Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pappy Van Winkles 20 Family Reserve - Review

If you buy a 20 year old bottle of Pappy Van Winkles Family Reserve you’ll be uncorking a beverage that went into the cask around 1989. Some of us were listening Paula Abdul was singing her first hit “Straight Up”. (Incidentally, that’s the only way to drink Pappy.) If you buy the 23 year old that’s when Eddie Murphy had his only hit song “Party All the Time”. If only we were wealthy enough that we could party all the time with Pappy Van Winkles 23. It is an absolutely exquisite bourbon from Old Rip Van Winkle distillery, a subsidiary of Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Aging for twenty long years is unusual for bourbon. Bourbons are usually aged considerably less time because: 1) they lose a lot of their volume to evaporation; and 2) an extra long aging process may not have as a positive effect. By design, Pappy has gracefully aged in heavily charred oak casks for lo these many years and if you’re lucky, it has come to a package store near you.

Last Saturday night was not the first time that I had tasted Pappy. It’s hard to believe that there is a substance on earth that could taste more like bourbon should taste than Pappy Van Winkles. It is indeed the bourbon by which all others should be judged.

When you unwrap your bottle of Pappy 20, the first thing you’ll notice is the unassuming, simple bottle and the deep amber red liquid inside. The bottle glistens with all the trappings of a 1989 Porsche 911. The nose is slightly floral, cherry and citrus. The taste is those things plus vanilla. The finish leaves you comforted and complete with no bitterness whatsoever.

Watering this bourbon will kill its unique qualities if you’re not careful, so I don’t recommend it.

For many experts, Pappy Van Winkles is the world's best bourbon. The Beverage Tasting Institute rates Pappy at 99 out of 100 points. So keep you eyes peeled for this rare find at your local liquor store, and heed the words of Warrant – “Heaven isn’t too far away”.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Suntory Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt

The pairing of food with wine has long been a target for ridicule and class envy. Sitcoms and pop culture often poke fun at the wine elitists who know when to open the chardonnay and when to serve the claret.

I too had my doubts about the pairing of food with wine until I recently attended a corporate event on the topic. The event went something like this. The table was set with a collection of eight wines with the sweet dessert wines on the right. Also in each of the table settings was cheese, olives, crackers, jam, and a few other food items. The host instructed us to eat a certain food, then sip the wine. It was remarkable how the flavor of the wine changed. The dessert wines tasted fantastic with the sweet jam and not so good with the cheese, for example.

This is similar to my experience with Suntory Yamazaki 18. When a friend brought it back from his trip to Japan, I was underwhelmed with its seemingly flat taste, including a slight not-so-pleasant aftertaste. I was very disappointed, since my friend had dished out a hefty sum for what seemed to be a mediocre whisky.

Yet, it all made perfect sense when we tried it again on our latest night. So what changed? The meal. The Suntory fell flat when we sipped it with BBQ, but was oh-so-excellent with the meal from Mr. Sushi. The flavor complemented the tuna, octopus and salmon in a most pleasant way. The tartness of the sushi rice and the tartness of the Yamazaki were in sync.

As an aside, you may have seen Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the romantic comedy (date movie) “Lost in Translation”. That is, you may have seen it if your wife made you. Suntory is the company featured in Bill Murray’s ads. The filming of Suntory ads are the reason for him to be in Japan, and while there he meets up with the lovely Scarlett Johansson for shenanigans.

So, on that night, I found myself in the middle of a science experiment. I now had to know if the impact of food was really that great. I turned to the top bourbon, the venerable 20 year old Pappy Van Winkles as a control. Pappy is one of the favorites of all time, not only with the poker geeks, but with the entire world. Just how would it stand up to raw fish, however? The Pappy fell flat on the palate by comparison. Wow!

This blog is dedicated to tasting a world’s worth of scotches and bourbon, but I am going to have to rethink my tasting strategy. In order to really understand a whisky, there will have to be several tastings to ensure that the palate has not been affected by food.

