...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Japanese Reboot

To my great readers in Tokyo and the Kansai region who are available to waste some good hours with this crazy person in the near future, please email me at divingforpearlsblog at gmail.com. Or if you have some suggestions for off-the-path ramen spots or awamori (and, er, whisky) bars, my furry ears are open. Thank you for your time and help!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bourbon and Rye Day Friday: Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, HW-15-5U

If you've been following my B.A.R.D.F. series this year, you may have noticed that I haven't been particularly impressed by the bourbons and ryes I've tried. The three I've recommended—Heaven Hill 6yo BIB, Lot No. 40 and Bulleit Bourbon—are (or were) pretty easy to come by in many states, and many of you are already familiar with at least two of them. Though I have some American oddities, dusties and crafties awaiting review, I'm going to try to make sure there's a few regular comfies in the mix.

With that in mind, I've decided to review old reliable Four Roses Single Barrel for Mathilda Rose's birthday week. It's one of the few whiskies (of any sort) to be priced lower in this part of the country than in California. It's below $40 in Ohio and I saw it at $32(!) in Kentucky last weekend. I know it's hipper to talk up the cask strength private barrels, but I'm comfortably cool with the 50%abv version that can still be found without much struggle.

Am I ashamed to not have had a classier photo?
Actually, yeah, a little.
But it's late here.

: Four Roses
Ownership: Kirin
Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Region: Lawrenceberg, Kentucky
Age: ???
Recipe: OBSV (high rye, fruity yeast)
Maturation: charred white oak barrels
Warehouse: HW
Barrel #: 15-5U
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
(review sample taken from midpoint of the bottle)

Its color is rosy brown. The nose has a mix of fresh apples and cherries with brown sugar and cinnamon. And some cantaloupe. Some earthy molasses and brine to give it a slight edge. The vanilla stays subtle throughout. The palate has a comforting warm. A spicy rye rumble balances with the moderate sweetness. Cherry Squishees. Salt and unsweetened cocoa. Some orange roll up late. The sweetness grows with time, though so does the spice. It finishes with cherries and rye. Toasted grains and brief citrus. The spice picks up in later sips.

The nose is very fruity. Cherries and oranges. Still some peppery spice in the palate, with raspberries and caramel. The finish is full of pepper and berries.

Man, this is just right. The nose has great balance, while the palate never gets too oaky, and the finish lingers well. It won't knock you out of your chair—unless you have five pours—but it works like I wish more bourbons worked, neat and in cocktails.

I enjoyed it more than I'd expected, but then again, this release is a bunch of single barrels. Still there's a decent consistency between each batch/barrel. I think this particular one was in East Coast shops last year. If you find it, I doubt you'll be disappointed. If you find a different barrel, odds are it ain't bad either.

Availability - East Coast USA, I think, way back in 2016
Pricing - This series: $35-$50
Rating - 86

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mathilda Malt Report: Littlemill 22 year old 1990 Berry Brothers & Rudd

After Mathilda's birth, 3 years ago, I celebrated on this blog by reviewing three Littlemills. A few months later, I hurried out to a Total Wine & More to buy a bottle of what may be the final sub-$200 full strength single cask Littlemill. It's the only Littlemill in my collection.

Since we all survived these three years, I have chosen to open the bottle now. Chances are, I may only open the bottle when her birthday rolls around each year, thus giving me an opportunity to track how it develops/oxidizes over time, much like I did with my Balblair '78.

Distillery: Littlemill
Former Owner: Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse Ltd (proto-Loch Lomond Distillery Co.)
Independent Bottler: Berry Bros. & Rudd
Region: Lowlands (close to the Highlands border)
Age: 22 years (1990-2013)
Maturation: American oak of some sort
Cask number17
Alcohol by Volume: 54.3%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

Its color is a brassy gold. The nose starts off with bundles of fruit, think melons and lemons. Hints of bourbon up top and a malty undertow. Butterscotch, vanilla and a little bit of wood pulp. The palate is hot, tight and sharp. But it's also creamy, full of butterscotch and apples. It's also grassy and green (specifically, leaves). A little bit bitterness. Feels much younger than its age. Apples, grass and leaves in the finish. Some bitterness and heat. Vanilla. A good length to it, though.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose is mostly unchanged. Less bourbon, more grassiness. Cucumber, melons and cream soda. The palate has lemons, grass, tart apples and a hint of vanilla. More bitterness. Still some heat to it. It finishes lightly sweet with a bitter bite. Ashy oak, vanilla and grass.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
The nose gets slightly maltier. Almond extract, caramel and vanilla. Lemons and brown rice. The palate is sweet, creamy and grassy. Heavy on the caramel. Limes and bitter lemon soda. Vanilla and grass in the finish. A little bitter, a little sweet. Not much change, I guess.

This one has me stumped. When I first opened the bottle on Monday night, I was struck by the difference between the nose and palate. It smelled pleasant and fruity, but was very sharp and austere (there it is!) on the tongue. I usually find that a bottle's initial pour can be too tight. So I made sure my review pour on Wednesday had plenty of air. That resulted in the notes listed above.

