Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spirits: Two Nikka Whiskies

I've been meaning to do this post for a while, not least because I need to make room in my bar, but also because it covers a unique variety of whiskey that I think deserves consideration. A couple months ago, I overheard a couple guys wondering aloud about the Japanese labels up on the bar whiskey shelf, and immediately had to jump in for color commentary, much to my wife's dismay. I hope some of that enthusiasm comes through here.

Japanese whiskey is kind of a funny thing. (Yes, for the pedantic, that's often spelled "whisky", which is a stupid and pointless convention that I refuse to follow.)  It's a relatively new practice in Japan, one which has already established a bit of a core style but which culls influences from other, older traditions. Japan has an astounding talent for mimicry, and often when I taste Japanese whiskey I'm reminded of other styles that are being given a deep nod. That's definitely the case with these two.

Both of these are produced by the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company (I'll respect the convention here because it's part of a formal name, nerds) which was one of the first distillers to set up shop in the Japanese islands. Its founder, Masataka Taketsuru (for whom one of the whiskies below is named) came from a family of sake brewers, and enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study chemistry during the brief decades when Japan was open to the West before World War II. He became enamored with the Scottish whiskey-making tradition, apprenticed to a few distillers, married a young Scotswoman, and returned to Japan. After working for an established distiller (now owned by the giant Suntory) he went independent and established his first distillery in Yoichi on the northern island of Hokkaido, following highly traditional Scottish whiskeymaking practices. Later on, the company added further distilling operations, including a Coffey or column still imported from Scotland, and now oversees a whole range of distilling and bottling operations all over the Japanese islands. These folks have carried on their founder's legacy of traditional methods taken very seriously, and it shows in the end product available on our shores.

Taketsuru Pure Malt

About: A blended malt, meaning that it's a combination of multiple single malts. There's no age statement on this, so while I hear that various 12-year, 17-year, 21-year, and so on versions are available, we can't be sure that this isn't mostly much younger. Ah well, we must be content with what we're given. According to what sources I can find, it's partially aged in sherry casks, which explains some of its similarity to scotch, which is often treated in the same way.

Tasting Notes: There's a wisp of smoke on the nose of this one that immediately brings to mind scotch, possibly even one of the intense island editions that tastes like moss and sea. Yet it's also pretty and lightly floral, with hints of ripe fruit. The palate is smooth and beautiful, with all kinds of balanced flavors. There's spicy grain and more of that smoke; there's stewed apple, toasted almonds, and cherry blossom; there's orange peel and a curiously buttery quality. I keep wanting to taste it over and over again to catch new hints. The presence of peat builds as it sits on your tongue and is notably present on the long finish, along with repeats of the savory flavors in the palate. Really tasty, and while it occupies a similar niche of flavors as an island scotch (Scapa, maybe?) it seems to strike off in its own, highly refined direction.

Coffey Grain Whisky (again, it's in the name)

About: Being a "grain whiskey", this isn't made from just malted barley but also contains corn and wheat, bringing it a bit closer to bourbon than scotch. Surprisingly (at least to me) it's produced on the same stills that produce the Taketsuru, which are located in the Miyagikyo distillery. Again, there's no age statement, and there's not much information available that I can find about the aging process, but I won't argue too much when the end product is this good.

Tasting Notes: To me this is much more reminiscent of Irish whiskey than scotch. It smells sweet and richly fruity on the nose, with a bit of toasted grain background. On the palate it shares a marshmallow-y sweetness with Irish whiskies, along with a core of rich grain. There are accents of orange peel and cherry blossom throughout, echoing the Taketsuru, but it has a much richer, denser texture. The peat here is a subtle backing only, and the finish is mostly one of lingering spicy grain. It's a markedly different product, and while I think it's less subtle and layered than the Taketsuru it's also deeply satisfying. Anybody who likes a good Irish whiskey like Redbreast would dig this too.

