Archive for Spirits News

New McKenna @ Ledger’s

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on June 23, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Just a quick follow up to my posting about selecting barrels of bourbon with the East Bay Study Group back in March. The bottled bourbon has arrived at Ledger’s at last. The group’s first place selection is available as Barrel #8. As the barrel was a relatively low fill you can expect this one to sell out pretty quickly. The second place selection is available as Barrel #9. There’s a lot more of this as the barrel had a surprisingly high fill. (We had expected both to be on the low side.) Both bottles are very reasonably priced at about $25 each.

One thing worth pointing out is that technically these are NOT McKenna bourbons in as much as the barrels we selected don’t necessarily conform to Heaven Hill’s own profile for that product. Heaven Hill has chosen to make the McKenna label available for this particular barrel purchase program (a huge expedience) but was willing to provide a relatively wide range of samples to us try. This is worth keeping in mind whenever you are evaluating a privately purchased and bottled barrel of whiskey. Not all programs are equally flexible (i.e. some programs only offer barrel samples which are more or less “on profile” for the label) but in the case of Heaven Hill and McKenna, we are afforded a great opportunity.

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.

WhiskyFest’s a Comin’

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on September 9, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Just a reminder to all of you who live in the bay area that San Francisco WhiskyFest™ is coming upon us. Once again it will be held in the capacious San Francisco Marriott from 6:30 to 9:30 PM (VIP admission gets you in an hour earlier.) While it’s not until the 8th of October, there’s some expectation that tickets will sell out. [UPDATE: There are fewer than 50 of the VIP tickets left as of this afternoon.] If you’re serious about brown goods, this is a not to be missed event. I went last year and I can tell you it’s a great opportunity to taste dozens of the best barrel aged spirits on the planet and meet with (fawn over?) many of the distillers and ask your burning hot questions. Don’t like scotch whisky, you say? Well, fret not! Our home-grown products are well represented here as well by the likes of Anchor Distillery, Buffalo Trace, Michter’s, Stranahan’s, Four Roses, Pappy Van Winkle, and Heaven Hill (to name but a few). There will also be chances to sip some microbrews and maybe even the odd rum or cognac. And just to round things out, there could be cocktails! Last year Rickhouse offered samples of their signature cocktails throughout the evening.[*]

Seminars…

If you can drag yourself away from the tasting tables, there are also seminars to attend, each about 45 minutes in length. (Admission included in the price of your ticket, but space is limited.) Richard Patterson (Master Blender, Whyte and Mackay) will be giving his (in)famous, expletive-laden lecture on The Dalmore, complete with tasting and ice throwing. Fritz Maytag (Anchor Distilling Company), Neyah White (Brand Ambassador for Yamazaki) and Parker Beam (Master Distiller for Heaven Hill) will also be giving talks, though unfortunately their seminars run in parallel with one another so you’ll have to make a tough choice. A complete list of seminars can be found by clicking here.

Anything else?

It’s not very well advertised but there’s an incredible buffet of hot and cold food available before and then during the event. (And yes, that’s included in the price of your ticket too!) So there’s no reason to eat dinner before arriving. They even switch over to deserts toward the end of the evening, just to round things out. A perfect time to sample the Compass Box Orangerie or Germain-Robin XO.

Oh, and you also get use and take home a lovely little Glencairn tasting glass. That’s actually the “official” whisky tasting glass, sometimes known as a nosing glass. I’ve found it works equally well with whiskey too!

411

More about the seminars, guests, and who’s going to be pouring what can be found on the Malt Advocate’s web site:

http://www.maltadvocate.com/whiskyfest_san_francisco.asp

Tickets to WhiskeyFest San Francisco 2010 (Regular admission $110; VIP admission $150) can be purchased on-line by clicking here.

[*] – Unfortunately, I have learned that the Rickhouse crew will not have a booth at this year’s event—though they will be participating in WhiskyWeek, a broader set of activities throughout the city, that run from October 4th through the 9th. Details on those activities can be found as they become available here.

Negroni + Amaro = Negromaro

Posted in Amari, Bitters, Cocktails, Spirits News with tags , , , on July 1, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

The past few months have seen a plethora of new products on the market. Some have been long anticipated, like Crème Yvette from Ron Cooper or Cocchi Americano, the Kina Lillet surrogate which has now been re-introduced in the U.S. by Eric Seed and Haus Alpenz. There’s also Gran Classico bitter, from Tempus Fugit, which provides us with an alternative to Campari without the food coloring, and Amaro Montenegro, absent for several years from US shelves after its importer was bought by Frexinet. Still to come is Maker’s 46, just barely creeping into some markets (or so I hear), a new (clear!) violet liqueur from Tempus Fugit, plus whatever surprises might await us in New Orleans. (I know of at least one!) Frankly, I expect to be playing catch up for the rest of the summer.

