Monday, June 12, 2017

Ultimatum Four Square 13 year (46%, Distilled: 10/02, Bottled: 9/21/16, Cask No. 7, Bourbon Barrel, 276 bottles)

Ultimatum is the new rum series from Van Wees, a Dutch indie bottler that releases some killer bottles (and the occasional dud) under their "Ultimate" whisky series. Their prices are always fantastic and below market rate, and this new rum series is no different: less expensive than Laing's Kill Devil, Kintra, or Cadenhead (though all of those have very fair prices too, and I'm not complaining).

Much like the other indies, Van Wees is doing it right: no additives, non-chill filtered and proofed to 46% (hey, I'll take it!), and no coloring added. Cheers, lads! Great to see another bottler bringing so many affordable, excellent single-cask rum options to market.

Four Square distillery in Barbados has won accolades from my two favorite critics, Serge Valentin and Sku, and RumShopBoy has also extolled their virtues. I tried an indie Foursquare last week (Dorley's 12 year) but found it a bit dilute and sweet. Can this one hit my sweet spot? RumShopBoy scored it an 85, but said it takes some time and it's a bizarre cask. 

It's nice. Good-not-great, very pleasant, an approachable spicy affair with a mild funk. It kind of tastes like Clynelish or Benrinnes, actually. Tasting this blind, I might have guessed it was one of those, as the fruit isn't overpowering and the funk doesn't knock your head off. The finish is a bit short, but it doesn't disappear entirely.

It fits into that "dangerously drinkable" category. It's not a "wow, I need to hoard this" type of bottle, but I can give this to noobs and snobs, and they'll both enjoy it. A bottle like this is an important bridge for people who might recoil at the barnyard stink of Hampden, or who are skeptical of rum but love bourbon/malts.

86 pts/B. Almost the score as RumShopBoy. A real crowd pleaser. Easy. Enjoyable with enough depth to keep you interested. Lacks that extra gear to totally wow me, but this is lovely, like a "Diet Hampden" in some ways. A fantastic value for the price. 

Ultimatum Monymusk 9 year (Distilled: 3/07, Bottled: 2/24/17, 349 bottles, 46%, Cask No. 7, bourbon barrel)

This should be a winner: Monymusk, a funky Jamaican distillery and another no-bullshit, proper bottling from the Van Wees Ultimatum series: no sugar or coloring, non-chill filtered and 46%. 

It smells fantastic right out of the bottle. A lot of farmy odors and overripe fruit. The taste shows those same characteristics, but a few points get knocked off, only because the finish disappears. The first 2/3 are on point: weird, funky (I know, I keep overusing the term), spicy and not too sweet. But just when the momentum is growing, the finale is bit of a dud. Still it's lovely. I even remarked aloud, "this is really good."


Jamaican rums are like the Islays of the genre: explosive, polarizing flavors that are rarely matched by the other nations' styles. In terms of the hierarchy, Hampden is the gnarliest, followed by Worthy Park, and then Monymusk. Think of it like an Octomore/Laphroaig/Bruichladdich scheme. So if you don't want your head to explode with George Clinton levels of funk, this is a perfect entryway into the Jamaican style.


It's a two note affair of fruit and funk, and at cask strength, this would probably hit the 89 point range. As is, I'll have no trouble finishing the bottle and will probably buy a few more, given the ridiculous price.


85 pts/B. This was like $35 including shipping and is a wonderful deal, far better than anything on most Americans shelves, let alone at that price. I'm going to crush this bottle. 


Kintra Worthy Park 10 Year Rum (Cask #V140, Distilled 6/06, Bottled 12/19/2016, 241 bottles, 61.8%)

Worthy Park, a Jamaican rum distillery, produces high-ester, pot-still rum similar to the beloved Hampden of the same nation. And Kintra, this indie bottler, is doing a great job releases cask strength rum in its natural form, with no additives or sugar. Good on them! They also have excellent customer service and are quick to respond to any questions for full transparency.

Kudos to Kintra for delivering exactly what's needed in rum: a complete lack of bullshit in the spirit and the marketing.

Serge Valentin has been singing the praises of Worthy Park and giving some boffo scores (91!) to the indie cask strength releases. Another blogger that I love, RumShopBoy, tried this particular bottle but thought it was merely good, not great, scoring it an 83.

So, what do I, the king of my own delusions, think about it? Somewhere in between.

It's good, but a bit hot, even with a few drops of water. The best parts of Jamaican rum certainly shine: the funk (it fills the room before you even take a sip), rotting fruit, and spice. But there's an alcoholic/acetone note on the finish that detracts. Let's add some more water and see...oh god, I'm turning into The Krab from Diving for Plankton.

Well, damned if that didn't solve the problem. Obviously, this is a high-proof beast in its natural form at 61.8%, but with about 12 drops of water in a properly filled Glencairn, the harsh edges melt away and what's left is much better.

RumShopBoy was basically correct: at cask strength, it's too raw. Just dilute it down a bit (heresy, I know) and this is a winner.

86 pts, B. Funky and fruity, showing some of the best parts of the Islay-ness of Jamaican pot still rum. But without water, it's an 82. It might just be that this was a hotter cask, or maybe Worthy Park does better at lower proof? I'll have some additional reviews of their stuff in the next couple of weeks to solve that mystery.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Highland Park 18 year (1996/2014, Bourbon Cask #14040, 54.2%, Malts of Scotland)

I know what my readers want: more reviews of obscure EU-only releases that have long been sold out. Still, I haven't yet achieved the epic levels of peak-uselessness that fill Chairman MAO's blog. No, that would take doing a review of a 2004 release of Balmenach and then giving it an 81 point score.

But I'll try to honor his style, minus the sanctimonious lecturing about how awful America is.

