Lost Spirits – Umami (59%)

Umami, destroying San Francisco14:46 JST, Friday, March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan shook the island. At the bottom of the ocean, something woke up; something that had been sleeping for a very long time. The jolt triggered a tsunami that caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in Ōkuma. Thousands of gallons of radioactive water spilled into the ocean. People scrambled as their cars and pets were washed away. Homes and lives were destroyed… and the Sleeper grew.

For three years, the Sleeper fed on other monsters of the Mariana Trench, waiting, biding its time, and growing in the increasingly radioactive waters there. When it outgrew its home, it began to journey east. Sometime in March of 2014, the Sleeper made landfall in Monterey County, California. It quickly cut a swath 200 miles north to St. Helena, where it laid waste to Charbay Winery and Distillery, stopping along the way to ravage Anchor distillery in San Francisco and St. George’s in Alameda. No distillery is safe from its fiery breath. No human is prepared to face the monster. Humankind is not ready for this. This whisky is a giant beast, the likes of which we couldn’t tame… but I mean, this is Lost Spirits we’re talking about here. Sounds like all systems normal to me.

Distiller Bryan Davis is still using Canadian peat and local barley, and he’s preserved his nefarious house style, but he’s taken the way he crafts his whisky in a new direction since the last time this blog visited him. Now, all his whisky mashes are fermented with salt water. He used brine from the nearby Pacific Ocean at first, but later opted for the convenience of Pacific sea salt. Why salt? Yeast can’t multiply in salt. Doesn’t that sound counter intuitive?

For starters, salt helps facilitate the separation of alcohol and water in the still. Salt raises the boiling point of the medium it’s dissolved in, and is around 500 times less soluble in alcohol than water. That means it has little effect on the ethanol while causing the water to take more energy to boil. As the distillation progresses, the salt concentration rises in the water, exponentially raising the boiling point, making it even harder for the water to evaporate, allowing for an easier cut of the alcohol.

Lost Spirits Umami

On a biological level, the salt provides a hostile environment for the yeast, causing it to build up its cell walls, up to eight times thicker, to withstand the barrage of cell-moisture stealing saline. The thicker walls mean the yeast is less able to split and multiply in the mash, so you have to grow your yeast to where you need it while it’s outside the mash first, but it also means that the yeast have more armor and thus can survive and continue producing alcohol to a higher percent by volume without dying from exposure to lethal concentrations of ethanol. This means more alcohol per batch with more yeast produced congeners in the mix, as well.

Most of the yeast’s processes happen through these cell walls, changing the dynamics of how it lives and functions. This affects how it creates different compounds, among which Davis hopes are a more complex series of mono sodium complexes, various salts with a bouquet of new salty flavors.  Among the eponymously umami compounds he hopes to create, are sodium acetate, sodium lactate, and sodium propionate, all compounds commonly used as food additives with mildly salty flavors. The second of the bunch, sodium lactate, is commercially manufactured by neutralizing lactic acid and can be used to treat arrhythmia and hypertension but can also cause panic attacks in those prone to having them; I defy you to find someone making whisky this bad-ass; a spirit that may just cause fits of existential terror. Awesome!

While I appreciate the bold new approach, the thing I admire most about this distillery and its team is the honesty. A short Godzilla-stroll to the north, Charbay hijacked a few hundred year old practice and claimed it for themselves, saying they were the first to distill a hopped beer as a mash, despite a precedent dating back to the 1700′s of people doing just that. These folks are part of the California craft whisky movement, zealously lauded by bloggers for pushing the envelope, but how far are they really pushing it? A couple hundred miles to the south, Davis asks himself, “what could I mix with my whisky mash that might kill a man on the cusp of dehydration? Eureka! Sea water!!!” As I write this, even, he’s still evolving, fermenting milk dunder for rye and harnessing the power of the sun in some bizarre, alchemical fashion. I can’t even keep up!

But make no mistake, Davis doesn’t try to take credit for being the first to distill on salt water. He’s actually doubtful that he’s the first. He stumbled onto the idea of using salt water while pondering a map of Scotland and trying to figure out how a barrel aged in Glasgow takes on an oceanic quality being so far from the ocean. Even barrels aged by the sea were perplexing, as salt can’t penetrate the pores of the cask. So where is it coming from? Are they pumping sea water into the fermenters?

