Authors Posts by Geoff Kleinman

Geoff Kleinman

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+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of DrinkSpirits.com. He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist, a reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine and has contributed to Playboy Magazine. Geoff is Bar Certified with the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, has judged many major spirits and cocktail competitions and is a Kentucky Colonel.

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We Should Know What's In Our Alcohol
We Should Know What’s In Our Alcohol

This week the state run liquor stores in Finland pulled Fireball Cinnamon Whisky because it contains levels of propylene glycol that are “out of compliance with European regulations”. Both Sweden and Norway followed suit asking for the batches of of Fireball with propylene glycol to be recalled.

Since Fireball is such a hot product, there was an immediate firestorm on the Internet, enough to cause Sazerac president Mark Brown to issue a statement about the recall. Truth be told, the EU has much stricter regulations on food and beverage than the US (which is why tonic in the EU has sugar and not high fructose corn syrup, and is consequently so much better). The US Food and Drug Administration considers propylene glycol safe “up to 50 grams per KG” (Fireball has less than 1/8th of that) and it’s a common additive that’s found in thousands of products in the US. 

It’s not uncommon for alcohol companies to make different versions of their products for different regions because of varying food laws and requirements.  Martini makes a special version of their vermouth in the United States that doesn’t contain any calamus, a botanical that’s banned by the FDA but considered safe in the EU. (Calamus is also the reason you can’t get Amer Picone in the US, as it’s one of the ingredients).

The big issue that this Scandinavian recall raises is that, whether or not it’s considered safe, consumers should have the information on what they’re consuming so they can make their own decisions. Go to any grocery store and almost every packaged product lists its ingredients as well as calories, sugar, and a host of other important details. Why is hard alcohol exempt from this?

Most spirit companies will state (as Sazerac did when asked) that “the exact recipe is proprietary”. It’s a thin argument, as some of the most iconic beverages in the world, like Coca Cola, list most of their major ingredients on the package. Of course they sum up their flavorings under the term “natural flavorings”, but the list of what’s inside the bottle, for the most part, is on the bottle.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky

To their credit, Sazerac is one of the few spirit companies to list the nutritional information for their products, but most other spirit companies don’t disclose even the most basic information on their spirits. We did a search to try to find the nutritional information on the corporate sites for many of the major consumed liquors, including Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, and Jägermeister, and came up empty. They don’t even disclose calories and sugar!

It’s understandable why these companies don’t want to have to disclose what they put in the bottle. Would you buy a honey liqueur if you saw that it had more high fructose corn syrup than honey? Would you buy a bottle of vodka if you found out it had glycerine, sugar, or other additives? Having the basic information on the label would also mean that some brands would have to change their stories. There are a number of rums that claim that they “don’t add any sugar” and yet, they do:

Rums That Add Sugar
Source: Alko Finland / Refined Vices

The issue of sugar in spirits isn’t trivial. Sugar is an accepted additive for several spirits that are tightly controlled by an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) including Cognac and Tequila.  Wouldn’t it be important to know if the bottle of tequila you bought has added sugar? Beyond “hidden sugar”, the amount of sugar in many liqueurs is staggering. By definition, a liqueur is defined by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) as having “not less than 2.5% by weight sugar, dextrose, levulose or a combination”. That’s the minimum. We did some research (including the information from Sazerac’s nutritional information site) and the level of sugar in some popular liqueurs is pretty mind blowing.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (66 proof, 33% ABV, 1.5 oz serving 108 calories and 11 grams of sugar per serving) – Doesn’t sound horrid until you start doing the math:  at 1.5 oz, 11 grams of sugar (which is 2.2 teaspoons or .73 Tablespoons), this converts to 0.38 oz. which is a full 25.33% of the shot. That’s right – 1/4 of that shot of Fireball is sugar! At 33% ABV there’s almost as much sugar in each shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky as there is alcohol.

Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey (70 proof, 35% AVB, 1.5 oz serving) – Since Brown Forman/Jack Daniels doesn’t disclose the nutritional information, we can only go with what’s been reported online: 108 calories, 6 grams of sugar. For 1.5 oz, 6 grams of sugar is 1.2 teaspoons or .4 Tablespoons, which converts to .21 oz which is 14% of the shot. Not as bad as Fireball, but still a healthy percentage.

