Review: Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon

I must admit this isn’t my first experience with Mr. Craig.  We used to be great friends, he was under $20 a bottle and I was broke but developing some taste.  Then Eli realized he was too good for me, went above that $20 sweet spot and I was left out in the cold experimenting.  I’m not sure if this is the reunion of old friends or the return of the prodigal son, who thought he was too good for me and got all expensive and such.  Well, he was too good for me.  Even at the current $24 or whatever per bottle, Elijah Craig has a good deal to offer.  Small batch, check.  12 years old, check.  94 proof, check 47 times.  I guess it is still a steal, even if I can’t always afford it.

For the whiskey nerds out there, here is the quick story of Elijah Craig.  In 1789 a Virginia preacher moved to Kentucky and started a distillery, where he decided to age his whiskey in charred oak barrels.  For this reason some people claim he invented bourbon.  A lot of people refute that claim, sighting the fact that there is absolutely no evidence.  It’s irrelevant, because this whiskey is only named for that guy, not made by his ancestors.  In fact, it’s made by Heaven Hill, one of those big bourbon houses down there in Kentucky that also makes Evan Williams, Old Fitzgerald, and…Heaven Hill.  Craig is a higher end label for them, given its 12 years in the barrel, and there’s even a higher end Elijah Craig 18 that my taste buds probably have saliva-inducing dreams about.  Speaking of my taste buds, let us return to what I have in my glass, before it’s empty.

First and foremost in my mind, this is exactly what bourbon should look like.  In fact, this gorgeous amber is what water should look like.  It should be my freakin’ birthstone and tombstone.  Beauty isn’t only skin deep, my friends.  On the inside, Eli is sweet, with brown sugar and molasses balanced by a vanilla that seems to evaporate off the palate.  This is tasty whiskey, with a lingering complexity of spice and sweetness.  In the end, the price change was well deserved; he deserves what he gets.  Elijah is beautiful, warm, sweet, and rich.  Everything you, and your girlfriend, wish you were.

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If you can’t see the beautiful color of the whiskey, blame the angry cat

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St. Louis blues was the first published and pressed blues song. W.C. Handy said he first saw the blues played by a man at a train station sliding with his knife blade on the guitar. He took that experience with the rawest and most visceral of blues and brought it into an orchestral environment, made it listenable to the masses. You’re listening to the powerful Bessie Smith version of the St. Louis blues. In it you can see how the St. Louis Blues became a jazz / blues standard, but the in the process it paved the way for the real blues that Handy had seen, the blues of men like Mississippi Fred McDowell that shakes and screeches and howls it’s way deep down into your liver.

Anyways, I’m going to St. Louis for a long weekend–keep it bluesy

Review: Slow & Low Rock and Rye

Rock and Rye: Sounds sexy. Like rock ‘n’ roll with distilled grains.  My first impression of the idea was less than enthusiastic though, conjuring the half-memories of several botched attempts at surviving other flavored whiskey type beverages.  Notice: That is not what Slow & Low is.  Slow & Low is basically a well-crafted old fashioned that’s brewed and stewed together then allowed to mingle in the bottle until you buy it.  Drink Spirits recently gave a glowing review of Mr. Boston’s Rock and Rye.  I’ve never had it, but I hazard to guess this is better.  Here’s the rundown:  a company called Hochstadter’s in Philly has been making this stuff since 1884, and it appears they’ve perfected the recipe. Take rye whiskey, raw (local) honey, dried navel oranges, maybe some bitters.  Stew slow and low.  The brands funky website tells you a bit more about this, about how the original rock and rye was rye with rock candy in it, how they’ve determined 5% sugar content makes the perfect old fashioned, etc.  Regardless of all the stats, it’s good—but I’ll get back to that in a bit.

Looking at the website struck me with something else about Slow & Low.  What was interesting to me was how Hochstadter’s has marketed this product.  The bottle itself was pretty average for whiskey, taking style cues from Jack Daniel’s.  The website is a montage of rockabilly style tattoos that serve as links, some to quick facts, some to pictures of chicks and cars and the like.  Their Facebook page is similar.  There’s also a newsletter thing on their website written in Kerouacian spontaneous prose, and here’s where my point is most clear.  This stuff is marketing a lifestyle, to a lifestyle.  Tattoo iconography, risqué pictures of women with guns, cars, guitars, motorcycles, rock ‘n’ roll, good whiskey and good times.  There’s freakin’ side boob and motorcycles inside the label. The message is pretty clear: this isn’t adult chocolate milk or bubble gum vodka—this is quality booze for your discerning rebel with a taste for the vintage.  It’s history in a bottle that’s not afraid to change the recipe, because vintage is cool but we’re rebels, we do what we want.   I think Slow & Low’s marketing team has nailed it.  Rye is in a renaissance, but as I stated before rock and rye doesn’t conjure ideas of a complicated and crafty beverage—it reminds you of that time you had too much Red Stag or So Co and woke up with a bad taste in your mouth, a sore throat and the shame of knowing that what you may have did is possibly worse than what you remember doing.  Slow & Low’s marketing doesn’t conjure any of that, it tells you you’re about to drink something that’s made from quality ingredients for badasses who really know how to have a good time in style.