I have a problem with buying way too many samples, especially from Malts of Scotland, an exceptional German bottler that's unavailable in the U.S. but has been releasing consistently phenomenal casks at excellent prices.

My original intent is coherent: "Try it first, then you can order a full bottle." But I eventually forget to open the damned things, and then by the time I try them, it's too late to order any more. This is one of those cases. Yes, I'm completely dysfunctional.

This is zesty stuff. Moderate citrus peat, pepper, and a lot of fresh fruit and vanilla, kind of like an excellent batch of Talisker 18. The finish is strong with an antiseptic note of peat and more spice. If anything, this is better on the back end than the front. But the whole malt is a complete thought, just fantastic!

I'm not a giant fan of regular Highland Park: it's fine, middle-of-the-road, 84 point-ish malt: a bit too dilute and short on the finish, but lots of signs of potential. The "what would this taste like at cask strength?" question immediately pops up.

This is a refreshing and well-balanced, a great mix of fruit and peat, with a clean taste I associate with the current Springbank distillate. Maybe a dash of Clynelish? And yes, some Talisker. Highly recommended, if it could actually be acquired. I need to get my life together and actually start tackling some of these samples when they still serve a purpose.

88 pts/B+. One of those delightful malts that jumps out of the glass and you know it's going to be phenomenal at from the first whiff. I saved a bit of my sample which I intend to send to Sku so that he can confirm my brilliant palate.

Springbank 16 year (1998/2014, Rum Cask #14037, 49.8%, Malts of Scotland)

Lately, I've been on a rum kick: 75% of my spirits spending is done overseas, importing all sorts of funky casks of pot still gems from Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Fiji, etc. I wake up craving Hampden, though that may say more about my own personal problems than anything else. And then of course, K&L gets the rest of my money with excessive Armagnac purchases.

Anyway, I'm a total sucker for anything Springbank, so this should be perfect: a well-aged Springer with a rum finish from one of my favorite indie bottlers! 

A very fruity/peaty mix on the nose, and that's what you get on the palate. It's an unusual malt: the first part is strong: fresh fruit and honey, and the back end with peat and rum funk, but there's a middle section that's missing. It's like a scratched CD (remember those?) that jumps from the first part of the song to the chorus, and you feel a bit lost. It's like a bicycle the skips a gear.

That said, this is really good. It's probably a victim of my high expectations, as I wanted to be completely floored. Instead, it's just a really good fruit and peat cocktail.

86 pts/B. Almost a B+, really on the cusp. I could inhale a bottle of this: it has so much going on, but I almost wonder if this would have been better at a younger age. How heretical of me to say...

Caperdonich 16 year (1996/2013, 58.6%, Bourbon Cask #13025, Malts of Scotland/Van Zuylen)

Hooray, Chairman MAO reviewed this same bottle! He gave it 85 points, so what will I think? If I dare to disagree, will that make me part of the oppressive, capitalist superstructure of commodified bourgeoisie aporia? And Serge Valentin, my spirits god, gave it 83 points, finding the spice and oak to be a bit much.

This one is bottled by Malts of Scotland, which as I've said many times, is the bee's knees of indie bottlers. And Van Zuylen, the retailer that co-bottled this, is fantastic, makes great selections, and has always been wonderful with their customer service (shoutout to Rob, who is a total gentleman and had been so wonderful to me).

Big citrus on the nose, almost like it's peated. And it sure as hell tastes peated, is it? (Brief interlude to check on Whiskybase...nope, not peated). OK, fine, we'll say it's got pepper and herbal notes so that I can save face here

This is nifty stuff, like a great batch of Clynelish: heavy cinnamon spice, some citrus (lemons for sure) and yes, that peaty note that apparently doesn't actually exist but it does, damn it. Call it rosemary and basil if you must, but it comes on strong and doesn't relent in the finish.

If you gravitate toward sweet, malty malts, this one isn't for you: it's just plaint interesting. You don't see these kinds of flavors too often. It's just really interesting, with new notes coming up on every sip. Is it oaky? Sure, but I come from the school of bourbon, and I can handle it just fine. 

87 pts/B+. Totally unlike any other malts. Perplexing, off-the-wall, challenging, but addictive. I wish I had a full bottle. And while I feel odd about disagreeing with Serge, especially by so many points, but I dig this one. A polarizing malt, but I'm into it. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Breaking: CNN accuses Putin of meddling in Ardbeg Kelpie

Citing unnamed, anonymous intelligence sources, CNN and NBC News are reporting that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the use of Russian Oak casks in the new Ardbeg Kelpie and "sought to influence" the Ardbeg Selection Committee into choosing it.

This follows reports from the Huffington Post that former FBI Director James Comey "felt pressured" into dropping his investigation into a possible Russian connection with Moscow Mules and Stolichnaya Vodka, which the Associated Press believes may have been served at a Trump victory party in 2016 attended by Gen. Michael Flynn, where he allegedly broke ethics rules by mixing Pappy Van Winkle with Diet Sprite.

Last week, The New York Times cited anonymous officials who stated that Russian hackers recently infiltrated the venerated "RecentEats" blog and falsely retired it, going so far as to forge a farewell letter and change the login password, preventing rightful owner Sku from posting his latest reviews of the peated bubble tea at "Mr. Boba" in LA's Koreatown and a cask-strength Croatian grappa.

Activist whisky revolutionary Chaiman M.A.O., author of the MyAloofOpinions blog, wasted no time calling for Trump's imprisonment, declaring that, "This is far greater than Watergate, it's Whiskygate. The only solution is to tax the rich and declare universal whisky for all, free of charge, distilled and provided by the federal government. Only then can we end the colonialist yoke of 'privatized' spirits sales."

