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Thursday
Mar092017

The Same, But Different: Midleton's Irish Whiskies

It's always interesting to talk rye and Irish whiskey with customers in the store because I'd say at least 25% of the time these folks are completely shell-shocked by what I have to tell them:

"Yes, Bulleit rye, Templeton rye, Dickel rye, High West rye, Redemption rye, Lost Republic rye, James E. Pepper rye and a number of others are all technically the same whiskies." 

....

"Sir, are you OK?"

"What do you mean they're the same?"

It's not that they're literally the same whiskey, it's just that all those brands source their rye from the same distillery: Indiana's MGP facility. They're all made the same way, they're probably all relatively the same age, and they're all created with the same recipe, it's just that they're blended differently. Some of them are at different proofs and some of them are smaller batches than others. Of course, this is old news to many of you. Generally, I try to talk about the way a whiskey tastes by starting with where it was made. We can then talk about the recipe, the production methods, and the way those factors affect the ultimate flavor. In the case of the brands listed above, they were all distilled in the same place.

"But they all taste different from one another!"

Yes, they do. Just like the Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare Bourbons taste different from one another even though they're technically the same whiskies, too. It's amazing what happens when you blend whiskies in different ways! While all of the above-mentioned rye whiskies are owned by different brands, there's often carryover within single distilleries as companies look to expand their equity within the market. Look at Heaven Hill as an example. They must have over 200 different Bourbon labels in the market even though most of those expressions are just different versions of the same whiskey: Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Evan Williams, etc. The ages may vary, the batches may be different in size, but ultimately you're working with the same product.

The Irish whiskey shelf at K&L is particularly entertaining to talk about because just about everything we have comes from two distilleries: West Cork and Midleton. There's Bushmills, of course, but we stopped carrying the brand after they were purchased by Jose Cuervo. There's Cooley as well, now owned by Beam-Suntory, which makes the Tyrconnell and Coonemara expressions. West Cork is an independent, but tough brand to categorize because some of their whiskies are self-distilled, but others were married together with whiskey purchased from either Cooley or Bushmills. Midleton, however, is not only Ireland's premiere whiskey distillery, it has what I think might be the most impressive line-up of single distillery whiskey expressions in the entire world. You wanna talk about variety in depth, price points, flavor profiles, and character; Midleton has it in spades and it's a feat made even more impressive by the fact that its whiskey is one of the mellowest and most straightforward in the business. It's easy to showcase variety when you can use peat as a flavor modifier, but Midleton does just about everything with two types of distillation and various types of wood. Let's take a walk through some of their brands, shall we? I need a little catch-up myself!

The story of Midleton is a bit like DDL in Guyana where the El Dorado rums are made. There used to be a number of distilleries down there, like Uitvlugt and Enmore, but those facilities were closed and their equipment was eventually consolidated in the Diamond distillery where all the rums are made today. In the case of Midleton, it was back in 1966 that the Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilleries decided to merge together into what would become Irish Distillers. The various distilleries decided to consolidate into one homebase (Midleton in County Cork was chosen as it had the most space) and closed their separate operations. Today the facility pumps out a serious amount of booze on three column stills and three pot stills, kind of like having a grain distillery and a malt distillery all in one place. The company, owned by Pernod-Ricard, has numerous brands that are all in essence just different versions of the same whiskies: Jameson (of course), Redbreast, Paddy, Powers, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and the eponymous Midleton. But while they're all made in one building, they're all quite different in flavor. I'll break it down as fast as I can.

The big difference between Midleton's Irish whiskey and the other Irish distillates mentioned above is that Midleton does not produce a single malt. Bushmills, Cooley, and West Cork, on the other hand, do have whiskies made from 100% malted barley just like in Scotland. The tradition of using unmalted barley in the pot still recipe dates back to a British-imposed tax in the 18th century that raised the tariff on malted barley. The Irish being the Irish (I can say that because I'm Irish) decided to switch to unmalted barley for their whiskey-making needs in response and told the British exactly what they could do with their tax. Today a mix of both malted and unmalted barley is used in the mash for their pot-distilled whiskies, while an unmalted grain recipe is run through the column stills to create the grain expression. From what I've been told, however, Midleton doesn't use just a single recipe for their pot-distilled whiskies, but rather a few different variations that switch up the ratio of malted/unmalted in order to create different profiles within that singular style (much like a Bourbon distillery can play with the ratio of corn to rye, or visa versa). 

