Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Seventh Release and Loch Gorm 2017

Two 2017 updates from Kilchoman have hit our desk. Let’s dig in!

Kilchoman 100% Islay Seventh Release – Kilchoman’s 2017 version of its annual 100% Islay release — grown, malted, distilled, matured and bottled on Islay — is here. At seven years old, it’s once again the oldest expression of 100% Islay released to date. As always, the 100% Islay line is more lightly peated than the rest of the Kilchoman range. As is typical, this year’s is completely matured in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Fresh and lively, 100% Islay is always a crowd-pleaser, and the 2017 release is no exception. The nose offers notes of fresh cut grass, sharp lemon, and a smattering of herbs, all filtered through a layer of peat smoke. The palate stays on target, citrus and grassy notes melding with a hint of vanilla, some coffee bean grit, and a reprise of that smoky finish, dusted with a hint of cloves. It’s quite lovely from start to finish (though water is an improvement) and, as always, a top pick if you’re considering anything from Kilchoman. 100 proof. A / $77

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2017 – This is the sixth edition of Loch Gorm, which is Kilchoman’s annual, sherry cask matured edition. This release has been matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry butts filled in 2009, the longest Loch Gorm maturation to date. This year’s edition is one of the better expressions of Loch Gorm, the sherry maturation really hitting its stride and revealing some interesting nuances in the whisky. The peat is dialed way back vs. prior years’ releases, letting aromas of orange blossoms, lemon peel, and sandalwood peek through. The palate is quite sweet and seductive, with notes of camphor, spearmint, and a hint of licorice adding intrigue to the base notes of citrus and peat smoke. The 2017 Loch Gorm is a whisky that really comes together with a surprisingly deft balance. Though it’s a much different whisky than the 100% Islay, it’s definitively worth checking out. 92 proof. A / $73

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: 2015 Schloss Johannisberg Gelblack Riesling Feinherb Rheingau

Drinking a riesling like Schloss Johannisberg’s Gelblack bottling reminds me that I should be drinking more (German) riesling. This Rheingau-sourced wine is just a bit tropical, its nearly dry but honey-flavored core layered with notes of baking spice and gingerbread. The finish is dry but satisfyingly refreshing, again hinting at those pineapple-dusted tropical notes.

A- / $18 / schloss-johannisberg.de

What’s the Difference Between a Pot Still and a Column Still?

If you’re a shrewd imbiber, you may notice that some bottles of liquor — for instance, Irish whiskey like Redbreast — advertise a particular kind of still used to produce the spirit, in this case “single pot still.” Elsewhere, you may notice other bottles — like Japanese whisky Nikka — instead touting something called a Coffey still used to make their wares. If you delve deeper into these phrases, you might find that there appears to be a whole host of different kinds of stills: in addition to those above, you can find column stills, alembic stills, continuous stills, patent stills, and many others. What do all these terms mean, and how do they effect what you get in your bottle?

The pot still is what most of us think of when we think of a still: the stereotypical still design, made of copper, with a wide, bulbous bottom and a long, thin, tapered neck. There is evidence that pot stills made of terracotta were used as early as the 400s BCE, but the name you’ll see most attached to its invention is Arab alchemist Al-Jabir around 790 CE. At the time, Al-Jabir wasn’t looking to get tipsy; he was looking to bring out greater purity in his liquid materials to try and find the secret of eternal life. However, once it was discovered that water and alcohol have different boiling points, the pot still — also called an “alembic,” which is an alchemical term — starting being used to instead increase the purity of alcohol such as wine.

The way a pot still works is simple: the contents of the large lower chamber, called the pot, are heated until the alcohol vaporizes. The vapor travels up the long neck, where it is cooled down by cold water. Once cool enough, the vapors condense back into liquid, where it is collected in a separate chamber. Thus, you now have a product that has a much higher alcohol content, since most of the water in it got left behind in the pot. In the olden days, a pot was heated simply by lighting a fire under it; these days, vaporization is usually achieved with superheated steam, which is easier to control and fine-tune than fire, and which allows distillers to better guide their product. That said, the pot still is still fairly inefficient in terms of energy expended. Not all of the alcohol makes it into the collection chamber, and due to the fact that pot stills have to be batch operated — that is, that in-between batches, they have to be emptied, cleaned, and refilled — using a pot still is a laborious task.

Great men spent ages trying to increase the speed and efficiency of pot stills, and in 1831 Irishman Aenas Coffey patented his “Coffey still,” based on the use of two vertical columns instead of a single pot. Also known as a patent or continuous still, but best known these days as a column still, Coffey’s still behaves like a series of pot stills all linked together, stacked on top of each other. The liquid to be distilled falls through each chamber from the top of the column, while superheated steam comes up from the bottom. The steam vaporizes the alcohol, while the leftover “wash” with its alcohol removed falls down to the bottom chamber, where it is turned into steam and is used to vaporize the next batch. The vaporized alcohol floats up through each chamber of the column, and since each chamber has a lower temperature than the last, more and more impurities in the alcohol get left behind. The alcohol, with its low boiling point, gets vaporized and thus a purer concentration of alcohol is left behind in each chamber. The more chambers a column still has, the purer the concentration will end up.

