What’s a Distiller When it’s at Home?

What?

[In which I talk about American distilling related issues that I probably don’t know enough about]

In the US, until recent times, there weren’t all that many distilleries making whiskey. A history of Prohibition and draconian state liquor laws mean that not only did they start from a low base number in the 1930s but an increase in the number wasn’t particularly easy. Throw in a decline in the popularity of whiskey in the 1980s and 90s, leading to distillery closures and conglomeration, and you have a market that was ripe for the recent craft distilling boom. However, craft distilling is still in its infancy (or at least toddling years) in the USA and the ‘old’ system of whiskey production is still predominant. It’s a system that doesn’t necessarily link brands to the distilleries where their whiskey is made.

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Quick Tastings

Not all that many, but a couple I want to mark in my brain:

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil – the dark beer that I thought was the base of the Ola Dubh, but after a taste of this at the Vintage Ale tasting I’m not so sure. It’s a thick dark beer with loads of chocolate malt and not a lot that could be described as sweet. Dry and dark, it’s rather good but not as much like Ola Dubh as I was expecting.

Gales Prize Old Ale 2007Gales Prize Old Ale 2007 – another I tried at the Vintage tasting, but one I picked up at Whisky Live this year. It’s a worrying thing but I picked up significantly more beer than whisky, with a bottle of this and a brace of Fuller’s Brewers Reserve coming home with me. It looks like a typically flat and dark old ale, but is rather surprising to smell and taste. My tasting companions were rather split, with its smell of dry cider dividing lovers from loathers and leaving me on the lovers side. It reminds me a lot of the various Flemish red ales that I’ve tried recently (although not quite as scary as  Duchesse de Bourgogne) – thick, sour and fruity with cherries along with an unexpected bitter old ale aftertaste. It’s a bit of the flemish and a bit of the english old ale – I’ll be grabbing some more as soon as I find it.

Blanton’s Gold Edition – after an evening at Bob Bob Ricard (they’re rather good even when they’re not treating you to a vodka tasting, even if they didn’t have the zakuski or vodka I liked best on their normal menu) me and occasional drinking buddy Kosh stopped into Graphic on Golden Square for an evening ender. While I didn’t like the bar (and thought their regular cocktails looked a bit rubbish) they had not only a couple of interesting looking bottles of bourbon on the shelf but also a bartender who knew a chunk about Blanton’s and sorted us out with some of their Gold Edition. I don’t remember much other than that it was definitely the best Blanton’s whiskey I’ve tasted – typically dryer than most of the bourbons I’ve tried and with a nice rich body, with hints of grain, caramel and fruit. Annoyingly I was drunk and don’t remember all that much, but I may have to go back and try some more.

The Glenlivet 12 Year Old – a bottle given to me after doing a focus group about whisky branding. I’ve always thought of Glenlivet as the old dusty bottle that sits next to the Glenfiddich (a whisky that I’m not a fan of) and was rather surprised by this one. On the nose it has apples, linseed oil and caramel, with an overarching theme of the woodland. To taste it lightly sweet, with a hint of woodiness and a bit of richness fading to a bitter finish. There’s a hint of the oil and apple from the nose, and it’s remarkably refreshing for something that is still quite full bodied. A drop of water brings out some a fruity sweetness and lets the oily wood flavour develop at the same time as removing some of the prickliness and burn. It’s not going to go on my must have list, but it’s a perfectly decent dram.

Quick Tastings

Well overdue with this, so here is a not so quick list of quickish descriptions:

GlenrothesThe MacPhail Collection 1969 Glenrothes. I grabbed a tiny taste of this at Hawksmoor while I was visiting to try out the ice ball machine. 39 years old and a recent acquisition, it’s much loved by the bar staff and they wondered if I’d agree. I did. Vanilla and spicy wood on the nose with struck matches, salty caramel and pepper in the mouth. Water softened the wood into vanilla and brought a background of charcoal. Tasty.

Blanton’s Single Barrel – Barrel 153. A 65% cask strength bourbon. I was chatting with the Hawksmoor bar staff about whiskey, having had a shot of George T Stagg (one of my most favourite whiskies, which there will be a post about sometime soon), and they ‘forced’ a taster of this on me. A bourbon that I was not that much of a fan of when I got a bottle for my birthday a few years back, this reminded me of the good elements of that bottle – prickly and perfumed on the nose, it tasted spicy and woody with a weird astringency not unlike PVA glue. A drop of water added a stack of vanilla. A rather complex and interesting whiskey, more savoury than most bourbons I’ve tried.

Port Charlotte PC7. One on the ‘find and try’ list for a while, this is from Bruichladdich‘s ‘other’ distillery. On the nose it was salty with mulching seaweed, which developed in the mouth to a citrusy charcoal burst and a buttery mouth feel. A drop of water piled on more smoke and a strange salty sweatiness. Impressive.

Horseradish gin. Not one on the menu on its own, but this is the base for Hawksmoor’s new brunch menu‘s drinky centre piece – a bloody mary. They make theirs (the ‘original’ way) with gin, and infuse a large jar of Beefeater with thumb sized chunks of horseradish to make an interesting starting point for the drink. The horseradish smooths out the bumps in the normally fairly rough Beefeater and adds a beautiful spicy warmth to the flavour. I’m off to buy some bottles, gin and a chunk of horseradish later today so I can make my own – I assume it’ll be great in a bloody mary, but it also tastes nice on its own.

1800 Anejo Tequila. Cactus based booze is definitely on my list this year (especially after speaking to Johan Svensson about agarve tequila recently) and I grabbed a shot of the second cheapest anejo that The Texas Embassy sell while abusing their free chips and salsa policy the other week. It had the classic salt and pepper tequila smell but was a chunk more complex to taste. A woody centre with fruitiness turning bitter on the finish. It burnt on the way down and after it had gone left drying tannins that turned to vanilla. Interesting and a place for me to start from.

Chocolate MarbleMarble Chocolate Marble. A present left for me by Alan after my whisky tasting the other week, this is the produce of the Marble Arch brewpub in Manchester. I was meant to be up there this weekend and had already planned a 20 minute dash into the pub to buy some more of their beer, but unfortunately had to cancel my trip. The Chocolate Marble is excellently chocolatey, despite not containing any chocolate as far as I can tell. Stout-ish, as it says on the bottle, bitter-sweet and mouth filling, it may well be my favourite bottled beer I’ve had in a while.

Hop Back Taiphoon. The first of my birthday present beers (thanks Dad!) to disappear down my throat. It’s a weird one this, with a lemongrassy tinge that makes it taste more like a shandy than a regular beer, but with a dry malty aftertaste rather than the sweetness you’d expect. I’m still not sure about it and suspect I need to try another…