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About this Blog

Welcome to Po'Nutrition Fax! This blog is about alcohol - it has nothing to do with health or wellness, and the only relationship between this and Edgar Allen Poe is that he was an alcoholic.

I used to work in a liquor store and developed a taste for all different types of booze. As my collection grew, I felt the need to share my knowledge of, interest in, and experiences with my purchases - from the standards (e.g. whisk(e)y, gin) to the less-than-standard (e.g. kirschwasser, raki). You'll also find a lot on beer (another love of mine).

This is not about how much I can drink nor do I promote over-excess of alcohol. As with most blogs, there is some self-reflection included with most of the reviews. The point is to encourage everyone to reflect on what they drink.

Leave comments or ask questions! Also, "follow" me if you like what you read - I am not making money from this blog but if I see more interest in this and hear some feedback, it will encourage me to write more.

Cheers!
Mike

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cragganmore 15-yr Bordeaux Finish - Murray McDavid

A couple of posts ago, I committed a great deal of text trying to convince the reader that independent scotch bottlers are the key to purchasing great scotch. Unfortunately, the scotch I chose as my example was not too great, so the argument fell flat on its face. However, I have found a superb example to share with you - The Cragganmore 15-yr Bourdeaux Finish from Murray McDavid.

Cragganmore is a part of Diageo's portfolio of scotch distilleries. Diageo owns pretty much all of the biggest names in alcohol (e.g. Tanqueray, Smirnoff, Guiness) so it's no surprise that some of the most well-known distilleries (i.e. Talikser) are under their control. Furthermore they own Johnny Walker, who blends their whisky using some of these big names. Cragganmore is their Speyside malt. Sure they may own others, but their "high-end" single malt is Cragganmore.

Single malt scotch is not just "single-malt scotch" - single malts not interchangeable. Each region of Scotland developed its own unique style of scotch due to their micro-environment. So, for example, Islay (pronounced "eye-lah") single malts have very rich smokey flavors due to the iodine-rich peat in their bogs and a briny aroma since they are so close to the sea. Lowland single malts tend to be triple-distilled (unlike the double-distillation of other scotches) and not as "peaty." If you had someone who preferred Islays then buying them a Lowland single malt would be slightly disappointing for them (although no scotch drinker would ever refuse a free bottle).

Speyside single malts tend to be on the sweeter side since a lot of distilleres use a sherry butt to finish the aging process; however, this is a generalization and not a guarantee. Speyside is in the coastal Highlands and has the most distilleries of any region - Glevlivet and Glenfiddich (you may have heard of them) are Speysides. Yet when I think Speyside, I think of the sherry aged Macallan, or the sherry-finish of Cragganmore or Tomintoul. These are generally considered dessert scotches to be enjoyed after dinner.

I had been considering my Christmas gift for sometime and thought I could use a new fancy scotch for myself. I no longer get Christmas gifts since I no longer have a local family presence. There is no gift exchange or holiday meal but a series of cards mailed to me with checks inside that I put into my bank account and eventually turn into gifts for myself - usually fancy bottles of whisk(e)y. Although one may think that I wouldn't want a new independently bottled scotch after the last one, I felt I had to redeem the previous purchase with something fantastic.

On my trip to the liquor store, I analyzed each bottle carefully but kept coming back to this one. I had a price range in mind, that I did not want to exceed, and this one remained within that range. I learned from my previous experience to avoid the port-finish bottles but this was a Bordeaux finish and I decided to take a chance. I had no idea how to determine what this "Bordeaux-finish" would taste, since I had never had one before, but it seemed interesting enough to try.

The term Bordeaux, much like single-malt, cannot just be thrown around and you can't interchange one Bordeaux for another. Par example, each bank of the Bordeaux (Left vs. Right) uses different proportions of grapes in the final product (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left and Merlot on the Right). This, however, is not a wine blog so I will not go further into the differences but keep in mind one Bordeaux is not like the other.

This Cragganmore was finished in Chateau Haut-Brion casks (a first growth in Graves). I don't think the quality of the wine really affects the barrel, which perhaps has even less of an influence on the whisky, but it is an interesting experiment nonetheless. Unlike the port-finish of the previous scotch I reviewed, the Bordeaux-finish imparts very subtle aromas of dried fruit and Herbes de Provence to the scotch - these enhance the other scotch flavors rather than compete with them (like the grape-candy-and-chocolate flavor of the other). It has a very oily quality and it coats the tongue so it is no surprise that it is exceptionally smooth. It is also bottled by Bruichladdich so there was no chill-filtering and no coloring added - plus there were only 500 bottles released. A great example of independent scotch bottling.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bourbon and Rye in the NYTimes

Merry Christmas!

You don't have to believe in any of the religious crap to still revel in the Holiday Spirit with some spirits of your own today!

Side note - two good articles in the NY Times today about American Whiskies:

Booming Bourbon Industry

Rye Distillery Tours

Thursday, December 22, 2011

North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout


This is my favorite beer. Can't say why it is my favorite - it just is.

A lot of people like to think of the stout as a heavy beer. However, most stouts aren't heavy. Guiness is the beer that comes to most people's minds whenever the word "stout" is mentioned. Normally, people think of it is a heavy beer because of the color but even though the malt used has a dark roast (which gives it a full flavor) it is actually a dry stout - light-bodied, dry-finish ale with a low ABV (around 4%) and relatively fewer calories (about 160 for 16 oz. serving).

But the Imperial Stout is a heavy stout.

Supposedly, members of the Russian Imperial Court were fans of this beer style so that's why it carries the title "Russian Imperial." Some brewers drop the "Russian" and just call it an Imperial Stout but an Imperial Stout by any other name is just as heavy. This beer style has a very heavy "mouthfeel" (i.e. high gravity) and a high ABV (normally over 9%).

Old Rasputin, not surprisingly, also happens to be my favorite (Russian) Imperial Stout. It pours out black and has a thick, creamy espresso-colored head. My favorite local bar has had it on tap recently and the head is even creamier fresh out of "the nitro;" it's a beautiful thing to look at. It has a very rich dark-malty flavor with notes of chocolate and coffee and it's smooth - like drinking a glass of velvet bunnies. It's so delicious and rich that I once described it to a friend of mine as a "meal in a glass."

This is my favorite beer - it should be yours too.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Macallan 15-Year Port Finish - Murray McDavid


We all know the big names in single malt scotch: Macallan, Laphroaig, Talisker (just to name a few). Since we all know the name, we have to pay for that too. Granted, when you want the quality associated with these names then you should pay a "brand premium" for it; but as I've said before, this is only their standard you pay for and nothing more. However, there is a good way to get around this by making sure you end up paying more for the quality than the name and, in a sense, exceeding this standard: buying independently bottled scotch.

The independent scotch bottler will buy casks of scotch from a distillery and since these casks are now theirs, they can do whatever they want with them; they are no longer under the control of the distillery. Fortunately, these independent bottlers love scotch - or know to market their product to people who love scotch. Therefore, some won't add caramel coloring, some won't "chill filter" (which removes "impurities" that make the scotch cloudy when water or ice is added), some will experiment with the aging process - whatever they decide to do they can at least still claim that the heart of the final product comes from a particular distillery. The one I currently own is from Murray McDavid and is a 15-year Macallan aged in used bourbon barrels and finished in Port barrels/pipes.

Most scotches are aged in old bourbon barrels. Bourbon has to be aged in "new oak" barrels, so once a barrel is made and used to age bourbon, that barrel can never be used to age bourbon again... however there are plenty of other spirits that can be aged in it. However Macallan is known, as are most Speyside scotches, to be aged in old sherry barrels/butts. This sherry influence gives a sweeter quality to these particular single malts. So the Port-finish intrigued me and I decided to pick this up. It was a 15-year Macallan too, bottled at Bruichladdich, that had no "colouring" added and was not chill-filtered. These factors inflated the price beyond the "normal" 15-year Macallan price but I knew I was paying mostly for quality.