For the curious, there are other Japanese whiskies available on our shores, notably the excellent Suntory-owned Hibiki, and I fully intend to give them a rotating spot in my bar. They may be somewhat uncommon in the US but are worth seeking out, and the Nikka editions above are excellent entry points.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Spirits: Karlsson's Gold Vodka

When I assembled my list of actually good vodkas a few months ago, Karlsson's was on my potential list for inclusion but didn't make the cut because, well, I hadn't actually tried it. I first heard about it in my copy of Jason Wilson's Boozehound (an all-around great book) which describes it as a total rejection of the modern multiply-distilled and ultra-filtered "premium vodka". Wilson even uses the term "potato eau-de-vie", and given my love for other products that use the same philosophy I was dying to try it.

Although I started to see advertisements in Imbibe Magazine, several reviews, and even a couple single-vintage line extensions (single-vintage vodka!) it was months before I stumbled across a bottle of Karlsson's for sale locally. That wound up being a little too late to make the aforementioned list, but I have no qualms tacking on an addendum. Shall we?

About: That's a pretty bottle, no? The shiny golden potatoes along the inside label are a nice touch. The stuff inside has an interesting provenance, stemming from what Wilson describes as an effort to capture a sense of terroir in vodka. It's produced from a blend of heirloom new potatoes all grown in Cape Bjäre, Sweden. Once harvested, the spirit is run only once through a continuous still, not multiple times as is common with super-luxe flavorless vodkas, and is bottled unfiltered. Which makes the clarity of the end result a little surprising, but there you have it. Basically, they're trying to capture the flavor of the potato itself, with as little filtering or embellishment as possible. How do they do?

Tasting Notes: Served at room temperature, this is aggressively medicinal on the nose, a bit like smelling a bottle of aspirin. It's a bit offputting, but there are some notes of dried herbs and black pepper in there too. On the palate, it's immediately rich and creamy (not adjectives that I would normally use to describe vodka) and I'll be damned if it doesn't actually taste a lot like a raw slice of potato. It's subtly vegetal, sweet, a little bit peppery, with distinct notes of fresh thyme and heavy cream. But all of that is played softly and in balance, without much fanfare. As a result, ice waters it down too much and renders it unremarkable. My favorite way to drink it so far has been chilled and served on its own; when cold, the medicinal nose is almost entirely absent, and you can let the vodka rest and warm up on your tongue to taste the layers of flavor. Chilling also helps temper the medicinal and peppery bite of the finish, leaving behind a creamy sweetness that is, again, oddly... potato-y. Sipping vodka - who knew?

On the whole I really like this stuff as a curiosity and a marked departure from the intent of most vodkas. It's definitely more intensely flavored than the other vodkas I reviewed previously, and I feel like it wouldn't mix quite as effectively - it's really meant to be enjoyed on its own. I'm not sure if there's a huge niche for that in the liquor market, but I'm glad that somebody is trying to fill it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

North Shore Pirate

I've got a notable one-off for you tonight. While stopping for beer at my favorite local bottle shop, I came across a bottle of Vikre Distillery's Voyageur Aquavit, a product that I'd heard about but never tried. It's a cognac-finished variant of their standard aquavit, which I tried at Vikre's tasting room a little over one year ago and enjoyed greatly. I knew I had to try this finished variant.

Turns out, the finish just rounds the edges off the base product and blunts the overly herbal notes, which makes this a good choice both for sipping and for mixing. I'll try a stirred cocktail later, but a sour seemed like a pretty easy way to start.

On its own, the aquavit was tasty but a little thin; this drink really came together when I combined it with a robust rum and a couple dashes of bitters.

1 1/2 oz Voyageur Aquavit (another aquavit would be a credible substitution)
1/2 oz Scarlet Ibis rum (yum; again, another assertive amber rum would work)
3/4 oz Velvet Falernum
3/4 oz lime juice
2 dashes cinnamon-orange bitters (a dash each of orange and Angostura would do)

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish? Huh?

I didn't take a picture of this one because (obviously) I couldn't be bothered with garnish, and thus it wasn't especially pretty. Perhaps I'll add one in next time I make this, because there will be a next time.

Friday, March 18, 2016

MxMo CVII: Bahia Cocktail

A full year after my first participation in Mixology Monday, I finally managed to catch another round with a few days to go before the deadline! The fact that this took a year should tell you everything you need to know about my knack for timing.

