Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20y

It’s currently Van Winkle season in bourbon land. That means that grown men are hunting for bottles of whiskey and doing everything they can to get them. In many ways, it’s like the Cabbage Patch craze of the early 80s – except it’s a longer-lasting craze at this point. Instead of downplaying things and telling everyone to be calm, I figured I’d just pour some gasoline on the fire. After all, if I say they aren’t that great, people will cynically assume I’m just trying to downplay interest so I can find some for myself.

The Van Winkle bourbons are some of the most sought-after bourbons on the market. They’ve rightfully gotten a collective reputation as some of the most consistently excellent bourbons on the market. Add to that reputation some extremely tight allocations (stores in California don’t get more than a handful of bottles, and some charge ridiculous prices) and you have the right elements for retail insanity.

Recently, the Van Winkle bourbons have been some of the most visible remaining sources of whiskey distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Stitzel-Weller ceased production in the early ’90s and now, 20 years later, some of their last remaining bourbon is being bottled as Pappy Van Winkle.

The Van Winkle bourbons are a wheat recipe, meaning they use wheat as the flavor grain instead of rye. They can have a more soft, less spicy quality than rye-recipe bourbons. The marquee expressions of Van Winkle are aged to 15 years and 20 years; there are also 10, 12 and 23 year old expressions.

Today I’m looking at the 20 year old expression, for no other reason than it was the first Van Winkle expression I ever tasted. Perhaps for that reason – or perhaps by its character – it’s remained my favorite.

The nose on the 20 year old is initially sweet, but presents some wood that is good and not overbearing. Then the clay and earthy notes pop up and dominate – this is a note very similar to the notes I’ve found on the bottom cut barrels of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak experimental releases. Providing some brightness on the nose, a faint trace of orange and cinnamon, as well as a faint dusting of white pepper.

The palate is all cherries initially. The earthiness and clay continues, as well as a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup is in there, and even a touch of bubblegum – think soft Bazooka bubblegum. There’s a gentle grainy character to it, and a medium wood presence that isn’t overbearing. A dash of white pepper on the palate provides a reasonable heat.

The finish is great – it’s light and smooth and lasting. There’s wood initially but the earthy notes dominate. Some brightness is again provided by oranges, and it’s all tied together with a bit of black cherry and bubblegum.

Pappy 20 is a great bourbon. I prefer it to other Van Winkles (and many bourbons) because everything tucks together nicely. Everything is in balance and it just works perfectly in unison. I often think bourbons of this character (earthy, bubblegummy, with cherries and wood) need to have something turned up. In this case, it’s so perfectly balanced that I don’t think I’d change a thing. Everything is well worn but not tired.

Now, all this said: is Pappy the perfect whiskey? No, I’ve liked others more. I admit they could be stunt bourbons or one-trick ponies. Pappy 20 is a refined southern gentleman, with polite manners and reminding you of a bygone era. That said, he’ll talk your ear off with some great stories. The mania surrounding Pappy can be off-putting (even I am less interested this year), but when you put it all aside and pour a glass, it’s hard to deny the greatness of this bourbon. It’s an easy A- for me.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20y – 45.2% ABV
Nose:
 Initially sweet; some good, aged wood. Faint hint of clay and other earthiness. The faintest trace of oranges and cinnamon. A bit of white pepper – the faintest dusting.
Palate: A fair amount of cherries; the clay earthiness continues with a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup as well, and a touch of bubblegum. Gentle grains. Medium wood – present but not overbearing at all. A dash of white pepper heats things up gently.
Finish: Light and smooth; a bit of wood shows up here as the earthy notes dominate. The orange notes are nicely present on the high end, providing some brightness. The black cherry lies underneath it all, tying it together.
Comment: This is a great bourbon, of course. I personally prefer it to other Van Winkles because everything tucks together nicely. I often think bourbons need to have this profile turned up. In this case, this one is at the perfect intensity – everything’s got the edges rounded off, well worn but not tired, and in great proportions.
Rating: A-

Gift Packs: Bargains Galore

A while back, I wrote about how useful a good glass can be for appreciating everything a whiskey has to offer. The right shape of glass will help focus some of the aromas that would otherwise blow past your earlobes and set on your forehead in a traditional old fashioned glass. My favorite, as I’d mentioned, was the Glencairn glass.

