Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2018

Hey, look who’s not breaking his foot this year! Last year’s Whiskies of the World Expo was cut extremely short for me, but this year, safety was the name of the game. (Reminder: Don’t text while on the stairs, kids!)

I spent a lot more time than usual on American whiskeys this year, reflecting an amazing surge of craft distilleries appearing at WotW as well as a relative dearth of Scotch. That said, some of the Scottish drams I sampled were some of the best whiskies I’ve ever had — particularly Glencadam’s glorious 25 year old, to which I gave a spot rating of A+, thanks to its delightfully bright texture and fruit-forward palate. There was plenty of whiskey to like in America and beyond, too, but if I had to pick one product I’d like to sample in more depth, it’d have to be Healdsburg-based Alley 6’s bitters made from candy cap mushrooms they forage themselves on the Sonoma Coast.

Thoughts on everything tasted follow, as always.

Scotch

GlenDronach 12 Years Old – Bold sherry, nutty, with spice, but vegetal on the back end. B
GlenDronach 18 Years Old – Richer and better balanced, with big spices and some chocolate notes. A-
Ancnoc 24 Years Old
– A surprising amount of grain here for a 24 year old, with some orange peel notes; perfectly approachable but not overwhelming. B+
Balblair 1983
– Some smoke, barrel char, vanilla and chocolate. Nice balance. A
Glencadam 25 Years Old
– Bright and fresh, with a Sauternes character to it; some coconut, a little chewy; very lush and rounded. Best of show. A+
SIA Scotch Whisky – This has clearly been refined a bit over the years, now showing a youthful but silky caramel and vanilla notes; quite elegant for a blend. A-
The Exclusive Grain Cameronbridge 1992 25 Years Old
– One of the best single grains I’ve experienced in years; chocolate dominates, with a big sherry finish. A
The Exclusive Malts “An Orkney” 2000 17 Years Old
– I’m guessing Highland Park, then; traditionally built, but quite oaky. B+
The Macallan Edition No. 3
– A disappointment; a huge, bold body for Macallan, but surprisingly hot. B+
Highland Park Dark 
– HP in first-fill sherry barrels; the name is no lie, but the sherry takes it so far it ends up medicinal; overdone. B+
Highland Park Full Volume
– Chewy, with gunpowder and grain notes. A bit dull in the end. B
Alexander Murray Bunnahabhain 28 Years Old Cask Strength
– Lightly peated, with a solid Madeira note; gently floral. B+
Tobermory 21 Years Old Manzanilla Finish Cask Strength
– Blodly spice up front, but a bit raw and vegetal on the back end. B+
Deanston 20 Years Old Oloroso Finish Cask Strength
– Big grain base, with notes of cotton balls. B-
Ledaig 1996
– Punchy, with lingering grain and plenty of sweetness. B+

American

Belle Meade Mourvedre Cask Finish – A very rare offering that sold out in 2 days, it’s a beauty of a blend of wine and wood influence. A-
Belle Meade Imperial Stout “Black Belle” Finish – Bold and hoppy, notes of peanut butter, tons of fun. A
Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye
– Soothing menthol notes, but a little mushroomy funk. B+
Sonoma County Distilling West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 2
– Wheated. Silky but rustic at times, with ample spice. A-
Sonoma County Distilling West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 3
– High-rye. Youthful, some vegetal notes peeking through, showing promise. B+
Old Forester Statesman
– Special bottling for that Kingsman movie last year. Big chocolate notes dominate, with vanilla and clove. Classic Kentucky. B+
Amador Double Barrel Bourbon
– Quite sweet, with candied pecan notes, vanilla finish. A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Czar
– A burly whiskey made from imperial stout. Lots of smoke here, which would be fine but for the very green character. Overly malty and unbalanced. B-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Frambooze
– Racy berry notes in this whiskey, which is distilled from raspberry ale, plus notes of walnuts and dark chocolate. Lots of fun. A-
High West Bourye (2018)
– A classic whiskey, gorgeous with deep vanilla, spice, and chocolate notes. A
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 5.4
– The deep raisin profile remains a classic, showcasing both power and grace. A-
Do Good Distillery California Bourbon
– Very rustic, gritty with pepper and raw grain. C+
Do Good Distillery Cherrywood Smoked Whiskey
– Pungent, mainly showcasing pet food notes. D
Widow Jane Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old
– Absolutely massive, with notes of minerals, orange marmalade, creme brulee, and milk chocolate. A-
Widow Jane Rye Oak & Apple Wood
– Youthful, the apple really shows itself. B
Alley 6 Single Malt Whiskey 
– Rustic, pungent, but showing promise. B
Alley 6 Rye Whiskey
– Pretty, quite floral. A-
Mosswood Corbeaux Barrel Bourbon 6 Years Old – A private bottling for a SF retailer; a rustic style whiskey. B
Mosswood Sour Ale Barrel
– An old favorite, gorgeous with apple spices and a delightful, deft balance. A