Jägermeister (70 proof, 35% AVB, 1.5 oz serving) – Neither Jägermeister nor Sidney Frank (the distributor) officially discloses the nutritional information for Jägermeister, but given what we’ve been able to find online (and it must be considered a best guess), Jägermeister has 150 calories and 16.4 grams of sugar. For 1.5 oz, 16.4 grams of sugar is a shocking 1 full Tablespoon of sugar! That is .58 oz, a shocking 38.5% of the shot. That’s right, there’s apparently more sugar in a shot of Jägermeister than alcohol!

1 Tablespoon Per Sugar Per Shot
1 Tablespoon Per Sugar Per Shot

Would you buy a bottle of alcohol if you knew that it had more sugar than alcohol in it? This is information that consumers deserve to have and there’s no excuse why the TTB doesn’t require it. There’s an obesity epidemic in the US and it’s irresponsible for liquor companies not to let their customers know that they may be consuming as much as 1 Tablespoon of sugar per shot!

It’s time for the TTB to stop letting liquor companies hide what they’re putting in their bottles and give customers the information they need to make educated decisions about what they buy. There’s simply no excuse.

The upside of nutritional information on spirit bottles is that quality spirits that don’t actually add anything extra to their spirits will be rewarded by consumers. Shouldn’t the companies who do what they do without relying on sugar, flavorings, emulsifiers, and anti-freezing agents have the benefit of their customers knowing it?

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Mott and Mulberry Cocktail
Mott and Mulberry Cocktail

Not too long ago we published the story Today is National Game of Thrones Drinking Game Day (or It Could Be), which slammed the all too common practice of liquor companies making up “official” drinking holidays for the sole purpose of selling their products. The truth is, there are a number of legitimate and established drinking holidays, and Halloween is one of them.

Halloween has long been considered a party holiday, a time when people come together to celebrate and often drink. With the craft cocktail revolution, Halloween is increasingly becoming a time for folks to bring out their jiggers and cocktail shakers and serve up interesting cocktails. Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas where there’s the task of a heavy meal to attend to, Halloween is slightly less encumbered and a perfect time to roll out cocktails that are slightly more involved than your average spirit and a mixer or three ingredient drink. For this year’s Halloween celebration we’ve tapped some top bartenders and mixologists to bring you a handful of unique drinks, perfect for a Halloween celebration.

Our first Halloween cocktail recipe comes from Leo Robitschek, Bar Director at Eleven Madison Park & The NoMad. We’re huge fans of Leo’s work and have previously featured two of his drinks, All Betz Are Off  (a.k.a. Gin Old Fashioned) and Verrazano Cocktail. For Halloween, Leo brings us a riff on the classic fall cocktail The Stone Fence [2 oz Bourbon, 4 oz apple cider, 1/2 lemon juice, 3 dashes of simple] using Rye whiskey and adding the unique Luxardo Amaro Abano to the mix. On its own the Amaro Abano is pretty bitter, but in this drink it imparts a beautiful woodsy floor for the lemon, cider, and rye to build on.

As with almost every Leo Robitschek drink, the Mott and Mulberry is a flavorful, robust but balanced drink that is unique and delicious.

Mott and Mulberry
by Leo Robitschek

½ oz Demerara Simple Syrup (1:1)
½ oz Lemon Juice
¾ oz Fuji Apple Cider
1 oz Luxardo Amaro Abano
1 oz Old Overholt Rye
Shaker and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with an Apple Fan.

Our next cocktail comes from author and mixologist Warren Bobrow. Like Leo, Warren is very much a drinks savant, well versed in the classics, but known for his inventive and delicious original cocktails. We fell in love with his first book, Apothecary Cocktails, and are happy to have a drink from his next book, Whiskey Cocktails.  Warren’s Where’s the Dog Star? is a simple 3 ingredient drink that takes a little prep time but is well worth it.

The combination of frozen hot chocolate, white whiskey, and Root Liqueur is divine, sweet enough to be a dessert cocktail, but balanced enough to drink any time.  This is one of those “wow” drinks that, if you were to serve it at a Halloween party, would have everyone asking you for the recipe.