In the last few weeks of shopping, I’ve seen holiday gift sets starting to appear on shelves, and there’s been a number of them with Glencairn glasses. Better yet, the price is right. If you’ve been curious about these glasses but don’t want to pony up $10-12 for a single glass, then the holidays are your absolute best time to pick one up at a low cost.

One gift pack I saw is an Old Pulteney 12 Gift Pack (I saw the actual article at the Wine House recently). This pairs two Glencairn glasses with an Old Pulteney logo, as well as a bottle of the 12 year old Old Pulteney. It’s a great bargain: about $35 gets you the two glasses and a bottle of Old Pulteney. If you’ve never had Old Pulteney, it’s a great, low-risk way to try it – even if you don’t like the bottle, you will have two great glasses.

Another was a Glenfiddich gift set. It looks like the major stores will be selling an Americanized version with two old fashioned glasses. However, I have stumbled across a different version: a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, a Glenfiddich logo Glencairn, and a small “tasting diary”. The tasting diary looked like a pretty decent quality, small, moleskine-type notebook (but very very thin). At less than $25, you’re basically paying $12 for the whiskey – a great deal.

You might also find that some stores put out old stock they may have gotten at a low cost from distributors, or have had warehoused over the last year. I saw an Old Forester Prohibition Repeal set this week as well. This set couples an Old Forester logo Glencairn (their press release from the time calls it a “snifter” – fine) and a 375mL bottle of Old Forester in a prohibition-era style bottle. It also includes an Old Forester logo pen and a scroll of the 21st Amendment. “Suitable for framing”, no doubt. I can always use a pen. This gift set was released in 2008 and I found it on shelves at the end of 2011. Keep an eye out.

If you think the Glencairn is impossibly dorky and just for people who are too precious about the whole thing, you could be right. There are some decent quality old fashioned glasses to be had out there; and sometimes you want a cocktail (say… an old fashioned). My favorite example of these were the Four Roses Single Barrel gift set. A bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (recipe unknown, at least on my bottle) and two old fashioned glasses of pretty good quality. Four Roses is a great bourbon. If they ever start putting recipes on the label, keep your eyes peeled for the OBSK recipe – it’s great. Most of the major bourbon producers seem to be going the route of old fashioned glasses, so it’s an easy pickup.

Beyond that, there are some great bargains to be had. I’ve seen Glenmorangies cropping up recently with samples of their finishing experiments (Astar, Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar D’or) bottled alongside a Glenmorangie Original. The usual Macallan 12 with samples of Macallan 18 tucked inside are also showing up. Given the entry fee of $140/bottle for the 18, it’s a great way to try it if you haven’t.

I’ve also seen Johnnie Walker Black packaged with a small flask as well as Jim Beam white label with a flask. If you don’t have one, this could be a good place to pick one up along with a good, accessible bottle for guests who may not share more esoteric tastes (or might simply want to mix with something).

Hopefully you can find something that kills two birds with one stone this season – and don’t forget to pick up a gift for a friend. It can be an unexpected gift that might kick off a passion – especially if they have someone to help show them the ropes.

Port Ellen Doubleheader & Indie Bottlings

Recently, I traded samples with my friend Timon as part of a mini Port Ellen head-to-head tasting. Both were reasonably old – 25 and 27 years old – and both were independent bottlings.

For a moment, the independent bottling part of that is an interesting topic worth exploring. If you’re more educated on whisky, you can skip ahead – but if you’re curious, let’s discuss the world of independent bottlings.

Independent Bottlings

What many don’t realize is that a fair amount of whisky on the shelf in a good liquor store is not bottled by the producer. That is to say, you can buy a Macallan (for instance) that was distilled by Macallan, but is not being released by Macallan. There’s a lot of wiggle room on the hows and whys of an independent bottling (was it matured at Macallan or was it matured in the bottler’s warehouse; how did the bottler come into possession, etc) but they are largely uninteresting and in a broad sense not terribly important. What is worth knowing is that independent bottlings offer some really unique offerings that you won’t be able to experience from the featured distillery.

The most obvious difference is in age statements: again using the example of Macallan, you will see the usual 12, 18, 25 and 30 (as well as 10, 15, 21 and 30 on the Fine Oak) on the shelves. However, independent bottlers offer a range of ages – younger 10 year old whiskies; unusual ages like 19 or 22 years, etc.

