An Early Christmas Present

Or, Advertising at Its Finest

My dear readers, I offer a simple post on this fine December evening.  No historical analysis.  No philosophical commentary.  No lengthy ruminations on personal relevance.  No, only a few simple holiday photographs.

For whatever reason – it really makes no matter – Johnnie Walker’s brilliant marketing department convinced Christina Hendricks (of Mad Men fame) to be photographed with their product.

The rest, as they say, is history.  And thanks to digital technology, permanent history.

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Not only does Ms. Hendricks photograph well with a dram, she also knows a thing or two about it too.

Published in: on December 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm  Comments (3)  
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Islay Scotch Whisky

Most of my scotch-drinking friends don’t get too excited about peat.  They enjoy mellower Highland or Speyside whiskies from distilleries such as The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Oban, and Glenfiddich.  Although I too enjoy those whiskies, single malts with peaty, oily, and even medicinal flavors are my favorite.

The scotch produced on Islay (required pronunciation guide: EYE-lah), an island just off Scotland’s southwestern coast, might be described as Scotland’s most exotic.  Certainly its most unique.  The Isle carries “a reputation for the smokiest, most robust and challenging malts, that seems to set the Islay apart from Scotland’s other whisky regions,” writes The New York Times’s Eric Asimov.

“The smokiness comes from the tradition of using peat — bog soil made of decomposed vegetable matter that was harvested to fuel kilns used for drying barley. Assertive peating has long been a trait of famous Islay malts, like Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, but it is not exclusive to Islay. And just as much a part of the Islay tradition are…names that are impossible to sound out phonetically.”

Many of my favorite scotches – Talisker, which hails from Island, not Islay (another distinction altogether) – tastes heavily of smoke and peat.  As I like to tell my friends, I’ll like it more if it tastes like burning wood or grass clippings.  Thankfully, my penchant for peaty scotches has led several close friends to consider trying Islay scotches, which in turn helped me learn of other distilleries like Bowmore and Caol Ila.  In other words, we have each expanded each other’s curiosity and preferences.

While I have no problem drinking my Laphroaig or Ardbeg year round, these Islay scotch do taste particularly delicious during wintertime.  Eric Asimov agrees: “No, for woolgathering and armchair voyaging, preferably in front of a fire…I prefer them straight, with maybe a spoonful of water and an equal amount of wonder.”

For the rest of December – and January and February, for that matter – keep your Islay scotches close at hand.  Because not only will it keep winter’s nip at bay, that peaty aroma will remind you springtime’s just around the corner.

Published in: on December 11, 2011 at 10:29 pm  Comments (5)  
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Booze News, 4th Edition

It’s time for another edition of Booze News.  This time around, I’ve collected a number of news items from across the drinking spectrum – beer, wine, and liquor.  And for good measure, I’ve included a fifth item discussing a new book on fine dining.  Plenty of info to keep you distracted from the decreasing amount of daylight.

Although Americans drink far more beer than wine, there aren’t many beer guides for introductory drinkers.  According to Clay Risen, great books to help new beer drinkers are “few and far between — and, to put it as kindly as possible, not exactly aimed at the mainstream, non-beer-obsessed public.”

However, that’s about to change with the publication of the Oxford Companion to Beer by Garrett Oliver.  Although Risen spends most of his piece discussing the text’s omissions, he ultimately concludes that Oliver’s book, along with The Great American Ale Trail, by Christian DeBenedetti, are “similarly incomplete…yet still impressive in their overall depth and scope.”

Read Risen’s Atlantic article, The Problem With Guides to Beer Drinking: There Just Aren’t Enough

Whisky – especially from Scotland – is usually considered a high-end selection.  Considering that fact, would you drink whisky from a can?

WTOP, Washington DC’s local news-radio station, asks just this question.  Scottish Spirits will begin selling their canned whisky in the U.S. in December, and the can is “designed to maintain the liquor’s taste.”  The single grain scotch whisky “is a blend of malt and grain, with honey, vanilla, apples, butterscotch and pears.”  A 12-ounce can will cost five dollars.

Read the WTOP article, Canned Whisky?  Would You Drink It?

And speaking of whisky, Buffalo Trace Distillery recently announced they will be releasing several Pappy Van Winkle expressions later this year.  The ordinarily difficult-to-find bourbon is aged between 10 and 23 years and enjoys something of a cult following.  And rightfully so: Pappy’s “23-year-old bourbon was the 2010 ‘Spirit of the Year’ from Wine and Spirits Magazine.”

Good luck finding your own bottle!

Read the Louisville Bizjournal article, Buffalo Trace to re-release Van Winkle bourbons

Many people – myself included – feel intimidated, confused, or overwhelmed when buying wine.  What type is best?  How much should I spend?  Do the words affordable and everyday mean undrinkable?  Can you get a nice bottle of wine for under five or six dollars?

Brian Palmer argues that less means more – less money means more taste, that is.  “In 1995, 59 percent of the wine purchased in the United States sold for less than $3 per bottle…Europeans seem perfectly comfortable cracking open a 1-euro tetra-pak of wine for guests.  Germans, for example, pay just $1.79 on average for a bottle of wine.”

Speaking plainly, Palmer asserts: “Wine is not art. There’s no reason to believe that aligning your tastes with those of a self-appointed elite will enrich your life, or make you more insightful or sensitive.”  Modern technology and falling market share has resulted in a simple fact: higher prices do not reliably reflect quality.”

