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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)