This thing on?

Apparently it’s been nearly four years since I wrote anything here.  What have I been up to for four years?

  • Watching the baby evolve into a preschooler
  • Moving halfway across the country for a job in Seattle
  • Watching the middle schooler evolve into a high schooler
  • Enjoying craft beer and cider culture in the Pacific Northwest
  • Putting doll clothes back on dolls that the preschooler undressed
  • Sampling some local bourbon
  • Learning a bit of Spanish from Dora and Diego
  • Enjoying some Caribbean rum
  • Trying to stay sane in the middle of day-to-day crazy
  • Watching the country devolve into a sometimes ridiculous, sometimes frightening parody of a functioning democracy

You know… same old, same old.

With your permission – or without it, because this is my digital space and I’ll do what I want with it – I’m going to start brain dumping here some things that are tough to get across on Facebook and Twitter.  I’ll still try to talk about alcohol, but I can’t promise that’s all I’m going to talk about.

But right now I’m being summoned to refill someone’s apple juice.

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Proposal for a Bourbon Experiment

A while ago on /r/bourbon, someone used a word I didn’t know. A guy had several bottles on the shelf with barely a full dram left in any of them and was considering consolidating all of the whiskey into a single bottle. Someone else commented that he had been considering a similar course of action and then used the strange new word: solera.

Now I’m a naturally curious person and I couldn’t just let this fun new word glide by unheeded, so I headed out to Google, which led me to Wikipedia. I now know that the commenter had used “solera” when he probably meant something closer to “vatting.” And while I’m not terribly interested in vatting at the moment, I’m curious about the solera process and its possible application to bourbon whiskey.

The basic idea of the solera is that you have a series of barrels in a line, numbered 1 to whatever. Every year, you bottle some of what’s in the last barrel. They you top of the last barrel with what’s in the second-to-last barrel. You work your way down the line until you’re topping off barrel 1 with new make. The process is commonly used for aging wine, vinegar, brandy, and rum.

The downside of running a solera is that it can take years to “prime the pump”. If you start with 4 empty barrels, it’s going to be 4 years until you’re ready to bottle anything and what you’re bottling is only going to be aged 4 years. Also, you’re going to bottle less than a barrel’s worth every year.

However, once you have things up and running, the upside’s pretty cool. Every bottle you produce will have a little bit of every year’s input in it, from the very first to the most recent. Beyond that, the average age of what goes into the bottles will continue to go up for as long as you run the solera. Of course, the average age levels out over time, but every year the oldest juice in the bottle is older and older.

One of the reasons I think a solera would work well at a bourbon distillery (or NDP) is because there’s no need to prime the pump. Instead of starting with 4 empty barrels and filling them up year by year, you start with full barrels that are already a year apart.

Well-regarded but defunct distillers are another reason I thought the solera process would be well received in the bourbon world. Got one barrel of Stitzel-Weller juice left? Toss it into your solera and now every bottle that comes out has Stitzel-Weller juice in it, basically forever. Granted, all the Stitzel-Weller barrels are 20+ years old now and may well be worth more unadulterated than blended.

Finally, I’d like to point out that you don’t have to feed new make into your solera. If you put straight bourbon whiskey into the first barrel, you should legally be able to call what comes out of the final barrel straight bourbon whiskey. Of course, you may have a tough time putting an age statement on your bottles, but most people these days don’t seem to mind.

I put together a Google doc with some basic solera math. Have a look and let me know what you think.

EDIT: I suppose I ought to be more explicit about what I’m actually proposing. I would like to see an adventurous distiller (Buffalo Trace, perhaps?) take five barrels ranging from four years old to six years old at six month intervals and set up a solera. They should transfer half of each barrel every six months, topping off barrel #1 with four year old bourbon each time. The average age of bourbon coming out of the solera would start close to six years and eventually rise to nine years. They’re only going to produce one barrel of bourbon per year, but I bet they’d have no problem selling every bottle to those of us interested in being part of such an experiment.

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Sorry for the silence

Things have been a bit crazy here at Derby Gras Resort & Spa for the last few months.  However, I haven’t forgotten you, my faithful readers.  I’ve got a few ideas in the works, and I should be getting back to writing soon.  Some of the topics I intend to address in the near future are:

  • Tasting notes on a few Texas bourbons
  • Putting together a couple more group tastings (great bourbon values, rare bottles, possibly a comparison of various Stitzel-Weller bottles, maybe even a comparison of various Van Winkle bottles)
  • A modest proposal for an experiment to be undertaken by someone with more resources than I

So stay tuned, I promise there are good (or at least interestingly bad) things in the pipeline.

