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Tuesday
May292018

Bourbon Myths 

Ten years ago, I spent an inordinate amount of time explaining to people that bourbon doesn't have to be made in Kentucky.  Thankfully, that old myth seems to have died out, probably in no small part due to the large number of craft distillers making bourbon in other states.    

 There is still plenty of bourbon misinformation out there though.  I read something incorrect about bourbon on an almost daily basis. Given that the bourbon regulations are written out in the United States Code of Federal Regulations, which are published on-line, you would think that there wouldn't be so much confusion about the rules, but some of these just seem to endure.  So here are some of the most persistent bourbon myths.   

 

Bourbon must be 2 years old.  I hear this a lot. There is no age limit for bourbon. Once the spirit hits the new charred oak, it's bourbon, period. The two year age requirement is for "straight bourbon."  Of course, just because they can make bourbon less than two years old, doesn’t mean you should drink it.  

Bourbon must be aged in American oak.  Bourbon must be stored in "charred new oak containers." The regulations don't say anything about the provenance of the oak, so if a company wants to use French, Spanish or Luxembourgian oak, it's still bourbon.   

Bourbon can include coloring and flavoring or be finished in other casks.  This one is more complicated.  If something is just labeled "Bourbon" (straight or not), it cannot contain coloring, flavoring or blending additives. However, you can use additives if you declare it on the label, such as "Bourbon with natural flavors."  The same goes with finishing casks. If it just says "Bourbon," the only cask it can have inhabited is new, charred oak.  If you finish a bourbon in another type of cask, it has to say so on the label (e.g., "Bourbon finished in port casks.")  Technically, these concoctions aren't bourbon - they are spirits in which bourbon is the primary ingredient. The Feds categorize these products as a "whisky specialty," which is really just a catch-all term for anything that doesn't fit any other defined whisky classification.  

 In America, Whiskey is spelled with an "E" Nope, at least not under the federal regulations – they spell it "whisky."  The truth is that it's spelled both ways in the U.S., and there's no real rhyme or reason as to why, so don't believe all the ridiculous justifications people have made up about why it's spelled with an e in some places and without an e in others. 

 

-Sku

Friday
May252018

Don't Mull It Over

We've got a few new weird wonderful little malts from the beautiful Isle of Mull on the western coast of Scotland. 

Tobermory 21 Year Old "Manzanilla Finish" Unfiltered Cask Strength Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) ($239.99)

A gorgeous example of Cask Strength fully aged unpeated malt from the Tobermory Distillery. It's been finished in one of the rarest casks in scotland, Manzanilla Fino Sherry. The Manzanilla cask is unusual not only because of their rarity, but also because of the unique flavor profile it provides. You'd expect that ultra dry salty sherry to turn the briny side of the Tobermory malt up to eleven, but instead we see more nuttiness than brine. There's tons of dried, maybe lightly salted stone fruits, and a dense, almost thick mouthfeel. I'm not sure if that comes from the sherry or simply the age of the whisky, but the oily texture and wild flavor profile make it one of the most unusual new whiskies this year. Considering the 15-year sells typically for an astonishing $140+, this cask strength full throttle and no holds barred version is a real treat for any adventurous drinker despite the price tag. While we've purchased every bottle we could, collectors have already cleaned out most of the east coast. With the lowest price in California by a healthy margins and no additional stock on the horizon this will be a fun yet fleeting experiment.

1996 Ledaig 19 year old "Sherry Cask Finish" Isle Of Mull Single Malt Whisky (750ml) ($149.99)

Another well aged Sherry finished peater from the Tobermory distillery. These guys have really turned up the quality in the last several years, taking good aged stock and filling them into ultra high-end Sherry barrels to give them that extra little something. For those wanting that peat and Sherry combo there's very little out there in the same range, particularly if you don't want the sappy sweetness added by PX (I'm thinking Lagavulin DE). Yet the Ledaig has a ton of the same dark nuttiness that you'd expect from a fine Oloroso cask and just the right amount of stewed fruit to keep it from feeling hard edged. The last vintage was an absolute sleeper and I've had several customers come back asking for it. Now we've got the whisky back one year older and just as delicious. One of the most unusual and distinct offerings from any distillery to date.

