Archive for October, 2010

A Passion for Whisky: Richard Paterson

Posted in Musings with tags on October 14, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

I’m sitting before my computer. It’s after dinner (an unremarkable repast this evening) sipping a slender wine glass full of Gonazalez Byass Apostoles “Palo Cortado Muy Viejo” sherry. It’s 30 years old and it’s delicious. How I came to be sipping it, is also how I came to be sitting before my computer this evening, writing. It was during lunch last Friday, in the hours before WhiskyFest San Francisco, that Richard Patterson brought it up in conversation. Richard is the famous Master Blender for The Dalmore scotch whisky and it’s no coincidence that he mentioned it. The used barrels from this particular solera, along with those from the Matusalem, Del Duque and Amaroso lines, are given a second life when they are shipped to Alnes, in Scotland, refilled with new make whiskey and let to rest again.

The lunch, to which I had been invited at the last minute, was a rather intimate affair. There were four of us total: Virginia Miller, from the Bay Guardian, Dawn Lambert, Marketing Director for Whyte & Mackay in The Americas, myself, and, of course, Richard. We met at Wayfare Tavern and after a little bit of a wait, settled down to a lovely table upstairs over looking Sacramento Street. Dawn got right to work, unboxing bottles of The Dalmore and getting us set up with glasses.

I had encountered Richard for the first time a few months back in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail under rather different circumstances. I happened in on a seminar he was giving on The Dalmore. The seminar was already in progress. He was standing at the front of the room, offering some choice words about people who put ice (of all things) in their whisky! Shortly thereafter, Richard grabbed a handful of of the stuff from a nearby bucket and threw it across the room to further make his point. I had no idea who this madman in the jacket, tie, and kilt was, but he had my undivided attention. And it wasn’t all show: amidst the peppery language and gesturing Richard was imparting serious knowledge about the history of The Dalmore and how best to appraise it. Here was a man with passion for his profession.

The reason for that passion is readily apparent to anyone who reads through Richard’s recently published semi-biography “Goodness Nose.” He comes by it quite honestly. He grew up in Glasgow where both his grandfather and father had spent their lives in the warehousing and blending end of the whisky trade. Richard had his first encounter with “the business” when he was but eight years old and his father asked (nay, demanded) that he sip and describe what was given to him. Though it would be a few more years before Richard tucked in and formally joined the trade, by 26 he was named Master Blender for Whyte & Mackay Distillers, a position he’s held ever since. He was probably the youngest person to have attained that distinction. Looking over the long list of achievements and honors conferred since then you can see the wisdom of that appointment.

It occurs to me now that one of the questions I did not ask Richard is when did he first discover his penchant for public speaking and his talent as a performer. There are a many great whisky (and whiskey) experts in the world but not all of these people are equally great at presenting that knowledge in an entertaining and lively manner.

While Richard occasionally lapsed into what might be called his “routine” (he brought his giant plastic bugs out when talking about the impact of phylloxera on the wine trade), the intimate setting gave Virginia and myself the opportunity to drill deeper on topics as they came up in conversation. For example, we learned a lot more about the aforementioned soleras from which the sherry cooperage comes and that Beam in the US along with Heaven Hill, supply them with used bourbon barrels. (The split is about 50/50 between the two wood sources.) I got to ask about the warehouses at The Dalmore and learned how they are constructed and organized (new make starts life at the bottom where its most damp). I learned that Alexander Matheson, the founder of the distiller, established it after having made his fortune in the opium trade in China. (Talk about trading on vices!)

Advice on how to nose and taste a whisky…

Richard likes to be known as “The Nose” — the primary tool of anyone in his trade. Unsurprisingly then one of the lessons he likes to impart on his guests is how to properly smell and taste a spirit. That involves a number of steps, not least of which is using the right kind of glass [*], holding it by the stem or base, and sticking your nose in and out of it, using both and then alternate nostrils (our sense of smell is not symmetric), until you get the full olfactory “sense” of what’s you’re about to taste. This should be followed by taking two tastes: the first of which may be quick (“Hello!”) and the second of which should be long, with the spirit held in the mouth and moved around in it, including under the tongue. Richard encourages folks to hold this second taste for as long as two minutes, a feat that none of us could manage. He claims there are flavors that only come out after prolonged contact.

You’ll not be too surprised to learn that Richard’s lesson on nosing and tasting comes with sound effects, supplied by Richard himself. As he holds the taste of whisky in his mouth, he makes a series of “umm-umm-umm” sounds and turns his head to and fro, all to punctuate the fact that he’s moving the spirt all around.

I should mention at this point that during the course of lunch (which lasted nearly three hours) we tasted through the entire line of The Dalmore from the 12 year old “entry level” bottling to the King Alexander III, with its six wood finishes. As an ultimate treat, Richard poured a taste of the very rare and expensive Sirius bottling. This is a blend of whisky from 1865, 1926, and 1939. It’s almost hard to describe what a whisky this old tastes like. At the moment I cannot even put words to it.