Fortunately, this one is a doozy. Dagreb of the Nihil Utopia blog explains his choice for this month's theme as follows:
My theme this time is overproof. Or rather how you utilize overproofs.  Do you sub them into your standards? Save them for accents in particular recipes? Pour them into ceramic volcanoes and set them on fire? Reserve them only for making liqueres? Whatever it be I'm looking for your recipes that use overproofs as base or as modifier in a noticeable-
"What's an overproof," you ask? "Well, uh, yeah..."
First let's decide what is proof. It's my party so I say 50% abv is proof. Above that is overproof. You disagree? Host your own party! (No really host a MxMo it'll be fun.) So BIB liquors are exempt this month but lots of bottles are fair game! Whether it boldly proclaims its strength on the label or nonchalantly lets you discover its strength for yourself use that bottle that packs a punch in a drink this month. 
Astute readers may recall a rather ludicrous number of navy-strength gins rattling around my growing, eclectic collection of gin samplings. So while I could have selected a high-test rum or whiskey, gin is nearest and dearest to my heart, and was the only logical choice when organizing my thoughts on "overproof".

Frequent MxMo participants (MxMites? MxMolians?) will most likely know this already, but whence the term "navy strength"? Well: like rum before it, gin was popularized by the sailors who drank it. In the days before refrigeration, pasteurization, or filtration, spirits were some of the few beverages that would remain potable on long ocean crossings. Combined with citrus to make grog, they also helped to combat scurvy. Naval ships had one additional requirement: in the event of a burst barrel or clumsy sailor, the spirits had to contain enough alcohol that soaked gunpowder would still ignite. That takes at least 114 proof (57% ABV) which then became the benchmark for spirits suited for naval use. (The picture shown here is obviously more recent, but demonstrates how this tradition carried on even into the Second World War.) Such navy strength gins fell out of favor for a while, but they've come roaring back in recent years; nowadays it seems that just about every gin producer makes an overproof product, though they're often harder to find than the standard editions.

My usual inclination with these is probably a dangerous one, though I'm sure sailors would approve: I just sub them in for a typical London Dry in whatever I'm making. Some people like to increase the amount of gin in their Negroni, but I'll stick to the equal-parts ratio and just use a stronger gin. If it's been a long day, I've been known to make a Martinez or other gin-base cocktail with navy-strength product. This is usually an experience that's equal parts rough, bracing, and deeply satisfying.

Which leads us into my submission. While considering recipes for overproof substitution, I hit on the Bijou Cocktail, which is perfect because it also utilizes green Chartreuse, another overproof product by Dagreb's standards at 110 proof (55% ABV) and one of my perennial favorites.

Now, a traditional equal-parts Bijou is a reasonably burly cocktail to start with, so replacing the gin with a navy-strength version is gilding the lily a bit. But hey, I finally caught a MxMo; we'll call that a special occasion, worthy of a strong drink. It's probably a good thing that no appropriate overproof substitution for the sweet vermouth comes immediately to mind, or this post would never make its way out of draft status in a readable form.

For the gin, I defaulted to a product I've been obsessed with lately: Far North Spirits' Gustaf Navy Strength Gin. It's produced from rye, which gives a faintly sweet-spicy character, and it's then infused with botanicals that edge into vegetal territory reminiscent of Scandinavian aquavit. The focus is less on sharp juniper, more on a very rounded profile that blends spice, herb, and sweet citrus. Pairing it with Chartreuse seemed like an obvious slam dunk. I really wanted to try this with Punt e Mes, thinking that some additional bitterness would balance the sweeter notes of the gin, but it was out of stock at the couple liquor stores I visited. I tried a couple of vermouth alternates (including Dolin Blanc, which was tasty but a little too light, and Cynar which was too herbal and rooty) but settled back on good old Cocchi Torino, which was the closest match in my mind to the absent Punt e Mes. (I'd still really like to attempt that version, but we've got a deadline to hit.)

The normal construction for a Bijou is an ounce of each ingredient, which is already pretty sweet and assertive; using the Gustaf, it simply became overwhelming. The recipe I linked above also provides a more "modern" version with three parts gin to one part Chartreuse and vermouth. With that ratio the Gustaf just took over. I landed on a middle ground of 2:1:1, which curiously enough is how I usually recall the Bijou recipe. Perhaps there's a reason for that, because it worked brilliantly here. I started with orange bitters as called for in the original recipe, but the drink really hit its stride when I subbed a large dose of a homemade cinnamon-orange bitters instead.

