Sunday, July 29, 2012

An Eye For A Rye...Or, Getting Biblically Drunk in the Name of Science

Double-blind Rye Tasting - The Results

What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch? ~ W.C. Fields
Rye Stacks ~ Lynn Harris
Beginning of the End:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends...the latest in this series(?) of double-blind tastings was both a rousing success, and a drawn out siege.  We had a large cast of characters (9), and a large field of ryes (9).  It was a definite battle against palate exhaustion, especially with the addicting, lime-and-burn Flamas Doritos my wife bought.

Line-up:
As a reminder (or for those of you just joining us) here is the full lineup of ryes (and a bourbon ringer) in order of price/ml:
  1. Rittenhouse 100 Proof - $23.99 (750ml)
  2. Bulleit (95) Rye - $25.99 (750ml)
  3. Fog's End Monterey Rye - $29.99 (750ml)
  4. Woodford Reserve (Bourbon) - $29.99 (750ml)
  5. High West Double Rye - $36.99 (750ml)
  6. Jefferson's Straight Rye - $39.99 (750ml)
  7. Whistle Pig Straight Rye - $64.99 (750ml)
  8. Woodford Master Collection - New Cask - $44.99 (375ml)
  9. Woodford Master Collection - Aged Cask - $44.99 (375ml)
General Notes:
First of all, I need to do something no one should ever have to do: justify the presence of Woodford Reserve Bourbon.  In my rush to prepare for the double-blind tasting I included my own bottle of Woodford in the shuffle of ryes-to-different-bottles.  In order to "fix" the situation, I would have had to lookup which ryes were in which bottles, ruining the double-blind piece.  So we left it in, as an amusing reminder of my ineptitude, and as an interesting foil to the field.

Next, because the two Woodford ryes were the only 375ml bottles in a field of new, full 750ml bottles, there was no point in shuffling them.  So, we did the Master Collection as a non-blind (?) tasting to start the show.  As always, there were individual discrepancies (sometimes substantial) in tasting notes, but I've tried to summarize the consensus opinions here.

Details:
Woodford Master Collection - New Cask
This was actually a great rye to start with, as a very well crafted, middle of the road example.  Middle of the road in terms of smell, taste, and mouthfeel, not price.  The common notes were: sweet nose, some vanilla and oak.  Smooth, medium body of wood, earth, leather, and a little spice.  Noticeable, pleasant burn here.

Woodford Master Collection - Aged Cask Without a doubt, this was the less-loved twin.  I think the aged cask imparts less of the oak traits, resulting in a less interesting, less palatable rye.  Overwhelming agreement here on a spicier, but boring rye.  Common notes included: sweet nose, anise and pepper spice up front, but less burn, and again, boring.  I think the best quote was "too polite".

Fog's End Monterey Rye
This rye is actually hopped up on 50% sugar, and it showed...no one liked it.  Common complaints were a strong burnt, smokey taste, harsh on the palate with hints of campfire, rubber and band-aid.  Interestingly, almost everyone commented on the (mercifully) quick finish.  I'm genuinely disappointed, as I wanted to like the local entry.

High West Double Rye
This is an interesting one.  Multiple people pegged this as the Woodford bourbon.  Common notes included a sweet nose, nice vanilla and caramel throughout, very mild alcohol on the tongue.  Very drinkable.  But the problem is, these aren't necessarily the traits of a great rye.  Rye is supposed to be more spicy, fruity, earthy, dare I say more complex than bourbon.  So, in that regard, the "double rye" has failed.  But it was a clear win for this group of bourbon lovers.

Jefferson's Straight Rye
Dear Jefferson's, why are you so bad?  Rather than try to sum this one up I'm simply going directly to the notes: "chemical...burping band-aid", "rubbery...burnt but not flavorful", "boot-flavored, peaty, gross", "sharp alcohol, numbing", and possibly the best quote, "Suitable for doorknob salesmen recovering from minor surgery."

Whistle Pig Straight Rye
Here we come to the most expensive of the 'normal' commercial ryes in our tasting.  And surprisingly enough, it really stands up.  Most people noted this as a favorite.  And in reading through all the notes it was clear that people had way more to say about this than any other rye.  Common notes included: rich, complex, sweet, mellow, vanilla, oak, delicious, fruity, apple, spice, and one 'balsa' (as a good note).  Most people noted the long, lingering finish, with an enjoyable warming on the palate.

