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Under The Wire: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2013

The final whisky for 2013 is one gaining late praise. Angel’s Envy has been around for a couple years, and I’ve covered both the standard offering and the rye. Both have been fun twists on an otherwise boring and increasingly overpriced sourced whiskey formula.

It seemed inevitable that we’d see a cask strength release, and here it is. After all, nothing screams “brand extension” like small batch/single barrel/cask strength.  There was a more limited release of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength that was positively received among those who tried it; this release presently on shelves — in a marketing narrative sense of the phrase “presently on shelves” — is a much larger release. It’s been called a “must-own” and has made some year-end best lists, but at its heart, we’re dealing with a familiar problem: Bourbon of uncertain source sold at a premium, justified by higher proof and a novelty finish.

Of course, I will say I thought the previous two releases more or less justified their prices as a novelty; I enjoyed them but they certainly weren’t of the type that I’d find myself enjoying on the regular. But I’ve definitely come back to the bourbon once or twice since I drained my bottle.

The Cask Strength changes the economics. It’s about twice as expensive as the standard line, roughly 20% stronger, still port finished and still of uncertain vintage and provenance. Effectively you’re paying $4.50 for an extra 10mL of ethanol per 50mL drink, assuming it’s apples to apples.

This is of course an unfairly reductionist approach to a whiskey; higher proof is generally taken to be a good thing. Perhaps it’s time to start expecting higher proof sourced whiskeys are going to cost over a hundred bucks. Of course, in Scotland, we know how old those sourced whiskeys are and where they were distilled – and generally the age is pretty damned old. Here we’re getting…. something… from… someplace in Kentucky. That effectively narrows it down to 99% of the bourbon made in the US by volume.

And to be honest, if I’m just looking for an enjoyable cask strength bourbon kick, I’m going to keep it simple and buy a $49 bottle of Jack Daniels Single Barrel (not bad) or Four Roses Single Barrel (pretty good) and pocket the extra $90 and put it towards my Berluti Andy fund. (Or maybe something else pointlessly consumery). Haunting liquor stores like some sort of ghost of Dean Martin waiting for limited edition bottles of whisky just doesn’t really seem fun anymore.

Here we are again. A glass of whiskey, some deconstruction of marketing (in the classical 4P’s sense) and a reexamination of the ever-changing situation the whisky buyer faces. It ain’t 2009 anymore, guys. The proof is in the glass. We don’t get to just throw cash down and walk out with a showstopper.

The nose of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength is a mix of toasty wood, some chestnuts and pecans,  a sweet-and-sour hint of corn, a hint of cinnamon, some nutmeg, and a little leathery port. To my nose there’s something a touch funky on the port side of things, perhaps a bogus cask slipped in?

The palate has some younger bourbon corn sourness; some fruity port notes and then they’re immediately followed by a punchy, aggressive and hot note of cinnamon. The finish is hot wood and cinnamon, but there’s some sour corn there, as well as some port fruitiness.

It’s got a lot of hallmarks of youth, with that heat and sourness. Adding some water may give us more clarity; it could just be a bit strong at the bottled strength.

Water chases down the heat a bit, but brings up some raw sugar notes and gives a funky bad hair salon smell (perms? barbicide? Not sure – it’s gross) – a note I’m going to put at the feet of the funkiness I detected on the nose, and assume is a port thing. Water doesn’t really improve anything.

It’s a bit of a letdown from Angel’s Envy who I thought normally put together unusual if worthwhile bottles. It’s got signs of youth that don’t seem to be balanced by age or the finish. I’d gladly trade this for two bottles of the standard offering; I’d have two bottles of superior booze.

At the end of the day, this represents two ideas for me.

1. Higher proof is not universally better.
2. Year-end awards shouldn’t be a de-facto thing done out of obligation yearly but given out as deserved.

Also, it should serve as a reminder that just because it’s limited and released at the end of the year, it doesn’t mean it’s a slam-dunk, must-buy whisky (see also the Woodford Master’s collection which will be falling off your local retailer’s shelf until mid-September).

Happy new year, everyone. Let’s hit 2014 with clear heads. There’s good stuff out there, but “limited” and “cask strength” are no longer sufficient to be good signposts.

