Friday, April 29, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Whistlepig, Templeton, Compass Box and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Whistlepig cleared a label for Whistlepig Farm Stock, a blend of their ten year old stocks and whiskey they distilled in Vermont.

Templeton cleared a label for Templeton Special Reserve, a 10 year old MGP rye. 

Compass Box issued a label for 5th and Harrison, a special bottling for K&L (the name is the location of their new San Francisco store) made up of 76% sherried Glen Ord and 24% Caol Ila, bottled at cask strength.

Pernod Ricard cleared a label for Longmorn 23.

Luxco issued a number of new labels including Yellowstone 2016 Limited Edition, a 7 year old, 101 proof bourbon composed of 12 year old and 7 year old rye recipe bourbons, Daviess County Bourbon, a brand they have owned for some time but haven't marketed recently, and a Rebel Yell 2016 Limited Edition, though there is no indication on the label of what makes it any different than regular Rebel Yell.

Beam Suntory cleared a label for Jim Beam Double Oak, finished in a second, new, charred oak barrel.

And just in case you thought the days of ridiculous labels getting through the TTB process were over, here is Circa Straight Bourbon, described as "the finest blend of orchard fruits, ryes, corn and spices."

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Benromach Sassicaia 2007

Since Benromach sent me another sample (these guys have been busy), I figured, hey, why not make it a full week of Benromach. Today we have the Benromach Sassicaia, distilled in 2007, aged in first fill bourbon barrels and finished for two years in Sassicaia wine casks. This is the latest in their Wood Finish series and the second time they've done a Sassicaia finish (the first was a 2006 vintage). It's not available in the US yet, but in the UK they are charging £40.25.

Benromach Sassicaia 2007, 45% abv

This has a nice malty nose with a hint of peat and some sweet notes. On the palate it's got peat with a slight honey sweetness and then some real savory notes in the back. It ends on a very dry note and picks up a slight soapiness in the finish.

This is a well balanced malt and one worth tasting.

Thanks to Benromach for the sample. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Benromach Organic and Peat Smoke

The folks at Benromach recently "updated the look" of their whiskeys and sent me some samples.  I don't spend much time looking at whiskey, but I'll give them a taste.

Benromach Organic, 5 years old, 2010, 43% ($65)

The nose on this is straightforward and malty. The palate also has a pure, malty character. It's a bit diluted tasting and the finish fades quickly. While it's good whiskey, there's nothing special about it, and it's hard to recommend at $65. 

Benromach Peat Smoke, 9 years old, 2006, 46% ($60)

This has a really nice nose with lots of fuel like peat and a sort of solvent note, though not in a bad way. The palate follows up nicely with plenty of peat followed by a light sweetness. The peat is pretty steady and leads into a really spectacular finish which seems to go on forever.  This one is quite good and something I would buy.

Thanks to Benromach for the samples.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Three Amruts in Three Casks

Mao from My Annoying Opinions sent me three four year old whiskies from Indian distillery Amrut aged in three different casks. These are apparently European releases that are not available in the U.S., but I thought it would be interesting to compare the impact of these different casks. These were all distilled in 2009, are four years old and go for around $90.

Amrut Single Cask, Bourbon Cask, Cask 3445, 60% abv

This has a nose of raw oatmeal. The palate is sweet, slightly soapy and a bit funky. It's definitely got some raw grain, young whiskey notes. The finish is malty with some fruit notes. Water brings out more malty notes on the palate. This is a decent malt but nothing exciting.

Amrut Single Cask, Port Pipe, Cask 2712, 59% abv

This one has peat on the nose with some light wine notes; they come together like burnt sugar or toffee. The palate is a heavy blast of peat with some cocoa and vanilla notes in the background. It grows sweet as it goes down, and the finish is sweet wine with peat. I'm not generally a fan of port finishes, but I liked this one. The wine notes from the port contrast well with the peat.

Amrut Single Cask, PX Sherry, Cask 2701, 62.8% abv

The nose has very light sherry notes and more of that oatmeal. The palate is sweet and fruity at first then develops some maltiness.  The finish is mostly malt.  The sherry influence on this is present but pretty light. A few drops of water does very well with this one, bringing out some stronger sherry notes on the palate along with some sweet vanilla notes.

All of these were good. I thought the port pipe cask was the most interesting, though I doubt I'd pay $90 for any of them.    

