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My Tales of the Cocktail Adventures: 2017 Edition

July in New Orleans means only one thing: Tales of the Cocktail. This spirits industry convention celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2017, and probably its largest gathering yet. Major and craft spirits brands show up in full force to showcase their spirits and spread knowledge through tastings and seminars. This is my third year attending. It’s easy for me because I live in NOLA, so I’m in the middle of the chaos after a short 10 minute drive from home. Wow, what a week! Here are some highlights:

Photo courtesy of Bulleit Distilling Co.

 TUESDAY


My Tales adventure this year kicked off with a Copper & Kings Happy Hour event to enjoy a delicious brandy cocktail before heading off to dinner with Tom Bulleit at Compère Lapin. Tom was in town to promote a new partnership between Bulleit and Revelator Coffee. Revelator created a Bulleit barrel-aged coffee syrup. It smells and tastes heavenly, by the way.  I’m already experimenting with the syrup at home.  Let’s hope it becomes available to the public in the future.

WEDNESDAY

Irish whiskey was the star of the show at Kilbeggan’s Single Grain launch.

Wednesday started with a visit to the Kilbeggan Rambling House, where Kilbeggan Single Grain Irish Whiskey was the star of the show. Because my schedule was packed, I was only able to stop by for a few minutes as they opened. Unfortunately, there was a slight hiccup with the distributor and the new Single Grain expression hadn’t arrived yet. No problem. I enjoyed a pour of Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira cask finished whiskey. That’s no consolation prize. It’s a delicious malt worth seeking out.  The good news is a small sample is on its way as I type this post.  A review will soon follow.

Hennessy’s Director of Distillation Olivier Paultes walked us through a sampling of different cognacs.

Next up was the Hennessy Experience at Bevolo. National Brand Ambassador Jordan Bushell was on-hand to walk visitors through the cognac making process before introducing us to Hennessy’s Director of Distillation Olivier Paultes, who also sits on the Hennessy Tasting Committee. Olivier led us through a tasting of several cognacs, including a 52-year-old cognac from Grande Champagne. There was so much to see and taste – a quick recap won’t do it justice. Expect a separate post soon.

The Napoleonic Complex, the winning cocktail at Exotico’s cocktail competition. Photo courtesy of Hank Allen.

I managed to stop over to see the tail end of Exotico Tequila’s 2017 cocktail competition. “The Napoleonic Complex,” a margherita pizza-inspired cocktail saw its creator Megan Deschaine take top prize.  Here’s her winning recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Exotico Blanco Tequila
  • .75 oz lime juice
  • .5 oz agave syrup
  • 4 dashes Bittermens Hellfire Bitters
  • 2 dashes Scrappy’s Celery Bitters
  • 1 ripe roma tomato (quartered)
  • 8-10 basil leaves

Muddle tomato quarters and basil in a mixing tin.  Add remaining ingredients and shake vigorously with ice.  Double strain into dressed rocks glass over one large ice cube.  Garnish with a skewered mozzarella ball and basil leaf and half of a salt and pepper rim.


Redemption’s Joe Riggs met me to go over some of the whiskey brand’s offerings, including the newly released Wheated Bourbon. Delicious and priced right at about $45 a bottle. It has a whopping 45% wheat in its mashbill – much more than most, if not all, wheated bourbons out there. It was softer in character, with a nice non-cloying sweetness up front.  Those barrel proof bourbon and rye expressions Joe pulled out at the end of the tasting were no joke!  Fantastic stuff.

Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart and I at the William Grant & Sons Portfolio Party.

Wednesday night ended with the William Grant & Sons portfolio party. It was great catching up with and meeting new Balvenie and Glenfiddich brand ambassadors – and sipping on Balvenie 14-year-old Peated Cask and 21-year-old Port Cask finish. Oh, did I mention Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart was just hanging around. I walked up and introduced myself. We chatted for a good while. As our conversation drew to an end, spirits author extraordinaire Fred Minnick offered up a cigar. Who was I to turn him down? After a wonderful evening, I was off to bed. I had to rest up for what was to be a busy Thursday.

THURSDAY

A lovely dram of The Balvenie DoubleWood 17-year-old.

A quick coffee to start the day? Nonsense! I had a morning meeting with Balvenie’s Brand Ambassador Jonathan Wingo, who brought along pours of Balvenie DoubleWood 12- and 17-year-old whiskies. We talked all things Balvenie, which I’ll cover in-depth in an upcoming post.

Courvoisier Master Blender Patrice Pinet pouring me a glass of XO during a marvelous chat.

Then a quick Lyft ride to the Ritz-Carlton was the only way to not show up for my next appointment soaked in sweat. It was HOT out there! That meeting was with Courvoisier’s Master Blender Patrice Pinet. He makes it to the U.S. only once a year, so I was extremely fortunate enough to meet privately with him. We chatted about cognac cocktail trends and misconceptions, among other things, while tasting through Courvoisier VSOP, XO and L’Essence de Courvoisier. That last one… what an exquisite cognac!