Bulleit (95) Rye
This is probably one of the most common ryes to find in your local bar or liquor store.  It's cheap, generally well regarded, and blends well in a cocktail.  As a stand-alone however, it didn't really hold it's own.  No one seemed to dislike it, but it lacked distinction.  Common notes were: very light nose, less oak, mellow vanilla, smooth, easy drinking, quick finish.  A couple people mistook this for bourbon, which again, may be a failing in a rye, but an acceptable failing.

Rittenhouse 100 Proof
As the cheapest rye in the bunch, this one didn't fail to fail.  No one liked it, though it wasn't outright hated either.  Here are some of the interesting notes: light, breathy, uncultured, closer to grain alcohol, minerally, earthy, dirt, dirty, smells of dirt, tastes of dirt, noticeable burn, really warm finish, fiery and bitter.  Clearly not the winner, even at $24.

Woodford Reserve (Bourbon)
And now for something completely different!  The bourbon ringer happened to be in the last bottle we sampled, which may explain the somewhat schizophrenic descriptions...starting with the reasonable:  clean vanilla nose, sweet, oaky, vanilla throughout, hint of citrus...but then there were two people that said: "lots of rye flavor" and "High rye".  To be fair, at this point in the evening we had all gotten a bit sauced...and we had some ryes that genuinely tasted more like bourbon.

Summary:
Although it was a fun, boozy night, I'm not sure how many lessons could really be gleaned from the tastings.  Some ryes suck.  Some ryes would make decent bourbons.  Some expensive ryes are worth it, and some cheap ryes aren't.  And to some, top-rated bourbon packs "lots of rye flavor".  There's no question the opinions varied, but it was helpful to identify a couple of really bad, almost undrinkable ryes to avoid...I'm looking at you Jefferson's, Rittenhouse and Fog's End!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Blind Willie McRye

The Two Things Post

Thing One - There's a new double-blind tasting in the works.  This time it will be Straight Rye Whiskey.  What?  Rye isn't Bourbon you say?  Okay, but they're closely related enough that their babies would have webbed feet, so shut up.  Rye is great in most of the same ways (and drinks) as Bourbon, and I gots some love for it.

Here's the lineup:
* The Master's Collection includes 2 bottles, 375ml each.  One is "New Cask Rye" and the other is "Aged Cask Rye"

Thing Two - A quick recipe...The D.C. Flapper
Combine in a shaker with ice, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a lemon twist.

It's a familiar form, very classic, Manhattan-like.  The nose is surprisingly all Jefferson's.  The Pimm's definitely brings a ton of flavor though...herbal, earthy, a little sweet.  It actually compliments the old oak spice of the Jefferson's really well.  And of course, the dash of bitters and the lemon twist pump up the complexity and brightness just enough.  Try it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

It's like antidisestablishmentarianism, but with more bourbon...

Bourbon + Tartan
A Drunken Sailor?:
So, I recently went to Flora for the first time.  I got a currently-off-menu-but-soon-to-return cocktail called the Trailer Smash.  It was awesome, and a bit different, so I decided to attempt my own tonight.  The word (from Phil, bartender extraordinaire) is that it's simply Buffalo Trace, lemon, maple syrup, and mint, muddled (shaken?) and strained into a rocks glass.  A little googling led me to find many recipes for classic 'smash' cocktails, along with a few locals trying to recreate the Flora original.  Here's my first attempt, along with some thoughts on it's hits and misses...

Recipe:
2 oz Buffalo Trace
1 oz Maple Syrup
.85 oz Lemon Juice
1 Sprig Mint

Combine ingredients and muddle in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake well.  Strain onto fresh cubes in a rocks glass.  Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.

Thoughts:
First of all, this is a great cocktail, and a tip of the hat goes to Phil, or whichever cocktailor at Flora created this one.  However, I think it's slightly too sweet as I prepared it.  A lot of 'smash' recipes seem to call for a 4-2-1 ratio of liquor-syrup-acid.  Commonly it's some type of whiskey, a simple (1:1) syrup, and lemon.  Maybe I'm just a huge lush and perpetually stricken with scurvy, but I actually added about 70% more lemon juice than most recipes (and in truth, a touch under 1 oz of maple syrup), and I still think it could be brighter and bourbonier.  Yup, bourbonier.  That said, I still enjoyed it.  And as the ice melted a bit the cocktail definitely opened up.  Also, the fresh mint with the lingering rich maple...yeah buddy!

