Friday, December 23, 2011

ILRiverWhiskyLover: Single Malt Scotch vs. Blended Malts vs. Blended W...

ILRiverWhiskyLover: Single Malt Scotch vs. Blended Malts vs. Blended W...: It has been quite some time since I've posted anything, life has a way of keeping me busy. One thing that has been on my mind lately is the...

Single Malt Scotch vs. Blended Malts vs. Blended Whisky

It has been quite some time since I've posted anything, life has a way of keeping me busy.  One thing that has been on my mind lately is the issue of Scotch Whisky and the various forms we can enjoy it.  Single malt whisky is seen by some as the gold standard of whisky in the scotch whisky industry, and to some degree that is true but only to a degree.  In this blog I am going to discuss my thoughts on the three styles of scotch whisky that are available to us and why as a consumer we should not get too hung up on being snobby about only the single malts.

The undisputed king of the refined palate when it comes to scotch is single malt whisky.  There is a world-wide industry that flourishes with the idea that the finest scotch available is in single malt whisky.  What is a single malt whisky?  It can best be defined as a whisky that is produced, barrelled, and aged at the same distillery and then blended at that same distillery to be bottled.  A sub-category is single cask single malt whisky which is exactly what it sounds like..a distillery takes one cask and fills bottles only from that cask...and typically such bottling are at a high alcohol content as compared to other single malts, though that is not always a constant thing.  I do enjoy single malts very much, and they truly are the very essence of whisky making...all blends either blended malts or blended whisky starts as a single malt.  Another way of thinking of single malts is they are fingerprints of whisky....they are uniquely individual creatures...each region of Scotland having their own special characteristics ..and each distillery having its own uniqueness influenced by factors such as the style of malted barley they use, the water source, the yeast strain, how the barley is malted, the type of pot stills used, the uniqueness of the Lyne arm used, the barrels used to age the whisky in, the length of time a whiksy is aged, all of these things and more have an influence on the appearance of single malt whiskies.  As a result single malt whiskies can lend themselves to an incredible canvas which the distillery masters create incredibly good or not so good whiskies.  Just because a scotch whisky lays claim to being a single malt, and in fact is a single malt, does not mean it is a high quality, delicious whisky.  A very good argument can be made that the smaller independent distilleries such as Glenfarclas and Bruichladdich are excelling at producing better quality, superior single malts than are the big boys such as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. Can something be done to take advantage of this diversity of flavor profiles that is the range of single malts being produced?  Absolutely, this is where blended malt and blended whisky comes into their own.

Aren't all blends the same? Isn't J&B the same vs Teacher's Highland Cream vs Hogshead?  Of course the answer is no, not by a long shot.  The last brand I mentioned, Hogshead, is an example of the category of scotch called blended malt or vatted malt.  What is a blended malt?  A blended malt is a whisky that is created by taking single malt whiskies from different distilleries and blending them together to attain a specific style of whisky.  The most well know blended malt whiskies are the Johnny Walker range that starts with the Green Label, goes to the Gold Label, and ends with the high priced and highly sought after Blue Label.  Each color label is separated by the others via the minimum age of the single malts used in the blend.  The Blue Label uses the oldest single malts in it's blend and the youngest whisky in that blend is around 18 to 20 years old...and some whiskies in this blended malt are much older - hence the price is often very high for this scotch...stupidly high in my opinion.  Blended malts can be affordable and provide the consumer with a very rich whisky experience.  They are generally crafted to appeal to a consumer seeking a specific flavor profile.  If you only want to savor a more refined Speyside whisky experience, or perhaps you seek a concentrated blast of Islay power there are blended malts that do a magnificent job of meeting those expectations - and they generally will not cost you an arm and a leg to obtain - generally.  As is evidenced by the Johnny Walker Blue Label, blended malts can be most expensive and hard to get depending on any number of factors.  They are quite worth exploring though, and as time goes on I will be acquiring a range of these fine whiksy styles and reviewing them for you.  This leaves us with the mass production beast of the scotch whisky industry, blended whisky.