Also be sure to check out the My Annoying Opinion reviews of the Amrut Bourbon, Sherry and Port casks.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Corti Brothers Good Honest Whiskey

I was a big fan of the Corti Brothers Exquisite Whiskey, a Kentucky bourbon aged in dessert wine casks which Amador Distillery released for Corti Brothers gourmet market in Sacramento two years ago. Now, there is a new, younger version. Corti Brothers Good Honest Whiskey is a four year old Kentucky bourbon with a mashbill of 70% corn, 21% rye, 9% barley. It was distilled in 2012 and finished for almost a year in the same Mission del Sol barrels that were used to finish the Exquisite Whiskey (making them second fill barrels) before being bottled this spring.

Corti Brothers Good Honest Whiskey, 4 yo, 46% abv ($50)

The nose is a fairly traditional bourbon profile, a light one like Beam with a touch of sweet wine. The palate has three distinct parts. It starts with a bourbon note, similar to the nose. As it lingers, it starts to pick up the dessert wine notes. The final flavor is a sherry like intensive wine note which carries into the finish.

It's interesting to compare this to the Exquisite Whiskey, which is three years older and was finished in first fill casks. The Exquisite is the American equivalent of a sherry-bomb. You taste the cask much more than the whiskey. The Good Honest Whiskey is much more balanced. It is more distinctively bourbon with bourbon notes dominating the nose and the first part of the palate. It's not until the mid-palate that you start to pick up the wine influence which carries through to the finish.

Which one is better? That's tough because they are very different spirits. I loved the Exquisite Whiskey though less in the way that I love whiskey and more in the way that I love Spanish brandy or sherried Scotch (and, it should be noted, many of my whiskey pals had decidedly negative reactions to it). The Good Honest Whiskey is much more whiskey-like in profile so probably will be more popular among whiskey folks, though the wine influence is still quite prominent.

As for me, while I would happily drink both, if I had to pick just one, I would probably pick the Exquisite Whiskey for its uniqueness. That being said, both of these are very good and a lot of fun. Kudos to Corti Brothers and Amador Distillery for giving us these tasty, innovative whiskeys.

Friday, April 15, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Dickel and MGP

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Diageo cleared a label for a 17 year old George Dickel.

A label cleared for the 2016 edition of MGP's Metze's Select. This year's bourbon will be a blend of 50% 2005 low rye (31% rye) bourbon, 15% 2006 high rye (36% rye) bourbon and 35% 2006 low rye bourbon.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Dandelion Chocolate

After Dandelion Chocolate was my top rated chocolate in my recent blind chocolate tasting, I picked up a few more of their bars. Most of their bars are $8, and you can get a three bar set for $20 at their on-line store. I opted for the three bar set which included the Venezuelan I ranked first in the chocolate tasting as well as bars from Madagascar and the Dominican Republic which I'll review here.

Dandelion Chocolate Ambanja, Madagascar, 70%

The aroma is deep, dark chocolate. The flavor on this one is just incredible. The first note is just a pure chocolate note, very dark and very intense. As you chew, there's cherry and raspberry, and it ends with an intense raspberry note which carries into a chocolate/raspberry finish. This is fantastic! I think I like it better than the Venezuela bar.

Dandelion Chocolate Zorzal Dominican Republic, 70%

The aroma is fruity with grape juice notes. There's also a grape juice note on the palate. Nothing fancy, more like Welch's. The chocolate notes are much less intense than the Madagascar bar. The finish has more of that grape note.

Between these two, I definitely preferred the Madagascar, which was just wonderful. Given that I also loved the Venezuela, I would definitely recommend checking out Dandelion Chocolates.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Chocolate Tasting

In the early days of this blog, which were also the early days of bean to bar chocolate, I tasted some of the first bean to bar chocolates being made, including chocolate from DeVriesPatric and Askinose. Since then, the artisanal chocolate world, like the craft whiskey world, has exploded.

I dipped my head back into chocolate with a blind tasting of nine bean to bar chocolates which were were asked to give notes for and score on a 100 point scale. Here is how I rated them from the one I liked least to the one I liked best.

9. Nathan Miller Papau New Guinea, 75%, Chambersburg, PA

The aroma is very fruity but with some off notes like spoiled vegetables. The palate kicks off with a really strong chemical solvent or industrial chemical type note, maybe furniture polish or floor wax; magic markers also come to mind. That dies down, and it develops a nicer dark chocolate note, but it's still got that weird note in the back. The finish is pretty bitter with more of those chemical notes. The bitterness on the finish is long and unpleasant. This one was weird and a bit off. 50

I learned after the tasting that the beans for this Nathan Miller Papua New Guinea bar are dried over an open fire which infuses them with smoke. Several tasters found the flavor reminiscent of peated Scotch.  I did not.