Sap Racism:
An important note on maple syrup...if you buy "Grade A" (Fancy, Light Amber, or Amber) maple syrup, you might as well just hand me your wallet and give me power of attorney; you have no business tending to your own affairs.  "Grade B" (dark) real maple syrup is generally cheaper, has way more maple flavor, and will literally kick your ass if you try to put it on an undercooked waffle.

Monday, May 7, 2012

With this bean, I thee wed.

The Challenge:
As anyone who has ever known true love can attest, it ain't easy.  I have found myself in a very trying relationship over the past few months.  I admit, I am partly to blame for the current dissonance...my eye has been wandering a lot.  I find myself fantasizing about rich and foreign blondes, even some of the sweet brown locals.  Yes, beer, I long for you.  But what of my dear life-partner Bourbon...I love her still.  Maybe it's time to spice things up at home?  Play some new games with her?  Can I coax her into a morning quicky?  Afternoon assignations?  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

The Solution:
So how does an unapologetic bourbon lover find new and socially acceptable ways to raise his spirits? Vanilla.  It's a brilliant plan, if I may.  Use bourbon to create amazing vanilla extract, then put that extract in everything from pancakes to brownies to BBQ sauce to chili (veggie chili in my case), and even beer.

Vanilla is a polar bear on a tropical island...it's misunderstood, shocking, and ends up being forgotten when the smoke monster comes.  Most people know very little about the various kinds of vanilla, the many compounds that make up it's "peculiar bouquet", or even the fact that it is the fruiting body of an orchid.  So let's talk about some of the finer details...

The primary cultivars are Madagascar, Mexican, West Indian, and Tahitian.  

Madagascar is sometimes called "Bourbon" vanilla, but has nothing to do with my raison d'etre.   There is an island near Madagascar that used to be called "Ile Bourbon".  This vanilla is a cultivar from the species V. planifolia, which originated in the Americas.  The bulk of real vanilla extract is made from this cultivar.  It's good, familiar, but not the best.  The beans tend to have more of a raisin or fig quality than I'd like.

Mexican vanilla is the native cultivar of the V. planifolia species.  Mexican vanilla production is apparently low because some greedy bastards try to doctor it with tonka bean extract, which causes liver damage.  These beans are definitely available readily from your local vanilla monger.  What?  You don't have a vanilla monger?  Shame on you!

West Indian vanilla is from a different species in the Vanilla genus, V. pompona.  I don't think I've ever tried it, nor have I ever seen it available for purchase.  If you find a confirmed source for true V. pompona, please let me know.

Tahitian vanilla is from the V. tahitiensis species.  Tahitian vanilla gives me a semi-chub.  It is the only reasonable evidence of intelligent design.  Sorry Phillip E. Johnson.  Tahitian vanilla makes every other vanilla it's bitch.

So, assuming you're not a moron, you are currently searching Amazon for whole tahitian vanilla beans.  Yes, they are quite expensive right now.  The last time I bought 12 beans for $8.99.  Now they're about $5 per bean.  Still worth every penny.  I can also attest to the quality of the beans from Beanilla...they were slightly plump, moist, and ungodly fragrant.

The best strategy I've found for actually making the extract is to simply slice the beans from head to toe and drop about 10-12 beans into a 250ml-375ml bottle.  If it's a short bottle, or particularly long beans, you may need to cut them in half, but there's no need to scrape out the seeds/pulp inside.  Now fill the bottle with a good, cheap, neutral bourbon.  I love Ancient Age for this.  It's surprisingly good for the price (as my double-blind tasting proved), and soaks up the vanilla like a jersey girl soaks up tanning bed rays.

Give the bottle a shake every day or two, and in a week it will be good.  In a month it will be great.  In 3 months you'll want to marry it.  Use it in everything.  Seriously.  I will bet you $20 if you dab a little on your neck you'll get compliments all day long.  Yes, I'm telling you to rub bourbon on your body.  You are welcome.

P.S.  Every time you notice the level dropping, just top it off with some more bourbon and give it a day to get friendly.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bee Sharp: If you're down with B. Well, then you're down with me!

What's that?  I broke my hiatus?  Nah, I'm pretty sure I just sprained it...
Let's talk about that great band The Rentals.  There's this guy, Matt Sharp, who was the original bassist (and backup singer) for Weezer.  He also had a band called The Rentals.  They never found the level of success that Weezer enjoyed, but they had one hit single in 1995/6 called Friends of P.  It's super catchy, and immediately transports me back to a great moment in my life (no, I will not go into detail).  So, after hearing the song recently, I decided to craft a cocktail in honor of Matt Sharp...I call it the Bee Sharp.