Publisher John Hansellout of WhiskyAdvertiser released a written statement: "While I have no opinion on this matter, I'd like to announce that Kelpie is our 'Best Whisky of the Summer' with a stunning 97 point score! In the same issue, you can find out new 40 page advertising spread from LVMH detailing their incredible portfolio of brands!"

Author and whisky historian Fred Muppet joined the chorus of glowing reviews: "I'm giving Kelpie a 95 score, but then again, my scoring system is between 90-100 points. I'd also like to alert you to my new book, 'Russia Curious: The Indispensable Guide to Profiting From Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Kelpie.'"

Whiskey critic "The Krab" of the "Diving for Plankton" blog declined formal comment, telling reporters, "I can't judge this story until it's diluted down to 46%, and then 40%. And even then, I'll have a different opinion on every version."

In an effort to quell the controversy, Chris Numbskull of Drinkslacker poured cold water on the news and denied that his endless stream of free samples have any Russian connection: "Kelpie is an 'A' whisky, the same score I give to 90% of the whiskeys sent to me by my sponsors, regardless of their country of origin."

Similarly, the WhiskyHeretics, a Facebook group known for mixing high-end whiskeys with low-end soft drinks, defended Flynn's use of soda. "We mix 1975 Ardbeg with lighter fluid and 1968 Macallan with goat urine. The whole point of whisky is to have fun! If Putin wants to hang out, we'll blend Russian Standard with Similac and party all night!" 

The controversy is already leading to surging prices for Kelpie on Facebook groups like Phil's 9th Circle of Hell and Bong Water Trading, with flippers rushing to upload their post-purchase "crotch shots." One typical post stated: "Controversy bottle! How much is this worth? Will someone trade an Old Rip Van Winkle 25 year for it? Can do this 75x more times if anyone is interested."


Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength (Batch #8, 59.9%, Apr. 2016)

My first Islay was Laphroaig 10 year (43%). It was also the most expensive bottle I'd ever purchased at the time, around $45. I was so excited to drink it that I ran to my car at the Specs parking lot, tore open the bottle, and excitedly took a big swig.

It was horrible. "This is poison!" I thought. Crestfallen, I lamented wasting good money on such awful whisky. How could the message boards have been so wrong? But damn it, I'd spent the dough already, so I was going to choke the stuff down if I had to. It was alcohol, after all. Over the next week, I kept drinking it. For the first third of the bottle, it was misery. Then, slowly, acceptance.

And by the last third of the bottle, I thought it was the best damned spirit I had ever tasted. And when it was finished, I rushed back to buy more. Thus began my love affair with Laphroaig and Islays generally, which has continued to this day. I buy Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength by the case and it's my "house malt" along with Springbank 10 Year. I wear Laphroaig t-shirts and hats. I even own a Laphroaig bowtie.

While I'll mess around with some first-fill sherry Speysides, some funky Highlands and the occasional Lowlander, I remain an Islay man: I need my flavor big and offensive, and only high PPM peat can deliver.

Laphroaig Cask Strength has some serious batch variation. The first editions ("red strip" and "green stripe") were mind-blowing. And batches #2 and #3 were damned good as well, if a bit less special. Batch #4 dropped a bit more. Then #5 and #6, while still very good, slid into the "B" range. Things turned up with batch #7, which was a B+, and now we have batch #8. Is the trend upwards continuing? Yes, emphatically.

This is just a perfect mix of sherry and bourbon casks, without suffering from the overly sweet/overly woody notes that dragged down batches #5 and #6. It's a clean spirit with a huge finish: medicinal, smoky as hell, with a balance of fruit and vanilla, and that nutty, signature note that only Laphroaig has. Even the nose is wonderful, far out-punching its price-point. 120 proof, world-class Islay for $55+tax? It's a total steal and arguably the best damned deal in any liquor store.

Best of all, this is my favorite batch since the red strip edition! A total knock-out! Hoard it by the case, because Laphroaig is probably going full NAS after batch #9 and we'll miss these days when it was plentiful, cheap, and delicious.

90 pts/A-. If you can't understand and love this malt, we shouldn't be friends. This is the red pill for whisky drinkers. You either get Laphroaig or you don't, and if you don't? You can go back to your bourbon with soda and Johnnie Walker on the rocks, you cretin.

Lonach Laphroaig 10 year (46%, distilled 2005)

Have you ever heard someone say, "There's no such thing as bad sex (or pizza)"? Clearly those people haven't been laid enough or eaten a sufficient amount Italian food, because both can be pretty bleak.

But I'm often fond of saying, "There's no such thing as a bad Laphroaig." And I've yet to be proven wrong. Actually, that's why I'm trying so hard to avoid Laphroaig Lore and Laphroaig Four Oak: I don't want to lose my illusions.

Anyway, this Lonach Laphroaig 10 year was on sale for $55 at Specs, so I figured, "Why not?" 

And it's quite pleasant: nice peaty nose, solid Laphroaig flavor. But it's a bit watery and because it's def. not a first-fill bourbon cask, the vanilla notes are muted. For the same money, I'd much rather drink the Laphroaig 10 year Cask Strength, but this is rock solid stuff, if a bit generic and one-noted.

84 pts/B. Won't knock you socks off, but it's an understated Laphroaig that's easy to drink. I'll have no trouble finishing the bottle, but I would drink toilet water if it were peated.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Balvenie 15 year Single Barrel Sherry Cask (47.8%, Cask #11318, Bottle #736)

I'm often asked, "What's a good $100 single malt I can buy for my friend/boss/husband/boyfriend? He doesn't want anything too smoky."

Usually, my first reaction is to think, "Why spend $100 when you can get Springbank 10 year for $50? If he can't enjoy that, he's a complete lowlife who should stick to vodka and Bud Light. And what kind of defective creep can't appreciate a little peat?" But rather than rant, I mostly just grumble, silently.

