Category Archives: 2 – Recommended

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!

SMWS – 39.83 Yummy and Mouth-Watering (53.9%)

SMWS 39.83Buying clubs like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society aren’t for everyone. Amateur whisky drinkers may not get the most out of a membership. It can be challenging to appreciate a unique cask or grapple with cask strength spirits in general if you don’t have at least a little experience with them. If you’re used to drinking blends at 40% abv, a malt whisky with a more focused character screaming in at 54% may seem like an unexpected kick to the face.

The price can be prohibitive for casual consumers, as well. Right now, it costs $260 after tax and shipping to join. The yearly renewal fees are around $70 before tax, too, which is $15 less than the least expensive bottle you can buy there. When I asked why they charge membership and renewal fees, the answer I received was “Because we are a private membership club and our whiskies are extremely limited in availability.” They certainly don’t beg for membership, and judging by the slim volume of samples I’ve tasted so far, they really don’t need to.

Fledgling competitors over at the Single Cask Nation use membership fees the way a CSA does; as a cash advance to purchase casks. While you get most of your money back in whisky immediately if you bought a full priced membership, they only run about 6 whiskies at a time and they don’t have the volume yet to add to their line-up more than once or twice a year. Compared to that, the half-dozen that the SMWS adds to their catalog twice a month seems like an extreme variety.

There are also a bunch of small indie bottlers, like the Exclusive Malts, A.D. Rattray, Master of Malt, or Blackadder, to name a few, available to consumers without a membership at all, though the marketing and information about those casks exists in varying degrees of completeness. Looking around at the state of these indie bottlers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think the SMWS membership fees are really there to help weed out the uninitiated and qualify their members as active consumers of luxury goods.

It’s also possible that the SMWS uses the high cost of membership to encourage members to buy more whisky in order to get their money’s worth. Judging by the well thought out marketing and tasting notes, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, either.

Nose: A little minerally at first sniff, with some  small cask wood, like a cobblestone path through the forest. Patches of heather. Lots of honey, some Jordan almond. Dry grass brings me memories of trespassing on the chaparral hills around San Luis Obispo. Steamed edamame, slight musk and cleanly fermenting mash. A plate of cubed melon and a freshly opened pack of Marlboro Lights over an early summer breakfast round it out.

Palate: The palate is very congruent with the nose, with few additions. It’s cooling with a medium, coconut shaving finish that sticks with the tongue. The honey washes in followed by steamed edamame skins, heathery sweetness, artificial sweetener and Marlboro/melon breakfast. Traces of fennel seed and soppressata. 

Rating: RecommendedThis 28 year old Linkwood aged very nicely in a refill hogshead. Hogshead usually means that the cask was rebuilt from ex-Bourbon barrel staves, into a slightly larger vessel. Usually, a barrel is about 53 gallons (200 liters) while a hogshead is 10 gallons larger (~240 liters). Refill hogsheads are nice for long term maturation and add a sweetness not polluted with excess spice or resiny notes.

Thanks to Gabrielle Shayne and the US branch of the SMWS for the sample!

High West – Rendezvous Rye (46%) batch 13H27

Rendezvous RyeToday I bid farewell to this block of High West reviews by reviewing the other blend of straight rye whiskies in their lineup, the Rendezvous Rye.

This company is doing great things. Their transparency, while not all encompassing, is still refreshing and quite a bit more honest than most of their whisky sourcing competition. I’m very interested in seeing how their house-distilled, oat and rye stocks turn out. Hopefully, they’ve laid down a strong foundation to bottle from and we’ll see some exciting stuff somewhere on down the line. In the meantime, I’m as excited to try any other blended or sourced products they choose to send to market.

This Rendezvous Rye is, like the Double Rye!, a mix of Barton and MGPI straight rye stocks. The MGPI component is now 6 years old instead of 2, but still the classic 95/5 mashbill. The Barton stock is still 16, but pushes the rye in the mashbill from 53% up to 80% with the remainder evenly split between corn and malt. The lack of corn sweetness plays out in a much bolder, spicier expression. It’s grittier, with more herbs and resin; a very sturdy spirit with a fearless streak.

Nose: Darker, much spicier and not nearly as sweet as the Double Rye! Potatoes and flapjacks served by an old lady who’s wearing a lot of perfume. Batter fried ether. Sun beaten saddle leather smeared with sweet potato pie. Granite boulders brought to life by Bob Ross, living under happy little pine trees. Charred apples and mint. Smacks of sage, rosemary and cocoa powder.