Ingredients:
3 oz Bourbon - I used 2 oz Buffalo Trace & 1 oz Baker's
1 oz meyer lemon juice
1/2 to 1 tsp local honey (depending on the sweetness of the lemons)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (preferably homemade & tahitian)

Preparation:
Add bourbon, lemon juice, honey and vanilla to a cocktail shaker.  Stir well to mix.  Add ice and shake.  Strain into a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon twist, lemon 'navel', or vanilla bean.

Description:
The Bee Sharp is one of those kids that looks just like his dad.  Born of the Hot Toddy and Whiskey Sour, it is a simple, balanced cocktail.  As I've mentioned before, both vanilla and lemon are great accompaniments to bourbon, and this cocktail leans on each equally.  The meyer lemon lends more sweetness and complexity than a sunkist would, while the tahitian vanilla is simply unmatched for it's floral, earthy complexity.  Of course, the honey brings a key sweetness to balance the citric acid.  It also plays the dance partner to the vanilla.  Silly description?  Try it, you'll see.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Double-blind Bourbon Tasting - Part 2

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.  Winston Churchill 
Beginning of the End:
It should come as no surprise that I am just now posting the results of the (first annual?) Double-blind Bourbon Tasting.  With a sampling of 8 bourbons (plus cocktails avant et apr
├Ęs) it was not a night to be quickly evaluated and spit out.  I needed to rouse the sober reflection that only comes with time.  Oh, that, and I couldn't decipher the chicken-scratch tasting notes my dear friends left strewn about my apartment.

Line-up:
Here is the final list of bourbons in the order in which they were tasted:
  1. Buffalo Trace - $23 (750ml)
  2. Elijah Craig 12 year - $25 (750ml)
  3. Redemption High Rye - $27 (750ml)
  4. Baker's 7 year - $48 (750ml)
  5. Hudson 4 Grain - $50 (375ml)
  6. Maker's Mark - $22 (750ml)
  7. Ancient Age - $7 (750ml)
  8. Bulleit (French Oaked) - $26 (750ml)
Summary:
As would be expected, there were wildly different palates and opinions among the 8 participants.  However, there were also some strongly shared feelings about particular bourbons (both good and bad).  As I mentioned in the pre-tasting post, the prices ranged from $7 to $100 (normalized to 750ml), and the spread certainly opened some eyes.  I think the biggest shock was the universal appeal of the poor boy, Ancient Age.  This one-eyed dog managed to capture 2 "best" votes, and was in almost everyone's top 3.  When you consider the price, this is a clear value winner...by a lot.  Though the expectation of jeers at the bar may keep this bourbon in the back of everyone's liquor cabinet/sideboard/office filing cabinet.

Details:
Buffalo Trace - $23 (750ml)
This has been a go-to bourbon for several of my friends, and certainly considered familiar.  It didn't manage to pull in any #1 votes, but found the top 3 or 4 on several lists.  Common notes included a clean nose with little vanilla or complexity, back-of-palate warmth, and the perception of being bright and young, if not a bit simple.

Elijah Craig 12 year - $25 (750ml)
Elijah proved to be one of the more divisive bourbons in terms of appeal, but showed the most commonality of language in the tasting notes.  In other words, everyone detected it's Scotch-like smokiness, and it's slightly subdued alcohol...but a couple of people disliked that about it.  It did get top nod from 2 tasters, and plenty of recognition for being different.  Common notes included smokiness, Scotch-like, smooth oak, raisin, molasses, and age.

Redemption High Rye - $27 (750ml)
It took a lot of checking and rechecking the notes on this one...they're all over the place.  Though no one ranked it particularly high (one #4 was the best it got), it wasn't anyone's least favorite.  Notes ranged from "sweet oak water" to "swill, sour".  Several people noted a nondescript burn in the throat.  The only thing I can think is that the high rye mash bill was noticed, but registered differently for different palates.

Baker's 7 year - $48 (750ml)
Baker's got three 1st votes and three 2nd votes, which, following precise bourbon calculus, makes it the overall winner.  In my words, a fat, lovable pirate.  It's a little sweet, complex, might bite you, and has a strong wooden leg (which hit me as a mix of oak and sandal wood).  The other common note is of a pleasant vanilla in the nose.  While highly ranked by almost everyone, this was also the second most expensive bourbon.  Maybe this is one to enjoy neat when the boss offers to buy a round?