One more curiosity, in Scotland, the stills are fixed or replaced every ten years as the distilling takes its toll, while over in France, there are Cognac stills that have been running solid for 90 years. You know what can cause metal to wear out faster than normal, don’t you? Salt. It was the possibility that ocean-side and island-dwelling distillers may be using sea water in a more direct way than they let on, which lead Davis to investigate. Eventually, after he finishes piecing together his forensics lab at the distillery, he plans to see if he can find the tell-tale chemical markers that would give away the secrets hiding within. Saying that I’m eager to hear about his results is a colossal understatement.

As for the whisky itself, this bottle of Umami shows significant growth in the Lost Spirits house style. I’m definitely digging it. I can’t quite figure out if Davis is a scientist or a madman. Perhaps he’s a little of both, but either way, whether or not the world is ready for what he has to offer, I have a feeling we’ll see his name associated with the discovery of some wild advance in whisky, soon. Stay tuned!

Nose: Youthful with lots of that dusty, Salinas terrior they’re known for. Kodak film in the little, black, plastic containers film used to come in. Drift wood smoke and heaps of smoldering sandalwood incense. Cedar planks and salted cashews. Oddly lemony with an extremely light malt, oatmeal cookies, and dry seaweed.

Palate: Fiery and resinous with the drift wood from the nose. It sticks with you for a long time and eventually finds itself seeping through every cell in your body, until you can practically taste it with your skin. Fistfuls of lovely pipe tobacco stuffed into a sun-baked bike tire. Savory eggplant, tomato skins, and musky cologne. The finish is raw capsaicin on the sides of your tongue with loads of sandalwood, and just as the monster trails off, it leaves you with a hint of cocoa powder.

Rating: Recommended but EvilThis is the new badge and category I’ve created especially for the Lost Spirits team to celebrate what I would call their best batch yet: “Recommended but Evil”. Life is short. Live a little and leave no room for regrets. Grab the beast by the horns and confront the terrors of the world, because really, nothing will ever be as terrible as the monsters within. Plus, once you’ve seen what the depths have to offer, you may be surprised to find yourself coming back for more.

Many thanks to Bryan Davis for the bottle. Cheers!

Tincup – American Whisky (42%)

TINCUP“At 22, Jess Graber packed up his bags and moved to Colorado in hopes of finding himself and inspiration. A volunteer fire fighter, Jess fell in love with the mountains and discovered his love for distillation. And Colorado’s TINCUP whiskey was born.”
-Tincup’s neck tag

Strange. Even ignoring the weird sentence fragment and the end, that blurb seems disjointed… like it’s missing something. Oh, that’s right. In between the firefighter thing and TINCUP, Graber established and then sold Stranahan’s to Proximo Spirits. He’s not completely free of Proximo, though. Now he’s lent his name to a sourced spirit under their stewardship. Red, White and Bourbon’s Josh Chinn nailed it when he postulated the exact mix of MGPI mashbills used. Less than two months later they would officially confirm what Chinn surmised on his own. Nice job, Josh! 

I’m not sure Proximo intended to reveal their source, though. It seems like Josh might have blown their cover and forced them into damage control mode. Like many bloggers before me who tried to jump on the story when Tincup first became available, Proximo never returned any of my emails and the Stranahan’s people were mildly annoyed by my queries. There was a vacuum of information.

Their more recent and painfully cheesy website seems to imply that they were working hard on the Colorado angle up until the flurry of interviews where Jess Graber gave away the game. Look at this ranch. Elk good. Water cold. Jess Graber not single. We make whisky. No. I’m sorry, Jess, but you don’t. Not anymore.

Jess Graber's Tincup

from tincupwhiskey.com

I have to admit, I’m pretty annoyed by people who buy from MGPI at this point. Trying to find new, American whisky has become a chore. These guys in Indiana are flooding the market. Now, I have to spend twice as long scouring labels looking for the word Indiana, or even better, the phrase distilled by followed by anywhere else, and it’s getting harder to avoid buying into it. There have been points where the open part of my whisky shelf had been inadvertently taken over by MGPI products. Not that all their stiff is swill, some of it is very good, but I’ve walked into smaller stores where they didn’t even have anything else other than the regulars (Johnnie, Jack, & Jim) and MGPI wares. That’s crazy!

Many of the non-distiller producers have the same lame excuse, too: I wanted it to be affordable. Well, sourced-whisky vendors, I wanted it to be different. I didn’t want my whisky shelf to be an MGPI collection. As if they knew people would eventually come to the same disappointed conclusion, they expanded their line-up last year, to include more rye mashes, along with a new wheat and a barley mash… sigh.

