...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Something Weird: Leviathan II American Peated Single Malt

I shall pluck the next peated American single malt from the Kravitz Cabinet of Curiosities...

...Presenting: The Tall Man!

First of all, I would like to thank my buddy Daniel for this bottle.  No matter what I say in this post, I really do appreciate this gift.  It has been an experience.

Lost Spirits Distillery was founded by Bryan Davis in Salinas, California, in 2009.  Using American barley, American and Canadian peat, and a steam-powered wooden still (which has recently been retired) his company has created about a half dozen unique whiskies (along with several other spirits).

But many of us blog readers know of Lost Spirits from Mr. Davis's direct feud with Sku's Recent Eats blog in 2012.  Picking a fight with a well-informed corner of the anorak populace probably isn't the best way for a small craft distiller to sell more bottles, but that was Mr. Davis's decision.  As someone who has tried to peddle unusual product in a difficult marketplace, I can understand the frustration that develops when the people you're trying to connect with reject what you're selling.  One thing I always try to remember is that in any form of production, from art to consumables, once the creation is released into the world the author's intent doesn't mean a damn thing.

With all of that in mind, let me get back to Leviathan II.  The barley is American.  The peat is from Alberta, Canada.  The barley is peated to a level of 110ppm (a little over Ardbeg Supernova's ppms).  But not all peat is the same, as it is formed from local vegetation.  Thus peat on Islay is different than peat on Orkney, which is different than Alberta peat.  According to Lost Spirits, the Alberta peat is "loaded with conifer and pine roots".  The American barley was smoke dried with this peat, then distilled in their former wooden pot still, and then aged in French oak casks that had previously held late harvest Semillon wine from Napa.

Did you get all that?  Here, I'll list it the way I usually do:

Distillery: Lost Spirits 
Brand: Leviathan
Type: Single Malt Whiskey
Region: Salinas, California, USA
Barley malt: American
Peat source: Alberta, Canada
Peating level: 110ppm
Maturation: ex-late harvest Semillon casks (French oak)
Age: "under four years"
Alcohol by Volume: 53%

My first pour from the bottle smelled like someone dropped napalm on a tennis court.  Everything was burned: shoes, tennis balls, the net, concrete, paint, and gasoline.  And it tasted the same.

I am a peat freak, and can take some serious peat abuse without complaint.  Octomore and Supernova are fun, not just because their peat levels are high, but because the flavors and scents are very complex and nuanced.  Meanwhile, at the top of the bottle, Leviathan II was a single slab of sensory violence.  And honestly, I had no interest in drinking any more of it.

(Quick aside -- To use another questionable comparison, I like hot sauce.  It's fun on the palate and I loves me some heat (well, my palate does but the rest of me doesn't).  But I've noticed that a lot of hot sauce producers just try to one up each other by climbing the Scoville scale.  As a result, a lot of their products taste terrible.  They bring the heat and that's it.  Creating and maintaining flavors is a difficult art.  I think we're at that stage with whisk(e)y that we can start to see that more peat doesn't necessarily equal more goodness.  There's so much more to the process that determines if the end result smells or tastes appealing, let alone great.  A lot of work went into the Octomores.  They're not just a whisky stunt, they're whisky.)

My Leviathan bottle sat 95% full.  Something had to be done.  Being someone who believes whisk(e)y changes considerably with air, I worked a couple more ounces down my trap until there was some space in the bottle.  In that space sat oxygen.  I let the bottle sit for a few days.  Then, I poured an ounce and let it air out for thirty minutes while I took notes on McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt.  I returned to the Leviathan II glass and here's the result:

The color is gold.  On the nose there are lots of black raisins, burnt ones too.  Burnt plastic.  Un-burnt polyester, carpet, hot concrete, new shoelaces, and really rough eau de vie.  With more air, a singed orange peel note grows, followed by McDonald's honey (yep, that specific one).  With an hour of air, it smelled of wet cigars and wet cat litter.  The palate has an immense cinnamon red hots character.  Then burnt wheat toast, liquid smoke, and unaged rye spirit.  There's an ethyl heat, a spicy heat, burnt plastic, and sea salt.  Burnt honey in the finish, along with charred tuna, dried rosemary, and Swisher Sweets.

The black raisins remain in the nose, joined by honey, rubber bands, and bile.  With more water, there's a note of, well, rubber raisins.  Cinnamon red hots still kickin' it in the palate.  Also sneakers (if I ate them), raisins, and toasty moss.  With more water, mossy red hots.  The finsh is mostly honey and raisins and char.  With more water, there's a floral note amongst rubber and moss.

