Monday, August 18, 2014

Cut Spike: An American Scotch in Nebraska

Scotch style single malt is not only made in Scotland.  High quality single malts rivaling the best of Scotland have been made for years in Japan, and more recently, quality single malts have come to us from India and Taiwan, but not the US.

Why can't American distilleries make high quality single malts in the Scotch style?  Part of the answer is in our regulations. While Scotch style single malts are aged in used barrels, American malt whiskey, like bourbon and rye, is required to be aged in new, charred oak barrels.  The problem is that barley is much less bold than sweet corn or spicy rye, and its flavors tend to be buried by the new wood. Add to that the fact that Scotland (and most other jurisdictions making single malt) require three years of aging whereas the US has no minimum, and you can start to understand why most American malt whiskey tastes nothing like Scotch, even when the producers are trying to mimic it. (Americans could age malt in used barrels and call it "whiskey distilled from malt mash" but that designation somehow seems less appealing than "single malt whiskey.")

Knowing all of this, I was a bit skeptical when K&L spirits buyer David Driscoll told me there was a distillery in Nebraska making single malt whiskey that tasted like Scotch.  David is a great guy and one of my favorite retailers, but let's face it, he is a bit excitable.  This is a guy who sources some of the best spirits on the market, but his talents are such that he could probably unload Seagram's 7 by the caseload as the latest budget retro-fad. (And if he ever goes into political advertising, watch out!)

A few days later, I received a sample of Cut Spike Single Malt, a two year old whiskey made outside of Omaha.  Cut Spike is made from barley that comes from Rahr Malting in Minnesota, one of the largest malting companies in the United States.  Like many craft distillers, Cut Spike gets their fermented wash from a brewery, in this case, their sister company, the Lucky Bucket Brewing Company. Their stills are made by Forsythes in Scotland, and they use a variety of casks ranging from lightly to heavily charred.

I've never heard anyone compare Omaha to the Scottish Highlands, but I figured I'd give it a try.  Wow!  This was by far the best American single malt I'd ever tasted, and the only one that could pass for Scotch.  In fact, I certainly would have guessed it was Scotch in a blind tasting.  It was fruity and perfumey on the nose with a touch of milk chocolate.  The palate was sweet, if a bit thin, with bubblegum which faded to malt and it had a light, fruity finish.  The flavor was reminiscent of Balvenie with its light, fruity nose and slight chocolate note. I had no idea how they tamped down on the raw wood notes.

While this was great for an American malt, it wasn't great Scotch. It was too sweet and thin on the palate, so while Cut Spike had successfully made a Scotch like whiskey, it was a decent one, not a great one.

After my initial tasting, I got an email from Driscoll.  The bottles had arrived, but they weren't quite the same.  Cut Spike had changed their filtration method.  He still liked it, but I told him I wasn't able to review a sample that was different than the product being offered, so he kindly sent me a bottle of the new stuff.

Cut Spike Single Malt, 2 years old, 43% abv ($60)

The nose is malty.  The palate comes on a bit raw with some alcohol notes, then it turns nicely malty with some floral/perfume notes and some sweetness. The finish is sweet and floral with malt in the background. Overall, it's nicely balanced between sweet and malty notes.

Interestingly, this new batch is a very different form the previous one, though it's of comparable quality.  It's less sweet and less thin on the palate, which is an improvement, but it also has some of those raw notes that are typical of young, American whiskeys.  Those are the notes that I was surprised were absent from the earlier sample.  In this batch, they aren't present in an amount that is off putting, but they are there. 

Overall, I think I like this batch better, though unlike the previous sample, I would be unlikely to mistake this for a single malt Scotch. Tasting blind, I might guess that it was a good Scotch single grain whiskey.  And both samples are better than any other American malt I've had (excluding the hopped malt whiskeys as that's a whole different category).

I have to hand it to Cut Spike. They are clearly on to something, though they haven't nailed it yet. Much like the two year old  Willett Rye, this was good, not great, but it made me very excited to try it at five or ten years old.

Friday, August 15, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Scotch, Japanese and Spanish Whiskies

Another new Chichibu label cleared for a three year old peated single malt from the young Japanese distillery.  (They cleared another label back in July).

Glenmorangie cleared a label for the Taghta, a non age statement whisky finished in Manzanilla sherry casks.

Bruichladdich cleared labels for Port Charlotte Islay Barley and Octomore Islay Barley, made with local barley with six farms listed on the Port Charlotte label.

I'm a big fan of Nicolas Palazzi, who seeks out great brandies, rums and other spirits and brings them to the US.  He cleared some interesting labels this week under the Navazos Palazzi label, his project with sherry bottlers Equipo Navazos: a Spanish malt whisky and a Spanish grain whisky, made mostly from corn, both aged in sherry casks.

