Make It a Boozy Christmas with Secret Spirits’ Advent Calendars

There’s no shortage of booze-centric Christmas gifts out there, but short of giving your loved ones a bottle of Pappy, one of the most exciting presents is an Advent calendar full of miniature bottles. The idea, in case you’re not in the know, is to open one little package on each day leading up to December 25th (typically starting on December 1st), after which you’ve enjoyed a full month of holiday fun. It really lets you enjoy the holiday in full.

Quite a few spirits-oriented Advent calendars are on the market, and the folks at Secret Spirits offers a variety of options, with a heavy focus on whiskey and rum.

The company sent us a sample from its two latest collections. Here’s some information on both:

Secret Spirits Scotch Whisky Advent Calendars ($600) feature 25 Scotch whiskies personally selected and sourced from some of the top independent bottlers in Scotland. The regions of Islay, Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Islands and Campbelltown are all represented. With a focus in Single Malt the Advent Calendars also offer a chance to explore the entire range of Scotch Whisky styles including, Blended malts, Single Grain and Blended Scotch. Half the whiskies are generally 18 years and above with day 25 topping 30 years old.

The Rums Revenge 1st edition ($350) showcases 12 premium limited edition rums including Molasses and Agricole styles from Grenada, Canada, USA, Barbados, Trinidad, Martinique, Reunion, Fiji, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Guyana and Jamaica. The collection is housed in a Rum’s Revenge Pirate chest, along with a skull glass, a wax sealed treasure map which will lead consumers on a hunt for hidden rums using the Rum’s Revenge ship in a bottle.

The packaging (see above) is pretty cool, and while Secret Spirits didn’t send us the whole shebang (so I can’t comment on the overall quality of what’s in the mix), we did get one sample from each of those lineups. Here are some specific thoughts on the two samples.

From the Scotch Whisky Calendar – Day 20 is a fun Samaroli bottling of a Glentauchers 1996 17 Years Old, this is a vibrant and lively whisky that offers a classic SPEYSIDE nose of caramel, vanilla, and spice, with a palate infused with milk chocolate, pipe tobacco, and lingering coconut notes. A lush and fun bottle from one of my favorite indie bottlers of all time. 90 proof. A-

From the Rums Revenge Calendar – Note that this collection comprises just 12 rums, not 25. The Jamaican Rhapsody Rum (day unknown) is also a Samaroli bottling, and it’s a young spirit that drinks with the funk of a pot still and the vibrancy of youth, but is tempered by enough time in the barrel to give it some vanilla-dusted gravity. This is a surprisingly fun and lively rum which I wouldn’t have pegged based on its relatively light color. 90 proof. A- 

secretspirits.com

Peat, Phenols, and ppm: Why Scotch Tastes Smoky

My first taste of peaty whisky was Talisker 10, and like they say with other things, you never forget your first. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, it was like someone had put a bonfire in my whisky. Now, I love it and feel like smoky notes give a complexity to many whiskies, especially at an older age. Actually, old peaty whisky is probably my favourite style, it’s just a shame it’s so damn expensive…

But what the hell is peat, and why does it make our whiskies smoky?

Essentially, peat is a naturally sourced fuel. Small plants and vegetation that have died in bogs or moors become part of the earth as it decomposes and a new layer of flora grows again. In the earth though, that decaying vegetation is compressed and pushed further underground by the following layers of the life and death cycle above. Peat is harvested by simply shoveling it out of the ground. Peat burns well and originally would have used as heating and cooking fuel before coal arrived in more remote parts of Scotland. The important thing for whisky though was that it was used to dry barley after it had been malted. Distillers found that the barley picked up the smoky flavour from the burning peat, and that intense smoky flavour came through into the whisky.

You do occasionally get people telling you that peaty flavour is coming from the water. It makes sense I guess, if you run a tap in the toilet at Kilchoman Distillery, it comes out brown with the peat sediment in it. Peat is in the water, water goes in the whisky. However, if you smell a piece of peat, without burning it, it barely smells of anything.

Understanding Phenol

Burnt peat smalls and tastes smoky because of the presence of Phenol? So what is this phenol that makes our whiskies smoky?

Phenol is a cyclic aromatic compound, but also describes a class of aromatic compounds. The main ones in whisky are Phenol, Cresols, Xylenol, and Guaiacol. There are a tonne of others, and not all are Phenols. Some don’t appear to have any effect on flavour but can affect the volatility of some of the other flavour chemicals. In essence: It’s complicated.

