Oct
15
2014

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Whiskyfest 2014 – 8 Top Tastes

Article by Virginia Miller; photos from brand websites

It was another great year of whiskey, whisky and beyond (Cognac, gin, beer, etc.) at WhiskyFest San Francisco on October 3rd at the SF Marriott Marquis  – a massive whisk(e)y tasting event featuring distillers and brand ambassadors from around the world, held only in SF, NY and Chicago annually.

Charbay Release III

Charbay Release III

This year, here were my top 8 tastes, mostly from new releases.

1. Charbay Whiskey Release III from the Pilsner Collection
Marko Karakasevic has done it again with his stunning, complex Release III whiskey, in keeping with Release I and II, longtime favorites and game-changing American whiskies for me years ago. It is another (pricey) rarity — as is his incredible aged sipping rum, out later this fall.

2. Bowmore 23 year
Bowmore 15 year Darkest has long been one of my favorite Islay (read: peaty, smoky) whiskies, gorgeous in its balance and sophistication. The 23 year Bowmore keeps right in line with the distillery’s excellent line of Scotch, this one aged 23 years and finished in port butts for 6 months.

Octomore 6.1

Octomore 6.1

3. Wild Turkey Diamond
Though released in August, this special whiskey just arrived in San Francisco post-Whiskyfest, with only 11,000 cases worldwide. The man, the legend, Jimmy Russell, was at Whiskyfest SF again this year with his son and master distiller Eddie, who poured this special anniversary whiskey for us. It is a blend of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys from hand-selected barrels chosen by Eddie. It’s elegant, bright with fruit, subtly sweet, with caramel bourbon notes and gentle spice. It’s a beauty and a special tribute to Jimmy’s decades of distilling.

4. Bruichladdich’s Octomore 6.1
The Octomore releases are always fascinating each year, if not a push to the extremes of peat. This year’s Octomore 6.1 surprised me. I taste each edition annually and found this one more balanced than in years past. There’s a subtlety to the 6.1 that undergirds all that peat. A standout I’d like to revisit.

tullibardine-25yo5. Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
Named after the master distiller at New Midleton, a beautiful distillery I visited in 2011 (home to production of Jameson, Redbreast, Green and Yellow Spot and numerous Irish whiskies), Barry Crockett Legacy is a limited release each year since 2011 and this year was a lovely edition, showing off the nuances of Irish whiskey with notes of bright peach contrasting with whispers of hay, citrus and toffee.

6. Tullibardine 25 year
This malt-forward Scotch line tends to be pretty soft across the board but each iteration gains complexity aged in different casks and wine barrels (like the interesting Sauternes-aged Scotch). Tullibardine 25 year is aged in ex-Jim Beam and Heaven Hill barrels, then in Burgundy Pinot Noir casks, finished in Pedro Ximenez (PX) and Oloroso sherry casks for 18 months. Those layers unfold as one sips, from sherry spice to vanilla and caramel notes of the bourbon casks.

7. 40 Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
We don’t get enough of the better Canadian whiskies imported, it’s true. So it’s nice when we do and Forty Creek is one such producer, thanks to winemaker-distiller John Hall. 40 Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve is double barrel aged, with vanilla, nutty notes and a long finish, while the new Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve exhibits rye spice but is smooth and rounded from the wine barrels it is aged in.

8. BenRiach Authenticus 25 year
This rare BenRiach 25 year release is subtly peated, sweet and herbaceous, soft yet fascinating, a fine member of an underrated Scotch line.

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Sep
15
2014

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Photo Source: Ben Krantz

Photo Source: Ben Krantz

St. George Spirits Releases 3 New Spirits

Article by Virginia Miller [ran in Zagat SF on September 3, 2014]

We love our St. George Spirits. From the rock and roll attitude of their tasting room and tours in a WWII hangar housing their Alameda distillery (reservations for tours and tastings here) to their fantastic gins, brandies, whiskies, rum, absinthe, coffee liqueur and eaux de vie, they’ve been one of the great American distilleries since the 1980s. This fall ushers in three new releases, all limited edition and sure to go quickly, hitting local shelves and local bars September-October (the whiskey will be available within the next week or two, the brandy and rum not till mid-Oct.) Whether you’re a rum, whiskey or brandy fan, St. George has you covered.