Where's The Dog Star
Where’s the Dog Star

Where’s the Dog Star?
by Warren Bobrow
3 oz Hot Chocolate, frozen and crushed into pebbles
2 oz White (unaged) Whiskey
1 oz Art in the Age Spirits “Root” Organic Liqueur

Prepare the Hot Chocolate, and let it cool a little. Pour into an ice-cube tray, and freeze 8 hours or overnight.
Pop the hot chocolate ice cubes into a blender and crush, or place them into a Lewis bag—a canvas bag especially made for crushing ice—and crush by hand by banging them with a wooden mallet.
Spoon the crushed, frozen hot chocolate into a parfait glass, and then add the white whiskey and the root tea liqueur. Mix gently. Serve with both a straw and a long-handled spoon.

Sometimes individual cocktails are too labor intensive for a bigger party, and to help solve that problem, Junior Ryan from Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon has a perfect solution: a fall themed punch that you can make in advance and serve to a good number of people all at once.

Clyde Common has received a lot of accolades and awards, and it’s really Junior Ryan who is behind all that success. Junior’s Harvest Punch is smart and delicious, the kind of punch that you’ll wish you had made two batches of.

Junior Ryan and Harvest Punch
Junior Ryan and Harvest Punch

Harvest Punch
by Junior Ryan

1 bottle (750 ml) Old Grand-Dad Bourbon
500 ml (16.9 oz) Korbel Brandy
200 ml (6.75 oz) Apricot Brandy
200 ml(6.75 oz) Jamaican Rum (Appleton Estate)
2 Large Tea Bags (used to make 1 pitcher each) steeped for 5-10 mins in 8 oz of water
500 ml (6.75 oz) Apple Cider
250 ml (8.45 oz) Lemon Juice
4 oz of 1:1 Honey Syrup
1 Liter Ginger Ale
500 ml(16.9 oz) Pelligrino Sparkling Water
3 Crisp Apples (McIntosh or Liberty work well) sliced, soaked in lemon juice and apple cider
4 Cinnamon Sticks

Think of this punch a lot like a soup. Start with the spirits and work your way down. The sparkling water is there to dilute, so taste as you add to get it to your preference. This recipe is designed to be pre-chilled. You can serve it with ice and omit the sparkling water or you can put ice in a zip lock bag to keep it cold without further dilution. Be sure to let it sit for a number of hours before serving. Spoon the punch along with the apples into punch glasses and top with grated nutmeg.

Instead of serving God awful candy vodka or sugarbomb ‘tini’s, these three cocktails help you elevate your game with delicious, balanced, and unique drinks that are perfect for celebrating this major fall holiday.

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Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish
Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish Whiskey

Chris Morris’ Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection has always been a sandbox of experimentation for the brand. Each year, Morris riffs on the core Woodford whiskey by altering one of their “five sources of flavor“, including changing up the grain, water, fermentation, distillation, and aging.

Some years the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection is a grand slam home run (i.e. Maple Wood Finish and 4 Grain) while others miss the mark (Woodford’s Classic Malt). Hit or miss, the Master’s Collection provides a feedback loop for the brand, press, and Woodford’s most loyal consumers, which has been invaluable to the brand and has served as the foundation for Woodford’s biggest innovation, Woodford Double Oaked.

When Woodford announced this year’s Master’s Collection release, we did a little bit of a double take. One of Chris Morris’ more controversial releases in the Master’s Collection was a whiskey finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay barrels. Although initially slammed by the media and rejected by the whiskey faithful, Woodford’s Sonoma-Cutrer, according to Morris, has become one of the most requested releases in the history of the collection.

Since Morris has a long standing policy of not repeating his experiments, this year’s Master’s Collection release uses a Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir barrel instead of Chardonnay to finish this Woodford Reserve whiskey. The brand points out that this year’s Master’s Collection isn’t technically a bourbon, as it doesn’t meet the requirement that bourbon be aged in “new, charred, oak barrels”.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Finish (45.2% ABV / 90.4 Proof, $99.99 for 750ml) –  dark amber in color,  the nose on this year’s Master’s Collection leads with solid oak. Beyond the oak is marzipan, tart black cherry, cinnamon, and strong black pepper.

The entry is bursting with flavor and leads with unmistakable pinot noir wine notes, including tart cherry, slightly sour grape, and blackberry. Although the impact of the pinot noir finishing barrel is strong, the flavor notes are very well balanced by Woodford’s core notes of cinnamon, caramel, marzipan, and oak.

As we move towards the midpalate the character shifts from fruity towards spicy with clove, allspice, strong cinnamon, and black pepper. Underneath this spice is a strong tartness from the pinot noir finish that reads as tart cherry. The finish for this year’s Master’s Collection is long, slightly sour, and dry with oak and spice lingering on the palate.

