classic components of Beam whiskeys, and start putting them together in different ways. "A strong base drives the blend," he said. "A younger whiskey will quickly fall behind an older, bolder whiskey. I'll start with equal parts and let the whiskey drive the blend. See what's driving the flavors you like, and move toward that.

"Then I focus on details: a longer finish, more vanilla up front," he said. "I love the process. Blending is a tool, though. I'm a distiller at heart, I will not stick to just blending."

We did some tasting.

Chapter 1 -- 120.4°, a blend of 4 YO straight bourbon, rye and malt whiskeys (both at 6 YO) and a 13 YO corn whiskey. You've got a bourbon, and the component grains of bourbon; it seemed like a good place to start, since you already know they go together well. The nose is full of oak, dusty grain, and vanilla. It's a full, gentle entry on the palate, almost lush, and smooth for the proof. There's a big fat heart of sweet cereal, orange slice candies, and fresh-cut oak. Tasty, juicy bourbon without restraint until the whiskey rolls off the tongue and the finish sets in and dials up the oaky, spicy heat a bit.

Chapter 2 -- 118.8°, a blend of 8 YO Kentucky straight rye, 40 YO (that's right, 40!) 100% corn Canadian whisky, and 13 YO Canadian rye whisky (which I'm guessing is probably Alberta Distillers 100% rye); definitely the lightest in color of the three bottlings. Freddie admitted this one was difficult. "Not every blending idea works out," he confessed. But he'd tagged along on a trip to Alberta Distillers and tasted through their inventory. "I picked up a fruity, floral note, and made a note to work with Canadian whisky. I was interested in whether our aged rye would dominate the Canadian." It is floral and sweet on the nose, with vanilla and caramel, if not the heavy Canadian caramel. Taken on the tongue, it's roly-poly sweet, with grassy rye mint, cinnamon candies and oaky spice on the back end. There's a long finish, especially for a Canadian: oaky, hard candies, and horehound drops. The spice of rye is definitely there, and the lazy sweetness of that 40 YO corn whiskey is like a comfy blanket on a cold night.

Then we tasted the four component whiskeys of Chapter 3.

Knob Creek 9 YO, 117.4° -- Knob has a place in my whiskey heart. The first whiskey I had as a pro was Knob Creek. Took my breath away, bulged my eyes a bit. But damn! Freddie said the Knob is a lot of the flavor of Chapter 3. "It's not the predominant volume in the blend," he said, "but it does add a lot. Booker spoke about its boldness." There's a lot of vanilla up front, with crackling, 'two-legged oak,' my notes say. "Young Knob is more corn forward," Freddie noted. "Watching it transition to more oaky is an eye-opener." On the tongue, there's a lot of cracked corn and more vanilla with a good dose of oaky, almost smokey heat.

Basil Hayden 9 YO, 123° -- There's a big hit of rye spice in the nose; it's weirdly delicate without being shy. "The Basil has twice the rye of Knob," Freddie points out, "but younger Basil has less rye aroma. And this barrel proof Basil is so different from the Basil Hayden bottling." And it is. There's a big wall of sweetness around the inside of my mouth, almost like a firebox lining, with all that spice and oak heat kept inside. "I like to have a bit of a 'Kentucky hug,'" Freddie said. "I like it to squeeze me back." Weird to taste big boy Basil Hayden, but welcome.

Baker's 12 YO, 126.6° -- I'm a huge Baker's fan, and was excited to taste this overproof version at five extra years of age. (This was before I knew about the new single barrel Baker's and the 13 YO version...separate post to come on that!). You can smell and taste the extra age: a lot of barrel char here, and the corn is like a roasted cornmeal cornbread (like Brinser's Best, the roasted cornmeal my family has used for at least three generations). It's just a darker, deeper version of a bourbon that's already dark and deep. The corn and oak cling and grip to the palate, exemplifying how the barrel changes and, really, transmogrifies the simplicity of corn spirit. Baker's is a master class in itself.

Booker's 11 YO, 129.2° -- I got a few other Booker's samples out (I get samples of most of the releases, which is an embarrassment of riches, and I'll be sharing more of those now that the blog's back up) and compared them to this one. I was very surprised with how fresh and vital this whiskey smelled at almost twice the average age of the others. Hot caramel, lively spicy oak, and prickly blackberry fly right into your nose on this one. All that, in spades, on the tongue, but now you get that big sweetness wrapping it all up. The finish is long, with a good tannic grip. Booker's at 11 years old is quite a bird.

And finally...the whiskey we came to taste:

Little Book Chapter 3: The Road Home, 122.6° -- So Beam, so Booker: Full-bore bourbon, hot corn, polished oak, vanilla, Red Hots, and dried cherries. Two-stepper on the tongue: the first hit is all hot, sweet corn and spicy, firm oak (can't help thinking of my favorite Parker Beam quote here: "I put corn in my bourbon, and I age it in oak, and when I drink it, that's what I taste: corn, and oak!"), but then it's like the pressure lifts and a big shot of dried fruit comes through, bright and almost juicy, with baking spices. As it fades into the finish, the oak and vanilla come back, and float you off.

