Friday, February 26, 2010

The Micro Distillery – McKenzie Rye Whiskey

First, let me say thanks to Tom McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling for generously providing a bottle of his Rye Whiskey.

I'll provide some vital statistics that Tom was able to share with me. First, the grain is of course rye and it's purchased locally there in upstate NY and the barley is imported from Canada. Tom and his partner, Brian, use a traditional fermenting and distilling process and do not use a wash. The rye content is 80 percent with the remaining being malted barley with aging at about 9 months in a traditional barrel and then finished in local sherry casks for another 3 months. The Still was designed by Finger Lakes Distilling and was manufactured in Germany. Out of respect to Tom and the hard work he's put into creating his product, I've left out some facts since they are his trade secrets. Finally, McKenzie Rye Whiskey is bottled at 91 proof.

When I received Tom's bottle, the first thing I took note of, as I usually do, was the color. It's darker than I would have expected and has a ruddy quality to it; this of course got my curiosity going. The nose really got my attention as the sherry comes through and melds with the rye, maybe playing a more dominant role on the nose. The entry has a strong rye/spice presence, as it should, wet wood, pepper and leather with the sherry coming toward the front about mid palate. The entry to mid palate was lively showing off the youth of this rye. The finish began tart and then smoothed out to a moderate conclusion. The bottle is bell shaped with an attractive label and cork stopper. My first impressions are that this is a good start for Tom and his distillery, contributing a unique product to the American Whiskey assembly. For those that are fan's of Rye Whiskey, they should have no problem enjoying a dram of McKenzie's.

I mentioned to Tom that I was excited about the creative potential that micro distilleries bring to the American Whiskey market, specifically Finger Lakes, Tuthilltown, Stanahan's, Woodstone Creek and others. I believe the micro distilleries possess creativity, flexibility and are not constrained in many ways like the big boys.

Thank you Tom for sharing your Rye Whiskey but I'm equally interested in trying your bourbon when it's ready for sampling. Coming up next, I'll be reviewing Tom's NY Corn Whiskey.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bourbon Dork goes a…Rye

While you all know I'm a bourbon lover, I'm really a lover of whiskey. Bourbon, Rye, Irish or Scotch….it's all good. Of course, bourbon is my first choice but a good rye whiskey pulls up a close second. I received a bottle of a young rye from a New York distillery; the Master Distiller was kind enough to send me a bottle to sample. I'll be sitting down in the next day or so to sample this rye and give my impressions, such as they are.

I haven't had much to drink in the last week, so when I do sample this rye, it will be with a clean palate. Stay tuned…..

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mixin’ it up – Bourbon and Ginger Ale

As long as I've been a fan of bourbon, I've been a fan of ginger ale and mixing the two together go together like white on rice, bacon and eggs or Laurel and Hardy. There's something about a good ginger ale and bourbon that's very refreshing and delicious. Picking the right ginger ale is certainly a matter of preference and depending on the market you live in, what's available in the soda aisle will certainly limit your choices unless you order through the internet.

I'll admit that I'm somewhat of a purist when it comes to drinking bourbon which means I drink it neat 90% of the time. I don't add ice and I only add water if the proof is sky high and needs some taming (like George T. Stagg). Early in my drinking days, I routinely mixed bourbon and soda, whether it was cola, lemon lime or ginger ale. As I advanced, I moved on to drinking bourbon neat and only occasionally mixed with soda.

The story goes that ginger ale can trace its roots back to Belfast Ireland around 1850. A gentleman by the name of Dr. Cantrell is reported to have invented ginger ale and boldly stated so by embossing each bottle with the phrase "The original makers of ginger ale". An Oct. 5, 1878 article in The Lancet reporting on food and beverage products served at the Paris Universal Exhibition of that year stated "The Ginger-ale is a comparatively new beverage, which is apparently coming much into use, especially in winter and on board ship, in consequence, mainly, of its containing a much larger quantity of ginger than "ginger-beer", and hence acting more strongly as a cordial. Messrs. Cantrell and Cochrane, of Belfast, are also well known manufacturers of aerated and mineral waters…..the aromatic ginger-ale is evidently a specialty of the firm. They state that it is not analogous to ginger-beer, which is a fermented drink, and contains, therefore, a small quantity of alcohol, but that the ginger-ale is unfermented, and consequently non-alcoholic. They describe it as "sparkling and clear as the choicest champagne, as having a most agreeable odour, perfectly free from any intoxicating quality, and yet eminently warming and invigorating, pleasant to the taste and pleasant to look at.""

Ginger ale comes in two varieties, golden and dry. An example of a golden ginger ale would be Vernors, Blenheim, A-Treat, Red Rock and Bulls Head. A dry ginger ale would be Schweppes, Canada Dry and Seagram. I'll also mention Ale-8-One which doesn't market itself as a ginger ale but is a soft drink made with ginger and fruit juice.

