Things That Affect Flavor

Every single day that I work the sales floor I meet a person who is flummoxed by the idea that single malt whisky is rarely one singular whisky. Or that many twelve year old Bourbons aren't the result of one continuous stream of brown whiskey coming off the still. Unless you're drinking single barrel hooch, you're never drinking just one whiskey -- you're drinking dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of whiskies that have been married together to create a specific flavor profile. Some products are composed of whiskies from the same distillery (as is the case with single malt whisky) and sometimes they can be a blend of different producers. They can be from the same type of cask, or a marriage of different ones. They can be all the same age, or a blend of different ages. There are so many aspects of the whisky-making process that can affect the ultimate flavor of a whisky that I feel it might be a good idea to list them here.

And it might help to compare them with wine because some spirits, like brandy and pisco, are distilled from wine, so that adds a lot of extra potential flavor factors.

Potential Flavor Factors of a Wine

Variety - This is an obvious one. What type of grape is being grown? Cabernet Sauvignon? Red or white? From what type of clone? Perhaps the vineyards are selection massale, meaning the the grapes are a propagation from a number of the vineyard's own most successful plants. Are the vines new or are they old vines? Older vines have deeper roots.

Terroir - When we're talking about making a wine, we have to begin by growing the fruit necessary to make a wine. That means grapes. The terroir factor in a wine's flavor depends entirely on where the grape was grown. What is the soil like? Is the vineyard on a hillside? How does that affect drainage? How does that affect sunlight? What is the weather like in this location? Pinot noir grapes that are grown in Oregon don't taste the same as pinot noir grapes grown in Burgundy. Cognac grapes grown in the Grand Champagne region aren't the same as the grapes grown in the Borderies. The flavor differences begin with terroir.

Viticulture - How does the farmer manage his vineyard? Does he use pesticides or are the vineyards organic? Or biodynamic? Does he harvest by hand or with a tractor? If the vineyard is machine harvested it can split the fruit prematurely and begin oxidation before the grapes are ready to be pressed. Does the farmer prune the leaves or create a canopy to increase photosynthesis? How are the vines spaced? What is the root stock? How large are the harvests? Concentrating flavor into fewer grapes can make a big difference. Is all the fruit being used from the farmer's own estate or is he sourcing fruit from another lcoation as well? Does he have control over that location as well? These are all very important questions that need to be addressed and understood.

Production Methods - How are the grapes being pressed once they've been harvested? Is one wine being made from the first pressing of juice and a second wine from the second pressing? Is chapitalization allowed (the adding of sugar to increase alcohol levels)? What about acidification? Are the stems being used during the wine's fermentation? What about the seeds? Maybe 50% stems, 50% destemmed? Maybe 25% stems/75% destemmed? Stems add tannin and earthy flavors to the wine, so leaving them in creates a different flavor. Destemming entirely helps to create a fruitier wine. Are the grapes cold-soaked, meaning the juice and skins been left longer to macerate and extract flavor without oxidation? How much sulphur is used before bottling?

Yeast and Fermentation - Is the yeast a commercial yeast meant to impart a specific flavor, or is the strain naturally cultured from the vineyard itself? What temperature is the fermentation allowed to reach? Hotter temperatures can extract more flavor, but also cook it right back out. How long is the fermentation allowed to last? Is it done in stainless steel or in wooden barrels? How long is the fermentation period? Oban, for example, is fermented for more than 80 hours to create a light and fruity style.

Maturation - Is the wine put into stainless steel? Used oak? New oak? A combination of both new and used oak? How long has the wine been in the bottle before you opened it? Is it a recent vintage or has it been aged longer? What type of cellar was the bottle aged it? What is the fill level like in the bottle? This will help tell you how much oxygen has permeated the wine.

Batching and Bottling - How many barrels are being used for the final wine? Perhaps a combination of some barrel aged selections and some stainless steel tanked wine? Is it from a single vineyard or is the wine a marriage of different wines? Were the grapes separated at the beginning and fermented to create different wines, then blended together at the end? Or were the grapes mixed from the beginning?

These are just a few of the things you need to think about when attempting to understand a wine's flavor. If you're talking Cognac or Armagnac, then you need to understand these concepts before even beginning with distillation.

Potential Flavor Factors of a Whiskey/Spirit

Base Material/Mashbill - What type of matter is being distilled? Corn? Rye? Barley? Maybe a combination of all three? Fruit? Wine? A percentage of both?