Phenol itself gives you carbolic and antiseptic flavours, Cresols give the whisky medicinal, bandage-like flavour that’s very distinctive in Laphroaig. Xylenol can be extracted from coal tar and has a similar note, while Guaiacol gives a wood smoke type of flavour.

Depending on where the peat is cut from can change the proportion of different Phenols that come through into the whisky too. Highland Park for instance is famous for having a more heathery style of smoke to its whisky and this is often attributed to there being much more heather decomposing and becoming part of the peat than on Islay or mainland Scotland.

You may have noticed that some peaty whiskies use a measurement to declare how peaty they are. The term ppm, which stands for parts per million, is the measurement, but perhaps should be written as Pppm: Phenolic parts per million. A whisky that is 40ppm would be made up of 0.004% phenols. Check my math on that, I’m rubbish at math. [It checks out. -Ed.]

The human nose can detect 1ppm of most Phenols normally, but that can depend on the person, some being more sensitive to the presence of Phenols than others. Also depends on the specific Phenol, because evolution-wise is it pretty advantageous to be able to detect wood smoke, so we are genetically more sensitive to Guaiacol.

Phenol Beyond Peat

Other things that can effect the amount of smoky flavour in a whisky are the production process and maturation, as Phenols are lost at almost every stage of the process. One important aspect though is the cut from spirit to feints, as the Phenols are more concentrated towards the end of the cut. The longer the cut, the more Phenols are going to get through into the spirit.

Note that a lot of Phenol is lost along the way. Laphroaig usually have its barley peated to 40ppm but only 25ppm comes through into the spirit. After 10 years of aging, this drops to 10ppm. This is because these phenolic compounds are only partially oxidised and within the barrel they are allowed to fully oxidise, becoming more complex aromatic compounds. Laphroaig is known for becoming more tropical and fruity at older ages.

So at what point do they measure ppm? Is it the spirit? The final whisky? Neither: It’s actually at the point the barley is malted. Most distilleries specify a ppm level for their barley and let the maltsters do the rest. They can then burn a specific amount of peat for a certain length of time to get it to that exact peating level, and it then gets to the distillery as a very consistent product.

How do they measure ppm? The usual way is High Pressure Liquid Chromatography which is a way of chemically analysing the components of whatever you’re considering. Maltsters and distillers split the category of peated whisky into a handful of sub-categories; lightly peated (2-10ppm), medium peated (11-29ppm) and heavily peated (30-55ppm). Recently another category has emerged: the super heavily peated whisky, which can be anything upwards of 55ppm. Bruichladdich’s Octomore is famous for creating this new category but Ardbeg’s Supernova whiskies (no longer produced) were also at 100ppm. The original Octomores were 80ppm but are now regularly 167ppm and up. Bruichladdich have been setting the bar higher and higher though, and a new record has been set with the Octomore 8.3 at an almost monstrous 310ppm.

Below is a small list of some of the whiskies using peat to give you an idea of the scale of ppm levels. (Numbers are approximate and can vary from release to release):

Bunnahabhain: 2ppm
Bruichladdich: 4ppm
Benromach: 10ppm
Ardmore: 15ppm
Springbank: 20ppm
Talisker: 22ppm
Bowmore: 25ppm
Caol Ila: 32ppm
Lagavulin: 37ppm
Port Charlotte: 40ppm
Laphroaig: 45ppm
Ardbeg: 55ppm
Benromach ‘Peat Smoke:’ 67ppm
Laphroaig Floor Malted: 80ppm
Ardbeg Supernova: 100ppm
Octomore 6.1: 167ppm
Octomore 6.3: 258ppm
Octomore 8.3: 309.8ppm

Tasting Peat and Phenol

Does this mean that Octomore 8.3 is going to taste 8 times peatier than Laphroaig? No, not really. Because nature likes to screw with you, human perception of phenols levels off at around 60ppm (remember, that’s in the barley; what winds up in the whisky is around 25ppm), and when a whisky goes well above this it can can actually taste less peaty than something much lower. The 10 year old cask strength Laphroaig, or some cask strength Ardmores taste peatier to me than some of the Octomores, which I find go beyond overt peat and into a new realm of minerality and meaty complexity. In the end, ppm is a reasonably useless marketing term, as there are a lot of other variables to how peaty your whisky is going to taste.

