Hot Shots, Volume I : Redemption Rye Whiskey

Usually when I write these reviews I buy a bottle, stretch it out for quite a while, coming back to it every once in a while until I realize it’s almost gone and, goddammit,  I need to write that review before I polish the bottle off.  Not tonight. Tonight I have one shot to get it right. or wrote…writ? Anyways, let’s let this 30 cl little sample speak for itself:

Nose: Little but a tad astringent, with a little honey sweetness, some very mild rye spice, and some not unpleasant woody must, which very well could be from the glass I put it in.

Taste: That honey is there initially, but is quickly overtaken by a hot dose of cinnamon that dances and sparks on the tongue, and heats the the throat as it winds it’s way down the hatch.  A little more burn than you’d expect at 92 proof, which is just bully by me.

Afterburn (finish):  That cinnamon sits just right and damn does than burn hang on, my throat is still toasty, and I’m finding that slight musty woodiness was, perhaps, in the bottle after all.

Thanks to Ben Winston for the Drinks by the Dram set!

Overall this was a lovely little taste, and has left me hankering perhaps for a touch more.  Alas, that little shot was all I had, but the little bugger had some spicy fury to it!  So, what’s the point of this single shot tasting method?  It’s to drink the little single shots and decide if I want more dammit, and I do.  Also, this good be a good training trick for my palate so I’ll stop being so damned lazy and get it right the first taste from now on.  (Not likely)

Driven to Distilling: A trip to Wiggly Bridge Distillery in York, ME

I wasn’t exactly sure what the angle was when my mom and stepdad asked if I wanted to join them on a trip to a distillery.  Neither of them drink whiskey.  Neither of them drink much (by my standards), though my stepdad is a home brewer, soon to be brewery owner. Regardless of these facts, it doesn’t take much to convince me to go anywhere, never mind a distillery.  In the days before going over the pieces of the puzzle started to fall together.  The distillery owner started experimenting with distilling in Montserrat, my mother and stepdad are moving their to start the brewery.  The guy owns a wide variety of businesses around York, including carwashes—my stepdad owns a carwash.  It was a socially oriented business affair, it seems, but with me along to drink whiskey.  Sounds good to me. 

I woke up to head over there earlier then I do on the average work day, made the rendezvous with my companions for the day and we headed out to the Maine coast.  The town was dead, a dark hazy sky overhead and a crisp sea wind driving through the streets past the still boarded store fronts, closed for the season.  Inside Wiggly Bridge it was a different story.  Well lit and dank with the smell of fermenting grains and at the center of it all a man, who I would soon find out was a ball of endless ambition.  Dave Woods is well known around that part of Maine for his entrepreneurial ventures that span from the oil business to the pizza business.  Nowadays it’s his tight knit family that runs day to day operations, and Dave’s interest in whiskey consumes his days.  Between snippets of conversation on carwash bay doors and the like Dave’s story came together.  He was interested in whisky (he uses the scotch spelling) and decided, much like it seems he has decided many times before, he’d like to try his hand at it.  Dave and son David started hammering out the details in copper and wound up with a 60 gallon Arkansas style still.  Then he did a lot of reading.  Not much more than a year later I found him living on a timer, making required readings every 15 minutes, tossing 50lb bags of rye into a mash while simultaneously doing a stripping run.  All the while conversation bounced between carwashes, distilling, brewing and life on the island.  From what I gather the month or two that Dave spends in Montserrat are his only rest from 14 hour work-days, though I’ll admit a certain envy to what I call work in this case. 