My much more polite, go-to answer since drinking this bottle: "Balvenie 15 year Single Barrel Sherry Cask."

This is the perfect malt for somebody who doesn't drink malts: approachable, fruity, and round. Even a lowly "bourbon-only" drinker could enjoy it. But it's complex enough for a mean-spirited whisky-bully like me: the sherry is fresh without any sulfur, and it's a bit like the nicer examples of Glendronach "single casks" (let's not get started on the whole problem of Glendronach dumping three barrels to produce a 650 bottle batch isn't actually a "single cask").

The sherry is strong on this one, mostly overpowering the spirit, but Balvenie isn't the strongest flavor to begin with, so I don't exactly feel like I'm missing much. The major vibe is lush fruit, probably more PX than oloroso, but it's not too sweet. For those who enjoy Aberlour A'Bunadh and the new Aberlour 12 year (46%--quite good!), this will be up your alley.

Balvenie is a big brand name, so this is also an excellent gift because people will recognize the cachet. That's half the battle, isn't it?

88 pts/B+. An excellent middle-aged sherry bomb. Not off-notes, solid proof and in the $85-110 range for that "I'm spending a bit too much on a present" for a loved one or not-too-evil boss. Surprisingly good stuff that can unite noobs and lords.



Rebel Yell 10 Year Single Barrel (50%, #5083252, 09/06)

Every so often, some troglodytic plebe who knows nothing about whisky will insist that people can't really tell one whisky from another: "They did that blind taste test with top sommeliers and they couldn't tell red wine from white!" Right, one stupid survey and suddenly I can't know good from bad or Laphroaig from Loch Du? Slag right off, mate. 

It's just another example of the virus of cultural relativism: the notion that objective beauty can't exist because it's fat-shaming (or in this case, spirit-shaming), and any comparison in quality is somehow fraught with fraud.


Then there's another question: can you recognize a wheater from a rye-recipe bourbon? Sku recently asked that question on his (temporarily-retired) blog, and my answer to his query is, "sometimes." With hotter, lower proof versions? Usually not. Top shelf stuff? Yeah, bruh.


Before we get too far: for the uninitiated who found this page accidentally while looking for char-fetish or barrel-related porn, "wheaters" are wheated bourbons, which use wheat instead of rye (in addition to the 51%+ corn), and have stronger notes of vanilla and caramel with less spice.


Of course, the postmodernists would say that my categories are antiquated; that, like gender, there are actually 78 different types of bourbons; and a rye-recipe can convert into a wheater if is identifies that way. Therefore, it was bigoted and wheater-normative of me to presume this bourbon's origins. Somebody send Antifa to drill a brick through my window!

Wheaters are particularly sought after due to the excellent-but-overhyped Pappy Van Winkles and wildly brilliant Bernheim cask strength wheaters (which appeared as Willett wax-top bottlings distilled on 4/6/93 and bottled around 2010). Those Willetts are my favorite bourbons of all time.


Today, people chase NAS Weller Reserve like it's actually drinkable and sell Weller 12 for 5x MSRP on Facebook groups to poseur mopes trying to drink "poor man's Pappy." Strangely though, nobody wants Maker's Mark cask strength or Maker's 46 cask strength, though I find the former to be quite solid.


This latest Rebel Yell entry snuck under the radar. Not much hype and scant buzz on the bottomless cesspool of FB message boards. Largely ignored by parasitic flippers and beta-male internet reviewers. And that's probably because bottom-shelf Rebel Yell is pretty bleak: it's sold by Luxco, which re-bottles Heaven Hill distillate at 80 proof and very young, probably 4 years on average. So people probably figured this release would be equally bad. They were wildly mistaken.


Like its NAS sibling, this Rebel Yell is also distilled at Heaven Hill, but it's a 10 year old, single barrel, 100 proof, non-chill filtered proper version of the spirit. Keep in mind, this is the same stuff that went into the rightly-lauded Parker's Heritage Wheated Bourbon 10 year old (4th Ed) which sells for $1500 plus now on secondary markets.


And frankly, kids, I think it tastes very similar. Huge wood on the nose, reminiscent of those Willett Bernheims (not to be confused Bernheim Wheat Whisky which is a mediocre release from Heaven Hill; no, I mean the wheated bourbon from the now-shuttered Bernheim distillery). The flavors really do remind me of the PHC 4th Ed., with a thick body on the spirit, some antique wood, musk, and that signature caramel. It's not too sweet. There's some pepper and that je ne sais quoi that makes the best wheaters memorable and worthy of chasing.


I'd say Weller 12 is an 82/B-, give or take: fine but nothing I'd reach for. This is leagues beyond. Frankly, it's better than most of the recent releases of Pappy Lot B and Old Rip Van Winkle 12 Year.


I did a side-by-side with this bottle and Pappy 15 Year (I got pics to prove it, yo), and found them to be of very similar quality (my bottle of Pappy is a 2010, so probably a bit of Bernheim mixed with Buffalo Trace distillate). 
In fact, I've opened three bottles of this Rebel Yell, all with different barrel numbers, and they've all be monster home runs in their own unique ways.

After opening my first bottle, I hoarded this release like it was going to be the post-apocalypse currency and I'd be using it to barter for wives and cattle. Now, I'm prepared to reveal it's magic to you, the unwashed masses. Consider it my good deed for the year.


90 pts/A-. By far, the best general release bourbon of the year. This bottle is a freakish value at $45. Even at higher prices, it's worth it. When the postmodern socialists finally take over America, I'll sell these to buy a fake passport and flee to Russia.




El Dorado 15 year Rum (40%)

Why would I bore you with a lot of tasting notes? This review is only useful to show the sorry-ass state of rum.

