The Whisky Hotline is hitting the road on the continued search for the best bottlings for our customers. I flew into Louisville last night with Binny’s Spirits consultants Joe Maloney, Doug Fornek, and Ross Macfarquhar and we’re going to be spending the day on the eastern edge of the Bourbon trail, with visits today at Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace. We have recently taken in a number of new hand picked bottlings (most notably the 10 barrel vatting of Buffalo Trace, IMHO the best we’ve done to date,) and are prowling for more opporunities. Only the best and most interesting will make it back to Chicago. I will be periodically updating the trip and passing along information and new discoveries as they arise. Please feel free to submit questions, I just might be able to get answers directly from the source!
I get this question alot, from both our suppliers and from Binny’s shoppers. The suppliers of course want to know what category might provide them another business opportunity, but our shoppers really want to know “what’s new?” is there something I might be missing?
One interesting recent development is the introduction of a number of clear, unaged grain spirits, basically precursors that with oak cask aging would eventually be called whiskey. As for style, think vodka with actual distinct character. Call them Moonshine, White Lightning, White Dog, New Make, call them whatever, some of these new grain spirits are well worth checking out, I want to tell you about 4 new bottlings from two different distilleries.
First, I want to welcome Chicago’s newest distillery, Koval. The dream of 3rd generation distiller Robert Birnecker and his wife Sonat, Koval joins Lake Bluff’s outstanding North Shore on the local scene. Certified both organic and Kosher, the main focus will be recreating traditional products from Robert’s native Austria. Amongst their first efforts are a couple of products that aren’t necessarily Austrian, but well done nonetheless. Midwest Wheat and Chicago Rye ($37.99/750ml) are both double distilled from a mash of their namesake grain and bottled at 40%abv. The first thought that hit me when trying the Midwest Wheat was holy bananas! This light but distinct and clean character carries through on the palate, with surprising weight and mouthfeel for an unaged spirits. I loved it on its own, but it also worked well with soda water, tonic, and juices like cranberry and grapefruit. The Chicago Rye delivers a nice peppery pop, as a rye veteran would expect. I was looking for some baking spice (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, etc.) character as well, it’s there but very tight, think cinnamon stick or whole clove rather than ground. The palate has a nice, light sweetness to balance out the pepper, actually made quite a nice little dry martini and the salt from the olive worked well with the pepper.
If you want some good insight into what a peated scotch whisky starts out as, the Wasmund’s Single Malt Spirit and Rye Spirit $22.99/750ml), produced by the iconoclastic Rick Wasmund and Sean McCaskey at Sperryville, VA’s Copper Fox Distillery Enterprises are great starts. The Single Malt Spirit is made with 100% hand malted barley and lightly smoked with a combination of 60% Applewood and 40% Cherry wood during the kilning process, bottled at a whopping 61.5%abv. If the Koval’s had a surprising amount of sweetness, these two are all about savory and herbal. A fantastic fresh malty/grainy aroma, with a touch of the smoke greets the nose. Even uncut there is enough malty sweetness to balance the smoke and inevitable alcohol on the palate. This really does benefit from cutting with water, and once done the malty sweetness is infused with a more prominent clean smoke character. The Rye Spirit is compsed of 2/3 rye and 1/3 hand malted barley, the same smoking regimen, bottled high octane again, at 62%. The malty sweetness is more subdued on the nose and a little more smoke character comes through. If the Koval Rye had a “nice pop of pepper,” this is more along the lines of “holy black pepper!” Once cut, a very nice round sweetness softens the smoke and black pepper character. I preferred both of these straight with some water to cut the alcohol, but I’m willing to bet they would also make nice dry martinis, and killer Bloody Marys.
As promised in my previous New Release post, I had a chance to try the newest release in the Port Charlotte Evolution series from Bruichladdich and have some notes. I just want to say here I’m glad I made that promise, because this stuff is excellent!
For those who don’t know, the PC series from Bruichladdich is a set of bottlings featuring spirit from heavily peated malt (55ppm, I believe) meant as a precursor to the eventual reopening of the long gone Port Charlotte distillery in the Islay town of the same name. The first release, PC 5, was extremly limited and flew off the sehelves, as it was also extremely excellent. The second release, PC 6, was much larger and is still available, and while I quite enjoyed and would recommend it, it didn’t resonate for me like PC 5.
PC 7 falls in the middle of the excellence of 5 and the “very goodness” of 6. This bottling is 7 years old, 61% abv, drawn from a combination of first fill bourbon casks vatted jusdiciously with first fill sherry butts, outturn was 24,000 bottles. The first pass through uncut didn’t reveal the high abv, which is nice. Beatiful spicy, briney, mildly smokey nose (maybe a touch dirty), definite smoke on the palate but a surprising amount of fat sweetness as well. Problem here is the two didn’t immediately mesh. The addition of water changed all that, however. Once cut only slightly, then subsequently more, that beautiful smoke, salt, and spice began working in lock step with the sweetness. First thing that struck my mind was Cinnabon! There is a definite pronounced cinnamon character, but not sharp and hot like a cinnamon toothpick, but to me literally like a cinnamon breakfast bun, all the flavors you want with surprising weight for the relative youth of the whisky. This bottling shows the great potential for future release in this series.