At a glance:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2013 edition, Port Finish) 61.5% ABV Batch 2C
Nose: 
Toasty wood, a light chestnut/pecan aroma; some corn, a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg; a leathery port note.
Palate:  A mix of slight corn sourness and some fruity port notes with heat and plenty of cinnamon hot on its heels. Water settles down the heat (as expected), brings up some raw sugar, also brings up a funky hair salon smell. (Fried perm smell? Barbicide? It’s gross).
Finish:  Hot, wood and cinnamon with a slightly sour corn note followed by fruit.
Comment:  Hints of a younger whiskey masked by the finish and the strength. Not up to the mark set by the standard offering.
Rating: B-

If you factor cost into rating this would be a mid-C at best.

Whisky Advocate; Diageo Tell Us It’s Raining

Whisky Advocate’s end of year awards are always a predictably silly affair, and like all awards, are really scarcely more than link bait. So for the second time this year, I’ll take the bait.

Whisky Advocate’s distiller of the year was a small craft operation you may never have heard of, Diageo. Diageo owns small distilleries like Lagavulin, Caol Ila Clynelish, Talisker, Oban, and so forth. Little operations you’ve never heard of. They also have the stocks for closed distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora.

The most interesting point in the writeup is when Whisky Advocate talked about the Special Releases. The Special Releases that set enthusiasts jaws on the floor and proved the point about escalating prices on whisky. Some may accuse me and others of being idealistic. Maybe it’s true. I tend to think I look at things dispassionately and I know if I was in the producers’ shoes I’d be looking to take some of the money on the table.

However, WA and Diageo (through the word processor of Jonny McCormick) have decided to piss down our backs and tell us it’s raining. Those massive price increases on the Special Releases? We’re no longer referring to them as “price increases” but they are now the latest salvo in “the war against flipping”.

So when you see those prices jump, just remember, that’s Diageo looking out for you and nothing more. Your best interest is at heart – even though it’s just business, they’re trying to keep it in the hands of people who care.  Er, sorry, that “purchasers are truly venerating the single malt whisky in the bottle.”

Really? I’d love to see consumers sharpen up to how much the industry thinks they’re saps, but I’d personally be hard pressed to buy less scotch than I have been of late.

In WA’s defense, the Scotch industry has been out of ideas for some time now so it’s not surprising that this went this way. You can only talk about “cask management” and “wood selection” at LVMH so many times. Kudos for not taking the expected path of citing Ealanta as an example of grand innovation.

Happy holidays!

2013 Wrap-Up and Gift Guide

It’s been a weird 2013. Sku said it better than I could. In brief: American whiskey is getting ridiculous; Scotch has completely lost connection with reality and Japan is going to balloon up to the stratosphere next. I reviewed the 30 year old closed distilleries, had some of my grail whiskeys, made fun of a wine critic’s bad research and fell out of love with the culture emerging in whiskey-dom this year.

I have no idea what’s going on and care little about sorting it out. Despite the fact that everyone with a brain in their skull knows that this stuff is subjective, the economic backdrop seems to have induced some previously lucid people to act like jabbering fools, holding up certain absolute truths on things. (After all, that whisky can’t be any good, Serge only gave it an 85…) If everyone has decided to take leave of their senses, I’m not going to push it.

While pondering this and trying to figure out what I was going to do for the end of the year here, I received an email from a PR contact trying to back their way into suggesting that I cover some random bottle of booze. At first, I thought it was the most laughable yet offensive insinuation – you think you can buy my integrity for a few free bottles of booze a link to some press-ready product JPGs?

Then I realized this was the prime opportunity to unveil the 2014 direction for Scotch & Ice Cream while delivering a wholly commercial (though utterly uncompensated) gift guide and retrospective on 2013. After all, this year is nothing but a triumph of marketing style of product substance.

Best Gin That A PR Person Suggested I Recommend To You
This award indirectly suggested by (though not compensated) a fine PR firm. 
Beefeater Gin. I don’t really drink the stuff (I’m more of a Hendrick’s guy, and I think St. George’s makes a fine couple gins), but they offered to send me some JPGs of the bottle. Since my integrity is totally for sale for a few JPGs, I’m ready to suggest that you buy Beefeater like crazy. Buy it by the case. Hell, go to Costco and get a whole pallet of the stuff. It apparently is great for any cocktail enthusiast. None of these claims have been tested for accuracy, and certainly do not represent my opinion since I don’t really have what you’d call a strong opinion on gin. But I’m sure the fine folks at Beefeater do. And they’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. So, Beefeater.