Diamond Distillery, which makes El Dorado, has some incredible distillate as seen in the indie-bottled Kill Devil and Velier releases (reviews coming). Their column and pot still rums are as good as any of the best malts, especially at cask strength. Diamond could release official, unadulterated bottlings and revolutionize the rum world, collecting oodles of profit and gaining rightful acclaim for their outstanding spirits. I'd hail them and stop complaining so damned much. I might even smile.

But no, we get this El Dorado: mass-marketed, dumbed-down schlock spiked with sugar and diluted until all flavor is destroyed. Instead of selling the rum, they basically sell a bad rum cocktail. 

It's a symbol of the rot in our larger culture: these rum flavorings are like the campus "space spaces", designed to hide the "offensive" (interesting) parts of life. And since the postmodernists tell us that all opinions are "social constructs of the patriarchy", how an we say one idea or rum is better than another? If you believe El Dorado 15 year is an A+, that's your reality, and that's as valid as mine. No objective truth exists: and if you disagree, you're a rum-ophobe. Just ask the mob at Evergreen College.

Well, here's my truth: Have you ever tried brown sugar? Great, you can skip this El Dorado, because that's the only note, turned up to 11. Perhaps if you order Long Island Iced Teas or tooty-fruity $18 cocktails at turbo bars with neon purple lighting and loud house music, this kind of rum is your bag. 

But I find that it's flabby, cloying, liquid candy; total amateur hour, a microcosm of everything that's depressing about the state of rum today. There's a thinness to the spirit.  It could give you cavities. Probably a fun "mixer", but I drink spirits, raw--I'm not some sorority girl who needs to hide the flavors and buys marshmallow vodka for the foam party.

Oh wait, that's probably misogynistic! Quick, somebody cover up that last line with sugar. I'll launch the apology tour and sign up for diversity re-education training.

70 pts/C-. And that's generous. I mean, it's tolerable, but what a bore. It's not rum, it's flat soda and it makes Dr. Pepper seem dry and compelling by comparison. This is safe-space rum; and I don't need trigger warnings or sugar. 


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sku retires his blog: resignation *not* accepted.

Sku of RecentEats has resigned. Not since Gen. Michael Flynn stepped down has a departure hit me so hard.

But I do not accept Sku's resignation. In fact, none of us should.

Fans have bemoaned the situation, rightfully, asking why he's throwing in the towel. They thanked him for his decade of loyal service to spirits and honest reviews. They politely asked him to rethink his decision. It was a collective mourning.

I'm taking a different path: I'm declining to accept this new reality. I've convinced myself this is like when bands "retire" but are immediately planning the comeback tour. Sku is just the Beach Boys or Black Sabbath, and he needs a couple of months to clear his head.

"Don't worry," he assured us. "I'll still post on Twitter, LA Whisky Society, and Facebook groups." Fair enough, but we need RecentEats too. If anything, he should be expanding to YouTube. If Ralfy can routinely produce 40 minute reviews of Glenlivet 12 and Elijah Craig, surely Sku can crank out a view 4 minute snapshots of Baraillon.

There's such a paucity of decent palates in whisky, let alone those honest enough to give "D" and "F" grades to garbage bottles that deserve it. Sku is a rare find, along with Serge of WhiskyFun, Ruben of WhiskyNotes, the members of the LA Whisky Society, and a few others.

In short, he doesn't use grade-inflation to kiss ass to retailers or distilleries, and he's got great taste.

Most of the others reviewers are either shameless industry shills (Drinkhacker, most of the crew at WhiskyAdvocate, and Jim Murray, to name a few); or they seem oddly afraid to give a score below 83, likely because they consider the entire grading system a "cultural construct of the patriarchy" (Chairman MAO); or just have terrible taste and don't "understand" brandy or rum.

His tasting notes are also brisk and to the point, as compared to one well-intentioned blogger who reviews every whisky at cask strength, then reduces it down to 50%, then 46%, then 40%, and provides extensive notes on every version. How tedious and overwrought!

Sku has been the leading edge of the Golden Age of Brandy, pushing K&L's fantastic Armagnacs before anyone else. He's now repeating that with rum, alerting me and others to the magic of Hampden. He's a thought leader in the cultural vanguard of spirits.

So much of what I'm doing is a poor imitation of his work, a half-assed homage.

He also trawls the TTB for new labels, alerting us to upcoming bottles. If you don't live in LA's Koreatown, his food reviews aren't particularly helpful, but hey, maybe one day I'll visit. And I've used his tips on NYC to find some great spots, like The Doughnut Plant.

Finally, he's a fantastic guy who's generously shared many samples and bottle splits with me.

So, yes, thank you Sku, for your years of service. A huge portion of what I know, I stole from you. But you can't quit. We, the whisky community, are like the President who can reject your resignation and force you to stay on. Or, perhaps we're like the cult members who won't let the Dear Leader leave and install barbed wire to keep him on the compound.

When the comeback tour happens, I'm ordering front row seats.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

The sad state of rum and brandy selections in America (and how to fix it)

Last night I wanted to buy rum.

But I couldn't. As I perused a shelf 30 feet long and 4 feet high, I couldn't find a single rum worth buying. Mind you, this was at Specs, which is like the Wal-Mart of Texas liquor stores: a giant selection that crushes small competitors, but not much for customer service.


Every bottle there was garbage: jammed full of sugar and caramel coloring, polluted with vile flavorings ("cinnamon spice"!), slashed down to 80 proof (or below), spiked with unknown additives, and, even when it had some age, completely cloying and boring. 


Sure, they can be used as mixers. But so can vodka, and I'm sure as hell not drinking that stuff neat. I want something worth sipping on its own, from a bottler that has the decency to leave it non-chill filtered, 92 proof or above, without any chemicals or sweeteners swallowing the spirit whole.