We also sampled some of ‘new make’ (unaged and undiluted) whisky, a bottle of which Richard pulled out from his (bottomless) satchel to illustrate some point or another. Virginia and I of course wanted to try it. It was pretty amazing, exhibiting lemon, cream, grass and cereal notes. It was very different from the corn and rye based ‘white dogs’ I’ve sampled from american distilleries. Richard says that he and the other blenders regularly sample the new make whisky since the distillers are often making small adjustments to it. A surprising (to me) assertion was that these samples would change after resting in glass for about month and need to be tried again to fully asses them.

[*] – That would be a copita [ko-pita], a small tapered sherry glass. The taper helps focus the aromas of what ever is in it. Alas, we did not have this critical tool and so made due with what was on hand at the bar: small rocks glasses. Note to self: next time I have lunch with Richard Paterson bring a box of copitas. ;->

Advice for the craft distiller…

I was particularly interested in Richard’s take on the new craft/artisanal distilling movement here in the US. There’s been a lot of discussion about this topic recently with the number of products on the market greatly increasing. I asked him what advice he’d give to the craft distiller from his position as a Master Blender? His answer was unequivocal: go out into the world and find wood (by which he meant barrels) which is unique and distinctive. That makes sense given that 60% or more of the flavor in a wood-aged spirit comes from the barrel in which it’s held. For many distillers here in the US that could mean eschewing the coveted label of bourbon or rye (because of barreling requirements) though it might also mean producing a truly original product. Richard also stressed the importance of age. He mentioned 10 years, which would be a long time in the barrel here in the US but his point is well taken. There are a lot of 2 year old whiskeys now on the market. We don’t need more of these.

Eventually it came time for Richard to depart and take a break before he’d be “on” again in front of the crowds at WhiskyFest. Of course, not before desert including some King Alexander III malt and a bit of chocolate. I was by then certainly ready for a breather before an evening that promised to be full of yet more whisky. I felt plenty warmed up however. My senses were primed and my brain was alive with thoughts on what it takes to make a whisky great. Among other things, I knew it depends on the talents and passions of people like Richard.

Coda

A few photos I wanted to add but which didn’t easily fit into the piece.

First, toward the end of lunch Richard performed a whisky parlor trick for us, floating a goodly amount of The Dalmore over water. Here’s a photo of that:

Second, I wanted to include a shot of the sherry I purchased a couple of days later. I had to go on a bit of a quest for them but was rewarded by discovering a store called The Spanish Table in Berkeley. It has the most comprehensive selection of sherry, port, Madeira, and Bual I have seen anywhere. Their selection of table wines also appears quite extensive. The Spanish Table is located at 1814 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley CA. The phone # is 510.548.1383.

A Rose (Aprium) By Any Other Name

Posted in Cocktails, Home Made Ingredients, Stone Fruit with tags , , on October 9, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

A few weeks ago I documented my efforts to capture the embers of the stone fruit season by infusing gin with apriums, pluots, and dried plums. (Previously) I am pleased to say that my experiments were most successful—despite have been told not to expect much from folks who’s opinions I regularly value. I don’t know what I did that they did not, but I wound up with deeply colored, highly flavored gins. Drinkable in their own right, actually. And the flesh of the fruit did not disintegrate as I had feared it might. (I chalk this up to using less than fully ripe fruit.) I also think my choice of Plymouth, in which the juniper is fairly muted, was spot on.

Since then I’ve used the gins to make a number of lovely sours (one of which is destined for the menu at Plum). The only down side is that I am running out and, alas, there really are no more stone fruit (least not of the varieties I was using). Now I’ll have to sit on my hands and await the next season—only 11 months away!

Meantime, to whet your whistle, or to make you envious, you choose), here’s a recipe for one of the cocktails.

Rose Aprium Sour (AKA By Any Other Name)

1 1/2 oz. Rose Aprium-infused Plymouth gin [*]
3/4 oz. Honey syrup (2:1)
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/4 oz. Maraska maraschino liqueur
1 egg white

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and dry shake to froth the egg whites.
Add ice and shake about 20 times to chill.
Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

[*] Details on how I made the gin can be found in this post. The only missing details are as follows: let the fruit infuse for about 10 days. When ready, run the infused gin through a Melita-type coffee filter before using.

Lunch with Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller from Four Roses Distillery

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on October 6, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller from Four Roses at a luncheon arranged for the local press by Laura Baddish of The Baddish Group. Also present were representatives from Kentfield Marketing Group including Meryl Cawn and Kurt Charles. Kentfield does marketing and on-premise sales for Four Roses in the greater SF Bay area. We gathered at Zero Zero in San Francisco for the occasion.