It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Booker's Bourbon - Review

What goes better with a slab of baby back ribs than fine Kentucky bourbon? How about three slabs, some baked beans, pulled pork and chicken and buckets of spicy BBQ sauce. That’s exactly how the gentleman’s scotch and poker club (GSPC) started our Sunday afternoon.

Booker's bourbon is one of Jim Bean’s special “small batch” bourbons, in the same family as Basil Hayden’s. The small batch group of special bourbons from Jim Beam goes back many years. Judging from both the Basil Hayden’s and the Booker's, these southern boys really know how to make a whisky.

The distiller tells us that Booker's is the only bourbon bottled straight-from-the-barrel, uncut and unfiltered. That didn’t stop the GSPC from sampling it in its entire 120+ proof splendor. The dark caramel-color spirit splashed into the glass led to much anticipation. Like good bourbon, there was no smoke, just smooth honey and fruit. The splash of water opened up vanilla.

By comparison, Booker's bourbon is woodier and less floral than Basil Hayden’s, although both are very smooth and enjoyable. The GSPC favored the Booker's for it’s slightly more robust flavor, although personally, I made my mind up for owning both. Booker's would be great with the BBQ and Basil Hayden for the nights you eat a salad.

As I sample through more and more bourbons, I’m beginning to see that that most good bourbons should be enjoyed with a splash. Southerners call this “bourbon and branch” referring to pure, clean water from a tiny stream called a "branch".

So when you’re smoking up a rack of baby backs, the Bookers Kentucky Bourbon is the perfect flavor marriage to your BBQ.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Aberlour Abunadh – Review

I picked up a bottle of Aberlour Abunadh along with a small box of Cohibas in the duty-free shop at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. I had flown there to help out my company at a convention, and I was happy to be on my way back home with my hooch and my stogies as a memento. This should make for an interesting attraction at poker night.
When I sat down in my 22C, the aroma of an infrequently showered and frequently cologned French couple in 22D and E struck me hard. The thought of eight hours stuck in this state was starting to make me think I had displeased the airplane Gods somehow. Then a friendly flight attendant pointed out an empty row in the back. Things were looking up.
After takeoff, the drink carts came out. A scotch would be great right now, but would the standard Chivas really hit the spot? I looked at the bottle of Aberlour on the seat next to me and open the cork with a big POP just as the flight attendant walked by. Now BYOB alcoholic beverages are often frowned upon on board most flights, but she seemingly didn’t take notice. When the drink cart rolled down the isle, I simply asked for a bottle of water with a cup. Things were still looking up.
I poured. I sniffed deeply and quickly realized… I shouldn’t have done that. The whiff stole my breath for a moment. I took a small sip and the fruity, coca cola, cough medicine taste hit the tip of my tongue, while at the same time made my lips numb. It was then that I realized the true meaning of “cask strength”. The Aberlour Abunadh is about 60% pure alcohol and is really meant to be drunk with a splash. My bad, but I wouldn’t have changed my game plan, even if I knew.
As we hit 30,000 feet, a splash of water formed a beautiful cloudy concoction that slowly began to fade the memory of my very, very tiny hotel room and the French couple a few rows ahead. The sensations that replaced it were sherry and oak, almost cognac-like flavors rather than a smoky scotch. I had eight hours to sip and relax and enjoy the Aberlour, mixing it with varying amounts of water. No matter what quantity of water I added, the scotch stood up and made the flight home a pleasure.
There was plenty left when I brought the scotch to poker night, and I made sure I didn’t tell them about the cask-strength. (After all, what are friends for?) Some coughed, and some worried about the enamel on their teeth, but all of them reveled in the experience of the Aberlour Abunadh after they added the splash. There is still one friend who says he prefers it straight up.
Aberlour Abunadh is beginning to appear in liquor stores and online, where apparently it had only been available in duty free shops. If you’re into a great scotch experience without a lot of smoke, this unique scotch whisky is worth a sip.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bowmore 18 - Review

Scotch is the ultimate comfort food, so when my friend Phelps called me and told me he was bringing the “best scotch in the world” to poker night, I was prepared for a comfortable time.

