Pictorial: What’s your still’s name?

“Hi, my name is ___.” Go ahead and introduce yourself, because some stills have names too.

What kind of distiller names their still? I can only imagine it’s the same kind of person who names their car, boat or musical instrument. After all, many distillers spend as much time with their beloved hooch-making apparatus as they do with their loved ones. So why not refer to “George” vs. “Still No. 2”?

Of course, this tradition doesn’t apply to everyone. When I asked Brian Lee of Tuthilltown whether he named his still, he seemed taken aback. “Never!” he cried. “These stills need to be repaired and replaced pretty often. If I named one, I’d get too attached to get rid of it.”

Meet a few stills, below.

This is Old George, pictured with bartender Shawn Soole, at Fermentorium Distilling in Victoria, BC. Old George primarily makes Stump Gin. Where did the name come from? “It’s British,” Soole shrugged. “It’s old.” (It’s a 1920s copper still.)
IMG_0838Below, meet Mary, at A. Smith Bowman in Fredericksburg, VA, pictured with master distiller Brian Prewitt.  She’s an enormous 30-foot-tall copper still, installed in 1991 and named after Mary Hite Bowman, who was the mother of the Bowman brothers who founded the distillery. When I visited the distillery in December, Prewitt (who refers to the still as “my good friend Mary,”) told me he would be getting a much smaller (8 foot) still in a couple of weeks for making gin. And it will be named for Mary’s husband, George.IMG_0790IMG_0792This is a photo of George, who I understand has arrived at Bowman since my visit.IMG_0793

Meanwhile, Ugly Betty is the name of the still at Bruichladdich that makes gin, not Scotch. Designed in 1955, it’s described as a cross between a pot still and a column still; key to the design is an ugly, thick column-like neck with three extra removable sections for flexibility – sort of a Frankenstein’s monster approach. I’ve been told that it’s more common for gin stills to have names than whiskey stills, though I don’t know why.

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Finally, meet Wee Witchie, at Scotland’s Mortlach distillery. The smallest still at Mortlach was given its name in the 1960s by then distillery manager John Winton thanks to its unique shape: fat and rounded at the bottom and pointy at the top, resembling a pointy witch’s hat. At least one run of spirit from the Wee Witchie still is included in every bottling of Mortlach (a single malt Scotch starting to make inroads in the U.S. this year).

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In the photo below, Wee Witchie is the small still at the far end of the line-up.2014-06-22_17-26-25_994If you know of other stills that have been given names, I’d love to know — I’m sure there are plenty more out there!

Added 2/16: How could I forget about Ethel the Still, at North Shore Distillery in Lake Bluff, IL? Unlike the stills above, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making Ethel’s acquaintance in person. However, Ethel is probably the only still to have a Twitter account — so appropriately, she reached out to me via Twitter to remind me of her presence. Thanks, @StillEthel.

10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2015

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It’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead.  (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2014 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2015:

1. Bars become more casualSpeakeasies aren’t going away, but they are no longer the center of the cocktail universe — they are not just one option among many. As many of the old-school cocktail dens celebrate the decade mark (hello, Employees Only), the new entrants to the bar scene are more casual (Boilermaker, the Happiest Hour, Midnight Rambler, Pastry Wars, etc.) and less overtly theme-driven compared to 2014. There’s still a LOT of effort going on behind the scenes – but the overall effect is a whole lot breezier now.

2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I think I was too early with this one last year. I’m (still) waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass, but Scandinavian food is still ramping in the food world, plus I’m grooving on Baska Snaps lately. Call me when IKEA opens a pop-up bar, okay?

3. We’ll drink lots and lots and lots of shots. To be clear: I’m resisting this trend with every fiber of my being, because I think shots are about getting drunk fast, not about enjoying a cocktail experience. But I see it coming anyway, in the form of upscaled boilermakers (a drink with a shot dumped in it) and “backs” (beer + a shot on the side) and miniaturized cocktails served as “shots.”