Another point where the independents can branch out is in the type of cask used. Again to continue with our example and focusing on the sherry matured Macallan line, every Macallan you buy that has been released as Macallan will have been matured in oloroso sherry casks. Independent bottlers may use the distillate for their own purpose and mature it in other casks – bourbon casks, fino sherry, PX sherry, and so on. This lets you taste the spirit in ways you likely haven’t before.

Some bottlers may perform additional finishing (or Additional Cask Enhancement as Murray McDavid prefers to call it) which may involve placing the aged whisky in an unusual cask for a few months to impart some additional character in taste, texture, etc. This is a topic that will be covered in the future. I’ve seen Laphroaigs matured in Bordeaux wine casks and Mortlachs in Sauternes casks (notably Chateau d’Yquem).

Independent bottlers also generally offer single-cask offerings. This makes things interesting – the market is constantly changing as a single cask may only yield 200-300 bottles for the entire world. Each cask is different and can impart a unique flavor to its contents. Even if you had two independent Highland Parks of the same age, if they come from different casks you will likely detect noticeable differences in their flavors and aromas. This is because the independent bottling market is not concerned with preserving a consistent, predictable experience – unlike the distillery. Sometimes this is great and exciting, sometimes it falls flat. The uncertainty makes it more interesting.

Finally and most interestingly, independent bottlers provide the most affordable way to try older whiskies, including whiskies from closed or demolished distilleries. Decades of stock may exist when a distillery is closed, and that stock is worth many thousands of dollars – it’s not going to be thrown out just because the distillery is closed. So at this point in time, you may be able to try a 30 year old, single cask offering from a distillery closed in the early 80s (when many were closed) for a price less than an 18 or 20 year old offering from a functioning distillery. In many cases these can be absolutely amazing whiskies as well.

And it’s not just scotch: There’s a healthy trade for American independent bottlers. This is a more touchy, opaque practice in the US than in Scotland, but suffice it to say there are substantially less distilleries than your local bourbon shelf would lead you to believe.

Port Ellen

Port Ellen is a name that has an almost mythical status in scotch nerd circles. It’s a distillery that was part of the broad range of distillery closures in the early 1980s. It also happens to be one of the better ones. Some distilleries leave no mystery as to why they were closed (I have yet to taste an interesting North Port). Others, such as Port Ellen or Brora (and I would personally argue, Banff) feel less clear.

While Port Ellen is highly sought after and almost revered, it’s also not rare – not as rare as Brora and certainly not on the order Kinclaith, Ladyburn, Ben Wyvis or Glen Flagler. However, it’s generally a really good whisky which is as good a reason as any for it to stay in the upper echelon of distilleries to this day, nearly 30 years after its closing.

Port Ellen still produces malt for the distilleries on Islay, but the distillery itself has not produced whiskey since 1983 (and is partially demolished, according to Wikipedia). This video from Youtube takes you on a tour of the Port Ellen Maltings:

Warning: Extensive Scottish ahead.

My friend Timon and I found that we had two recently opened bottles of Port Ellen so we decided to swap samples alongside a larger swap and pit the bottles head to head.

Port Ellen 25 year old Old Malt Cask Bottling (distilled 11-82, bottled 1-08)

This bottle is part of the Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask series. The Old Malt Cask series tends to issue bottles at 50% ABV from a single barrel. They also don’t color or chill-filter bottles in the OMC series. This series is very common and there are some good bottles to be had from it.

This Port Ellen had a nice nose – a bit of mustard initially, peat and grass, and a slightly dry malt note. It was lightly briny as well. A little drop of water made this open up to reveal a little more musty and farmy character and a nice bright shiso note.

The palate is classic Islay – thick and oily, and due to the strength it starts to warm up and expose the malty flavors as well as a bit more brine and some gentle peat. Water brings more of a distinct rubbery note, some lighter tar notes and white pepper.

The finish didn’t bring much new to the table – warm with peat and light earthiness and a touch of brine. Overall, it was a good, easy drinking, gentle Port Ellen. Good, but there are better Port Ellens to be had.

Port Ellen 27 year old McGibbons Provenance Bottling (distilled Spring ’83, bottled Spring 2010, cask 6101). 

