Monday 7 March 2011

Rules of the Blog, Part 2

As said in the previous entry, my palate isn’t (yet) the most discerning or trained out there. The number of bourbons I’ve tried is approaching (or has crossed) triple digits, but a lot of those were before I tried taking notes or knowing much about the production of bourbon. I have always known, however, what I like.
I’m not shy of heat: I greatly prefer spicier rye-heavy bourbons to the sweeter, smoother wheat-heavy ones. I like the robust flavor of high-proof bourbons, and I love trying to discern the flavors mingling and dancing around strong alcohol content (I also feel less bad about dropping a cube in here or there when I’m starting out with at least 100 proof). 
I tend to drink my bourbon straight, though there have been a few whiskies I loved adding ice to (like Hancock’s Presidential Reserve, back when I could pick it up for around $25). I rarely add water to my whiskey, and when I review a bourbon the score will be based on a basic room temperature pour. Since my nose is untrained and my tastes particular, I want as little variance as possible so that my reviews will be accurate to one-another. There will be times where I try a whiskey with a little ice or water, but that will appear only in the description rather than the score. Since I often prefer to drink George T. Stagg straight (a 140 proof whiskey), the times when I add water will be when I’m trying to salvage a bourbon I find too harsh or peppery, rather than trying to cut down the alcohol content.

Scoring will be on a ten point scale. Sometimes I might throw in half points, particularly to distinguish amongst highly-rated bourbons. On one hand, I find star and letter systems to be a bit useless – everything clusters around the 3-5 (or B- to A) area and the score seems pointless. On the other hand, I’m no Jim Murray or John Hansell, so a hundred point scale would be difficult, as my palate is still evolving and I am not confident enough to score things with such a precise rating.

The ten points will be roughly broken down as follows:

2 points for NOSE

2 points for TASTE

2 points for FINISH

2 points for OVERALL BALANCE

2 points for intangibles (price, uniqueness, how much I like it, wiggle room)

In my scale, a 5 isn’t an undrinkable bourbon. Quite the contrary, it would be average in everything. A cheap bourbon that is mediocre may rate a 6 (for that extra value), but most bourbons like that aren’t available here in Ontario. I don’t foresee giving a bourbon a 10 anytime soon, so anything 8 or better is highly recommended.

My next blog will break down what I mean by each of the above categories, and then finally on to the tasting!

Sunday 6 March 2011

Rules of the Blog, Part 1

Down to brass tacks: here’s what this blog is for.

When the LCBO brings a new bourbon over, it usually doesn’t get a lot of fanfare. It would be tough for the fine folks at the LCBO to properly do so – there’s only so much room in Vintages magazine, and most of it is taken up by wine and its derivations. When a spirit does get a write-up beyond the new releases, it’s usually Scotch whisky, which has a lot more cache as a collector’s drink (plus I think you British nations all stick together). However, I would love to see people buying more of the good stuff, in the hopes that we can one day have the better bottles on the shelves consistently, and maybe even get some high-end limited-release expressions up here (in other words: get me some BTAC, I need more Stagg). In order to do so, I plan on covering ground in the most obvious way I can think of: when a new bourbon is released, I buy a bottle and drink it and share my thoughts with all of you.

However, the beauty of whiskey is on the tongue of the drinker, so don’t take my word for it. While my palate isn’t yet discerning enough to give all of you a run-down of all the possible flavors and tastes available in a glass of whiskey, I’ll do my best to give a run-down of flavors and an overview on my beginnings with a bottle. I’m not trained to do this, I’m a blundering enthusiast who is, at best, copying off his betters. That said, I likely know a little more than most people checking out this site from this side of the border, and I hope my enthusiasm is enough to put up with a bit of foolishness. And anyone who happens to read this that does know about the fine art of tasting, let me know! I would love to hear from the masters.

This blog will focus on three things:

  1)  Bourbon

-          Specifically, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, as I doubt we’ll see any bourbons made elsewhere on this side of the Great Lakes. Straight Bourbon must be made in the United States, must be aged for at least 2 years, and the grain mix must contain at least 51% corn. It can’t be distilled at more than 160 proof (80% alcohol) or bottled at less than 80 proof (40%). Straight bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels and most are aged at least 4 years (if there is no age statement, it has to be at least 4 years old). If there is an age statement, the age must be the youngest of any aged bourbon mixed together in the bottle.