There were substantial youthful notes throughout, yet there was also some heavy oak. And they didn't (or haven't yet) come together. I wonder if this whisky spent most of its life in a third- or fourth-fill cask before being re-racked into a hyperactive first-fill or new oak barrel. There are a number of official bottlers of whom I'd expect that, but not a steadfast indie like BB&R. They don't help matters by listing only that their whiskies have been matured "in oak".

I like the youth, the leafy grassiness, the bite, the fight in this Littlemill. And for that it gets extra points. But the naked unintegrated (segregated?) oak stuff holds it back. I will indeed let this sit in the bottle for a year before I open it again, then I'll review it again to report on what's happened.

Availability - Total Wine & More, though now sold out
Pricing - I think it was $140 back in January 2015
Rating - 83 (probably being generous)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mathilda Malt Report: Caol Ila 27 year old 1979 Whisky Tales

For the next Mathilda malt, I'll scooch from Hokkaido to Port Askaig for a 1979 Caol Ila single cask. It was released by the German independent bottler, Whisky Tales, in days of yore (2006).

I miss two things about California, the year-round local produce and my whisky friends. One of these friends, whom I didn't meet until only a year before I left, is Mr. Zaro. Mr. Zaro, an always generous soul, celebrated his birthday yesterday, so I decided to go with this rare whisky he shared with me. I count myself spoiled. Thank you, Mr. Zaro!

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: The Big D
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Independent Bottler: Whisky Tales
'Quirky' name: The Unicorn
Age: 27 years (1979-2006)
Maturation: fresh bourbon cask
Bottles: 215
Alcohol by Volume: 57.1%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

Despite spending twenty-six years in what was likely a first-fill American oak barrel, the whisky has a nice light gold color, which gives me hope that it's not over-oaked. Indeed, the nose leads with anise, basil and mint leaves. Apple skins and ash. A medicinal moment here and there. Vanilla pudding. Smoky toffee (if there was ever such a thing, bring it on). With a long time in the glass, the whisky starts to pick up a fresh peach note. The palate is intensely herbal. Big on oregano, and a certain still-illicit-in-many-states herb. It's lightly sweet and not too hot. Lots of apples and a couple of limes. Hints of strawberries, marshmallows and salt. More pepper than peat. It finishes with limes and dried herbs. Salt and pepper. Lightly sweet and lightly tannic. Good length.

WITH WATER (<46%abv)
The nose is still minty, but now it's also malty. Limes and a hint of forest-y peat. A quiet pretty note of nectarine skin. The palate is still herbal and leafy. Sweeter, though with a hint of good bitterness. Like the nose, it's maltier. A few tannins. The peat seems to have dissolved. It finishes very sweetly. Again, no peat. Black peppercorns and a hint of bitterness.

Yes! The oak stayed in the background throughout, though water did bring it forward a little. Like the stunning 31 year old Special Edition Caol Ila that Cadenhead released two years ago (also a first-fill ex-bourbon cask), this whisky is very light on peat. Both read more Highland than Islay. While the Cadenhead was fruit forward, this one dishes out pepper and dried herbs. This Caol Ila is a little louder, I think. If you've opened your bottle and find it to be a bit too edgy, plop a teaspoon of water into your glass and you should find the whisky getting sweeter.

Availability - I dunno, it's a unicorn
Pricing - Rainbows?
Rating - 89 (though might be 90+ on another day)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Mathilda Malt Report: Yoichi 26 year old 1987 SMWS 116.20

In honor of my daughter's third birthday, I'm hauling out a bunch of fun oldies this week. Leading off, is the sort of whisky I will likely never try again. And frankly we may never see something of its sort during our lifetimes. A 26 year old Yoichi.

Yoichi is my favorite Japanese distillery (though Yamazaki is welcome to fight for the number 1 spot once they start releasing properly aged single malts again). Less than four years ago, finding a 15 or 20 year old officially bottled Yoichi wasn't that difficult nor horribly expensive. Though, at the time I thought $120 for the 15yo was a bit too steep. Now it's $400+. Today's whisky is not bottled by the distillery's owners, Nikka, rather it was bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. According to whiskybase, SMWS is the only independent bottle to have released any Yoichis. This was their 20th, and possibly last, bottling of the Hokkaidō malt.

I received this sample from the very generous Teemu of Whisky Science during a sample swap. More on his take below.

Distillery: Yoichi (SMWS 116)
Ownership: Nikka
Region: Hokkaidō, Japan
Independent Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
'Quirky' name: Fascinating complexity and finesse
Age: 26 years (November 7, 1987 - 2014)
Maturation: virgin oak puncheon
Cask#: 116.20
Bottles: 452
Alcohol by Volume: 61.6%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

Its color is maple syrup with maroon highlights. Longest legs I've ever seen on a whisky. It adheres to the glass. The nose is oh, oh dear. Fresh tobacco, dark chocolate and elegant Yoichi peat. Some spicy oak notes that sniff a little like mizunara rather than American oak. With time it develops vanilla bean, fresh peaches and National Distillers-style butterscotch. The palate makes the nose's elegance seem like pretense. Intense sooty peat meets barbecue ribs. Apricots and plums. Ginger, cinnamon, green grapes and a hint of cream soda. It starts to get a little old-bourbony after 30+ minutes. It's pretty hot throughout. More of the gigantic peating in the finish. Then chili peppers, citrus and a little bit of chocolate malt.