Unfortunately, I don't like the Port finish on this scotch too much. Not that this is a bad scotch but the finish has a strange grape-candy, chocolate quality that does not mix very well with the smokey flavor inherent to scotch. This one was kind of a bust.

I wish I could've been more convincing here that independent scotch bottlers are a great choice when it comes to buying scotch. Yet as disappointing as this one was, I have had fantastic success otherwise from independently bottle scotch. The 15-Year Sherry-Aged, Barrel-Proof Highland Park from Mackillops still stands to this day as one of the best scotches I've ever had. It is important to keep in mind you need to be very knowledgeable of scotch if you choose to go the independent route because you'll need to be able to find these big names at discounted prices - or know what distinguishes this independent bottling from what normally comes from the distillery. But you may just want to try going into this whole experience "blind" just to experiment. Whatever route you choose just know that while these independent bottlers may try a few different things, they will at least try to give you the scotch in it's "purest" form - straight out of the barrel (with only a splash of water added).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

(Smoking) Bishop

Clove-studded oranges - ready to roast...

Last year, The New York Times posted these holiday drinks. My girlfriend, another friend, and myself all agreed to try and make a few different drinks from this list. We only made the Milk Punch and Auld Lang but decided that we should try to make more holiday drinks the following year - which is this year. Since I had been mulling cider in the fall, I wanted to try a mulled wine. However, in my search I came across the Bishop - which is basically a mulled port. It also known as the Smoking Bishop since when it's ready there is a light fog that appears over the heated port (similar to most other lightly-heated mulled drinks). The name "Bishop" is apparently due to similarity between the purple color of the drink and a bishop's purple vestments.

Port is a fortified wine - they add brandy to the wine which, consequently, makes it stronger. The story I've seen most often about Port wine is that the English had to find a new supplier to whet their wine appetite since they were pretty much always at war with France so they looked to Portugal. Portuguese wine would "turn" during the voyage so they began adding brandy to the wine barrels in order to preserve it. However, this "preservation" would kill the remaining living yeast cells so any excess sugars would not be turned into alcohol - that's why it is so sweet. This started a trend and now you have an industry. Port has a lot of different variations: Vintage, Aged Tawny, Late Bottle Vintage, Tawny, and Ruby (to name a few). All will be sweet but the real difference between each type is how long it is held/aged in the barrel.

This recipe called for a Ruby Port but Ruby ports, in my opinion, tend to be just sweet and not all that interesting otherwise. Therefore, I chose to make this Bishop with a Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) port. These are Vintage ports that are in the barrel too long so they will filter them (although, not always) and bottle. Because Vintage ports tend to be made from the highest quality grapes, these make a great "poor man's" Vintage port (since a vintage port can cost $80-$200 while these normally retail for $20+).

The first step was to stud the navel oranges with cloves and roast them in the oven (for about an hour) at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The recipe was not specific about peeling the orange but I left it on because I figured the bitterness of the orange peel would add a bit more complexity to the flavor - this ended up being true (although I didn't have a non-peeled version for comparison). After the oranges roasted, we cut the oranges into quarters (with cloves still embedded in them) and threw the quarters in a sauce pan with the entire bottle of port. We used two oranges because we figured it would be better - it's a good thing we did too because a couple other friends came over as well so we had to use an additional bottle of port (Fonseca Bin 27 this time).

It wasn't a very complex drink to make but it's great for a very cold winter evening - like last night. I highly recommend this and make sure you make enough port available because you'll be surprised how quickly you will drink two bottles of port - especially with the right company.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye

Rye is the best way to warm up in the winter...

A friend of mine once described drinking rye was like having a "mouthful of pennies." Unfortunately, when I heard this I thought of the "rusty coin." This "rusty coin" is also a less-than-flattering way of describing oral sex with a woman - having her period. Obviously, I find my friend's description of rye whiskey's taste disturbing. Although I have not experienced the "rusty coin," I can say that the taste of rye whiskey is nothing like having a "mouthful of pennies" and does not bring to mind such repulsive things. I admit that this was the wrong way to start this post, however, I always have that statement in the back of my mind whenever I drink rye. With each sip I search for the answer to the question: "where did he get that taste?"

I've mentioned in previous posts my love of rye - as both a beer and whiskey grain. Rye Whiskey, as previously mentioned, was actually the preferred whiskey in the U.S. prior to Prohibition. Even George Washington, our nation's first President, distilled his own rye. There's a bit more to the history than that but it's easiest to describe it like this: the largest population densities in the U.S. were in the Northeast, with a lot of Central and Eastern European immigrants, and they preferred rye (both the grain and whiskey). Washington's rye precedes the influx of Central and Eastern European immigrants so those two aren't connected, but rye does have a long history in the U.S.

Canadian Rye probably gets its name due to rye's popularity. Prohibition in the U.S. meant the only whiskey providers left were no longer legally bound to properly label their product. They could call it "rye" but it didn't actually have to fit the standards of rye - especially if corn (or other grains) were cheaper. Rye, in the end, just became another name for whiskey. Like Chapstick for "lip balm" or Band-Aid for "self-adhesive sterilized bandage."

Rye whiskey, like bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey, has to follow certain guidelines in order to be called "rye". While bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey have to be distilled from a mash comprised of 51-79% corn, rye whiskey's mash has to have a mash bill of at least 51% rye grain (there is no ceiling - except the mathematical limit of 100%). Consequently, the end product has a lot of spice and fruit in the aroma/taste.

This particular rye, Van Winkle Family Reserve, happens to be my favorite. Having recently cleared some space on the drink cart, I wanted to buy myself another whisk(e)y. I stopped in to the store I used to work at to purchase some other items and asked whether they had this rye back in stock - they did. Unfortunately, the price had doubled (since my last purchase). I hesitated but bought it because I knew this whiskey was worth it. The label says 13 years, so this rye is blended from barrels that are at least 13 years old. The great thing about American rye is that it has to age like bourbon - in new charred oak barrels. However, most rye whiskeys on the market do not exceed 6-8 years, so an extra 5-7+ years soaking in the barrel really make the difference with this rye. There are dried fruits, clove, cinnamon, and a touch of honey on the nose but has a smokey oak and peppery piquant sip. This is great neat or on the rocks. Worth every penny.

I have to apologize for how I opened this post again - the whole "rusty coin" comparison. Yet I want you to keep this in mind like I do, because when you have a great rye like this, it will be the furthest thing from your mind. You'll keep on sipping and thinking "where did he get that taste?"

Friday, December 2, 2011

Drambuie

Winston Churchill - old man and Drambuie drinker


Occasionally, I feel like an old man (even though I'm only 29). Friday nights are a good reason why. When most people head off to "Happy Hours" after they leave work and plan on enjoying the first night of the weekend "out on the town," I look forward to going home... and staying there.

To further illustrate my "old-man-ness," I chose to enjoy a snifter of Drambuie on this particular Friday while I watched some hockey. A couple of years ago, I swore to drink only Drambuie between Thanksgiving and the beginning of the New Year (not to be taken literally - I drank a lot of water too). I don't believe I had ever had Drambuie before that so I have no reason why I chose it, I'm guessing I just felt the need to make some sort of absurd "holiday" goal. Therefore I bought a liter of Drambuie and, for the most part, stuck to my plan - not every bar decides to stock Drambuie so I didn't always have the option to drink it. Nevertheless, I have to admit I learned to really like it. However, I also realized that most Drambuie drinkers have a lot more grey hair than I do.