-          Further subdividing, I plan on at first reviewing the bourbons available currently at the LCBO, and new ones as they pop up. When that is mostly done (since it will be a never-ending job as long as the LCBO keeps introducing new bourbons!) and I have time, I eventually hope to throw up reviews of favorite bottles I have in my collection that are unavailable here, and notes on other bourbons that I’m lucky enough to try when I visit the States.

  2)      American Rye Whiskey

-          American Straight Rye has similar rules to bourbon, but needs to be made of 51% rye rather than corn. Rye is not as popular as bourbon but is slowly making a resurgence. I think several ryes, particularly Sazerac’s, are delicious and hope we get more. I’ll review these as they’re released.

3)      Canadian Whisky

-          I honestly know very little about Canadian Whisky. I always viewed it as bit artificial tasting, with its strong fruit/caramel noses and flavors, and unexciting at it’s almost-universal 80 proof. I, surprisingly, don’t know many Canadians who drink Canadian Rye – most whiskey drinkers I know drink Scotch or Irish whiskey. However, reading up on the subject shows that there are some exciting-sounding distillers out there that I’ve never tried (Forty Creek comes up a lot), so maybe I’ll eventually develop a taste for the spirit of my new home!

Saturday 5 March 2011

Bourbon Blog Introductions!

I grew up in a Commonwealth, but it never was part of the British Empire.

I wasn’t always a resident of the wild, cold North. Nosiree, I came of age in Lexington, Kentucky, and I’ve spent most of my life within a couple hundred miles of the Bluegrass State. As an adopted son of the birthplace of Lincoln and Elvis, a strong patriotic streak has been blended into me – specifically, into my liver. You can’t live in Kentucky without an awareness of bourbon, the United States’ official spirit. Originally made in Kentucky (and the only place where you can make ”Kentucky Straight Bourbon”), bourbon is as much a part of Kentucky culture as the horse industry, the rolling bluegrass fields, or people getting into fistfights over basketball games. The smell and flavor of bourbon is everywhere – bourbon candies, bourbon desserts, and even bourbon steak sauce all serve as a gateway to familiarize young’uns with the sweet, hot flavors of the tasty local spirit.

That said, bourbon hasn’t always been popular outside the Bluegrass. During the 70s and 80s, whisk(e)y in general was on a downswing in the U.S. (Note: The Irish and the U.S. call whiskey “whiskey,” while the Scots, Canadians, and much of the rest of the world spell it “whisky.” In the spirit of being a contrary, Imperial-measurement-using American import, I will call whiskey whiskey unless specifically talking about a Canadian or Scotch.) As the lame stockbrokers from the 80s and new drinkers of the boomers and Gen-X rebelled against their daddies by drinking tasteless vodka or inventing Zima or something, whiskey makers sat on their stocks, waiting for the day when the market would shift. And shift it has, with Scotch again becoming cool a bit over a decade ago, and bourbon makers finally following suit and beginning to release all sorts of premium bottlings. I came of age in a pretty lucky time – the beginning of the 2000s – so I’ve seen the rebirth of Four Roses, the rise of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and the general explosion of higher-end bourbons. And, right as I started really learning to appreciate the huge, delicious varieties of bourbon available, I left the states alongside my wife for Ontario.

Let me tell you: for as worldly and international you Torontonians claim to be, for as much as you complain that the U.S. shoves its culture and entertainment down your throats, y’all don’t know NOTHIN’ about bourbon, which is a crying shame. At first I had to get over the sticker shock of the cheaper brands available up here, but I eventually was able justify it by saying that it’s an import and that the taxes are hopefully going to a good cause. Once I got over that, it took me a little while to find out that I sometimes can buy more than just the bog-standard brands always stocked at the LCBO (for the record: Beam, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey 80, Maker’s, Woodford, and now Bulleit). Turns out, the LCBO has started offering a “premium” bourbon or two every month or so. Big thanks to the amazing bartenders at the Red Light on Dundas West for hooking me up with that information!

Now, dear readers, please don’t take anything of what I’ve said as confrontational: the point of this blog is actually to be a big ol love-in. My hope is to introduce to all my Canadian friends the joys of Bourbon, the great American whiskey, as it arrives here in Ontario. Along the way, I hope to learn to appreciate the native whisky of my new home!