Like Chris Morris’ last adventures with wine barrel finishing, the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish whiskey is unique. The combination between Woodford’s Reserve Whiskey and Pinot Noir wine is an interesting one, and honestly one that we didn’t love right out of the gate. Unlike last year’s Classic Malt release, which was nothing short of a train wreck, the craftsmanship here is unmistakable with fantastic balance and integration of flavors. This release is absolutely the kind of whiskey that grows on you, and after spending a good hour with the spirit, it did finally win us over. 87 points.

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GQ Drinks Cocktail Book
GQ Drinks Cocktail Book

When asked what all-around solid cocktail book we’d recommend, we often point to David Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks. The problem with Esquire Drinks is that it’s out of print and increasingly difficult to find. We also frequently reference King Cocktail, Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail, which are both excellent books. Simon Difford’s Cocktails: The Bartender’s Bible could have been a definitive tome were it not for recipes delineated by “shots” rather than ounces or milliliters.

Into this void steps Paul Henderson, one of the senior editors at GQ UK, who assembled a collection of 150 key cocktails into a stunning cocktail book that is simply seductive. Hardcover bound with a lie flat binding, the GQ Drinks book is as well assembled as any cocktail book we’ve seen. Broken down by spirit category, each recipe is clearly laid out with a concise introduction and clear directions.

The curation of cocktails in GQ Drinks is its strong suit as it brings together gold standard classics (Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, Margarita, and Moscow Mule), drinks that deserve to be classics (The Bramble and Tommy’s Margarita), complex modernist cocktails (Leather Aged Boulevardier, Claro Fandango and Enlightened Botanist ), and alcohol-free drinks (Virgin Southside, Aztec Hot Chocolate, and Lavender Fizz). As with any cocktail book, GQ Drinks also has a few “what the hell where they thinking drinks” like T.B.C. (Tequila Beer Chaser), which is effectively a beer and a shot, and Pink Bamboo, which has sake infused with grasshopper!

Stunning Image From GQ Drinks (Photo: Romas Foord)
Stunning Image from GQ Drinks (Photo: Romas Foord)

The cocktail recipes in GQ Drinks range in difficulty from combining a few ingredients to extremely complex homemade syrups, tinctures, and even vaporizing. All recipes are listed in both imperial and metric, something essential for any modern cocktail book. The biggest problem with GQ Drinks is that it has gone way overboard selling brand space in the book. Every single cocktail has brand-specific spirits attached, and they haven’t been picked because they are the best spirit for the cocktail – they’re in there because brands paid for them. The book is pretty egregious with this and even goes so far as to brand some of the cocktail names, so the Sazerac isn’t just a Sazerac but the “Thomas H. Handy Sazerac”, and the Daiquiri isn’t a just a Daiquiri, it’s a “Plantain Daiquiri” (of course with Plantation Rum). We understand the economics of the publishing industry all too well, but when a book is so shamelessly brand bought, it undermines its credibility.

Perhaps the most glaring example of absolute brand whoring is the cocktail recipe for the Negroni, which calls for Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, Martini Gran Lusso, and Marini Bitter. All of these are great products, but the Negroni is Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. Omitting Campari and swapping in an ultra high end, limited edition vermouth is nothing short of shameless. Another face slapper is the cocktail recipe for Tommy’s Margarita, which calls for Jose Cuervo Reposado. We’ve been to Tommy’s and know Julio Bermejo, the creator of the drink, it’s hard to imagine he’d ever use Cuervo in his cocktail (unless a customer asked). It’s often Pueblo Viejo or Don Julio, and it’s typically BLANCO tequila.

It’s such a shame that such a beautiful book of well-curated cocktails is so eviscerated by brand sales. GQ Drinks is a reminder that there is still a market for well curated, well laid out, and concisely described cocktails. Perhaps Esquire will get inspired and have David Wonderich do another edition of Esquire Drinks. Until then we’ll be using our well tattered and worn copy.

GQ Drinks will be available on November 4th at the list price of $29.99.

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Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila
Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila

With the explosion in popularity of American Whiskey, other spirit categories have tried to ride whiskey’s coattails with crossover offerings aimed squarely at whiskey consumers. The most common way for non-whiskey brands to do this is with oak, namely via the now extremely pervasive “Black Barrel”.  Basically, by extra-aging a spirit in a deeply charred barrel, that spirit gets an infusion of strong oak and color, and seemingly, instant whiskey consumer friendliness.