Most Limitedest Opportunity:
This award was not suggested by anyone.
Oh, I’m sure you though this would be a dogpile on K&L, but I have no desire to retread. Heck, I like David Driscoll and we have deep heart-to-heart conversations from time to time. (His eyes are kind of dreamy even though he’s not my type)
Nope, you should probably go to The Whisky Shop in the UK and buy the most expensive thing they’ve got in stock. Currently it’s a 1919 Springbank selling for £50K but when that sells out you should probably buy that 1964 Dalmore that costs £20K and was finished in a cask containing stale Raisin Bran. Don’t have five figures to throw at whisky (you poor, pathetic plebe)? They’ve no doubt got an overpriced investment-ready Glenlivet with your name on it.

Most ‘Murican Whiskey:
U! S! A! U! S! A! U! S! A!
Without a doubt, you’re still looking for Pappy Van Winkle. You’re not even a serious bourbon fan without it. I don’t have any but, hey, let’s gin up some excitement here (Speaking of gin: Beefeater!).
I mean, this isn’t where it needs to be until we get stories about beatings and whatnot in pursuit of a bottle. Some serious Black Friday stuff. A simple heist isn’t good enough: that’s just shrinkage in the sales channel.

Best Idea For A Substandard Canadian Whiskey That I Just Came Up With

Awards are about mutual back-scratching. I am scratching my own back.
Maybe our fruited plain will have some of the more storied whiskeys from the Great White North, but until then, sup thee upon some amazing though currently fictional whisky: Trebek’s Treat. 40% and with a blandly sweet glow. Quietly knowledgeable but compassionate with you even when you make a complete idiot of yourself in view of others – at home or on national TV.

Best Pancakes I’ve Had In The Greater LA Region This Year
You have any idea how hard it is to do a quasi-relaxing breakfast with a hyperactive toddler?
Hands down this one goes to Du-Par’s at the Farmer’s Market on 3rd. You can only eat two, maybe three if you haven’t eaten in a week, but they’ve got something unique going on. It’s probably a bunch of cake flour and maybe a dash of vodka for a high-rising cake with very little gluten development, but the things are like crack. Do it.

Things You Ought To Get That Whiskey Lover That Don’t Necessarily Make Them Look Like A Raging Alcoholic, Even If They Are

1. A better shave. This one is primarily directed at the fellas, but ladies certainly can benefit. Tired of chewing your face up on some electric razor? Only hitting the Mach 22 every six weeks to help preserve your $14,000 investment in three blades? Maybe it’s time to take a look at a straight razor. Yeah, there’s a learning curve; I nearly sheared my upper lip off, but it’s a hell of a close shave if you’ve got steady hands. For those of you who have claimed I’m a hipster idiot, add this to your quiver. For those still on board though, you might want to consider Thiers-Issard for a touch of luxury and Dovo or Boker for a good, no-fuss blade. You can get into this for less than the price of a higher-end single cask scotch.

2. Relief from aching feet. I was a firm Chucks guy for the longest time (still love ‘em), eschewing nicer shoes because I thought the random pairs I bought for $80-100 were equivalent in comfort to more upmarket options. Wrong city. Swing by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom’s (to start), find something that tickles your fancy and try on the options. I found a pair of John Varvatos that rocked my world and changed everything. They’re no John Lobbs (or even Crockett & Jones), but it’s like walking around in slippers. Well holy hell: the women in our lives were onto something with the shoe obsessions.

3. Experiences and not necessarily stuff. If you’re of the age and economic status that you’re able to indulge a high end whiskey habit, you probably don’t have a lot in the way of material possessions that you really want for (beyond the crazy if-I-won-the-lotto stuff). That nice bottle of malt might be a great dinner out with family or (if it’s especially costly and what isn’t) a pleasant extended weekend getaway. If you’re chasing ever-more-exotic whiskeys for the experience, you’re clearly an experiences kinda person, so indulge that. Drive out of town and check out the stars. Do whatever.

