Six from the Vault

Being part and party to the nation's most exciting spirits programs has its benefits.  One of the finest has been a gracious invitation for membership to the prestigious and exclusive Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society.  Truly one of the great resources for Whisk(e)y lovers of all sorts on the web, LAWS has provided me with a forum to taste some of the world's rarest whisky with some of the country's most knowledgeable drinkers.  While it might seem quite earnest and maybe a bit arcane, you really don't know the half of it!  The only downside to being a LAWS member from the professional whisky world is their unrelenting scruples.  I as a professional I am prohibited from posting reviews on their venerated website!  And hey I don't blame them, it certainly would not be fair for me to anonymously give all our Faultline products A+ ratings, but then again I do relish the opportunity to participate.  Lucky for us, I have this wonderful forum to express my opinions.  Last week, we tasted Six from the Vault (LAWS Members personal collections) and we are oh so GRATEFUL for it. So, I will proceed:

'75, Dallas Dhu Signatory 33 Year Old Cask Strength 46.7%

For me this is CLASSIC Dallas Dhu.  One of those old closed distilleries that comes at a collectors price, but honestly hasn't had the intense following that Brora/Port Ellen see.  I sat through a presentation at the UWE regarding investment grade whisky and Dallas Dhu was rated as one of the worst performing single malts on the market.  I guess I understand why as the distillery is all about subtlety and finesse, not power and punch.  Here we have just that.  The nose is a soft malty floral thing with fresh vanilla bean.  Whiffs of pomace fruit transform into the slightest grassiness.  As it opens, a touch of salted toffee comes out.  The palate goes fresh grain and some more wood, but brings out some citrus/cream and spice.  As it leaves the spice increases finishing somewhat austere, even peppery.  Could be longer and more complex, but all in all a pleasant glass. Good example of how Dallas Dhu should taste.

'63, Strathisla Gordon & Macphail "Book of Kells" for Limburg Festival 51.8%

I love love love this label.  Unfortunately, we don't really see this out here.  It was bottled for the famous Limburg Festival in Germany so good luck finding this one.  Anyway, it's from Strathisla, which I consider a rather enigmatic distillery, which don't see often of stateside.  Gordon & Macphail seems to own tons of this stuff and sells some old Strathisla for very reasonable prices.  Regardless, this one’s a cracker!  It opens up with pungent Seville peel, freshly tanned hide, dark roast coffee.  Then moves toward exotic wood, ultra complex and ever changing, I wrote dried flowers, baking spice, cacao, LOTS of fruit.  This is not a sherry bomb, it's like a laser guided missile.  ON the palate, what seems to be almost too much on the nose turns out to be pretty darn balanced.  Perfect blend of rich sweet sherry and lifted structure.  Dark malty grain, more exotic wood (sandalwood & birch bark), fancy expensive seeming spice notes (saffron? really?).  It's all just really well integrated.  This one is too old for water so just leave it out.  VERY GRATEFUL for this one!

'70, Glenrothes Whisky Agency 39 Year Old 48.1%

Whisky Agency bottles some great stuff, none of which is available domestically.  The labels are always so pretty; it has to be good right?  Well, I have to say this was the major underdog in the room.  To be perfectly honest Glenrothes is not a LAWS doll and this glass started with some rather disparaging comments about the little distillery.  Regardless, 'Rothes doesn't score terribly on the LAWS website although only 10 have been officially rated.  This probably won't help the average.  On the nose I got insect repellant, sour fruit, vanilla extract, and dirty oak.  The palate is apple cidery and astringent on the way to vinegar.  With water this calms down and straightens out.  I would go one to one and just get it out of the way. 

'78, Highland Park The Bottlers 21 Year Old 56.2%

I think it was the bad feeling I had from the Glenrothes, but when I first nosed this guy I really didn't dig it.  Rushing through my first tasting, I went back for a second go after my neighbor expressed interest.  On second pass I found something I'd missed the first time.  The nose was ALL sweet sherbet, orange liqueur, strong fresh sherry notes, a smidge of smoke.  On the palate fresh pepper and more of the HP smokiness.  Adding a bit of water helps coax some of the more intriguing qualities of this whisky out.  A very fine malt.