The list of brands to “go black” is fairly long and includes such major releases as  Johnnie Walker Double Black, Jameson Black Barrel, Captain Morgan Black, and Mount Gay Black Barrel.

Tequila producers have also been eyeing that whiskey consumer, and there has been a dramatic increase in anejo and extra anejo releases aimed at them, including Tequila Avion Reserva 441800 Milenio, and Gran Patron Piedra. Much of the movement in the tequila space has been aimed at the high end whiskey consumer. Jim Beam/Suntory (owners of the Hornitos Brand) deeply understand the lower end of the price spectrum and have seized the opportunity to bring a lower priced tequila offering aimed at the value-driven whiskey consumer.

Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila takes the standard Hornitos anejo tequila aged for a year in traditional oak barrels and then finishes that tequila in heavily charred American Oak casks for four months, and then moves it to a toasted American Oak barrel for another two months. The aim here is to get some deep color and oak from the heavily charred barrel and then additional sweetness from the toasted oak barrel.

Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila (40% ABV / 80 proof, $29.99, NOM 1102) is dark gold in color and visually could easily be mistaken for an American whiskey. The nose, however, is decidedly tequila, with black pepper, vanilla, and roasted agave mixed in with old oak. While the oak notes in the nose are fairly strong, they don’t completely obliterate the core tequila aromas.

The entry for Hornitos Black Barrel is oak forward, but it has some sense of balance with roasted agave, black pepper, and caramel. It’s really here in the entry where this tequila is at its best. As we move on to the midpalate, the pepper spice increases, ultimately outpacing the oak. The midpalate is all about pepper kick – it’s black pepper, white pepper, clove, habanero, and then oak. There is an undercurrent of sweet agave to help balance all this spice out and it does a fair job of it, until the end of the midpalate when the spice and heat overtake everything else.

Perhaps the weakest part of the Hornitos Black Barrel equation is its finish. It’s a little hot and overly dry. The flavors established in the midpalate evaporate, leaving a slightly bitter combination of white pepper, oak, and raw agave.

One of the things that Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila has going for it is its price. At $30 a bottle, this Hornitos is really more of a mixing tequila than sipping, and it is an easy tool to create variations on classic whiskey cocktails: a teaspoon of agave, a couple dashes of bitters, Hornitos Black Barrel, and some ice and you’ve got a delicious take on the Old Fashioned. It’s mixed, or with ice, that Hornitos Black Barrel really shines.

We don’t think that anyone would argue that Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila is amazing tequila, but Beam Suntory (the brand’s owners) haven’t priced it as such. Hornitos Black Barrel is an interesting riff on anejo tequila aimed squarely at American whiskey drinkers. Like Diageo did with Captain Morgan Black, Hornitos has kept their core audience in mind and released a product that extends the core product’s familiar flavors into new crossover territory. 81 Points

 

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Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition Whisky
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition Whisky

Every year Laphroaig releases something special for the members of its affinity program “Friends of Laphroaig” under the moniker Cairdeas (which is Scottish Gaelic for friendship).  Sometimes these releases can be quite hard to come by, and we’re told that the supply for the 2014 Laphroaig Cairdeas Amontillado Edition is much smaller than last year’s Port Wood Edition.

For the 2014 Cairdeas release, Laphroaig’s Master Distiller John Campbell uses an uncommon finishing barrel, Amontillado sherry. Amontillado is a drier style of sherry than Oloroso (which is the most commonly used sherry barrel for whisky) and it brings salinity, citrus, and a nuttiness to the equation. Unlike many of the non-age stated releases on the market, Laphroaig has been completely forthcoming about the age of this year’s Cairdeas malt: it’s an 8 year old single malt which spent 7 years in ex-bourbon barrels before spending a year in Amontillado sherry hogshead casks.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition (51.4% ABV / 102.8 Proof, $74.99) – golden orange in color, the nose of this year’s Cairdeas leads with Laphroaig’s signature ashy campfire peat smoke, which is balanced by lemon peel, salt, almond, and iris. In addition to its campfire qualities, the peat in the Amontillado edition also has a slight rubbery note to it.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 is flavorful right out of the gate with ashy peat smoke combining with salt, honeysuckle, almond, and lemon peel. While there’s a hint of honey sweetness, the opening is fairly dry.  The ashy campfire peat smoke introduced in the entry ramps up fairly quickly towards the midpalate where it’s met with some solid spice including black pepper, leather, clove, and oak. The level of salinity also increases into the midpalate.