4. Bartenders and budtenders will collide. That’s right: cannabis cocktails are in the offing. Considering the growing number of states legalizing and de-criminalizing marijuana and chef-driven experiments with gourmet edibles and potables, I’m expecting to hear more about weed-laced libations in 2015. Oh, and can we talk about the “marijuana-inspired” vodka that just landed on my desk?

5. Single-grain Scotch will attract attention. That’s single grain vs. single malt, not whiskey made from a single type of grain. New entrants to the field include Haig Club (that David Beckham-backed brand from Diageo), and Girvan (William Grant). Irish whiskey already has plenty of single grain options, but we haven’t heard much about single-grain Scotches to date. That will change in the year ahead.

6. Jetsons-style cocktails will come to life. Between flashy robot bartenders on cruise ships, Monsieur the “robotic bartender,” and Keurig-style “automated craft cocktail machines,” technology will complete its takeover of the world, one cocktail at a time. OK, I’m exaggerating. But just a little.

7. More flavored whiskey, less flavored vodka. This seems true of both unaged “moonshine” as well as the brown stuff. Can’t wait to see some of the over-the-top flavors. Speaking of which, I’m going to leave these press releases for Butterscotch Moonshine and pecan pie-flavored whiskey liqueur right here.

8. We’ll spring for cocktail accoutrements. The cocktail revolution has finally matured — and so has a generation that came of age during the craft cocktail movement. Think about all the now 30-somethings (yes, including “older Millennials,” for those of you obsessed with marketing to that demographic) that now have mortgages and babies, and now entertain at home instead of hanging around for last call. They’re the ones making nests (and wedding registries) that include coupe glasses and fancy bar carts. 

9. “Outlaw gin” will be in. I’m excited about the direction that gin seems to be taking. There seems to be more experimentation, more expression, more outliers. Not just the barrel-aged stuff, either (which I suspect has peaked, by the way). But I’ve had a quite a few “I didn’t know you could DO that” moments with gin lately:  gin made with extra juniper, with almost no juniper; no citrus; gin from sugar cane; from Yerba Mate; savory gin, sweet gin, gin from all corners of the globe, even one with an AOC. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. These gins defy the usual categories and I’m very excited about them.

10. Japanese whisky will skyrocket. Asia’s whiskies already were on the ascent in 2014, as Taiwan’s Kavalan and Japan’s super-smooth whiskies came to the forefront. But then, whiskey guru Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as his top-rated pick in the latest edition of the World Whiskey Bible, catapulting it above even Scotch whiskies. This category will be unstoppable in the year ahead, and Suntory and Nikka will be flooding Western markets with plenty of good stuff. Enjoy it – by 2016, we’ll be declaring Japanese whiskey as “over.”

10 new Scotch whiskies coming to the U.S.

Just returned from a trip to Scotland to visit distilleries. Though I’m still processing it all, one thing that struck me is how many new Scotch bottlings are poised to come to the U.S. in the next few months. Here’s a quick overview of what’s newly-released and coming soon down the line, arranged by approximate order of release.

AuriverdesArdbeg Auriverdes. This was a new release for “Ardbeg Day” (May 31) so it’s already here – and in some cases already sold out. This limited edition was aged in first-fill American oak barrels, with the ends of the barrels taken off and heat-treated “for more vanilla, coffee notes.” abv: 49.9%.

Tasting notes: light maple aroma, Very spicy finish. Light smoke on front, then vanilla, then spice; lots of black pepper and cayenne on the tip of the tongue. I didn’t detect coffee, but I liked what I did detect.
Coming: Ardbeg Day 2014 – so it already arrived on May 31

 

Auchentoshan American Oak. Made with 100% bourbon barrels. It’s been launched in press previews over the past couple of months and it’s already available in some U.S. outlets. It will be a permanent part of the Auchentoshan portfolio, so it may be hard to get right away, but eventually it should be relatively easy to acquire a bottle.
Tasting notes: Caramel, creme brulee, oak. Light and smooth.
Coming: Newly available in U.S. – recently launched.