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2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Cognac at Sea

Hot on the heels of the whisk(e)y tasting mentioned previously, the Pretty Little Wife and I participated in a cognac tasting led by our Turkish bartender, Selami. The format was very similar. Selami poured us five liquors and talked us through some of the finer points of cognac in somewhat imperfect English.

When you ferment grain, you get beer. When you distill beer, you get whiskey. When you ferment fruit, you get wine. When you distill wine, you get brandy. When you produce and age brandy in Cognac, France, you get cognac.

First up was Hennessy VS. the VS stands for “very special” and indicates that the cognac was barrel aged for a minimum of two years. The rich amber color belied the harsh alcohol burn in the glass. Selami pointed out that the sweetness and lovely color came from caramel added to the blend and not from the barrel.

The second pour was Courviorssier VSOP, which stands for “very special old pale”. To carry the VSOP designation, the liquor must be aged for at least four years. Selami informed us that Courvoirssier blends liquors aged anywhere from four to fifteen years for their VSOP. There was a notable jump in quality from the VS to the VSOP. It was much less harsh and was starting to develop a bit of smoke and fruit flavor.

Pour number three was Courvoirssier XO (“extra old”). In order to be labeled XO, it must be age at least six years. Courvoirssier’s XO contains cognac aged from six to twenty years. This was even smoother than the VSOP and gave more well-developed fruit flavors with a lingering finish.

The fourth pour was Remy Martin XO. This was, hands down, the best straight cognac we tasted. It was exceptionally smooth with gentle smoke and fruit flavors that lingered long after the liquor was gone. Drinking this, I can see why people enjoy cognac.

The final pour was Grand Marnier, which is a 50/50 blend of cognac and orange liqueur. Prior to the tasting, I don’t think I’d ever had Grand Marnier straight. I was pleasantly surprised with how good it was neat. It was a little on the sweet side, but otherwise nicely balanced.

I won’t be giving up my bourbon any time soon, but I may be picking up a supplemental bottle of cognac when we go out to get our New Year’s champagne.

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Whisk(e)y at Sea

The first leg of the Derby Gras Family Holiday Tour 2012 (four nights aboard a Disney cruise with my side of the family) has just come to an end. On the second to last night, the Pretty Little Wife and I dropped off Baby A at the nursery and sent Q off to the tween club while we attended back-to-back liquor tastings. She agreed to sit through the whiskey tasting with me if I would sit through the cognac tasting with her.

So at 9:00 on Friday evening, we settled into our barstools in the Meridian Lounge (deck 12 aft) and Selami began pouring the whiskey.

First up was Macallan Select Oak, a 12 year-old single malt scotch whisky from the highlands region. It was a light amber color and fairly easy to drink. I don’t recall anything particularly outstanding about the flavor beyond some oaky notes.

The second pour was Johnny Walker black label, a 12 year-old blended scotch whisky. This one was darker with more smoky scents and favors from the Islay whisky in the blend. It was more complex than the single malt, but not really my cup of tea.

The third pour was Jameson’s, an Irish whiskey that the Pretty Little Wife said was the first one she would drink “on purpose.” It was lighter in color and flavor than either of the scotches.

Pour number four was Blanton’s single barrel bourbon. It was the darkest of the bunch and significantly sweeter than the Scotch and Irish pours. I may be biased, but I think only the blended scotch approached the bourbon in complexity of flavor.

The last pour was everyone’s favorite Canadian, Crown Royal. Personally, I think Crown performs much better in a mixed drink or cocktail than it does neat.

It was very interesting and informative to have five very different styles of whisk(e)y line up side by side and I really enjoyed it. While the bourbon won the day for me, it did open my eyes somewhat to the variety that exists in the rest of the whisk(e)y world.

The cognac tasting was also quite informative, but more on that later.

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Buffalo Van Winkle

I love data. I really love metadata – data about data. So, needless to say, I love my WordPress stats page. I can see how many visitors I get, where they come from, and what they’re looking at. I can even see what they typed into the search engine that landed them here on my silly little blog. It’s pretty awesome for a nerd like me.

For the last couple months, I’ve been getting dozens of hits a day from people looking for info on Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.

Here in Dallas, the Pappy has come and gone. Even the less sought after bottles of 10 and 12 year Van Winkle have disappeared from the locked glass cases and managers’ offices where they’ve been hiding since the stores got their allotments last month. I didn’t get any Pappy this year and I’m not at all bummed about it. I’ve been waiting for the Buffalo.

Luckily, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection isn’t nearly as rare as the Pappy. According to my whiskey guy, his store just got a surprise BTAC bonus delivery and they hadn’t even sold through their initial allotment yet. Granted, their initial allotment wasn’t huge. They only had five bottles of William Larue Weller – the one I wanted – to start with. But you’re only going to get BTAC from my whiskey guy if you’ve bothered to talk to him and establish that all-important whiskey lover/whiskey monger relationship. If you haven’t gotten to know your whiskey monger yet, then your best bet is to call around to the stores in the suburbs and hope they have a bottle in their high-end booze case.