Surprisingly, the dry citrus, floral, and subtle sweet notes from the opening manage to balance out the intense smoke and spice. It’s a delicate balance, but somehow it works. Towards the end of the midpalate, the smoke and spice notes come to a crescendo with the addition of some heat from the spirit. It’s really here that we really get any sense of the proof of this whisky. Up till this point, you’d be hard pressed to pick this out as 51.4%. The finish for Laphroaig Cairdeas is long, ashy, smokey, slightly acidic, and dry.

There’s a lot to really respect about this year’s Laphroaig Cairdeas release – not only has Laphroaig disclosed the actual age of this release (8 years), they’ve kept the price consistent with the previous year’s release. When you compare the Laphroaig Cairdeas release at $75 to the recent Ardbeg Committee Supernova Release at $180, you realize that Laphroaig is trying to reward its loyal fans, not fleece them.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition isn’t the out of the park home run that last year’s Port Wood Edition was, but it’s a very well crafted exploration of Laphroaig’s core ashy peat. The Amontillado brings some interesting things to the equation, and for Laphroaig fans who love its signature ashy peat, this will be quite a treat. 90 Points.

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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Whisky
Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Whisky

Ardbeg has made quite a big deal over blasting a small amount of whisky into space. From a scientific point of view, it’s an interesting experiment aimed at discovering the effect of gravity on the maturation process of whisky. From a practical perspective, though, Ardbeg’s space program is extremely small, limited to a few vials of their whisky, so little that no consumers will ever get to try this space-traveled spirit.

This fact hasn’t stopped Ardbeg from releasing a number of spaced-themed whiskies to celebrate their journey into space. In 2012, a year after Ardbeg launched their whisky into space, they launched Ardbeg Galileo 1999 Whisky.  Now, with the return of their cosmic traveled whisky to terra firma, Ardbeg has brought back one of their most popular space themed whiskies: Ardbeg Supernova.

This time around, Ardbeg Supernova is getting a release as Committee Release (Ardbeg’s loyalty program) SN2014. The 2014 Ardbeg Supernova is different from previous Supernova Releases (a committee release in 2009 and wide release in 2010) in that it has a greater amount of sherry-finished whisky and, from our tastings, a significant increase in younger malt in the blend.

Ardbeg Supernova Single Malt Whisky [Committee Release SN2014] (55% ABV / 110 Proof, $180) – as you’d expect from a whisky whose peat rating is at 100ppm, the nose from the 2014 Supernova is solid peat, but the peat here is more vegetal, barnyard peat than peat smoke. Even at this peat level, Ardbeg Supernova smells a lot less like a campfire than your everyday Laphroaig. Underneath the peat are the clear aromas from the sherry cask including a solid nuttiness, dark fruit, and vanilla. There’s something about the way that the sweet aromas mix with vegetal and smoke that’s reminiscent of mezcal. Supernova’s high proof is also apparent in the nose which does a nice job of amping up the aromas without giving a lot of alcohol burn.

The entry for Supernova is a lot lighter and thinner than we’d expected. Instead of a peat bomb (which we ultimately get in the midpalate), the entry is a muted mix of honey, dark fruit, dark chocolate, and light peat. The thin and unremarkable entry is a disconnect from what we expect from Ardbeg Supernova.

It isn’t until the midpalate that we get the real strength of Supernova. It is here that the peat bomb finally goes off and we get the strongest amount of smoke supported by black pepper and ginger spice. In many ways the midpalate feels like a bomb – a blast of spice and smoke without any real sense of continuity or integration. After the bomb goes off, Ardbeg Supernova gets dry and puckery which drives the finish that is long with the smoke from the midpalate hovering on the palate for quite some time.

The 2014 Ardbeg Supernova is nothing short of disappointing. Ardbeg has established the Supernova line as one of their showcase series, and they’ve priced it accordingly at $180 a bottle, but the 2014 release pales in comparison to the 2009 and 2010 releases. Part of the problem with this Ardbeg Supernova is the sheer amount of young malt in the blend.