Japanese

Kurayoshi Matsui Whiskey Pure Malt – A young malt, gentle but simple, florals and biscuits. B+
Kurayoshi Matsui Whiskey Pure Malt 8 Years Old – Surprisingly a bit thin, though more well-rounded. B
Fukano 12 Years Old
– Heavy greenery notes, drinking overblown tonight. B

Other Stuff

Alley 6 86’d Candy Cap Bitters – Insane mushroom intensity, really beautiful stuff. A
Mosswood Night Rum Scotch Barrel
– This is a rum, finished in Ardbeg whisky barrels. What!? The combination of sweet and smoke is almost impossible to describe; working on a sample to paint a bigger picture of this madness. A-
Mosswood Sherry Barrel Irish Whiskey
– A 3 year old Cooley Irish, sherry finished in the U.S. Fairly classic. A-
Amrut Double Cask
– Port finished Amrut from India; peat overpowers the sweetness it wants to show off. B

Review: King Floyd’s Bitters – Orange, Aromatic, and Cardamom – and Rim Salts

My sleepy burg of Novato, California is home to a surprising operation: King Floyd’s, which produces both artisanal bitters as well as a couple of tins of rimming salts. The company was kind enough to send all five of its products our way for review. Thoughts follow.

King Floyd’s Orange Bitters – Strong orange notes are instantly evident on the nose, almost like a triple sec, with floral elements at times. The palate is something else entirely, however — intensely bitter, almost to the breaking point. The orange peel element licks at the sides of the palate, while the center of the tongue gets a fully bitter blasting. The finish is pungent and lasting. Use sparingly. B / $20 per 100ml bottle

King Floyd’s Aromatic Bitters – Lots of anise and cinnamon on the nose here, but the palate is particularly hefty with cloves. The experience develops further on the tongue to reveal notes of dark chocolate and coffee beans, all filtered through that massive bitterness that’s part of the orange experience. Here, the overall experience is a bit more cohesive on the whole, the bitterness fitting more compactly with the intensity of the herbs. A- / $20 per 100ml bottle

King Floyd’s Cardamom Bitters – A unique expression of bitters, exotic and eastern on the nose, evocative of a Moroccan bazaar. That nutmeg-on-steroids character is pumped up further on the palate, which segues into something akin to a well-aged rug in the back of a hookah joint, slightly smoky, with notes of tobacco, sweat, and funk. Clearly built for tiki. B+ / $20 per 100ml bottle

King Floyd’s Sea Flake Rim Salt – This is straight-up, unadulterated sea salt in a tin. Nice granularity, and it works well as a rimmer. It’s hard to rate salt, but I’ll try. A- / $8 per 4 oz tin

King Floyd’s Sriracha Rim Salt – This brownish salt is pungent with spice, so much so that the aroma of sriracha fills the room when you first pour it into the tin. On the tongue, it doesn’t have as much heat as the aroma would initially lead you to believe, which is probably a good thing. Who needs a cocktail rimmer that’s so spicy they can’t taste the actual drink? A great bloody mary rimmer. A / $10 per 4 oz tin

kingfloyds.com

Review: The Bitter Truth Celery, Cucumber, and Olive Bitters

It’s been said that there is a flavor of bitters for every season, and if you need proof just check out this latest collection from The Bitter Truth, which has been expanding its bitters lineup into some unusual areas. Let’s look at this trinity and see if they merit a home on your bartop.