Going a little easy on the water here due to the whisky's age.

WITH WATER (~50%abv)
Somehow the nose gets malty. It becomes sootier too. Then smoked tea, cocoa powder, honey and caramel sauce. Less peat, more hot peppers in the palate. Less alcohol heat. Lots of aromatic baking spice. Fresh ginger and a pinch of Laphroaigy iodine. It finishes with smoked tea, butterscotch and more of that pepper.

This whisky was a fascinating experiment by Nikka and a bold choice by SMWS. Twenty-six years in new oak could have resulted in something foul. But it didn't. The nose is fantastic, probably a top ten favorite for me, detailed and graceful. Meanwhile the palate flexes that big ABV, unloaded baskets of character. I wondered about that virgin oak cask while nosing the whisky. There were notes to it that are familiar from European, American and Japanese oak. Turns out, Teemu had a similar question:

The American oak possibility seems more likely the longer one lets the whisky air out. More vanilla, caramel and butterscotch eases out. I'm guessing many of those other mystery notes come from a well-matured complex spirit.

Overall, the nose wins the day. The palate may improve a bit with water, but then the nose starts to lose its charm. But it's a hell of a whisky. It'll also set you back $2000-$2500 if you can find it. If you think that price is egregious, just consider that most versions of Pappy Van Winkle 23 sell for more than that in the secondary market. A bargain!

Availability - Happy Hunting!?
Pricing - $2000-$2500
Rating - 91

Monday, May 15, 2017

Happy Birthday, Mathilda Rose!

The Earth has completed three full revolutions around the sun since her birth. They've been three years unlike any other three years. It's fair to say we've all earned tonight's pizza and cupcakes. Her gender-flexible bear has earned it the most.

I am humbled every day by the expanse of Mathilda's imagination and emotions. The world can be overwhelming for someone who loves and cries as deeply as she does, but I know that our fiery and glorious mighty battle maiden will be just fine.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Bourbon and Rye Day Friday: New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon

For good number of years, brewers have been aging their beers in ex-whiskey casks to often very good results. Recently, whiskey producers have flipped that around by maturing (or finishing) their whiskies in barrels that formerly held beer. Of course, those barrels usually held whiskey before the beer, so there's a whiskey-beer-whisky seasoning sandwich going on.

I've only tried one beer barrel finished whiskey so far, Jameson Caskmates, the classic Irish blend with a stout finish. It's regular Jameson with a little extra creaminess to it and a couple seconds of roasted notes. It didn't seem different enough from the regular release to be worthy of its own expression, nor deserving of a $10 premium.

New Holland Brewing is a Michigan brewer/distiller. According to their site and the bourbon's label, they distill their own bourbon. They also make the Dragon's Milk beer whose barrels (which were utilized for bourbon before the beer) are used for today's whiskey's three-month finish. Though New Holland's straight malts are bottled at 45%abv and their Dragon's Milk stout has a high alcohol content (for beer), they choose dilute the bourbon down to the 40%abv minimum.

All that being said, I don't know what to expect here.

Company: New Holland Brewing
Region: Michigan
Type: bourbon whiskey
Age: ???
Maturation: new American white oak, then a 3-month finish in former Dragon's Milk beer barrels
Mashbill: 70/5/25 corn/rye/barley
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
(Thank you to Vik for the sample!)

The nose has some coffee character from a smoky but flat stout. Lots of malt and marzipan. Honey and cherry candy. It also has an unmistakable grainy small-barrel craft whiskey note. The palate leads with cinnamony white dog. Black pepper and vanilla. More malt than corn. Burnt toast and a sharp bitterness. A surprising lack of sweetness, too. There's more of a beer note in the finish, sort of fizzy too. Banana bubblegum, and that strange bitterness.

I'll start with the positives. The nose has unique layers to it. I've certainly never smelled another bourbon like it. I appreciate the big malt note and lack of sweets in the mouth. It does provide an original experience.

But, I find it difficult to believe this whiskey spent "several years" in oak. The strong pepper, cinnamon and bitter notes—along with an odd quantity of heat—in the mouth, make it feel very young. As in, months-young. I don't mind the fizziness of the finish but the banana bubblegum bitterness thing is unpleasant and I'm having a hard time getting the sensation out of my mouth.

I couldn't finish the sample and I'm perfectly okay with never drinking this whisky again, but, curiously, it did make me want to try the stout.

Availability - A number of Midwest and East Coast states
Pricing - $30-$40
Rating - 69