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My Tales of the Cocktail Adventure: 2018 Edition

Taking place during another sauna-like summer in New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail swept through the city like a cool breeze.  The spirits industry gathered here in NOLA for a week of seminars, themed parties, and cocktails.  Tales, under new ownership, seemed to put the focus on education and well-being.  I’ll say this – I didn’t get a lot of the “let’s get trashed” vibe I typically see.  Hell, even the William Grant & Sons Portfolio was alcohol-free.  It’s refreshing, actually, and I hope Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s new mantra remains at its core in the future.

So, what kind of whiskey shenanigans did I get into this year?

My 2018 Tales experience began Tuesday night with a visit from Crown Royal National Brand Ambassador Stephen Wilson.  Like Santa on Christmas Eve, Stephen arrived at my house bearing gifts – a couple of wonderful Crown Royal expressions to taste- Blenders’ Mash and the new 13-year-old Blenders’ Mash, part of their Noble Collection series.  We documented the tasting on my Youtube channel.

Next on my schedule was a visit with Glenfiddich’s David Allardice.  While sampling Glenfiddich Project XX and David’s contribution to that expression (a tasty first-fill bourbon cask), we had a laid back conversation about the Scotch industry.  Specifically about age statements and the importance of blenders.  David poured a bit of the newly announced Glenfiddich Fire & Cane, the latest entry of the brand’s Experimental series – a lightly peated whisky (a rarity for Glenfiddich) finished in rum casks.

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Glenfiddich’s David Allardice showing off two of the whisky brand’s Experimental Series releases.

My Friday kicked off with a spirited chat with The Balvenie’s Jonathan Wingo at the famous Carousel Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone.  Over a Vieux Carré and daiquiri, we circled geeky territory as the subject of whisky highballs came up.  Jonathan mentioned the carbonation acts as a flavor delivery system, really bringing a whisky’s oils (flavor carriers) to the palate.  We both agreed a highball is a more enjoyable summer cocktail than a mint julep.  Now I want to make a whisky highball with The Balvenie 14-year-old Peat Week release.

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New Orleans Bourbon Festival founders Tracy Napolitano & Barbara Hirsch-Napolitano deep into their Maker’s Mark Private Select pick for next year’s festival.

After that I was off to briefly take part in the Maker’s Mark Private Select pick for the New Orleans Bourbon Festival.  Maker’s program is a great alternative to just picking a barrel, and it was great to see the unique process firsthand.  Next year’s festival is going to feature a wide range of single barrel and unique picks made specifically for the event.   More on that coming in a later post…

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Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell

Next on the agenda was the Wild Turkey Vault featuring a selection of vintage expressions!  The promise of tasting special whiskey overshadowed the sweltering heat.  Eddie and Bruce Russell were pouring in the back of Sylvain’s courtyard.  I went for the new Wild Turkey Revival and Russell’s Reserve 2002.

Wild Turkey Revival is finished in sherry casks and proved to be a rich, dry-fruit laced expression of the bourbon.  Russell’s Reserve 2002 is as special as the Russell’s Reserve 1998 release a few years ago – a potent blast of classic Wild Turkey flavor.

This is where I also ran into the inimitable Fred Minnick and Beam Suntory’s Adam Harris.  It was also my face-to-face introduction to WhiskyCast’s Mark Gillespie.  I hope to see them in NOLA next March at New Orleans Bourbon Festival.

Rounding out my Friday night was a Brenne Whisky dinner with the wonderfully welcoming Allison Parc, founder of the French single malt brand.  The intimate, friendly group of seven in attendance experienced a rollicking good conversation over the maritime delicacies of Pêche Restaurant.

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Saturday saw my first and only Tales seminar this year – Irish Whiskey: What’s in Your Warehouse.  It was moderated by Tullamore D.E.W. Ambassador Tim Herlihy and featured Teeling Whiskey’s Robert Caldwell, Walsh Whiskey Distillery’s Stuart Caffrey, Kilbeggan’s Michael Egan, and Midleton’s Jessamine McLellan.  In addition to learning about the category (did you know Irish whiskey can be aged in any type of wood?), we got to taste some one-of-a-kind whiskies straight from the warehouses.  Here’s what we tried, with my original notes (non-edited)

Teeling Whiskey – Plantation Rum collaboration.Finished in rum casks for about a year.Lots of malt, green banana, pineapple, other fresh tropical fruit and a touch of spice.46% abv

Walsh Whiskey Distillery – Writer’s Tears Copper Pot Deau XO Cognac 7-month  finish. Honeyed fruit, pot still character, soft cognac character on the backend.

Tullamore D.E.W. – Single Malt.No release planned yet – still maturing.Malty.Vibrant.Rich.Warm finish.Could be very interesting once released.

Tullamore D.E.W. #2  – “when things go wrong”.  Stout finish. Funky off note on nose.Overpowers whisky character.