The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters – Probably the most traditional of the bunch (and not a new addition to the lineup), most commonly found as an enhancement to the Bloody Mary. Intensely herbal, the character isn’t immediately evident as celery but rather a less distinct green vegetable note. That said — if you’re looking for a quick shot of veggies, this is a reasonable way to do it. That said, it’s very bitter, with a pungent, astringent aftertaste, I wonder if this wouldn’t be a bit more balanced at a slightly lower abv. 88 proof. B-

The Bitter Truth Cucumber Bitters – Huge cucumber notes hit, right from the start. Slightly sweet with that “spa water” character, it’s refreshing without being overly vegetal, its gentle sweetness offering a pause before a traditional bitterness takes hold on the back end. The cucumber notes linger for quite some time, which makes this a solid companion to summery gin cocktails. 78 proof. B+

The Bitter Truth Olive Bitters – This was a new one for me, and a fascinating idea. The distinct aroma of salt-cured black olives (the wrinkly ones) is heavy on the nose here, which makes for quite an enticing entree. The palate is lively with salt and bitterness in equal proportions, that olive character becoming more intense as the finish arrives. I can see tons of application for this product, ranging from Bloody Maries to martinis to a variety of savory cocktails that could use a dash of antipasto. Fun stuff. 78 proof. A-

each $17 per 200ml bottle / the-bitter-truth.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

Do Bitters Go Bad?

Reader Sam writes:

“Hi Drinkhacker, love your articles. I have a question maybe you can answer. I’ve had a bottle of bitters on my shelf for a while now, and I was wondering if bitters ever go bad. Thanks for reading and keep up the good work.”

Sam’s question is a good one. If you’re interested in mixology, you likely have a bottle of bitters stashed away for when it’s needed, but it’s not like you use a ton of the stuff when you make drinks; most recipes just call for a few dashes, so that 8-ounce bottle of bitters could last you for a decade or more. Is it a waste of money buying anything more than a little 2-ounce bottle, because the rest will spoil before you can use it?

To start: What exactly are bitters, anyway? Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with various herbs, fruits, bark, spices, seeds, and just about anything else you can think of. In this way, they’re essentially a liqueur, like an amaro or any other bitter spirit. Could you drink a bottle of bitters straight? While we won’t recommend it (it gets the name ‘bitters’ for a reason, drinking it straight is a potent experience reserved for the insane), it’s perfectly safe to just take a swig of bitters, and in fact that was the idea when bitters were first invented: for a long time, bitters (as well as other bitter herbal liqueurs) were actually made as medicines, to be taken as a cure for everything from an upset stomach to gout. There’s evidence that suggests that bitters, or at least a bitters-like liqueur, was the first type of alcohol made: In China, they’ve uncovered evidence of a fermented concoction brewed with bitter hawthorne berries dating back to 7,000 BC, likely used as a medicine.

So now that you know a bitter more about what bitters are, let’s finally get around to answering Sam’s question. The general answer is that bitters don’t go bad, with one exception that we know of. As a liqueur, bitters have a high alcohol content that might surprise you: Angostura, the most famous brand of bitters, has a whopping 45% abv in that little bottle. Because of this, most bitters have a shelf life comparable to any spirit: essentially indefinite. Like all spirits, chemical reactions and evaporation in the bottle will eventually start to change the taste if you keep the same bottle for a decade or more, but none of it will hurt you and the product won’t spoil.

The one exception we have seen are some fruit bitters made by Fee Brothers, because they sometimes dissolve their flavoring ingredients in glycerin instead of ethanol like most liqueurs. Unlike ethanol, glycerin does have a shelf life of about a year or two before it spoils. If you want some fruit bitters and aren’t sure about that bottle of Fee Brothers that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, maybe try buying a different brand, or just learn to infuse your own neutral spirit with a fruit of your choice. It’s easy and fun.

Thanks to Sam for the question, and if any readers have questions about the strange and wonderful world of alcohol, write to me at [email protected], and hopefully we can answer your questions, too!