To say the least, the best scotch in the world is difficult to achieve. But many have rated this scotch as one of the best. He had heard that Bowmore 18 had just been voted the "Best in Show Whisky" at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, one of the foremost drinks competitions in the world. The competition included a blind-taste test but judges agreed that Bowmore 18 was ‘simply the best’.

So, we opened the bottle with much anticipation.

We poured. We sniffed. Someone said, “Iodine” and “Band-Aids” One of my cohorts said that the aroma of the Bowmore hinted to him of the ritual he went through as a kid, when he scraped his knee. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own, but he was right. It was comforting, and we also got some nice caramel and a touch of smoke.

A sip straight up and I started to be convinced. A complex blend of caramel, floral, and just the right amount of smoke. I thought back to my glasses of Chivas and it occurred to me that this is probably what they were shooting for with their blended whisky, but fell short. This was so much more complex, so much more special, and so much more comforting.

I added a splash of water and this whisky really held up. It was still the same complexity with just a little more mellowness.

Is Bowmore 18 the best scotch in the world? I’ll only be able to say when I’ve tasted them all. But for now, this is one of the finest I’ve ever tasted. So, the next time you scrape your knee; don’t reach for your favorite adhesive strip. Reach for the Bowmore 18 and you’ll get the comfort you need to mend from your injury.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Michael Lam's Reviews

I discovered this video series on Youtube by a guy name Michael Lam. He has reviewed several of the Islay scotches. Michael seems to prefer the more peaty scotches, and it's interesting to watch this review of Lagavulin 16, among other reviews he has uploaded.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Glenfiddich 12, 15, and 21 - Review

What does aging do to scotch? I had the opportunity to sample through a nine year spread of Glenfiddich, starting with the Glenfiddich 12, moving on to the Glenfiddich 15, and finally the Glenfiddich 21 year old. A word of advice, if you enjoy scotch, it’s good to find some friends that share your passion. I was able to bring the 15, while my friends supplied the 12 and 21. Sharing your scotch is a wonderful thing. My friends have a shared passion for scotch, grilled sirloin, and Texas Hold’em. Thoughts of a Saturday night with all three had kept me going through a difficult work week.

According to the Glenfiddich web site, we could have also sampled an 18 year old. We didn’t. Neither did we venture into the 30, 40, or 50 year old, or any of the rare Glenfiddichs at this time.

The twelve year old Glenfiddich is a widely available single malt. I often see it along-side the GlenLivet at the local watering hole, hotel bar, and airport bar. It is a scotch made within the Highland tradition, smooth and slightly sweet with very little smoke. As I sampled the 12 year old, I noticed a hint of citrus, almost orange taste. Scotch with a twist. Very good.

The 15 and the 21 are less widely available. As I moved into the 15, I noticed that the citrus was nearly gone. I commented to my friends that it remindied me of comfort food, like macaroni and cheese or toast with butter. They looked at me rather vacantly, but reluctantly agreed. It was a little less sweet, and a little smoother. Other than that, I couldn’t tell exactly why I liked it better that the 12, but it did hit my nervous system with a certain feeling of comfort.

Finally, it was time to sample the 21. The changes I noticed right away was a little hint of smoke that wasn’t present in the other two, presumably because of its longer stay in the smoked barrel. Most remarkable, though, was the mouth feel – an extremely smooth liqueur-like quality in a scotch made it incredible. That, combined with hints of vanilla made it the best of the bunch and worth the extra cash we had to dish out to sample it.

I tried a splash of water in them all. The 12 and the 15 stood up nicely to the water with little difference. But sadly, the water ruined the 21 year old, taking away the intriguing mouth feel and smoothness, rendering it a little more normal than it is.

Even though I didn’t play as well as I could have in poker, I left the meeting of the gentleman’s scotch and sirloin club with the 15 year old in hand and a good understanding of what Glenfiddich has to offer in the $100 or less price range. I am impressed with what Glenfiddich has created and look forward to sampling some of their legacy and rarer scotches.