Terroir - I haven't found terroir to be a big factor concerning most whiskies, but some Bourbon distilleries are experimenting with GMO versus non-GMO corn. Bruichladdich and Kilchoman have local barley whiskies available (which are wildly different than their standard releases). Bryan Davis from the Lost Distillery here in California has also experimented with local barley and local peat. If the whisky is peated, where did the peat come from? With tequila, terroir makes a huge difference. Also with fruit brandies like Calvados.

Cooking, Malting and Creating Sugar - How was the barley malted? In a temperature-controlled vat or on the distillery floor? Was it raked? How often? Was it peated or not? With agave, was it steamed or baked in an oven? Or maybe roasted in a pit like mezcal?

Yeasts and Fermentation - What type of yeast was used? Four Roses is famous for using five different yeast strains with their two different mashbills -- each creating a very different flavor profile. Some tequila producers cultivate a natural yeast from their agave fields, much like wine producers do. How is the spirit fermented? In stainless steel or in wooden barrels? How long does the fermentation last? Oban, for example, uses an extra long fermentation time to help create a lighter, fruitier spirit.

Distillation - What type of still is being used? Pot still or column still? How much copper is involved? Is the distillation being done in batches? If using a pot still, at which point are the heads and tails separated from the heart? Are they dumped back in to be redistilled? How high is the column still? How many rectification plates are in the column? Is only the fermented liquid being distilled or is the base material added into the still as well?

Maturation - What type of barrel was used to mature the whiskey? Brand new charred oak like Bourbon? Or was it a used barrel like with single malt? If the barrel is being reused, what was in the barrel previously? Bourbon? Sherry? Port? Wine? How many times has the barrel been reused? The more often it's been used, the less flavor it can inflect into the whiskey. How long was it aged? In what type of warehouse? Is it hot or cold where the warehouse is located? Is the warehouse inland or by the sea?

Batching and Bottling - This is where the number of permutations can really boggle your mind. Is the whiskey you're drinking a single barrel whiskey from one cask only? If it's a small batch whiskey, how many barrels were used? Which types of barrels? All Bourbon? A mixture of Bourbon and Sherry? Some old barrels, some young barrels? If the whiskey says "12 years old" is all the whiskey 12 years old, or just the youngest ones? Producers only have to state the age of the youngest whiskey in the marriage. Are all the whiskies from the same distillery? What proof is the whiskey bottled at? Was some water added? No water? Is the marriage a blend of one type of whiskey, or is it both grain whisky and single malt whisky like Johnnie Walker Blended Whisky? Is it a straight Bourbon whiskey or a blend of both rye and Bourbon like High West's Bouyre? When you buy a whiskey more than once it's rarely the same as it was previously. While producers are very good at matching flavor profiles, batches can be wildly different from one another despite the fact that you're buying the exact same product as before.

There are probably some important things I'm forgetting, but this should cover most of the basics. I'm doing this off the top of my head right now. Nevertheless, the point is that many, many, many things affect the ultimate flavor of a wine or whiskey and they need to be understood in order to truly appreciate what's in your glass. These are the things that make one product different from another. These are the things that separate great producers from mediocre producers. And we haven't even talked about sterilization!

-David Driscoll


Drinking Diageo – Part VII: Come Drink With Us

Come drink with us tomorrow! Thursday in Redwood City at 5 PM and meet a very, very special guest: Enrique de Colsa, the master distiller for Don Julio. The tasting is free as always and and you don't need to RSVP. Just show up with! We'll hand you the glass.

-David Driscoll


Drinking Diageo – Part VI: Storm's a Brewin'

Fresh off an email exchange (which I posted a few days back) concerning NAS statement whiskies and the certain skepticism that surrounds their very nature, we're now learning about a particular NAS storm on the horizon -- both literally and figuratively. There is literally a new whisky called Talisker Storm that is due to hit American retail stores within weeks. There is figuratively a storm brewing around the fact that this new limited edition whisky is pricier than the Talisker 10, yet has no age statement to back up its bonafides. With an expected sticker price of $85 or so, how will Diageo excite those drinkers with an innate distrust of corporate authority? Is the Talisker Storm an exciting new marriage of top-quality casks, blended to perfection by Diageo's crack team of masters? Or is it perhaps just an excuse to sell young whisky with a higher price tag? After tasting it, and tasting it again, then tasting it ten more times on ten consecutive days, I've come to only one sure conclusion: this is going to be one controversial whisky.