Gran Classico vs. Campari

Last week I bought a bottle of Gran Classico which has started showing up on the shelves of liquors stores and bars all over town. I sampled it last year during SF Cocktail Week, first neat and then in the form of a Negroni, made with Voyager gin and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. That cocktail was amazing and, well, it set a standard for what a Negroni could (and should) be. I’d been craving a chance to have another ever since.

There is going to be a tendency for people in the cocktail business who stress the importance of natural flavors and traditional (non-industrial) processes to simply embrace Gran Classico (which contains no added colorants) as a de-facto replacement for Campari (a product made on a much vaster scale). However, in the interest of fairness and for my own education, I thought a little A-B comparison would be in order.

I would normally do a comparison between spirits blind but the difference in color between the Gran Classico and Campari is so startling as to make such precautions pointless: the Gran Classico is medium-amber in color while the Campari is intensely red. (For some reason it made me think of red M&Ms, the color of which is definitely NOT natural.) The Gran Classico is also far more viscous and syrupy in appearance than Campari and the nose is less intensely bitter, more muted. Campari, I now realize, really smells bitter and dusty! I dunno: that could be a good thing when it comes to mixing with it.

The viscosity I detected in the glass follows straight through into the mouthfeel of the Gran Classico. There are several layers to the flavor including bright vanilla notes, marmalade and wormwood. Surprisingly, it finishes pretty sweet. The Campari also leaves you with a sugary finish, but its flavor is far less complex overall, dare I say unidimensional.

Which do I prefer? Oh, the Gran Classico is a far more attractive and nuanced product. It would seem to be a better starting place for any cocktail that calls for Campari and probably Aperol. My only lingering doubt is whether, by the time it’s mixed with other ingredients, its superior attributes will still stand out. That’s something that’s going to merit some more investigation.

A new amari standard

The same day I obtained the Gran Classico, I also purchased a bottle of the Bortolo Nardini amaro, inspired by an upcoming seminar on bitter spirits at Tales of the Cocktail (A Shot of the Black Stuff). I had tried a number of the Nardini products before: the lemony, if somewhat sweet, Acqua di Cedro and the almost indescribable Tagliatella. But not the amaro. I am so glad I did! Much as I LOVE the Amaro Montenegro (which is like drinking flowers), the Nardini set my new standard for what an amaro could be: layers of licorice, vanilla, orange peel, cola, and a hint of lavender.

(Damn. I have to stop writing and pour myself a glass right now. Wait. OK. Ah! Better!)

Together with these two new lovely purchases, I gathered my bottle of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and my bottle of Beefeater 24 (generously gifted to me by the folks at Pernod-Ricard) and set myself to the task of making some cocktails.

And this is what I did…

Negroni (classic proportions)

1 oz. Beefeater 24
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth [try 3/4 carpano instead]
1 oz. Gran Classico bitter

Stir over ice for 30 seconds.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a long thin lemon peel strip, tied into a knot.

As delicious as I remember it! Gran Classico bitter has won a permanent place in my home bar. You’ll note however, that I swapped Beefeater 24 for the Voyager gin. After some consideration, I felt that the Voyager, with its citrus peel/sweet tea nose and soft finish, would be lost under all the vermouth and bitter. B24, lemony and creamy in the nose as it is, is still a juniper-forward product that asserts itself more intensely on the palate. I felt it would balance better against the other ingredients.

Now, do you recall I mentioned that the Gran Classico was pretty syrupy and had a distinct sugary finish? Well, I definitely saw that play through into the Negroni as made using the traditional proportions above. I’ve seen the exact same thing with Negronis made with Campari. For this reason many bartenders cut back the proportions of the vermouth and bitters, to dry the cocktail out. I suppose this reflects as much on the modern cocktail palate as anything else. The Negroni recipe on the back of the Gran Classico bottle makes just such an adjustment. Recently I’ve even had a Negroni made with Dolin blanc in place of the sweet vermouth, an accident best as I can tell. That becomes a different cocktail all together, quite enjoyable in it’s own way, like most everything else made with Dolin blanc!

The last time I tinkered with this aspect of the Negroni, I replaced half of the Campari with Amaro Nonino. That was pretty damn tasty but it just didn’t seem to go far enough. Inspired by that lovely bottle of Nardini amaro, I decided to ‘go darker’ yet, resulting in the following formulation:

Negromaro (or Nardini Negroni)

1 oz. Beefeater 24
1 oz. Bartolo Nardini amaro
3/4 oz. Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

At this point, the Negroni has been pretty well transformed into something new. The amaro lends distinct dark notes to the mixture, in particular the flavor of sweet licorice (not to be ever confused with anise), but is itself now tamed by being paired with gin and vermouth. Damn satisfying.

OK, I better stop here or I’m never going to finish this ambling blog post. Salute!

Look What’s Back In Town…

Posted in Bitters, Spirits News with tags , on April 3, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

I was going to let the photo speak for itself but it occurred to me that I might at least make a small suggestion. If you haven’t yet tried a straight shot of Angostura and if you are a lover of things bitter, like Fernet, you owe it to yourself to pop the shaker off your yellow-topped bottle, pour yourself a full ounce of the pride of Trinidad & Tobago and toast to its triumphant return to retail. Cheers!