1) St. George California Reserve Apple Brandy ($60)

15 different varieties of local NorCal apples go into this gorgeous sipping brandy based off a special apple brandy they did exclusively for NYC’s famed fine dining temple Eleven Madison Park a couple years ago. That was unaged and now it is aged. Nothing could be more appropriate for fall.

2) St. George Single Malt, Lot 14 ($80)

St. George continues to turn out wonderful whiskies, year-after-year. This time it’s round 14 — it’s one of our favorites of all their single malt releases. Master distiller Lance Winters started aging some of this whiskey 15 years ago in his early days at St. George and it’s blessed with a lingering elegance and subtle spice.

3) St. George California Reserve Rum ($80)

We’re big fans of St. George’s wonderfully funky California Agricole Rum, done in the French Martinique style of rum (or rhum) — which means made from fresh sugar cane juice instead of molasses, allowing the rum’s grassy, lively properties to shine. Their rum has been aged for 3 years in French oak barrels and the results still exhibit that bold funk with a generous touch of oak.

Where to Buy: K&L, Healthy Spirits, Cask, Plumpjack Noe, Bi-Rite, Jug Shop

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Sep
01
2014

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5 New Under-the-Radar Spirits to Try

Article by Virginia Miller

Many spirits cross my desk or are tasted at countless bars or distilleries I visit in any given month… here are 5 international spirits — from gin to mezcal, Scotch to rye whiskey — that have stood out in recent months.

CALEDONIA SPIRITS’ BARR HILL GIN ($35)

Barr HillThomas Hardie (a distiller I was privileged to meet recently on his trek out West) runs a farm in Vermont where he produces Barr Hill Gin and Vodka, made from local organic honey and grains, both recently gaining distribution in California. Growing up as a lifelong farmer, Hardie has been beekeeping with his family since he was 12 and started doing so commercially by age 20. His raw honey is exquisite and is the fermented base — with corn grain — for his products. Rather than sweetness, the honey imparts a subtle freshness to both products, the creamy-grassy gin is happily juniper-forward.

They are working on beer-distilled whiskies to be released over the coming months: the 1st release is 5 months aged corn whiskey made of 80% corn, 20% rye and barley. I also hope to try Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat, essentially an Old Tom-style gin distilled with juniper and honey.

Where to Buy: At K&L and Wine Warehouse

HIGHLAND PARK’s DARK ORIGINS ($79.99)

HP Dark OriginsOut this fall, one of my all-time favorite Scotch houses, Highland Park (the 18 year is the quintessential Highland Scotch) is just releasing Dark Origins, a non-chill filtered single malt (ABV 46.8%) that ups the sherry cask quotient compared to the classic Highland Park 12 year Scotch. All that sherry wood means spice and chocolate notes, but I also appreciate its nuanced nutty, softly smoky aspects.

MARCA NEGRA MEZCAL ($64.95 – $139.95)

Marca Negra Mezcals are distilled in the mountains of Oaxaca, near the village of San Luis del Rio, with a horse pulling a stone wheel to crush the roasted agave plants pre-fermentation. This is a process I was privileged to see in my journeys around Oaxaca (along with witnessing ancient clay pot distillation first hand, an almost dead art in most spirit categories).

Marca Negra MezcalThough I wish I could visit Marca Negra’s distillers directly, I’ve enjoyed tasting 4 of their mezcal releases (there’s 5 total in California, with the 5th an Arroqueno varietal), from a semi-sweet, floral and white pepper-inflected Ensamble Mezcal Marca Negra, to the herbaceous, sweet and smoky Dobadán Mezcal Marca Negra (both $139.95).

But my favorites are the elegant Tobalá Mezcal Marca Negra ($139.95), with its vegetal, tropical notes undergirded by smoke (only 1250 bottles), and the smoky, woody spice of the dry Espadín Mezcal Marca Negra ($64.95), both Double Gold and Gold medal winners (respectively) in the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. They are both beauties and welcome new mezcal options.