McGibbons has less of a strong identity as a independent bottling line. It’s also owned by Douglas Laing. Douglas Laing’s site says this collection “highlights the particular distillation of the seasons through Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter”. This line is not exclusively single-cask bottlings.

The nose on this Port Ellen was a little tamer to me – moderately peaty, lightly waxy fruit notes (like apple skin but not quite specific enough to be apples). There was also some definite maltiness and very very light brine. It wasn’t a powerhouse nose.

The mouthfeel was fairly average and malty with some moderate peat. It had a little pepper and some mustard, and a bit of hay – it was a bit dry and grainy overall. The finish was probably the best part – gently warming, a little mustard and shiso notes, huge maltiness and some peat. It was still a little dry and had some wood influence.

The McGibbons Port Ellen was not particularly complex – mostly malty with some dry grain notes – but the finish just had something extra that really made this an enjoyable whisky. (This sentiment also seems to be shared by the LA Whiskey Society)

The Verdict?

I had to concede defeat in this one. My Port Ellen, the OMC offering, was classic Islay but little more. There was a certain lightness and almost effervescence to the McGibbons bottling that was just more enjoyable. It may not have been as complex, but it was just more enjoyable overall. So hats off to Timon, he wins this round. We’ll have a rematch in the future.

At a glance:

Port Ellen 25yo Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask. Distilled 11-82, Bottled 1-08.
50% ABV
Nose:
Green with a hint of mustard; peat, grass, a slightly dry note of malt. Light brine. With water it opens to reveal some slightly musty, farmy notes, a lighter, sharper green note vaguely like shiso.
Palate: Thick and oily, warming up with maltiness and brine, and some gentle peat. With water there’s more of a rubber note, some light tar as well as some white pepper.
Finish: Still warm on the finish, peat and light earthiness, brine.
Comment: It’s tasty, it’s gentle, it’s a nice mix of peat and malt. It’s good but there are better Port Ellens out there.
Rating: B

Port Ellen 27yo McGibbons Provenance Distilled Spring ’83, Bottled Spring 2010, Cask 6101 46% ABV
Nose: Moderate peat, lightly waxy fruity notes, some maltiness. Very very light brine.
Palate: Medium mouthfeel; malty; moderate peat – a little bit of pepper and some mustard; a touch of hay, slightly dry.
Finish: Warming, with a slight mustard-and-shiso note, big malt, gentle peat. A little bit of dryness and wood.
Comment: Not long on complexity but totally enjoyable.
Rating: B

Tasting With Your Mouth (For A Change)

“But I always taste with my mouth!”

Me too.

My brain can play an unfortunate role sometimes. I’ve wondered if I’m liking a whiskey because it’s, say, a Port Ellen, or if I actually liked it. As you build up some experience and taste preferences, you’ll start to wonder about your objectivity when you start having new expressions. I try not to be swayed by fancy packaging, old age statements or auspicious provenance. But I’m only human – it’s hard not to think that stuff may be playing a role.

The best way to nullify that concern is to conduct blind tastings occasionally. This is absolutely great with friends, but it can be done on your own (ideally with the help of someone to ensure that it’s truly blind). I can’t recommend enough that you try this with some like-minded friends; the discussion and experience is just vastly better. I wouldn’t however, waste time on blind tastings until you’ve got some experience under your belt. Get to a point of comfort with your palate so you’re confident in your ability to taste and identify. (Or, just jump right in…)

Recently I was at a tasting of six old bourbons and ryes that are no longer available.  It was a great model of how to conduct a blind tasting. All six whiskeys were decanted into unlabeled, empty bottles. If you’ve got a particularly favorite whiskey you regularly consume, you might want to save a few empties for this purpose. The bottles were simply labeled with numbers – one through six – and we tasted them in sequence. Only after everyone had tasted and formed their impressions (and graded if applicable) were the details revealed.

To help the nose, tastes common to ryes and bourbon were laid out in bowls – apple slices, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and so on. I personally used these more than a few times as I’d started to wonder if it was an off night for my palate. It turned out that I was just detecting the apple skin note really prominently on most whiskeys. However, this sort of thing is great to have around, especially if you have an idea of what might be encountered. In moderation it can also be a nice palate cleanser.