A Brief Encounter with Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck from The Bitter Truth

Posted in Bitters, Spirits News with tags , on March 15, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Last week I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck from The Bitter Truth in Germany, who were visiting San Francisco as part of a nationwide promotion tour. Folks in the cocktail scene will be quite familiar with their outstanding and up until recently hard to find line of cocktail bitters. Stephan and Alex have recently completed a distribution deal with Domaine Select Wine Estates which means their products will now be more widely and consistently available in the US. The first shipments destined for stores on the west coast are now arriving. I met up with Stephan and Alex at Cask last Thursday afternoon and then again the following evening at Bourbon & Branch where they were guest bartending in Russell’s Room. Here are a few notes from those meetings.

Genesis…

Unsurprisingly, both Stephan and Alexander started out as bartenders. Stephan began his work making bitters while still working behind the stick, partially in response to the lack of product available outside of the United States. (Aside: This conversation made me quite aware of how, in many ways, we here in the US take our access to cocktail bitters, commercial and artisanal, somewhat for granted. The world looks quite a bit different across the Atlantic and the Pacific.) When Stephan met Alexander in the final rounds of a big cocktail competition, the idea of The Bitter Truth was formed. Their first products were an orange bitters and an “Old Time” aromatic bitters (somewhat ala Angostura).

Early access…

Bottles of TBT products have been showing up sporadically in the US for the past three or so years when they were brought back from Germany by visiting cocktailans or when purchased directly via the TBT web store. In some cases these web purchases were made by liquor stores, such as Cask in San Francisco, who then marked them up and resold them. Regardless of how the product found its way here, it was hard to come by and dear.

Last year TBT announced that they would be producing bitters from recipes created by Avery Glasser of Bittermen’s. Glasser had tried to make a go of having his cult products, a grapefruit and a chocolate bitters, made here in the US but ultimately decided on a deal with TBT. That was good news and bad news for us here in the US. Good because these great bitters would now be commercially available and bad because they’d have to be brought in from Germany, priced in Euros.

The entire landscape changed in the fall of 2009 when TBT announced a US distribution deal with Domain Select. Both the original TBT product line and the Bittermen’s would be available commencing in early 2010.

About bringing bitters into the US…

Stephan decided to bring the TBT bitters into US as a spirit and not as a flavoring (food). This makes it much easier to get necessary approvals from various US regulatory agencies and for distributors to handle to product. However, it does mean the bitters can only be sold only in stores with retail liquor permits. In some markets this is a critical distinction. In NYC, for example, this means stores without liquor resale permits will not be able to sell TBT products. (Conversely, as I learned last year, liquor stores in NYC cannot sell bitters like Fee’s because they are considered to be food.)

Comments on pricing and value…

Stephan said that most artisanal bitters on the market today are generally way underpriced. He thinks this a result of trying to match the price point established by the market leader, Angostura, and doesn’t reflect the real costs involved in making these products. He suspects that Angostura must make almost nothing on a bottle of bitters after taking into account shipping and import duties. This might be OK for a company that produces bitters on the scale of Angostura but he also imagines some of the price is offset by their rum business. [Aside: As many people know, Angostura has found itself caught in some financial problems and there hasn't been any product made or imported into the US for well over a year. When I asked Stephan about this it was clear he understood the opportunity this represented to him as he entered into the US market.]

Today, TBT bitters are more expensive than pretty much anything else on the market. Stephan feels his price is reasonable given the quality and complexity of the product and it will ensure he doesn’t wind up going bankrupt. Folks who’ve been following this story for a while should also note that the bottle being sold in the US contains an additional 50 ml. more than the original bottles.

What’s Next?


[Photo by Jay Hepburn]

A new TBT bitters has just been made available in Germany and will be on its way to the US soon. These are the Creole bitters, based on a recipe developed after sampling pre-prohibition Peychaud’s. (Yes, some of this is still floating about.) After getting a chance to taste this new product, both ‘neat’ and in a Sazerac, I predict this is going to give (artificially colored) Peychaud’s a run for its money. (Note: The development of Creole bitters by TBT was something of a practical decision since Peychaud’s has horrible distribution outside of US. The fact that it may prove to be superior to Peychaud’s will be interesting, to say the least. A product to keep an eye on.)

We should also start to see the sloe gin, a product that’s been available in Germany for a while, sometime before the end of the year.

Looking down the road, Stephan thinks he may make a Boker’s bitters. He says he has an old bottle from the beginning of the 20th century to use for reference. The recipe will be a little different than original because that used Virgina Snakeroot (which is both poisonous and apparently endangered). He says he already knows how to work around that. He would like to package this in a custom made bottle with a period style label.

[Sorry there are no photos of Misters Berg and Hauck during their visit. My camera was acting up at Bourbon & Branch.]

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