Yes, the whole package improved.  But I'm not entirely sure for whom it is designed.  Is it for those hot sauce bros who just want to see who can crush the most ghost peppers?  Then why the sweet wine casks?  Even the Scottish haven't consistently mastered the sweet wine + peat combo and their experts have been at it for some time.

If you're going to do the Leviathan II and you're going to do it neatly, please please please air it out.  I'm not going to raise much of a stink about the whisky being too young.  It's definitely youthful and I think that's part of the point.  A lot more time in a sweet wine cask isn't necessarily going to make the whisky sexier.  It would just result in further imbalance between the cask and spirit.

I'm also not going to say that Lost Spirits should stop making this stuff, because it has a place in the market.  I think the challenge for Lost Spirits is that corner of the market has players like Balcones, Corsair, and Charbay already in it.  Those companies have a head start.  They have weird whiskies, bold whiskies, and weird bold whiskies.  Many of those products are very appealing and well sculpted.  There's real competition at the craft whiskey level.  Being small and crafty and original isn't enough anymore.

Leviathan II is indeed an experience that I'm sure many would be interested to try once.  But a 750mL bottle?  On a related note, I have a bunch of oxidized samples that I'd be happy to swap out.

Availability - About 10 to 12 specialty US retailers
Pricing - $50-$60
Rating - 69 (it rated in the mid 40s when first opened)


  1. I do wonder if part of the problem with these is that there was insufficient copper contact. Looking a pictures of the old wooden still, the lyne arms were all descending, which is going to give very little reflux. Given that the pots were made out of wood, there's only so much copper contact the spirit was going to get before hitting the condenser. That's going to leave a lot of sulfurous compounds in the new make, which, when combined with the short period of aging, are mostly going to stick around.

    1. Despite my hot sauce comparisons with this whiskey, I would have preferred a version from an ex-bourbon cask (or maybe just new oak 200L barrel). I doubt all of those sulfurous compounds in the new make are helped by a sweet wine cask.

      It will be interesting to see what the spirit will be like off their new still. A completely new still will mean a change in all of their processes.

    2. Actually he may not have a replacement still yet. I'm still interested to see what happens next for them.

  2. Great post. The hot sauce is a great analogy here. I think the Lost Spirits still burnt down. Hopefully they will rebuild and try something different. I first met Bryan when he was making a great Absinthe in Spain. I think he's a tremendously creative guy (if a bit touchy), and I expect he will make something really great one of these days.

    1. Thanks, Sku! He was the Obsello distiller, right? He's trying his hand at spirits of all types and he's clearly not afraid of experimentation. His products do appear to be selling so hopefully he can take that revenue and rebuild or reinvest in Lost Spirits.

      It was a challenge to write this post because Leviathan is clearly a ballsy whiskey brand. But what if a product, despite of or because of its boldness, doesn't seem to work? Anyway, I may try one of his big rums, instead of the whiskies, next.

    2. "It was a challenge to write this post because Leviathan is clearly a ballsy whiskey brand. But what if a product, despite of or because of its boldness, doesn't seem to work?"

      Well, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, which at this point I still think is true of most craft whiskeys. That's the thing about experimentation; sometimes, no usually, you fail. For hundreds of years before the Wright Brothers, brilliant, creative people tried to build a flying machine. The fact that they failed doesn't take away from their efforts, but in the end, it either flies or it doesn't.

    3. I think we're in agreement. Personally, I admire the craft companies that are actually distilling their own stuff (or "juice", if MAO were to allow). My sentimental side wants to cut them some slack, but my whisky-loving side says that if we all cut them slack then they'll never improve (they'll never fly) and the market will be flooded with crap whiskey. So I've had a good time keeping my sentimental side busy watching cat videos, while the other side tastes the whisky.

  3. Michael, thanks for the surprise sample! It's now dark enough and cool enough (low 80s) that I can try it. I did not go through your review, but I went in expecting the worst. To my great surprise - I like this! In my defense, two things prepared me for this experience: a lifetime of drinking Romanian plum brandy; and tasting Del Maguey Minero mezcal, with which it bears the closest resemblance. There are several elements at work here: the burnt tire smoke (just like in the mezcal); the țuică-like fruity, sour, appetizing notes from the distillate; the sweetness of the wine casks, including vanillin flavors, showing that there's some age on it; the vegetal flavors - nothing marine here, rather a decomposing forest bed in november; finally, the high strength that gives it good body and brings the whole rambunctious party together in a wholesome way. It's extreme, it's big - and it's very honest! (I was also going to say "unapologetic", but we know how that thing with Sku went - the most cringe-worthy public meltdown of the whisky world?; thankfully, the whisky itself is not whiny at all. As you suggest, the distiller should just let the whisky do the talking.)