Blind Sample #1 had a nice nose. Light spice, cinnamon, light vanilla, a hint of coconut and some mild wood. On the palate it had a light mouthfeel, was bitter, woody, with a prominent apple skin note, light cinnamon, a bit of turbinado sugar, dust, and concrete (with two question marks in my original notes). The finish was short with the fruit skin notes and bitter wood. I thought this was unusual tasting. It wasn’t bad but bitter to my palate – worth a try though. I rated it a B- as it was an interesting bourbon that was certainly worth trying, but not something I’d probably buy a bottle of. It ended up being Black Maple Hill 21 year old, Cask #5.

Blind Sample #2 was sharper on the nose with some prickle. It had a slight solvent note, some orange, slight molasses. After a few moments it became a little more creamy with vanilla notes showing up. The palate was a treat: very smooth with a great wood influence. It started to sweeten with some moderate warmth, some vanilla, light apple and a touch of pepper. The finish was dry and fruity with a hint of orange. I thought it was pretty decent overall and would definitely consider buying a bottle (if it was still available – which it wasn’t). It got a straight B from me – a very worthwhile bourbon. It ended up being W. L. Weller Centennial - discontinued about 5 years ago. This was where I felt like things were on track for me: I like wheat recipe bourbons and Weller in particular, so a B was about where I would expect things to land. (And this is a great bourbon – if you see it, do pick it up.)

Blind Sample #3 poured with little ceremony. I was starting to feel like it was a good night for tasting. This one garnered the initial note of “Nice!” on the nose. Cinnamon, red hots, spice and pepper, with oranges and light cherry. This was a nose I liked – deep and rich with that fruit and cherry note. The palate continued with pepper, warmth and really perfectly balanced wood, light black cherry, creamy vanilla. There were some slightly earthy notes like clay – a sign I’m starting to believe means lower-cut barrel staves based on the experience so far with the Single Oak Project. There was a hint of caramel and bubblegum. The finish was nearly ideal – slow, lasting, slightly grainy, with black cherry and some vanilla. This was very close to my ideal bourbon profile. I ended up rating it as an A- because I’d have it pretty much any day (if it was available). I only wished the flavors had a slight bit more intensity. This whiskey was revealed to be the highly sought-after late 70′s/early 80′s Very Very Old Fitzgerald (12 Years). This meant the whiskey was distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which has become a major cult distillery among bourbon fans. I personally can’t recommend this one enough, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it without paying a pretty penny — bottles go for $400 and up on eBay these days. (This is why group buys are so great).

I wasn’t expecting much out of Blind Sample #4 given what we’d just had. The nose was nice and slightly prickly with some definite rye notes. It was slightly creamy and I just noted it as “interesting”. The palate was smooth and slightly warm, but a bitter wood influence was evident, as were apple skins and a dusty note. I was pretty sure this was an older whiskey at this point based on my experience. The finish carried through some of the rye spice notes and it was dry. At this point the dry and bitter notes went off for me and it had a slightly vinyl taste. This was an unfortunate sample for me – one that started good but went off the more I had. My comment at the time was “I’m forgainst it.” I rated it a B- because again, it was worth trying. Sample #4 ended up being Vintage Rye 23 which is an independent bottling of rye from an unknown distillery.

Blind Sample #5 had a phenomenal nose. Dark red fruits like plums and black cherries; slight bubblegum and light cinnamon. It was nicely spicy in general with some maple syrup as well. The palate was warm and kept getting warmer. It was spicy, with slight wood and lots of heat. It was also lightly bitter. The finish was still hot and had caramel and spice. It was really evident from the nose that this was going to be very high proof – potentially into George T. Stagg territory. However, it managed to be quite good and have some nice flavor to it. I gave this a B+ because I liked it a lot but didn’t get a ton of nuance. It turned out to be Willett Rye, 1984, Barrel 618. It weighed in at a hefty 68.35% ABV, confirming my suspicion.

At this point we were looking at our last sample: Blind Sample #6. There were some strange glances going around the room between the guys running the tasting who knew what it was. This was very strange tasting and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it initially. It had a light, cookie dough and baked good scent on the nose, and was generally sugary and sweet. This to me seemed like notes I’ve gotten off of new-make ryes in the past so I was wondering if it was a very young rye whiskey. The palate was kind of dry, but then took a very strange turn into being slightly farmy, slightly musty and earthy, with bitter wood, apple skin and a note of caraway seed. The finish was apple skin, pepper, wood, cookie dough and caraway seed. I couldn’t make any sense out of this one and gave it a B-. The strange looks continued – I was pretty sure it was either a young rye or maybe urine laced with multivitamins given the strange looks floating around. Blind Sample #6 ended up being Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey – 11 years. This was unique because it was a single malt rye – meaning that the rye was actually malted, which is extremely uncommon.