According to Wikipedia blended whisky accounts for about 90% of the volume of scotch whisky exports from Scotland.  What is it?  Blended Scotch or blended whisky is taking blended malts or vatted malts and adding to them other grain whiskies (aged or unagedMcClelland range of single malts and Lismore are often cheaper in cost than most blends....without sacrificing too much, if any, in terms of quality.  Teacher's Highland Cream is one of my favorite blends, because it boast one of the highest percentages of single malt whiskies to be part of the recipe for the blends...and the flavor profile reflects this in a positive way in my view.  Why do distillers mix grain whiskies with single malts?  Simply stated the grain whiskies tend to help take the sharp edge off of the single malts in the blend to make the whiksy more palatable to people and more agreeable for use as a mixed drink ingredient...and help ensure exceptional consistency in the product from day to day, month to month, year to year - reliability, consistency, and volume of production are the main concerns of the makers of the blends.   Still, keep an open mind to blends, especially those starting out their journey in enjoying scotch.  They can be excellent ambassadors of a most unique and diverse universe of delicious scotch whiksy.

Each style of scotch has their function withing the realm of scotch appreciation....while single malts do reflect the individual excellence of a robust whiksy industry, the consumer can still enjoy a great deal that scotch has to offer by exploring all three styles. Indeed as you gain in knowledge of scotch you may well become experienced enough to identify what single malts are being used in blended malts and in blended scotch.

Soon, I will endeavor to write about the cost of scotch and bourbon, and other spirits. One does not have to spend a small fortune to establish a tasty and diverse scotch, bourbon, and other spirits collection.  By the way, I do not buy scotch or bourbon to sit upon a shelf unopened and unconsumed as some kind of investment. No, I buy them to drink them, which is what the hard working people at distilleries all over the world work so very had to achieve...and product that is consumed and enjoyed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Home Distillation

I've been thinking long and hard about the issue of home distillation.   I have looked at the issue and I keep coming back to a basic truth.  We can make our own beer at home just as we can make own own homemade wines.  We can grow our own corn, barley, wheat, rye, grapes, and even hops if we choose to do so.  Yet, our Federal government and all of our state governments prohibit or severely restrict the opportunity to home distill drinkable spirits.  At first I though it was just a left over of the Prohibition era...and maybe in some small way that is true, but really the issue is about the greed of our government for two things...our hard earned money and our obedience.

The Federal Regulation pertaining to the home distillation of beverage spirits can be read here.  In essence, the Federal Government states that we may not produce consumable alcohol at home for our own personal use provided this and that are done to make them happy.  We can produce beer and wine at home for our own personal use proivided we don't sell what we make. We can make our own alcohol-based fuel additives with a much easier permitting process and no excise tax, but we can't make rum, vodka, gin, whiskey, or any other comsumable spirit unless we jump through the regulatory hoops.  Never mind that when we make wine or beer we are half way through the process of making such spirits as cognac and whiskey...and not one single federal permit is necessary to make these beverages.  Oh we can make hooch at home, but the process to get approval to do so is oppressive by any measure or we have to worry about the Feds barging in to destroy what we have made and to confiscate what we have made it with..  The application process is daunting, the regulatory demands are burdensome, and the ultimate goal of all of it is one, specifically the lovely excise tax.  Even if we were to only make say 20 gallons of drinkable alcohol per year for our own personal consumption, we must pay out to the government for the ability to do so.

In my view this whole problem goes back to the abuse of the Commerce Clause of our beloved Constitution.   The Commerce clause has become the springboard for a remarkable volume of abuse and harassment of the people and businesses of this country.  We can thank the Supreme Court of the United States for this overeach.  There was a long period in the Court's history when the Court, seeking to curb the regulatory powers of the Federal Government by various means, held that certain things were not subject to the commerce clause because they were either not interstate commerce or bore no sufficient relationship to interstate commerce. That has all changed, and the change starts with one Court decsion: Gibbons v. Ogden.  The opinion given on March 2, 1824 set the stage for the growth of abuse and intrusiveness of the Federal Government.