Next on the agenda was a tasting of something new from Japanese spirit maker Nikka. No, it wasn’t whisky. I was there to taste their new gin and vodka. Both spirits were distilled in Nikka’s Coffey still. Emiko Kaji led an informative presentation that included tasting a 100% corn spirits distilled in a column still and one distilled in Nikka’s Coffey still. The latter was much creamier with more body. I also got to smell the different botanicals found in the gin. It was nice to get away from whiskey or cognac, even if was only for a few moments.


Now there are whiskey geeks and then there are whiskey geeks.  All showed up for “Better Drinking Through Chemistry,” a seminar that took a microscopic look at what gives whiskey and cognac their unique flavors.  Moderated by Diageo’s Ewan Morgan, this molecule and compound filled science orgy featured Wiser’s Dr. Don Livermore, Diageo’s Dr. Matthew Crow, and Hennessy’s Jordan Bushell.  We learned why rye grain gives the flavors it does and how barrels and different types of oak affect a spirit’s nature.  Those in attendance sampled Lot 40 Cask Strength, JP Wiser’s Dissertation, a 10-year-old whiskey finished in a cask whose wood staves were seasoned for four years, a 12-year-old Cardhu, an 18-year-old Glen Ord that matured in recharred casks with new American oak ends, as well as Oban Little Bay.  Bushell guided us through a tasting of three different cognacs: a 4-year-old Fin Bois aged in a grade D barrel (an old, used barrel) in a dry cellar, Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 1, and Paradis Impérial to cap off the seminar.  The inner whiskey geek in me walked out with a smile.

Later that night I grabbed a cocktail and a bite to eat at High West’s Spirited Dinner.  The theme was “A Toast to Old Orleans.”  The familiar (to me, anyway) creole food, ragtime jazz band, and Highwest cocktails proved to be a pleasant way to end a hectic day.

FRIDAY


My Friday evening started with a visit to The Macallan’s “Flight for a Cause” tasting at the Ritz.  Sure, it was pretty exciting to get to taste Macallan’s 1824 Series, including Rare Cask, Reflexion, No. 6, and exquisite (and expensive) M, but what impressed me most was the charity aspect.  For every person who attended, Macallan donated $250 to support wounded veterans and their families.  Brand Ambassador Raquel Raies led small groups through a tasting of the series.  I have to say, the small amount of pre-WWII peated casks added to this expression was a masterstroke.  It was one of the most memorable pours in a week of unforgettable spirits.

Westland Whiskey Master Distiller Matt Hoffman

Deep in the French Quarter, I met up with Westland Whiskey Master Distiller Matt Hoffman.  I was pretty pumped to be able to chat with Hoffman and taste Westland for the first time.  “We’re all about balance,” Hoffman said as he poured a few of his single malts:  American Oak, Sherry Wood, Peated, and Garryana.  They were all rich, balanced, and easily drinkable.  The limited edition Garryana offered the same with an added complexity.  That last one is a great example of terrior.  Garryana is a type of American oak only found in a minuscule area in Washington state, and, to my knowledge, Westland is the only whiskey distillery utilizing it.


Capping off my Friday was Diageo’s portfolio party, featuring a performance by Snoop Dogg.  Since I’ve never seen Snoop in concert, I was able to check it off my bucket list while enjoying a Guinness and Bulleit 10 Boilermaker.  This was by far the most crowded portfolio I’ve attended since coming to Tales.  Lots of people, but a helluva lot of fun.

SATURDAY

Saturday morning started with a meet-and-greet with Cedar Ridge founder/owner Jeff Quint.  We talked about how he started the Iowa distillery and his aim to put out a quality product that doesn’t taste like anything currently on the market.  Quint brought along some expressions for me to try.  The corn whiskey was light and sweet (perfect for a highball), while his malted rye had some nice characteristics not found in standard rye whiskies.  Cedar Ridge single malt was rich but not overly complex.  The two bourbons were nice, especially the 5-year-old expression.    I hope to get the chance to try these whiskies again.

As someone who runs a whiskey blog, I wouldnt miss Noah Rothbaum’s “The Original Whisky Writer: Alfred Barnard” seminar.  He impressive panel included David Wondrich, Dr. Nick Morgan, Dave Broom, and Lew Bryson.  The group tackled the life of the enigmatic Victorian whisky writer whose book, “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” served as a blueprint for most future whisky writers.  Though Barnard wrote other books, they didnt have the gravitas of that first one.  This may have been the most entertaining panel I’ve attended.


Capping off my Tales experience was a visit to Cafe Adelaide, where the restaurant was celebrating its newly launched Breakfast for Dinner menu.  The food was to die for, as were the cocktails, wich were made using spirits from the local Donner-Peltier distillery.  If you make it down to New Orleans, you should really stop by Cafe Adelaide.  There’s simply no friendlier hospitality in the city.

What another wonderful year!  It was probably my most hectic.  Next year’s goal is to slightly scale back, which could prove difficult if there are as many great events as this year.  Till then, cheers!

