Thursday
Jun132013

Drinking to Drink

We get this question in the store all the time: I'm looking for some "everyday" wine. Just a few "everyday" bottles. I need some "weeknight" red wine.

Do you know what that means?

It means the customer is looking for wine to drink on a Wednesday night when they don't want to break out the good stuff. It means an inxpensive bottle of sauvignon blanc to open while watching the latest Modern Family episode. It's the difference between a $10 bottle and a $50 bottle. Who wants to drink pricey Bordeaux on a weeknight, anyway?

If you're a beer drinker it might mean popping a can of PBR in the parking lot at Oakland Alameda stadium while you tailgate the A's game. It might mean a light, refreshing lager to enjoy on that warm Tuesday evening instead of the Bourbon-aged porter you've been saving since last weekend.

What either of these situations does not insinuate, however, is the idea that most wine and beer drinkers don't understand the difference between fun booze and quality booze. They know the time and place for a bottle of high-end Bordeaux. They can comprehend the need for an easy bottle of crisp white wine in the meantime.

Do whiskey drinkers understand that, however? Do whiskey fanatics get that there's a time and a place for Old Overholt and a time and a place for Sazerac 18? I'm not so sure.

The new push towards quality single malt and Bourbon seems to have forgotten an important facet of whiskey enjoyment: no one ever said the inexpensive stuff wasn't good.

Nevertheless, prices for bottles like Old Pulteney 21, Pappy Van Winkle, and Macallan 18 continue to skyrocket, while prices for Glenlivet 12, Buffalo Trace, and Glenfiddich remain inexpensive and consistent. Why is that the case? I thought whisk(e)y was the hot commodity. Could it be that the demand for hard-to-find, collectable bottles has hit an all-time high, while the entry level booze never really took off? It makes sense, right? All the collectors and hoarders went right for the "good stuff," leaving the basic necessities untouched. We'll never see a bottle of Weller Larue on the shelf ever again, yet Weller 107 still stands pat at $20 a bottle. What the heck is going on?

I'll tell you.

Whisk(e)y customers have forgotten about Buffalo Trace. About Four Roses Yellow. About Old Grand-Dad. About Glenmorangie Original. About the Bank Note in liter bottles. About simple pleasures and everyday hooch. Why? Because they're not collectable. Because they're not rare. Because they're not being talked about on message boards. But the tide is turning, trust me.

Pappy? You might as well bust out your old MC Hammer pants. Ardbeg Supernova? Why don't you pass the C&C Music Factory CD over to my boombox. You're dating yourself. There's a new movement on the way.

This is what happens when a genre gets played out and exploited by the masses: backlash. What happened to drinking whiskey just to drink it? What happened to popping a bottle of Old Fitzgerald while catching the latest Warriors game? What happened to session whiskies like Jameson, Paddy, or Old Crow?

Are we creating a society of drinkers who only purchase collectable, rare, top-shelf spirits? Wine drinkers aren't that narrow. Neither are beer drinkers. So what's happening to the liquor aficionado? Why are wine and beer drinkers fine with diversifying their collection to include the everyday, while spirits drinkers choose only the "best" or the "finest?" Why do my wine customers specifically ask for inexpensive wines, while my spirits customers ask specifically to avoid the inexpensive whiskies?

Are they losing touch?

I'm sipping on a big, fat glass of Old Overholt right now. Why? Because it's Wednesday. That's what we do mid-week. I'll save the Mortlach 22 until Saturday. That way I'll really appreciate it.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jun122013

An Interview with Midleton Distillery

Since I'm in the mood to do some interviews right now, I figured I might as well strike while the iron is hot. I'm currently preferring the printed form of conversation rather than the podcast medium because I've noticed that the number of people downloading the episodes is only about 10% of the hit number we get per day on the blog. To me, that means that plenty of people have time to stop by the site and read a few paragraphs, but perhaps not the dedication to sit through an hour-long media file. I want to reach everyone with this information, so I'd rather transcribe the conversation if it means allowing you to read while you're at your desk or checking your iPhone. There are also a number of hearing-impaired customers who I know appreciate the ability to participate. Therefore, look for more of these printed interviews in lieu of the audio recordings.

What is Irish whiskey? I think there's a bit of confusion out there as to how its made and what it's composed of. Is it made from barley? Is it always a blend? What kind of stills are used? Let's clear all of that up, shall we?

