Thursday, March 30, 2017

New Brands – advertising & gimmicks

Disclaimer: The opinions in my posts are my thoughts and not for everyone.  I can only identify what is right for me.  You may have very different thoughts.  I will enjoy reading replies of dissent or agreement.
I guess I just like the tried and true but I tend to stick with bourbons that have been around for a while.  Ones that have a history and a known brand history are found on my shelf more often than upstarts.  I have had some newer brands that are pretty darn good and some of the old favorites that have disappointed me, generally I go for the tried and true.
A couple of years ago a dear friend bought a bourbon for me that came from a western state.  He paid a handsome price for this bottle and it came in a really fancy bottle.  However, the flavor of the bourbon really disappointed,   Not that it tasted bad but it was just not spectacular.  I know that he paid nearly $100 for the 750 mL bottle and I would have been infinitely happier with a bottle of $30 of-the-shelf Kentucky juice for one third the price. 
I have been impressed with some of the craft spirits that have come on the market.  A few of these have even entered the mainstream market.  New distillers bring fresh ideas and experimentation to the offerings many of them are pretty darn good.  I recently read about an upstart distiller who will soon be making bourbon with corn, malted barley, rye and wheat.  I will look forward to giving it a try with an open mind. 
Many of the small new distillers have to produce white spirits to have something to sell while the bourbon is aging.  You can’t expect a new distiller to spend the volume of money that has to be invested in the production of bourbon to wait for 10 years to sell the first drop of whiskey and start bringing in money.  In addition, many of them are buying juice from a mega-distiller in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  Many of these are actually pretty good.  While I object to calling the factory distilled spirits “craft whiskey” I have found that they usually aren’t bad. 
I do appreciate honesty.  If a new distiller acknowledges purchasing their bourbon from another source, I have typically OK with it.  However, if they try to disguise it or imply that it was produced in a particular location, I tend to have a less than positive attitude.  Still, I try to find the bourbon that tastes good not the one with the best sales gimmick. 
I respect that some old brands are coming back as premium whiskey.  Some pre-prohibition brands are now owned by some of the big bourbon conglomerates.  A few of these are really pretty darn good.  It makes me feel good that a brand that was a good whiskey in the 1920s and either disappeared or became a rot gut is now being reintroduced as a good premium bourbon.
Probably the bottom line is that a good bourbon needs to stand on its own without a cute name, a fancy bottle or a lot of hype.  I won’t be excited about a new bourbon just because it is in demand or is getting a lot of press.  I will buy a shot and see if it fits my taste preferences and whether it is not overpriced for the quality of the drink.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mint Juleps

As mentioned in a prior post, as spring approaches, I enjoy a good mint julep.  There is a small patch of spearmint growing beside my hose just for the purposes of making the best juleps outside of Louisville.  Several friends have asked me to share my recipe so I thought that this would be a good place.  I invite any reader to share their favorite recipe.  I don’t usually use a wheated bourbon for juleps since I believe the rye is needed to come through the mint and sugar.  You want to get the perfect blend of the sweet from the simple syrup, bite and complexity from the bourbon and the fragrance of the mint.  I also don’t use my best (most expensive) bourbons for juleps but I won’t use a bottom shelf drink either since off or foul flavors can come through.  I like to use at least 92 proof bourbon but there are some very workable 100 proof choices available.  My juleps NEVER have fruity syrup, artificial mint extracts, any mint other than spearmint or pre-made julep mixes.