 

MortlachMortlach – Rare Old. Visiting this non-airbrushed distillery was a treat – it’s owned by Diageo and historically Mortlach has been used as a blend (in Johnnie Walker primarily but not exclusively) rather than broken out as a single malt. They’re planning to release four different Mortlach bottlings, and this one should be out of the gate first. It has no age statement, and it’s made with a mix of whiskies aged in new and old casks. It’s an homage to an early 1900s private client bottling that sold at Macy’s Department Store. 43.4% abv.

Tasting Notes: Pineapple and vanilla aroma. Notes of banana, creme brulee, oily feel. It was described to us as “meaty,” with a flavor resembling “venison.” I didn’t quite agree with the venison tasting note. But this is surely robust and something different that Scotch-lovers will get excited about.
Coming: July/Aug 2014

Mortlach 18. This bottling probably will be released around the same time. It’s 18 years old, made with “moderate first-fill sherry casks” to avoid overpowering and refill whiskey casks. They describe it as an “after dinner dram.” 43.4% abv.
Tasting notes: Sherried spice cake aroma, chocolate note, mouth-coating. It’s very bold and explosive in the mouth – it expands on the finish in a way I haven’t experienced before.
Coming: August 2014

 

BracklaCraigellachie 23-year-old: This is from the Royal Brackla distillery, which is owned by Bacardi/Dewars and is one of the “secret ingredient” single malts inside the Dewar’s and other blended Scotches. Piers Adam is bottling it – he owns Mahiki, an exclusive London nightclub, and I assume it’s already available there. Two more Royal Brackla single malts also will be released around the same time, Deveron 12-year-old and Aultmore 12-year-old. But this was the one that made me stop and take note. 46% abv.

Tasting Notes: Craigellachie means “fiery crag,” and it’s indeed fiery. I detected baked apple and a rubbery note that they described as “meaty.” (Note: Some of my other tasting notes for this bottling, jotted down about 10 minutes and two samples later, also say things like “sherry” and “mint-chocolate” and “smoky finish.” I may have had a dram or so too many at this point, so my tasting notes mayyyy not be the most reliable.)
Coming: Bottling in July, coming in August.

 

NadurraThe Glenlivet Nadurra. Nadurra means “natural.” No age statement. This is an umbrella name for small parcels of whiskies, so the flavor profile may change from batch to batch.

Tasting notes: The flavor may change slightly from bottle to bottle, but the one we tried was light, with tons of vanilla, lemon cream pie, spice finish. It was described to us as a “Christmas cake smoothie.”
Coming: Sept/Oct 2014. It’s already available in duty-free shops, in a 1-liter size bottled at 48% abv. When it comes to the U.S., it will be 750ml, and bottled at cask strength (57-58% abv).

 

 

HaigHaig Club (Diageo). It’s a blended Scotch, and is a partnership with soccer player and British celebrity David Beckham.

Tasting notes: I didn’t get to try it. We all know perfectly well it’s going to fly off the shelves based on Becks and what I think of it isn’t going to matter anyway.
Coming: Autumn 2014

 

 

CardeasLaphroaig Cardeas 2014 bottling.  It’s the 3rd bottling tested through Friends of Laphroaig (the previous two were QuarterCask and Select). Cardeas means “Friendship.” The whisky is “double-matured,” meaning it’s first aged in bourbon (Jim Beam) casks, then finished in amontillado sherry cask-finished. Pricing: $120, approx. 52.4% abv.

Tasting notes: Maple up front, smoke in back. Long finish reminded me of long cigarette exhalation, which sounds awful, I know, yet this was one of the few drams I finished.
Coming: mid-year 2015

 

Naked GrouseThe Naked Grouse (Famous Grouse). Intended for a craft niche. Bottle has no label (“we dialed up the naked,” we were told, meaning that they stripped back the packaging.) When the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge visited the distillery, this was Kate Middleton’s favorite of the line-up. It was mine too. It’s The Famous Grouse blend, aged in first-fill sherry casks.
Tasting notes: lots of sherry-like dried fruit notes, warm & rounded.
Coming: “in a couple of years.”