GLENGLASSAUGH ($64.99-$79.99)

Anchor Distilling recently began importing Glenglassaugh Scotch from a Speyside distillery dating back to 1875, bought in 2013 by Billy Walker and BenRiach Whisky Company. They just imported 5 single malts, including a 30 ($500) and 40 year ($3000) Scotch, from barrels ranging from 1963-1986.

On the more affordable end, three releases cover a range of Scotch tastes: Revival ($64.99, 46% ABV) is the first single malt from the reborn Glenglassaugh, aged in red wine, bourbon and Oloroso sherry barrels, the softest, sweetest and roundest of the three. Evolution ($79.99, 50% ABV), matured in first-fill George Dickel Tennessee whiskey barrels, and Torfa ($74.99, 50% ABV), the Norse word for peat, both exhibit a progressive peatiness, Evolution being soft with smoke and spice and the Torfa surprisingly peaty for a Speyside whisky.

Where to Buy: D&M

LOCK, STOCK & BARREL 13 Year STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY ($140)

Lock Stock RyeOut longer than the other spirits listed here, Lock, Stock & Barrel Rye is expensive, no question. Though I’ve heard some rumors of it being a blend of pre-existing whiskies, the story behind it is that is Pennsylvania distilled from Pacific Northwest rye grain (100%) modeled after the historic styles of rye during the American Revolutionary War when it was our country’s drink of choice.

Robert Cooper (who founded St. Germain) created this 13 year-aged rye. While it is a soft one, each sip grows on you. There is minimal spice compared to some bracing ryes, notes of honeyed oak and salted caramel, but what surprises me is rosy, pink apple notes that impart a soft freshness to the rye. If you want spice and robustness, this isn’t your rye, but I appreciate its unique slant and place in the category.

Where to Buy: At D&M for $119.99

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Jun
15
2014

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Creative Asian-influenced cocktails from Danny Louie at brand new Chino in the Mission

Creative Asian-influenced cocktails from Danny Louie at brand new Chino in the Mission

My Top Drink Recommends: June 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some of this coverage here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for the Bay Area here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

Spirits

4 NEW LOCAL SPIRITS from a rye and New Orleans-influenced coffee liqueur, to a California aperitif and a sloe gin

Cocktails

The 5 BEST MARGARITAS in San Francisco

6 early favorite cocktails from Bar Manager Danny Louie at CHINO

5 classic NEGRONIS to seek out in San Francisco

FIRST LOOK at THE INTERVAL at the Long Now Salon, complete with robot behind the bar and a Drinking Around the World menu (among 8 mini cocktail menus from Bar Manager Jennifer Colliau)

What to eat & drink at the new Paris-meets-NY chic hotel bar, THE EUROPEAN

NEGRONI WEEK Highlights

Coffee

Unsung Heroes: GRAFFEO COFFEE since 1935

Tea

Check out the new SAMOVAR: you’ve never had tea like this

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Jun
15
2014

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St. George's NOLA Coffee Liqueur (photo: Virginia Miller)

St. George’s NOLA Coffee Liqueur (photo: Virginia Miller)

6 New West Coast Spirits

Article by Virginia Miller; photos from brand websites except where noted

[Taken from my ZAGAT article on 4 New Local Spirits to Try, I have also added two additional recommended spirits, another one from California, and one from Oregon]:

In the scheme of quality spirits, each of these is fantastic. Even better, they’re all made locally from Sonoma to Mountain View. After all, we live in the region that pioneered the craft distilling movement back in the early ’80s at Germain-Robin (home of the first Cognac-quality brandies in the U.S.), St. George Spirits (where Jorg Rupf introduced European-style eaux de vie to the U.S.) and Anchor Distilling in SF (Where Fritz Maytag pioneered craft beer in the 60’s, then moved on to whiskies, genever and Junipero gin). In this rich tradition, come four new spirits, all released recently, utilizing local ingredients and talent.

1) Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye Whiskey $62

Sonoma Rye1512 Spirits recently changed its name to Sonoma Country Distilling Company in tandem with Owner/Distiller Adam Spiegel’s expansion to a much larger Rohnert Park facility. What this means for you? More whiskey. Sonoma Rye Whiskey is the brand’s flagship whiskey made from 100% rye grain, ensuring robust spice and white pepper notes balanced by sweet caramel and oak. We appreciate the grain-to-glass processes and single-minded whiskey focus. Don’t miss their 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey and West of Kentucky Bourbon either.
How to Drink It: Whiskey lovers are going to want to drink this neat or on the rocks. But the rye also makes a lovely Sazerac or Old Fashioned.
Where to Drink: They do it right in a cocktail at Alembic
Where to Buy: In SF at D&M, The Jug Shop, Healthy Spirits; at Ledgers in Berkeley

2) St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur ($33)

In March, venerable distilling pioneer St. George Spirits, released NOLA Coffee Liqueur. The liqueur starts local with cold-brewed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans roasted by Jewel Box Coffee Roasters, an up-and-comer in Oakland. St. George distiller Dave Smith cold-brews the coffee with their vodka base, adds distilled French chicory root, Madagascar vanilla and organic cane sugar. It’s like fresh, bracing, cold-brewed coffee – beautiful served neat, on ice, with cream. The liqueur is earthy and rich, with a whisper of sweet vanilla, and New Orleans spirit from the chicory.
How to Drink It: Sipping this spirit over ice transports us straight back to the hot, sultry streets of NOLA where we down chicory iced coffee as if it were water. It’s nearly as thirst-quenching but with a decided kick.
Where to Drink: The Lexington House in Los Gatos shows off the liqueur in this beautiful cocktail, Coffee & Cigarettes
Where to Buy: Order through K&L, Cask, or purchase directly at the distillery in Alameda

3) JARDESCA California Aperitiva $30

JardescaJust released a little over two weeks ago, this Sonoma-grown and blended apertif was created by SF bartender/Cantina owner, Duggan McDonnell, who is also behind Encanto Pisco. As with Encanto, JARDESCA is balanced and elegant, made with California grapes and 10 locally-grown herbs/botanicals. While you can consider it in the family of a lovely dry vermouth or European aperitif wines like Lillet, this is a unique, dry, crisp but also slightly sweet and floral, fortified white wine, evoking hints of peppermint and orange blossom.
How to Drink It: While you can certainly make lovely, light cocktails with it, we love it solo, served over ice.
Where to Drink: Absinthe, Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, Clock Bar and the new Chubby Noodle Marina is featuring a JARDESCA infusion during its first month
Where to Buy: K&L, Little Vine in North Beach

4) Spirit Works Sloe Gin $38

SpiritWorks Sloe GinFrom husband/wife distilling team, Timo and Ashby Marshall, comes Spirit Works Distillery, opened last year in Sebastopol’s cool, forward-thinking The Barlow complex. They’re crafting gin, vodka, wheat and rye whiskies, but it’s their sloe gin that immediately began making waves. A berry-infused gin made from rosy sloe berries (in the plum family), traditional English sloe gins are often cloying, sweet and medicinal. But this is the best sloe gin we’ve tasted. And many others agree: Pay attention to how many local bars you’ll see stocking it. Made from wild sloe berries foraged in Timo’s native UK, the Marshall’s sloe gin maintains a bright berry sweetness balanced by dry, fresh acidity.
How to Drink It: It shines with tonic or in classic cocktails like a Sloe Gin Fizz
Where to Drink: Two Sisters Bar and Books in Hayes Valley, the new Zazu in The Barlow in Sebastopol
Where to Buy: D&M, Liquid Experience in Upper Haight

5) MARGERUM AMARO ($50)

Margerum AmaroMargerum Amaro is ideally timed for the amaro craze of recent years. California Central Coast (Buellton, to be specific) winemaker, Doug Margerum, developed a love for amari in trips to Italy and wanted to craft his own. With a Sangiovese base, its herbs and spices include parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, lemon verbena, rosemary, dried orange peels, and local oak, for a fascinating sipper also lovely in cocktails, as Saison proved at their bar this winter.