Here, the result:

1 1/2 oz Gustaf Navy Strength gin
3/4 oz green Chartreuse
3/4 oz Cocchi Torino (or Punt e Mes...)
1 eyedropper homemade cinnamon-orange bitters (call it 4 dashes of orange bitters, supplemented by 2 dashes of a spice-laden aromatic bitters like Fee Brothers)

Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a lemon twist, or if you feel like showing off, score a lime peel into a jewel-like shape and drop into the drink.

Since the original French name "bijou" translates to "jewel" I decided to name this one after the much-disputed world's largest emerald, known as the Bahia Emerald. Its contested history seems a good fit for a drink that took a couple iterations to get right, and which still stuns with its weight.

I had a lot of fun putting this together, so I'd like to thank Dagreb for coming up with this month's theme, the geniuses behind MxMo for keeping this event alive and well, and my wife for tolerating my cocktail mixing even with a new baby boy at home. Cheers!

Here's the accompanying roundup post from Dagreb, which features quite a few tasty-looking drinks. I can't wait to try some of these, and their photography game puts my own to shame. Nicely done, everybody!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tommy's Old Fashioned

Recently, I bought myself a nice-looking decanter set, so of course I had to come up with a pre-mixed cocktail to fill it. Such concoctions, much like my now-standard mix-it-yourself party punch trick, are great for gatherings (or laziness) because they can be self-served, freeing up yourself as the host to mingle and partake yourself. This sort of thing is arguably even better because it can sit on the bar indefinitely and be simply poured to serve.

This one is named after my newborn son, because it's based on the three-part blend of spirits that I packed away in a flask for our stay in the hospital (because fold-out couches are horrifically uncomfortable and I needed some help getting to sleep after the first night). The liqueurs and bitters are bolt-on additions, but solid ones that I stand by.

The following will just about fill up a clean 750 mL bottle of your choice, because I'm assuming that you have such a bottle available. Dig an empty wine bottle out of the recycling and rinse it out if you don't. That will make for somewhere between 10 and 16 drinks depending on how liberally you pour them.

8 oz Cabin Still bourbon (another basic bourbon of your choice would be acceptable)
8 oz Laird's Straight Apple Brandy (no substitutions)
8 oz Mellow Corn (ditto)
1/2 oz maraschino (Luxardo, naturally)
1/2 oz Casoni 1814
1/2 oz cinnamon syrup
12 dashes Regan's No. 6 Orange bitters
12 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine in a decanter or empty bottle of your choice, stopper, and store on your bar indefinitely. To serve, pour over a large ice cube and stir to your desired dilution and temperature.

And yes: twenty-one years from now, I'll gladly serve him one of these, assuming that both I and the recipe survive to that day. At this point, that seems quite a long way off.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Spirits: Even More Weird Gins

That's right, kids: even more weird-ass gins for your perusal. I'm trying to build a very off-kilter catalog here.


About: From what I can tell, this might be an exclusive import from Total Wine & Spirits, who consistently surprise me by carrying some otherwise hard to find stuff. Information on how it's produced is a bit difficult to come by, but its listing at the retailer notes that it's a modern gin, flavored with cucumber and rose petals, which puts it into direct competition with the long-dominant Hendrick's. I was a little skeptical, but pleasantly surprised to find that it's less aggressively floral than expected. And it retails for maybe 60% of Hendrick's typical price. It's certainly not small-batch in any sense, but I don't let that bother me when I'm buying Tanqueray, so why should it here?

Tasting Notes: Esmé doesn't stray too far from the London Dry formula, and the nose is nothing too distinctive, except for some floral-perfume notes that blow off quickly. The palate is quite soft, with a creamy marshmallow character reminiscent of a decent vodka. The botanicals start creeping in after the sweetness eases, but they don't include much juniper flavor, more an indistinct mix of dried herbs and a bit of citrus peel. Pretty quickly, the bitter-grassy flavor of cucumber takes over, supplemented by a little pepper and capped off by a distinctive wash of rose petal. That combination isn't exactly my favorite, but it's not overwhelming here and there's not much competition from the other botanicals. Fans of Hendrick's or newcomers to gin will probably find this suitable, and I like it with a simple mixer, but it's no substitute for a London Dry.