Lest you start visualizing a column still the size of a skyscraper, know that a column still with an abundance of chambers will be made up of several interlinked columns; the alcohol will reach the top of one, and then get filtered into the bottom of the next, where the temperature is yet still a little cooler. This allows a column still to have an end product of 95% pure alcohol, as opposed to the 60% to 80% alcohol a pot still can end up with. (This doesn’t mean you’ll get a higher abv in the bottle of course, this is just the initial concentration. Alcohol from both pot and column stills are further watered down before bottling.)

So if column stills are so much more efficient and produce such a pure product, why would anyone make liquor in a pot still these days? The same reason why audiophiles might prefer a vinyl LP to a CD or MP3: those impurities in the distillate are what give the spirit its flavor, and a pot still allows its spirits a warmth and depth that the cold efficiency of a column still can’t match. A whisky or Cognac made in a pot still has the reputation of a private, personal, hand-made treat; sure it’s more labor-intensive, but that only means that you’re getting a superior product than something made in a detached, aloof column still, right? Many people certainly think this way. In general, the more rich and flavorful liquors — single-malt Scotch, Cognac, high-end rum, mezcal — are made in pot stills, while crisp clear spirits — vodka, white rum, gin — are made in column stills that can reach high abvs. The big exception to the rule is bourbon and rye whiskey, which are usually made in column stills, but often in a slower, more hands-on style like one might find with a pot still. Of course, exceptions to all of these rules of thumb abound.

Both pot and column stills have a permanent place in the history of spirits, and neither are going anywhere anytime soon. But at least now you know what each one is used for, and why.

Review: 2014 Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC

An ultra-budget Tuscan, this is a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Canaiolo, and 5% Cabernet Franc. It’s got a mild body, heavy with cherry, blackberry, and tobacco notes, which meld quite beautifully with the fragrant nose. The body is modest and the finish just a touch sweet, with a hint of green pepper on the back end, but it’s hard to pass up at this price.

B+ / $12 / mionettousa.com

Review: Slane Irish Whiskey

Remember Slane Castle Irish Whiskey? Of course not. Brown-Forman bought the brand a few years ago, and even then it was hard to find in the U.S. Now it’s been relaunched, rebranded — the “Castle” is now gone, leaving just “Slane” — and a distillery of its own is being build in Ireland.

The current version of Slane is a whole other animal than the old Slane Castle. This one is a blend of malt and grain whiskey — not single pot still, it seems — that is then split up and aged in three different types of casks: Virgin new oak, heavily toasted and lightly charred; oak formerly used for American whiskey; and used Oloroso sherry casks. There’s no age statement on the bottle.

Ultimately all that adds up to a drinkable, if somewhat muddy spirit. New oak is very rare in Irish whiskey, and here you can see why: It really dominates the experience. On the nose, it’s big and grainy, with bold lumberyard notes and a dusky edge of charcoal. Some lighter fruit notes hide out in the background, but they have trouble pushing through the burlier aromas that dominate.

On the palate, wood remains dominant, though here it is filtered through notes of heavily roasted grains, walnuts, cloves, and some orange peel. The overall impression is not one typical of Irish but something closer to blended Scotch, though the finish does offer a hint of honeycomb and lavender that would be unusual in something from Ireland’s neighbor to the east.

80 proof.

B / $30 / slaneirishwhiskey.com

Review: Wines of Edna Valley, 2017 Releases

You’ll find Edna Valley Vineyard in San Luis Obispo in southern California, but this winery sources grapes from all over California, particularly for its low-cost whites and rose. Here’s a look at three such wines to take you out of summer and into fall.

2016 Edna Valley Pinot Grigio California – This pinot grigio offers some fun florals and ample notes of fresh pears, banana, and a touch of nutmeg — which would all be swell if not for a rather gummy body that feels overly doctored, particularly on the strangely chewy finish. B- / $15

2015 Edna Valley Chardonnay Central Coast – This is a big and bold chardonnay, typically California in style, unctuous with notes of vanilla, oak, and brown butter. A hint of lemongrass on the nose does little to cut through the liquid dessert that follows on the tongue, nor can it cut the weighty, overly creamy finish. C+ / $15

2016 Edna Valley Rose California – A mix of Tempranillo, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. A simpler wine than the above, appropriately fragrant on the nose with mixed florals and berries, with a very light, almost watery, body that offers a simple strawberry character. The palate is fortunately clean and fresh, the light fragrance giving it a bit of a lift on the back end. B / $18

ednavalleyvineyard.com

Review: Scrappy’s Bitters – Seville Orange and Chocolate

Like any good bitters brand, Scrappy’s focuses on natural infusions and uses organic ingredients whenever possible. Produced in Seattle, the Scrappy’s line now runs to at least 11 varieties of bitters. We received two of the most popular — orange and chocolate — for review.

Thoughts follow.

Scrappy’s Bitters Seville Orange – Check out the little chunks of orange peel on the bottom of the bottle. This is a bitters with the focus squarely on the bitter element: Orange notes are filtered through a heavily bitter edge, with secondary notes of clove and licorice filling in the cracks. If you like an orange bitters that isn’t really a syrup in disguise, Scrappy’s is an excellent pick. 47.5% abv. B+  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Scrappy’s Bitters Chocolate – These bitters aren’t as overwhelmingly bitter as the orange, finding more of a balance between clear dark chocolate notes and some sweeter character that’s driven by brown sugar. The finish offers a touch of coffee character that could add some nuance to a cocktail. 47.6% abv. A- [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

each $18 / scrappysbitters.com

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