Ledaig 19 year old "Marsala Cask Finish" Isle Of Mull Single Malt Whisky (750ml) ($164.99)

One of the most unusual and distinct offerings from any distillery to date. I can't remember the last time we saw peated Whisky in Marsala casks, but it may have been back in the good old days of Murray McDavid and their range of Ace'd malts. While I expected the Marsala to add tons of sweetness, we've actually moved much further into the sauvage quality that Ledaig is sometimes known for. Lamb drippings over smoking embers. Big smoldering spice sprinkled over a well aged gouda. Wild and structured on the palate with more of the savory stuff, green peppercorns, mulled wine, tart red fruit. This malt reminds me a bit of a Christmas dinner in London's West End, maybe one to save for cool weather, but this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and most arresting malts of the year.

 -David Othenin-Girard

Thursday
May242018

Maison Ferrand: A Tale of Three Spirits

Upon arriving at the headquarters of Maison Ferrand, one is greeted by a lovely 18th century chateau set against the bucolic scenery of Cognac. The fields, vineyards, and country lanes, all give a distinctly old world feel. This staid environment, which is imbued with centuries of history, conveys an inescapable air of stodginess. But, as it turns out, looks can be deceiving. While Maison Ferrand certainly pays due respect to the great traditions and history of the property (as is evidenced by countless paintings and references to the founder throughout), the current team, led by Alexandre Gabriel, have made great strides in infusing this historic estate with a new vitality. After being warmly greeted by Gabriel, and regaled with stories of visiting bartenders swimming in the estate’s fountains, we immediately knew any first impressions we had would have to be abandoned. Stodgy? Not at all!

The property itself is simply amazing. We spent an entire day at Maison Ferrand and at every turn we were left in awe. Where else can you find such huge stocks of ancient Cognac in demijohn bottles, cellars packed barrels of Caribbean, South and Central American rum, as well reserves of barrel-aged Gin? But the spirits are only part of the story, as the staff at Maison Ferrand is among the best in the industry. Their respect for the past and innovative approach that is guiding them forward to the future are revealed in ways that are almost palpable. It is clear this enthusiasm starts with Alexandre Gabriel and spread through to the rest of the staff.

 Ferrand’s gin brand, Citadelle, is produced using the very same stills that are used for their Cognac. Laws prohibit Cognac from being distilled after March, to the gin production is an elegant solution to maximize the use of the stills. Their standard bottling is elegant and bright, yet remarkable complex. While the barrel aged are absolutely fantastic. Employing a variety of barrel types and vats, they offer an impressive variety and range.

The rums from Ferrand, bottled under the brand Plantation, are equally as astonishing. Distilled at their source, the rum is later transferred to Ferrand to undergo aging in barrel. These rums, from Cuba to Peru, are all quietly matured, undergoing a magical transformation until they are ready for their final blending. The resulting spirit is nothing short of astonishing.

 Maison Ferrand truly is an industry leader and it was a delight to see first hand the process behind the making for these three inspired spirit brands. We raise a glass to Alexandre Gabriel and his talented and committed team.

- Shaun Green

Monday
May212018

Gascogne Day #2: The Enchanted 

Lous PibousGascogne seems like a land lost in time. Time simply stops here. A few days can seem like an eternity, while a few years disappear in the blink of an eye.  That’s how the locals describe it. It’s an old place, not only historically, but there are simply not a lot of young people around. They move away to Toulouse, Bordeaux or Paris for school or to find work. There seems to be plenty of work around here, but not the type of work most young people want. If you’re not working in the vines, you’re dealing with pigs, ducks, geese or other crop. It's hot and difficult without a lot of fanfare or pay. There’s no other serious industry in this region and not many of options. Toulouse to the Southeast is one of France's fastest growing cities with booming tech and aerospace sectors, which draws many of the local youth away.

Armagnac still remains an important part of the economy, but it’s not completely integral like Cognac to the north. The industry's production level is a tiny fraction of the Charente and is significantly less organized. There are essentially three tiers of Armagnac producers, none of which is inherently better than the other. First, you have the single domaines devoted exclusively to Armagnac production. These are often the most historic and traditional producers you may have heard of, Boingneres, Ravignan, Briat etc. Many large wine producers who also make Armagnac could be put in this category as well, think Tariquet and Pellehaut. These people tend to own their own stills and typically have ancestral ownership in the property stretching back generations. Their historic and often extremely high quality, but also can be very expensive.