Here's what I can factually tell you about the new Talisker Storm limited edition single malt whisky: it's bottled at 45.8% ABV.  That's the only piece of information regarding the content of this bottle that I know for sure. I've been told that the whisky is a special blend of various types of casks -- Bourbon, sherry, European oak, refill, rejuvinated, etc -- but there's no indication of that on the bottle. Basically, Diageo is asking the consumer to trust in Diageo, with the obvious understanding that the company does and should own the best stocks of Talisker whisky on the planet (thereby giving them the potential to make the best Talisker whisky expression possible). How they made this whisky, however, with which barrels, and with whiskies from which age groups, is a mystery. All we're being told is that the whisky was inspired by the rugged landscape of the Isle of Skye -- "an intense Talisker, with a profoundly maritime character, like a warm welcome from a wild Herbridean Sea." I can already see the eye-rolling and hear the sighs from many of you as you read this, but give it a chance.

To be clear, the Talisker Storm is only new to the American market. It's been available in the UK since the beginning of the year, but I had never taken the time to read any reviews about it. In fact, I had never received any input of any kind about its quality before tasting it myself about ten days ago. After my initial experience, however, I was definitely curious to see how it was being received abroad. To put it bluntly, Talisker Storm is the exact opposite of what today's casual whisky drinker goes after. It's restrained, mysterious, mellow, and subtle in a time when consumers are celebrating big power, big spice, and big smoke. It's like having a customer walk into K&L thinking about a big, juicy, California cabernet, but instead walking out with a bottle of 1997 Terry Gros Cailloux Bordeaux. If that analogy is lost on you, then imagine the expectation of a big, fat, rich, full-bodied, juicy red wine, but instead tasting a lithe, lean, brooding, mineral, nuanced red wine with little pomposity. It's a huge gamble on the part of Diageo because of the expectations associated with the Talisker name and the expectations we have for limited edition malts -- people are expecting a "storm" of flavor. In fact, it's so much a of a risk that I can't believe Diageo had the balls to even try pulling it off. In the realm of safe, crowd-pleasing, user-friendly whiskies that explode with obvious flavor, big alcohol, and loads of peat, this is a 4.2 on the Richter Scale. Complexity and flavor that doesn't simply scream 90 point whisky? I simply had to do a Google search to see what people abroad had been saying because it was going to be hilarious!

Just as I suspected, the results were totally uneven. Some people loved the Storm, praising its complexity and length, and its detailed, refined flavor profile. Others found it just plain terrible, calling it boring, lackluster, and devoid of complexity. How could the same whisky strike its audience in such a drastically different way? Easy -- with subtlety. It happens all the time at K&L when a customer comes in expecting big Zinfandel flavor, but walks out with a delicately, nuanced bottle of Rioja. Just like some California wine drinkers don't understand Bordeaux, and Sea Smoke lovers don't get the earthy flavors of Burgundy, there will be many a whisky drinker who doesn't appreciate what's going on in the Talisker Storm. The nose is straight-forward -- it's peatier than the standard 10 for sure with the smoke taking dominance over the vanilla. It smells like it's going to be pretty intense with big peat flavors. But then the strangest thing happens: the palate builds slowly with fruit and salt, the flavors begin to intertwine, and you brace yourself for the "storm" you've been expecting. But then the clouds pass over, the rain never hits, and you realize this whisky is more of a tempest in a tea pot -- but in a good way.

The Talisker Storm is "more intense" than the standard Talisker 10, if you expect a higher dosage of peat to bring added intensity. There is more spice, more brine, more salt, but these flavors are certainly not at the same level as Ardbeg or Laphroaig. They're also not balanced by the round richness we expect from Talisker. The fruit and saline notes are plentiful, but unclear initially, as the you kind of look around, wondering when the storm is going to actually hit. The smoky, ashy, salty residue lingers long on the finish, but only if you're really focusing on it. It's almost puzzling at first. But do you remember the first time you heard Radiohead's Kid A album after it leaked on Napster? I do -- the electronic keyboard and distorted lyrics from "Everything in its Right Place" evolving into a rather ghostly vocal. After the bold, and brash guitars of OK Computer, we thought maybe it was a joke -- like someone had uploaded an album called Kid A, but really it was music from another artist meant to fool eager Radiohead fans. It wasn't, however. We listened. Then we listened again. What the heck was going on? Do we like this? We weren't sure. Two weeks later, however, we thought it was the greatest thing ever. A similar thing happened to me with the Talisker Storm. First I was shocked. Then confused. Then intrigued. Then I became a fan. The more I knew what to expect, the more I was able to appreciate what was happening with the whisky. The depth is there, but you have to let it come to you. Even when it does, it still may not be what you're looking for.