6) CALISAYA ($30)

CalisayaFlorence, Italy, native, Andrea Loreto, lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he makes Calisaya liqueur, a sweet and subtly bitter liqueur. Bitter orange, gentle spice, floral, earthy and woody notes, and subtle bitterness from cinchona bark result in a pleasing entrant in the American amaro category.

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May
15
2014

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Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang visiting from Taiwan

Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang visiting from Taiwan

Bests from Whiskies of the World 2014

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Every year I look forward to Whiskies of the World (WoW) on the San Francisco Belle docked in the Bay, held this year on March 29. Although it is one of the big whisk(e)y events in the country (also in San Jose, Atlanta and Austin), it remains more intimate than others; packed, yes, but more like a big party than a corporate hotel space, with this year’s pour list for SF 9 pages deep.

City-facing view from the deck of SF Belle

City-facing view from the deck of SF Belle

Only-at-WoW-highlights include the rousing Bushmills Pipe & Drum Band walking through the festivities and the boat’s rooftop deck (with inspiring SF and Bay Bridge views) that doubles as a cigar lounge. Yes, one of the huge benefits of WoW over any other large whisk(e)y tasting event is the ability to smoke cigars, given away at the annual cigar and whiskies pairing class held on the deck.

Taste highlights are many, from bourbons and ryes to Japanese whisky and Scotch. I make a beeline for the few I haven’t tried so there are many “bests” I’ve tasted numerous times over the years, but for the sake of a few I have not shared with you before, I call out these three (I also loved Speyburn 25 year Scotch and High West’s limited edition Midwinter Night’s Dram):

LOST SPIRITS UMAMI from MONTEREY, CA

Lost Spirits Umami

Lost Spirits Umami

Lost Spirits makes some of the most unique spirits anywhere, including their ever-fascinating, experimental whiskies. I’m already nuts about their unique overproof room, which I told you about here. One thing I love about WoW is that small producers like this – in this case, a little operation in Monterey, CA – can be exposed at a large whisk(e)y event (they tend to be priced out of other such events). Pouring both their Leviathan whiskies at WoW, as well as the rum, it is their now already sold-out Umami Single Malt that blew my mind. I’ve never heard of any one doing anything like it.

Distiller Bryan Davis uses Canadian peat and locally-sourced barley in this whiskey … and salt water from the mighty Pacific ocean which he ferments with the whiskey, then ages in Oloroso sherry-seasoned French oak barrels. While this level of experimentation could easily go too far, Davis’ precise, scientific knowledge keeps it in balance. The result with Umami is a briny, salty (but not excessively so), smoky and robust whiskey. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

KAVALAN SINGLE MALT from TAIWAN

Kavalan is the first whisky out of Taiwan, which can have a hotter, muggier climate than other famed whisk(e)y territories like Scotland, Ireland and Japan. But akin to Kentucky, the heat and moisture ensures a faster maturity and unique flavor profiles to the whiskies. I’ve tasted through the line three times, including at Whiskyfest 2013 last fall and this year’s WoW, as well as a recent dinner with Master Blender Ian Chang out visiting from Taiwan.

Balblair 1969 (photo source: Balblair website)

Balblair 1969 (photo source: Balblair website)

Because of the sweet vs. the dry aspects (I prefer a bit of the latter), I sometimes can be drawn to bourbon cask-aged Scotch more often then sherry cask (not counting the meaty spice of my beloved Mortlach 16 year Scotch). So it surprises me to find that my favorite of the Kavalan line is the Solist Single Cask Strength Sherry Cask ($117). I am a big fan of cask strength whiskies so that part adds up. Roughly 7 years of age, this whisky is fascinating, funky-but-elegant, nutty with spice and a long, uber dry finish.

Out of their seven whiskies, my other favorite is the utterly elegant, rare Kavalan Fino, also cask strength and going for roughly $450 per bottle. It is matured in fino sherry butts with no chill filtration, has already won numerous awards and is dry yet graced with subtle chocolate and citrus notes.