At TotalWine nearby, there is exactly *one* rum worth grabbing: that Smooth Ambler Revelation ($57) that's really solid. That's it. There's also two Berry's rums at 46% (Fiji 9 year and Grenada 9 year) but the Grenada is presumably Westerhall (snooze) and the Fiji is overpriced ($70). That said, I might break down and try the Fiji, even given its lighter style. But that's mostly because, as I've said many times, I'm a degenerate with no self-control.


I'm sure whisky was once near this point: filled with bottom shelf 80-proofers and boring blends from Scotland. But old batches of Johnnie Walker were pretty damned fine, from the dusties I've tasted. And bottom shelf, $10 bottles of 80s and 90s bourbon crushed today's "top-shelf", widely available rum offerings (Zafra 21 anyone?)


There's a similar problem in Armagnac and Cognac: sugared and diluted, gussied up with dyes and adulterants. Try to find a decent French brandy at Specs or TotalWine, I dare you. Middling at best and not worth the money.


It's not a total loss: a few retailers like K&L Wines (Cali), D&M Liquors (Cali) and Astor Wines (NYC) bring in fantastic Charles Neal and Nic Palazzi bottles: unfiltered, unadulterated and fantastic. And Binny's (Chicago), while not selecting their own casks, has a wide range of Darroze Armagnacs and some excellent Calvados and rums. Kudos to all of them, especially K&L, which is at the leading edge of brandy right now.


But ordering from them requires shipping, and I'm in a no-ship state. In fact, most states are no-ship states now thanks to overbearing state alcohol regulators who want to protect in-state monopolies/oligopolies in distribution and retail. It's a corrupt system that stifles competition and stiffs the consumer on selection.


Similarly, just the process to get a label *introduced and approved* federally is a pain, let alone the similar, overlapping and duplicative state regulations that stall the process, drive up costs, and discourage innovation.


Then the tax system, at every, level piggybacks onto the oligopolistic pricing from the entrenched players, making the bottles far more expensive than they should be. Why are the bottles taxed? In part, to fund the very regulators aiding and abetting their own bloated budgets and the perpetuation of these rent-seeking practices.


The result is that Texas has a grim rum/brandy selection but great whisky offerings because the perceived demand is there: TotalWine and Specs can sell cask strength malts and bourbons with ease, as the average customer is more discerning. Yes, plenty of them will still buy Jack Daniels and Crown Royal, and that's the bulk of whisky sales, but the indie bottles and single-cask offerings move briskly. It's worth the shelf space, cost, and hassle. And it brings in good customers.


Plus, you can get an 10 year, bottled-in-bond, 100 proof, single-barrel Henry McKenna for $25. Or Laphroaig Cask Strength for $55 or Springbank 10 for $50, staggering values, all of them. In large part, the whisky-end of this broken system works (kind of) in spite of the impediments, because the demand is able to overcome the artificial restrictions on supply. This produces more competition, so prices stay reasonable.


Of course, there have been massive price increases on some "super-premium" bottles by Diageo, LVMH, and Beam/Suntory, but those are a symptom of a hot market, not the fault of regulators. There's profit to be had and they're grabbing it. They see flippers snapping up limited edition bottles and selling them for 2-10x the price the same day on Facebook message boards, and the corporate reps don't have to be PhD economists to figure out the math.


But that still leaves rum and brandy withering on the vine, marred by watery mixers and pitiful selections.


Rum and brandy need a selection revolution. The best stuff is available across Europe, and there's a niche market for it here too. Right now, it's much easier and cheaper for me to have a bottle of rum shipped from the Netherlands or the UK rather than from California or New York. When I order from there? No couriers or shady begging needed. Easy breezy, they ship it ex-VAT and the per-bottle price is usually cheaper than at a domestic store, even when shipping is added. This is true of whisky as well.


And unlike some stores (*cough* Astor) that will allow a third-party courier to pick up the bottles, the Europeans actually pack the boxes up with styrofoam, bottle packers and bubble-wrap. Imagine that!


Best of all, the foreign selection is killer, especially with rum: Kill Devil and Velier, Hampden indies, Caroni cask strength, Long Pond at 46%, and Foursquare galore. And on the Cognac and Armagnac end, it's pretty damned strong too: big selections from Darroze and the ocassional L'Encantada and Charron.


As a result, the bulk of my buying these days is done at K&L or overseas. At Spec's and TotalWine? I buy cigars and the occasional whisky. They used to get 90% of my business, but today, it's probably less than 20%. Other than a few house malts and bourbons I keep on hand, or the occasional special release that they stock, there's not much of a need to stop there.


So how to fix this conundrum?

The solution is two-fold: first, retailers need to take risks. K&L is crushing with its Armagnac business, not because it's a huge profit margin--it isn't, as they offer fair, direct-to-consumer prices and it's a niche market. But it brings in high-end customers who will buy their Islays and sherried monsters, their Belle Meades and Smooth Amblers. It makes them key players in the premium spirits game at a time when retailers are hurting. The Bud Light and Smirnov revenue doesn't disappear because they stock an Enmore 24 year rum.


Nearly every single K&L Armagnac ends up selling out. So does every Calvados and most of their indie Cognacs. The rums do fairly well. Yes, sometimes they have to be put on discount, but that's not often. They don't sit on the shelf for too long. It's clearly worth the time and investment. They're not white elephants.


And that can be replicated in other big cities: Austin, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, whereever. We all read WhiskyFun and see Serge Valentin going nuts over Hampden and Caroni rums. Sku and the Serious Brandy page on Facebook shows there's a growing community, however tiny it might be, of influential bloggers who are jumping into Armagnac, Cognac, and Calvados. And the trendsetters will cause the casuals to follow suit. It's already happening.


