Partnering with Drizly.com and What I’ve Been Sipping Lately

A few weeks ago Drizly.com approached me about joining their Top Shelf Bloggers program.  Drizly is one of the more successful online spirits delivery stores out there, so I’m honored to have been asked.  This blog is all about spreading the whiskey word, so this new partnership might prove to be a great platform for that. 

They asked me to kick off my new relationship with Drizzly with a post about my favorite whiskey.  After all, I am a whiskey blogger, so I should have a favorite whiskey.  It’s a question I get asked very often by whiskey newbies or those looking to try something new.  Let’s clear the air – I don’t have a favorite whiskey.  Not one. “But Bobby, you’re a whiskey blogger.  Surely you have a favorite?”

No, and don’t call me Shirley. 

The whiskey I imbibe depends on my mood.  Sometimes I want a rich, sherried single malt or a smoky, peated one.  Other times I’ll reach for a good ole’ American bourbon or rye.  Again, it depends on what mood I’m in.

If I started listing every whiskey I loved, we’d be here a while.  Instead, you’ll find a list of whiskies (and cognacs) I’ve been reaching for at home recently.  I’ve avoided adding limited release whiskies or really expensive ones, so all of these should be easy to find.  In no particular order:

Let’s start with some bourbon. I like Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon.  This 8 to 12-year-old whiskey is full of classic “bourbony” notes we all love, such as caramel, vanilla, oak and spice. The cask strength Booker’s bourbon is an option for those looking for a more robust drinking experience.

Want something a little smokier?  Try Lagavulin 16-year-old.  It’s a beautifully balanced whisky with an elegant, balanced flavor.  If you want something with more of an edge, reach for Laphroaig 10-year-old.  The peat in the latter option is ramped up, providing a more in-your-face whisky.

Maybe smoky whisky isn’t your thing, and that’s perfectly fine.  It’s a “love it or hate it” kind of thing.  Glenmorangie 10-year-old is a lighter style whisky filled with honey and floral notes.  I like this one over ice.  Speaking of which, there is no right way to drink whiskey as long as you enjoy it. Neat, with a splash of water, or on the rocks, there is no wrong way.

If you are in the market for something completely different, try cognac.  Like whisk(e)y, cognac is a distilled, barrel-aged spirit.  Because cognac is distilled from wine, it is much frutier than whiskey.  I’ve been sipping a lot of Hennessy XO and Courvoisier XO as of late.  Hennessy is bolder in character, while Courvoisier tends to be a bit lighter and more floral.  Both are pricier than the previously mentioned whiskies, so that may be a deciding factor as to whether you’re able or willing to pick up a bottle.  You can go Hennessy VSOP if you’re on a budget.  Lastly, Copper & Kings in Louisville make a 100 poof American brandy that’s as bold and flavorful as any bourbon you’ve come across.  

You can purchase all of these spirits at Drizly.com and have them delivered straight to your door.

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.

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!