The new Talisker Storm will be available at K&L very soon and it will likely sell quite well due to the Talisker reputation. But I would advise any potential customers to keep their expectations in check. In my mind, and in the minds of my colleagues, it is indeed a fine whisky -- we all ultimately enjoyed it -- but it's not a whisky for everyone. It's not rich and supple like the Talisker 18, it's not round and fruity like the Talisker 10, and it's not a "storm" in any sense of the word (unless there's a definition of "storm" that says a "storm" is nuanced, withheld, and unobvious). There's no age statement, no explanation of what's going in the cepage, and very little to go off of officially. It has all the makings of a whisky that critics skeptical of NAS bottles will certainly hate: lighter flavors, less richness, and higher-than-average pricepoint. Maybe that's what Diageo meant by Storm -- as in we expect to invite a "storm" of controversy when this whisky is released. I couldn't be more impressed, however. Not necessarily because it's the best whisky ever (because it isn't), but because a whisky company, the biggest whisky company at that, actually decided to make a product with innuendo rather than brute force.

When the dark grey clouds eventually blow over and the rain stops coming down, I really like the Talisker Storm. It's brooding, strange, and haunting in its nature -- three characteristics that I associate with the Isle of Skye. Again, it's also incredibly ballsy -- I can just imagine Diageo's master blender standing in his office, saying "I don't give a rat's ass that its not as bold or intense as you wanted, this is the type of whisky that I feel like drinking!!" The Talisker Storm has all the marketing of a next-generation sports drink, meant to excite all the young kids with flashy packaging and a force-of-nature-inspired power name, yet it tastes like an older man's idea of great whisky -- one that lightly gets its point across, without feeling the need to shout, play a loud, distorted guitar chord, or jump up and down to get your attention. It's almost ironic!

Some people are going to absolutely hate this whisky (some obviously already do). Much like when the Stones went disco or Johnny Rotten formed Public Image, Ltd -- to some -- it will seem like an abomination of what Talisker is supposed to represent. But secretly I'll be celebrating it, just like I really enjoy listening to "Miss You" or "Rise". Both songs are controversial because they're not what they're supposed to be. But years later, they're staples of the catalog.

-David Driscoll


Why We Care

I could probably write twenty pages of material by distilling my thoughts from the past few days, but I'm short on time at the moment -- and in general -- so I'll try and summarize these feelings quickly. This past weekend was a busy one: we were short staffed on a hectic Saturday shift, I had to run the Good Food Awards judging committee on Sunday, and Monday was full of errands, but Nic Palazzi did come by my place in the evening to kick it with me and my dad. I also found myself diving back into Burgundy Sunday night, going through my Clive Coates books and revisiting the selections in my cellar. Why the sudden desire to drink this particular wine?

I think it's because the more I drink, talk, and think booze, the more I'm narrowing my interests with what I want to personally enjoy. I was driving with my dad back from Modesto yesterday and I was trying to explain the difference between "enjoyment" and "appreciation" when it comes to alcohol -- how you can have one, both, or neither of these two facets when approaching a beverage and why they're definitely not the same thing. You might be able to appreciate that a whisky is rare, well-made, or interesting, but you might not want to drink it. That's appreciation without enjoyment. Someone else might like how easy a cheap whisky is to drink, how it tastes pretty good, but then never really gives it a thought beyond that. That's enjoyment without any real appreciation. However, when you both enjoy and appreciate something it simply takes drinking to an entirely different level -- one that creates a high we long to revisit.

When it takes a high level of understanding to appreciate a wine or spirit, I think my enjoyment of it is exponentially enhanced by the amount of work I put into understanding it. Burgundy might be the most terroir-driven wine in the world, both the red and white versions of it. I enjoy drinking Burgundy perhaps more than any other wine because I'm fascinated with the idea of the land dictating which wines are good before they've even been made! The lines have been drawn, the maps plotted out -- if your grapes are not being grown in a particular type of Kimmeridgian soil, then they've already decided that your wine will never be great. Good, perhaps, but never great. That's where good Burgundy begins -- in the vineyard. It all comes from the quality of the grape, which is determined by the location of the vine. All you can hope for after that is competency in the winemaking cellar.