Second, it's time to radically deregulate the alcohol industry. What, exactly, is the benefit of the TTB and state regulators like TABC who won't even enforce their costly labeling regulations and allow additives to be slipped in without any warning to the customer? The entire regulatory scheme is a sham: it makes sense in theory (protect the consumer), but like most regulation, it becomes captured by industry and the bureaucrats end up protecting the incumbents. This is true in beer as well.


Some believe the solution is more regulation, or at least more effective regulation. This position argues that these same ineffectual, corrupt bureaucrats can alchemize into strident, Eliot Ness types if we just write enough nasty letters or complain on private Facebook threads. It's quite a charmed notion, sincere but naive. It ignores how undemocratic, insulated state bureaucracies function in practice, and more importantly, the overall cost-benefit analysis of the regulations as a whole.


Why can't Balcones in Waco, TX ship directly to me? Why do they need the middleman distributor and the crappy selection of a rent-seeking retailer like Specs, which provides almost zero valuable services but jacks up the price? Because of the antiquated, costly regulations that protect the big boys in distribution and retail. Their lobbyists get involved. It's unseemly. 


In fact, in the "three-tier system" that is in most states, a retailer can't also have wholesale or manufacturing (distillery) levels in the business, so it leads to all kinds of silly divestments and the inability of Balcones and other distilleries to ship directly in-state.


Why can't Wal-Mart sell whisky in Texas? Because supermarkets can't sell it. Why? To protect the retail package stores.  In the name of preventing the boogeyman of "vertical integration" and monopolies, the state creates tiered oligopolies. It's a mess.


And it's time to open it up. 


Sku, of the sadly-deceased RecentEats blog, is right: this is the Golden Age of Brandy, with more brilliant, small chateau casks available than ever before, at great prices and unfiltered. But you need to live in California, New York, or Illinois. Most of the country is missing out on the revolution. So how do we save it, let alone expand it?

We're past the point where someone is going to add methanol into their whisky and customers go blind. This isn't the Prohibition Era and one lawsuit from a sick-or-dead customer is enough to discourage that behavior, along with the fact that the bad press would destroy the entire brand. We aren't in the era of traveling medicine shows where the fake booze con man would then skip town. 


It's time to abolish these onerous state and federal regulations, almost en totum. The system protects a brick-and-mortar retail system that's on its last legs, as we see in the closing malls and big-box stores across the country. What's the justification for the added costs, as compared to what we, the customer, get in return? How much innovation is blunted? How much protection do we actually need?


And most importantly, how many people will never get to try the beauty of Hampden or richness of Pellehaut because it never reaches the shelves as a result of this malignant leviathan of regulation?


The byzantine system isn't just diluting the spirits themselves, it's diluting the selection and culture. It's parasitic and has outgrown its usefulness. Here in Texas, certain state legislators are making moves to cut down on the power of the TABC, and I applaud their moves as a great first step. At the federal level, the same is needed.


But that'll take time. 


For now, I'll keep hiring couriers and using Transferwise to convert U.S. Dollars into Euros. I'll keep crossing my fingers that none of the bottles break in shipment and that maybe a few more retailers take risks. And I'll have to keep watching other enthusiasts demand that we expand and further enable the same regulations that are the key source of the problem.

Friday, June 2, 2017

1996 L'Encantada Lous Pibous Armagnac (Cask 187, 54.3%, Selected by Brandy Bros.)

L'Encantada is a French indie bottler of Armagnac that has been making waves in Europe, and this is part of a four-bottle first-in-America release via K&L Wines and a private buying club. Serge Valentin and Sku have raved about the Lous Pibous Armagnacs and I've jealously dreamed of the chance to get my own bottles.

I was able to snag a bunch of the #188 and #124 (reviews will be posted when I take delivery), but for now, we have #187, which many think is the best of the bunch.

This nose has some "bourbony" notes, but it's clearly an Armagnac. Actually, it smells like milk chocolate or Nestle Quick. If I parse it more deeply for the reading audience, a nice gingerbread/toasted, fruit, and oak mix, so expectations are high.

And it's delicious. Is it the mind-melting, LSD-for-the-tongue, meaning-of-life-on-Ayahuasca experience that I was hoping for, based on the hype? No. But it's excellent Armagnac: heavy oak, dry fruit, and spicy as hell. All of the things I like in the region, with an additional punch of oak from the new-char barrels.

My Armagnac style is Pellehaut and Baraillon, and this is a great representation of the style: rustic and wild. Great body too, without a hint of heat from the high proof. This is far better than almost every bourbon available today.

89 pts/B+. Along with the 1989 Pellehaut 27 year, this is the best Armagnac I've tasted in the past 6 months. Just don't expect to find the secrets of the 27 dimensions of the infinite multiverse. Thank you to Sku for the sample!



Marc de Champagne Veuve Cliquot (42%, purchased at Astor Wines)

Sku found this bottle on Astor Wines, and, degenerate that I am, I just couldn't pass up the chance for a bottle split. He raved about it, so I figured my choice to go halfsies was another brilliant move by me...

Well, the nose is pretty brutal. Toilet cleaner at a 7-11, urinal pucks, tequila, and various industrial chemicals. Musty and dank. If you tell yourself, "it's a white wine you're smelling", it helps trick the brain into accepting it as something fit for human consumption.

And the taste is pretty rough too: woody (like, shop wood or the Home Depot lumber section), anise spice, mint, and mezcal. The more I drink it, I get used to it, but it's just not my wheelhouse. The plastic notes are too prominent. It's got an artificial flavoring vibe that I can't handle.

I can handle Marc, as seen by my earlier review today. But this one is just...a slog. Maybe I need to train my palate? I mean, Sku *loved* it, is it possible the Great Brandy Guru and Sage of Spirits could be wrong? No, I'm blame myself and let the Jewish guilt overwhelm me.

Different strokes, I guess. 

70 pts/C-. It's speaking a language I can't interpret. I've got a half bottle of this stuff (bottle split with Sku) if anybody wants to trade.