8. Amano Ocumore Venezuela, 70%, Orem, UT

This has an aroma of musty straw, like inside a Cost Plus store, with some berry notes. The palate is very light and sweet, almost like cheap imitation chocolate, followed by artificial fruit notes. It tastes fairly low in cacao, and high in sugar. The finish has fruit and malty notes. I'm not a fan of this one. It was too sweet without enough chocolate flavor. 73

7. Castronova Sierra Nevada Colombia, 72%, Stuart, FL.

The aroma is very herbal with oregano notes. On the palate, the chocolate taste is dull at first; the texture seems to have crystals in it. Midway through, there are some acidic notes but without any real flavor. The finish has very muted chocolate notes. Overall, this is unbalanced and has weak flavor. 77

6. Dick Taylor Limited Release Bolivia Alto Beni, 70%, Eureka, CA.

The aroma is well balanced with lighter chocolate and fruit notes. On the palate, it's sweet with grainy notes, like a sugary breakfast cereal or maybe Ovaltine. There's not a huge amount of chocolate character. The finish is hot cocoa.  This one was a bit too sweet and lacking in chocolateyness. 78

I should note that most tasters loved this one. I was an exception.

5. Ritual Chocolate Ecuador Balao, 85%, Park City, UT

The aroma is pretty straightforward chocolate. On the palate, it has a very creamy mouthfeel with a less pronounced chocolate taste; it is only lightly sweet. The finish is dull and a touch bitter. This one had a nice mouthfeel but was lacking in flavor. 82

4. Ritual Chocolate Belize Toledo, 75%, Park City, UT

The aroma is light and fruity. The palate has lots of fruit with a high acid content and some citrus notes (tangerine, lemon rind, citron). The finish is a bit less fruity with darker chocolate notes. Okay, but not well balanced. 83 

3. Fruition Maranon, Peru, 76%, Shokan, NY

This begins with an aroma of Dutch process cocoa, then moves on to darker chocolate and red wine type notes. The palate is rich with a very creamy mouthfeel, light fruit notes and a touch of acid toward the end. On the finish, there are fresh currants (though not overly acidic) and chocolate milk. I liked this one. It had a good balance of rich chocolate and light acidic notes. 87

2. Dick Taylor Belize Toledo, 72%, Eureka, CA

This has an aroma that's floral with cocoa notes. On the palate, it starts dark with a light fruity/acid note which grows throughout the palate until it reaches a cherry like note toward the end. It tastes almost as if it's fruit filled, and you don't get the fruit until you bite into the center. In the finish, the fruit recedes and you are left with a nice strong chocolate flavor.  This one had Good composition and was nicely balanced. 88

1. Dandelion Mantuano Venezuela, 70%, San Francisco, CA

The aroma is grassy with wild flowers. The palate has rich chocolate with coffee notes, some vanilla and some very light acid toward the end. The finish is bold and rich like dark chocolate mousse. This has great flavor and is very even from nose to finish. Great stuff! 90

Thanks to Nick Hamilton for putting together this tasting.

Friday, April 8, 2016

New Whiskey Labels: Smooth Ambler, Michek Couvreur and Gold Bars

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Smooth Ambler cleared a label for Old Scout American Whiskey, a bourbon mash whiskey distilled in Tennessee and aged in used barrels. The 84% corn mashbill listed on the label points to George Dickel as the likely source of the whiskey. The label does not include an age statement.

French Scotch bottler Michel Couvreur cleared a label for Blossoming Auld Sherried, a single cask sherried malt.

And in the dumb whiskey category, Gold Bar Premium Whiskey is a rye, corn and barley whiskey "finished on 24-karat gold flake."  Apparently, "gold touches every batch of spirit through our signature gold finishing method," which is great, because we all know how good gold tastes.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Mothers Deserve a Drink

Every June, I get tons of emails from whiskey companies and liquor stores with whiskey gift suggestions for Father's Day. Every May around Mother's Day I get...nothing. Well, almost nothing. Last year, The Whisky Exchange, the UK based whiskey shop, were the only ones who sent me an email with Mother's Day gift suggestions. Hey whiskey folks, why no love for the mothers?

Because I know so many hard working mothers, I'm hereby announcing a new campaign called Mothers Deserve a Drink. I'm encouraging whiskey makers, sellers and bloggers to publish Mother's Day whiskey recommendations. And don't let me catch you pushing any recommendations for flavored crap or whiskey liqueurs. Mothers deserve a real drink.