A number of eagerly anticipated whisky releases are due to hit in the late winter and early spring, heres the best information I have thus far:
Octomore 1st release and PC7- these heavily peated bottlings from Bruichladdich are due by late Feb, no firm pricing yet, but PC7 should stay in line with last years PC6 release, about $130-140 and Octomore will fall out in the $180-200 range.
Ardbeg Supernova- Most heavily peated Ardbeg ever, this is a very limited release, first come-first serve, limit one per person. Price should be in the $120 range, email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the waiting list, we should see product by March.
Glenmorangie Astar- a 50%abv, unchillfiltered, non-age statement release drawn from first fill ex-Jack Daniels barrels, a beautiful, unadulterated example of what comes off the tallest stills in Scotland. No retail as yet, sells in the UK for roughly the equivalent of $75, best eta is towards the end of March.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2008 Release- Yes, that says 2008, the whiskey (62 barrels total, 1995 distillation) was put into stainless in early September, unfortunately Brown-Forman was stuck trying to source the unique decanter to complete the bottling, their old vendor had gone out of business. Theyve now found one and begun bottling, so we should see this in the next 3-4 weeks, should stay around $40 retail.
Binnys Handpicked Casks- Next wave will include more Elmer T. Lee, Blantons, Eagle Rare 10 year, and Szerac Stright Rye from BT; more Four Roses Single Barrels to follow up Barrels # 1, 2, and 3; and working through a final round of samples for OB bottlings from two well known Scotch distillers.
One of the best parts of having the job title Specialty Spirits Buyer, besides having to taste booze daily and write and talk about it, are the days when you hit something totally different, creative, interesting, or just flat out funky and unexpected. Here are some things that Ive had and brought in recently that are worth a look at for those who love to experiment:
Haymans Old Tom Gin- An 18th century sweet style of gin originally developed to hide impurities, Old Tom dropped out of favor as the quality of London Dry improved. Haymans has introduced the first Old Tom style Ive seen in a long time, and its excellent. The light, fruit sweetness is a nice compliment to the minty, piney juniper character. ($24.99)
North Shore Distillers Gin #11- A London Dry looks back across the English Channel at its Dutch Genever roots, Chicagos Master Distiller Derek Kassebaum has taken his base Distillers Gin #6 and added a savory, herbal layer of aromas and flavors, I can get some white pepper, caraway and even a touch of oregano. ($29.99)
Mette Eau de Vies- Toss away the standard Kirsch, Poire, Mirabelle, etc., this Alsatian master will craft an excellent Eau de Vie using just about anything as a base flavor. Amongst the most exotic (and excellent and true to flavor) creations? Ail (garlic), Gingembre (ginger), Café (coffee), Feuille de Basille (basil), Cannelle (cinnamon), Mandarine (mandarine orange), and Poivron (green pepper). ($44.99/375ml)
The economy has been tough on folks for a number of months now and Ive been getting a lot of questions about stretching dollars without sacrificing quality. Heres a list of some products that I think are worthy of giving a try and saving some $$$:
Very Old Barton 100 proof Bourbon- $11.99
Rittenhouse 100 proof Rye- $16.99
Black Bottle Islay Blend- $17.99
Dewars 12 year old Blended Scotch- $21.99
Lismore Speyside Single Malt- $24.99
Cruzan Light Rum- $10.99
Cockspur 5* Barbadian Rum- $19.99
Brokers London Dry Gin- $15.99
Milagro Silver 100% Agave Tequila- $19.99
Gran Torres Triple Orange Liqueur- $19.99
Delord 15 year old XO Armagnac- $38.99
Note: Pricing may change aftet this post, so check for the latest prices.
My assistant Joe asked the other day what vodka he should be buying and taking home, my reply, as a dedicated whisky guy, was none, if you work for me youre not allowed to drink vodka.
There is a tremendous price range and amount of competition in the vodka category, which seems odd for a spirit whose legal definition is after all neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. Ouch, doesnt say much for those products at the higher price points! But being dedicated to our craft, and to playing around, we did something I would encourage everyone to try out with their dedicated vodka drinking friends, a blind tasting.
Have 6 or 8 vodkas poured blind, neat and at room temperature, at the widest range of price points possible (we did a quickie, 4 bottles retailing from $10.99/1.75L to $50/750ml.) Try to do a budget brand, 1 or 2 competitive domestics, 1 or 2 old line European brands, and 1 or 2 boutique brands. The more famous the better.
Guess what? When you cant see the bottle and be influenced by the pretty glass or the opinion of your favorite singer, or the price, your tongue and nose might shock you. Ive actually done this a few times with consumers, inspired by a published tasting from the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, and done truly blind, the expensive, trendy, and iconic has never been close to being picked as the best of the tasting.