G'Vine Nouaison

About: This one's a bit of a blast from the past for me; I originally tried this gin back in the very first days of this blog, way before I had a clue what was going on. Unfortunately, I didn't record any tasting notes, so it's impossible to know how much either my taste buds or the gin itself have changed. Regardless: this is another French product, distilled in copper pot stills from the same Ugni Blanc grapes commonly used to produce cognac. That distillate is then macerated with different botanical blends, which notably include the delicate grape flower, to produce both Nouaison and its cousin Floraison. The latter is a fresher, lighter style where the floral character is very prominent; Nouaison skews a little closer to London Dry territory, but still has a lot of distinct grape character.

Tasting Notes: The aroma on this one is distinctively, richly floral, stuffed with violets and fresh grapes; it puts me in mind of young French table wine, a Beaujolais maybe. The floral quality in particular carries on into the palate, which is... complicated. Initially, it's all violets and blueberries, powerfully floral and sweet, until the classic London Dry botanicals take hold. There's (oddly fresh?) juniper, coriander, cinnamon, and peppercorn, balanced and spicy through the finish, the texture dominated by rich essential oils. It's all layered with the rich, warm sweetness of vanilla and more of that fruity, young table-wine character, which lingers on into a perfumed and slightly hot finish. I dig it! It's most definitely unusual, and despite its billing not really anywhere close to a classic London Dry, but the vinous qualities pair nicely with vermouth and other aromatized wines, making it an interesting candidate for your next Negroni or Martinez.

Letherbee Autumnal 2015

About: We've talked about Letherbee's flagship gin before, with a passing reference to the 2014 Vernal edition. Since then, a full year has gone by; the 2014 Autumnal wasn't terribly impressive, and the 2015 Vernal was flavored in a tropical-ish style with papaya and coconut (hard pass, thank you) but these unique variants sometimes hit a real home run. Witness the 2015 Autumnal edition, which is aged in a used Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel and flavored with Vermont maple syrup. I'd feel bad about including this here if it wasn't so damn good; when I started drafting this post I had just bought a third bottle, but now I can't seem to find it anywhere. Perhaps that's not surprising given the limited nature of these releases, but it does make this review somewhat teasing. Let's just say that if you do uncover a bottle of this, you should buy it.

Tasting Notes: Perhaps it's unsurprising that this drinks pretty much exactly as it's described on the label. The nose is relatively restrained, straddling an odd line between the botanical presence of gin and the woody qualities of whiskey. The maple is foremost on the palate, initially sweet but turning to intense wood tannins and a sort of cherry-like warmth. At the same time, the vegetal qualities of Letherbee's flagship gin come in like an aquavit, with strong notes of fennel, cinnamon, and coriander. It's a bit like Linie, a bit like aged genever, not really much like a gin at all; perhaps it's not surprising that I like it given my usual penchant for weird spirits. Regardless, it's such an interesting and complex spirit with such rich botanicals that it does well in simple cocktails, like an old-fashioned made with a little bit of the syrup from a good jar of brandied cherries.

This is getting to be a pretty robust selection of damn weird gins! I don't know when exactly I'll get a chance to expand further, but it'll be detailed here if and when I do.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Antonin's Black Heart

Here's a commemorative drink, in the grand tradition of bartenders naming cocktails after memorable people. The person in question is one who I disagreed with on almost everything, but he was certainly influential and he seemed like a guy who would enjoy a stiff drink.

And I think we all need one of these now that an already insane election season just got crazier.

1 1/2 oz Laird's Straight Apple Brandy
3/4 oz Cynar
3/4 oz red vermouth
1/4 oz ruby port
1/4 Islay scotch (or similarly peaty, briny monster)
2 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters
2 dashes Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters

Stir and strain into an old-fashioned glass over a single large cube. Garnish with a large coin of orange peel (I used blood orange, appropriately enough) and a few grains of sea salt.