About Jim…

Jim Rutledge has been in the spirits business for over 43 years. He started work with Seagram’s in 1966 when they owned the Four Roses brand. He held a variety of positions within the company but ultimately transferred to the Four Roses distillery in 1992. In 1995 he was named Master Distiller, a title he’s held ever since. Jim’s predecessors at Four Roses include Ova Hanye and Charlie Beam (who retired in 1994). Jim’s won an array of awards for his work including membership in the Bourbon Hall of Fame and Malt Advocate’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

A bit of (complex) history…

While Four Roses distillery has a history which dates back to well before prohibition, it’s not a brand which was well known among discerning drinkers in the United States until after 2002. Prior to that, Seagram’s, who owned the brand since 1913 (or 1941, or 1943, depending on who you ask), had chosen to sell only an inexpensive blended whiskey under that label here in the states. (For those those who may not know: a blended whiskey contains only a small proportion of barrel aged spirit. The bulk is grain alcohol which results in a much lighter simpler product.)

In 2001, a controlling interest in Seagram’s was purchased by Vivendi, who was after the company’s entertainment holdings. Vivendi then sold off its interest in the drink business, a part of which was acquired by Diageo. Diageo eventually divested itself of the Four Roses distillery which was then purchased by the Japanese beer brewing company Kirin. Kirin had been the distributor for Four Roses bourbon (not the blended whiskey) in Japan and wanted to continue selling it there. [*] Kirin also agreed it was time to re-launch the brand here in the United States. According to Jim Rutledge, shortly thereafter the distillery purchased all the remaining stocks of the blended product and had it destroyed. (Wow!) The single barrel bottling was then released in the US as a way of building the brand back up.

[*] — Following all of this? The history of Four Roses is nothing if not complicated. I have done my best to simplify it. A much more detailed, though perhaps no less confusing account, can be found here.

Mr. Rutledge holds forth…

I had already known that much of what makes the Four Roses product distinct involved two mash bills (including a high-rye of 35%) and the use of five distinct yeast strains. The results are 10 distinct bourbons out of which the various bottlings are then derived. These were details which Jim reiterated to the group. There is simply no other distillery working in this manner today making Four Roses a truly distinctive product.

News to me was the use of multiple single-story rack warehouses (AKA rick houses) in which the product is aged. These are unique in the Bourbon industry. There are 20 warehouse at the distillery; each is about 40,000 square feet in size (that’s close to one acre each) and holds over 24,000 barrels. The storage racks inside are six barrels high. According to Jim, there are two distinct advantages to all of this.

First, the single story design results in only a six degree difference in temperature between the racks at the top and bottom of the warehouse. This means all the barrels age more or less evenly regardless of where they are positioned. This more or less obviates the need to rotate barrels through the floors over time, a practice which Jim asserts no one follows any more anyway.[*] I also learned that in general warehouses are neither temperature nor humidity controlled. Thus the environment inside is dependent on outside conditions and under goes seasonal variations.

Second, it means that in the event of a fire (such things happen), not all of the stock will be threatened. In fact, each year’s ‘make’ is distributed between all of the warehouses so that a fire in one would not have the effect of ‘wiping out’ a given vintage.

[*] — In multi-story warehouses the temperature differential between the top and bottom floors can be quite extreme. Traditionally barrels were rotated between floors during aging to ‘average out’ the effects of temperature or to heighten the same in a set of barrels by choosing to not rotate them.

What about the whiskey?

While Jim was doing all this talking, we were encouraged to start tasting the five whiskeys which had been poured for us: three regular selections and two unaged (“white dog”) samples poured to show the effect of the different yeasts on the flavor.

The three regular selections were the Yellow (made from a blend of all 10 bourbon recipes), the small batch (a blend of two recipes), and the single barrel (a single recipe based on the high-rye mash bill, bottled at 100 proof). All were quite delicious. I was most impressed by the ‘yellow label’ which I hadn’t bothered to taste critically before. It had a nice roundness and a goodly dollop of sweetness. However, at 40% alcohol it seems likely to get lost in many cocktails. I only wish it were a higher proof product.

Two additional “white dog” samples were poured to show the effect of the yeast used. Both used the same mash bill (the high-rye) and were more or less the same proof, about 138, just as they came off the still. The difference in nose and flavor was frankly quite astonishing. Where one was restrained the other was effusive and floral, totally changing the sensation of ‘heat’ on the palate. Jim told us that it’s equally illuminating to taste new make whiskey using the same yeast but where the mash bill varies. I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to have that experience.

Finally…

Over the last year or so I’ve had the occasion to meet Master Distillers from Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and now Four Roses. In the heads of these men (and yes, for the moment, this seems to be pretty much a white male dominated game) resides the bulk of wisdom on the making of American barrel aged spirits. And while small production (AKA artisanal) craft spirits are becoming something of a hot product category, it feels like distillers at these much newer ventures will be playing catch up with their more senior counterparts for a while.

Certainly large established distilleries have a fiscal advantage that most small start up distilleries don’t share in the form of a pipeline of product that’s ready for market every year. But they also have something else: a long history of making reliable and consistent product and the domain expertise on how to do that passed from distiller to distiller. [*] The value of lineage and wisdom passed on between generations cannot be underestimated.

[*] – And in all fairness, the small distiller has the advantage of being able to experiment, bringing possibly novel products to market more quickly, and without risking an established brand.

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