This is a subject I could dwell on for some time, but for now I just want to clear up a few points regarding some articles I've been reading lately. Because we're at the end of the year, there is a myriad of opinion about the best of 2010, the worst of 2010, and what we can expect for 2011. One theme that remains a constant thread in these posts is the growing number of young whiskies being released and the high cost that many of them demand. I think Chuck Cowdery was saying that none of these craft whiskies are better than Jim Beam White and this feeds into the majority opinion out there seems to fomulate the matter as such: if it isn't better than the standard 12 year old single malt or 10 year old bourbon, then why pay such a premium?
Here's why I pay what I pay - the quality of the grain, the uniqueness of the flavor, the support of a local industry, the quality of the distillation.
Personally, I find Jim Beam white rather boring. I find most run of the mill 12 year old single malts to be boring. I would drink our Steve McCarthy Oregon Single Malt over Glenlivet 12 any day of the week and I would pay the $90 to drink it because it tastes more explosive than Glenlivet 12. Is Glenlivet 12 a better made dram? Probably. But that doesn't mean anything to me.
I like Rittenhouse Rye, but I'm currenty drinking Davorin's sample from Old World Spirits and loving it. His is only 2 months old and is going to cost $35.99 when it finally gets released (nearly twice what Rittenhouse costs), but it's so much more fun. Is Rittenhouse a better made rye? Yes, because it's more mature. Which would I rather drink? Davorin's. And I'll pay the premium because I know how much it cost him to make it with 100% rye. Rittenhouse is not 100% rye. If that's not important to you, then great. To me it is.
Don't get me wrong, there are some ridiculously bad young whiskies out there charging a high price. We all know who they are. But I don't think the fact that a whisk(e)y is young disqualifies it from being expensive. Look at Charbay! They distilled expensive IPA to make their whiskey. It's expensive, but there's a reason.
David D and David OG unanimously pick: Compass Box Flaming Heart Vatted Malt - If you need a precursor as to why we selected this whisky, then check out yesterday's post about Compass Box and John Glaser. The Flaming Heart is such a well balanced whisky that it makes other malts seem either tame or overbearing in comparison. Having just recently become more familiar with the late Brora whiskies, I get the feeling that the Flaming Heart is an homage to that particular style - chewy, oily Highland fruits with just a bit of Islay smoke. Having realized how much I enjoy Brora, and knowing how much I love Clynelish, the Flaming Heart really hits my palate in exactly the right way. Interesting and never exactly the same twice, it won over both of us quite easily.
John Glaser is likely the most underappreciated person in the whisk(e)y world, but this won't be the case for too much longer. Malt advocates across the globe are starting to understand that "vatting" and "blending" are not bad words, especially after finding out that their beloved Ardbeg 10 or Lagavulin 16 single malts, while the work of one distillery, are actually vattings of different whiskies as well. Now that cask enhancments and single barrel bottlings have become rather tame, the time is ripe for the blenders to start getting their due praise. 2011 might well be the year that Rachel Barrie begins overshadowing Dr. Bill Lumsden! The reason being that the flavor of whisk(e)y is ultimately the most important factor in deciphering quality. Sure, there are some fantastic distillers out there, but how would we know? It's not like we're drinking one single whisky when we sip on our glass of Springbank 10 - rather the recipe of the master blender, who took multiple recipes and created a cuveé.
David D and David OG unanimously select: Compass Box - Take a sip of the Flaming Heart and tell us that it isn't some kind of divine creation bestowed upon this earth for whisky fanatics. The oiliness of Clynelish, the smoky peat of Caol Ila, and the supple fruit texture of Tobermorey, all singing in perfect balance. What a masterful job by Glaser. The Double Single - a whisky I believe people are afraid to review - is a lesson in subtlety and restraint. Sometimes my wife will say, regarding a fantastic Thanksgiving meal, "It's just roasting a turkey! That's not cooking! That's just sticking a piece of meat in the oven." Of course, we carnivores out there understand that a proper bird is more than just a matter of timing - it's a matter of feel. That's the best way to describe the Double Single, and Glaser's creations as a whole. It's all about feel, and John definitely has the touch.