 

1974 L'Encantada 42 Year Old "Le Sablé" Bas-Armagnac (40.1%, K&L Wines Selection)

A shuttered chateau that only operated for 3 years? Well, if nothing else, this is a piece of history. K&L selected this as part of three L'Encantada Lous Pibous that they brought in. 

Fantastic nose. Soft fruit, lots of black pepper and cognac spice. Bone dry.

As for the actual flavor...it's good, but not great. It's *very* tart, almost like unsweetened cranberry juice, tons of oak, and it's so dry it could extinguish the Chicago fire. Too me, it's a bit dilute and perhaps a bit over-oaked. It's softer in its style (more Cognac than Armagnac), so the oak knocks it out of focus, a bit. 

As well, the lower proof keeps the finish shorter. If you think of this as a subtle Cognac, it's very good. As an Armagnac, it's missing something. That said, it's solid.

85 pts/B. Not one I'd reach for constantly, but it's nice opening drink before my usual routine of frying my palate with Islays and funky pot-still rum.
 

Jacoulot "L'Authentique" Marc de Bourgogne (45%)

Look, I'll cut the crap: this is one of the most unique spirits I've ever tasted. It's made from the schwag (discarded portions) of wine production and distilled into brandy.

Based on the notes from Bozzy and Sku, I expected that the flavors could alienate me: spoiled milk, mint, durian fruit, and barnyard grass? It was either going to be a homerun or a colossal whiff. It's the former.

It smells like the raw butter I once bought that eventually went bad. There's also cinnamon and vanilla frosting, and some Cognac fruit notes. It's all over the place. If it sounds gross, it isn't--it's addictive and intoxicating...dare I say, alluring?

The taste is explosive and rich: fruit, mint, huge funk, pastry, burnt butter. It's all happening at once and it's incredible. This is a totally new kind of booze, a category all its own. Don't let my tasting notes scare you, this is a graduate-level course for brandy heads.

I can't stop raving about it.

90 pts/A-. This is Hampden/Laphroaig level, totally unique and unforgettable. Totally floored me. Brilliant! Thanks to Sku for the bottle split.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mezan XO Jamaican Rum (40%, Hampden/Monymusk)

Serge Valentin gave this one 86 points, and he's almost always right. Did he nail this one too?

It's a blend of Hampden (whooo!) and Monymusk rums from Jamaica, probably with an average age under 10 years. And sadly, like most rums, it's chill-filtered and 80 proof, which is just so ridiculous and unnecessary. Why not at least 92 proof and NCF? Why is rum so far behind the times? If people want dilute whisky, they can add water, but damn it, give me a chance to drink it raw. Let the clods and lowlives have their mixers..

Anyway, the nose is so promising: lots of grassy funk, with the signature Hampden style coming through, with vanilla icing and cake. And it tastes just like that: basically a like fresh cupcake that was rolled around in a barnyard. 

Though the proof is low, it's got solid heft and doesn't doesn't take too watery. But like almost every 80 proofer, it lacks that second gear that can take it from good to great. 

83 pts/B-. Not quite as enamored as Serge, but this is rock-solid rum for $30. Lest I sound like a broken record, at cask strength, this would be way better. But it's nice enough, as is.

Doorly's 12 year Rum (40%, Barbados/Foursquare)

This is an indie Foursquare (Barbados) rum bottled under Richard Seale's "Doorly's" label. It's inexpensive at $25 but reviews have been largely positive and there is no added sugar or coloring. And considering the usual quality of Foursquare rum, what could go wrong?

The nose has pleasant molasses and nutmeg, and the palate brings more of that, with the spice developing more heavily toward the finish. It's quite nice and has oodles of potential, but it's just missing that extra gear due to the low proof. At 100 proof, or even cask strength, it would be spectacular. But the dilution really dampens everything. It's a shame.

Richard Seale is doing so much to help with rum labeling and removing additives, so why not just let it rip at cask strength? 80 proof, chill-filtered spirits are so 1992; the market has changed and boozehounds like me need more texture and lipids in our drams.

82 pts/B-. Very pleasant, and does fine on its own, but given the lack of heft, it's more of a mixer for me. At cask strength, this would probably be closer to 90 pts.

Smooth Ambler Revelation Rum (1990) 49.5%

A mix of 24+ year old Jamaican rums for $57? How could I pass? This is supposedly a mix of Appleton and Monymusk casks, and since it doesn't have the usual funk of Hampden, I'm inclined to believe it. It's bottled by the Smooth Ambler folks in West Virginia, who usually sell re-labeled MGPI bourbon and rye. 

So how is it? Not mind-blowing, but it's pretty damned good. Quite like a Calvados, actually, with heavy Christmas spices a lot of oak on the back end. Blind that's what I would have guessed it was. There's a bit of "old Clynelish/Benrinnes" Highland taste too. Very little sweetness whatsoever, and certainly not immediately identifiable as a rum. There are some light acetone notes that detract on the finish (a touch over-oaked?), but it's a small nit. 

If you're hoping for a Hampden ester-bomb, you'll be disappointed. It's got none of the farmy, pot-still notes that I usually demand in my Jamaican rums, but it's strong enough to stand on its own legs. Needless to say I've demolished the bottle pretty quickly, if that's a sign of the quality.

Recommended, if only because there's basically no good rum on the average whisky store shelf. Everything in U.S. rum is 80 proof and chill-filtered, or filled with sugar and caramel coloring. This cuts a different path. Until the Kill Devil/Golden Devil series gets wider distribution and single cask indie-bottled rums hit more U.S. shelves, this is a top player.

86 pts, B. You can only drink so much Springbank and Laphroaig. And this isn't some candy-ass, sugary, watery affair. Give it a whirl if you can handle heavy oak.