Hudson 4 Grain - $50 (375ml)
So Mr. Fancypants, what exactly does your expensive, wax-sealed neck have for us?  A lot, but no one cared too much.  Hudson ended up in the middle of the pack for almost everyone.  Common notes included: different, crazy, complex, smooth, and a couple 'anise'.  This bourbon was so universally described as 'different' that several people assumed it was the Redemption High Rye.  In the end, it was more of a curiosity than a favorite.  A couple people actually requested a second taste of this (after completing all 8), still unaware of what it was.  I'd say this is the perfect bourbon for a tasting, since you'll be wowed at the uniqueness, and you'll be happy to have shared the cost.

Maker's Mark - $22 (750ml)
As the "most commercial" bourbon of the group, Maker's made a fine showing.  One person ranked it 1st, and most people thought it was 'good'.  Everyone made comments about it's strong, alcohol-forward bite, and clean finish.  Also noted, a nice vanilla sweetness, grainy body, and 'balls'.

Ancient Age - $7 (750ml)
As I mentioned above, Ancient Age was the real darling after the reveal.  It scored well (two 1st, and general acknowledgement of quality), and had people guessing it was the Hudson or the Baker's.  Comments included: clean, nice, really smooth, spice nose, and drinkable.  The lowest score it got was a '5th' vote.  I was shocked.  Until now, I had pretty much only used Ancient Age for my homemade vanilla extract...no wonder those blondies are so good!

Bulleit (French Oaked) - $26 (750ml)
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Okay, I guess I have to address this...everyone hated this.  Something went horribly wrong.  As an avid homebrewer, I have done a couple batches of Oak-aged Bourbon Porter.  The first batch was the best beer I've made to date, and universally liked by friends and guests.  In order to make it, I have to soak toasted french oak cubes in bourbon for a week or two in order to sanitize the wood, and to absorb some nice bourbon flavor.  But what does one do with that bourbon, which has picked up a fair bit of toastiness?  Well, I filtered it and saved it.  It was strong, smokey, sweet, and an interesting foil for the common bourbon cocktail.  But, after being set aside for almost a year, compounds in the oak must have oxidized, or simply grown giant asses and shit all over the place.  It was truly awful.

As a bit of a footnote, I just brewed another batch of the Oak-aged Bourbon Porter, and the bourbon coming off the fresh oak is good, which is to say, it doesn't taste like regurgitated moldy cardboard with rotten-egg caramel sauce.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Double-blind Bourbon Tasting - Part 1

Background:
As someone with 6+ years of business schooling behind him, I'm well aware of the common disconnect between product pricing and quality.  There are countless examples of products that are essentially indistinguishable commodities save for the varying degree of marketing muscle placed behind them.  'Premium' often means higher price and more marketing, not necessarily any measurable quality difference or additional utility.  Monster Cables, Exxon gas, Tropicana orange juice, they're all differentiated by marketing, by spin, and even misdirection.  They succeed not byway of better performance, but by the perception of better performance.  It doesn't matter if Pepsi wins 90% of blind taste tests if Coke buys people's hearts and minds with polar bear ads and sports league endorsements.

So, is this the case with Bourbon?  Does a $100 bottle of bourbon taste better than a $7 bottle?  Or does it just look prettier and make you feel better about having spent your hard earned money?  This is a tough question, because it's truth lies hidden in the subjective.  My gut (and mouth) tells me that while there are meaningful differences in the taste of bourbons, perceived quality has more to do with price and packaging than with taste.  Does the emperor wear clothes while sipping a 25 year old Michters?
Preparations:
I've chosen 8 different bourbons ranging in price from about $7 per 750ml to $100 per 750ml.  That works out to under one cent per ml to over 13 cents per ml.  Most of the lineup represents what I would consider the midrange, around $20-$30 per 750ml.  As an experiment, one midrange bourbon (Bulleit) has been aged (by me) on toasted french oak cubes for about a week, at an expense of about $1 at the local homebrew store.

Each bourbon will be tasted (double-blind) by a panel of 7-10 people who will evaluate and take notes on flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, etc.  We'll have freshly ground coffee to help cleanse the nose, and various mild crackers and non-alcoholic beverages to cleanse the palate.  Come back for Part 2 where I will examine the results.

Line-up:
Ancient Age - $7 (750ml)
Baker's - $48 (750ml)
Buffalo Trace - $23 (750ml)
Bulleit (French Oaked) - $26 (750ml)
Elijah Craig 12 year - $25 (750ml)
Hudson 4 Grain - $50 (375ml)
Maker's Mark - $22 (750ml)
Redemption High Rye - $27 (750ml)