Peating whisky is a complex science and art. It’s going to bring smoky flavours into your whisky, which you might love or hate, but which you have to admit is distinctive either way. Whether it’s a lightly peated Benromach, floor malted Springbank, or a monster Octomore, peat brings character into a lot of different whiskies and really spreads out the spectrum of flavour you can experience from whisky. Remember that all peat is not created equal. My best friend thought he hated peaty whisky after having a Laphroaig, but now Ardmore is his favourite dram. Even if you think you don’t like peated whisky, I’d recommend picking up a few bottles, trying some different types, and seeing if it grows on you.

Review: Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Barrel Size Experiment

 

.36 describes a bullet caliber used Colt “Ranger” pistol — and it’s also the designation used by San Antonio-based Ranger Creek Distillery for its bourbon — “with over two pounds of Texas corn in each bottle.”

With this release, Ranger Creek takes the same new make spirit and ages it two ways. One has been aged in a large barrel (25 to 53 gallons) for at least two years, the other has been aged in a small barrel (usually 5 gallons, but up to 10 gallons) for 11 months. The idea: Put them side by side and see which you prefer.

And so we did:

Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Barrel Experiment “Big Barrel” – (This isn’t really an experiment, this is Ranger Creek’s standard .36 bourbon, but it serves as the control.) This is a rustic, but overall quite enjoyable, little craft whiskey. The nose is woody to be sure, but balanced with notes of black pepper, dark chocolate, charcoal, and tobacco. The palate is more engaging than expected, its hefty wood backbone complemented by notes of cloves, gunpowder, and cigar smoke. The finish is dense, continuing on the frontier theme, but nothing that seems unusual for a Texas-born bourbon. 96 proof. B / $55

Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Small Caliber Series Batch #48 Barrel Experiment “Small Barrel” – This one’s the experiment, aged in a small barrel for less than a year, as noted. Normally small barrels will dominate a whiskey with wood notes, but I was downright shocked to see that wasn’t the case here. Compared the big barrel, this Small Caliber release is elegant and demure. The nose is a bit hot and moderately woody, with some of that pepper and tobacco, though nothing sweeter immediately evident. On the palate, the story’s a bit different. The wood takes a step back and lets a savory but engaging character to emerge, with notes of coconut, mushroom, banana bread, and some dried plums. The finish is silky, just barely touched with ruddy, winey sweetness, and hinting at fruit. Hands down, this is my favorite in the duo. 96 proof. Reviewed: Season – Spring ’16, aged 11 months. A- / $38 (375ml)

drinkrangercreek.com

Review: Highland Park Magnus

Following on the release of Valkyrie, Highland Park continues to shake up its lineup with the release of Magnus, a NAS whisky that now serves as the unofficial entry-level expression of Highland Park. Unlike Valkyrie, Magnus is not replacing anything in the roster (though plenty of stuff, including Highland Park 15, Highland Park 21, and Dark Origins, has already been discontinued).

So what’s Magnus? Some back story:

Founding the northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world takes a very distinct sort of spirit. And we captured that spirit to make our own. Highland Park, The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul is proud to announce the newest addition to its core range: MAGNUS.

Exclusive to the US and Canada, this expression celebrates the distillery’s founder Magnus Eunson, a butcher and church officer by day, and bootlegger by night. Brave, irreverent and enterprising, Magnus was a direct descendant of the Vikings who settled on Orkney hundreds of years ago. His legacy of attention to detail and passion for whisky making remains today and little has changed in the way Highland Park is crafted in over 220 years.

Jason Craig, Highland Park Brand Director, said, “We are very proud to be launching MAGNUS exclusively in North America and we look forward to receiving reviews of the whisky from consumers who are already fans of our distillery as well as welcoming new drinkers to our tribe with this bold new bottling.”

“Magnus Eunson set up his illicit still at a small cottage at High Park, overlooking Kirkwall and it remains the site of our home today. We say that our distillery was founded in 1798 – but in truth, that’s just the year that the authorities finally caught up with Magnus – he was certainly making whisky before that!”

The label design in striking gun metal foil on the bottle represents M for MAGNUS. It has been created in the decorative Viking art style called Urnes, which complements the recently redesigned 12 and 18 Year Old packaging, just released in North America. The design harks back to Viking storytelling and features the legend of a lion locked in battle with the forces of evil in the form of serpent-like dragons.

The top of the bottle also features the heads of two serpent-like dragons as well as the brand’s signature ‘The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul.’  Established 1798 is also featured which references the date when Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky was established.