The amount of work it takes to truly appreciate what these Burgundians have gone through to make their wine is staggering. The more I read about it, the more I realize how little I actually know (but the more I am blown away!). Each grower is his own unique situation with his own particular particulars. You'll never really be able to lump Marsannay wines into one category and Morey St. Denis into another, like the guide books try to help you categorize them. Even within those village communes you have to take each wine, each grower, and each producer individually because they may share certain geographical similarities, but that doesn't mean their wines will taste the same. It's impossible that you'll ever master all of this information, so there's no point in trying, as each generation of producer may bring a new style of winemaking to the table that completely obliterates everything you've already learned. Maybe the father picked by hand, but the son now uses a machine to harvest. That changes everything, so you have to keep on learning, and learning, and learning, and learning.

What's the point? The point is that this uncertainty, this inability to lump alcohol into easily understandable categories, the fact that you'll never really be able to know everything about this subject is what excites me about booze. It's always changing and there are so many permutations of potential that it's almost panic-inducing. It's no wonder that the longer I do this, the more I gravitate to the products and producers that clarify what they do and explain how these processes create the flavor of their liquids. That's what allows for both appreciation and enjoyment. Tequila, Armagnac, and Burgundy are my three current beverages of choice -- is it a coincidence that they all involve agriculture first, then careful, hands-on production where the goal is to remain as faithful to the original base material? Is it also a coincidence that all three products involve small producers that I can meet, talk to, and gain more insight from on a personal level?

The Good Food Awards tasting was more of this same idea -- small growers or sourcers of responsibly-farmed grains and produce, making delicious spirits that reflected as closely as possible the quality of those base materials. We had clean, bright, and vibrant gins. We had fruity, ethereal eau de vies. We had juicy, supple fruit liqueurs. And we had round, wonderfully-matured brandies. Whiskey was not the big winner at Sunday's tasting, mainly because we haven't found that sourcing responsibly-farmed corn or wheat is making for a better spirit, but we like that there are people out there trying. When I saw the list of winning producers after the blind tasting, it was no surprise. Almost all of the winners were people I know well -- producers who really take the time to do things the right way, from the orchard, field, or vineyard all the way into the bottle.

As I sat with Nic and my dad last night, sipping a variety of spirits from the patio table on my back deck, we talked about the producers who made the products we were enjoying. Nic talked about his appreciation for Laurent Cazottes and his extremely esoteric eau de vies. We asked my dad what he thought after tasting the Cazottes Mauzac Rose and he said, "Well, I'm enjoying it much more now that you've told me all this background information." We discussed David Suro, the Vivancos, and the new understanding we had for the Siembra Azul blanco tequila. We sipped Armagnac from Darroze and compared the various Gascogne farmers on each vintage. And after Nic said farewell, and I had dropped my dad off at his hotel near the airport, I went back to my apartment and buried myself in more Burgundy text.

There's a reason why we do this and why we care so much about good booze. Good booze often comes from good people who take the time to explain why they make it so well. Often times, good booze can't be made just by anyone, anywhere, with any level of talent. Making a fine Chablis takes an understanding of nature, of the land, of the fermentation process, and many other lessons that can only come with patience, time, and experience. I respect this ability because I am incapable of doing it myself. I have no understanding of farmwork and even less patience for doing it properly. When I meet producers who do understand it, and can help me understand it as well, I am always more excited to drink their products. And, of course, help others appreciate them as well.

-David Driscoll


Tapatio 110 Está Aqui

Tonight I'll be getting out of work early, driving back to my house, meeting up with my in-laws and co-workers, breaking out the brand new Tapatio 110 proof tequila (distilled masterfully by Carlos Camarena -- see our conversation from last week's blog post), and tuning in to watch Canelo Alvarez knock out Floyd Mayweather for the first time in his life. Canelo is from Jalisco, the home of tequila, so what drink could be more fitting? I've got grapefruit Jarritos and salt to make Palomas and plenty of snacks. The higher proof of the Tapatio is just what we'll need to make sure the vibrant tequila flavor doesn't get drowned out in a sea of sweet soda. I'm really excited to try it in a cocktail.

If you've never seen what I look like before, Canelo Alvarez could be my brother – hence why all the boxing fans at K&L call me "Canelo." Therefore, I share a certain kinship with the undefeated Mexican champion. When I was younger, and still did have red hair, I really looked like Canelo. It's almost scary. 

We've got a big night ahead! Tapatio 110 and the biggest fight of the year! Víva Canelo! Víva Tapatio! Viva Jalisco!

-David Driscoll