Review: The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Bitters Lineup

For its tenth anniversary, Germany’s The Bitter Truth has released a series of four limited-edition bitters, each packaged in novelty bottles and including a removable dropper attachment. (Of note: I had a significant issue with stoppers spontaneously popping out of the bottles, so pay attention.) The bitters are themed around the core components of Bitter Truth’s bitters lineup — roots, wood, blossom (flowers), and nut — the idea being that each bottle gives you the essence of that particular element.

How do they fare? Let’s take a spin through the full lineup.

Each is bottled at 42% abv.

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Roots Bitters – Heavy anise notes from start to finish, with overtones of cloves and traditional bitter gentian character. The heavy Port notes on the nose don’t translate to the body, however. Overall the experience is relatively mild, so feel free to use in quantity. B+

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Wood Bitters – Another mild bittering agent, with notes of dark chocolate and very gentle wood overtones. Some raisiny sweetness lingers on the back end. Overall it’s less distinctive than I’d like and doesn’t have as big an impact as it could. B-

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Blossom Bitters – Heavy, heavy florals, as you might expect, are the main event here, with ample cherry fruit underneath. It’s flowery to the point of being overwhelmingly perfumy, with a focus on lavender. There’s an ample bitter finish that lingers after the florals have faded. A tough one to pair. C+

The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes Nut Bitters – Big almond and hazelnut notes — it drinks almost like a Frangelico. It’s less bitter than many of the other bitters in this lineup, though its cinnamon notes add some character. B-

each $25 per 100ml bottle / the-bitter-truth.com

Review: Greenbar Bar Keep Bitters

bar-eep

Greenbar Distillery doesn’t just make vodka, whiskey, and a very cool liqueur, it also makes bitters, all of which are organic and bottled at 48% abv. Each was made in conjunction with a different bartender (or two), part of a series of bitters-designing competitions the company has sponsored for several years. Here’s a look at five of the company’s (many) bitter offerings.

Bar Keep Apple Bitters – Solid apple flavor, with a healthy grating of cinnamon on top. It fades away fairly quickly into a more general bitterness, taking the fruit character with it. B+

Bar Keep Lavender Bitters – Finally, some bitters you can use in your spa! Floral notes like this can be overpowering, but if you can find a cocktail where you want a pop of lavender, you’ve got a wholly credible candidate here. B

Bar Keep Fennel Bitters – A really like the licorice kick on this one, and it’s got quite a bit of cayenne spice to back it up. Don’t want to bother with an absinthe rinse? Try a drop of these bitters… but be careful with the quantity. A little goes a long way. A-

Bar Keep Saffron Bitters – Subtle flavors here, but they linger for quite a while. A little saffron always goes a long way, and in a cocktail it can be hit or miss. A tricky product with a distinctive flavor. B

Bar Keep Chinese Bitters – Inspired by Chinese five spice blend, but heavy on cloves, with a bit of cinnamon and anise. The more I toy with it, the more I like it, particularly the lingering but relatively mild finish. A-

each $13 per 8 oz bottle / greenbar.biz

Review: Jameson Wild Sloe Berry Bitters

Unveiled for Tales of the Cocktail 2015, Jameson released its first-ever bitters, taking them to an unexpected and exotic place: the sloe berry.

The sloe berry is primarily known — OK, exclusively known — for its use in sloe gin. Here, Jameson blends up sloe berry distillate, Jameson whiskey, a mix of bittering agents that includes wormwood, gentian, and ginseng, plus a bit of caramel color to produce a distinctive new bitters.

The nose is distinctively tart and fruity, backed with an appropriately root beer overtone. On the tongue, it’s (of course) quite bitter, but not as tough as you might think, with the tart sloe berries offering some balance. The finish sticks closely to the gentian/wormwood playbook, which is really just what you want from a bottle of bitters.

Of course this is not meant for solo consumption, and the sloe berry element is a surprisingly perfect foil for whiskey. While I know this is intended as a complement for Irish, give it a go with bourbon to coax out some lovely cherry notes.

92 proof.

A- / $NA (available only to bars) / jamesonwhiskey.com

Tasting Comparison: Orange Bitters

regans bitters

After aromatic bitters, orange bitters are easily the most commonly called-for bittering agents in cocktails today. There’s also a huge variety of bitters available on the market. Are they any different? Which is best? I put three big bitters brands — there are plenty more, but these are all I had on hand — to the test to see which ones really made the cut.

Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 – A 1990s recreation of Charles Baker’s orange bitters recipe, brought to you by Gary Regan and the Sazerac Company. Tangerine notes on the nose, with clear notes of cardamom and clove-like character on the back end. Orange enough, but with a bracing, Fernet-like bitterness that really lingers. The choice for drinkers looking primarily for a big, bitter punch. 45% abv. A- / $16 per 5 oz. bottle [BUY IT NOW]

Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters – Lighter in color, much sweeter, but more orange-focused than Regan’s, offering sweet tangerine notes up front that fade into cinnamon and clove notes. Quite a bit sweeter than other brands, with an almost candylike edge to them — but I like the way they impart a clear orange character (along with mild bitterness to a cocktail). I like these in punches and other party drinks and probably use them the most. Abv not disclosed. A- / $12 per 4 oz. bottle [BUY IT NOW]

The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters – Interesting nose — light on orange and heavy on notes of coffee, roasted/smoked meat, ginger, and other savory elements. The body is a nice mix of citrus and more savory elements, but they aren’t overwhelmingly bitter. The smoky element is curious, but a bit at odds with the typical usage of orange bitters. 39% abv. B+ / $27 per 200ml bottle [BUY IT NOW]

Bottom line: I prefer Regans’ in more savory cocktails (as in Manhattan variants and other whiskey cocktails) and Fee Brothers in sweeter, fruitier, and simpler ones (like the Casino or an old-school Martini).

Review: Peychaud’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Cocktail Bitters

PeychaudsBarrelAged5ozXThe original Peychaud’s Bitters date back to about 1830. In New Orleans cocktailing, they’re an indispensable part of numerous drinks, including the classic Sazerac Cocktail. Now owner Sazerac (parent company of Buffalo Trace) is launching a version of Peychaud’s with a twist, aging the classic bitters in Sazerac Rye whiskey barrels for 140 days.

I tasted the new barrel-aged Peychaud’s against the classic version, side by side, to see how the duo stack up against one another.

They’re remarkably different products. Classic Peychaud’s offers complex notes of earth, charred nuts, cloves, watermelon rind, licorice root, and charred vegetables, with a distinct, semisweet rhubarb character — particularly on the nose. In contrast, the new Peychaud’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters are less complicated and initiatially, and somewhat counterintuitively, a bit sweeter. They don’t take on the charry woodiness of the wood but rather some of the vanilla and baking spices of the rye. As the bitters hit the palate, that rhubarb turns much more toward cherry fruit, with notes of gingerbread and Christmas spices on the back end.

Of course, despite all the secondary characteristics described above, both expressions are still bitters, and the finish of each is lasting and powerfully representative of the term. Both pair beautifully with whiskey but I have to say that the new whiskey-barrel aged expression lends more of an intense, fruity liveliness to a cocktail. The cherry components particularly stand out, even against the punch of bourbon or rye. No, it won’t ever replace the original, but its presence does make the cocktailer’s arsenal all the more interesting.

35% abv.

A / $17 (5 oz.) / thesazeracgiftshop.com

Review: Breckenridge Bitters

breckenridge bittersMost hear “bitters” and assume Angostura — something that’s used sparingly, by the drop or dash, to give a little something extra to a cocktail.

Breckenridge Bitters — produced by one of our favorite vodka makers — isn’t the same stuff. More in line with Italian amari, this is a bittersweet liqueur designed for sipping straight. A blend of “hand-harvested alpine herbs… ancient bitter roots and spicy dried fruits,” Breck’s Bitters are gold in color and slightly sweet, with a nicely bitter kick on the back end.

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Review: Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bitters

woodford reserve spiced cherry bittersI’m not sure why it’s taken so long for a whiskey company to get into the bitters business, but Woodford Reserve has finally opened that door, introducing its first bitters, barrel-aged and spiced cherry-flavored. Crafted in conjunction with Bourbon Barrel Foods, the bitters are specifically designed for use in a Manhattan cocktail (and presumably one with Woodford Reserve Bourbon in it).

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