This was an interesting night and it’s an interesting experience. This can be especially fun if you find some odd bottlings – but it can be just as good to revisit whiskeys that you might be biased against because they’re produced in huge quantities. Sometimes you will get the results you expect – but be prepared to find out you like something more than you would have thought. (And don’t be surprised if you don’t like something that other people liked! My grades for the Vintage Rye and the Willett were lower than other peoples’)

At a glance:

Black Maple Hill, 21y, Cask #5. 47.5% ABV
Nose:
Light spice, cinnamon, light vanilla. Coconut. Mild wood.
Palate: Light, bitter, woody. Fruits – apple skin; light cinnamon, turbinado sugar, dust, concrete (??).
Finish: Short, fruit skin notes continue, slightly bitter wood.
Comment: Unusual. Not bad at all but a bit bitter to my palate. Definitely worth a try though.
Rating: B-

W.L. Weller Centennial, 10y. 50% ABV
Nose:
Sharper, some prickle on the nose, slightly solvent. After a moment there’s some orange notes, slight molasses. Creamy with light vanilla.
Palate: Smooth, good wood influence. Sweetening; moderate warmth, some vanilla, light apple, and some pepper.
Finish: Slightly dry, fruity, and a hint of orange.
Comment: Pretty decent.
Rating: B

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12y. 50% ABV
Nose:
Nice! Cinnamon, red hots, spice, pepper, orange, and light cherry.
Palate: Pepper, warmth, great wood influence, light black cherry, creamy vanilla; clay & slightly earthy. Slight caramel and bubblegum.
Finish: Slow, lasting, grainy, black cherries and some vanilla.
Comment: Yeah, any day. Solidly in the alley I like. I’d like the flavors up a bit though.
Rating: A-

Vintage Rye, 23y. 47% ABV
Nose:
Nice, slight prickle. Pretty sure it’s rye, kind of an interesting nose overall and slightly creamy.
Palate: Smooth on the palate, slightly warm, slightly bitter wood. Apple skin. Somewhat dusty.
Finish: Spice notes continue, dry. It starts to get a slightly vinyl note.
Comment:  I’m forgainst it.
Rating: B-

Willett Rye, 22y. Barrel 216 selected by Doug Phillips of Ledger’s Liquor.
Nose:
 Dark, red fruits, slight bubblegum, light cinnamon. Nicely spicy, maple syrup.
Palate: Warm and continues to get warmer. Medium mouthfeel, spicy, slight wood, lots of heat. Lightly bitter.
Finish: Heat, caramel and some spice.
Comment: Hot but so good. Really nice upfront.
Rating: B+

Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey, 11y. 50% ABV
Nose:
Light, cookie dough. Baked goods, sugary and sweet.
Palate: Kind of dry, farmy, bitter wood, musty, earthy, apple skin and caraway seeds.
Finish: Apple skin, pepper, wood, cookie dough, caraway.
Comment: The nose does not have anything to do with the rest of this whiskey.
Rating: B-

Relationships Trump Price

I was driving across town the other day, listening to more radio coverage of global protests, the 99%, the possibility of Greek default, and so many other depressing things. My mind turned to the difficulty small businesses have faced in the last few years. I’m sure we’ve all seen a shop we like close down in the last few years due to the economic climate. It’s unfortunate and sometimes avoidable, but it requires action from all of us.

This unfortunate trend hit home personally this summer. While I was in high school, I worked for a store called Drum Headquarters in St. Louis, MO. It was one of the very best – if not the best – drum shops in St. Louis and remains my yardstick for every drum shop since then. Very few compare favorably. It had a great inventory, an amazing customer base who would come in and just hang and share knowledge. I hung around enough and eventually was part of the colorful crew of people who worked at Drum Headquarters.

This summer, under siege from a continuing poor economy on one front, Guitar Center on another front, and mass Internet merchants on yet another front (not very different from Guitar Center, to be honest), Drum Headquarters finally had to close.