For those who are unfamiliar with Drambuie, it is a malt whisky-based liqueur/cordial flavored with honey, herbs, and spices. It is very sweet, but also very strong (92 proof). Liqueurs/cordials are alcoholic drinks that are sweetened and flavored - however, they are not like flavored vodkas/gins/brandies or "schnapps." These other flavored items are not sweetened but their flavoring makes them seem "sweet." In addition, I put schnapps in quotation marks because what most think of as schnapps (an overly sweet, low-proof mixer) is not a true schnapps, which are really non-grape based brandies (i.e. Kirschwasser). Regardless, Drambuie is best as an after-dinner drink or with dessert (since it is so sweet).

Anise, mint, and clove along with the smokiness from the malt are the strongest aromas but you'll get a lot of honey too when you taste it. I'm not sure if Drambuie is made from whisky and these various flavoring agents anymore - it may just be a neutral spirit with chemical flavors and coloring agents added (it would not surprise me if this was confirmed) but it still stands, in my mind, as a great drink.

When Friday night comes and you just want to go home, don't feel guilty - but on your way there, pick up a bottle of Drambuie, some cigars and come hang out with Winston and I. Of course, I really mean hang out "in spirit" because not only is Sir Churchill dead but I will be at my own home... and if it's after 11 P.M. I may already be asleep.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Buffalo Trace Bourbon


In the Fall of 2006, the wine store I used to work for sent myself and a few other bourbon drinkers down to Kentucky to tour a couple of distilleries. However, the main point of the trip was to select barrels of bourbon to be bottled and sold exclusively at the store. The bourbons we had to choose were Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. So at 9:00 A.M., after a night of wining and dining, I drank bourbon straight out of the barrel at the Buffalo Trace distillery...

I had only been working at the store for about a year-and-a-half so I was surprised when I was invited to come along. I had learned a lot about whisk(e)y in my short time there, so it wasn't like they were sending a "babe in the woods," but it was my first "business trip" - and it was to a distillery! Plus, my objective was "drink bourbon"!

Bourbon is an official alcoholic beverage of the United States (along with Tennessee Whiskey). It is defined by the Title 27, Section 5.22 of U.S. Code of Federal Regulations as:
  1. Made from a fermented mash with a minimum of 51% and a maximum of 79% corn
  2. Distilled at less than 80% alcohol/volume (160 proof)
  3. Stored in a new, charred, white oak barrel at a maximum of 62.5% alcohol/volume (125 proof) for at least 2 years
  4. The original color and flavor of the whiskey can not be filtered or altered in any way
  5. Must be produced and stored (for at least one year of the aging) in Kentucky to be called Kentucky Bourbon

It can only be made in the U.S. and this designation is recognized worldwide (similar to the fact that the brandy called Cognac can only come from the Cognac region of France). Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. but it can't be called Kentucky Bourbon unless it meets the final criteria. Bourbon has been going through a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. We can probably credit the popularity of single malt scotch as the motivation for bourbon distillers to offer a higher-end product. One would think that the above restrictions would limit the creativity of the distillers to offer a wide variety of products, but this is not the case. They can play with the other ingredients in the mash bill (between the 51% and 79% corn restriction), the length of time the whiskey rests in the barrel, the location of the barrel in the warehouse, the char level (1-4) of the barrel etc. Some even do what scotch makers do and finish the bourbon in barrels previously used to age other spirits/wine. Buffalo Trace happens to be one of these more creative distilleries.

However, their flagship product is a fantastic bourbon. It does not have an age statement on the bottle but it is, from what I remember them saying at the distillery, at least 8 years old. Like all good bourbons, there is a buttered-popcorn taste and aroma. This is the influence of the barrel on the bourbon as it ages. As whisk(e)y ages, it "breathes" in the barrel. In the warmer months, the barrel inhales and expands into the staves of the barrel. When it exhales in the cooler months, it contracts and draws in the caramelized saps (from the charred oak inside the barrel) to mellow in the alcohol. This barrel influence is what makes bourbon so unique. The comparatively warmer weather in the Southeastern U.S. causes the whiskey to expand and contract more intensely in the barrel than it would in the British Isles. Unfortunately, this increases the loses associated with aging whiskey (e.g. absorption, evaporation) but the barrel itself becomes much more integral to influencing the final product in bourbon than in other whiskies.

Consequently, you will get a lot of vanillin and other oak influences in the flavor and aroma of bourbon (as compared to other whiskies - except Tennessee whiskey). However, the thing I like about Buffalo Trace is there is a lot of rye in the mash bill. This makes the whiskey very "spicy" in addition to the "sweetness" from the corn and oak. It is well-rounded bourbon - and it makes a great Manhattan too.

There is plenty more to say about bourbon but I'll leave that for another time. Until then, buy a bottle of this for yourself. Make sure to keep in mind that hard-working people, like myself, had to get up really early in the morning, hungover, and drink a lot of "fresh" bourbon in order to bring you the best.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Canadian Club 12-Year "Old Fashioned"

Using the last of my Canadian whisky for an Old Fashioned - is this justifiable homicide?...

A few years back, I wrote a letter to Malt Advocate magazine with a very general question about Canadian whisky. I knew very little about it and was wondering whether they planned on devoting an article to Canadian Whisky - which I (regrettably) referred to as "brown vodka." They ended up publishing my question and then answered my question a few issues later. The author of the answer article wrote to me personally too. I took this as an opportunity to learn about Canadian Whisky myself.

Since Canadian whiskies fall under my New World categorization, it's no surprise that the chief grain used is corn/maize. However, blending seems to be much more important to creating the final product in Canada than it is for whiskies made in the United States - perhaps due to the proportionally larger Scottish heritage in Canada than the U.S.

All distillers have a master blender. Why blend? If you have flagship product (which carries your brand's name) you'll want it to be consistently good - emphasis on consistent. To deliver a large quantity of this product to your customers, you have to then blend a lot of barrels together. However, every whisk(e)y barrel ages differently. This depends on the age of the barrel it's in, the inborn qualities of the barrel (i.e. thickness of caramelized-sap layer), location in warehouse - among other factors. On my trip to Buffalo Trace Distillery, I tasted bourbon directly from the barrel. I tried bourbon from seven different barrels - three of Eagle Rare and four of Buffalo Trace. Even though all barrels were roughly the same age, they all were distinctly different - even those made from the same mash bill (Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace). The master blender's responsibility is to use four distinctly different barrels (in this example) of Buffalo Trace whiskey to create one blend that would match as closely as possibly to the previous bottling of Buffalo Trace. As a distillery's portfolio expands, this responsibility for the master blender also expands as they try to keep the product consistent.

The single-barrel phenomenon has really taken off in the bourbon industry. Perhaps this is to give it the same distinction and notoriety that Single Malt scotch has. Consequently, with each single-barrel bourbon having it's own unique characteristics, it puts less pressure on the master blender to deliver consistency on the higher end of the product line. Despite this new uniqueness of the single-barrel, the continued popularity of scotch in both its blended and "single malt" forms has put the blender in Scotch production in a brighter limelight a bit longer than some other whisk(e)y blenders. Following my idea that Canadian whisky distillers follow in the footsteps of Scotch distillers (and not only in spelling), given the lack of choices in the total Canadian Whisky product line it is important to deliver a consistent product - hence, the importance of the blender. Obviously, there is a lot more to Canadian Whisky distillation then just blending, there is plenty of history (especially as part of the British Empire and its role in the supply chain during Prohibition in the United States) so I don't mean to simplify it this much. However, when speaking in broad generalizations (as most do in blog posts) it is just easier to focus on the simpler idea of blending in both Scotch and Canadian whisky distillation and production.