When it comes to peated whisky, young malt isn’t a bad thing, as young peated whisky can offer a lot of interesting elements to the equation. But the young malt in the 2014 Ardbeg Supernova isn’t balanced out with deeper, older malt. The result is a whisky that tastes young, thin, and one dimensional. It’s unfair to hold up a 2014 blend against a 2009 or 2010, since the malt stocks and demand are vastly different now than they were back then, but for $180 we’d expect much more from this release. Following on the heels of Ardbeg Auriverdes, Ardbeg Supernova 2014 should give Ardbeg fans genuine concern. Could Ardbeg have a significant problem on their hands in terms of older malt? From these two releases, it seems so. 80 Points

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Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey
Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey

With the American Whiskey craze in full force, any time a distillery puts out something rare or old, there’s a going to be a great deal of expectation and frenzy surrounding it. Heaven Hill is sure to stoke those frenzy fires with their release of Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon. Heaven Hill has seen strong success releasing older, single barrel Elijah Craig whiskeys, first with their 20 year old Elijah Craig release in 2012 and then again with a 21 year old release last fall (which sold out extremely fast). One of the major issues with releases in this space is that American whiskey doesn’t age very well past 12 years. There are, of course, a few rare and notable exceptions to this, but they are indeed the exceptions. After about 9-12 years, most American whiskeys lose the battle with the barrel they are aged in and become overly oaked, unbalanced, and sometimes even downright unpalatable.

This reality hasn’t stopped whiskey collectors and enthusiasts from snapping up any and everything they can find that’s old. Part of this irrational consumption comes out the misconception that these whiskeys are going to be “worth a fortune” someday, that somehow older whiskey is better whiskey, and the seemingly undeniable pleasure some have of owning something other people don’t or can’t. It’s hard to fault whiskey companies from putting products out in a space with such fervent consumers, and for the most part Heaven Hill has done a pretty good job finding older whiskey that manages to maintain some sort of balance and deliver a pleasant taste experience.

Watch our video: Understanding Aged Bourbon with Larry Kass of Heaven Hill Distilleries for a good explanation of how the rare barrel can defy aging gravity and age differently than others.

Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 Proof, $199) is one of the oldest whiskeys that Heaven Hill has released under the Elijah Craig brand (although they’ve previously released a 25 year old under the Rittenhouse brand, as well as a 27 year old bourbon under the Parker’s Heritage Collection line). This release is two years older than last year’s release with a slight increase in price, now hitting the $200 mark. Since it’s a single barrel product, taste, character, and flavor notes may vary from barrel to barrel, but we’re confident that Heaven Hill has selected a range of casks with similar character (our bottle comes from barrel number 26 which was barreled on 2/26/90).

Deep amber in color, this whiskey is consistent in color with the extreme age of this whiskey. Oak is definitely the lead aroma out of the glass and it reads as dusty old oak with a touch of varnish. On the nose, Elijah Craig 23 Year Old isn’t just an oak bomb: beyond the oak there’s cinnamon, shortbread cookie, marzipan, and dried orange peel. On the entry, this whiskey also has a little more to offer beyond oak with vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon. The oak spice does ramp up pretty quickly, though, and by the time we get to the midpalate, it’s become undeniably strong oak. As with the nose, the midpalate features some counterpoint flavors which try desperately to balance out the oak, including clove, coconut, caramel, dark cherry, and orange peel, but you really have to break through the strong oak to get to them.  The finish for Elijah Craig 23 Year Old whiskey is slightly long and oaky with a touch of heat and touch of dark chocolate. It’s not as dry as you’d expect with all this age, but it’s oaky and deeply tannic.

As with their other older releases, Heaven Hill has found barrels of the old stuff that are interesting in some way beyond just being an oak bomb, and there’s a real effort here to create some sort of balance, especially with the the proofing. The problem, though, is that this whiskey is past its prime, and there’s just no denying the reality of age.

There’s no doubt that like its predecessor, the Elijah Craig 23 year old single barrel will be quickly snapped up by whiskey collectors and folks who try to chase age in their spirits. At $200, it’s well out of reach of the average whiskey consumer, and that’s just fine. There are far better whiskeys out there (including many from Heaven Hill) at much lower prices. Elijah Craig 23 year old single barrel isn’t designed for the everyday consumer, and odds are the folks who will end up buying this release won’t care how good or bad it really is, just that they managed to get their hands on some old rare stuff that no one else will get. That’s what the whiskey market has come to these days, and for the rest of us, we’ll enjoy such gems as Heaven Hill’s Evan William’s Single Barrel, which sells at literally 1/10th of the price. 89 points.