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Classic good looks

I mentioned before that this is good.  Let’s get back to that because we’re too cool to be taken in by marketing, no matter how great those Dos Equis commercials are.  Slow and low is basically a good old fashioned in a bottle.  The nose is a bit of rye spice with a sweet smell of orange zest.  I’m drinking the signature Slow and Low cocktail, in their words “Pour 1 part Slow & Low into a glass. Top with another part Slow & Low. Drink. Repeat.”  The mouth is soft with the sweetness of the honey slightly coating the tongue, but allowing the smooth rye to show itself.  All the ingredients have melded and mellowed—the citrus isn’t tart, the honey not cloying, and the rye isn’t particularly hot or spicy.  This is a well-balanced drink that works neat or over ice, you could even add a cherry if you want a bar-style old fashioned. You don’t have to be a rebel to drink this, you just need good taste.

Scotch Showdown: How far does $25 go?

I should preface everything that I’m about to write by informing you of my stance on scotch.  I’m led to believe that scotch is one of the signatures of manliness, the drink of those with taste and refined palates—it’s traditionally treated as the most refined of the whiskies.  To me all this gives me the feeling that scotch is the drink of elitist swine that are trying to oppress us.  Maybe that’s an unfair judgment, but what I’m saying here is that scotch that isn’t piss is prohibitively expensive.  Or is it?  Can 25 bucks get me a scotch that doesn’t taste like somebody put liquid smoke flavoring in the blandest whiskey imaginable?   I’m sorry, since it’s scotch, it’s “whisky.”

As you can tell by my aforementioned prejudices, I’ve never been truly impressed by a scotch.  Granted, I haven’t had all that much good scotch, it’s overpriced—Glenlivet 12 is basically the most expensive stuff I’ve had.  Other than that, there were a bunch of blends that well basically barely drinkable and cost more than I usually spend on a solid bourbon.  For this article I decided to step outside of my comfort zone, and acquaint myself with some scotches, so here’s the showdown:  Speyburn 10 Highland Single Malt and Famous Grouse.  I chose a single malt and a blend specifically because I wanted to see if a cheap single malt would be cheap because it’s worse than a more regulated blend, which is specifically designed to make a consistent product.  The Speyburn cost me $20, at $5 off, and the Grouse was $23 or something.  Similar price=similar quality level? No.  So let’s evaluate.

Speyburn 10:

I was hesitant about a $20 single malt.  Clearly it must be pretty bad if it’s so bad and on the bottom shelf, right? Well, it’s not bad.  I’d buy this again, if a scotch drinker were to visit or something.  The nose on this is nice, a tad astringent, but also rich and a bit fruity.  There’s very little peat to this scotch.  I’m happy about this. I’m not too fond of peat.  So the sweet apple and pear notes here are rather likable.  It’s gentle, though 86 proof, and though this whisky won’t confound you with complexity I find it to be very pleasant—and it’s cheap!  So for what is usually $25, it’s a good buy to me—I’m not much of a scotch drinker, but I enjoy it.

Famous Grouse:

I’d heard good things about this blend—it’s been billed as a best buy in scotch, blended to perfection to cut costs and make a consistently better product than rivals in its range such as Johnnie Walker Red or Dewar’s White.  I’ll stipulate that it’s better than those rivals. But not by much.  It’s a bit one-dimensional—light peat smoke and a bit of chewy caramel.  It’s not swill, but it’s not particularly exciting.  Got someone coming by who insists they only drink scotch? They sound like an ass, don’t buy them something too expensive, if this is on sale, maybe buy it.  But over Speyburn 10? Naw.  It’s rather boring.  But it’s the best blend in the range as far as I can tell.

So what’s the conclusion here?  There isn’t much of one.  There are a lot of scotches under $25.  I haven’t had them all.  But from my fuzzy memory of what I’ve tried Famous Grouse is the most drinkable blend in this range, and Speyburn 10 is actually quite likable.  Unfortunately, this article isn’t worth much.  I’m still a bourbon guy.  But in Speyburn 10 I found a scotch that I could consider buying and actually afford to buy. So maybe I’ll try some more budget single malts, and maybe scotch isn’t just the whisky of the power elite that drain us all of our life blood—maybe there is a good single malt at a working class price.