This is part of a broader trend that is really disappointing. We tend to value low price over everything else in making purchase decisions. I certainly understand that – times are tougher than they’ve been in a long time and you need to watch your budget. However, there are intangibles that outweigh saving 10%.

These days, when I shop at Chad Sexton’s Drum City, I know that Mac & Linda are going to make sure things turn out right. In some small way, I feel like they’re part of an extended family here in LA (we salt-of-the-earth midwesterners flock together). Plus, it’s nice to swing by and pick up some necessary accessories and chat for a little bit. They’re great. If their prices are higher (they have always been more than fair to me), you can rest assured that the extra money is going towards great service. Also importantly, some of the profits go to help make it possible for great people to run a great store, versus feeding the bottom line of a corporation like Guitar Center.

Which brings me to the whiskey side of things. The big-box stores are fine — I’ve got one right around the corner from me and I’m not going to drive all the way across town to pick up a single bottle of cheap wine to be used in a sauce. But, the big-box stores also have the blandest, most uninteresting and uninspired selection. It’s the same from store to store with maybe a 10% variation. Sure, it’s cheap, but it’s cheap stuff you can find pretty much anywhere. Good luck finding an oddball Douglas Laing bottling there, and I can guarantee you’ll never find a Ladyburn there.

Meanwhile, you have guys in town (and out of town) who are curating incredible spirits departments. David Driscoll and David Girard of K&L Wines come to mind. I think Mark Schwarz is bringing together a very respectable selection at the Wine House on Cotner. There are several other notables but I want to call attention to these guys first and foremost.

The Davids are great guys. I haven’t personally met Driscoll yet but I’m sure it’ll happen. I’ve traded samples with Girard and been exposed to his considerable knowledge at tastings and in conversation. K&L is on course to become the premier spirits retailer on the west coast, if they haven’t already achieved it. They’ve spent the better part of 2011 releasing a series of absolutely ridiculous bottlings and have many more to come. Their selection is great and keeps bringing in new and interesting additions. And in the world of sad, nerdy exclusives and limited runs, they do help keep their regular customers informed. (Though the really rare stuff is first come, first serve – and I applaud them for that.)

I’ve only recently met Mark but he immediately impressed me. I readily admit I’m a Buffalo Trace fanboy; I know it’s kind of sad and embarrassing. I just happen to like most everything I’ve had from them (except Eagle Rare†). Mark shares that passion and is into the bourbon scene in a big way, with a nice selection. He’s also got ten tons of Rain Vodka, so you can guess that he gets some of the harder-to-find Buffalo Trace stuff. I’ve seen the spirits selection at the Wine House become markedly more interesting, with some off-the-beaten-path distilleries, some oddball indies but a decent selection of the go-to malts.

So I’ve spent two long-winded paragraphs on these guys. What’s my point?

These guys are like an incredible sushi chef. If you take time, talk (and more importantly, listen), you’ll strike up a casual friendship. They’ll get to know your tastes and be able to steer you towards things you like; and you can find ways to return the favor (trying things they suggest, plying them with cash or perhaps passing along an interesting sample here and there).

How novel – businesses getting to know their customers and building relationships with them over time. It’s almost like how things were in the far-off, gold-tinged memory of small-town America we claim to want to return to (before rushing off to some big-box nightmare to save 5% and not interacting with anyone until returning home).

This is not to say all small business is great. There are morons by the dozen out there who don’t know what they’re selling, or gouge customers far beyond anything that could be considered fair. There are also hucksters and slop pimps out there to be sure, but just pay attention to see who’s really listening when you talk to them. Ask your friends where they shop. Talk to people. That’s the whole point.

The relationships you can build and the rewards that can come from it – not just good prices or service or early access or anything like that – pay dividends in the quality of your life. I enjoy being able to go in and casually catch up with people who work at the places I frequent. I like knowing that we’re all in this crazy geopolitical, socioeconomic drama together.

If we as a society have a common belief that people are less friendly and the world is less personal than it used to be, then it’s our duty to change it. The first step is to open up, be friendly and personable, and start frequenting places where you’ll be able to strike up a friendship that will last a long time. If enough of us go about things this way, then perhaps we’ll see small business emerge even stronger in the next few years.