Mother's Day is about a month out so you have plenty of time. If any bloggers (or whiskey companies) take me up on this, I'll publish some of my favorites right before Mother's Day.

Monday, April 4, 2016

How Much Fake Pappy is Out There?

In 2012, the wine world was rocked by the arrest of Rudy Kurniawan, a well known collector of fine wines who was charged with selling counterfeit wine. Kurniawan is currently serving ten years in federal prison, but the scope of his crimes is still not entirely known. His fraud cast a pall over the world of wine collecting that will likely last for years, maybe even decades.

Fake Scotch has been a problem on the collectors' market for years, but could something similar happen with bourbon? Is it happening right now? If you look on ebay, you will see countless empty bottles of valuable bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle selling for hundreds of dollars. Who would pay hundreds of dollars for an empty bourbon bottle? Well, when the same bottle can be refilled and fetch thousands of dollars on the bourbon secondary market, a few hundred isn't much to pay.

Adam Herz, founder of the LA Whiskey Society, has done some deep digging into the counterfeit bourbon phenomenon. He has verified some fakes by matching bottle numbers on empty bottles sold on ebay with full bottles that were later sold on the secondary market. I asked Adam to answer some questions about the world of fake bourbon.

Sku: How much fake Van Winkle do you think is out there?

Adam: Maybe a few hundred in circulation at this point. But consider that there are currently 51 empty Van Winkle bottles for sale on eBay, which isn’t unusual for any given moment…

Sku: How many fake bottles have you verified went directly from ebay to a sale on the secondary market?

Adam: I’ve specifically verified two that have been resold — that may not sound impressive, but you have to understand that the counterfeits in question are nearly impossible to detect, especially just from online photos. But I didn’t need to find a single one to tell you that this is happening and has been happening for a while. The hundreds of past eBay sales prove that just by their existence. Especially since it was the same few eBay nicknames buying up nearly all the bottles.

People who sell their empties keep trying to convince themselves that these literal pieces of trash — that go for $100, $200, $300 — are going to someone who’s gonna' make a lamp. Okay. If there are hundreds of empty Pappy bottles being sold for lamps, where are the hundreds of Pappy Lamps? They’re simply not there.

Sku: Have you seen examples of likely fakes of bourbons other than Pappy Van Winkle? For instance, A.H. Hirsch, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection or anything else?

Adam: I’ve seen fakes of all kinds of bourbon, from dusty to recent. Refilled A.H. Hirsch and fake BTAC I haven’t confirmed. But I see empty A.H. Hirsch bottles selling on eBay. I think we're at the stage now that single malts were at around 15 years ago, where there were fakes invading the market, but most people were in strong denial. This is the time to learn how to be vigilant against fakes, before you end up with a collection of them.

Sku: How easy is it to make a convincing fake?

Adam: It depends what you’re faking. Pappy products and other recent stuff are very simple to fake. That’s because you can easily buy empties, and then all you have to do is refill the bottle and reseal it. That’s easy with a small amount of online shopping and resourcefulness. If I wanted to sell fake Pappy Van Winkle, I'd be up and running in a few weeks. After I sold my first bottle or two, I’d have recouped my startup costs. After that, all I need are the empties and about a minute per bottle to make it look just like new.

Sku: Are there any tell-tale signs of fakes or is it hopeless to think you can tell the difference?

Adam: I know everyone wants an easy checklist, but it’s more complex than that. In the past few years, I’ve seen over a half million dollars in “street value” of fakes. Most of that's in private collections, but some are in auctions and at retailers. Most of those have been single malts. Some are pathetically easy to identify by “telltale” signs — but only once you’ve got a trained and practiced eye.

You’re going to hear all kinds of crazy theories on how to verify a bottle. Be careful believing any of them. It’s mostly superstition and unsupported guesswork. Just like anyone standing at a craps table, after a while of feeling helpless, people think they can identify patterns where there are none.

The recent fakes — Pappy, Hirsch, etc — you’re probably not going to be able to spot, because they’re genuine bottles with real labels, resealed with identical (or virtually identical) foil or wax. But in general, consider the following:

- Does everything you’re seeing make sense? For instance, is the wear on the bottle even, or is it shiny new foil with a scuffed and worn label? Is everything correct for the time period the bottle is supposed to date from? Is the color of the liquid right? Plain common sense and logic can get you pretty far. Just make sure you don’t veer into tinfoil hat territory — plenty of legit bottles end up with torn labels and nicked foils.