Kilbeggan – Single Malt. – 7-yo in bourbon barrels.Bright citrus, malty, grapefruit,57(ish)% abv.

Midleton – single pot still trifecta. Component whiskies of upcoming release (Red Spot?)

  1. First-fill Bourbon cask. Lots of vanilla and floral, banana, toffee.Some spice.57.5% abv. Went into barrel in 2002.
  2. First fill Marsala Cask – slightly burnt; sweeter and savory palate; dried fruits; bitter, dry finish (American oak seasoned for two years) 58.3% (19yo)
  3. Oloroso sherry European oak seasoned for 2 years. Went into Cask in 2001 (17 yr). Beautiful, dark fruits.Large dark, dry sherry notes

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Right after the outstanding seminar, Tim Herlihy and I talked about the explosion of the Irish whiskey category.  As long as quality standards hold up among new and planned distilleries, the continued boom will be an exciting time.  That’s especially true as it will allow more and more experiments in the category.  We know experiments are hit or miss, but when distillers and blenders strike gold, it just means more interesting whiskey for us.

Finally, my Tales adventure came to a fitting end when whisky author and host of The Whisky Topic podcast Mark Bylok swung by the house to interview me for the podcast.  I recounted my “whiskey journey” with a tasting of four delicious whiskies.

All in all, a very laid back Tales for me this year.  Don’t conflate laid back with non-eventful.  The folks I had the pleasure of talking whisk(e)y with shared lots of great stories, information, and a most welcome enthusiasm for the spirit.  I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to chat with me, as well as the folks behind-the-scenes who worked to schedule everything.  I look forward to next year.

By the way, keep an eye out in the near future for full reviews of the whiskies mentioned above.

 

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The Color of Consistency

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I love whisky.  That’s no surprise given that I run this whisky blog.  And you probably love the amber nectar too, as you’re clearly reading this post.  I’m certain you’ve run across a particular phrase at one point or another during your whisky adventure.

Amber nectar.

Think about those two words for a second.  Now, like the finish on a beautiful single malt, let that first word linger for a while.

Amber.

More often than not, it’s a word used to describe the color of a whisky.  I’ve seen it used in countless reviews over the years, from whisky novices to seasoned spirits writers.  It’s ever present in whisky tastings all over the world.  The very first thing you’re told to do is hold your dram of whisky up to the light and study its color.  Just like with food, appearance is the first thing you notice, right?  True, but when it comes to a large percentage of whiskies, describing the color is a bit of a farce.

Here’s something you might not know – most Scotch whiskies have color added.  That beautiful shade of amber is partially manufactured by the addition of E150 caramel coloring.  Yep, that’s not the whisky’s natural color you’re looking at.

Brands point to consistency between batches as their reason for doing so.  That might be a valid reason, but this isn’t the 1960s anymore.  As Mr. Dylan wrote, “the times they are a’changin’.”  We are in an era of the informed consumer.  Now, more than ever, customers want to know more about what they’re drinking and how it’s made.  I believe the modern consumer would be fine with a little difference in color from batch to batch.

No one’s to blame here but the whisky brands themselves.

Just look at the disappearing age statement and the recent explosion of non-age stated whisky expressions.  Brands created the misconception that older is better, and now they’re trying promote the spirit based on its quality and flavor profile, not on its age.  But if brands are trying to reeducate the imbibing public on age statements, why not also teach them that color isn’t always a sign of the quality or age of the spirit.  The argument that “older isn’t always better” fits perfectly with a whisky’s appearance – a light colored whisky is not inferior to a dark colored one.  Keep the focus on the flavor profile.

Not all brands are adding color.  Compass Box, for example, does not add any color to their whiskies.  I believe Highland Park and The Macallan are two big brands whose whiskies’ color comes naturally from the cask.

There’s an argument out there about whether or not the addition of E150 caramel coloring adds any flavor to a whisky, or even affects the finish.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s really a stretch.  All that’s affected is the spirit’s appearance.

As for bourbon, so long the words “straight bourbon whiskey” are on the label, you can rest assured nothing but water has been added.  Without the word “straight”, a small amount of color and even flavor can be added.

Fellow whisky enthusiasts, you may have noticed I rarely mention color in my whisky reviews.  I generally forego any color description and start with a description of aromas unless I know that no color has been added to the whisky.  I cannot and will not contribute to the description of a manufactured color.  It serves no purpose.

So with that, I’m off to pour a dram of whisky.  It will probably have coloring added, but it’s not going to affect my enjoyment of the whisky any less.  I just won’t concern myself with its color.

Cheers!

The Hennessy Experience

This year at Tales of the Cocktail, Hennessy showed up with a mission to impress and educate.  The cognac giant held “The Hennessy Experience,” walking attendees through the cognac making process as well as an unmatched cognac tasting.