Kentucky Bourbon Mint Julep
2 parts simple syrup (equal parts sugar and branch water)
8 parts good 100 proof Kentucky bourbon
1 part branch water
Mull young, fresh spearmint leaves in a small quantity of bourbon to extract mint oils.  Combine simple syrup, bourbon and water with mint extract to taste.  If possible, allow this mixture a few days in a cool area like a refrigerator to develop married flavors.  I really like to put the julep mix in the freezer for a few days so when it is served, the mix doesn’t melt the ice in the cup. If you are short on time it is alright to serve right away.  A silver or stainless julep glass is perfect but a highball glass will do fine.  If possible, full the glasses with ice to pre-chill the glasses.  Dump the ice from the glass after chilling.
Rub the inside of the glass with a couple of mint leaves.  Fill the glass with finely crushed ice and pour the mixture of syrup, bourbon and water over the ice.  Garnish with a bruised mint sprig and dust with confectioner’s sugar.  Use a low straw that brings the nose close to the mint while sipping. 
My juleps usually turn out better if I make my juleps as a batch.  However, you can make then one at a time with 1 oz. simple syrup, 4 oz. bourbon and ½ oz. clear water.  About eight mint leaves should be crushed to make each glass.  To scale up to make a liter of juleps use one 750 ml. bottle of bourbon, about 180 ml of simple syrup and about 100 ml of iron free water.  Plan on using about 100 fresh mint leaves for the batch that will be crushed into a small quantity of bourbon.  You can adjust the ratios based on your taste and the characteristics of the bourbon you are using.  If I am using a bourbon with a lower rye mashbill I tend to go a little lighter on the simple syrup.  A really high rye bourbon may call for a little more simple syrup for my taste.
The mint julep is a high alcohol drink so please enjoy responsibly.  Because they are so delicious, their potency can sneak up on you.

Simple Syrup
I can’t even mess this one up.  Mix equal parts of cane sugar and filtered or spring water and bring to a boil stirring until all sugar is dissolved.  The simple syrup can be “minted” by adding some of the mint that was extracted fresh from leaves.  The simple syrup can be stored in a sealed jar in a refrigerator for a good while although if it is minted, it will quickly lose the mint flavor.  For that reason, I don’t typically add mint until I am ready to make the drinks.

Mint Extract
Pick only the small, tender, fresh leaves from spearmint plants that have not been treated with any pesticides.  Do not use any old or damaged leaves or any part of the mint stem.  Making a batch of julep is easier since all of the mint can be extracted for the entire batch more easily. 
Rinse the leaves in cool tap water to remove any dust or insects.  Cut a square of clean cotton cloth like a one square foot section of discarded sheet or the back of a cotton shirt.  Cheesecloth is too loose for this process.  Place the rinsed spearmint leaves in the cloth square and fold into a bag.  Crush and squeeze the mint then dip into a shallow bowl with a few milliliters of bourbon,  Squeeze and wring the bag of crushed mint leaves dripping the extract into the bourbon and wringing again until the bourbon in the bowl smells strongly of mint.  The freshly extracted mint can be added to the simple syrup or the pre-mixed juleps to taste.
If you are making juleps one at a time, simply crush about 8 rinsed tender spearmint leaves in the julep glass with a splash of bourbon.  Remove the crushed leaves from the glass leaving the infused bourbon.
The mint sprig that goes in the top of the glass can include the stem tip with a few tender leaves.  Quickly clap the sprig between your hands to slightly crush the mint which will release the aroma as the julep is sipped.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Casked Bourbon

Disclaimer: The opinions in my posts are my thoughts and not for everyone.  I can only identify what is right for me.  You may have very different thoughts.  I will enjoy reading replies of dissent or agreement.

In my post last week I gave reasons that I do not care for flavored bourbon.  This week’s post presents some of the same argument although to a lesser extent.  I will restate that I think bourbon should taste like bourbon.  One could build an argument that there is little difference in adding a flavor to bourbon by dumping liquid flavor to a stainless tank of bourbon and putting bourbon into barrels with liquid flavors of wine infused into the wood fibers.  What if someone stored liquid cinnamon flavor in an oak barrel for a year then emptied the barrel and put bourbon in it for a few weeks?  Would that be different that just adding cinnamon liquid flavor to the bourbon?
To my palate, bourbon that has been aged in barrels used for port, sherry, rum or anything else do not add anything to the flavor that I find especially appealing.  Adding flavors from these other spirits or wines does add a different dimension to flavors of bourbon drinkers should decide whether those added flavors contribute to their enjoyment of the spirit. 