 

†Yes, I’m going to call out Eagle Rare at most opportunities. Consider it part of the official style guide for S&I. I reserve the right to introduce coöperate at some point in the future.

Schweddy Balls

One of my all-time favorite sketches on Saturday Night Live is the Schweddy Balls bit, with Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon and Alec Baldwin. Beyond the obvious joke which they get plenty of mileage out of, the sendup of NPR is pretty great. There have been tons of Weekend Edition Sunday stories that operate at about the same pace.

It was a bit of a surprise this fall when Ben & Jerry’s announced that they would be releasing a limited batch flavor this fall called – what else – Schweddy Balls. I could hardly believe they’d do it, only because that sort of thing tends to get quashed by the no-fun set. It’s totally within character for Ben & Jerry’s. But, as could be expected, people are outraged and it’s not easy to find because of outrage. I’m glad that the most important problem facing our society these days is a limited run ice cream with a tongue-in-cheek name.

Pete Schweddy had a lot of balls. In the interest of large-batch production Ben & Jerry’s must have had to simplify down to the best Pete had to offer. The ice cream is described as “Fair Trade vanilla ice cream with a hint of rum [...] loaded with fudge covered rum and milk chocolate malt balls.” So if you were hoping Pete’s popcorn balls might have made the cut, you’ll be disappointed.

I’m always a sucker for a strange ice cream flavor, even if it doesn’t work. This didn’t strike me as being too strange. As a regular flavor without the name, I might have passed it by. Given my surprise in finding it on a store shelf (Bristol Farms on Westwood Blvd. for my Angelenos), I had to give it a try even though I previously had no real plans to ever hunt it down.

Schweddy Balls is pretty pale, slightly off-white with a small amount of the malt balls visible. My carton is distributed with more a little lower; the first bit of ice cream is mostly just that – ice cream.

At first taste, the rum is very distant and the vanilla takes a lot of precedence. The balls are crunchy with a nice malt flavor and some good texture and a faint hint of rum, but again, not much. There’s a nice, if slightly bland and straightforward chocolate taste at the end of things. It’s about as chocolatey as, say, Magic Shell.

After a few spoonfuls, the rum in the ice cream builds up and becomes a little more pointed and direct. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it boozy. It’s nice and pleasant and not overboard. Some of the malt balls wind up being just chocolate balls with a hint of rum to them. When you get the full taste of a ball, though, it’s just salty enough to provide a good counterpoint to the rum flavor of the ice cream.

I also noticed a few moments where there’s a distinct tang of Juicy Fruit gum. For me, this isn’t a bad thing. It kind of reminds me of the egg nog yet to come in the next few months.

Schweddy Balls, unfortunately for Pete Schweddy (and Ben & Jerrys) isn’t quite as irresistible as they would have you imagine. In my opinion it’s certainly worth a try and is coming out at the right time of year. If you see a pint and you like malt, rum, and maybe a hint of egg nog, pick it up.

If I were going to rate this on a scale similar to the whiskey scale, this would be a B- – worth trying.

Aberlour A’bunadh – Batch 32 (60.4%)

Nose:    Sherry, oak, some pepper, light orange and fruitcake type note, a vague hint of brown sugar. Diluted to approximately 40% the dried fruit becomes a little more pronounced, the sherry is drier, some oak and vanilla.
Palate:  Warm on the palate, sherry and raisin notes, building heat, a little orange, oak. Medium bodied. After dilution much easier on the palate, raisins continue to be dominant, a little hint of grass after the rain and a slight brine. Not very warming.
Finish: Continually warming, medium, more wood and diminishing sherry. Moderate finish. After dilution it’s much creamier, a little shorter on the finish, with more wood evident with some shades of plum and cherry.
Rating: C+

 
The notes on this one don’t sound unpleasant – very straightforward sherried whisky. However, to me it was overwhelmingly one-dimensionally wearing its sherry influence and had virtually nothing to balance it out. It’s a different type of strong sherry than a Dalmore or Macallan – the former tends towards raisiny and the latter just smells like.. sherry… and whisky. Add to this a bunch of heat due to being bottled at cask strength (and no doubt, its youth as a NAS whisky) and this is not a bottle I’d go back to. Perhaps current batches (I’ve seen #36 on the shelf) have moved toward a more  balanced profile. Only time will tell.