Not surprisingly, I've had mixed success with Canadian Whiskies. Nothing has been bad but there have been very few stellar examples either. Forty Creek (just outside of Niagara-On-The-Lake) makes some really good whisky. However, most claim Crown Royal to be the best. I don't disagree that it is a very good Canadian Whisky but I rarely see someone buying two-fingers of Crown Royal to enjoy - it's usually only purchased for slamming down shots. Consequently, I have trouble divorcing that image from the whisky. I've had the high-end Crown Royal too (XR and Cask No. 16), which are both very good, but because of the brand name you pay a brand premium too. Bang-for-buck, the best I've had (thus far) is the Canadian Club 15-Year. Unfortunately, this whisky is only available in limited release now. Therefore I had to buy the Canadian Club 12-Year one New Year's Eve (a few years back) in order to make Manhattans.

Manhattans? Yes, Manhattans. Had I found the 15-Year Canadian Club, I would not have used it to make them but the 12-Year is a big step down in quality from the 15-Year. This goes back to two points I made already: 1) consistency among Canadian whiskies and 2) Canadian whisky is "brown vodka." Since there are only so many Canadian whiskies available, very few stand out while the rest are fairly interchangeable. That being said, most can be used for mixing when a whisk(e)y is called for in a mixed drink. Again, I don't mean to speak down to Canadian whiskies - as I said, there are notable examples. Nevertheless, there are few that I have had that I have said to myself "Wow, I'd like another bottle of this."

Tonight, I decided to finish the last of my Canadian Club 12-Year by making an Old Fashioned. Although I didn't have the lemon peel to throw in for garnish, I did have the other necessary ingredients:

1 tsp of sugar (or 1 sugar cube)
dash of Angostura bitters
1 tsp of water
1 oz of whisk(e)y
lemon peel (garnish)
-Muddle sugar in bitters and water. When the sugar is dissolved, add whisk(e)y and ice cubes (and lemon peel... if you've got it)

Given the wider portfolio of other types whisk(e)y, it is difficult to motivate myself to try new Canadian whiskies (especially given the history of let-downs I've had). However, there is now a new open space on my drink cart for some new whisk(e)y - maybe I'll get adventurous and look to the "Great White North"? Whatever I choose, you'll be sure to read about it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale


The colder, darker days that herald the end of the year also herald the release of some of my favorite beers. The end of summer means Octoberfest beers are around the corner and the end of daylight savings means Christmas beers will soon follow. I could spend a whole post on Octoberfest beers (and will at some point) but the ever-approaching horror known as Christmas has invaded my life again so I will post about Christmas seasonals.

Before Halloween had ended, Christmas movies appeared on T.V. and Christmas displays were built in grocery stores. As much as I disapprove of this consumption-focused expansion of the holiday season, I do not disapprove of the Christmas beer introductions. Most Christmas beers tend to be heavier, maltier and spiced with a variety of mulling spices. From this family of beers, I especially enjoy the Anchor Christmas Beer. Of notable mention is Great Lakes Christmas Ale. However, one can only drink so many spiced beers in one sitting. Obviously, I enjoy this style of beer very much and don't mean to imply that I get sick of these beers. However, it can be difficult to pair these spiced beers with a meal. Furthermore, I like a beer that challenges the status quo a bit. This is how we get to one of my favorite seasonal releases - the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. How is this different from other Christmas beers? While it is also bigger and maltier, rather than using some subset of mulling spices it uses a lot of hops instead - it's really a Christmas IPA (India Pale Ale). Hoppier beers, rather than spiced ones, are easier to enjoy with most meals. In addition, while the IPA is popular it is not a Christmas-style beer - it doesn't stand out as a beer itself, it stands out among the other seasonal releases. However, I must note that I recently tried Santa's Private Reserve again (since it had been awhile and this post inspired me to do so) and it too is a very hoppy beer. However, it is maltier and heavier so it isn't as easy to drink as the Celebration. Nevertheless, these factors make the Celebration Ale one beer I look forward to all year. This amber gift to myself, floating in a pint glass helps to make this season "merry and bright"... even if we haven't quite reached Thanksgiving.

If you are at the grocery store and find yourself shaking your head at the sea of red and green to the voices of Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby - keep in mind there will be at least one Christmas display to keep an eye out for.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hard Cider

Autumn is my favorite season. Although I do really enjoy the summer, with its warmer weather and longer days, it doesn't have the same gustatory excitement that autumn does. Autumn in the Northeastern U.S. means apples and squash are in abundance. It means the release of Octoberfest-style beers. Best of all, the colder weather of autumn allows for the return of cooking indoors. I only say this because we do not have a grill at our place so cooking indoors isn't fun in 80+ degree (Fahrenheit) weather - this also inhibits kitchen creativity . This is not to say that food and drink in summer aren't delicious; I do miss the fresh peaches, blueberries, and tomatoes - plus gin and tonics, mint julips, and caipirinhas are refreshing on hot summer days. However, with all the distractions of summer it's hard to sit and enjoy what can be delicious about it. Very rarely is there a day in the summer when you want to sit around and eat or drink - and even if you do, you feel guilty about it... at least I do.

However this blog is not about cooking, it's about drinking. Autumn, with it's aforementioned apple abundance means an abundance of apple cider too. Cider is, essentially, fresh apple juice. It has not been clarified nor have excess sugars been added. Depending on the apples used, it can have a very tart flavor too. In addition, it may or may not be pasteurized - the latter turning into booze if you don't drink it quickly. Keep in mind, if there are added preservative, it won't ferment. Hard Cider, whether it's carbonated or "still" (not bubbly) is good, but gets better if it is mulled.

Before this year, I had never really mulled cider. In previous years, I would occasionally buy cider, drink half the container, it would ferment, and I'd discard. Not wanting to waste it this year, I decided to mull the last bit. Mulling, for those of you who are unaware, involves heating and spicing your drink (can be done with wine too). This first time, I used a cinnamon stick, some whole cloves, and freshly grated nutmeg. You have to heat the cider on low heat or the pectin in the cider beings to coagulate. This is not bad but it is less pleasing to the eye to have these pectin chunks floating around. Since my first mulling experience, I am now going through about a gallon of cider a week just so I can try different mulling spice combinations. The next step is to mull my hard cider.

When Martha and I went on vacation to Ithaca, NY we stopped at this cidery on the way home. Although there are many Finger Lakes wineries to check out, I wanted to try something different. This place had just opened for the day and freshly mulled some of their cider. The style they mulled was their Liberty Spy:



This was a pretty basic sparkling hard cider. I don't mean to imply that it was bland but it tasted like what one expects out of a hard cider - sweet and tart with a dry finish. However, the mulled version was fantastic. It's made from a blend of Liberty and Northern Spy apples - hence the name "Liberty Spy." I bought a couple of bottles of this along with one called "Heritage" which was a still, crab-apple cider done in a more traditional style.

Similar to mulling non-alcoholic cider, hard cider has to be heated at a low temperature. However, this is not for coagulation concerns but to make sure most of the alcohol doesn't evaporate (since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water).

My preferred mulling spice combo is (per three cups of cider):

1 3-4" cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp whole cloves
2 star anise
1/4 tsp of black peppercorns
freshly grated nutmeg

If you want you can use cardamom pods or allspice berries instead of star anise. Just throw the spices in but remember to strain them out - or just a cheesecloth or "tea ball." Simmer for about 15-20 minutes until a fog hovers over the cider and the aromas waft out of the kitchen.