While waiting for the event to start, attendees enjoyed refreshing Hennessy cocktails.  I asked for a Sazerac – remember, the classic cocktail was originally made with cognac, not rye whiskey.  This version was less spicy and much fruitier than the standard rye whiskey-based recipe.

Photo courtesy of Hennessy.

Hennessy Brand Ambassador Jordan Bushell kicked off the experience with a pour of wine made from ugni blanc, the grape varietal most associated with cognac.  The wine was bright and vibrant, and contained a mineral quality.  It had some light citrus notes as well.  Not bad, but not something I’d reach for.  Ugni Blanc might not make a nice wine, but it does wonderfully once distilled.

We were then handed an eau de vie distilled from 100% Fin Bois.  Fin Bois is one of several sub-regions, or crus, in the Cognac region.  The other crus include Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaire. Champagne in this case doesnt mean the wine making region.  Instead, it refers to the chalky soil of the region.  The eau de vie was slightly sweet and fruity, with a touch of minerality.

 

Bushell discussed the distillation process at length, as well as how Hennessy works closely with the many winemakers in the area. He then moved into barrel maturation.  By law, cognac producers can only use French oak casks.  Where bourbon producers here in America may only use a barrel once, cognac producers can reuse barrels as much as they want.  Hennessy’s oldest barrel dates back to 1830.

Maturation consists of many grades of casks and two different types of cellars.  A Category A cask has a strong toast, imbuing strong oak notes to the spirit.  A Category B is one that’s been used for a year, and will continue to age eaux de vie for two to four years.  A cask of this age still has a large amount of tannins.  Category C casks are used from five to nine years.  Bushell said less than 40% tannins are left in a barrel this old.  Once a cask reaches 9 to 20 years in age, it is considered Category D.  There is barely any tannin left to give to the aging eaux de vie.  The oldest barrels, Category E, are 20 – 35 years old.  These are used to “finish and polish,” according to Bushell.  At this point, these barrels are neutral and have little to nothing to add to the spirit. We were shown how these different casks affect the same eaux de vie by trying two different 4-year-old Fin Bois.  One was aged in Category A barrels and another in Category D barrels.  The former featured lots of orchard fruits, dried fruit and spice, while the latter was a bit more subdued and really showcased the grape character of the spirit.  

Hennessy National Brand Ambassador Jordan Bushell explains the maturation process.

What I found most interesting is Hennessy’s tasting committee.  The eight member committee, now led by new Master Blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, gathers every morning in a small white room to taste the previous day’s eaux de vie.  Nothing new here, right?  Wrong.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Based on what they taste, the decide what kind of blend (VS, VSOP, XO, etc.) that unaged spirit is destined for as well as what barrel category the eaux de vie is going to spend its future in.  Insane.

We then met with Oliver Paultes, Hennessy’s Director of Distillation and member of their tasting committee, who gave me some insight on the distillation process as well as a tasting of three different cognacs.

Hennessy Director of Distillation Olivier Paultes

I asked about the difference between distilling grains (whisky) and wine.  Paultes replied, “In Cognac, the wine is different every year, so we have to adapt our distillation to get the best concentration of wine. For example, sometimes you have more lees one year over another. ”

Our first pour was a 20-year-old Fin Bois at 49% abv.  This was bold in nature, compared to the 4-year-old Fin Bois I had moments before.  

Olivier Paultes led our group through a tasting of several rare cognacs.

Blending is an integral part of making cognac, but keeping consistency between those blends can be a challenge. Paultes and the rest of the tasting committee have found a way to make the process more manageable.

 “We select some eaux de vie with special character that is easier to reproduce because you have more consistency,” said Paultes.

The next cognac was a 30-year-old Grande Champange at 56% abv, which was lighter in style and very elegant in flavor.

I left some instructions on a barrel head.

 

One thing Hennessy does during the maturation process is proof down the cognac while in the barrel.  It’s a process that’s done slowly over the years.  Paultes explained, “Because you have fatty acids in new eaux de vie, if you reduce it too quickly you have a chemical reaction called saponification, which is basically soap.  You never reduce it more than 8% at a time.  If you have an eaux de vie at 70% that you want to use quickly – when I say quickly I mean over six to eight years – you reduce it from 70% to 62% abv maximum.  One or two years later you reduce it more, but never more than by 8%.  Anything more than 8% and you start to smell soap.”

The final cognac was a doozy – a 52-year-old Grande Champange from 1965 at 49% abv.  It was the essence of elegance, with more nuanced floral and fruit flavors than I can describe.  That’s one cognac that belongs on anybody’s bucket list.

Over the course of 90 minutes, I gained a new appreciation for the cognac-making process.  There’s a lot that goes into each pour of cognac.  It’s something to think about next time you savor a little eaux de vie.

Thanks to the team at Hennessy for having me at this event.