Sunday, November 07, 2010

Northwest spirits

I realized that while sending an email to a couple of friends I was essentially writing a blog post. I copied and pasted it here with minor edits:

Man, even when I try to sleep in, I find out that I'm up at my regular time. :-) I went to bed later last night after closing the store, dropping a co-worker off at home, and staying up to speak with S a bit. I got out of bed this morning and the clock read about 5:19. When I came downstairs and started my computer it read 4:34. Maaaaaan, standard time already fucking with me!

Woodinville Whiskey Company - had fun bottling with those guys the other night. We got 499 bottles done in about an hour and a half. We would have done more, but they forgot to order more bottles from their supplier. Living and learning. Yesterday a customer came in and we spent some time speaking whiskey and other liquor. She was really into her whiskey and very knowledgeable. It turns out that she had been to Woodinville Whiskey Co. and done a tasting yesterday afternoon. They told her about me and suggested that she stop by. My store is close by to her home, yet she hadn't been by. She noticed the Dolin vermouth right off, before I approached her, and told me, "I knew this wasn't your average store when I saw the Dolin on the shelf". It's nice to see the relationship that I'm establishing with Woodinville Whiskey is reciprocal. The customer eventually bought a bottle of The Whippersnapper - a new whiskey from Oregon by Ransom spirits.

The Whippersnapper: retail $27.20/bottle. I've enjoyed the Ransom Gin from the same distiller. The gin is based on an old, pre-prohibition formula often referred to as an "Old Tom" style gin. That is that it's not as dry as the London dry gins and not as sweet as the Genever style gins. It exists somewhere in between, but closer to the London dry. It's also brown in color due to 2 - 6 months of barrel aging and has a fair amount of cardamom in it. The gin makes great, and I mean GREAT, old fashioned cocktails as well as playing nicely in the sandbox when making more modern ones.

As to it's whiskey cousin, The Whippersnapper, named thusly for the fact that it's a young whiskey. Ransom is barrel aging a Scotch-style of whiskey. But they were so happy with the results of some of the younger ones that they decided to do a bottling. Because of it's young age and impertinent nature, they named it The Whippersnapper. The whiskey is a blend of 21% barley based whiskey (the Scotch portion) and 79% corn neutral spirit. The barley comes from Oregon and is not peated as Scotch normally is. Even so, one can smell and taste a definite Scotch flavor due to it's inclusion. The corn neutral spirit (otherwise known as white dog, unaged bourbon, or moonshine) is hardly neutral in flavor. It adds a bit of sweet, honey-like flavor and scent to the whiskey. S and I tried some last night. We began with just a glass straight up. It was good and decidedly odd in that it was unlike anything else we had. The finish was not long and the body medium. It reminded me more of American and Canadian blends in the body aspect, but tasted unlike either. Definitely the corn spirit was existing alongside the barley and they weren't quite dancing down the aisle together towards bliss as much sharing each other's time. We then decided to put it on ice. That was a game changer. With the addition of a couple of cubes the corn spirit receded a great deal leaving behind the barley and it tasted like a nice, light, and smooth Scotch. We agreed that it would probably make quite an enjoyable drink either on the rocks or mixed with soda, much like a blended Scotch. I suspect we'll find some cocktails to try it out in as well. It's definitely a whiskey that likes to blend which will make it something to enjoy as an addition to the bar.

J sent me a link to a Huffington Post article on fall whiskey releases. Oddly enough, it was just a couple of days after I had special ordered The Whippersnapper in for the store. It's good to go back and read what the author from Huffington Post wrote about this whiskey:
Already available is a weird and wonderful new concoction from Ransom Spirits, the Oregon-based distiller which brought us the mind-blowingly brilliant Old Tom gin last year. This year's baby, WhipperSnapper Oregon Whiskey, is... well, what is it, anyway? Is it a bourbon? A Scotch? Sort of and sort of. The two main components of WhipperSnapper are malted barley (the same stuff they make Scotch from, although this barley is from Oregon) and un-aged or "white dog" Kentucky corn whiskey (from whence comes bourbon). The resulting alchemy, about an 80/20 ratio of corn to barley, is then aged in barrels that have housed French pinot noir and American whiskey, as well as new unused barrels. The aging process is relatively short -- generally less than two years, hence the "WhipperSnapper" name -- and then various barrels are selected and combined for each bottle.