A Brief Primer on Cognac


Tomorrow is National Cognac Day, the perfect time to start a short series of cognac reviews here on the blog.  Before we get to said reviews, I thought it wise to preface with a short piece about the French spirit.  Think of this as a Cliff’s Notes version of  “Cognac for Dummies.”

A mysterious aura can sometimes surround the French liquor that might automatically turn people away. When you think of cognac, one of two images probably pops into your head. First is the image of the stuffy old Englishman sitting in a leather chair with a cigar, and second is probably rapper Busta Rhymes and his memorable “Pass the Courvoisier”. Then there’s the lack of age statements on cognac labels. Terms like V.S. and V.S.O.P. are utilized instead.  It can confuse or intimidate people staring at bottles on store shelves.  I hope I can provide a little clarity.

WHAT’S COGNAC?

Cognac is simply a type of brandy.  Where whisky is distilled from grains, brandy is distilled from fermented fruit juice (or wine). In the simplest definition, Cognac is simply a brandy that uses specific grapes grown, fermented and distilled in the Cognac region of France, where the spirit derives its name. So, all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. Make sense?  

The Cognac region in France features six subregions, or crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaire. When I say Champagne, I’m not referring to the Champagne region where everybody’s favorite bubbly comes from. This is different, and the word champagne actually refers to the chalky soil in the region.  

Cognac is distilled from white wine mostly made with the Ugni Blanc grape, though there are about a half dozen other varietals that can be used. The wine is double distilled to produce eau de vis, meaning “water of life.” The eau de vis then matures in French oak casks until blenders decide it’s ready.

SO EXACTLY HOW OLD IS IT?

A Cognac’s age is determined by a specific aging system that lists the minimum age. Typically, Cognacs avoid using a simple age statement because apparently it is difficult to track the ages of casks. This is because as the Angel’s Share claims some spirit as it matures, the barrel can be topped off with more eau de vie.  So another naming system was put in place.  V.S., or Very Special, means the blend is at least two years old. V.S.O.P., or Very Superior Old Pale, has to be at least four years of age. XO means Extra Old, and any bottle of Cognac that carries that designation is at least six years old. However, starting in 2018, the minimum age of XO will be ten years.

Don’t let age skew your thinking. Older is not better.  It’s just different.  Some younger eaux de vie are aged in first, second or third fill casks, letting the “fresher” oak impart some of it’s flavors. Some older eaux de vie are matured in casks that are so old, they basically impart zero oak flavor and are simply neutral containers. Also keep in mind that boisé can be added. Boisé is an additive made by boiling or steeping oak chips in water and reducing it. You end up with a woody, tannic liquid. Cognac blenders are allowed to use very small qualities of boisé to help round out the flavor of a particular blend and make it seem a little older. Syrup made from sugar can also be added in minute quantities (up to 2%) to help sweeten the blend. Finally, like Scotch whisky, caramel coloring may also be added to cognac. 

After reading this last part you might be inclined to turn your nose up at cognac. Don’t. It’s a wonderful spirit that deserves to be explored and savoured.  Over the next several days, I’ll present Cognacs of different ages from different houses, showing how far the flavor spectrum for this French spirit can spread out.

The Booker’s Bourbon Price Increase


I was going to share my thoughts regarding the new Booker’s price increase with an up coming review of Booker’s batch 2016-06. Earlier this evening, Fred Minnick broke the news that Jim Beam is going to gradually increase the price instead of the previously announced 66% jump in price. So we can now expect the price to sit in the $70 – $75 range in 2017, increasing thereafter.   So, I thought I’d share the piece I’d written earlier now instead of waiting:
Since I carefully first sipped my first pour of Booker’s years ago, I became an avid fan, consistently calling it the best regular production bourbon coming out of Jim Beam. I’ve tasted many batches, and have converted non-bourbon fans with the stuff. Again, I really like the stuff. So, when I heard of the price hike, I thought it was a mistake. Not the increase of price by 66%, but the jump straight to it.  Beam should have gradually increased their pricing years ago when the bourbon boom kicked off. They didn’t. When the brand saw a great sales increase by naming their batches in 2015, they should have increased their price. They didn’t.

Angry outcry doesn’t begin to describe Booker’s fans online. Just about every commentary I’ve read said it was bad news for the bigger bourbon world. I get it. A lot of folks are angry. The consensus seems to be Beam is creating a demand for a product by releasing less batches while at the same time upping the price in the name of greed.  Beam is a business, first and foremost. They saw Booker’s as an undervalued brand and thought it’s price should match it’s value. The old suggested price was $60, but it was easily found for $50 or less. I’d imagine the same would happen to the new batches, most likely being priced in the $80 – $95 range.  

Am I upset about the price jump? No. I believe Booker’s is worth $100 in our current market. So long as the quality holds, I still recommend it, and still plan to buy it as a gift. A gradual price increase would have just made it easier to swallow.