Unfortunately, while this mulling spice combination makes for a delicious non-alcoholic mulled cider it was not fitting for a hard cider. However, I blame myself for not considering a few things before I wasted a bottle of hard cider on this mulling experiment. Most notably, I didn't consider how the alcohol and spices would interact with one another. If you've ever had a kräuter liquor (you probably have: Jagermeister), they are traditionally made by infusing herbs and spices in alcohol to draw the medicinal properties out of these various ingredients. There are other medicinal liquors made in the same style to the kräuter - I just mention the kräuter because they are the most famous and will help you understand what I am talking about. Regardless, the end result tends to be bitter and, not surprisingly, medicinal tasting. Consequently, the same thing happened when using the whole spice to mull hard cider - the final product had a medicinal and bitter quality to it. In this case, the star anise and peppercorns were overpowering so I wouldn't suggest using those to mull hard cider. Stick with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg (maybe allspice berries and cardamom pods too).

In addition, because most of the sugar is converted into alcohol there is little sweetness to a mulled hard cider. I suggest adding either a couple tablespoons of honey or brown sugar as it heats to help sweeten this drink too. This helps cut the bitter/medicinal taste as well.

Get creative with your own spices but make sure to sit and enjoy it - without feeling guilty.

Friday, October 28, 2011

It was a "Dark n' Stormy" night...



In honor of Halloween I am writing about, you guessed it, the Dark n' Stormy.

I have to be honest here - I am not a fan of rum. I can't smell or taste most rums without recoiling slightly. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Most rums are made from molasses and I prefer those made from sugar cane juice/extract. These latter types generally come from the French-speaking Caribbean islands (and will be labelled "rhum") or Brazil (but they call it cachaça). They tend to be lighter and have a fresher or "greener" aroma/taste - like a blend of freshly cut grass and citrus. However, because most other rums are made from molasses (a by-product of sugar production) then I can explain why I generally do not like rum. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the molasses itself but rather bad experiences I've associated with these rums.

Living in the States, under arcane policies and laws about alcohol drinking, if my friends and I wanted to get "fucked up," because that's what high-school-aged kids in the suburbs do to avoid the harsh banality that is suburban life, we had to sneak it out of the liquor cabinet. The trick to sneaking liquor is to go for bottles that are mostly full. Unfortunately, rum was always available in much larger quantities than anything else. Therefore one of us would always pour it into an empty soda bottle, throw this bottle into a bag or coat pocket, buy some "chaser" (usually Sunny Delight) and go to the woods. In hindsight, this was a boring and stupid way to pass the time but it is, in some way, a fitting metaphor for suburban life. As a consequence of all this rum and Sunny Delight over-consumption (sometimes to vomit-inducing levels) I have developed this rum aversion.

However, I can handle rum in mixed drinks - the nauseating factors disappear.

I had a Dark n' Stormy for the first time earlier this year. It was my birthday and I wanted to have a lot of mixed drinks centered around ginger beer. Now that's ginger BEER, not ginger ale. While I do enjoy ginger ale (mixing it with Angostura Bitters is a great sour stomach/indigestion cure), ginger beer has the same flavor but is also spicy. I really enjoy Goya's Jamaican-Style Ginger Beer but Ithaca Brewing Co. also makes a deliciously spicy ginger beer too. So for my birthday I was serving Gin Shandies (fresh lemonade, ginger beer, gin), Gingergrass Mules (cachaça, ginger beer, lime juice), and Dark n' Stormies (Black Rum and ginger beer). I was unsure whether I would even want a Dark n' Stormy but I knew other people liked them so I figured I would be the gracious host and serve some. Surprisingly, by the end of the night I ended up switching to drinking them exclusively. The ginger beer's spiciness perfectly masks what I don't like about rum and allows the rich molasses flavors to emerge.

My Dark n' Stormy recipe, like most others, is simple:

2 shots of black rum (I use Gosling's Black Seal Rum)
12-oz. bottle of ginger beer

This might seem like a lot of booze but this recipe is to fill a pint glass (like in the picture), not just a highball glass, because we have mostly pint glasses in our place. Adjust ingredients accordingly to whatever size glass you drink out of. However, you may as well drink it out of a pint glass because you will want to have more than one if served in anything smaller... and you won't want to chase it with Sunny D.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Whisk(e)y - Part 1

In my previous post I happened to mention my love of whisk(e)y. "Love" is a notoriously inadequate word in the English language that one can throw around to describe a relationship with someone or to something else. I don't intend to get philosophical about the true meaning of "love" but I only intend to imply that the relationship I have with whisk(e)y is not one of love. Love involves two parties and whisk(e)y cannot feel anything. If the feeling goes one way, it can't be described as "love." To outsiders, it may seem like I am whisk(e)y's creepy stalker.

I had a similar feeling about Heidi Klum at one point in my life. I had a poster of her, this one in fact:

It hung above my bed, however, there was nothing overtly sexual about my relationship with Heidi and this poster. I was bewitched by her beauty. I collected other pictures of her that I cut out and taped around the poster. My friends (Kara and Suzie - yes, I had female friends that enabled this) provided me with copies of Victoria's Secret catalogs that I would go through to find the newest pictures. I eventually constructed quite a collage. I became so familiar with some of the images that I didn't bother cutting out the pictures where the editors had just changed the color of her sweater. As the collection grew, it became a "celebration" of her beauty - but to others, it looked kind of creepy. I eventually realized this and tore it all down, including the poster. I didn't "love" Heidi Klum herself, my relationship was with the image (gender studies?) and the collage I created. There wasn't love, I never considered it love, had I said that then I would've realized the "creepy" factor much earlier. This poster/collage was more of a... captivation.

Captivation! This is the word that adequately describes my relationship to whisk(e)y. So captivated that, despite my limited income at the time, I splurged on this crystal glass to fully experience whisk(e)y:


Anglicized from the Goidelic Celtic languages translation of "aqua vitae"(uisce beatha in Irish, uisge beatha in Scots Gaelic), whisk(e)y is the "water of life." Aqua vitae was generally distilled from grapes or other fruits, but these don't grow as well or are just not as abundant in the British Isles as grains. When it comes to making alcohol, if it has sugar in it, you can get booze out of it. The people of the British Isles were already making beer (different from modern beer) so whisk(e)y is essentially distilled from beer. Teasing the fermentable sugars out of the grain is not as easy to do as it is with a fruit but it can be done - and I'm very glad someone figured this out long ago.

What fascinates me about whisk(e)y is how varied it is. I have two major categories of whisk(e)y: Old World and New World. As mentioned above, whisk(e)y is distilled from grain and this is what (besides geography) distinguishes these two categories. Old World whiskies use barley as the central grain while New World ones use mostly corn/maize. Other adjunct ingredients grains can be used (except anything labelled as a "single malt" - those only use malted barley) such as wheat and rye. Each grain provides a different attribute to the final spirit. Some distillers will make one mash bill (grain mixture) and distill that, others will make a few different mashes and blend to create a new product from each one, but this is only the first step; now it is time to age the whisk(e)y.

Most whiskies are aged in oak. However, oak is used to age nearly every other spirit so the distiller can choose to age, or just "finish," the whisk(e)y in, for example, used sherry barrels (a lot of Speyside single malt scotches use this method giving them their distinct "sweet" quality). Now the distiller/blender has to decide how long the whisk(e)y ages, where in the warehouse the barrel will sit, how often to check it, how often to move it - all of these decisions influence the final product.

As I write this I am enjoying Caol Ila (pronounced "keel-eel-a") 12-yr Single Malt (but not in the fancy glass pictured above). Like other Islay malts, it has a very iodine-rich, smoky flavor. There are also hints of thyme and orgeano on the nose and the peat flavors give way to bitter greens and brine. Its pale-straw color is misleading since one would not expect such a strong aroma and flavor from something so light in color. The fires used to halt the germinating process (which breaks down the complex starches of the barley into fermentable sugar) are fueled by Islay peat, and the smoke from this fire imparts that smoky flavor into the barley. This is how the barley is malted and part of why this scotch is called "single malt." The "single" part means that the whisky only comes from one distillery. I am fascinated about the process that got it to my hand and I ponder all the decisions made at least 12 years ago (anything with an age statement on the bottle can only include whiskies of that age or older). I appreciate whisk(e)y for what it is, the processes that made it (both its history and chemistry).