In my view there is no reason for the Federal Government to be involved in the home production of, wine, spirits, ....anything.  The respective States may have some say in the matter as unless there is evidence presented that a home distiller is selling alcohol over state lines. What about the States...what do they require for permission to distill at home?  Well, in the lovely Socialist Republic of Ilinois, the State government is just as intrusive and oppressive as are the Feds.  Yet, changing a state law is is certainly much easier than trying to get something changed with the monlolitic Federal Government.

So, for now we can't distill at home, but there are legislative efforts ongoing at the Federal level that may one day lead to a change for home distillers.  Curently working its way through  Congress is the bill H.R. 777.   This Bill targets taxes paid by small producers of spirits like rum and whiskey to ease the tax burden they have to deal with.  It was even sponsored by a New York democrat, Maurice Hinchey.  Co-sponsors of the bill are: Rep. Michael Michaud [D, ME-2], Rep. Chellie Pingree [D, ME-1], and Rep. Lee Terry [R, NE-2].   The primary reason all of the Democrats are actually advocating such tax relief for small distilleries is the fact that in their congressional districts a there happens to be some successful start up small distillers who want to grow and expand and hire more workers...but find that difficult with the current tax burdens.   Thank you to Ralph Erenzo of Tuthilltown, Melkon Khosrovian of Greenbar Collective, and a small group of American craft distillers that have been working very hard to push this bill through with the help of Congressman Hinchey.    It is through gradual efforts of this nature that will eventually make home distillation a lawful possibility someday.  I believe that if we can win the liberty to distill at home, it will drive the craft distillation commercial growth every bit as much as home brewing has been driving the success and creativity of the craft brewing commercial enterprises.

So find out who your state and federal legislative representatives are.  Respectfully inform them of your views on home distillation. Show them the hypocrisy of the current laws and how small home brewers have driven the massive changes in the commercial beer landscape. Explain that home distillation could also do the same an explosion of small craft distilleries that can become  taxable business enterprises.  Freedom is a powerful thing, it is the fuel that drives a strong economy, high employment numbers....and sound economic health. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bourbon - Maker's Mark and Maker's 46 - A review

My first review of a whisky starts off with an old friend for me.  I have been a fan of Maker's Mark bourbon for a long much so that I am an Ambassador for Maker's Mark and proudly so, especially since Maker's Mark has a connection with one of my preferred single malts, which I'll discuss later in this review.

This whisky isn't the strongest bourbon made, or the softest, it was made to be just right....and on my palate it is exactly that.  The good people in Loretto, KY have been crafting this fine bourbon for a long time now..since 1933.  That was when the Maker's Mark journey begins.  In 1980 Maker's Mark enjoyed achieving two milestones..first the distillery was the first alcohol production facility to every be designated as a National Historic Landmark (whisky was first made at this distillery in 1889), and a few months later Maker's Mark was a feature on the front page of the Wall Street Journal..and their success launched from there.  Those of you that may be familiar with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail can thank Maker's Mark for much of what you enjoy with the trail  Leslie Samuels, the daughter of Bill Samuel's Sr. designed the Maker's Mark Visitors Program in is this program that was the prototype used to create the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  The soon-to-retire President of Maker's Mark, Bill Samuels Jr., grew up in and around the industry. When he was a little boy his family used to visit Col. Jim Beam and the families remain close to this day.  Maker's Mark is currently the oldest operating bourbon distillery in the world.

Enough of the history of Maker's Mark...let's talk about the product...the whisky they loving make for us to enjoy.