At some point Dave broke out the whiskey.  The moment I’d been waiting for, naturally.  The first pour came from one of those little decorative one gallon casks that consumers can home age in.  It smelled decidedly smooth with hefty helpings of vanilla and a bit of spice.  I took a sip and started mulling over flavors.  The front was strong corn sweetness and a hefty vanilla.  There was a bit of an apple/peach note, and a deal of spice.  I went to speak and found my vocal chords a bit numb.  Turns out the little barrel was hiding about 125 proof.  The mash bill Dave has worked out is something like 56 % corn, 38% rye and the rest malted barley.  Honestly, I don’t remember exactly, I wasn’t taking notes—regardless I was pleased by his boldness on the rye side, mostly because I love rye and rye heavy bourbons.  Next Dave brought out some work in progress samples, one that he plans to age a bit longer, another that he planned to release.  Planned, I say because it turned out to be a failure.  The work in progress, a baby bourbon as the works in progress all are, was at a far more reasonable proof, with more open flavors but heavy on the vanilla from its short barrel time and full of hearty mid flavors, the dominant to me being that sweet peach flavor I found in the other tasting, and a nice cinnamon / nutmeg finish that lingered on.  The other work, the unreleased baby bourbon, was interesting to me.  Not because it had a nice flavor profile, it was musty and saccharine sweet, but because it showed Dave’s willingness to show the process—the failures.  Dave later shared with us a story of his first foray into the oil business, in which he boomed and busted, and it seems that this attempt was that first foray, but Dave showed that he’s learned his lesson, and rather than putting out this admittedly inferior product he’s tinkered around.  The final result of that tinkering is his latest white whiskey.  His white whiskey showed what I see as the promise of things to come.  While I’m not crazy about the white whiskey category, I see it as a tool of gauging what a whiskey will become, with age.  Dave’s current white shows he has found the sweet spot, so to speak, and it’s delightfully smooth with a soft sweetness and spice to spare.  Give this stuff some time and we may have something special.  But that brings me to another point.

Wiggly Bridge’s aging process brings up a debate that is raging through the craft whiskey world right now, when bourbon traditionally take 5 years to age, how do you get off the ground?  While other distillers turn to quick turnover products that require no aging, vodka, gin, and rum, Dave has decided to focus most of his energy it seems on bourbon.  He is doing a white rum, and planning selling his white whiskey as such, but he’s also playing a controversial game—speeding the aging process.  Using five gallon barrels and 30 gallon honeycombed barrels Dave is looking to release his first saleable product in mid-May, just a year and a half or so after starting the business.  The question now is will Dave’s gamble pay off?  Find out in our next installment:  Wiggly Bridge, High Tide or the Tipple Topple—Coming May 2014, likely.  

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There’s also pretty cool merch there, for the consumer looking to get ahead of York fashions

Notes on Philadelphia, the Author’s Life, and What Heaven Hill Means to Me

It’s been a while since I’ve put any voluntary words to paper, and largely it’s because I’ve been struggling on a particular topic.  A couple weeks ago I went down to the City of Cheesesteaks for some brotherly love, and with a serious need to get away.  It was my birthday, though aging plays only nominally into the story, as the other factors influencing me had a far more crushing effect.  In December I started a new job, the grown up kind with a salary and a 401k and a sense of responsibility that lingers in your dreams and has you waking up in the middle of the night thinking you’d forgotten some imaginary documentation.  Since I’d started I hadn’t taken a day off, and I was about to roll-over trying to hit the learning curve at top speed.  Paramount among my difficulties was an intrapersonal struggle, months in the slow deterioration.  Since my final semester of college I have been in a long-distance relationship with a lovely girl who lived first in New Jersey, now in Cooperstown.  We’ve visited as often as possible, but with her in graduate school and my responsibilities that became less often.  It was clear to us both what needed to be done, and after a fair amount of gut-wrenching and negotiating we decided to amicably part paths.  As Giles Corey said at Salem, “More weight.”  It was that weight that I dragged behind me as I left Dover, New Hampshire at 8pm after my shift.  It was that burden I needed to float off.