Things You Might Get That Whiskey Lover That They Can’t Enjoy While Driving

1. Beefeater Gin. Again, I’m not compensated, but they asked, so why the hell not. Remember, by the pallet.

2. A whiskey that’s on their bar. I can’t tell you what this would be: I’m just looking at a composition screen here, not their bar.

3. No ideas? Well, I like Four Roses Single Barrel, Yamazaki 12, Masterson’s, Laphroaig 10, Old Weller Antique, and Port Ellen among others. That’s probably not super helpful. I don’t know that I’ve ever really been much on the helpful side though.

2014
Expect some Banffs next year, a bunch of non-whiskey writing and other silliness. Remember how I claim repeatedly to be little more than a court jester and that I write this mainly for my own enjoyment? The proof will be in the pudding. If you’re along for the ride, great; if not, vaya con dios. Whiskey isn’t gone from here, but it’s definitely going to play a reduced role. I have less than ever and I really can’t stretch the blogging meta-criticism out longer.

I’m sure someone will cover you with a piece on their strongly-held opinions about ratings soon though, right after the next Survey Of Why Dalmore Isn’t Even A Good Punchline Anymore or whatever.

This post was in no way sponsored or underwritten by the people associated with Beefeater Gin. I just decided to have fun with their PR person’s offer. Sorry I didn’t display any luxe bottle photos. Imagine a clear bottle with a glass and ice and shit near it I guess. I think it’s got a red cap too.

Whither Canada?

It’s no secret that Canadian offerings have been relatively underrepresented at Scotch & Ice Cream, with the bulk in a three-way comparison between Jefferson’s, Masterson’s, & WhistlePig. (You know, those “American” brands. Made in Canada.) The truth is, I haven’t had much interest, since as we know, most liquor stores have Canadian Whiskey in an uncomfortable ghetto near the collected industrial output of DeKuyper. Hey – if that’s your thing, I’m not gonna call you out for your love of 4 proof melon ball shots.

Several weeks back I had a phone call with Clay Risen and we were discussing the Canadian whiskey scene in America. To be honest, I didn’t feel like there was much to talk about – it’s the same story over and over: Great if you wanna be a quasi-baller and roll big with your Crown Royal (sorry, if it’s maple finished, I’m going to have to cut you), or do some kind of weird midcentury DDB/Leo Burnett sendup with Canadian Club. But for whisky enthusiasts, it’s been kind of bleak. Crown Royal offered their XR releases, some overpriced old rye trying to trade on the closed-distillery cachet that was more Brutini than Berluti. They weren’t bad… they just were middle of the road and certainly not worth the money.  Clay covered a lot of that ground in his recent piece on Canadian whiskey.

I was interested when I heard Lot 40 was coming to the US and had finally touched down in California. Lot 40 was on a short list of things that had my interest, so the opportunity to grab it was a welcome one. I went to the store, strolled over to the Canadian section, confidently made my way over to the Canadian section, ignoring the bargain-basement schnapps just over my shoulder, and scanned. And scanned. And scanned. Wait. It’s not here.

I looked in the case. It’s a premium whiskey, surely it’ll be alongside such amazing whiskies as Crown Royal Maple, Crown Royal Black, and Crown Royal Tarragon, Chive and Onion finish. Nope. I stepped back, less confident, and re-approached the shelf as if for the first time, and scanned looking for it. It wasn’t there! I figured the online inventory could be wrong, even though that was lame.

I rounded the corner and browsed bourbon for any interesting entries, while trying to hold back my urge to vomit at the sight of Jacob’s Ghost. Predictably, the bourbon shelf wasn’t stocking much of interest, and the case was the usual set of stuff. Until: Lot 40. In the bourbon case. Right next to WhistlePig.

This is a problem and will be a problem for Canadian whiskey in the US. This felt like one of those “separated by a common tongue” moments, even more so than the tendency to say “zed” or add the letter u to “color”. I’m not sure if the problem lies with the retailer, the distributor, or the industry in a larger sense. There’s almost a chicken and egg problem here.

Customers have not been presented with a really fantastic Canadian offering to date. Honestly, I look at whiskies like Lot 40, WhistlePig, and Masterson’s as incredible value whiskeys that don’t make much in the way of compromises. WhistlePig and Masterson’s try to obfuscate their origin and hang out in the American section, pretending they’re more or less the same as a Rittenhouse or a Sazerac. They’re not, but it’s great. They’re worlds ahead of most of the really sad LDI rye offerings, but by quietly adding the “Product of Canada” piece in the most hidden position imaginable, they undercut the quality of their source.

