More Whiskey Rules

Last week we discussed bourbon myths, but there are rules for more than just bourbon.  Here are a few you might not know. 

New Charred Oak: Most people know that bourbon must be stored in new charred oak containers, but that's also true for American rye, wheat and malt whiskeys. If it's not aged in new charred oak, it will be called "Whiskey distilled from (rye, bourbon, wheat, etc.) mash." 

Corn Whiskey is the only type of whiskey that is not required to be stored in oak.  

Added Coloring and Flavoring: Bourbon can never have added color or flavorings but other whiskeys not labeled "straight" can have up to 2.5% additives which can include caramel coloring, wine, fruit juice, sugar and oak chip infusions.  

Geographical Protections: Under the US regulations, Scotch, Irish Whisky and Canadian Whisky are recognized as distinctive products of those areas manufactured in compliance with the laws of their countries.  There are similar recognitions for Cognac, Pisco, Tequila and Cachaça. There is no similar regulation for Armagnac or Calvados, though they are covered by a catch-all regulation which states that geographic names can't be used unless the spirit actually comes from that place. 

No Highland Bourbon: The word "Highland" or any "similar words connoting, indicating, or commonly associated with Scotland" cannot appear on the label of a non-Scottish spirit. 

Straight Whiskey can include whiskey from more than one distillery as long as they are in the same state.  



Ardbeg Grooves....Delayed!

Well the title says it all. Some sort of SNAFU at the NorCal distributor means we won't have the new Grooves and its trippy box in time for Ardbeg Day. Instead we will give you another absolutely unobtainable peater. This whisky was recently subject of a country wide manhunt thanks to a massive media blitz about its imminent disappearance. Honestly it’s always been my favorite of the “affordable” Suntory line and I think it does a lot that the Yama 12 does not. Those ominous reports are slightly premature since it’s here today, but there’s no telling when the Japanese will decide to hold back the stocks for the home market. No limited and still 50% cheaper than the next guy. Have at it.

Suntory Hakushu 12 Year Old Japanese Peated Single Malt Whisky (750ml) $99.99

-David Othenin-Girard


One Week All Peat

The new release of Balvenie's Peat Week is upon us. Perfectly timed with the release of another extremely smoky whisky tomorrow (you Ardbeg heads know what I'm talking about), the Balvenie is unique in the Highlands for continuing to hand malted barley in their production process. The standard whiskies do include a tiny amount of peated malt as its subtle influence is key to the ultimate complexity of the Balvenie, but every year for exactly seven days, the distillery reverts to the old ways of doing things. At one point in history is was not possible to get Scotch without some peaty element included in the distillation. Not all of it was gnarly hardcore stuff coming out of Islay, but even the most gentle highlanders had elements of peat smoke in the flavor profile. The unique thing about the Highland peat, as compared to its salty cousin from the sea, is that the organic source of the peat is terrestrial vegetation rather than ocean plants. The chemical composition is rather different from the peat being drawn from the bogs on Islay, which consist of decomposed kelp, algae and other ocean life.

The difference in organic composition creates a completely unique character when burned. This is what regionality was all about back in the day. Distilleries in a particular region had access to the same ingredients, water, wood, climate as well as shared intellectual property with regards to production practices. Now with the industrialization of the process and homogenization of the inputs, the meaning of regionality in Scotch has become more about geography and marketing than actual flavor. But every once in a while some clever distiller gives us a reason to recall the old ways. This whisky isn't just about nostalgia, it's absolutely delicious. Last year’s was cracking, but I think this one might be even better.

2003 Balvenie 14 Year "Peat Week" Vintage Single Malt Whisky (750ml) $99.99

-David Othenin Girard





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. 




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