At 3am on arrival to Philadelphia Ben and I set the track for the weekend to come with a couple pours of cognac and bourbon until we crashed.  The next day was spent gathering supplies for the coming apocalypse and exploring the icy plains of Valley Forge. The evening was spent in fine company eating slabs of smoked meat and drinking whiskey at Fette Sau, then losing my bill roll at Frankford Hall.  Part of my goal for this weekend was to test how I felt as a newly single man.  While drinking whiskey and eating pork belly brought out the Hemingwayan masculinity in my liver my only attempt at talking to a strange woman found me downright disinterested in the sport.  In fact the only female company I enjoyed all weekend was the good naturedly flirting between myself and my good friend’s girlfriend, which was truly just part of the friendly ribbing between Ben and I we’ve always enjoyed.  Anyways, I fell asleep in the cab that night on the way home, drunker, broker, but still not fully cleared of life’s debris.

The next day Ben and a friend of his showed me a bit more of the central city of Philadelphia, the old part where Franklin’s heels clicked cobbles and where the American nation was born in bold treason.  It was a pleasant day, warm and relaxing for aimless strolling, and I always enjoy digging into a new place by foot.  That evening brought in another friend, a Gettysburgian like Ben and myself, who promised to bring a new element to our joint madness. With Ian folie a duex became folie a trois, and we immediately set about destroying our bodies.  First course, Dalessandro’s Cheesesteaks, mine slathered with some incredible hot napalm pepper relish concoction that I wish I was eating now.  Oh, and beer, Smuttynose Porter it was.  We drank and we chatted, we jested and we drank, and somehow we ended up still hungry, eating Utz chips and Ben & Jerry’s coffee ice cream and we ended up drinking whiskey by the glassful in front of the X-files in our old way.  I woke up the next morning on the couch and finished my drink before taking a desperately needed shower.

I emerged from that shower a changed man and with a purpose as I ordered the beginning of the next feast in my underwear, setting Ian to work at the bacon while I prepared myself for my filthiest pleasure, pancakes fried in bacon fat.  Went well with good coffee and gin and tonic.  Fortified we went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a remarkable place, massive with a brilliant collection.  Hours in, our minds became numb and drunk on art, overwhelmed by beauty and genius.  That night fell back to debauchery, with pizza and drunken game playing among Ben’s friends.  At one point Ben, Ian, Ben’s lady and I were all talking while laying on the dining room floor.  That night too ended with ice cream and X-files.  The next morning we came to in the rubble of ourselves.  Ben had to work.  Ian and I had to travel.  We talked and had coffee and groaned and sadly parted in our collective hangover.  On my way to Boston, where I was to celebrate St. Pat’s with my sister I got misled by my GPS and found that despite all my joys, my pains were still there. I screamed at the roads and turned up the music to shock my brain.  Most of all I missed her.  Eventually I made Massachusetts, where my sister lives and so close to where our departed grandparents once lived.  We ate dinner then bounced between a few Southie bars, but I had no heart left in it.  The next morning I wound my way home, dressed and went to work again to earn my stead.

As I write this I’m still unsure of whether that weekend did what was intended.  Did it soften the blow of 2 years ended?  Did it unwind the mechanisms within me, or just wring my liver a little tighter?  I’m not sure I’ll ever be sure.  All I know is that each day that passes things feel a little easier.  I’ve worked 10 straight days since then and have one more to go before a weekend, and the routine has found my nerves less wracked.  As I look back I am certain of one thing, that I had a damned good time.  Among my best college friends with food, drink, and fun to our limits I was able to live, if briefly, a carefree time that I’m not sure I ever fully enjoyed in college.  In honor of this, I shall post a review in tribute to a college staple that, in spite of all the finer whiskies at hand, floated our spirits that weekend as it always had.  Ladies and gentlemen, Heaven Hill.