The MaCallan Sienna (Famous Grouse): 100% ex-sherry casks, first fill. Part of range that emphasizes natural colors (Gold, Amber, Sienna, Ruby).
Tasting notes: dried raisins, spice. An easy pairing with chocolate.
Coming: “soon.”

The best whiskey you’re not drinking…yet.

 

Kavalan

At the NoMad, Leo Robitschek mixes Kavalan-spiked cocktails. (Image courtesy Liz Brusca)

Last night, I had the opportunity to quaff a few drams of Kavalan, a whiskey from Taiwan that’s about to launch in the U.S. Guided by master blender Ian Chang and whiskey expert Jim Swan,  we tried out some expressions never seen here before (notably, the delectable Kavalan Fino matured in sherry casks and the fruit-forward Kavalan Vinho Barrique). But this wasn’t my first experience with Kavalan, which I wrote about for Wine Enthusiast a few months back. Here’s an excerpt from that piece, about the pleasures of serendipity (and whiskey). You can also read the full article here.

 

The Best Whiskey You’re Not Drinking

Sixteen glasses of whiskey were lined up, glinting amber in the glass, perfuming the air with delectable aromas of vanilla, caramel and smoke – and lucky me, I get to sample them all. Some people might call this a special occasion, or a potential overindulgence.

As spirits reviewer for Wine Enthusiast, I call this … Tuesday.

But this particular Tuesday, I was in for a big surprise. Among those glasses of whiskey –single malt Scotch whiskey, to be specific, since that was the category up for review – a single malt from Taiwan somehow slipped in. And its score was off-the-charts good.

I was floored:  a single malt whiskey from Taiwan? – not Scotland, home of the most-lauded whiskies in the world. As it turned out, this one was made by Kavalan. It hit all the right flavor notes – fresh fruit, light smoke, mouthwatering butterscotch. In short, it was delicious.

It got me thinking: Why haven’t I been drinking more whiskey from Asia? Why isn’t everyone?

Frankly, Asia’s rising crop of whiskeys are every bit as good as some of the finest Scotches around. Most of them were deliberately made in Scotch whiskey’s image, but twists have been added that give Asia’s whiskies their own distinct identity. For example, the local water sources used to make standout Japanese whiskies are credited for creating that unique silky texture. India’s Amrut uses Indian barley in its mash bill. And the inhospitable heat and humidity in subtropical Asia is said to accelerate aging time, creating bold flavors. It makes perfect sense that whiskey would be shaped by the world around it.

In the end, I’m glad that Kavalan snuck into the Scotch lineup. It was a welcome excuse to forget about the restrictions of provenance and just focus on what’s in the glass. It was a much-needed reminder to be open to surprises and serendipity, whatever the source. And of course, it was a reminder to drink more Asian whiskey.  –Kara Newman

 

For Burns Night: DIY Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Pre-batched, bottled cocktails are officially a thing.  Bars across the nation are mixing up batches of cocktails ahead of time.  (I’ve even received a couple of press releases for bars that are offering nothing but – are bartenders obsolete?) You can even buy pre-batched cocktails by the bottle at liquor stores.

Or you can go the DIY route, for a party or to keep in the fridge at home after a long day. Here’s my recipe for making Bobby Burns cocktails by the bottle. Whip up a batch for Burns Night this weekend.

 

Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

From Cocktails for a Crowd, by Kara Newman

Serves 8

Looking for an excuse to chase away the late-January blahs? Celebrate Burns Night on January 25. This drink—perfect for Scotch lovers—is named for the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.”

12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  Scotch
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  sweet vermouth (such as Carpano Antica)
5 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons)  water
2 ounces (1/4 cup) Benedictine
8 lemon twists, for garnish

In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine the Scotch, vermouth, water, and Bénédictine and stir well. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-ml liquor bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until chilled.