Midleton Distillery is located in Cork County, Ireland and is owned by Pernod-Ricard. It is the home of the Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, and Midleton brands respectively. Midleton is sometimes referred to as the "new" Midleton distillery because there was once an old version. In 1966, Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distillery Company decided to merge together and consolidate their operations into one complex. Because Cork Distillery had the most room for expansion, they decided to build a new facility at the "old" Midleton site. Distillation began at the new site in 1975 and the old distillery was turned into the visitor's center. Midleton boasts three gigantic pot stills and three column stills, from which various types of whiskey are distilled.

This past week I had the chance to speak with Fiona Canning, the brand ambassador for Jameson. Here's what she had to say:

David: Irish whiskey is a bit unique because it's often a blend of pot still whiskey with column still whiskey, distilled from both malted barley (like single malt) and unmalted barley. Can you shed some light on how that operation works at Midleton?

Fiona: Certainly. First off, the malted and unmalted are milled and mashed together into a flour called grist, and the grist is added to hot water in a vessel called a mash tun. It's during this mashing process that the conversion of starch to fermentable sugar takes place to produce a hot sweet liquid called wort, the wort then goes onto the fermentation and distillation process.

David: So the malted and unmalted barley is distilled together, rather than separately?

Fiona: In essence they are distilled together as a combination. Malting a portion of the barley is essential to produce the natural enzymes in the grain which will later be used in the brewing process. There are 3 stages to producing malted barley:

Steeping - grain is left to steep in water

Germination - the grain begins to sprout

Kilning - hot clean air is applied to dry the malt in preparation for brewing

A key difference between Jameson and most Scottish whiskies is how we produce our malt. At the Midelton distillery we dry our malt using hot air with no smoke passing through it which results in a fresh and clean tasting malt.

David: But you also make straight grain whisky with no malted barley, right?

Fiona: Yes, we also make grain whiskey from a mixture of other grains, usually corn-based. We use a mixture of grains in the grist. Tall column stills are used in a continuous process of distillation, Our grains are also triple distilled for flavor. Grain whiskey is fruity, floral and has a particular sweet fragrant character. At the end of the triple distillation the spirit has an abv of 63.4%.

David: So Midleton whiskey is triple distilled, how is the pot-still whisky produced? Some expressions like Redbreast and Powers John Lane are all pot-still, correct?

Fiona: Yes. Basically all whiskey from Midleton is triple distilled either in copper pot stills for the pot still whiskey or column stills for the grain whiskey thus any blend of pot and grain, i.e. Jameson, is all triple distilled. The pot-still whisky is made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley (sourced from a 100 mile radius of the distillery), which is triple distilled in copper pot stills, pot still Irish whiskies are characterized by full, complex flavors and a wonderful creamy mouth feel. The inclusion of unmalted barley in the mash bill, along with the tradition of triple distillation defines the character of Midleton Pot Still and this uniquely Irish approach to whiskey distillation.

David: So then it goes into barrel. What type of cooperage is used?

Fiona: We use two different types of casks to mature our whiskey, which legally must be a minimum of three years. A number of reactions take place during the maturation process the most significant of which is the color and flavor change of the whiskey. We use Kentucky bourbon casks, which are made of American white oak and have a capacity of 200 liters. Most of the casks have been seasoned with bourbon, some are 'virgin' - charred but not seasoned - adding to the flexibility in creating individual whiskies. Grain whiskey is exclusively matured in Bourbon casks; pot still whiskey is matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry. Bourbon casks ring vanilla, honey, and toasted wood notes to our whiskies.

We also use sherry butts. Each of our Oloroso sherry casks come from Spain, they are 500 liters in capacity. Made from European oak the insides are toasted rather than charred and seasoned for two years with the sherry before arriving in Midleton, Sherry butts bring a rich mouth feel along with a fruity sultana flavor. 

What's interesting is that single pot still whiskies were once the norm in Ireland and from the late 18th century to the early 20th and were the most sought after whiskies in the world. While pot still Irish whiskey continues to be used a key component in many well-known brands of blended whiskey, Midleton is currently striving to further develop the single pot still category here in the USA with Redbreast and Powers Johns Lane.

David: This is great! Can you shed some light on to the make-up of each Midleton expression based on what we've learned? What's used to create Jameson, for example.

Fiona: The standard Jameson is about five to seven years of age, a combination of grain (corn base) and pot still whiskey (malted and unmalted barley base) balanced with sherry casks (pre-seasoned from Spain) and bourbon casks (pre seasoned from Kentucky). Jameson Gold Reserve is a creative blend of three whiskies of advanced years, one of which - unlike other Irish whiskeys - is matured in virgin oak barrels. It is the inspired choice of this virgin oak, coupled with the Bourbon barrels and Sherry butts that account for the whiskey's satisfying complexity and honey toasted sweetness.                                            

David: What about something like the Midleton Rare?