I will not "tear down" this object of my captivation as I did to my poster/collage. Fortunately, this object won't raise as many eyebrows or elicit as many whispers. Even if it did, it is (admittedly) a lot less creepy to have a collection of whisk(e)y bottles than a collection of pictures of a supermodel above my bed; I don't think Martha (my girlfriend) would appreciate the latter either. So here's to you Heidi, I apologize for how things ended but it was for the best. Slainte.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Standards


Sinatra's songs are "standards", but he wasn't. What you choose to drink shouldn't be "standard" either.

Investing in your own "drink cart" can be a bit overwhelming. My friend recently asked for some advice on what bottles are truly essential. I was going to answer only him but then realized it would be something I would think a great deal about, write something really long with an absurd amount of detail and then send it to him. I also figured it would be fun to write a post about and I would do the same thing again. So rather than write something long twice (one, answering him specifically, the other for a wider audience) I'm going to try and write this one thing.

This is quite an endeavor and I may be in over my head for one posting...

I should start by saying that I had no intention of having a cart full of booze in my apartment. I admit that someday, if I ever have house, I would like to have a full bar at my disposal. It's a ridiculous dream but I imagine myself bartending to friends and family at my own bar, saving ourselves both money and exposure to the assholes of the world who frequent bars. Some people dream of greater things for their future but spending quality time with the people whom you choose to spend your time with (and anyone important to them) is a noble idea in my mind. That being said, building this drink cart is either a way for me to live this dream now or research for what to stock at my bar in the future.

Unfortunately for everyone else who lives or drinks at my place, the most numerous item on my drink cart is what I enjoy - whisk(e)y. I added that "e" because Stateside and Irish distillers add the "e" whereas Scottish, Canadian, Welsh, and Japanese distillers do not. I currently have about 15 bottles at my disposal. To be fair, seven or eight of them are bottles of scotch my grandfather gave to me. When blended scotch became "the thing" to have in the 1970's, party guests would bring a bottle over to my grandparent's house to share - but no one drank it. They sat unopened behind my grandfather's bar (even after two out-of-state moves) until a few years ago when he told me to take them because he (obviously) didn't drink scotch. So there they sit on my drink cart now because, although it would be fine to drink (once bottled, whisk(e)y stops aging), it's a lot of scotch and kind of overwhelming. Plus, it's not all great scotch. I'm sure I'll fold someday and drink it, but where to start? This the heart of the question that Jay posed to me - what is truly essential to have on hand?

Although I would highly suggest to do what I did and slowly build up a collection, trying a lot of different things, you can benefit from my experience thus far. As I suggest in the previous paragraph, it's best to consider what you will drink most often first. If you want variety and a lot of different characteristics to choose from, then whisk(e)y is best. There are a lot of whiskies out there: Scotch (blended, pure-malt, single-malt), Irish (blended, single-malt), Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Rye, Canadian, American Single-Malt, American Whiskey, Corn (just to name a few). However, such variety can be lacking for other alcohol "families." So if you like vodka best, you won't have much luck. But whatever your favorite drink is, have at least two bottles on hand (two different bottle too).

I am not implying that vodka has no character. Vodkas are distinguished from one another by the variety of things they are distilled from, how many times they are distilled and filtered, their country of origin - all of these factors contribute to how the vodka tastes. However, most Americans don't drink their vodka straight so they miss out on all these subtle notes and defining characteristics (which is disappointing). So unless you are one of these straight-drinkers, you are most likely buying vodka to mix with something else. I only say this because mixing generally just covers up these notes; you'll probably be buying vodka hoping only not to get a wicked hangover. Therefore, you have tons of vodkas to choose from, all at different levels of quality but these character-defining qualities won't be as important to you, negating the need for variety.

My girlfriend doesn't drink as often as I do. Consequently, there isn't much on the cart for her. So if you are investing in a cart for a house of more than one regular imbiber, it's probably better to have a shared bottle in addition to one bottle for each of you (if you each like a different item). If you like whisk(e)y and the other person likes gin, try to compromise on a shared bottle - brandy has similar floral aromas of gin and similar tastes to certain whiskies. It's true benefit is that it will be there longer than either of your individual choices. This is because it is something you will both enjoy but it isn't the "go-to" drink for either one. Plus, it can be enjoyed by both for special occasions.

My motto may be "Life is too short to drink cheap" but it doesn't have to be yours. Although I will always say spending a little more pays dividends you don't have to go broke. I don't mean to imply that "money is no object" when it comes to my own liquor purchases. If I could drop hundreds of dollars each time I bought a bottle of something that would be nice, but I don't live in that world. So while I will occasionally spend an extra $10-15, price is still always a factor in my choice; here is where my liquor store experience comes in handy.

I try to stay away from the big names - you'll end up paying more for name. This is not to say that they will be poor quality drinks BUT there is a standard these names have to live up to. Therefore, they live up to, but never try to exceed that standard. You should treat yourself a bit better than that.

Here I will give you my picks under each category I would consider essential starters. Keep in mind these are my opinions; however, I like to think I have an informed opinion so I hope you will at least consider what I recommend. Sometimes I'll give a brand name or I'll just give a "family" member that often gets over-looked (i.e. armagnac). This a quick list made for those eager to get started. I plan on doing very extensive posts on each alcohol"family" in the future. However, here is a short list:

Whiskey - due to my love of this family, this is mostly a "hidden gem" list, leaving a lot out. I will go into the most detail here than any other family. Scotch is left out because I will probably have to have an entire series of posts about that delicious whisky.

Rye - real rye (made mostly from rye grain), not Canadian Rye. Referring to Canadian whisky as "Rye" is a term left over from Prohibition. Prior to Prohibition, real rye whiskey was the most popular whiskey in the U.S. With Prohibition, Canadian whisky (made mostly with corn) was smuggled and called rye. Jim Beam makes a great rye for $20-25 for a liter. Best deal in rye that I've found. If you can find Van Winkle Rye - it is worth every dollar.

Old Charter Bourbon - a blend of all the best Buffalo Trace whiskies. Relatively cheap ($18-22) and very delicious. Nearly everything from Buffalo Trace is delicious so treat yourself to something in their line sometime (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, W.L. Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton's)

Powers - An Irish whiskey. Was once the most popular whiskey in Ireland until Jameson's massive marketing campaign vaulted itself to #1. They are distilled by the same company so they just stole their own sales. Still a lot cheaper than Jameson.

Wasmund's - this is an American Single-Malt. Similar to scotch but rather than smoking the malt over peat, it's smoked over Applewood, Cherrywood, and Oak. It has a great smoky flavor and nowhere near as expensive as scotch.

Old Ezra - price of rotgut bourbon but not a rotgut bourbon. Not fantastic by any means but you get more than what you pay for. Buy the 101 proof if you can find it.


Gin - I normally just drink gin with tonic water so my opinions here are based mostly on this pairing

Broker's - one of the best gins I've had. Not paying nearly as much as you would for Bombay or Tanqueray but your getting the same quality stuff for a good $5-7 less per liter.

Plymouth - similar to Broker's (can be a bit pricier).

Seagram's - surprisingly, not horrible.

Vodka

Moskovskaya - "green label" Stoli. A big step down from Stoli in price but only a small step down in quality.

Shustoff Luxury - best vodka I have ever had. So smooth, it's like drinking velvet bunnies. A lot cheaper than most other "top shelf" vodkas.

White Gold

Seagram's - again, not horrible.

Brandy

Armagnac

Applejack - American "calvados" (Apple Brandy)...