For months, I've been selling this $100 blanco tequila (yes, blanco) that comes in a fancy black box and I've had no idea what it tasted like. I didn't personally recommend it to anyone because I knew absolutely nothing about it. All I did know was that David OG sent it to me in a transfer up from LA whenever I ran out. I was out of stock more often than not - obviously other people knew about this tequila. I finally did a little research and what I found surprised me greatly. DeLeón is a family-owned distillery that makes its own tequila, yet packages it and prices it like a designer vodka. Bizzare, but I still shrugged it off. However, perhaps my anti-bling prejudice was blinding me from appreciating some serious agave juice. When we did the year-end awards and David OG chose it as his tequila of the year, I knew something was up. "That shit is actually good?" I asked him immediately after he emailed me his decision. Apparently so.
I, of course, asked David to send me some samples if he was able to and they finally arrived today. At this point in time, DeLeón is only distributed in the LA area because a local importer has the rights, so luckily we have a SoCal store that can order it and ship it up to me (much like we do for them with Old World Spirits, St. George, Germain-Robin, etc.). For that reason, I had never received solicitation from their representatives. The bottles are in solid black packaging, the stoppers are heavy, hand-crafted metal and weigh about five pounds (a good weapon for a bar fight!), and the design is sleek and stylish. Is this really not Puff Daddy's new tequila? Let's taste them and see what the fuss is about. I've been really wondering how these guys have been getting away with selling blanco for $100. From what I've been able to ascertain, their distillery and agave fields are located at high-elevation, which, according to them, makes the piñas very expressive.
DeLeón Diamante Blanco Tequila $94.99 - Clean nose, and I mean cleeeeean. Unadulterated agave, citrus, and cinnamon with maybe a hint of nuttiness. Gentle spritz against the tongue on the entry (which all good blancos SHOULD have), then pure tequila flavor without the slightest hint of harshness. Gentle, delicate, and graceful. I immediately took a swig of another fantastic blanco I had at home and there was really no comparison. Let's look at it this way. You know when you drink out of a Brita, but then decide to get a glass of tap water the next time you get up? The tap always tastes a bit more astringent at first, but then eventually tastes like water. Not a big deal, but the Brita is definitely cleaner. That's the difference between DeLeon Diamante and any other blanco out there right now. If you want the best, this is certainly it. But it's not going to wow anyone who doesn't already drink a ton of blanco. You have to really know what everything else out there tastes like before you really appreciate how good the DeLeón is. And, boy, is it good.
DeLeón Reposado Tequila $109.99 (price may go up very soon) - A very compelling nose - butter cookies with citrus and waxy notes. Earthy aromas on the entry, then a bizarre mix of butterscotch and flowers. Way out there. This is unlike any reposado I've ever had. I could probably drink this fifty times and never taste the same thing twice. Fun.
DeLeón Añejo Tequila $149.99 - I'd been really looking forward to this one. The añejo is aged 18 months, first in new French oak and then finished in Chateau d' Yquem casks. You'd think it would be overly sweet and luscious, but it isn't. It's amazing. The tequila flavor is the first thing that hits you - big peppery spice and sweet cinnamon, but then the Yquem finishing kicks in and the honey coats the back of your mouth. If you've ever been looking to indulge yourself, this is sure one way to do it. This is without a doubt a tequila, and could never be mistaken for anything but. That's a major accomplishment.
Overall, I'm very impressed. I'm not sure that everyone realizes the state of tequila these days. You've got just about every major luxury brand that is owned by someone who has absolutely nothing to do with the production. They're all just a bunch of people with money who pay some Mexican distillers to make them a product. They slap their name on it and, boom, they're in business. Then they get a celebrity to market it, or an HBO show, and they're selling volume like you wouldn't believe. Tequila is definitely the new vodka. However, in this world of designer tequila, you've got DeLeón, which is definitely looking to play with the big boys, but actually has the skills to back it up. They're going for a lifestyle image that's somewhere between Johnny Cash-circa the American Label recordings and Dave Gahan-circa Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus. It works. They've got the whole package: quality that is unmatched, a slick marketing campaign, and family-owned, Mexican distiller roots. If you ask them who made their tequila, the answer is simple: "We did."