Fiona: Midleton is a magnificent blend of the finest distillates handpicked by our master distiller, Barry Crockett, and is one of Ireland's most exclusive whiskeys. It takes its name from the east Cork town it originates from, matured exclusively in seasoned Bourbon barrels, and like a vintage wine there is a year on the bottle - this is the year the whiskey was bottled therefore there are slight changes and nuances every year.

David: Redbreast?

Fiona: The 12 year old is a unique aged pure 100% pot still whiskey, matured for a minimum of 12 years in Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels. Like all good pot still whiskeys, it is strongly flavored and assertive. Redbreast 15 is matured in a combination of Oloroso Sherry casks and American Bourbon whiskey barrels.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun112013

New Batch of Springer 12

Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $84.99 - This most recent batch of Springbank's fan favorite 12 year old cask strength is right in line with what the distillery does best: hints of amontillado sherry on the nose with savory almond notes and accents of caramelized fruit. The richness and the viscosity of the malt make this a standout on the shelf. While Springbank's whisky always demands a premium price, it's easy to see why people are willing to pay it. That faint whisper of smoke on the finish with the phenolic, oily finale is absolutely delicious.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun112013

K&Landia

Not much going on today in K&Landia. Just business as usual.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jun102013

An Interview with Marc Darroze

Marc Darroze in front of the Darroze office in 2012

Now that Darroze Armagnac is once again being imported into the United States and is available at K&L, I thought it might be the right time to shed a little more light onto who exactly Marc Darroze is and what he does as an independent bottler of brandy. We visited Darroze in 2012, after Marc had decided not to continue on with Preiss as his importer. We were hoping to find a few things to bring in via Charles Neal, therefore all of the photos you'll see here are from that appointment. My notes, however, are a bit hazy and hard to read at this point, so I decided to call Marc this morning and make sure all of my information was correct. The following interview is based on that conversation:

David: Now that you're working with Vintage 59, how are you determining which selections to bring to the states? Are they tasting and deciding, or are the selections based on your decisions?

Marc: We make a decision together to have at least a few different vintages from each producer and to have the blends as well. However, once a year we also arrange for pre-orders to be done with larger accounts like K&L where we propose to clients the opportunity to make their own selections. This most recent selection, however, was made by me based off of what I like, different styles, and the volume from what I have in stock here in France.

David: I think the selection has been great so far. When it comes to the Assemblages, who is blending those? Are you doing it, or are you hiring a master blender of sorts?

Marc: No, I do it myself. In fact, I started work on these blends two years ago, working for at least sixteen months on perfecting them. The goal was to create a complete range of blended Armagnac from eight to sixty years old. Of course, the idea was not to add any caramel, or tannins, or sugar and to showcase the age of the Armagnac at the time. For example the eight year old will be light in color and very fruity. The older the Armagnac, the more we'll find the influence of the maturation. The eight, twelve, and twenty have been diluted slightly with water, but the others are naturally at 42 or 43% alcohol.

David: And how many different Armagnacs are in each one? How many different estates are used in each blend?

Marc: First off, we're not using the estates from the Darroze estate collection to make the blends – it's really a special selection of different brandies. Last year, in 2012, I had already started to distill some wine especially for the future selections, so they'll be their own thing. To give you an idea, there are eight different Armagnacs in the eight year, nine different Armagnacs in the twelve, and in the twenty year old there are six. So depending on each blend, what I want to do is be consistent in each style. I choose the style based on what I will be able to recreate in the future. It's very different than the estate selections where we respect the vintage and character of each different producer. With the blends we are looking at the potential for each Armagnac to work well with another. That was a new job for me, honestly, we never did this in the past. It was a long job. It took eight months just to find the style, but now after two years we've made two or three different versions of the twelve year, all just as fruity as the previous ones.

In the cellars at Darroze, 2012David: So none of the brandy in the Assemblages selections comes from any estate bottled individually by Darroze?

Marc: Correct. In the twenty year we actually use twenty, twenty-two, and twenty-six year old brandy in the blend, but of course labeling law requires we list the youngest in the blend.

David: Of the estates that are bottled by Darroze, is it true that most of them do not sell Armagnac under their own label, but are actually only available from you?

Marc: Yes, correct.

David: They are exclusive to you?

Marc: Exactly.

David: How long have these relationships been in place? Back generations?