Retailers obviously have a bias to put things where they sell, and the Canadian whiskey section has not customarily been the spot where amazing whiskeys dwell — on shelves in the US at least. That probably explains the unbelievably odd decision to put Lot 40 next to a bunch of bourbons. Yes, it goes to to toe with a fair amount of them, but it’s different…. and that’s OK (Which consumers need to get comfortable with).

Finally, the question at the larger industry level: why keep apologizing for and obfuscating the source of a new crop of really fantastic whiskeys? Lot 40 is great in this regard, it declares itself to be a Canadian Rye Whiskey. No apologies. WhistlePig, Masterson’s and Jefferson’s would prefer to be lumped with the whiskeys produced south of the border. Perhaps they have longer-term plans to eventually be produced here (I know WhistlePig has made allusions to this), but if not, why bother?

Canadian whiskey is largely an inexpensive offering in the US, which makes it attractive against a backdrop of ever-more-expensive whiskeys from everywhere else. Part of this no doubt is due to an ocean of bad whiskey on the shelves: if all the rest of the world got from the US was Early Times and Ten High, perhaps perception would differ there, too. I’d imagine Canada is not immune to the industry-wide pressure on stocks. There’s an opportunity here though to land at 45-65 bucks a bottle with a good offering and absolutely own the “Premium Canadian Whisky” label among enthusiasts in the US. I’m always on the lookout for a better value, especially given the rising prices and outpaced quality of Scotch or the ever-younger bourbons. It’s different, and it’s staking out a new strategy, but that’s where you have the opportunity to make a land grab (which is far more rewarding, potentially, than being the eighth whisky from Scotland to “pursue a premium strategy” with dull, conservative presentation in margin-driving boxes and bottles).

This all leads to the whisky. I’ve tipped my hand that I think it’s better than the swill on most shelves in southern California. Let’s examine it.

The nose has an expected mix of spice – cinnamon and coriander; there’s some dry rye notes and a bit of cider that’s kind of lurking in the background. It’s not far off the mark of a WhistlePig but distinct nonetheless.

The palate is a little bitter at first; an odd mix of wood and an aggressive rye punch. It’s more oily and bitter rye than it is floral, but it works. There’s black pepper, cinnamon, and more of an oily quality overall. It finishes with an unexpected quick hint of savory sweetness – a hot, fresh doughnut with powdered sugar – which fades and lead to slightly bitter rye and a really pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle in the lips and tongue.

I think the single biggest surprise to me with this is how big it is overall given the 43% strength. When I saw the strength, I initially sighed to myself and said, “another thin Canadian whisky”. Only after considering it later did I realize this really big, bold whisky that packed a punch was a lightweight in ABV. Fantastic stuff: It’s great to have a drink that’s not going to put you on your ass in the first three sips. This is no doubt in large part due to the pot still distillation, which lends an oily quality – sort of like the pot still Irish entries.

This one was a little less sweet than Masterson’s and more focused on an oily bitterness that is great and adds complexity. For my money, I prefer the dessert-in-a-glass profile of Masterson’s and (to a lesser extent) WhistlePig, but this is a worthy contender.

Let’s hope we see more of this on the shelves in the future, and more like it.

Canadian distillers, we’re waiting.

Lot 40 Canadian Rye (2012) – 43% ABV
Nose: 
Nice mix of spice – some cinnamon, a hint of coriander, a little rye dryness, even a touch of cider sweetness beneath it.
Palate:  A little bitter at first; some wood and then a pretty full-on rye profile, more oily and faintly bitter than having the floral tones rye can have. Some black pepper, a touch of cinnamon again. Slightly oily.
Finish:  A bit of sweetness not unlike powdered sugar on a freshly made donut, but it vanishes quickly, leaving a slightly bitter rye profile, some sichuan peppercorn tingle on the lips and tongue.
Comment:  Very surprisingly robust for 43%, likely owing to pot still distillation, a little less of the sweeter notes I found in Masterson’s. Another really solid Canadian rye, though I prefer the quality of WP/Masterson’s more.
Rating: B