I have to stop here or else this list is going to be way too long. I'm beginning to realize how much I have to say about this stuff. Let me remind you to think about what you'll drink most often - this is what is essential. This should be your guide to starting your drink cart.

Jay, I know the things you like to drink so I hope there is something on here for you. If not, e-mail me if you have any more questions or if you want to scold me because you think my "answer" gets far from what you were asking. The rest of you, leave comments to ask for more detail and I'll either respond directly or answer via another blog posting.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye


Rye beers can be hard to find. They are one of my favorite styles but because they aren't that popular, there aren't too many out there for me to choose from. Consequently, when I shop for beer they don't often come to mind because I don't usually see them - a classic case of "out of sight, out of mind." Flying Bison (here in Buffalo, NY) made a rye beer once but you could only get it at the brewery, and they only made one batch. You can probably guess why they only made it once - it wasn't popular. I let my lamentations be known to them but they pretty much just shrugged and said "Too bad, so sad." As much as I regret their decision, I'd rather they not waste their time (and lose potential profits) making something that only I would drink.

As you can guess from the name, Rye beers include rye with the usual ingredients (barley, hops, water, yeast). They tend to have higher ABVs (7.5-8.5%) so they are a drier beer but have a delicious spicy nose and taste from the rye grain. Maybe my Germanic roots plant a love of this grain into my being? I also tend to prefer the flavor of rye whiskey over most other American whiskies. I think I should open my bottle of rye and write about that soon too...

Back to the beer! This particular rye beer is an IPA-inspired rye, so it is a pretty hoppy beer as well. Unfortunately, I ruined my palate this evening with my dinner (a Moroccan-spiced red lentil dish) so I can only reflect on the basic aspects of this beer. However, at this most basic level, the combination of spicy rye and citrusy hops make this beer much more interesting than your "normal" rye beer. Neither aroma overpowers the other and they weave together to coat the tongue with a well-balanced flavor. The only problem is that there is a lot of alcohol on the nose - and it's only 7.5% ABV. This masks some of the other aromas which I cannot get pickup in the taste due to my previously-mentioned ruined palate. Nevertheless, a thoroughly enjoyable beer.

Keep on the lookout for this, and other, rye beers. They are often forgotten and I'm not sure why...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale


I have always had great respect for The Stone Brewery. They love to make beer and they are always trying to out-do themselves. They don't always succeed but they do most of the time. However, I haven't purchased anything from Stone in awhile because it's a beer that has to travel a long distance.

For all intents and purposes, beer is a food product that is best served fresh or needs to be preserved to prevent "spoilage." Due to the alcohol in beer, it doesn't spoil in the same way that most food items would spoil (i.e. cause gastro-intestinal distress for days if consumed) but it won't taste as good as when it was first made.

This should only be kept in mind for "craft beer." The mass-market beers will taste the same either way.

Like most consumer goods in this country, beer is shipped in truck containers to distribution centers and then to retail outlets and, finally, into your hands. For the most part, these containers are not temperature-controlled so the beer can go through extreme temperature variations. Furthermore, the beer can sit in distribution centers or on the shelf for a long period of time - and not always in a temperature-controlled environment. Therefore the longer the distance your beer has to travel, the greater the possibility that the beer will be in these unfavorable conditions. That is why I generally try to purchase regional beer (Rust Belt or New York State beers) since the exposure to these factors is smaller than those produced either across more than one time zone or across the Atlantic (or Pacific). However, some breweries employee contract brewers. For example, in Upstate New York if I buy Sam Adams, it isn't brewed in Massachusetts but rather in Rochester, NY (at High Falls - formerly Genesee). Nevertheless, it's easier to just drink local beer than to find who your local contract brewer is and what they are brewing.

However, I took a chance here since this beer is brewed in California (although they may contract brew now too - I'll have to investigate). I knew I was going to have to be really committed to this beer too (if purchased) because most Stone beers only come in the 22 oz. bottle. Although they've been offering the 6-pack option on some of their other beers (at least that is the case here in Upstate New York) that was not an option for this beer. I guess it is better to have only one bottle of beer you don't like vs. five more 12-oz. bottles of beer you don't like: the Deuce-Deuce-Only option isn't all that bad.

I decided to have it today because, like yesterday, it is another gloomy, wet, and cold day in Buffalo, NY and needed something to warm me up: a heavy beer seemed like a good idea. Beer and (American) football just seem to go hand-in-hand too. When I poured it, I was surprised at how dark it was. Had I read the description (which I decided to do after I started to drink it), it would not have been a surprise. I was expecting something like a Imperial Stout or porter and it is what one would describe as an Imperial Porter.  I guess Black IPA is another style that could be used but that's bullsh*t - everyone goes crazy for IPAs these days so I consider that style just some marketing tool.  Anyway, it has a pretty high ABV (alcohol by volume) of over 8% and dark-beer qualities, but it doesn't have the same mouth-feel as an Imperial Stout (i.e heavy). This is not to say it doesn't have any weight but it doesn't have that intense motor-oil, tongue-coating, feel an Imperial Stout would.

My initial expectations of the taste (based on the color) were fulfilled but there was something else in the smell and taste that I couldn't quite determine. The end of the sip had a somewhat sweeter quality to it. The beer was mostly very bitter but it wasn't a very citrus-hoppy bitterness: this bitterness came mostly from the dark malt that was used. At first I assumed this "sweetness" was from some residual malt sugar. However, because it is such a high-ABV beer and was pretty dry, it didn't make sense why there would be must residual sugar - at least enough to be that noticeable. The more I sipped, the more this sweetness reminded me of the sweetness one gets from exceptionally dark chocolate. It's almost as if the chocolate is so bitter, it's sweet - this beer is not different. The more I reflected on it, the more I realized that it was unlike Stone not to hop their beer. Stone prides themselves on how they can craft a beer - especially the hop/malt ratio. That's when it hit me - dark orange chocolate. This was what I couldn't quite identify at first. That sweetness was the citrus from the hops combining well with the dark-chocolate qualities of this beer style to create this lingering flavor. Satisfied with this self-discovery I decided to share this beer with everyone else.

Whenever you read a tasting review like this you have to keep a few things in mind. First, taste is entirely subjective - what I taste is not necessarily what you'll taste. Second, it's not as if this would taste like dark orange chocolate all the time - it's just a subtle note. Third, although it seems like a really pretentious thing to go into this much detail, this process helps to identify other qualities of the wine, beer or spirit for pairing purposes. For example, if I had a piece of dark orange-chocolate and wanted a beer to go with it then this would be a better choice over other beers of this style. This "pairing point" seems like it is in opposition to the first point. Not necessarily - there are certain general qualities that can be agreed upon but it's the final interpretation that is subjective. Dark and bitter with citrus notes I identify as "dark orange chocolate" while someone else may say "coffee with a shot of Grand Marnier." Furthermore, it's part of what makes drinking alcohol that much more interesting. It makes this a much more active process and enhances the experience. Finally, and related to the third point, it helps you to discover what you really enjoy about a drink. If you open your mind to new things, you might even find something you like in a drink you originally assumed you wouldn't. For example, I hated scotch at first but when I "actively tasted" it (for lack of a better term) I changed my mind and now enjoy even the smokiest of Islays.

Anyway, I'm digressing. If you can take anything from this post, remember to try and drink your beer locally but if you choose too drink your beer from elsewhere keep the above warnings in mind. Plus, you can always trust Stone to make a delicious beer.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Delord Bas Napoleon Armagnac


As posted earlier today, I decided to write about drinking. It was quickly written and I don't feel I adequately explained why alcohol is important to me. All of this sounds as though I am obsessed with alcohol but I can assure you that I am not. My love for it is an extension of my personality - it's the little things in life that are important to me. The best way for me to explain this is through a little story.