Marc: No, not really. I am the third generation, but the history of my company is that we were a restaurant family. My father and grandfather worked together in a restaurant in Gascony. In the 50s and 60s it was possible for restaurants to go directly to the farm – to buy some chickens, eggs, vegetables, foie gras – and in Armagnac, normally at this time, the producer of Armagnac did not only produce brandy. They grew corn, raised chickens, so when my father and grandfather went to these farms they had the opportunity to taste older Armagnacs maturing there, waiting for....I don't know what exactly. But you know it used to be that the people on the farms would keep their Armagnac for the bad days when they had to change the roof or replace the tractor and they could sell off a barrel to make some money. My father and grandfather used to select some Armagnac by the bottle to sell by the glass at the restaurant. At the end of the 60s my father decided to propose to these producers to buy complete casks and to bottle them himself with the name of the estate and the vintage on the label. So these relationships really began at the end of the 60s. Year after year, he increased the amount of selections and vintages. I came on about sixteen years ago to help develop more relationships. Every year we have our partnership were we distill the wine. We have an alembic still that we bring from estate to estate to distill and we then take the spirit and mature it in our own cellar.

David: So you're in control of the brandy from the wine on?

Marc: Yes, exactly. But for the old Armagnacs, of course, some of them began maturing in their own cellar and we finished aging them in ours. Eighty percent of the volume in our cellar is younger Armagnac and the other twenty is mature from the producer. If we have the opportunity to buy older stocks, and if they're up to the quality with no caramel added, of course we will buy them and finish the maturation in our cellar.

Tasting the various estates, 2012David: Let's look at some of these estates. In the case of Domaine de Bordevielle, what can you tell us?

Marc: You have the 1975, which is all Baco. This is a small estate, like three and a half hectares, only planted with Baco in the sandy soils, which are the best for producing more complex Armagnac. It's matured in locally-produced oak barrels. The grains of this oak are larger than usual, which allows for a bit of a faster oxidation process. It's important because we don't dilute, so the accelerated oxidation helps. The older Baco makes a very unique style. Powerful, but smooth, because Baco after twenty-five or thirty years is very smooth. Very finessed.

David: How about Domaine Bernadotte?

Marc: Made with Baco. This Armagnac has been matured in quite unique conditions because their cellar was quite humid. The more humid the cellar, the more alcohol we lose, so we get a very round and soft brandy. We've had it maturing in our cellar for about ten to twelve years now.

David: What can you tell me about Domaine de Busquet?

Marc: Busquet is also an estate where the maturation began in their own cellar. They have used some new casks for six or seven years before moving it into older barrels. Normally the brandy coming from them is darker due to the long contact with new oak. It's also made with Baco, so this Armagnac works very well with chocolate or cigars because of its dark and tannic character. Very smooth as well.

David: And lastly Domaine Pounon.

Marc: This one is still very young and fruity. 1993 is about twenty years in the cask, it's made with Baco and a little Ugni Blanc. An interesting Armagnac for introducing people to vintage, undilluted Armagnac. It's an easier style, lighter in color. Less new oak than Busquet. Very well balanced and fruity.

David: What is your favorite of the estates that you bottle?

Marc: I like Chateau du Gaube a lot because this Armagnac was matured in very large oak barrels and because of the volume there was a very interesting oxidation. All of these Armagnacs are very expressive, very intenses, and soft in tannins. They're all very different in style, but there is a consistent character, so that you can tell they were all made at the same place. I also like younger Armagnacs made with Folle Blanche, they are very elegant in style.

I also like the Armagnac from Domaine au Martin. It's an estate we distill at every year and they use all four Armagnac varietals: Folle Blanche, Baco, Ugni Blanc, and a little bit of Colombard. Colombard is not my favorite grape, but in the blend it is interesting. Because we have a partnership with this estate, we control the maturation from beginning to end.

David: When a producer uses four different varietals like that, do they vinify and distill them separately, or are they blending them together before distillation?

Marc: We prefer to distill each grape separately. If you look at Folle Blanche, it creates a very fine Armagnac so we don't use too much new oak when maturing it because it will hide the character of the grape – a maximum of eighteen months. Whereas Baco for example is a grape than can support much more oak contact, so we usually keep it in new oak for five to six years. After that we transfer it to an older cask. We always start with new oak, but for different amounts of time depending on the varietal.

David: So if there are four different distillates from each estate, but it's bottled as a vintage, do you then blend them to create the vintage expression?

Marc: Exactly. But we only bottle to order, so we will blend them and put them back into the barrel to await that request. After eight, nine, ten years we blend them together and they'll continue to age after that in cask. We don't have any stock in bottle.

-David Driscoll