In order to talk about what we drink, it is important to talk about how it was made. As I discuss this process it is important to remember that this general process is what is used to make all it bourbon, brandy, scotch, tequila...the general process is essentially the same, so I'll take time in this review to discuss it in some detail so everyone understands the process. Maker's Mark starts off with a mash bill (recipe) that consists of 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14 percent malted barley (malted barley will be discussed in much more detail when I review scotch).  The use of red winter wheat to replace the the usual rye is critical to the unique flavor of Maker's Mark. Remember, Bourbon must by law be made with 51% corn...and whatever else the distiller wishes to use to fill out the recipe.

The mash bill is combined with water that will be cooked at a specific temperature for several hours to make a "mash" or a "wort"..both referring to the cooked, unfermented grain mixture.  The mash is then cooled down to a specific temperature, strained of most of the unusable particles of gran and then moved to a fermenting vessel. At Maker's Mark (and most distilleries) the fermenting vats are made of Makers Mark some of these vessels are over 100 years old.  with After the mash is introduced to the cypress vats, a "sour mash" is introduced to induce fermentation, Maker's Mark "sour mash" uses a yeast that is dated back to the early 1930's.  It is this "sour mash" that has an influence on the quality and flavor of the alcohol that will eventually become Maker's Mark. After the yeast is introduced copper tubing inside the vat will have water run through it at a specific temperature to ensure the mash remains at an optimal temperature to encourage fermentation.   Once the fermentation finishes the final product is often called brewers beer.  Home brewers at this point would at this point bottle or keg the beer.often adding sugar to encourage a secondary fermentation before consumption.  This "beer" still has a few steps left in it before we can enjoy it.

The "beer" is further filtered to remove undistillable sediments and placed in storage tanks that will be sent to distill twice in copper column stills. Some of the unfiltered "beer" is taken and introduced to a new batch of mash, and is known as the "sour mash" process mentioned above.  As I mentioned above the newly fermented "beer" is now distilled twice, once each in two different kind of copper stills. The first run is distilled through a copper column still and produces a liquid known as "low wine" and it is about 120 proof.  The second run is distilled through a copper pot still and produces a product know as "high wine" that is about 130 proof.  It is the "high wine" that is the alcohol that is to be aged.

The "high wine" is moved to the next critical element in what makes a bourbon a bourbon.  In order for a bourbon, the "new make" alcohol must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.  I plan on a whole review to discussing cooperage...the making of barrels, and the nuances of these barrels that have considerable influence on the aroma, appearance, and flavor of whatever is stored in it.  Maker's Mark ages their bourbon to taste, not age...that is why you won't see age statements on their label.  As a general rule, Maker's Mark ages their whisky 5 3/4 years up to 6 1/2 years ..the actually determination of when the contents of the barrel are ready for bottling is at the sole discretion of Maker's Mark Master Distiller - who happens to be Greg Davis.  Once ready the bourbon is bottled and the bottles are then dipped into their trademark red wax and shipped.

Scentsy would make a wax that smelled exactly like this.  Heaven.  The appearance shows a golden color...the bourbon has a light to medium body.  On the tongue you will find that toasted oak, caramel, vanilla, almost toffee-like flavor...and it finishes long and smooth..not overly sweet and just a hint of bitterness that balances the finish out perfectly.

Maker's 46

This brings me to Maker's 46. Maker's 46 is a new expression released by Maker's Mark in 2010..and is the only expression released for regular production from Maker's Mark since their founding.  This bourbon is based upon the the standard Maker's Mark bourbon, but it has been introduced to an extra step in it's again that has added a depth to it that makes it different from Maker's Mark while still retaining the excellence of the core product.  The extra step I speak of is part of the name of the bourbon...46.   The Maker's Mark is transferred from the barrel it has been again in for about 6 or 7 years and is transferred into a new charred oak barrel..and then a dozen or so charred oak stave's...named a 46 stave as a code for the kind of stave and the level of char used to make it ready to age Maker's 46.  The bourbon's aging is finished in this new barrel for a few more months so as to add the new dimensions to the whisky. 