To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each glass with a lemon peel.

Pictorial: Four Whiskeys, Old and Rare

A couple of weeks back, I attended an auction preview event at Bonhams. I knew that auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s often sell off old and rare wines, but this was the first time I’d seen spirits up for auction. While the main event was a bottle of 50-plus-year-old Bowmore Scotch (estimated to fetch between $160,000 and $190,000 – a real bargain, don’t you think?) a number of other old and rare whiskeys on display caught my eye, particularly the following four.

Maryland Rye Whiskey (priced at $200-$300). It’s not just the half-gallon milk jug or the wooden carry-handle. It’s that Maryland was once known as a rye-producing state, famed for its sweet, light style of rye (vs. the intense, spicy rye we know today), and it’s not something you see much of anymore. This was a bottle I’d be curious to try, if I ever had the opportunity.image

American Medicinal Spirits Co. – Special Old Reserve (priced at $500-$700). Seven one-pint bottles of “Prohibition bourbon” (distilled in 1916, bottled in 1933) were on offer, all labeled “For Medicinal Purposes Only.” Mmm-hmmm. If you say so.

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John Hancock Whisky (no price listed). Oddly, this bottle wasn’t listed in the auction catalogue, so I have no benchmark on pricing. The best part is the label note:  “Pure and without drugs or poison.” Yikes! Although it’s hard to tell from the label alone, based on that telling little line, I’m guessing that this bottle is either Prohibition era, or even earlier, since the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was intended to combat such adulteration.

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Hanyu Distillery (priced at $400-600 for two bottles). This limited release bottling of 18-year-old Single Nippon Malt Whisky was a limited release bottling, and the distillery is now closed. Released in 2006, this is by no means an old whiskey, but apparently it sold out with lightning speed and the “shameless but classic” label is iconic in Japanese whisky circles.
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Is this the last Irish whiskey you can taste only in Ireland?

During a recent trip to Ireland, I stopped into the Palace Bar, the oldest bar in Dublin. It still has all its original Victorian-era fittings, including a “Writer’s Bar” – now, how could I possibly resist that?

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While seated at the bar, I noticed a display of private-label Palace Bar Irish whiskey. Although it’s becoming a novelty for U.S. bars and restaurants to have their own private-label brand or barrel, it’s not a widespread practice across Ireland. At least…not any more. (A side note: I saw very few people drinking Irish whiskey during my stay – it’s broadly a beer and wine culture– and very few bars offering more than a handful of bottlings. And no wonder:  it turns out that a whopping 90% of Ireland’s spirits are exported.) But here was a rare Irish whiskey that can’t be obtained anywhere else but in Ireland.

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I asked the barkeep for a closer look at the bottle. It’s a 9-year-old single malt, single cask whiskey, bottled at a fairly strong 46% abv, and touts the bar as “Famous for Intellectual Refreshments.” It’s also made by the Cooley Distillery, newly acquired by U.S. spirits company Jim Beam. Cooley was the last indie whiskey distillery in Ireland; William Grant owns Tullamore Dew; Diageo owns Bushmills; Pernod Ricard owns Jameson. Cooley had been the last indie holdout.

Would Cooley continue to make the Palace Bar whiskey? “No, they have no interest in smaller bottlings,” the barkeep said mournfully. He’d been working at Palace Bar for fully four decades, and was there when they’d launched the Palace Bar whiskey not even a year prior. In the 1940s, he continued, it was traditional for pubs to have their own brand, but that practice had largely died down. The Palace Bar last had a private-label whiskey maybe 50 years ago.

So that means that the remaining Palace Bar bottles may soon be rare. Priced at 50 euros, it doesn’t sound like they are in danger of selling out right away, however. At least not according to the bartender: “People come in around Christmas time and buy a bottle as a gift for family, or for friends who stopped in 20 years ago.”

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