When we talk about the difference between blended Scotch and single malt Scotch, the difference is easy: blended Scotch combines both grain and single malt whiskies, while single malt simply stands alone. Since Midleton doesn't produce a single malt, its blends are a combination of grain whisky and the pure pot still recipe in various ages, recipes, and ratios. All of the Jameson whiskies are blends of this type, as is the Paddy and the Midleton Rare edition. The Powers, Redbreast, Green/Yellow Spot, and some of the higher end Midleton releases like the Barry Crockett and the Daer Ghaelach are made from combinations of only the pure pot still whiskies. So while all of these whiskies do indeed come from one distillery and technically are made with the same components, they all vary just a bit in their age, their blending, and the ratio of their recipe. The Redbreast 12 is technically the same whiskey as the Yellow Spot 12, as both are 12 year old pot still editions; although the mash bill of malted to unmalted barley may vary. The big difference is that the Yellow Spot uses a combination of Bourbon, Sherry, and Malaga casks for maturation. The Powers 12 year old is technically the same whiskey as well. Aged in both Bourbon and Sherry casks, it's basically just an older version of Green Spot. The same; but different.

The cask treatment is ultimately the biggest demarcation between the various Midleton editions. For example, in the Redwood City store we currently have the standard Jameson, as well as the Jameson "Caskmates" aged in beer barrels, along with the Jameson Cooper's Croze that uses virgin oak, seasoned Bourbon casks, and ex-sherry butts in a combination. I had actually never tasted the Cooper's Croze until this past week and I was very, very impressed. The richness and the weight of the whiskey is a huge step up from the standard Jameson editions and it offers an incredible depth of oak and spice. The Midleton Barry Crockett is aged in both new and used American oak barrels, while the Daer Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak called Grinsell's wood. In all honesty (and I don't say this lightly), the Daer Ghaeloch is not only the best Irish whiskey I've ever had (in terms of complexity and the "wow" factor), it's also one of the best whiskies I've tasted in the last few years on the whole. Aged between 15-22 years in ex-Bourbon casks before spending a year in the native wood, the whisky runs the full gambit of sweet, spicy, oaky, savory, creamy, and decadent. It's an absolute party from the nose to the finish. 

When budding Irish whiskey enthusiasts discover that Redbreast is just Jameson, and that Green Spot is Jameson, and that Powers is also Jameson, and that ultimately Midleton is also just a fancy version of Jameson, they often turn a bit somber. There's this part of us that wants to believe the Irish whiskey world is this big cornucopia of small distilleries with dozens of producers and loads of variety. Learning that 90% of our selection is mostly the same thing can be a bit deflating. But the fact that all of these fantastic brands are all made in the same place from the same whiskies shouldn't deter you. I've never been someone who compares origin to origin. For example, I don't think a single cask of Macallan from an independent bottler is the same as the branded Macallan, nor do I think you can look at any whiskey's inherent quality simply by where it was made. After learning the logistics of our rye selection, people inevitably say things like:

"Well if the Bulleit and the Redemption ryes are the same whiskies, then I should just get the cheaper one."

They may be the same, but they don't taste the same. Flavor is ultimately what we're after, right? Not just provenance? The variety of flavor that Midleton distillery is able to offer is in my opinion unparalleled by any other whiskey distillery in the world. You're definitely not just paying for the same thing in a different bottle. You're getting a serious spectrum of style and sophistication. I still think regular old Jameson hits the spot after a cold beer at the pub. I'm planning to buy a bottle of the Daer Ghaelach on the other hand for a special occasion with friends. I could destroy a bottle of the Redbreast 12 with a few buddies over the course of a summer evening, whereas I might sip on the Yellow Spot over the course of an entire winter. Of course, with St. Paddy's Day coming up you'll have to choose which Midleton fits the bill for you. They may all be from the same distillery, but they're not quite the same in the end.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar082017

Another Round of Fresh Casks

We've got two fun ones for you today: a lovely, classically-tailored Arran 20 year and a beauty from the fallen soldier Carsebridge. We're still talking two figures here! Who thought we could stay just a hair under a hundred bucks for this long?!

1996 Arran 20 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - Arran has been one of our favorite independent producers at K&L for some time with its versatile line-up of Island malts with a bit more Highland character. While the standard Arran editions can vary from sweet sherry to subtle peat, this 20 year single barrel from our Old Particular label is classic Scotch through and through. The key components in the flavor profile are vanilla, sweet barley, soft stone fruit, and just a little bit of salt. Fans of balanced, complex, and easy to drink mature malts are going to fall on their faces for this whisky. It's round on the palate, but the 52.7% ABV adds an extra lift with hints of oak spice and a flurry of sweetness on the finish. It's another classic Scotch for a fantastic price due to our relationship abroad and the current advantage in the dollar to pound ratio.