- Do you know the bottle’s history? “Some guy off of Craigslist had it” is not a good history. Even retailers buy on the secondary market nowadays, so unfortunately “It came from retail” doesn’t guarantee authenticity. If a bottle comes from an ABC store in a control state, that’s great. If it came from a store in a non-control state, make sure you know your retailer.

- With vintage bourbon from 1985 and earlier, remember that you can buy tax stamps on ebay and from stamp dealers. Before you get paranoid about that, remember that nearly all the stuff that’s discovered in people’s basements, attics, and so on is going to be legit. But as the hobby continues to boom — and if people don’t stop selling empties on eBay — there eventually will be more dusty counterfeits. That means you need to know the bottle’s provenance. Get the story behind it, and pay attention not just to the answers, but to the way they answer — honestly, evasively, strangely, etc.

- If you can’t see the bottle in person, ask for very specific photos. That can be anything from certain angles to placing two pennies next to the bottle. If a person can’t provide what you specify, then either they’re trying to hide some aspect of the bottle, or they don’t even own it. Ditch the deal.

- The stuff with heat-shrink plastic-wrap over the top is the easiest to refill.

- If it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is.

- No one can authenticate by taste. Maureen Downey, the wine expert who exposed the massive Kurniawan fraud, is fond of saying this. Same thing goes for whiskey. Unless you're doing a true, double-blind comparison of suspected fakes with known legit samples, which never happens, authenticating by taste means zilch.

You’ll hear people who tasted a bottle of some extravagant rare whiskey, they'll tell you, “Oh yeah, it was DEFINITELY the real thing” because it tasted so good. That’s just dumb. I’m sure it did taste great to them, but that doesn’t mean the whiskey is what they were told it was. Even the biggest tasters tend to taste what they want to taste and what they expect to taste.

Sku: Any final thoughts about about the fake problem and what it means for the hobby?

Adam: If people stay aware and stay positive we can fight the fakers. We’ve already had a big impact, and here’s how I know.

In February, I “exposed" the fakes problem on one of the big bourbon forums. The post exploded in popularity, created huge awareness, and many people joined in to help. Eventually they even identified the name, address, and aliases of one of the suspected counterfeiters, and made it clear that the information would be passed to law enforcement.

Cut to now. Many empties on eBay are going unsold, and the ones that do sell go for much less than they did just a few months ago. Compare that to the month preceding my post, when every single empty Pappy posted on eBay was sold for big amounts. That doesn’t happen anymore. Why the big change? I think we scared one of the big fakers out of business. Maybe more than one.

The sad thing is that when I first made that post, some people delighted in trolling and causing trouble. “This is dumb! You can’t do anything!” That sort of stuff. That small but vocal minority is as big of a problem for our hobby, if not more, than the counterfeiters. So be positive and be part of the solution. DON’T SELL YOUR EMPTIES. Don’t let your friends do it and stop others from doing it. Spread the word. Stay vigilant. Don’t be a douchebag. And have fun!

And don’t read this thinking the fakes thing doesn’t apply to you. You’ll be the one who ends up owning the fakes.

Thanks to Adam for taking the time to respond to my questions.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Buy Sku Stuff!

As many of you know, my previous efforts to monetize this blog have been a complete failure. My deal with Diageo fell through and the Protestant Malt Whiskey Society went bust. It's not easy being a blogger. On top of drinking really great whiskey all the time, I actually have to have a job. It seems so unfair. But now, I've got the answer.

I know that if you're like most people, you love to buy useless shit. If you own a Neat glass or a Pappy Van Winkle belt buckle, I'm talking to you, and I've got some merchandise you won't be able to pass up! Please allow me to introduce our Sku line of products.

The Sku glass.  Being in with Sku means that you know quality and have class. This classic Glencairn glass with a lovely monogram shows that you are in the know about all things whiskey. And don't even think about adding ice, you hopeless philistine. ($45)

The Sku Shirt. Show your sku-ness with a lovely Sku T-shirt. Available in any size sold at Target. ($75).

The Sku Whiskey Infographic. Who doesn't love infographics?  I lovingly crafted this hand-made, full-color infographic from my special Sku knowledge of whiskey. It's an 8 1/2 x 11, suitable for framing, one of a kind original, available in hard copy or pdf. It will make you smart and cool. ($120)

And remember, if you don't have Sku swag, you're not a real whiskey lover!