Read Palmer’s Slate article, Drink Cheap Wine

Finally, Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker, has written a new book focusing on food, culinary traditions, and familial bonds; a celebration of “the full, old-school arc of an archetypal French dinner, from that first sip of Champagne to the final jolt of caffeine.”

Titled The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, “Mr. Gopnik’s new book is largely about that myth and how it has influenced our conceptions of fine dining for roughly two centuries.”

Read the New York Times article, Adam Gopnik on the Days of Great French Dining

Read The Economist book review, The Meaning of food: Eat this book

Read a 2005 New Yorker interview with the author, Q. & A.: The Table Comes First

Published in: on November 8, 2011 at 12:32 am  Comments Off  
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Scotch-A-P​alooza 2011

About this time last year, I wrote about my inaugural experience at the Single Malt Scotch and Whisky Extravaganza, an annual event held here in DC each autumn.  Last year was quite a hit: I discovered a number of new expressions, smoked two fine cigars, and nursed the mother of all hangovers while suffering through work the following day.  So this year, I was determined to have as much fun while not paying for it afterwards – immediately after purchasing my ticket, I made plans to take leave the day following the extravaganza.

Although the bar was set high, the 2011 extravaganza did not disappoint.  Perhaps it’s because I’m no longer a novice whiskey drinker.  I’m seasoned now, but by no means an expert.  I know what I like, what I don’t like, and – just as importantly – can articulate my reasons for each.  Regardless, this year’s extravaganza led me to several new expressions from a number of distilleries.

I was neither able nor inclined to take extensive tasting notes throughout the evening, instead preferring to casually wander from table to table, sampling and chatting with each distillery’s Brand Ambassador.  There were many, many choices to taste (and re-taste), so it’s not surprising I liked some and disliked others.  Some were so delicious I immediately noted the name so as to locate a bottle as soon as possible.  Specifically:

- Ardmore 30 year old
– Auchentoshan Three Wood
– Oban Distiller’s Edition
– Talisker Distiller’s Edition
– Glenmorangie Signet
– The Glenrothes Vintage 1994
– Highland Park 18 year old
– Laphroaig 18 year old
– The Macallan Fine Oak 15 year old

At the extravaganza’s conclusion, cigars didn’t feel right, not this time.  No, a tall, cold, cleansing glass of dark autumn beer sounded absolutely delicious.  So rather than depart for the neighborhood cigar lounge – as in the prior year – we instead walked a few blocks to a new pizza restaurant and enjoyed a few pints of seasonal microbrews.  For me, it was Schafly Oktoberfest.

The evening ended quietly, at the end of a long bar covered in numbers.  I arrived home with a few new trinkets for my bar: another tasting glass; a glass eyedropper for adding water to scotch; a few pens; and numerous advertisement cards and pamphlets, helpful reminders to be sure.

When I awoke the next morning – after sleeping in late and meeting my wife for a three course lunch – I had the memory of a second evening filled with drinking expensive liquor with a great friend.  Mucho gusto, First Sea Lord Roberto.  I look forward to next year.

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 10:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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Cutting Corners?

A fine, aged whisky (or whiskey) is a thing of beauty.  Whether it is Scottish, Irish, Japanese, or American, a full bodied, oaky, slightly smokey pour is my idea of simple perfection in a glass, unadulterated by water, temperature, or mixer.  However, an unsettling trend has developed in the whisky world, a trend placing profits and production over time, patience, and ultimately, quality: the reincarnation of white whisky.

You might not have heard of white whisky before.  Or perhaps you know it by its other name, moonshine.  Well, not exactly, and therein lies the root of the problem.  Moonshine – un-aged whisky bottled straight off the still, the kind produced illegally during Prohibition – is not identical to the present craft distilled white whiskies.  Modern white whiskies are aged somewhat, but nowhere near the length of time of traditional scotches and bourbons.  And there it is, our problem: time.

Aging whisky in barrels, oftentimes for decades, costs money: the barrels themselves as well as the space to house said barrels being the two most obvious expenses.  Because you cannot sell the spirit whilst it ages, startup distilleries have a hard time making a profit: this “is why many new distillers start with ‘white’ spirits like vodka and gin, then invest in whiskey once the money is flowing.  But the allure of producing brown liquor is a strong one, so for the last few years entrepreneurial types have been looking for ways around the time conundrum,” writes The Atlantic’s Clay Risen.

So, what to do if you’re a distiller who wants to produce whisky but doesn’t want to wait?  You produce whisky with only minimal aging, allowing you to turn a profit much more quickly.  Yet cutting corners comes at the cost of quality: regardless of what artificial aging techniques are used – bags of wood chips, smaller barrels, even moving the whisky inside the barrel – there is no substitute for time.

Perhaps consumers are wise to this fact: The Washington Post’s Jason Wilson asserts: “It’s unclear how many people are buying white whiskeys, and even more unclear how they’re being consumed… ‘Demand for them isn’t high, and I rarely see repeat sales on them. Most folks just want to try them to satisfy their curiosity.’”

Curiosity is certainly understandable, but is by no means a substitute for good old-fashioned patience.  Perhaps these corner cutters would be better off remembering “the maxim of Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle: ‘We make Fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon.’”

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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