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Old Friends


Heaven Hill.  Whether or not you realize it, if you’re a drinker, you’re probably familiar with one of their products.  Evan Williams, Old Fitzgerald, Fighting Cock (which I drank for the first time that weekend), Rittenhouse Rye, even Burnett’s vodka, Christian Brothers Brandy, and Hpnotiq—all Heaven Hill.  For me Heaven Hill has always meant Elijah Craig, highbrow, and Heaven Hill white, lowbrow.  In college I often started off highbrow until my taste buds weren’t too picky and there was Heaven Hill, basking in the glory of the bottom shelf at $9.50 a liter.  I always insisted it wasn’t bad.  “There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others,” so Faulkner said.  I concur. Heaven Hill is a gentle and thorough lover, soft on the palate, non-existent on the burn at a mellow 80 proof and cheaper than any date in the history of mankind.  The flavors are dominated by corn sweetness, soft vanilla, a fair touch of rye spice, and a bit of char.  In college I often drank it with numerous dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, it’s pleasant with or without.  To me, Heaven Hill will always have a special place in my gut, and atop Heaven Hill there will always be a happy place I can return to when I want to take a load off.

Review: Knappogue Castle 12 year Single Malt Irish Whiskey or Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Floating Cork

Knappogue Castle lies abounding the verdant hillsides of County Clare Ireland.  The great stone walls darken by the year with the thickening centuries of lichen.  Built in 1467 the castle has survived centuries of war, rebellion and rolling fog.  Behind the exterior of this imposing structure is a thin layer of paper, beneath that, robust glass. At the center, the keep.  Whiskey.  Bobbing in this goldenrod liquid? A chunk of cork, and debris from the great disaster that lay it there—but alas! How?  What evil has fallen upon this noble kingdom?!  Okay, the title is misleading—there is no mystery.  My dad came into the living room laughing the other night, stating that he went to pour himself a glass and nothing happened.  The cork broke off into the neck of the bottle and, desperate, he resorted to stranding our little friend for eternity into the bottle.  Sorry for the dramatic vignette, but I needed something to fatten this review up. Back to the point…

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See the broken cork?

The whiskey.  Knappogue Castle 12 year single malt, Irish.  The title wasn’t completely misleading.  Price? $25, on sale.  Knappogue Castle isn’t one of your bigger selling Irish whiskies like the Jameson you probably shot down at some pub (whose price has been skyrocketing in recent years).  Knappogue, however, should not be overlooked.  Colored, and flavored, by 12 years in Bourbon barrels Knappogue develops a pale golden hue and highlighted by light vanilla flavors, strong lemon notes and a certain pleasant grassiness.  I guess that makes it lemongrass?  On the finish the tame 80 proof limits Knappogue’s burn to a slight warmth that adheres to the tongue and leaves you with just a hint of the robust charred interior of the barrel, which a sparking flicker of burn intrigues the upper throat. This is certainly pleasant, smooth and interesting Irish Whiskey.  In fact, buck for bloody buck, I’d say this is the best buy Irish Whiskey.  It’s 12 years aged, single malt, deliciousness is just a buck or two more than the simple and sweet Jameson, and makes each sip so much more interesting.  So what am I saying?  I’m saying St. Shitfaced…I mean St. Patrick’s day, is coming up  and you damn well better be drinking Irish.  So why not drink better Irish?

Review: Courvoisier VSOP Cognac

If you’re an avid reader of this blog (which, let’s be honest, you aren’t) then you’ve probably noticed an upward trend the booze I’ve been drinking.  I’ve been getting all high class with single malts and now a trump card, VSOP Cognac.  I’ve come a long way from drinking vanilla flavored E&J XO.* Anyways, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I am, shall we say more financially liquid, than before.  I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that anything above $25 didn’t come from my wallet—this was a gift from my old man, who is ever grateful that my student loans now come from my accounts.  Regardless of where it comes from, drinking Cognac has an air of elegance, sophistication and superiority.  Not necessarily superiority in social class mind you, I mean superiority in drinking class; it’s a sign of some maturity and taste.  Perhaps there are some of you thinking about (and youtubing) the song “Pass the Courvoisier,” and you’re probably thinking that kind of kills the cache of the beverage.  I’m not going to assert that Busta Rhymes is a man of exquisite taste, but go ahead disregard that.  What I am saying, and perhaps I should have gotten to this point far earlier, is that good Cognac has not only a fine flavor, but a culture of sophistication with a secret language, a rich history.  With fancy French wine regions as it’s provenance (this is 50-50 Grand and Petit Champagne) and fancy grade names, V.S.O.P. meaning Very Superior Old Pale, the language of Cognac is almost like a secret code for the knowing drinker.  Take into account the fact that Courvoisier is known as the Cognac of Napoleon (also Busta), and you know that this is drink with history.  Rival Hennessey can only boast the dictatorship of Kim Jung-Il, amateur.