'72 Glendronach Oloroso Sherry Butt 39 Year Old 49.8%

Well if that Strathisla was a Laser Guided Missile, this would be the neutron bomb.  Just a huge monster sherry attack on the nose.  Ultra dark color in the glass, it smells just like it looks.  Strong Oloroso character - classic dried plums, dark red fruit, spice.  I think SKU and I both agreed that there was a clear sulfur (struck match not rotten egg-perhaps phosphorus not sulfur) note, which would have been off putting in a wine, but here builds complexity.  The palate continues with the spiced fruit, intense and dry, maybe some leather.  Some sort of mossy or nutty earthiness pokes through in the middle there.  All in all way dryer than expected and herbal.  On the end, the darker flavors (dark wood, leather) dominate.  Totally unavailable in the US as this is a special bottlings for Calgary's Kensington Market, but if you're north of the boarder it is a MUST buy for any sherry-head. 

'77, Port Ellen Old Malt Cask 23 Year Old 50%

This was a treat from SKU's cupboard and I thank him profusely for it.  I'm a sucker for Port Ellen and I don't often get to try younger Port Ellen (I know 23 year isn't that young).  But, this was bottled in 2001 and so it's been in bottle for over 10 years.  Anyway, this was very typical Port Ellen. Briny, peat, camphor, burning wax and paste.  The nose hints towards an underlying sweetness, maybe marshmallows, but it's really hard to pick out behind the smoke and salt on the nose.  The palate brings more peat which builds around a salty fresh grass and chalk element.  Rich, but not heavy.  Powerfully smoky and rustic, but it has that great sweetness that I love in Port Ellen.  The candied fruit work to balance out the waves of smoke.  The perfect contrast to itself.  A lovely little whisky. 

-David Othenin-Girard


Tastings Tonight!

Tonight in Redwood City we'll be pouring Osocalis Santa Cruz Mountain Brandies - don't miss this if you're in the area!  We'll have the distiller in the house and he's a wealth of information.

San Francisco will host Highland Park single malt whiskies.

5 PM to 6:30 PM.  Free of charge, as always!

-David Driscoll


My New Favorite Bourbon

Sometimes I simply miss the boat on certain products - either from skipping a tasting appointment, or taking a day off from time to time.  While I knew of the existence of Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon, I had never tasted it, nor was I really motivated to track it down.  There's a ton of whiskey out there and we can't carry everything, so no big whoop.  David OG, on the other hand, did not miss the boat on this whiskey, so he's been carrying it in our Hollywood store for some time now.  Seeing that both of us recently opened a number of bottles for staff education day, we decided to send each other our open samples and the Rock Hill was among those that came up North.  Besides the awesome, old-school decanter with the 70's-style horse drawing, the Bourbon is simply fantastic - in fact, it's my new house bottle.

Guess who makes it?  Surprise!  It's Buffalo Trace, who are on pace to out-match Bruichladdich for which distillery can have the largest portfolio of diverse, yet tasty spirits.  The Rock Hill Farms is a high-rye Bourbon, meaning there's a higher percentage of rye in the mashbill than one would normally expect in a Bourbon.  The flavors are both rich and spicy - the whiskey really pops on the entry with lovely vanilla and dried fruits, before finishing with a chocolate and herbal flurry.  I'm absolutely hooked right now, especially for $40.  

Is there no end to the BT dominance?

-David Driscoll


How To Craft an Independent Whisk(e)y Label

Wow, I've been sitting here all day in a post-Wrestlemania hangover, bloated from the remnant carbs of over a dozen beers, sedated by the mild headache that has ranged from dull to acute over the last few hours.  In my brief time away from the computer, it appears there has been a macro-Pappy scandal on the micro-blogosphere - something about Buffalo Trace distiller Harlan Wheatley mentioning the source of the older expressions.