The end result is something akin to an incredibly vibrant young Scotch, while you also get the sweet and unrefined vibe of the white dog. At 84 proof, it goes down dangerously smooth neat or on the rocks. I suppose you could mix it with soda, but it's so damn good on its own that you needn't bother. Because it's not peaty, WhipperSnapper would make a great gateway drug for those timid souls who are scared off by the pungent aroma and powerful flavor of Islay single-malts. But it still makes for a damn fine libation even if you like the "hard stuff" like Lagavulin or Laphroaig.

I hope Ransom has more of the barley spirit continuing aging in the barrel. It'll be good to see if they can turn out a hardier Scotch style whiskey. Oregon already boasts a Scotch style Whiskey, McCarthy's Whiskey from Clear Creek Distillery. Clear Creek's product is made from barley that is grown and peated in Scotland. The barley is then imported to Portland were it is taken to the McMenamin's facility (known mostly as a brew pub) to be distilled. The resulting whiskey is then put into barrels and aged at Clear Creek's facility for 8 years. The whiskey in every way is competitive with the finest Scotch. Fantastic stuff and at $50/bottle, a real steal. It's been called the finest American whiskey by F. Paul Pacult. However, it's extremely limited in it's release and Clear Creek has no plans to expand it's production (which will only drive up it's price eventually). I hope Ransom has plans to expand the market and fulfill the craving.

One of the interesting things that these new American whiskey distillers are doing is they are aging in smaller barrels. The smaller barrels allows for more contact with the surface area of the whiskey. This extra contact pays dividends in the aging of the whiskey. Smaller barrels allows for a "faster aging" process. The wood in the barrel breathes more of the whiskey in and out faster, giving up it's flavor more readily. In just 2 years these small batch distillers yield a product that rewards as much as a big barrel that has been aged several more years. Of course, that keeps this small for these craft distillers and more barrels means more needed room and more labor intensive as the barrels need to be turned periodically and a closer eye maintained on all of them. The former distiller from Maker's Mark, Dave Pickerell, has been preaching this method and offering his consulting services throughout the country, including at Woodinville Whiskey Distillers. Pickerell has pioneered this method with his own whiskey, The Whistlepig. It's a straight rye whiskey, aged 10 years. It's a craft product with only 1000 cases available this year. It's supposed to be fantastic and I've got some on order for the store - hopefully it will come.

Also in the store this week were 3 spirits produced by Black Heron Spirits. Black Heron's logo was one that I recognized immediately. I looked it up and confirmed that the liquor is produced by a distillery founded by Joel Tefft. Joel was an early founder of the fine wine industry in Washington state. Apparently, Joel is getting up there in age and thinks that the hustle and bustle required for promoting wine in Washington has become too much for him. So, he sold his winery a year ago and began taking classes in distillation. He built his distillery in West Richland, Washington. This week my store got in Rayne Angel Gin, Ink Vodka, and Desert Lightning corn whiskey. The surprising big seller this week was the Desert Lightning. Frankly, I think that the packaging looks a bit gimmicky and cheap, but it's selling. Buyers are excited about it and clearly the design of the bottle is more appealing that I expected. Good for Joel and good for the Washington spirits community as having such a well known name dive in can only help with the promotion.

Fun times being a liquor enthusiast in these days of craft distilling. Lots of good things happening. It's the natural evolution of the cocktail revival in America. We had a post prohibition period where cheaply made, lower quality booze was the norm. People just accepted what was churned out in an industrial manner. It was usually pretty harsh and barely recognizable as the type of liquor it was labeled as (Scotch, whiskey, vodka, gin). But, it was cheap and widely available. Then came World War II and, as with the wine world, people came back from Europe with a new appreciation of better quality and a wider variety of liquor. Scotch whiskey made great strides in American markets in the 50s and 60s and sparked renewed interest in America's whiskey, bourbon. We also saw brands such as Stolichnaya, Absolut, and Campari make headway during this time. Then there was a leveling off and cocktails actually seemed to fall out of favor. Sales rose, but not at the same levels as the 50s and 60s. In the 90s cocktail culture really began a second coming, a revival. Prohibitionists from MADD and other organizations were seen for what they were and people began going back to discovering cocktails both new and classic. In the 2000 we began to see more people at home and in bars playing with making their own concoctions and infusions. Again, classic cocktails saw interest rise including updating those cocktails. With this we saw more interest in a wider variety of imported liquor. And now we live in the age of the revival of small craft distillers. By my count we're in the 4th wave of the liquor revolution in America. This bodes well for those cocktail makers as the new distillations are bound to inspire new mixes. They'll feed on each other much to my delight.

Now if we can just dispose of daylight savings time.

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