BALBLAIR 1969 from SCOTLAND
Since my travels in the Scottish Highlands, I fell in love with Balblair, particularly their younger 2000 and 2001 whiskies. I wrote about their 1975 Scotch from Whiskyfest 2013, but I love their 1969 even more. This rare, non chill-filtered treasure sells for 1300 pounds in the UK so it’s far beyond my reach, but thankfully WoW provided the opportunity to breathe in its complex spice, pear and toffee aromas, and to taste its layers banana, green apple, with whispers of smoke and toffee. A stunner.

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Apr
15
2014

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Westland First Peated-Virginia Miller

7 Washington Craft Spirits You Should Know

Article and Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Virginia Miller

Three Seattle visits in the past seven months centered around craft distillery and cocktail bar research means a few spirits have stood out among the dozens I’ve tasted from Washington state, most launched in recent years. Here are my top seven from the glut of craft distillers hitting the Washington market:

BroVo SPIRITS’ AMARO PROJECT

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

With “Lady & Mac Made Liquor” stated on each bottle, BroVo Spirits is an intriguing line of 17 amari (Italian herbal/bitter liqueurs) and counting, made by distiller/owner Mhairi Voelsgen and distiller Mac Kenney in collaboration with hand-selected bartenders from Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, with Atlanta soon to be released. No two amaro are alike, varying dramatically with each bartender’s recipe, ranging from spiced to floral, complex to crowd-pleasing.

Of the 11 BroVo amari I’ve tasted, I find #11 from Jon Christiansen in Seattle to be the most classic in the Italian amaro sense: balanced, bitter, herbal and sweet. He uses damiana, marigold, grapefruit peel and vanilla bean in his well-rounded amaro. One of Chicago’s best bartenders, Mike Ryan, created the #14 recipe, a unique blend that includes chocolate, sarsaparilla, cinnamon and thyme notes. The San Francisco range is broad and refined: Amanda Womack’s (of Cask) delicate, floral # 8, Suzanne Miller’s (of Novela) Indian spiced beauty # 10, or Will Popko’s (of Hard Water) aromatic pineapple sage #9.

BETE from SIDETRACK DISTILLERY

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

A spirit that impresses me with every sip is the uncategorizable Bete from Sidetrack Distillery in Kent, WA. The spirit is distilled from sugar beets and like the great beet cocktails I’ve had over the years, it’s vegetal, earthy, while simultaneously light and bright.

Figuring out ways to use it in cocktails may seem initially daunting, but messing around at home, I find it plays beautifully with lime, lemon and other citrus, as well as vegetables like celery. A fascinating product, never has the essence of beets quite been captured like this.

WESTLAND DISTILLERY WHISKIES

Westland-Virginia MillerIn Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, Westland‘s 13,000 sq. ft. distillery has been getting a lot of attention – for the dramatic space, yes – but most notably for the whiskies, which are easily among the stronger American whiskey releases in awhile.

It’s tough to choose a favorite, whether Deacon Seat Whiskey or their peated whiskies. American Single Malt Whiskey is made from a pale malt base grown in Washington, redolent of chocolate, caramel and coconut. First Peated American Single Malt Whiskey is a vatting of two separate new make spirits, the first a smoky mash of peated malt, the second is the WA pale malt which balances the peat with dried fruit and bright, spiced notes, the blend spending time in ex-Bourbon and Sherry casks.

EvenStar SHOCHU from SODO SPIRITS DISTILLERY

EvenStar Shochu-Virginia MillerOpened in 2009 as the first craft distillery license in Seattle proper, Sodo Spirits Distillery’s EvenStar Shochu at first glance sounds gimmicky: flavored shochu, starting with rosemary, their first product released in 2011. But one can actually taste the barley base in the shochu itself. Though a clean spirit, it is not flavorless. Eastern Washington-grown barley shines, and they use Koji mold spores from Japan, with no sugar or flavorings added. Whether rosemary, ginger or mint shochus, all are made with fresh macerated herbs and roots, so subtle as to be but a whisper. Chili shochu particularly stood out for its barley backbone and fresh, bright chili flavor.