1982 Carsebridge 33 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Scotch Whisky $99.99 - While it closed only a year after the whisky in this bottle was distilled, just because the former Carsebridge distillery is gone forever doesn't mean we can't enjoy its splendor still today! Luckily for us there are still a number of delicious and mature expressions available on the independent market and this is one of them. If there's one thing we can help take credit for here at K&L, it's been helping to remove the undeserved stigma associated with grain whisky in the Scotch industry. This 33 year old edition distilled in 1982 should please both fans of blended whisky and single malt alike. It's a literal definition of the word smooth as this elixir absolute glides over the palate with a richness and concentration of oak from more than three decades in wood. While it's bottled at 45.4% cask strength, that's a very drinkable proof that offers up full concentration without the dilution. Fans of our previous grain whisky editions will want to snatch this one up fast. Not only is it old and rare, it's also a serious crowdpleaser!

-David Driscoll

Monday
Mar062017

News & Notes

There's a lot going on in the K&L spirits department this week. It's just a matter of getting everything organized and ready to go! I'm in the office right now trying to hammer out some details about this week's priorities, so I figured I'd update all of you in the process. Here are some things to watch out for over the next few days:

-The Maker's Mark 46 Private Edition email should go out later today. We've sold more than 60% of the cask with only the blog post, so expect about a 20 minute lifespan once that email hits. I'd be surprised if we still have any bottles in stock when we close today. IMPORTANT: let me add this little note as it still seems to catch people by surprise, even long-time customers. When we get down to five or less bottles in active inventory, you risk the potential of having an in-store customer buy the last few before online orders can be picked and processed, which happens quite frequently. There can be a 2-4 hour delay between you placing your order online and that bottle actually getting pulled from the shelf. That's a HUGE window for mayhem. I get emails from people all the time who wait, and wait, and wait, and wait until the last minute, then finally order and end up missing out due to the aforementioned phenomenon. My advise is always the same: don't wait. If you want something and we still have plenty of it, buy it. 

-This year's Ardbeg Committee Release—the "Kelpie"—should be available by Friday, so long as all goes well. We'll likely release it in conjunction with the new Glenmorangie "Bacalta," the Malmsey Madeira-finished edition from the heralded producer. The Kelpie should be $125 a bottle and the Bacalta $110. Keep your eyes peeled for that. The date keeps getting pushed around, so don't hold me to it. I'm at the mercy of distribution here.

-I managed to work out a deal for some old faces this week that had gone missing from K&L to due price increases or changes in the buying structure. You'll likely see a number of familiar names popping up on the website like Old Pulteney 17 and 21 year, a number of the Jameson Irish whiskies as well as Green and Yellow Spot, the entire range of Glenlivet, the standard Aberlour 12 and 16 year editions, plus other things. In almost all of the instances, I was able to get the original pricing we had been working with before the increases, so that should be a welcome relief to those of you who were in the habit of buying them from us. I'm excited to get workhorse whiskies like regular old Jameson and Glenlivet 15 back in the store. I really like both of those products and the prices are right.

-High West's new edition of Bourye just arrived. This year's edition is a marriage of Bourbon and rye whiskies from MGP between 10-14 years of age. I haven't tasted it yet, but I'm pretty confident in that whiskey. It's usually right on the money.

-St. Patrick's Day is coming up and I've got a bevy of new Irish options for you. West Cork just released a trio of limited edition 12 year olds each finished in a different cask (rum/sherry/port). Those should be on the website soon, along with some of the Jameson editions I mentioned above. I've been drinking a lot of Irish whiskey lately. Not because I'm Irish (which I am), but because it just tastes so damn good. Some of the Jameson whiskies really surprised me, like the Cooper's Croze which I don't think I had ever tasted. That's definitely going to be my Paddy's day bottle.

That's it for today!

-David Driscoll 

Friday
Mar032017

Oh, What Could Have Been!

I was talking with actor Dean Cameron the other day about the classic eighties vampire flick The Lost Boys and out of nowhere he said: "The role I didn't get."

"You were a candidate for The Lost Boys?!" I asked crazily.

"Yeah, I read for one of the members of Kiefer's gang," he replied.

WHAT??!!

Can you imagine if Bill & Ted star Alex Winter's role of Marco (pictured far right) had been played by Summer School star Dean Cameron instead? Ohhhhh man! I can't even imagine it! The only way I can picture Dean Cameron as a vampire is the way in which he would portray one years later:

As Count Rockula!!!

In the meantime, that led me to think about some other things that could have been at K&L. For example, I remember calling the then-LDI distillery in Indiana around 2010 to ask them how much it would cost to contract some whiskey. I can't recall exactly the conversation, but I want to say the guy I spoke with quoted me a price of $500 per barrel with a minimum of 400 casks in the order—the same for both Bourbon and rye. Can you imagine what those barrels would be worth now, just ready to turn seven years old? It never went anywhere because I wasn't sure at the time whether it would have been a good investment for K&L, but knowing what I know now I should have just paid the $20,000 myself. 