Next we have the farm producer. These are small to medium size land holders who may have great terroir and perfect vines, but aren’t totally devoted to brandy production. They may plant corn, raise ducks or geese, tend poplar forests and raise other fruits and vegetables on the domaine. In a good year, maybe they have some extra money to buy new casks. IN bad years, they’ll sell some brandy to make ends meet. They hire itinerant distillers and often rely on the expertise of oenologist or their business partners to aid in the elevage of the brandy if they even bother to "work" the brandies like their more savvy colleagues.

While the estate Armagnac producer will typically be meticulous about the cask selections, aeration, ouillage and reduction, the farm producer might avoid those typical techniques altogether. Some might do them on a bi-annual basis, while the estate producers may aerate semi-annually like a cognac producer. Just because these guys don’t follow the accepted techniques of the industry doesn’t mean they’re not making great brandy, although they often aren't the soft and supple stuff most brandy afficiandos are expecting. Certainly it’s not what most French people want to drink.

There’s no easy road to market for these guys. If someone doesn’t show up at the domaine to buy bottles, they’re generally not going to sell much Armagnac in a typical year. That means they’re relying generally on selling to friends and maybe some local restaurants or just tourists walking Le Chermin de St Jacques -the popular hiking trail that follows pilgrimage of Saint Jacques. Occasionally, someone like us shows up and perhaps buys a barrel or two, but otherwise they don't have the capital or knowhow to market the brandies. Because they can’t or don’t want to deal with marketing their brandies, these small farm producers rely on the third tier of producer to monetize their hard work.

The negociant in Armagnac is not dissimilar to the one working in Bordeaux to the North, trading and brokering between small growers and larger blenders as well as developing and marketing their own brands. The best try to highlight the hard work of the estates they work with, while the worst might waste wonderful old brandy on a heavily adulterated blend because it doesn’t fit the “house style”.

Producers of brandy (both Armagnac and Cognac) are focused on avoiding over oaking or introducing to many hard tannins during the maturation of their eau-de-vie. The use of new barrels, ubiquitous with high quality production, is expensive and complicated.  They'll be filled for 6-12 months at a time before having new brandy rotated in. Typically the "oaked" young eau-de-vie is moved to a very old used barrel to mature, which for fine Bas-Armagnac takes between 10-30 years in general. While this process of rotation is presented by producers as a method for tannin aversion I’m not completely convinced they’re main goal isn't saving money. Rather than buy many new casks, you can buy fewer and shuffle brandy between them to maximize the affect.

The best producers will generally buy new casks every year for all of their brandy, a commitment that’s extremely difficult for a small farmer to make. This is one of the reasons why cask selection is much more important in Armagnac than Cognac. The benefits of consistency one achieves through the standard practices are nearly entirely lost for a small producer. Within a small chai you may have 2 or 3 casks that are really special while the rest are just ok. But it’s not in the producer’s interest to simply sell the good casks and be stuck with the so-so stuff. The big negociant doesn’t care because it’s all getting dumped in a blend, but the small negociant will run into problems with this scenario.

That’s why a quality producer like Darroze works directly with his domaines to makes sure the elevage of their brandy is consistent. But another type of negociant is becoming more and more important in Armagnac. One that looks a lot more like an independent bottler in Scotland. Indeed they're products often have more appeal for the whisky crowd than traditional producers, but the work they do is not easy. Building relationships with small distillers is a long term commitment. Not to mention the fact that they often need to buy several casks to get the few that you really want, this new style micro-negociants often spend years courting and negotiating with the producers to acquire stock.

A huge amount of the discovery is word of mouth. You need to have a good reputation, so that you're suppliers will recommend you to their friends and neighbors. For the producers it's a much better oppurtunity in general as they can expect to receive a significant premium over the bulk market price, which is a function of age and quality. Usually when a small farmer is selling to a negociant, it's the negoc who holds all the cards.