I dropped by his store on Thursday evening to check up on the BTAC. We talked bourbon while the Pretty Little Wife filled the cart up with wine. He told me about the additional bottles of BTAC they got and how it had raised his hopes of getting a bottle of Weller once they’d taken care of all their loyal customers. I walked out with my bottle of Weller and I sincerely hope that he is able to get his.

If you do stop by his store and you don’t get the bottle you want, don’t fret. The big locked glass case at the end of the bourbon aisle has more than a few bottles of the Four Roses small batch limited edition that John Hansell over at Whisky Advocate rated as his favorite whiskey of the winter issue. And there’s no waiting list for the Four Roses.

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Willett, a year later

Around this time last year, I wrote about the folks at Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, their history in the industry as Willett, and their current offerings as a Non-Distiller Producer (NDP). Last week, I finally killed my bottle of Willett Pot Still Reserve and went to my friendly neighborhood whiskey monger seeking a replacement.

A lot can change in a year. KBD has changed their name back to Willett officially. They’ve also started Distilling again. And Baby A has two teeth and can unlock my iPad.

When I got there, I saw that there was not one, but three different bourbon bottles bearing the Willett (as well as a rye whiskey). The pot still bottle was there, along with six and seven year-old bottles of single barrel Willett Family Reserve in the standard KBD wine bottle sealed with black wax. Both the six year and seven year were barrel proof and very close to the pot still reserve price-wise.

I had a quick talk with Simon, one of the store’s “liquor consultants” and he explained that both bottles were barrels picked by the store and while they didn’t match the exact flavor profile of the pot still reserve, they were excellent bourbons. I picked up a bottle of the 120 proof seven year and a bottle of Maker’s for another round of vanilla infusion (eggnog season is nigh).

Saturday night, Black Belt Kurt came over and we broke open the Willett Family Reserve. Simon did not lie. This is an exceptional bottle of bourbon. It is dark, rich, and surprisingly smooth considering its relatively high proof.

According to the label on the back, I got bottle 141/194. Doing a little math, that means there were less than 40 gallons of bourbon left in the 55 gallon barrel after seven years of aging. But sipping this bourbon makes me want to know more about that barrel. Who distilled it? What was the recipe? Where was it aged?

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Not too long ago… Ok, maybe it was a while back… I’m terribly lazy and you should all go read better bloggers… Anyway, I encouraged you to go out and cultivate relationships with your local whiskey mongers. Today I learned that one liquor store here in Texas was only selling their allotment of rare bottles (Pappy and BTAC) to customer who had a verifiable relationship with the store as measured by their customer loyalty card program.

Is it fair that you have to have spent X number of dollars with a particular retailer before they’ll sell you a bottle of George T. Stagg? It’s as fair as being tossed into a lottery with 200 people who just wandered in off the street looking for Pappy because they read an article in Garden and Gun and they want the most exclusive and pretentious bottle they can find (because Dallas is that kind of city).

Where was I? Oh yeah… Relationships. If you haven’t already, go to your local liquor store and get to know the whiskey guy. I guarantee they have one. It may not be his (or her) job title, but there’s someone there that knows and loves the whiskey aisle. This is the person who is going to tell you about that’s going to tell you about the new releases or let you know when the BTAC comes in.

If you don’t know your whiskey guy’s name, then he certainly doesn’t know yours.

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Bourbon in Mex-ile

I didn’t expect to be posting anything this week since the Pretty Little Wife and I are on vacation in (mostly) sunny Mexico, but I have a few minutes while she’s getting ready for dinner…

As with many all-inclusive resorts on the Mayan Riviera, ours offers all the booze you can drink. However, as one might expect, their whiskey selection is somewhat lacking in our beloved bourbon. The only legal bourbon they pour is Jim Beam. They also have Jack Daniels, which is nearly bourbon. Outside of that, it’s Crown and Johnny Walker. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they’re pouring rotgut whiskey, they just don’t have much in the way of top shelf American whiskey.

Luckily, our friends Marathon Kurt (he was at the bottom shelf blind tasting) and his lovely wife (nickname pending) are here as well and they brought a bottle of Rowan’s Creek. It’s a 12 year old, 101 proof small batch from KBD (you remember the Kulsveen family).

Maybe it’s the mojitos talking, but Rowan’s Creek is a seriously good bourbon. It’s spicy, smoky, and warm. If you decide to treat yourself to a bottle, you can thank me when I return to the states.

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