Can I taste the component bourbons? Well, yes, and no. Yes, in that I taste that big vanilla from the Knob, the grip of the Baker's, the sweetness of the Basil, and that long Booker's finish. No, in that I don't really taste them that way; I taste a bourbon that has all those things, and more. That distinct two-step palate; the dried fruit, the subdued baking spice. Like Knob, but smoother; like Baker's, but not as dark; like Basil, but richer; like Booker's, but even more drinkable at the full proof. A damned good blend.

And so, overall? Chapter 1 is a new blender, having fun, making a tasty, sweet bourbon out of pieces (Lego Bourbon?). Chapter 2 works with new components, quite different ones (40 year old corn-built Canadian!), and creates something completely new from them. The aptly-named Chapter 3, "The Road Home," is an epiphany, where the blender takes known whiskeys, at full proof, and makes something more out of them, when it would have been easy to screw up, and make something that wasn't really as good as any of them alone. Chapter 3 is a blender coming into his own. Chapter 3 is leveled-up from Chapter 1. 

This was a lot of fun, and a learning experience. I continue to gain respect for the work of blending, and I'm glad to see distillers working with more imaginative blends. Did the whole thing start with High West's Rendezvous Rye, a young and old MGP rye blended together? No, but maybe the modern era of American blending did.

I'm just not that excited to see some blenders jumping the gun entirely and blending completely different spirits together -- bourbon and rum, cognac and tequila, gin and mezcal -- when there's so much to be explored without stunts like these. Am I an old fart? Sure. And things like that don't excite me. But neither do CBD drinks or hard seltzers or juniperless gins. Traditions aren't prisons; they're playgrounds, sandboxes. Play within the rules, and see what you can do that others haven't. That's exciting.

My thanks to Freddie Noe and the folks who put us together.

(All whiskeys tasted were samples, delivered by Beam to me. I'll always tell you where they came from.) 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


And that's as political as we're gonna get here.
(It's a joke, BTW.)
Boy, it's dusty in here. 

Hard to believe I used to post every day, for four years. That passed, and then I tried to start it up again in 2016, but blessedly, I got busy, and the blog came in dead last in my priorities.

Things change. I have a book to support, and free rein to do that, so I'm starting up the Inferno, sorry, wrong reference. I'm going to start blogging again.

It's going to be a bit more whiskey-focused this time, since there's that book I'll be flogging. But there's still going to be beer, and food, and travel, and probably pictures of my dog. And I'll be sticking to the original principles of the blog, explained in full here; briefly, though, I'll be writing criticism, not snark, and recognizing that none of us know everything. So whiskey reviews, and industry overviews, and personal profiles will be written with care, with charity. That doesn't mean "I love everything" reviews, it just means that the negative reviews will try to understand what happened, and I probably won't review the real train wrecks. If you want to revel in deliciously cruel reviews of the whiskeys you love to hate...look elsewhere.

There are going to be regular whiskey reviews, and some other spirits, and beers, but mostly whiskey. Part of that's the book support, but some of it is that I found that I missed writing the reviews I was doing for Whisky Advocate. (Yeah, no link. It's the least I can do). And since no one else is really paying for whiskey reviews, I'll do them for myself.

The first new post -- after this one, natch -- is going to be a chat with Beam Suntory's Freddie Noe and a review of all three of his Little Book chapters, the blended whiskeys from Beam that shook things up a bit. The idea that Beam had some aged malt whiskey*, that Beam was going to admit that they had stocks of Canadian whisky, or that there was 12 year old Baker's...well, I found that all pretty exciting. So when the Beam people asked me if I'd like to talk to Freddie about it, I thought, 'Hey! That would be a great first post for the revived blog.' So that's what I did. That's going to be coming soon, couple of days.

All I can show you for now. Note: no ice in the glass. Fought hard for that, because I know you care. 

Anyway, about the book. It's titled Whiskey Master Class, and it's about the creation of aroma and flavor in whisk/ey. (I promise, I'm not going to make a habit of that 'whisk/ey' construction.) From traditional formulations and the grains in them through malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation, barrel construction and selection, aging, blending, proofing, filtering, bottling, and all the intangible stuff that's so hard to measure...I've tried really hard to cover everything that makes whiskey what it is.

The book was inspired by something that renowned blender and Scotch whisky innovator Dr. Bill Lumsden said to me one time. “If the barrel gives a whisky 50% of its flavor...that just means that the other 50% doesn't come from the barrel.” To really understand a whiskey then, you have to know where every bit of that 100% comes from, and how it's different from another whiskey. That's what the book is all about. I'm very pleased to say that Dr. Bill agreed to write the foreword.

Pippin's only 10 months old...
but his ears are full-grown!
It's due out on February 18 but you can pre-order now: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your local independent bookstore (assuming someone asked them to order it...I'm looking at you). You can be sure the blog will run at least that long, and probably up through the 2020 Christmas book-buying season. And I'll probably be fully in the habit by then, and we'll just keep going. My publicist tells me that the blog's good, but I'm going to have to back it up with Instagram (and Twitter, and Facebook), so I'll be there as well, hashtagging like a champ.

I've made a fair number of promises here. I intend to keep them. This stuff is fun. of my dog. Promise that, too. Here, take a look at Pippin. 

Little Book is coming soon. And then it's off to the races.

*I have a really annoying habit of mistyping "whiskey" as "shiskey," so if you see that...I was typing so fast I missed it. I almost did here. Just letting you know.