La Salle

At the top of the heap for this new breed of bottlers is a small team based in the Gers called L'Encantada. The small group of local Armagnac enthusiasts started bottling brandy almost by accident. Led by Vincent Cornu, a local chef and caterer, they basically stumbled on a stock of extremely special Armagnacs and decided to buy it if for no other reason than to enjoy the brandy themselves. The details of that first purchase and the estate which made them are cagey at best, but the farm is owned by a prominent family who started making Armagnac in the 80s. The brandies in this period are called La Salle, a reference to the humid chai on the far end of the house; although they're from the same property their style is very different from the products distilled later. Sometime in the early 90s a regime change occurred and the family decided to put a significant amount of resources into the quality of the brandy. They cleared out a second chai right next to the family home, which inadvertently provided a significantly better environment for aging.

The family planted Folle Blanche and tended the vine meticulously, hired the best distiller, purchased the best new oak barrels and filled each with the finest eau-de-vie possible. Then they simply didn't do anything else. No ouillage, not aeration, no blending or reduction. When Vincent came across the barrels, he immediately knew that this was a special place. Lous Pibous would eventually launch L'Encantada on the scene in a huge way, but their commitment to natural Armagnac, in all its raw glory, would not end at that one estate. They've now amassed a portfolio of 6 or 7 tiny producers from all over Bas-Armagnac and Ténarèze.

The Lous Pibous stocks will not last forever and are already extremely tight, but their team is beginning to become known for locating those most Enchanted of barrels and bringing them to us directly without any fluff or filler. These might not be the most affordable brandies on the market, but there's no doubt in my mind that L'Encantada offers one of the most exciting and valuable drinking experiences across their entire portfolio. L'Encantada is not the only game in town, there's a small cadre of likeminded bottlers, scouring Gascogne for those secret treasures. I'll have more about some new discoveries soon and next week we'll be getting an onslaught of extremely exciting and delicious new offerings from some of our old favorite suppliers. Keep your ears to the ground.

 

 

Monday
May212018

Glasgow Dreaming

It is always a thrill and a treat for me when I get a chance to learn more about the history and connections of things that I am passionate about. In Glasgow, at the start of our whisky trip, I was fascinated to learn how important this city is to the story of Scotch. Somehow, I had completely missed the relationship that this city, and its placement on the Clyde, has both with familiar brands and with the export of the Scottish “Water of Life” across the globe.

 

Fortunately in the brand new Clydeside Distillery I was taught the importance of this place while being treated to a stunning experience. The Clydeside Distillery was only opened in November of 2017 so they are years away from producing any Scotch, but this is a facility that has so much more to offer, especially as they get established. Started by Tim and Andrew Morrison of AD Rattray fame, this quickly-becoming iconic building is housed in an old pump house on the Clyde that used to power a bridge stretching across the waters. Restoring this beautiful old building and creating an impressive new distillery within it is just another piece of Tim and Andrew’s desire to help people connect to the history of this spirit while writing their own new chapter.

The Morrisons have a long history with Scotch itself, having created the Bowmore and Laphraoig brands, as well as others, but the father and son wanted to also show the role Glasgow and the Clyde played in this magical liquid. On the tour, one is treated to a short trip into the past of a city that rose to be the “Second City of the Empire” in the 18th century. The location of Glasgow and the creation of impressive docks and cranes allowed the movement of whisky, tobacco, sugar, and hundreds of other products across the British empire and beyond. Glasgow became the second most important port behind only London itself. It was here that the rise of blenders and the Whisky Barons took place, and the export of Scotch became big business with brands like Dewars.

 

The tour begins and ends in the gift shop. Rather than a standard gift shop simply stocking branded merchandise and their own products, Clydeside Distillery has created a carefully curated bottle shop with guests having an opportunity to buy from a wide range of whisky. The Morrisons believe in the history and connection of Scotch and want their guests to have a chance to taste various expressions even as they are creating their own. However, this does not mean that you cannot buy anything they are making. In addition to being able to purchase some truly remarkable bottlings, the Clydeside Distillery also boasts a fantastic cafe. In keeping with the mission of tying everything to place, this cafe sells local meats, cheeses, soups, and pastries. They also do whisky flights so guests can try their hands at pairing food and Scotch. I highly recommend the Taste of Scotland platter to anyone lucky enough to visit.

One other interesting item to note with this distillery: a visitor also has the ability to purchase the New Make spirit, or un-aged whisky, that the distillery is currently producing. While this is the sort of thing I generally steer away from I must admit that even with the high proof of the clear spirit there was something spectacular, soft, and fruity present, and I am excited to taste the whisky from this place.

- Andrew Stevens