On the nose you will immediately notice a much stronger element of cinnamon, clove, allspice...and then of course the traditional sweet essence of Maker's Mark.  The "46" appears as a darker gold, and perhaps slightly thicker viscosity..if possible more luscious than the regular Maker's Mark.  On the taste it is everything the nose was saying...stronger spice elements...Creme Brulee comes to mind..and all the while in the background the familiar vanilla and oak....only amped up a bit.  The body of the whisky in the mouth is velvety smooth..without feelings too oily or thick.  On the finish it, like it's predecessor is long, smooth and full of a perfect balance of the spice, the oak, and the gentle sweetness.

I can not decide which Maker's Mark expression I like better..each captures what I love most about a good whisky...full of flavor, excellent nose...never harsh....perfect.  I'd recommend you buy both...maybe you can find a favorite between the two.

Oh, those oak barrels.  Once the Maker's Mark and Maker's 46 barrels have been used to age bourbon, they can not reused for that purpose.  So, Maker's Mark has a deal to send all of their used barrels to one of my favorite Scotch Distillers - Laphroiag, to make their 10 year and 10 year Quarter Cask expressions.  So my first scotch review will be on Laphroiag and the two expressions associated with Maker's Mark.

Thanks for reading this long tome...and Slaint'e Mhath!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Reviews, responses and stuff about me...what to expect from my writings.

As I write about my experiences with whisky, I will be reviewing all aspects of the industry, or as much about the spirits as I can.  I'll be writing about the whiskies, the distillers that make them, the retailers who sell them, the pubs/taverns/clubs that serve them, and the people I encounter who drink them.  I'll be talking about cocktail recipes, food recipes using whiskies as an ingredient, and special events that directly or indirectly have something to do with my favorite beverages.  From time to time I may also write about other spirits,liqueurs, wines, and beers as such things pique my interest, and don't too shocked if I express a political opinion here and there as well.

I want this blog to be interesting and informative to those that take the time to read up on what I have on my mind.  I also am not afraid to ask for feedback on what the readers think about what I have to say...the good, bad, and ugly of it all.  All I would ask from those offering me their thoughts is to always be honest, always be respectful, and I pledge to always do the same no matter what.

I am a very happily married father of four awesome kids (three of whom are all grown up and living their lives).  I'm also a proud grandfather of  four beautiful grandchildren.  By profession I have been in the law enforcement/security line of work almost my whole adult life, though I began my working life as a teenager in the food a dishwasher, busboy, and a cook.  I enjoy home brewing beer, sampling whiskies, cooking, watching sports, and writing on topics of interest - usually politics.  I am proud of my Scottish ancestry, having been fortunate to have had some family members research a bit an determine that my blood line goes all the way back to the Highlands of Scotland.

Thank you for taking time to visit and read whatever is on my mind...I am truly very grateful.

I'm not a journalist, I'm not an english major - all I am is a Scots-American with alot to say about my beloved uisge beatha.  Slainte' Mhath


I love whisky.  It is a simple statement of fact.  What is whisky?  To me there are two, and only two forms of whisky - Scotch and Bourbon.  They are related, they are cousins in the truest sense of the word.  I love beer, and other spirits are wonderful in their own right, but the masters of the alcohol universe are scotch and bourbon...bourbon and scotch...interchange them as you see fit.

Why do I love whisky?  Well, getting drunk is not the thing, though the stages of becoming drunk can be very happy places.  I love whisky because ..of the heritage, the history, the ancestry...the pride in excellence..and of course there is the perfect colors...the scents, the flavors, the essence of what we find when we nose and taste our uisge beatha..our water of life.

I'm going to be evaluating whiskies, offering ideas for all to enjoy.....and I invite you all to join me...offer your opinions, your thoughts...and make this a place where our beloved whiskies are truly appreciated for the art work of science they are.