Palate: Slightly bitter and ethery, opening up to brown butter sauce as you forge on. Charcoal pencil. Pickles and sweet potato pie. Bolder than the Double Rye. Grilled candy apple, charred around the edges. Powdered potatoes with dried herbs. Cooling finish that leaves your tongue and gums a little numb and lights a little fire in your chest.

Rating: RecommendedWhile the Rendezvous seems truer to the spirit of the grain, I can’t help but miss the slightly younger, cheaper Double Rye! It’s a hard act to follow. This one is more expensive at $45-50 and has more of a chemical signature to it, though it’s a fine rye none the less.

Thank you Katie Flanagan for High West for the bottle!

High West – Campfire (46%) batch 13H16

High West CampfireIt’s been cold in New England, lately. Of course it’s always New England in New England so it’s also been inexplicably balmy and rainy between waves of polar humiliation. The people here don’t all like the crazy weather, but to some, unpredictable seasons are part of the charm of living here. Personally, I’d be happier having a grandparent-type relationship with the cold and snow, like if I could come and visit it for a while and then go home if it starts to annoy me. Maybe I would write it long winded emails IN ALL CAPS WITH NO PUNCTUATION EVER while ignoring all of its replies.

Unlike the atypical mix of weather that’s happening all over my driveway, the atypical mix of whisky I’m about to review today is really nice. This is an American/Scottish hybrid; blended Scotch, mixed with straight Bourbon and straight rye. Peat and rye can both be delicious when they’re still young and punchy. The peat also benefits from the sweetness of the Bourbon. In turn, the Bourbon and rye dilute the peat’s smoke, showing us what blended scotch could taste like if they used more virgin casks.

In fact, I could see using this as a blended Scotch in mixed drinks to punch up the Scotch flavor. Try using it in a Penicillin for a little extra pop!

Nose: Band-Aid phenol and rye vinyl intertwine for the most obvious parts of the first impression. Agitating or swirling the glass sends the vanilla up. It smells a little bit like cocaine in autumn. Other evidence of the pedigree; raisins mashed in cocoa, and traces of coconut suntan lotion. Sandalwood and blueberry macerated in brown sugar put it all together.

Palate: It starts off blatantly Scotch, with a peat that the Rye and Bourbon layers are applied over. They enter the palate in that order for me; peat > spice > sweet. Leafy peat and a mild pepper meander throughout. Onions and woody toothpaste change into fish sauce and sambal olek chili paste. Next come apricots and blueberries. There’s almost a butterscotchy Canadian sweetness to it all.

Rating: RecommendedUnlike the Son of Bourye, which left me scratching my head, the reasons for blending the Campfire make a lot more sense. I wouldn’t assume any of the parts were amazing alone, but together they definitely make something really nice.

Thank you Katie Flanagan of High West for the bottle!

Benriach 1998 15yr PX Finish (56.1%): A Jew’s Your Own Adventure Story

BenRiach 1998 15yr PX

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in my whisky journey, I reached out to a local whisky writer I had found online operating on the opposite end of the state. He was kind enough to invite me to a few parties he put together and was unreasonably welcoming from the very first email. He’s a riot to drink with and I’m lucky to be able to call him a friend. Whisky is always more fun with friends and the community that surrounds it is an awesome one to belong to. So in that spirit, today I’d like to share a link to a collaborative review I had the pleasure of writing with Joshua Hatton of Jew Malt Whisky Reviews, for a fine whisky he poured me a few weeks ago; the BenRiach 1998 15yr PX Finish.

Also, stay tuned for the second of our group efforts later this week right here at Shalom!

WhistlePig – Boss Hog first release (67.5%)

WhistlePig Boss HogI remember buying my first bottle of WhistlePig 100/100, shortly after it hit the shelves near me in 2011. The word Vermont appeared five times on the label. It was only after I brought it home and spent some time looking at the bottle that I noticed the word Canada also made an important appearance, but only once. It was Canadian whisky, after all, merely bottled in Vermont after Dave Pickerell stumbled onto it. Canada Canada Canada Canada Canada Vermont. Marketing at its most deceptive.

Another common rumor surrounding WhistlePig, is that it’s the flavoring whisky from Alberta Distillers. They’ve been making a well-known 100% rye-mashed whisky there for longer than ten years and in a fashion that allows some of it to be marketed in the US as straight rye. Another Canadian spirit bottled and sold as 100% straight rye in the US, Masterson’s, comes from Alberta Distillers and boasts a familiar description, so Alberta becomes the obvious target for speculators.