    Would I like a whole bottle of this? I'd have to think about it - but yes. More so than a large number of whiskies out there - I'll take this over Brenne any time :) It also reminds me of another little known crazy craft whisky, the Austrian Reisetbauer - they have a stunning 7yo CS.

    Finally, as a Ledaig lover I'm surprised that you don't like it more. If McCarthy is the Lagavulin, Leviathan II is the Ledaig of American whisky. There's a definite resemblance with that Blackadder Ledaig you regaled us with, not too long ago.

    1. Thanks for the quick response. It was a pleasure to share this whisky with you! So many of my own responses in my head...

      Firstly, congratulations! You are now the owner of more Leviathan 2, the next time I see you! :)

      Secondly, I'm not here to defend Brenne as a whole -- Allison has a substantial fan club who will do so in the blink of an eye. But, as Jordan and Rob commented in Tim's post this week, there's a lot of variation between casks. The one I tried, courtesy of The Coop, was cask 262. It was all white chocolate, orange peel, and cardamom, but without actually being sugary. It would work well in this damned heat or as a dessert whisky or to drink with one's partner who doesn't love whisky so much. So, that cask of Brenne I would take over Leviathan 2, without a doubt. I can't speak for other casks, though. And the one Tim had (#265) sounded unappealing.

      Thirdly, Leviathan 2 definitely fits into my growing list of mezcal-like whiskies, alongside the Blackadder Ledaig and Talisker Speakeasy. I believe that you and Jordan enjoyed the Ledaig more than I. But I did like the Ledaig's gunpowder, pepper, and bitter greens more than Leviathan's burnt plastic and hot tamale candy. And the Ledaig's oak was very subtle and supportive of the young spirit. Meanwhile I've never found Leviathan's winey oak integrating with the spirit, its raisins and honey stand awkwardly separate from the spirit's assault. Maybe it worked better with your palate than mine.

      (I don't know how to count higher than three.) Keep in mind, I wasn't the biggest fan of Octomore 4.2 Comus, which was finished in McEwan's beloved Sauternes casks. Some people loved the sweet wine influence, I thought it spoiled the party. With Leviathan 2, had Lost Spirits aged it in an ex-bourbon barrel maybe I would have enjoyed the whole much better.

      This is interesting since you and I have similar palates when to comes to spirits. Leviathan II is clearly a trouble maker. Now I'm curious to hear how the other secret sample recipients felt about the L2...

    2. While generally not a fan of whisky finishes, I can think of a few cases where big peaty bruisers work well with sweet wine casks: 1) this Leviathan II, of which I have the only dissenting opinion; 2) Laphroaig Cairdeas Portwood; 3) a Murray McDavid Ledaig 2004 aged in sherry casks (does this one count?); 4) a fantastic Murray McDavid Springbank 2000 finished in Chateau d'Yquem casks.

      I agree with you on your assessment of Brenne as a feminine whisky, just like Bastille. I saw the latter at work in a tasting, where the women went "mmm, good!" and the guys were all "I'm not drinking perfume!" In any case, my points with Leviathan or Brenne are really not about testosterone or putting hair on one's chest, I'm speaking purely from a personal enjoyment point of view.

      I had a terrible headache all day yesterday. It could be the extreme dry heat, it could be the Lev II, it could be the mezcal I chased it with, accumulated life stress and sleep deprivation, or the combination of the above. I will do further studies thanks to your generous promise (thank you!). If it is the Lev II alone, that would take some serious points off for me, but that's unlikely.

      Now you're making me curious about the Octomore Comus, I'll keep my eyes open for it.

    3. I saw that same male/female split reaction with Bastille at a tasting last year. The exact split between the sexes was very impressive. Well done, Bastille, I guess? I just remember Bastille being very orange colored.

      Meanwhile, I actually liked Longrow Burgundy Wood, a lot. There was very little Longrow character in it, and it was sweet, so there was no reason why I should like it but I did (though not to the tune of $120!). On the other had, the Springbank Calvados Wood worked much better because, though it picked up lots of apple notes, it's not at all a sweetie, and it brings an unusual amount of peat.

      We should chat about mezcal next time. I've tried a bunch of the Del Magueys but can't remember which one I'd liked best, so I haven't bought one for myself yet. But I'm in no shape to chase mezcal with whisky at this particular moment. Hope you're feeling better!

  4. Is it possible that something could be worse than my bottle of Balcones Brimstone? I may have to drink this (thanks for the unexpected "gift") just to answer that question.

    1. I'm going to guess it'll fit somewhere between your batch of Brimstone and the one that Tim had shared. But if it's sub-60 for you, I'll almost feel proud.

      I personally found Brimstone to be a something like a brisket liqueur. Not sure if that's good or bad, but there it is. Personally, I'm not in a hurry to give another go.