Oh, what could have been!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar022017

Big, Sweet, Wheated, High Proof Bourbon

As a whiskey drinking society, I don't think we've ever been more concerned as to what our whiskey says about us as cultivated aficionados. In fact, sometimes I think we're more worried about how unique and different our latest bottle is than about how it actually tastes. I don't have any tangible proof of this, however. As Bill Maher often jokes: "I don't know it for a fact, I just know it's true." The only evidence I can possibly provide is the existence of Maker's Mark Cask Strength on our shelf at K&L, sitting their in plain view twenty four hours a day, seven days a week; a big, sweet, wheated, high proof Bourbon that in my opinion outperforms any competitor in its class. If you asked me if I'd rather drink Van Winkle Lot B or Maker's Cask Strength, I wouldn't even bat an eyelid: "the latter, please." We're living in a period when high proof wheated whiskies are an absolute rarity, yet people don't seem that excited about Maker's Mark. However, were I to put a bottle of Lot B on the sales floor, even for ten times the normal retail price, it probably wouldn't last the hour. So what gives? Why don't more people opt for the cask strength edition?

Because it's Maker's Mark. You can get that anywhere. 

I'm not going to walk into a party with Maker's Mark!! Are you kidding? I need something rare and interesting. Something that proves I have friends in high places. Something that no one else in the world could possibly get. Something that will make people oooh and ahhh when I place it onto the table. Something that I can put on my Instagram later that night and act like it's no big deal. Oh....and I don't want to pay more than a hundred bucks. 

You may think that last paragraph was sarcasm, but I kid you not: I get people who literally say things like that to me every single day. It's like the entire world lately has somehow overlooked the connection between rarity and availability. If there were something that incredible, coveted, and valued on the shelf at K&L, what could possibly make someone think it would be just sitting there waiting for them to buy it, at a bargain price no less? This is the reality I'm dealing with, however, so when I went out to Maker's Mark distillery this last November I decided I was going to try and do something about it. I didn't play around with any of the fancy French oak staves they had as part of their custom Maker's 46 program. I chose straightforward American oak planks, put them into the barrel, and let those babies soak for a few months in the hope that they would create exactly what I needed: a limited, affordable, big, sweet, wheated, high proof Bourbon that you couldn't just get anywhere and would only be available for a short period of time. Last night was the perfect evening to unveil that specimen. We had the private room at Hard Water and the weather in the city was perfect. The Embarcadero was singing. There was magic in the air.

I packed the house with fifty guests, while Erik and Michael jumped behind the bar and began mixing up Maker's Mark cocktails. The Beam-Suntory guys were in the house. We had food. I gave a little speech, explained the process, and then we drank. "This is really good," someone said to me. 

"I'm glad you like it!" I responded with a smile.

"No, I mean this is really, really good!" he answered back. That seemed to be the consensus. Not earth-shattering. Not life-changing. Not going to go down as the best whiskey of all time. But really, really good. Tasty. Big, Sweet. Rich. Decadent. Yep. That's what I wanted. That's what we got. 

There's the recipe on the back in case any other retailer wants the same thing. If you want to create a wheated Bourbon delight in a barrel, use six Maker's Mark custom staves with ten baked American oak planks and you'll get there. It took me all of fifteen minutes in the lab to figure that out. Back in November, the guys at Maker's Mark were looking at me like: "You're seriously all done?"

Yep. I knew what I wanted going in. Actually, I knew what I needed going in. I needed an answer to an impossible question: What do you have that tastes like Pappy that isn't Pappy? 

Maker's Mark Cask Strength.

I can get that anywhere. What do you have besides that? Something rarer and harder to find.

How about this:

Maker's Mark 46 "K&L Exclusive" Private Select Kentucky Bourbon $69.99 - When Maker's Mark invited me out to do a custom K&L barrel of Maker's 46 (their enhanced Bourbon that sees additional aging with seasoned oak staves), I was practically itching to go; especially because I knew they were going to let us bottle the whiskey at full proof. If there's one thing we can't get enough of at K&L these days, it's high octane wheated Bourbon, especially since the Van Winkle craze of the past decade has gutted most of the available supply. Because wheated Bourbons substitute wheat for rye as the flavor grain in the mash bill, the result is a creamier and sweeter whiskey that really pops on the palate at cask strength. The really cool part about the Maker's 46 custom barrel program is that they allow you to choose between a number of different staves, three of which are exotic french oak flavors. While I'm sure we could have put together a rich and cocoa-driven cuvee from some of those toasted beauties, I had one goal in mind: dial up the American oak to full blast and make the biggest, sweetest, fullest, creamiest cask strength Bourbon we possibly could. All ten of the staves I selected were from the baked American and standard Maker's 46 variety, which added a serious dose of vanilla into the already oaky whiskey. Sure enough, the whiskey came out just as I had hoped: the nose is practically oozing with caramel and burnt sugar, while the palate is big at 55%, but all that sweetness from the wheated character overpowers the proof. 

-David Driscoll