So what do you get once you’ve joined the brotherhood?  Here’s my impressions: Warm on the tongue with an herbal aroma, a rounded molasses body, and a rich vanilla finish with a warm bite that cuts through and lingers like a furnace in the back of your throat.  Overall it’s quite well balanced with pleasant dark overtones, though the heat isn’t actually my favorite.  Somehow, though I love high proof bourbon, this heat was unexpected and I’m not crazy about it.  I am pretty crazy about the rest of the flavors though, and most of all, I’m crazy about the way it makes me feel.  Beyond that oh so wonderful cognac buzz, which wraps your brain up like warm a down sleeping bag, there is that wonderful feeling that you’re drinking in good company when you drink VSOP Courvoisier—even if you’re just watching Seinfeld alone and still in your workout clothes.

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*My E&J XO Brandy post is actually by far my most read, so perhaps I should keep my damned mouth shut.

Deanston Virgin Oak: Or the Legend of the million pound IRN BRU

When I went to the liquoría this evening I was met with a rare conundrum. I didn’t actually need anything.  I’ve got plenty of bourbon around, so I had free reign.  I was debating buying an Irish whiskey, a cognac, or, dare I say, a scotch.  Yes, I’ve said often in the past that I don’t drink scotch but after the Glenlivet Nàdurra I reviewed not long ago I haven’t been as averse to scotch.  I still think it’s overrated and overpriced but, in the end, I convinced myself to take a chance.  I bought the scotch.  What drew me to the Deanston was quite simple—I’d never heard of it, it was affordable, and it stated on the box that it was un-chill filtered.  Chill filtering takes out a lot of the wood oils from whiskey, and I wanted those oils.  Additionally it seemed bold to leave all the oils in from the fresh American oak (coopered and charred at the heart of bourbon country) they used.  I’ll also admit I was a little afraid.  In my experience scotch around the $20 price point is at best mediocre.  This didn’t even have an age statement on it.  So, for $24 I became the somewhat skeptical owner of a bottle of Deanston Virgin Oak.

This story took a strange turn about 4 hours later.  My family decided we’d watch a film on the Netflix, and I became drawn to a film called The Angel’s Share.  If you’re wondering why, you’ll want to look up that term.  Anyways, the film is a story about a rather rough bunch from a little city in Scotland.  These folks have gotten themselves in a spot of trouble with the law for a variety of reasons and are stuck doing community service.  While doing community service the main character, a lad named Robbie with a history of violence begins to befriend the fellow who runs the program after having the shite beaten out of him by the family of his baby mama and over a glass of good scotch.  The fellow, Harry, ends up making Robbie and several of the other buggers into big fans of their native spirit by bringing them to distilleries and tastings and Robbie begins to develop quite the palate.  The story then takes a turn as Robbie, trying to escape his past, hatches a plan for a heist of a wee bit of a cask of ultra-rare scotch.  I’ll leave the rest to you to find out.  Anyways, this film coincided perfectly with my night.  By coincided I mean there was a coincidence, and a rather large one at that.  That distillery the fellow takes Robbie and the other cons to? Deanston.  The scotch they’re sampling at that distillery—Deanston Virgin Oak.  The stars not only aligned, they collided and exploded.  Anyways, I found it to be a very enjoyable film that balances drama with humor and leaves you feeling good.  The scotch, well, the scotch…

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I really need glencairn glasses…