Gordon Motion, Master Whisky Maker, commented: “I wanted to create a whisky which had the lightly-peated characteristics familiar to the Highland Park family but with a sweeter and more profound vanilla flavor profile. The result is a whisky crafted using a high proportion of Sherry seasoned American oak casks along with refill casks which give MAGNUS its citrus, vanilla and lightly smoky taste.”

Now let’s give it a try.

This is one of the lightest whiskies I’ve ever encountered from Highland Park, and while that isn’t necessarily a slam, those looking for HP’s characteristic brooding depth of flavor will not find it here. The nose finds some of that trademark maltiness, an earthy note that conceals aromas of nutty sherry, dusky spice, musk, and furniture polish. Sounds intense, but the palate is something else: Light on its feet, almost floral at times, with sweeter notes of breakfast cereal, brown butter, graham crackers, and just a touch of smoke. The peat is extremely mild here, but there’s a green, slightly vegetal note on the finish that isn’t entirely what I was after.

As an introduction to the basic style of Highland Park, Magnus isn’t a bad place to start. The price is certainly right. The only issue: Magnus really doesn’t add anything new to the HP story; it just feels… a bit too familiar.

80 proof.

B / $40 / highlandparkwhisky.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Straight Rye

Five long years in the making, I have to give credit to Jack Daniel’s for being ultimately transparent with the creation of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Straight Rye. JD didn’t call up MGP for rye stock to bottle. They made their own from scratch. In 2012 a sampling was released of unaged white dog. In 2014 a “rested” rye came out to showcase a work in progress. Now the rye, at roughly five years old but bottled without an age statement, is ready for the world in its final form. It’s been a long time coming.

This rye has a composition unlike anything else on the market — which is refreshing, to be sure — composed of 70% rye, 18% corn, and 12% malted barley. After distillation it goes through the same charcoal mellowing process as Old No. 7, before being aged in new oak barrels and bottling at a slightly overproof 45% abv.

So, kudos for taking the time to go through the process. Let’s see how that translates into the finished product.

The nose of JD Rye is instantly curious, with notes of fresh hay, mint chip ice cream, almond, flamed orange peel, and a hint of chocolate. It’s a bit scattered, to be sure, and not immediately recognizable as rye. The palate is quite grain-forward and cereal-heavy with secondary notes of orange peel, licorice, and toasted spices that build to a somewhat strange finish. The trademark spice of rye? Largely lacking.

As it hangs around on the palate, the marzipan/almond note endures, though here it’s a bit chewy, with an edge of mushroom and tobacco that doesn’t really mix well with what’s come before. Ultimately quite drying, one is left in the end with a rather dusty impression of the whiskey as a whole.

What’s the problem here? Is charcoal mellowing wrong for rye? Is the whiskey not quite old enough? I suspect it might be both of those things, though it’s difficult to test either hypothesis. As it stands, you might instead check out JD’s Single Barrel Rye release if you’re curious about what JD can do with an alternative grain.

90 proof.

B- / $27 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2017 Edition

Old Forester’s annual Birthday Bourbon — celebrating the birthday of founder George Garvin Brown — has arrived.

Some details:

The 2017 Birthday Bourbon barrel selection was drawn from 12 year old barrels from different warehouses and floors on May 27, 2005. 93 barrels matured together on the 4th floor of G warehouse, yielding an extremely spice forward expression. The remaining 27 barrels matured together on the 5th floor of K warehouse contributing a rounding sweetness to the blend. Several barrels from both lots basked in the sun, highlighting the effects of maturation along an external wall in Old Forester’s heat cycled warehouses.

The craft of bourbon making- from barrels to bottling- is a mixture of art and science. For this year’s Birthday Bourbon, science plays an integral role in the product story. During the transfer of bourbon from the holding tank to the bottling line, alcohol vapors were lost during bottling, causing the proof to drop. As a result, this year’s Birthday Bourbon will be presented at both 96 proof and 95.4 proof. This distinction is identifiable in the proof statements on the bottle.

The 2017 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon will be on shelves with a suggested retail price of $79.99. Florida and Georgia will receive the 95.4 proof expression and remaining states will receive the 96 proof expression. Kentucky is the only state which will receive both expressions with the 96 proof expression shipping first.

We’re reviewing the 96 proof version. If anyone has the 95.4 proof expression and would like to share their thoughts, please fire away in the comments.

Meanwhile, our own tasting notes:

2017 presents a somewhat thin expression of OldFo, relatively lackluster next to the knockout of 2016. Here we find a dulled nose that hits some of the usual notes — butterscotch, buttered popcorn, caramel, baking spice, and ample wood, but it’s filtered through a muddy haze that puts a damper on things. On the palate, the popcorn dominates, with clove-driven spice, black pepper, and tobacco leaf the dominate secondary notes. The finish is again quite earthy, though more raw alcohol notes redirect the focus as said finish develops.