Here's my take on this situation:

If I were an independent bottler like the Van Winkles (i.e. a company that does not actually MAKE any whiskey, but instead buys it from others) I would run my business in the following manner:

- I would have a great label with something traditional on the front (i.e. Pappy smoking a cigar).

- I would only bottle fantastic whiskies, no low end stuff or bargain bottles for lower price points.

- I would definitely make myself as rare as possible (sell as little as I could to still make a profit) to keep demand high.

- I would have no advertising and make sure that all our press came from word-of-mouth (that way people will exaggerate the hell out of every detail, further adding to the legend of our brand).

- Finally, I would NEVER, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never come clean about where we got the whiskey from. 

The last point is what drives whisk(e)y geeks absolutely livid, but guess what?  All this talking about Pappy Van Winkle - where it's from, who made it, is it still SW juice, etc - only helps the Van Winkles sell more Van Winkle whiskey!  It's absolutely genius. 

If you look at all of my personal requirements for a hot, independent whiskey brand, you'll notice that the Van Winkles nail every single one of them.  Do you think Black Maple Hill would still sell as well as it did if it said "4 year old Heaven Hill" on the label?  HELL NO! (That's not saying that it is, either).

In the end, catering to the internet is the absolute worst thing a brand could ever do.  I love the whisky blogs, the message boards, and all the chit-chat, but in the end we're less than 1% of the people actually buying these whiskies.  The other 99% percent don't care in the slightest.  If you want to make money as an independent bottler, you'll cater to the 99% and hope to placate the savvy internet fans. 

Did any one else watch WCW wrestling at the end of its existence?  If you thought the whisk(e)y geek online experience was rabid, you have no idea what the online professional wrestling, super-geek cabal is capable of.  They single-handedly tricked a multi-million dollar company into thinking they represented the majority of the paying fan base and the company responded by attempting to please a handful of bloggers.  WCW went down the tubes just as soon as that happened because no one else watching had any idea what the hell was going on.

Personally, I don't give a hoot who made a whiskey, where it was made, or if the label directly states the correct stats.  If it tastes good and it seems fairly priced, I'm in.  The Van Winkle whiskies satisfy both my requirements for delicious whiskey at a reasonable price, and my requirements for running a solid independent label, were I actually in charge.

Keep up the good work, boys.

-David Driscoll


A Real Pappy Update and Some Wild Speculation

As you may have figured out the Estonian inventory is now safely rerouted to sunny California!  We've officially received our allocation of Van Winkle, by that I mean I know how much we will be getting, NOT that the inventory is in stock - SO DON'T CALL THE STORE ASKING FOR VW.  Whisk(e)y Club members you should know the drill by now. It will go the same as last time so when you get notice be sure to clear your schedule.  Of course, the spring allocation will be tighter than ever before, although it looks like we're getting a little more of the 12 year, which probably won't excite you hardcore S-W fans. Speaking of which, the bourbon gossip pages (yes, there is a whisky geek equivalent to TMZ) are rumors about the contents of the VW 20 & 23. While it might all be hearsay, the internet is a buzz with speculation about the provenance of these highly regarded bottlings. I would encourage anyone speculating about the provenance of current Pappy bottlings to take a deep breath and take a look at Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery's explicit statement that "all of the Van Winkle’s whiskey production now takes place at Buffalo Trace," and that "Julian, III has continued with the Van Winkle tradition of producing the highest quality wheated bourbon available." What more do you need to know? I think we need to all get comfortable with the idea that if something doesn't explicitly say where it is distilled we cannot assume anything about it.  If Buffalo Trace was contracted to make wheated bourbon for S-W as early as '81, can we really say which whiskey is which?  Those stocks would have been the property of Diageo and not Buffalo Trace.  If that's the case, would these have been considered S-W at that time?  Perhaps they've only bottled Pappy from S-W stocks distilled at Buffalo Trace?  Who really knows at this point? I think the real issue should be how it tastes and if you want to be sure that what you're drinking whiskey that comes from the Stitzel-Weller Distillery than you should buy this:

Very Old Fitzgerald 8 Year Old Straight Bourbon Bottled in Bond 750ml $999.99

-David Othenin-Girard