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Think I’m a moron ignoring plenty of great cheap scotches? Let me know in the comments or send me a bottle!

Film Review: On The Road

I first read “On the Road” soon after I’d changed school districts in the 8th grade.  My father had recommended the book to me, and given me his worn and oft borrowed copy of the book to read.  I was absorbed in it.  Perhaps I was a little young for some of it at the time, but in some way it spoke to me, as it has to so many others.  I’ve read (and reread) every Kerouac book I’ve been able to get my hands on, listened to audiotapes of his poetry recordings, and perhaps tried a little too much to get into his head.  I’ve probably read On the Road 12 times—that same worn out copy, which now has the front cover functioning as a bookmark.  So when I heard that a film version of what may be my favorite book was being made I was, at first, very excited.  Then there were concerns.  The casting seemed a bit off, and of course there was the worry that someone else was distilling Kerouac’s 500+ pages of writing into a screenplay for a 2 hour movie.  How can you capture the essence? How do you maintain the jazz of the spontaneous prose, the elation and exhaustion of the road and how will you portray people I’ve so carefully examined and sought to understand?

In short, they did not do all of those spectacularly things spectacularly well.  First, however, let me give accolades where they are due.  The greatest strength of the film, and the aspect of the film I was absolutely confident in from the start, was the cinematography.  When Walter Salles was announced as the director of the film it was clear there was no other choice.  One need not look further than his direction of “The Motorcycle Diaries” (an adaptation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s autobiographic book of the same name) to know that Salles can direct a road movie like no other.  Salles even used the same cinematographer for both projects, and from Eric Gauthier’s camera the characters in both films are portrayed against rugged and beautiful scenery in gritty and muted tones that evoke the beauty, the power, and the often physically and mentally exasperating aspects of abandoning oneself to the filth and the furies of the road.  Also consistent with both projects is the choice of screenwriter, but we’ll get to him in a second.

The problem a lot of people had with this film was casting.  I don’t disagree. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) was the most glaring miscasting to me.  Kerouac played college football for Columbia, he was a sailor with the Merchant Marine, he was a drinker of the highest and heaviest order.  Sam Riley is scrawny, anemic looking, and overly unkempt.  When Kerouac talks about being unkempt that means he has stubble and his hair is unwashed and a tad less than high and tightly cut.  We’ll cut the kid some slack though.  He does alright in the role, he may not look like Kerouac, but he does an okay attempt at Kerouac’s speech patterns and Lowell accent, and he’s a fine actor.  Onto Garret Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady).  There’s no doubting he looks the part, and I thought perhaps we could have a winning Dean here.  We don’t.  I’m not sure if it’s the actor or the part he’s written that falls short, but Dean’s character falls flat.  There’s none of the racing energy, the constant bobbing, tapping, fast talking, benny induced mania of the book in the film’s Dean.  What we have is a slow talking, drawling and almost deliberate Dean, though he does retain a deal of his charm.  Of course many people from the beginning have had fault with another casting choice: Kristen Stewart as Marylou.  Many will avoid this film entirely because of how vast their hate for her is.  Others will want to see it when they hear she’s topless several times.  Let’s just say that’s no reason to see the movie.  Neither is her acting, it’s flat and I’d almost say she makes you wonder what Dean is doing with her.  At this point I must seem very negative.  I am.  I do have a couple casting accolades to put in though. Viggo Mortensen was great as Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss was great as the whining and neurotic Dean hater Galatea Dunkle.  Overall casting wasn’t a strong suit in my opinion, but that’s not my main problem with the film.

