Holiday Picks

Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner (T-Day is a week from today!), so I've got a number of people asking me for holiday suggestions. Our friends at Anchor are making it very easy for me right now because we've: 1) finally got enough Old Potrero rye to warrant an actual blog post, and 2) got more of last year's White Christmas whiskey ready to rock.

The only caveat is that, due to another brand's ownership of the term "White Christmas", we've had to change the listing to "Christmas Spirit" (even though all the bottles still say White Christmas).

The Old Potrero rye is an homage to a style of rye whiskey reminiscent of what the original American settlers once made and drank, making it the perfect bottle to celebrate your Thanksgiving dinner. It's a 100% rye mash that really brings the peppery, herbaceous side of the grain into focus. The White Chr.....I mean Christmas a small batch of Anchor's classic Holiday Ale run through their alembic pot still and bottled at 45%. It's like drinking the soul of a beer; fresh and spicy with lots of baking spices and Xmas flavor.

These are my two picks. Easy choices!

Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey 750ml (one bottle limit) $69.99

Anchor Christmas Spirit White Whiskey $29.99

-David Driscoll


Back to Basics: Bourbons

One of the great things to happen to whiskey over the past decade was that a decidedly more-serious group of drinkers came forward and told the public, "We should all be sipping this stuff, rather than just shooting it."

"Bourbon? You mean like Maker's Mark?" people asked.

"American whiskey may be inexpensive," the experts said, "but that certainly doesn't mean it's cheap. Let's treat it with the respect it deserves." The nation responded. All of a sudden, American whiskey found itself back on top of the market, getting the respect it deserved, and developing a hardcore following of collectors, enthusiasts, and general Kentucky fan boys. Production increased, new marks were released, and a better understanding of the process helped lead consumers towards better products. It was awesome.

Then, one of the worst things to happen to whiskey over the past ten years happened: people started taking their consumption waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too seriously.

"What's good right now?" some customers asked.

"How about Buffalo Trace?" retailers said.

"You mean Buffalo Trace Antique Collection? Sure! I'll take five of each!"

"No, I mean just the standard Buffalo Trace for twenty bucks."

"Fuck that shit, man! Who do you think I am, Joe Schmoe? I need something good, not that $20 bullshit. I'm gonna sip this, not shoot it."

Sipping, not shooting, one's Bourbon had taken on an entirely new context. There are other ways, however, besides sipping expensive Bourbon out of a Riedel-designed glass, to enjoy your whiskey experience. Pouring a large measure of Bourbon over ice is not disrespecting whiskey. Taking a shot of Four Roses Yellow with a cold can of beer is not failing to appreciate your Bourbon. Buying a $20 bottle of American hooch doesn't mean you're a cheapskate who can't (or won't) spend more. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and just about any other whiskey cocktail can be made to perfection with a number of inexpensive brands that have continued to show their attention to quality in this new renaissance. Anyone trying to grasp just what exactly makes all the limited edition Bourbons so special should definitely start here first.

I just reopened a number of basic distillery flagship expressions to refresh my memory concerning what's available in the sub-$30 price range. These were the five whiskies that stood out to me; not necessarily because they were "the best", but because they are decidedly different from the rest of their peers:

Maker's Mark Bourbon $22.99 - You can get Maker's Mark at just about any bar around the world and any store that sells alcohol. That's a good thing if you travel frequently. That means no matter where you go you can drink something affordable and tasty. Using a mashbill of 70% corn, 16% winter wheat, and 14% barley, Marker's Mark was at one point the standard of excellence for many Bourbon drinkers. If you've ever hit the road with an old school industry veteran (like I have many a time), you'll usually find them in the hotel bar at 5 PM with a glass of Maker's Mark on the rocks (even in Mexico, my 82 year old pal Lou Palatella wouldn't stray from his daily afternoon habit). Today, you'll hear modern drinkers poo-poo its softness, its general lack of explosiveness, and its mild-mannered flavor. Thirty years ago, however, that was exactly what made it so beloved. Even now, it still stands out from the pack. Maker's Mark doesn't taste like any of its competitors. It's decidedly different than the other four whiskies in the photo above. At 45%, it's very soft with an easy-going profile that plainly says: just drink me. It shows hints of butterscotch and a dainty woody finish, but never the big bold oak spice and spicy rye character that modern drinkers love to indulge in. It's a throwback whiskey for an older way of booze appreciation, but it's definitely something you need to try before moving on to the big guns.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon $20.99 - The Kickin' Chicken, as WT101 is lovingly referred to, is the polar opposite of Maker's Mark in terms of flavor. Rather than a soft, mellow, easy-going Bourbon, the standard Wild Turkey is a spicy, explosive whiskey that starts with a bit of creamy corn before thinning out into a rye-dominated, herbaceous, and peppery profile that finishes dryly and with vigor. For those looking to avoid the sweetness and the intense woodiness associated with Bourbon, this is the bottle for you. Personally, I prefer the WT101 for Manhattans because the lack of sweetness and extra proof provide a great counterbalance to the sweet vermouth.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon $22.99 - As a straight sipper, I'm not sure that any of the five Bourbons mentioned in this article are going to win any awards, but the Evan Williams offers all-around quality for a variety of different needs. The creamier body, the baking spices, and the fruitiness of the whiskey offer a little something for everyone. The Evan Williams single barrel is the product of one particular cask, as well as one particular vintage (in this case 2004), so the results can vary. But Heaven Hill distillery's best bang-for-your-buck is always this guy, in my opinion. Some might prefer the Elijah Craig 12, or Old Fitzgerald (both also great choices), but this is the winner for me.

Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Bourbon $19.99 - The first bottle of Bourbon I ever purchased was Four Roses Yellow, so it will always hold a sentimental place in my heart (in fact, if you click on the link you can read the novice review I wrote about it in 2008 before I was the buyer here). I personally like corny, grainy whiskies that taste like the product from which they were distilled. Four Roses Yellow is a marriage of all ten whiskies made at the distillery (with the two mashbills and five strands of yeast). It's the lowest in proof and lightest in flavor of the five Bourbons mentioned here, and it's the easiest to handle. There's a mellow corniness on the entry and a flurry of rich vanilla on the finish. If you've never been a fan of Bourbon, or found it too intense, this it the best expression to cut your teeth on. You can sip it, shoot it, mix it, dump it over ice, and it's going to taste great.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon $21.99 - When I think of classic Bourbon flavor—the unmistakable note of sweet corn and charred oak that reminds me of sneaking shots out of my parents' liquor cabinet—I think the standard Buffalo Trace is the best expression of that particular flavor. It is an absolutely great whiskey for an outstanding price. Like the Evan Williams, it's the most complete Bourbon experience I think you can get for the money. There's a softness on the entry that's easy to like, a flutter of cinnamon and clove on the mid-palate, and a healthy dash of rye spice on the finish to balance the equation. If you're looking to chase down George T. Stagg, or some of the other beloved rarities of the Sazerac portfolio, but have never started at the bottom, I think it's time you did yourself the service. Regular old Buffalo Trace is still the gold standard of $20 bottles, in my opinion. It's indispensable to any serious bar.

Five different Bourbons. Five different flavors. One consistently average price. One consitently high level of quality for your $20.

-David Driscoll


Kavalan Fino Arrives

Finally available here in the U.S. is the outstanding jewel of the Kavalan collection: the Fino Sherry Cask expression bottled at 57%. If you remember from my visit to the distillery earlier this month, Kavalan utilizes sherry butts from the most restrained and elegant style of Jerez wine and puts them on the top floor of their warehouse, where the heat is at its most intense. Known as the "the church", partly because the vaulted ceiling resembles a cathedral and partly because miracles seem to happen within the sherry butts resting in this room, the temperature reached inside this chamber helps to excrete more nutty, almond flavor out of the fino barrel and into the Kavalan single malt resting inside of it.

A number of Scottish distilleries have used fino sherry butts in the past, but few were able to capture the essence of the sherry so intensely in their whiskies due to the colder aging conditions in Scotland. Taiwan, on the other hand, with its tropical climate has proved to be holy ground for this type of cask maturation. The Kavalan Fino is indeed heavenly. Rich and malty, with a turn towards salted caramel, toasted almond skins, toffee, and creme brulee, this is a side of sherry-aged whisky that we rarely ever see. Hedonistic and other-worldly, indeed.

It's expensive, but man is it good.

Kavalan Fino Cask Taiwanese Cask Single Barrel Strength Single Malt Whisky $359.99

While I'm not normally in the market for $350+ bottles of single malt, I will forever hold a special place in my heart for the Kavalan Fino. At the final dinner in Taipei, we spent hours toasting one another with little thimble-sized glasses. Mr. Lee would yell "FINO!" and make us all pour the good stuff when he wanted to say something serious and sentimental. Regular speeches, jokes, and general banter were all met with a small shot of Kavalan Classic.

If you were going to preface your toast with "FINO!"at that meal, then you needed to make sure you were going to say something of value. You'd better not waste a "FINO!" toast on some stupid observation you had, or some dumb attempt to make everyone laugh. I thought that was awesome. It helped to reinforce the respect that Ian and Mr. Lee have for this liquid, which in turn increased my respect for both them and their whisky. In essence: the Kavalan Fino is only something you drink during life's important moments.