The ability to try a broad range of ginger ale's is a limitation of market factors. Many good ginger ales are marketed at the local level. For instance, Ale-8-One is a Kentucky only soda and Blenheims is found in very limited markets. Large producers like Canada Dry and Seagrams are the dominate ginger ale products found in large grocery chains.

For me, my favorite ginger ale has to be Blenheims. It comes in three varieties, Diet, Not As Hot and Hot. Just so you aren't fooled, stacking up the Not As Hot against Canada dry would be like comparing Ketchup to a kickin' hot sauce. The Hot, which comes with a red cap as a warning, is mega spicy and I warn first time drinkers "don't inhale while drinking, it'll hurt ya".

My preference for mixing would be to use a high rye bourbon or rye whiskey when mixing with something mild like Ale-8-One; a rye bourbon with a dry ginger ale; and then a low rye or wheated bourbon with Blenheims. Of course, if you like self-mutilation, go ahead and mix Blenheims Hot and Thomas H. Handy, but if you do, have 911 standing by.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stitzel Weller– bourbon hype or hero

For those hardcore bourbon fanatics (like me), when I first heard about the renowned Stitzel Weller bourbon, I didn't know what the all the buzz was about. I remember attending a corporate sponsored family day at Kings Dominion here in VA and received a call from my brother who asked the question "ever heard about Stitzel Weller bourbon from Canada Dry?" My comment was that I had read something about Stitzel Weller and folks seemed to think it was good stuff. That's all I knew so of course my brother picked up some bottles, later finding out the juice inside wasn't SW bourbon but liquid crap with bourbon coloring.

Just my opinion but bourbon hype goes something like this.

Q: Hey, did you hear Bison Trail distillery is coming out with a super premium bourbon called "Bison Trail Select Reserve Presidential Heritage 400th Anniversary Single Barrel Uncut Uber Delicious Bourbon"?

A: Holy $*@#, I gotta get me some of that, it's gonna be faaaaaantastic! I'm gonna bunker me 80 bottles!

I'll be the first to admit that early on I was guilty of getting sucked into the marketing hype. But a lot of what we see today is of course current market offerings but there's a secondary market of out of production bourbons that get passed around and picked up during dusty hunting and much is made of this or that bourbon and how great it is (again, guilty as charged).

Back to Stitzel Weller bourbon and maybe a quick history. Stitzel Weller was formed as prohibition was ending in 1933 and in that same year purchased the Old Fitzgerald Distillery. The following year SW begins construction of its Shively location which opens on Derby day 1935. Up until his death in 1965, Pappy Van Winkle was key to the growth and success of Stitzel Weller. 7 years later in 1972, Stitzel Weller is sold to Norton Simon who then changes the name from Stitzel Weller to Old Fitzgerald. Fast forward a dozen years and Old Fitzgerald is sold yet again and then around 1992/93 the distillery closes down for good.

Pappy Van Winkle was serious about bourbon and not just bourbon but good bourbon. His motto "We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine Bourbon" goes to the heart of Pappy Van Winkles passion for quality bourbon. So does that passion translate into the best bourbon ever made? Is Stitzel Weller hype or are they the hero of bourbon goodness? For those that read the bourbon boards, there's always someone who is pining away about getting their hands on SW bourbon and will go to great lengths or expense to get it. Example:

As a practice, I don't sell my bourbon. It's for drinking and sharing with like-minded bourbon dorks. But, a couple years ago, as a test, I auctioned two 200ml bottles of Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond bourbon, both SW whiskey. I wanted to find out just how much hype surrounded SW bourbon and the result was those two bottles sold in quick fashion for $25 each. Just recently Buffalo Trace released the 23 year old Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon, only 1200 bottles produced. I have no doubt these will all be sold for the bargain price of $350 each. The market for SW bourbon is hot but how much of that is hype or is it really because that bourbon is simply one of the best bourbon's produced? As you know, SW bourbon used wheat as the flavoring grain whereas everyone else at the time used rye. Why not be just as happy with a current wheated bourbon like Old Weller Antique, Pappy 15, Old Rip Van Winkle or for that matter, the current Old Fitz BIB produced by Heaven Hill? To get you thinking, how and why do you think (if you do) it's better, worse or comparable to what's offered today?

As a side note, Sally Van Winkle Campbell wrote a very informative book called "But always fine bourbon" on the life of Pappy Van Winkle and Stitzel Weller (Old Fitzgerald). It's a pleasant read and is a nice addition to the bourbon library.

I'll wait for comments before giving my take on the issue. Let me know what you think.