Where “On the Road” went wrong with me was the screenplay. Being written by Jose Rivera, who did a great job with “The Motorcycle Diaries,” it seemed that the screenplay would be in safe hands.  Let me preface the coming rant by saying I know that Rivera had a Herculean task at his hands.  He had to condense a long book into a viewable film, and it is a book nonetheless that has a dedicated cult following.  So you would think that Rivera would be cautious to follow the book, to seek to capture the soul of the book.  Instead Rivera is bold in making changes, large omissions and additions. Let me clarify, I’m okay with many of the changes.  He makes Sal French-Canadian instead of Italian so Kerouac’s accent being used makes sense.  Bully!  He skips the second back and forth trip and the furniture moving story line with the trip to the brother’s house and all that, that’s fine.  Small changes that help to blend the truth with the novelization make sense.  The problem comes when you start adding things, Carlo Marx’s (Allen Ginsberg) admission of love and infatuation with Dean to Sal, orgies and conversations about orgies, I could go on, I won’t.  Of course there were a couple of glaring omissions too, the biggest being the greatest road scene of all, the 100mph destructive and chaotic trip in the Cadillac limousine. They also make Terry less significant, and skip the major amount of time spent with Remy.  I think the greatest problem with the screenplay is how the entire tone of the novel is changed.  It’s wrong, and almost despicably so.  This film almost comes across as a negative critique of the novel, Kerouac, and his entire circle of friends.  They’re shown as nothing but shallow criminals and sexual deviants.  Sure, a lot of the book is dedicated to drinking, smoking tea, chasing women and getting kicks.  In the book these things are part of a passion, they’re the result of listlessness and lust for life in the aftermath of World War II with World War III hanging overhead.  To put it one way; in the film the characters fuck, in the book they have hours of sweet reverie. In the book the more deviant activities are glossed over and sex itself is portrayed as the ultimate expression of humanity, while the film is filled with gratuitous lusty and decadent sex scenes more evocative of Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” In the book Sal and Dean are seeking to fill gapping chasms in their beings, they don’t simply lust after the Monroe’s of the world, they see women and they fall in love because they want to understand,  they want to commit themselves, they want to be grounded.  Ultimately they’re unable too because the road is in their blood, because no woman, no stolen car, or no whiskey bottle can long satisfy the aches in their hearts or heal their damaged pasts.  While the screenplay does well in translating the spontaneous jazz prose of Kerouac’s writing to the screen, particularly when directly referencing the text, the final product is a perversion of a book that defined a generation.

If I hadn’t read “On the Road,” loved it, breathed it, imitated, quoted or needed it—perhaps I would enjoy this film.  I’d see it as beautifully shot, the characters as perhaps interesting, eccentric and brooding. But this film is the adaptation of not only a great literary work of the 20th century, but of the lives of many people, and in some ways a piece of the souls of many others.  In this respect, I find the film to fall into disappointment with a shallow and cold vanity that betrays the heart of the novel and those who love it.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps like Dean or Sal I was hoping this film would somehow satiate some aching need for understanding.

Review: Yellowstone Bourbon

So not too long ago my sweet gal was exploring out west with her family out in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.  It’s a beautiful area, and a cool trip.  She sent me a couple nice gifts from her voyage, a good pint glass and a bottle of the subject of this article.  The best kind of gifts.  Of course the bottle of Yellowstone was meant partly as a novelty, but who am I to pass up on reviewing a whiskey I’ve never seen before?  So what is Yellowstone anyways, a cheap attempt at grabbing some hooch drinking tourist’s bucks?  The historian’s curiosity in me decided I needed to dig into this a bit more, because tourist kitsch whiskey doesn’t seem like a common practice.  Cursory examination of the bottle tells me there is a “tradition of excellence” to the booze in my plastic bottle, that it’s bottled in St. Louis, and that it’s “fully aged” for 36 months. That’s the federal minimum for it to be called bourbon.  Now it’s time for my training as a historian.  Google that shit.  Wikipedia has a nice brief history, but there’s a nice 2 part blog post by this guy http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com –it’s in his 2009 archives.  Anyways, the gist here is that the Yellowstone name was first applied to a bourbon in 1872, and stuck around for a long time, making it through Prohibition as medicinal whiskey and becoming very popular in the ‘60s. They went under in the ‘80s and the name has been bought and sold since then—now a company called Luxco sells it.  “Luxco” implies a luxury company.  All appearances beg to differ, a plastic 375ml bottle with a poorly applied label.  But hey, it’s 86 proof, it’ll get ya drunk.

Interestingly enough, this Yellowstone smells tasty, unlike the national park which basically is one big sulfurous earth fart.  It smells like toffee and caramel goodness.  I’m shocked and optimistic; maybe this isn’t hobo hooch after all! Nope, wait, it is. The taste is not exactly what I hoped for.  In fact, it’s a strange and sickly kind of sweet.  There is something that could be a nice spice note, but the dominating flavor is something that I would call marzipan, but I’ve never tasted marzipan so I can only say it’s not toffee or caramel.  The fact that it only spent 3 years in the barrel doesn’t really help it, some nice vanilla and char could make this translate a bit better.  Unfortunately, this modern iteration of the Yellowstone name doesn’t live up to what was said to be a revered whiskey, but still, there’s a cool history behind this brand.  Who knows, maybe yet another change of ownership could lead to a revival of the “Tradition of Excellence” of this brand.  In the meantime, I’m going to drink up, because it’s still whiskey, and a beautiful woman sent it to me nonetheless! Image