The scotch is a pleasing stroke of luck.  I took the chance fearing I’d regret my decision and, well, I do not.  This dram presents itself a very pale golden yellow, with legs longer than a Czech model and a nose that starts light with a bit of airy citrus and honey and then sneaks up to stab up my nostril a bit with smoky booze.  The taste matches the light nose with a very delicate yet supple entry that rolls toffee, vanilla, pear and a hint of peat lusciously over the palate  and leaves the tongue with a slick citrus finish and an appropriate 46.3% alcohol of mid throat heat.  As you’d expect with the lack of age statement this is clearly a young whiskey, but at that it’s possibly a child prodigy.  Overall this is a full bodied, dare I say, voluptuous, whiskey with a light crispness and a subtlety beyond its age—and price.

Super Bowl

I may not care much for watching sports but I do enjoy a good beer. Here’s what I’ll be drinking tonight: Dogfish Head Piercing Pils, Green Flash Double Stout Black Ale, North Coast Brewing Old Stock Ale, Victory Hop Devil, Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, Smuttynose Durty Muddy Season Hoppy Brown Ale. What’re you drinking tonight? Share in the comments

Review: Diep 9 Oude Genever

I’m a bit of a history nerd, and as you’ve probably guessed I’ve grown rather fond of drink.  I’m the kind of guy that constantly finds himself researching (read: searching Wikipedia) things that I’m interested in.  That usually means that sometime around 1 a.m. I find myself wondering how the hell I ended up reading about uses of gentian root in folk medicine.  I’m rather sure this is how I came upon genever.  Genever is a spirit produced in the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium) from distilled grains infused with botanicals (herbs and stuff).  While there is some debate as to when genever was first produced it seems its popularity grew in the 16th century, meaning this is some pretty old school hooch.  When I first came upon it I was struck by the whole botanicals thing and the idea that this was the predecessor to gin.  Genever, gin—pretty solid connection linguistically.  The whole botanical infusion thing, which supposedly started to cover its crude distillation, also totally gin.  In fact they both are characterized by their use of the juniper berry.  Also present in the botanic bill of tonight’s genever are orange peel, thistle, carob, nutmeg, grains of paradise, angelica root, cinnamon and coriander.  Also, I’ll make one more distinction: apparently there are two kinds, jonge and oude—young and old, referring to age.  Tonight, I drink the old.

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Apparently the traditional way to drink it is to sip it slowly from a shot glass filled to the very brim. The first sip is taken while the glass is on the bar.

Diep 9 Oude Genever only recently showed up on the shelves of the New Hampshire State Stores.  At around $30 and in a cool ceramic bottle it seemed like a decent deal and the geek in me wanted it from the moment I saw it.  When I landed me a new high paying job I decided I’d reward my longings, and hence I bought this.  I’ve had it for a while, sitting at the bar for the occasional sip and curiosities sake.  The cool bottle makes it nice décor, too.  So what is my impression of this age old legacy?  I’m still not quite sure actually.  The flavors to me are predominantly similar to a very young whiskey.  The slightest tinge of mellowing oak and a heaping of soft and sweet malty flavors give this drink a rather full body while remaining very light on the palate.  What continues to surprise me is how subtle the botanicals are.  For the predecessor of gin I expected to be knocked out by juniper and spice, instead I found myself searching for the flavors, finding the juniper more present on the nose than the tongue and the botanicals represented more in an underlying earthy flavor that lingers nicely.  Overall it’s more like Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost than Beefeaters.  But more refined than the former.  The word that keeps coming to mind is subtle, everything about this is there in just the gentlest dose.  That’s a good thing, and rather pleasant—though it requires a dedication to drinking it.  If you don’t invest yourself in finding flavors you’ll find none.  Maybe the Belgians are trying to say something about the way we drink, that perhaps we should take more time savoring our drinks, rather than pounding back martinis like Churchill or Jaeger like some frat-hole.  I like the idea of that, but I’ll continue to treat this the way I have, the occasional glass for curiosity when I’m trying to engage my senses a bit more.  It’s perfect for that—and they say it’s great in cocktails too.