HERITAGE DISTILLING CO.’s CASK CLUB GIN

Heritage Barrel Aged Gin-Virginia MillerHeritage Distilling Co.’s Cask Club offers members-only special releases: their Distillers Reserve 4 year gin stands out in the over-hyped barrel aged gin category. At a boozy cask strength (62.5% ABV), it’s a unique beauty that tastes like Christmas, treacle/syrup and spice, with a long, dry finish. While I’m not as big a fan of their regular gin release, this aged version boasts a memorable profile, a truly unique barrel aged gin.

SOUND SPIRITS’ AQUAVIT & OLD TOM GIN

Sound Spirits-Virginia MillerSound Spirits‘ Ebb + Flow Gin is a balanced gin, emphasizing both herbal and citrus notes. I enjoy this gin but am even more taken with Sound Spirits Aquavit, strong on the traditional caraway, dill, coriander, fennel, anise notes, all singing together in harmony. Likewise, their Old Tom Gin is exceptional in this category of 18th century-style gin, redolent of citrus/orange and cardamom tempered by a floral presence. While many aquavit and Old Tom gins I’ve tasted blend together (or can be downright bad), Sound stands out in both categories.

SAN JUAN ISLAND DISTILLERY’s MADRONE BRANDY

Madrone Brandy-Virginia MillerSuzy and Hawk Pingree, the husband/wife team behind San Juan Island Distillery, are an inspiring couple. In their 60’s, they’ve changed careers, pursuing a passion for Calvados/brandy and cider on San Juan Island where Hawk produces cider and Suzy distills a range of spirits from ingredients foraged on the island. Most of their spirits are available to purchase at the distillery only, so it’s all about experiencing the island’s resources in its natural setting.

I particularly enjoyed their madrone brandy ($85 at the distillery), made from blackberries, madrone bark and blossoms sourced on the island. It’s complex, an elegant brandy tinged with subtle bitter and spices.

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Mar
15
2014

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Rarities: 50 Year Old Scotch & 1950 Cognac

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

When you get the rare chance to try 50 year old Scotch or Cognac, you do. When it’s a tasting with drink industry legends like James Espey, who is behind the creation of iconic brands like Bailey’s Irish Cream, Malibu Rum and even Johnnie Walker Blue, it’s an imperative. I enjoyed a rousing lunch at Hakkasan this week with James and Ben
Howkins of Royal Tokaji, one of the partners in his unique project, Last Drop Distillers.

With the tag line, “Before There is No More,” Espey and his three Last Drop business partners hunt for rare treasure: cellared casks, stored for decades undiscovered. They  release them in elegant, limited edition bottlings, and only in key markets: UK, US and China.

Tasting both the whisky and the Cognac, both coming with fascinating stories.

There’s only 388 bottles of this second edition/release of The Last Drop 50 Year Old Whisky (selling for about $4000 per bottle!), made from over 82 whiskies. They found three casks of this blend, forgotten in the back of a warehouse produced by many now-defunct distilleries around Scotland, married (blended) over 50 years ago.

This heaven of a whisky carries whispers of the enchanting country of Scotland in each sip. A woody, dried fruit and spice nose gives way to a taste that hints at the peat of Islay, alongside the balanced nuance of the Highlands. It’s rich, warm and unfolding, with a touch of water. It’s a privilege just to have tried this beauty.

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Likewise, The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac (selling for about $2800 per bottle) is revelatory. It’s story is romantic and inspired: they met a mother and daughter in the Cognac countryside, the mother 93 years old. She had distilled a Cognac when she was in her 30’s. Though much of what remained had evaporated, what survived was still shockingly lively, and the Last Drop boys bought up all her Cognac casks.

Aside from the unreal time I tasted 1805 and 1865 Cognacs with Salvatore Calabrese and Dale DeGroff during Tales of the Cocktail 2010, this is the best Cognac I’ve ever had. It’s shockingly fresh, clean and floral, yet retains the maturity and depth of a fine whisky, blessedly bottled at cask strength. It imparts a woody playfulness and welcome dryness.

More fun Espey facts: In June 2013, James received an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen “for services to the Whisky Industry.” He is also founder of The Keepers of the Quaich, a leading international Whisky Society, and recently published a book on building and marketing your brand (you), no matter the industry, Making Your Marque.

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