To my taste, the red-headed bourbon aged in French oak is among the best of the double casked bourbons but I honestly prefer the excellent regular edition of the wonderful wheated bourbon, especially the cask strength.  I find the experiments being done by the distillery with a large grazing herbivorous land mammal on the label are the most interesting.  They are aging bourbon in white oak barrels from different places in the tree.  Since botanical chemicals are stored in the xylem tissue (wood) in different places, this research could give distillers and coopers some information on selecting the best barrels for aging bourbons of different mash bills.

When I have had some “double oaked” bourbons, I have liked them but found that the regular offering from the distiller was better.  One bourbon associated with a race in Louisville offers a very good double oaked bourbon.  However, their regular bourbon is pretty darn good.  The double oaked is different but not, to my taste, better.  The extra barrel aging seems to make the make the bourbon to “oaky smoky” for me.  To my logic, if you can make some of the best bourbon in the world by aging in one barrel then why mess with success?  Of course, the double barreled costs a little more.  I won’t pay more for a bourbon that I don’t like as well.

As stated earlier, these are my thoughts based on what I like in bourbon.  Readers of this post will have very different tastes.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Neat, ice, water or mixed

Disclaimer: The opinions in my posts are my thoughts and not for everyone.  I can only identify what is right for me.  You may have very different thoughts.  I will enjoy reading replies of dissent or agreement.

I like my bourbon straight.  Master distillery have very discriminating tastes and bottle their products in strengths that they believe will best present the drink to the consumer.  I usually agree.  My evening routine, a Glencairn glass with two fingers of good bourbon while sitting with my wife doesn’t usually involve mixers.  I buy good bourbon and I want to taste it.
I do have a few exceptions to my straight up routine.  When friends are up who are new to bourbon I like to have them take a sip then add a few drops of filtered water to the glass for them to see how the nose and taste can evolve.  The addition of water can drive different odors and flavors to the front.  A few friends ask for their bourbon on the rocks.  I shudder a bit and ask if they are sure that they don’t want to try it straight or with a little water.  If they insist on rocks I smile and accommodate.  I try not to judge because I strongly believe that the best way to enjoy bourbon is the way that it is best for each individual.
Now for mixers and bourbon.  A dear friend and I were working out of town several years ago so I picked up a very good single barrel bourbon to share with my friend.  As we settled in for the evening I proudly took the bottle from my bag and poured us each a drink.  I nearly passed out then he dumped the expensive and wonderful bourbon into his diet cola!  I guess he saw the look of shock on my face and said that he just couldn’t take the roughness of bourbon.  When I asked him which bourbon he has had the names he gave me were all bottom shelf offerings.  Now this fellow is one of the most brilliant people I know.  He is a renowned scientist in his field and has traveled all over the world but he had never tasted a good bourbon.  I made a deal with him.  He had to take one taste of my bourbon straight, no water, no ice, no diet cola.  If he didn’t like it I would promise to never give him “a look” for mixing his bourbon.  Of course, he loved the bourbon and always offers a glass of it when I come to his house.  One funny note is that he continues to buy that same bourbon that I shared with him that evening.  I have tried to convince him that there are many excellent bourbons available but he tells me that he likes that one and that there is no need to look further.
Not all of my attempts to convert friends to good bourbon have been successful.  Some friends still prefer their bourbon with a mixer.  Since I love these friends and would never alienate them, I will bite my tongue and make a mixed drink.  That being said, I will not make the drink with my better bourbons.  I keep a 1.5 liter bottle of a decent middle shelf bourbon on hand to make drinks for my pals who want to mix.  A have to confess that a 50-50 mix of Kentucky bourbon and Kentucky ginger ale is pretty darn good.  Of course, I make some pretty special mint juleps on the first Saturday in May and I use a better middle shelf bourbon for these drinks.  I justify my love of juleps because there is little, other than the mint, to detract from the complex bourbon flavors.
On the rare occasions when we make mixed drinks I usually use a clear spirit.  Since the taste of the spirit is so covered up, why us good bourbon when a flavorless vodka is certainly adequate to put in some fruity concoction.  I keep rum on hand to enjoy a mojito (my wife’s drink of choice) on a summer day.  We will make tequila margaritas when we have friends over for grilled fish tacos.

I believe that there are no wrong ways for you to enjoy your bourbon, I can only tell you what is right for me.