I really like that way of thinking (and drinking). I enjoy the reverence.

-David Driscoll



I spent the whole day in the city on Sunday; starting with brunch at Fog City, a walk through Union Square, and a three hour spell at the Metreon watching the new Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic Interstellar. What a mindtrip that movie is! Not only with the physics and the relativity issues, but also with the humanistic struggles. I'm still thinking about everything that happened in that film. After the show ended, we decided to finally head over to my friend Jennifer Colliau's new bar: The Interval at Fort Mason. Part of the Long Now Foundation, a group devoted to long-term thinking and curation, Jennifer's incredible knowledge of pre-Prohibition era drinks was put to use; creating a cocktail menu that brings old libations out of extinction, with a full explanation as to the origins.

I wasn't planning on doing a blog post, so I didn't have my camera on me. The iPhone images would have to do. Jen started us off with a Kopstootje, or "little head butt"; the Dutch way of drinking genever that involves filling the glass to the brim, so that the only way to take the first sip is literally to lower your head to the glass. That way two friends have to nod to one another before beginning their drinking session. Jen accompanied it with a small bowl of brandied raisins, which are eaten in between each sip. it's part of her educational "Drinks From Around the World" feature. The raisins are to die for.

We were told that Jen's Navy Gimlet, made with lime cordial (which involves infusing lime zest into the syrup, rather than just mixing juice and sugar), is a pre-batched cocktail delight and maybe the best drink at the Interval. Mixed over ice with a thermometer, so that the temperature is a perfect 25 degrees, the flavors are incredibly pure and delicate. It's the first thing you should order when you go.

In an homage to Cuba's legendary Bar La Florida, a Prohibition era escape for Americans where Hemingway once drank and wrote numerous stories, Jen has five Daiquiri variations which you can see on the menu here. We drank three of them; the orange-flavored #2 was maybe the best.

I would encourage all of you locals to go check out Jen's new project and indulge in her incredible cocktails. You need to get over to Fort Mason and see the place for yourself. I didn't even cover the aesthetics. An iPhone camera can't do it justice.

-David Driscoll


Japan's National Treasure

I went back to the photos from my recent Japan trip after Tiffany Soto, the master sake sommelier working with Ichishima, told us about the Niigata prefecture. What was it she said? Something about the western coast of Japan, tucked between snowy mountains and the ocean, I think. That sounded familiar. Then I remembered why.

When we were descending in the Hello Kitty plane, getting ready to touch down in Sapporo, we flew over the western part of Japan and I started snapping photos through the window just to test out my new lens. Sure enough, I had taken a photo of Niigata—the region of Japan known for its pristine sakes (not a great photo, but at least one that shows the region in the bottom right, locked between the mountains and the sea). I've been very curious about Japan's national drink since my visit last week, so I've been doing a bit of research lately, hoping to find some answers to the questions I had. Beau Timken's book Sake: A Modern Guide has been a big help.

First off: does Japan really drink that much sake? Apparently, yes. Tons. By the beginning of the 18th century there were more than 27,000 breweries around the country. That's in the year 1700. That's crazy! Rice was and continues to be everything to Japan, and sake respresented both the spirit of rice and of the people eating it. It's around that time that regionally specific flavor profiles began to develop, matching the cuisine of each particular locale. Since Niigata is close to the sea, the sakes made there are light, elegant, and perfect for pairing with delicate seafood flavors.

If sake really is that big in Japan, how did it become so diverse? Good question. The answer lies in the first national sake competition, sponsored by the National Research Institute of Sake Brewing in 1904, that challenged brewers from around the country to create the best possible sake they could. The competition not only became the biggest thing Japan had ever seen, it also helped to classify and categorize sake into different grades and types. It was like Japan's version of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification. Then in the 1970s, in response to an artisanal shift, the brewers who normally reserved their best sake strictly for the yearly national competition began producing their special sakes year round. Now I understand why our new Ichishima Ginnoyorkobi Daiginjo sake is called "Competition" on the label. It won the contest in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014. Six times (so far)!

Why is some sake fortified (honjozo) and some not (junmai)? Apparently all sake was unfortified up until WWII when rice suddenly became a precious commodity—too precious for making sake. It was discovered, however, that by adding inexpensive distilled spirits to sake it was possible to create a different style that used far less rice. So why didn't the more alcoholic honjozo sake die out after the war ended? Because an entire generation got used to drinking that style of sake and didn't enjoy the lighter, crisper sakes that came back around after the conflict. Tastes had changed by that point.

Booze is fascinating. I'm really starting at the beginning here with sake and it's giving me the same type of excitment I felt when I first began my whisky education.

More later.

-David Driscoll