I have to give the Tincup team credit, though. This is a really cool looking bottle. The hexagonal shape makes me want to carry it with me and watch the spirit slosh around. Where Stranahan’s left it’s cup to be held on by gravity alone, and was often lost immediately after opening, the tin cup on top of Tincup actually screws onto the bottle, integrating nicely.

Nose: Smells more like rye than a Bourbon. Sunflower, carpenter’s pencil, cinnamon candies and 80′s ski lodge. Guava and salvaged barn board. Lime, celery stalk and sweet, virgin, pool liner. As it airs out, the graphite swells. It’s a little sharp but not very complicated.

Palate: Cherry cough drops with a tiny smudge of black licorice. Like the nose, the start of the palate screams rye, but as it progresses it let’s some Bourbon out. Blindfolded, I would have had a very difficult time guessing whether this was rye or Bourbon. Graphite with some cinnamon spice. Not a huge complicated whisky with a simple finish to match.

Rating: RecommendedI give this rating very timidly and with one caveat: for the $27 I’ve seen stores sell it for, awesome, but for the $35 I see on a few websites, I’d hesitate.

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – batch 92 (47%)

Stranahan's Colorado WhiskyBefore the distillery was officially founded, George Stranahan let Jess Graber use his barn to experiment distilling his whisky. At the time, Stranahan was not only a bootlegging accomplice, but owner of Flying Dog Brewery, so Graber began distilling leftover kegs and any odds and ends he could get Stranahan to give him. Eventually, Graber “crafted his own recipe from barley” and tasked Flying Dog to brew it for them, essentially outsourcing the mash he would use for his whisky.

The official distillery was founded in 2004 by Graber and Stranahan. Graber quickly brought amateur distiller Jake Norris into the fold to help with production as a minority partner. In 2007, Flying Dog moved to Maryland so Stranahan’s switched to Oskar Blues for their wash. Two years after that, they bought a new space and started making their own wash. Finally, in 2010, Graber sold the whole thing to Proximo spirits. Norris was the last of the trio left working the floor when he departed in 2011. He’s hinted in interviews that he has a side project he’s planning, but nothing has surfaced yet. Thus concludes the journey of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey from craft to corporate in six short years.

Knowing the genesis of this brand, I suspect there are some hops in the mash. Flying Dog makes a lot of very hoppy brews. Proximo is notorious for its reluctance to comment, though the official reply I received from Stranahan’s very plainly denied the addition. The website claims it’s “straight Colorado whisky”. If it were straight whisky, that would rule out any adjuncts like hops, but the only declaration on this bottle uses the word straight to describe where it came from, “straight from the Rocky’s,” and I have a suspicion that the word Colorado in between straight and whisky on the website may provide them disingenuous cover, as well.

Nose: White wine, dry cave and hops over a malty base. Given lots of air there’s evidence of a beautiful single malt in here. Sliced almonds and raspberries. Woody like a Bourbon. Slightly under-dried apple chips. Socks and boiled egg whites waft in between milk chocolate.

Palate: Hops dominate all for the first few moments before retreating to offer a little footing for traces of other flavors. IPA on the middle of the tongue and stout in back. Bright with bitter grapefruit, cola and heaps of ripe apples. Numbing. A little of the chocolate in the finish implies there may be some darker roasted malt in the mix.

Rating: Try itI love the nose but find myself less enamored with the palate. The roar of its cult status is hard to muffle, though. It doesn’t suffer from lack of character but I’ve had much better bottles. I do find it strange that WhistlePig receives so much criticism for being 10 years old and costing upwards of $60, while Stranahan’s rolls in with no age statement and a verbally marketed age of 2-5 years for the same price without commotion from the peanut gallery.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Made with Rice (45%)

Buffalo Trace Rice MashThis is a Bourbon mash padded with rice instead of rye or wheat. Like all of Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection, the label lays out lots of details about the spirit’s creation, including stave drying time, evaporation rate, and barrel entry proof. Very cool.

The official tasting notes on this one’s label are a little puzzling to me, though. The very first line which states “Very clean aroma,” loses me right away. Anyone who’s smelled rice spirit knows it’s anything but clean. Rice is a funky grain that often distills out to become a vinegary sewer of a spirit. This Bourbon is rather light overall, but that rice funk is here in spades. Anyone nosing this next to a classic Buffalo Trace bottling would know right away what rice offers to the spirit… which is precisely where this whisky starts to shine.