For years I was obsessed with having a perfect mug for my coffee. The way I see it, if I have to get up early and go to a job that I really don't want to go to, then I need to have something enjoyable in the morning. My enjoyment comes as a quiet morning reading the news, with a glass of juice, a bowl of cereal/oatmeal, and a delicious cup of coffee. However, I don't like to buy cheap coffee. Since I drink my coffee black, I can't cover up any of the off-flavors in bad coffee with cream or sugar. Therefore, it has to be really good coffee. Obviously, I'm not made of money so I can't purchase coffee without regard to price. However, whatever it is I'm willing to pay for my coffee, I should enjoy that coffee for what it is and not just as a nervous system stimulator. Therefore this good coffee needs a good mug. Again, this is about having a good morning - I should feel comfortable at all times. The mug needs to be an extension of myself. I shouldn't feel as though I have this thing in my hand that contains coffee. I shouldn't have to consciously think of the mug at all. It should just be there. I'll stop here and say I never actually gave a mug this much thought before but as I reflect on it now, this explanation makes sense. Anyway, I never had that level of comfort until my friend introduced me to Bennington Potters trigger-handle coffee mugs. He inherited these mugs from his grandmother and there were plenty of mornings that I truly enjoyed my coffee in these mugs. Some of the mugs were glazed, others were not but they all felt perfectly comfortable in my hands. When he moved out, I was devasted because he took the mugs with him. However, he knew how important they had become to me so he and his partner bought me some for my following birthday. I had my mornings again. I could enjoy my coffee fully once more. I still don't like getting up to go to work but at least I have my mornings to help me ease into the rest of the day and those mugs make it that much better.

How does all of this tie into alcohol? Alcohol is something we enjoy with nearly every meal, something we enjoy with friends and family, or just something we have while sitting on the porch, or reading a book, or watching a movie. For example, when you have dinner with friends, you might have a bottle or two of wine. If it's cheap wine then things are still fun, but when it's a good bottle of wine, everything is better. Alcohol is like the coffee mug - when it is right, it augments the experience. That is why I buy the "strange" liquors that I do or why I am willing to spend just a few dollars extra on others - if I can make that simple thing just that much better, it makes everything else better.

Plus, the history and science behind all this alcohol is fascinating too. That's also why I want to write about it...

This first post will be about the armagnac that rests in the decanter on my credenza.

Armagnac is a member of the the brandy family. Brandy is basically distilled wine. Most brandies are made from grapes but you also have other fruit brandies. Some of these others include Kirschwasser (cherries), Framboise (raspberries), and grappa (grape pomace). There are plenty of other finer points to address on these brandies but those are for another time. Today, I'm having some Armagnac.

Perhaps the most famous brandy is cognac. Armagnac is cognac's lesser-known but equally pretentious brother. Like cognac, armagnac is French and comes from a region of France with the same name. Both are distilled spirits and both are aged in oak barrels. However, the major distinctions between the two is how they are produced. Cognac is twice-distilled in pot stills, armagnac distilled only once in column stills. What's the difference? Distillation is what purifies the spirit. Each time the spirit is distilled, more and more non-ethyl-alcohol chemicals are pulled out of the spirit. The armagnac makers claim that distilling only once helps to preserve more of the flavors inherent to the drink, whereas the cognac makers claim the distilling twice makes the drink smoother and more elegant. While I enjoy both, I tend to agree with the amagnac makers more - cognac is slightly smoother but armagnac tastes better. However, history has been kinder to cognac so it has the current edge in popularity.

I like to look at the Russian language here for some insight into cognac's dominance. The Russian word for "brandy" is "konyak" (transliterated here). My guess is that the Russian Imperial court and their love of all things French (starting with Peter the Great) introduced brandy to their country via cognac. Cognac probably had a slight edge on armagnac to begin with, but with the Russian Imperial Court wanting it now too things could only go up for cognac. Poor armagnac. But at least the rest of us will benefit from cognac's dominance - we get something that is just as good as cognac but for less money!

It is a cold and gloomy Saturday afternoon and I opted for some brandy to warm me up a bit. Unfortunately I don't really remember which armagnac it is, but I'm pretty sure it's Delord Bas Napoleon Armagnac. It retails normally for around $35 and has won a lot of praises for its quality (relative to price). I have to agree. It has a beautiful copper color and a bouquet of dried figs, honey, and hints of marjoram. The first sip bites at the tongue slightly but that quickly subsides into the warm feeling that brandy always produces, with the flavors of the grapes and oak coming out more fully here than on the nose. The body is light so the taste disappears quicker than I'd like it to but an enjoyable brandy on the whole. I will probably step away from this computer and enjoy this brandy with a good book now.

I hope you will try an armagnac the next time you see one.

New Blog Direction

This blog has gone through a few different format changes. The first was an attempt to actually post the Po' Nutrition Fax but that wasn't engaging enough. The second format change was to (basically) a series of complaints - Andy Rooney style. I occasionally attempted application of economic theory (because I was in graduate school for, you guessed it, economics at the time), however, I don't think I applied the theory very well. It was maybe a case of blog envy. Tom, who I attended grad school with, applied statistical theory very well in his baseball blog whereas I was "half-assing" it. You can still read some of my old posts, I probably won't get rid of all of them.

I haven't posted on Po' Nutrition Fax for quite sometime and with good reason: I don't want to be Andy Rooney anymore. Although there are a lot of things to hate, I can only complain so much.

Therefore I have decided to end this blog's current format and change its direction entirely (again). Instead of complaining, I'm going to write about the booze I drink.

As you can see from the pictures below I have a lot of alcohol in my apartment:


Drink cart - this needs to find a new spot in our apartment


Wine and beer rack. Hard cider on floor, brandies and scotches in decanters on the credenza

The reason why there is so much is due to my love of alcohol. This is not me taking the first step of twelve steps. I don't drink to feel good about myself or any of the other reasons one will resort to alcohol. I am not trying to make light of a serious problem (alcoholism runs in my family so the specter looms) but I am making the point that I don't have all of this liquor, wine, and beer just to get drunk. If I did have a problem there would not even be that much in the house (since I would have drank it all) nor would I be blogging about it. In fact I have all of this because I worked for a few years at a wine and liquor store where I developed a taste for "finer" things. My motto became "Life is too short to drink cheap." So not only do I buy a variety of great whiskies and other standard bar items, like this delicious gin:


But I also I buy non-standard bottles, like this Turkish Raki (an anise-flavored spirit):

However, these bottles pile up. Not only is the occasion to drink Raki or Framboise a rare occurrence but sometimes I'll almost be out of scotch and feel it necessary to buy a new bottle. When that new bottle gets low, I'll be in a bourbon mood so I'll buy bourbon. So I'll have two nearly-empty bottles of scotch and a new bourbon. And so on, and so on...

This "new" blog will put all of that liquor to good use and give me something creative to do - write about something that I love.

Therefore I will write about these bottles I already have, as well as the new things I try and all of the interesting and delicious beers I drink. I will largely ignore wine. Although I do enjoy a fine bottle of wine, there are enough wine blogs out there. In addition, I can't write as well about wine as those people do. Basically those people love wine, I just like it. This is not to say I wouldn't occasionally write about a really good bottle but it will not be the focus of the blog.

I will not just write about how these things taste, but talk about the history, chemistry, cultural significance or whatever else is interesting about whatever it is I am drinking. I may just tell you about my day and why I felt it was necessary to pour myself a snifter of Kirschwasser. Whatever it is, I hope to show you why I love to drink what I drink.

It is too early in the morning for me to begin writing a post about a specific bottle but I will probably have a dram or snifter of something this evening and will make sure to let you know what I think about it.