The difficulty of mashing with solely rye is what makes it a rare style. Commercial enzymes that whisky distillers typically use to boost their mash don’t work very well with rye, and without any help, cooked rye turns into a foamy, sticky, hard to distill clump. Not only that, but unlike corn mash, which leaves relatively little mess in the still which can be removed by running a light caustic or acidic solution through, rye mash leaves a film on the walls that requires actual scrubbing to remove. Proteins and excess glucans are the main culprit behind the stickiness and enzymes that attack the small number of starches in corn and barley don’t find enough familiar material to break down in rye.

Alberta Distillers, one of the big two Canadian operations to find a workaround, took a page from sake and shochu producers in Japan who were tasked with fermenting difficult starches like rice, awamori, sesame or chesnuts. Those manufacturers use a variety of aspergillus mold called koji to break down difficult starches. The mold creates unique enzymes that help with that specific type of grain and make clumpy porridge, like mashed rice, turn into a usable soup that flows more freely through the still. In like fashion, Alberta Distillers bred their own variety of aspergillus that feeds on rye and creates enzymes especially suited to helping break down the grain. These customized enzymes do more to the mash than traditional enzymes, turning cell walls and other non-starch parts of the grain into fermentable substances, increasing the yield.

Now, whether or not WhistlePig’s whisky is really from Alberta Distillers is still unconfirmed, and official sources are forbidden from mentioning the source. There are other 100% rye whiskies older than 10 years in the US, right now, so it’s not an impossible feat or a completely extinct style even. There are even other, younger Canadian distillers running 100% rye mashes. It’s not unlikely that a distillery might play a few cards close to their vest, either. There may have been another Canadian distillery quietly running a 100% rye all along.

However unlikely it is that WhistlePig is not Alberta Distillers’, I’d hesitate to argue with the real authority on Canadian whisky, Davin de Kergommeaux, when he points out that Alberta Distillers and Hiram Walker are the only two distilleries in Canada that could possibly be the source. To play Devil’s advocate, though, Hiram Walker, like American brewer-distillers Anchor in California did for their Old Potrero line-up, chose the easy path and used rye malt in the mix. The enzymes produced by the grain itself are perfect for their purposes and there’s no complicated mold-breeding involved. If the solution were that easy all along, it’s entirely possible that someone else may have been distilling a 100% rye mash elsewhere.

Playing devil’s advocate to my devil’s advocate, with less than a dozen distilleries in Canada, the options are limited and the likelihood that it wasn’t Hiram or Alberta becomes less plausible. But enough waffling. WhistlePig ultimately needs this kind of confusion to make pushing its feigned American identity a little easier.

According to brand ambassadors, we may see an actual distillery up in Shoreham, Vermont, by 2014, though I’m skeptical, myself. Assuming it does happen, we’ll still have to wait however long it takes to mature after that before we see a true Vermont product with the WhistlePig flag on it. They may end up releasing a 5 year old, or judging by the small size of the farm and their insistence that they’ll be a farm-to-glass distillery, they may back-peddle and not release anything at all. By all accounts I’ve heard, it can take up to a year or longer to contract a still to be built for you, so the clock is definitely ticking for a 2014 setup.

My only hope is that WhistlePig doesn’t fall victim to the siren song of the mini-cask, like a few of Pickerell’s other projects have. When you put a profit thirsty businessman like Raj in charge of a distillery, it’s not unlikely that smaller casks might make an unfortunate appearance, and judging by the likes of Pickerell-led small-caskers like Sons of Liberty, King’s County and Hillrock, it’s a distinct possibility. We’ll see if the distillery he and Raj build will be able to carry the torch that anonymous distillery x has lit for them.

Nose: Much bolder and richer than the 10yr 100/100. Coca cola and wintergreen. Dank honey and dark nutmeg roll over star anise and pho dac biet. Delightfully complex, like wandering through an old person’s home and discovering waves of lived in smells; medicated menthol, musk, french fries in peanut oil, orange zest, and roasted acorn squash.

Palate: A little musty and very effervescent. Oatmeal cookies with cashews. Orange oil rubbed furniture. The spice takes the form of a strong pho broth; allspice, star anise, ginger powder, coriander and fennel seed. Bright amplified finish that lasts. Exactly what I thought a cask strength WhistlePig would taste like.

Rating: RecommendedI like cask strength and I love rye, so this new release is a no-brainer.

The Boss Hog bottlings will be single cask releases from the same stocks that the flagship 100/100 rye come from. At the moment, official sources are saying they hope to release new bottlings yearly.

Until then, thank you, Dave Pickerell, for finding some fine rye whisky, and thank you to Connor Burleigh for the sample!