All told, it’s an acceptable but relatively innocuous entry into the increasingly erratic Old Forester Birthday Bourbon lineup.

96 proof.

B / $80 / oldforester.com

What Grains are Used to Make Whiskey (And Why?)

You might think that there’s not much to making whiskey: it’s just grain, right? Like beer, but distilled? But there’s actually more to it than that, and like gin, what goes into the whiskey can wildly change the taste of what you get in the bottle. It’s true that, at its simplest, whiskey is just distilled grain, but the word “grain” is an umbrella term and can mean several very different kinds of seeds, many of which are used in varying amounts to make whiskey of different quality and taste. So join us once again as we explore each of the major grains used to make whiskey, and we’ll see where each comes from, and what it does to what’s inside the bottle.

Barley

The most important of all grains used in the production of whiskey worldwide is barley, and most whiskies have at least some barley in them. Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and the Levant, sometime around 8500 BCE. These days it is grown all over the world. Malted barley is most famously used to make Scotch whiskies; as the name says, a single malt Scotch like Singleton is 100% malted barley, and blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker typically has a high barley content in it as well. Barley imparts a warm, roasted toffee taste to a spirit, and these whiskies are surprisingly versatile and can be enjoyed on their own, finished in specialty casks, or blended with other grains to make endless varieties of flavor.

Corn

Also called “maize,” as corn is a catchall term that means different things in different parts of the world. In this instance, the corn we’re referring to was first domesticated around 5000 BCE in Southern Mexico. It spread throughout the Americas before Columbus arrived, and throughout Europe after the Spanish conquest. Corn is the primary grain used to make most American whiskeys, particularly bourbon, which by law has to be made up of at least 51% corn. Moonshine is unaged white whiskey typically made entirely of corn (or corn and sugar). Aged corn whiskeys — made of 80% corn — and many bourbons tend to carry a clear popcorn note amidst the sweet vanilla that tends to dominate. Unaged corn whiskey, like moonshine, wears its corn influence on its sleeve, and the primary taste an imbiber will get is sweet, buttered popcorn.

Wheat

Like barley, wheat was first thought to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 BCE. As the primary grain used to bake bread, the importance of wheat in human civilization cannot  be overstated. Wheat is likewise sought after in whiskey: two of the most famous bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, use a high percentage of wheat in their mashbill (though as bourbons, they do still have to conform to the 51% corn rule). Wheat whiskeys — made of 51% wheat at least — are uncommon but offer a different spin on the bourbon recipe. Taking a sip of a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey and you’ll often find a flavor not unlike fresh honey-baked bread, which is delicious on its own but makes a wonderful complement to the sweetness of corn. If you’re not a big fan of whiskey and are curious to see what all the fuss is about, a wheated bourbon is a great place to start.

Rye

Compared to the venerable grains we’ve already discussed, rye is a baby: the first evidence of rye cultivation comes to us from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey from around 1600 BCE. Rye is most notable in American whiskey called, not surprisingly, rye whiskey, which have to have a rye content of at least 51%. Another rye-forward style of whisky is found in many Canadian whiskys, which tend to have a high rye content. If you’re a fan of Canadian whiskies like Pendleton, you already know what to expect from rye: more spice, less sweetness, compared to corn. Rye whiskey has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices that make it a great ingredient to use in an otherwise-sweet Manhattan. If you like rye, High West and WhistlePig make some critically-acclaimed bottles.

Other Grains

The vast majority of whiskies are made with a combination of the four aforementioned grains. Of course, you can make whiskey out of just about any grain, so there are plenty of distillers out there who try to make something unique out of lesser-used grains. Japanese whisky Kikori is made with rice, Chicago’s Koval makes whiskey out of oats and millet, and even Jim Beam has tried its hand at some oddball grains. Corsair has a plethora of craft whiskeys made from almost every grain under the sun. These are great treats for the whiskey aficionado, the one that thinks they’ve tried everything that whiskey has to offer, and each different grain will bring wholly unique tastes and textures to your glass.

As you can see, whiskey can vary wildly in taste, tone, color, and everything else, simply by changing the combination of grains used in the mashbill. There’s a whiskey out there for every palate, and the possibilities for something new are endless. Do you have a preferred grain in your dram? Let us know in the comments!

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