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Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson
Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson

As many of you know, in addition to Drink Spirits, I also am on the Buying Guide team for Whisky Advocate Magazine. My managing editor there, Lew Bryson, is perhaps one of the most amazing figures in spirits media. Never have I met a more humble, loving, thoughtful writer with such an undeniable lust for life. When I found out that Lew was writing a book about whiskey, I knew it was going to be something very special, and it is.

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits, which will be released on October 21, 2014, is a no-frills look at exactly what goes into making whiskey and how that impacts what you get in your glass. Lew’s guide goes further and helps the everyday spirits lover decode what exactly they are tasting and where in the process it’s coming from. Tasting Whiskey is written with the same kind of heart, humor, and insights that have defined Lew’s writing, both in whiskey and beer (where he’s helped foster the Session Beer movement).

When Story Publishing asked us if we’d like to give away three signed copies of Lew’s book, we jumped at the chance. Tasting Whiskey is a phenomenal book and we’re proud to give our readers the opportunity to try to win a copy.

Enter here for your chance to win one of three signed copies of Tasting Whiskey.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Once you’ve entered out giveaway, head over to Story Publishing’s site as they are giving away 2 tickets to 17th Annual WhiskyFest in New York (a $490 value)!

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Maker's Mark Cask Strength Whiksey
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Whiskey

Here’s a head scratcher: why would a company that had a controversial announcement about lowering the proof of their core product due to production shortages (and then reversing that decision) go ahead and release a cask strength expression of their whiskey? The answer is Cask Strength Maker’s Mark Whiskey is only available in extremely small quantities, and only at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, as well as a few select retailers in Kentucky. Even though it’s a small limited release, Cask Strength Maker’s Mark is an important release. Marker’s Mark is famous for their 50 year stretch as a single product company (which ended in 2010 with the release of Maker’s 46), so any time they bring out something new, it’s cause for significant attention. Released without an aged statement in 375 ml bottles, Cask Strength Maker’s Mark gives us a rare glimpse into the heart and soul of what makes Maker’s Mark the whiskey that it is.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey (113.2 Proof / 56.6% ABV, $39.95 per 375ml) – Maker’s Mark’s nose is typically so soft and sweet, it’s a little bit of a surprise to nose Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and be hit by oak. The oak here isn’t overpowering, just much more pronounced than in the standard 90 proof version of Maker’s. The nose on Cask Strength Maker’s also features stronger cinnamon, deeper caramel, and a more pronounced wheat grain. There’s a subtle marzipan note in the nose that is more difficult to pick out in the standard release. Side by side with 90 proof Maker’s, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength makes the standard release seem very tame and restrained. Cask Strength Maker’s is fuller, spicier, and more inviting without being overly fiery.

Everything that makes Maker’s Mark so enjoyable is right there in the entry, with a foundation of sweet caramel that supports bright cinnamon and oak spice. Even at the beginning of the taste experience the integration of flavors is superb. Cinnamon spice builds sequentially towards the midpalate where it’s joined by wheat grain.  Here in the midpalate you have the core of what makes Maker’s Mark so affable: a combination of caramel, cinnamon, and wheat, all well balanced with great integration and solid flavor. Towards the end of the midpalate the cinnamon spice peaks and is joined by black pepper and clove. Even though it’s cask strength, the alcohol never loses its supporting role, and although there’s some heat here, it doesn’t eclipse the flavors. The finish is medium length and slightly dry, driven by the cinnamon spice, soft wheat, and black pepper. There’s a noticeable cooling effect on the finish, the hallmark of impeccable distillation.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is a gentle giant if there ever was one, and even though it’s over 50% alcohol, it never loses its easy, affable character. It’s easy to understand what a revelation it must have been in the 1950s when Maker’s first launched, even when tasted straight out of the barrel. A world with a cask strength edition of Maker’s Mark is a world we want to live in, and so we’re happy that the company has made the move to pull some whiskey from their stocks for this release (even as limited as it is). It’s unfortunate that Maker’s Mark isn’t able to make this a much wider release as Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is beautiful whiskey, brightly flavored, perfectly balanced, and oh so good. 97 points.

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