This is one of the few “experimental” whiskies that I didn’t immediately regret buying when I opened it. It’s probably not going to quench your Bourbon thirst if that’s what ails you; it’s a little alien, but if you’re looking for some cerebral drinking then this might just scratch that itch. Judging by the exorbitant price, I would say that’s the market they were probably going after when they released this one. It’s definitely not meant to be a day-to-day whisky. This is a bottle that you open once and then wait for your nerdiest whisky friends to come over and sample.

Nose: At first, it’s bright and sweet with bubblegum and pop rocks. Carrots and medicated vanillin start to take the aroma in a different direction. Then it becomes porkish, like the pig-fart smell a chemically treated pork shoulder from an industrial scale farm gives off when you boil it, with other weirdly funky undertones, like bamboo salt.

Palate: First sip is like sucking on the tape from a cassette. Eventually, the palate settles down into something sweeter and slightly more classical but it stays slightly bitter and woody. Loads of caramel. Light orange candy in the finish.

Rating: Try itAgain, this is not an everyday whisky. The word Bourbon on the label will lead you down an alleyway booby trapped with expectations. You need to ignore those little voices telling you what to want from the spirit and let the drink tell you what it is, instead. If you can manage that, then this $60 350mL half-bottle may just make an interesting addition to your whisky shelf.

West Cork Distillers – McFadden Irish Spirit (40%)

McFadden Irish SpiritTo celebrate International Whisky Day, today I’m going to talk about this… um… whisky…ish substance… ironically of course, because whisky needs no holiday, yet seems to have three, if you count the antagonistic World Whiskey Day.

This bottle was produced by West Cork Distillers, a small start-up from Ireland founded with grant money and support from the West Cork Enterprise Board. The Board was part of a group of 35 that the European Union helped to form to develop businesses and inspire entrepreneurship across the region. If you’re looking for proof that politics are terrible at developing pragmatic businesses, you may not have to look much further than this. From the outside looking through the lens of this product, it seems a little bit like a lab trying to grow businesses in test tubes using funds allocated by the EU Structural Funds Program.

West Cork Distillers isn’t the only thing here that sounds engineered, though. This five person operation, two of whom were previously deep sea fisherman, does not appear to be distilling spirits, so this bottle, which the Facebook page and neck band precariously dub “whisky,” fits the description bizarrely engineered, as well.

McFadden NeckbandWCD’s flagship product, a 22% abv Irish spirit called Drombeg, was “created” to answer the needs of folks who don’t want to drink beer but can’t tolerate hard liquor or fruit-based alcohols. According to their webpage, it is “one of only two non-sweetened savoury brown spirit liqueurs on the global market.” Their Kennedy and Lough Hyne products appear to be equally strange permutations of brown, middleweight proof beverage. Thirsty yet? I know I am, but I’m not in the market for savory, brown liqueur, so what can these folks do for the likes of hard-drinking, neat-whisky loving me?

While there does appear to be some misdirection, make no mistake, the main label defines this as a “spirit drink” , “a recipe of whiskey and malt” and offers that it is ”oak filtered,” whatever that means. It sounds like a Frankenstein of grain alcohol infused with malted barley, caramel color and sawdust, though the label also implicates at least some whisky in the liquid contents. What mysteries lie in wait for those daring enough to try this beast? Official sources declined to answer my emails so let’s find out the hard way.

McFadden Facebook Page

Well, it was challenging… to keep down.

Nose: An unsupervised five year old cranking out crayon pancakes with grape soda for his collection of stuffed animals. Malty vinyl, like a decade old Trapper-Keeper full of stale crystal malt. Stony raisins with toasted shellac. Coffee cakes glazed with graham cracker scented interior paint. Isopropyl rubbing alcohol and butterscotch marching across a Canadian hellscape in pursuit of an old lady wearing too much perfume.

Palate: Hits of that flavor grape soda acid leaves in your mouth after a sip coupled with bitter prednisone. Unflavored gelatin. Unmalted barley. Especially boozy and fake. It has a thin, solventy mouthfeel and lots of chemical signature stalked by a mildly smoky finish.

Rating: RiskyThis stuff is creepy. I took my first sip and woke up shoeless on a park bench 20 minutes later with a raging case of pinkeye and no recollection of how I got there. If you’re looking for a passive-aggressive Secret Santa gift for that whisky-drinking loudmouth you work with, this is it.