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Weird and Wonderful Whiskeys

April 25, 2014

As our New Jersey sabbatical is coming to a close, I’m still trying to squeeze every last bit of pleasure out of our time in the Garden State and at the Institute for Advanced Study. That’s why, when Dining Services at the institute announced there was going to be a whiskey tasting on the second to last night of Passover, I signed up without hesitation.

Sure, whiskey is made from grain. Rye and barley are two of the expressly forbidden ones. I had given up both whiskey and beer for the week, and replaced them with Busted Barrel dark rum and wine instead.

But I could not resist the siren song of a guided tasting.

There were some really interesting bottles in the tasting, including one or two that tasted nothing like whiskey. There were also some standouts that I’m hoping will somehow make it into my liquor cabinet once we get settled back into the Capital Region.

Here’s how it all played out.

The tasting started with American whiskeys. Not all of these are bourbon. Bourbon, as you may remember has to be made from 51% corn and aged in new charred American oak barrels. There are a few more rules, but those are the big ones.

We started out with Four Roses Single Barrel. It’s a bourbon that I had heard a lot about yet never tried. Wow, this was intense. Big, bold and spicy with an unexpected component of red fruit, and a long finish. My only complaint was that this was such a big bourbon, I think it should have been placed a little further back in the tasting order.

I can’t say that I was won over by Journeyman’s Silver Cross 4 Grain. It’s not a bourbon because it is only made from 25% corn. It’s also 25% rye, 25% wheat, and 25% barley. This whiskey’s most striking characteristic was the deeply sweet and caramelized aroma jumping out of the glass. Maybe if I spent more time with it, and maybe if it didn’t immediately follow such a big spicy bourbon I might come to appreciate it on its own terms. As it stands, I’m not going to seek this out, but I am glad that I tried it.

The Woodford Reserve Double Oak was a new expression of a familiar bourbon. I knew it even before Harvest Spirits began using Woodford’s used barrels to age their Cornelius Applejack. I have enjoyed their classic bottling in the past, and sometimes it is a little disconcerting to see an old friend with a brash new hairstyle. The double oak just seems like too much, and throws a winning combination out of balance.

Really, I was dismayed that I didn’t like Bulleit Bourbon more. I thought I would, as I’ve had it before and would gladly have it again. Although, to be fair, that has mostly been in cocktails. Again, this could be a function of its order in the tasting. Really, this should have gone second after the Journeyman, as its spiciness would have stood out better coming off the sweetness of the Silver Cross 4-Grain, and there was almost an herbaceousness about it that I think would have been better if not immediately preceded by the oak bomb of the Woodford Double Oak.

There was one clear winner from Round One and that was Four Roses.

Round Two was structured much better. We started out with something sweet and unusual, led into something amazing and nuanced, expanded into something that added a bit more smoke, and concluded with something so polarizing that I was surprised to see it offered to a broad audience.

I never would have identified the Brenne Single Malt as a whiskey. It’s French and made in Cognac. It’s not trying to be Scotch. It’s not trying to be bourbon. But it is less grainy and more fruity. And it didn’t even have that deep funky fruit that I associate with great French brandies, so in some ways this tasted like a very new world innovation even though it comes from the heart of the old world. C’est la vie.

Before this week I had never heard of Glengoyne. Apparently it is Macallan’s sister distillery. This was their 18 year old bottling. At about $100 a bottle it ought to be good, and indeed it was. Nuanced and balanced, it was delightful. More than anything else, I’m excited to learn about this distillery, because it may provide an alternative for my father-in-law who has grown to love Macallan (but is less crazy about their price increases over the past few years). Astor Spirits has their 10 year old bottle at just north of $30 and it sounds pretty darn good. I’m going to have to give that a try.

What I might actually buy for myself is a bottle of Benromach. It’s true that I enjoy a smokier Scotch. I no longer rejoice over the smoke bombs that I relished in my youth. But this ten-year-old bottling has just a bit of smoke to it. Enough to be interesting, but not so much as to be overpowering.

Speaking of overpowering, the tasting closed on perhaps the favorite Scotch of my twenties, Laphroaig 10 year. It is a medicinal, briney, smokey, punch in your face that some people drink for pleasure. This whisky is a love it or hate it kind of affair. And I guess I still love it, but it has a time and a place. I’m not drinking Laphroaig in the summer. I’m not even drinking Laphroaig when the sun is still out in the winter. It’s a cold nighttime kind of thing, because it’s going to leave your mouth tasting like you’ve been stoking embers in the fireplace all day long. Which isn’t bad per se. It’s amazing what flavors the distillers can get into the bottle. But, bravo for having the guts to end a Scotch tasting with this often reviled specimen.

This was a great night. Well, at least the tasting part was great. When I got home (since I didn’t eat any of the bread at the tasting) I gorged on a big bowl full of whole wheat matzo spaetzel. Um…and I don’t quite know how to say this… but I prepared it Buffalo style.

Probably the less we say about that the better.

– – – – – –

Don’t forget, THIS SUNDAY is the Tour de FroYo. If you’ve been on a tour before, you know how fun they are, so you should come. If you have never been on a tour before, this would serve as a great introduction, so you should come. All the details are here and it is open to everyone. Just make sure to let me know you are coming so we have enough scoresheets. Hope you can make it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 25, 2014 10:08 am

    Four Roses Small Batch is even better than the Single Barrel.

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