Fantasy Whisky:  In the world of Scotch, closed distilleries are popular as are recreations of old whiskies, usually based on a few rare samples, but I don't think I've ever seen a "recreation" of a whisky from a closed distillery that no one has ever tasted...until now.  According to the label for the new Benachie blended malt whisky, it was named for a distillery that closed in 1913 based on how it "might have tasted." How long until we get a Malt Mill along the same lines?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Amrut 100

Amrut 100 is a no age statement peated malt from the Indian distillery Amrut which is finished in 100 liter new oak casks.  It is sold in 1 liter (i.e. 100cl) bottles at 100 proof. Wait, you might say, 100 proof is 50% alcohol by volume (abv), and this whisky is 57.1% abv.  Ah, but the British had their own proof system that was different than the American system. And 100 British proof was equal to 57.15% abv.  Hmm, doesn't it seem like American proof should be just as strong if not stronger than the ones the Brits use?  I might write a letter to my Congressman about that.

They also claimed that only 100 bottles went to each country, though it seems readily available at numerous outlets, which means either that more than 100 bottles came to the US or it's selling very slowly.

Now you would think that this bottle would go for $100, but I suppose every gimmick has its exceptions and this one is price, which seems to range from $130 to $170 depending on where you shop.

Amrut 100, 57.1% abv ($150).

The nose is sweet and syrupy with peat, like a peated maple syrup.  The palate starts strong with bold peat notes but then turns sharply acidic with the acid lasting into the finish. Water is good for this one. A few drops tamps down the acid a bit, but it still comes out strong on the finish.

This is fine, but the acidic notes bring it out of balance.  I see no reason to pay $150 even for a liter of it.

Thanks to My Annoying Opinion for the sample, and check out his review of Amrut 100.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Rye by Any Other Name: High West Midwinter Night's Dram

The newest product from High West is the cheekily named Midwinter Night's Dram.  It combines barrels of their Rendezvous Rye (a blend of rye whiskeys from the MGP and Barton distilleries) that have had different finishes:  new French oak and Port casks. Right now, it's a distillery exclusive, but it will be launching more broadly this fall.

A Midwinter Night's Dram, 49.3% abv ($80)

The nose has the nice spicy rye that's typical of High West's Rendezvous Rye with just a touch of pickle juice.   The palate has a very nice balance of sweet and spice.  Early in the finish there is a bit of a chemical taste, as with an artificial sweetener, but that trails off quickly and leads to a pleasantly sweet, slightly minty finish with cloves and cola notes.

This whiskey is right in my sweet spot.  I'm a big fan of Rendezvous Rye, and while I don't generally like finished bourbon, finished rye provides a nice sweetness to balance out the rye spice.  All in all, this is a fun whiskey that's worth checking out, particularly if you're a fan of the Rendezvous Rye.

Disclaimer:  This sample came from a bottle provided to the LA Whiskey Society by High West.

Friday, August 8, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: New Glenfiddich, Port Ellen and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Glenfiddich Original is a no age statement whiskey "inspired by 1963 straight malt," an attempt to recreate 1963 Glenfiddich that the label claims was "the first ever single malt beyond Scotland, effectively establishing the entire single malt category."

It's pretty rare to find a new Port Ellen label, but this week we have one from First Editions, a bottler I'm not very familiar with.  It's a 31 year old distilled in 1982 and only 60 bottles came out of the cask.

Diageo cleared a label for Oban Little Bay, a non age statement release aged in their "smallest casks."

Forty Creek cleared a label for their 2014 special release Evolution. Details about the bottling are available on the Forty Creek website.

In the Sucker Born Every Minute category, we bring you MacAlbert Whisky.  Wow, that looks like Scotch with it's Macallan like name and fancy coat of arms.  Plus, according to the label, it's "Old & Rare!"  But it's no single malt (it doesn't describe what type of whiskey it is) and it's made in the Dominican Republic.  Now, there may well be great whiskey being produced in the Dominican Republic, but I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that this ain't it.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Very Olde St. Nick Tasting Part 2: The Bourbons

Back in June, I wrote about the Southern California Whiskey Club's tasting of Very Olde St. Nick Rye.  Now they have set a date for part 2 o the meeting.  On August 17, they'll be tasting the Very Olde St. Nick bourbons.  Like the Rye, the Very Olde St. Nick series was bottled by the Van Winkles and then Kentucky Bourbon Distillers for the Japanese export market. 

The lineup for the meeting will include:

  •  8 year old, 90 proof
  • Cask Lot No. 15, 107 proof
  • 19 year old, 94 proof
  • 22 year old, 81.2 proof
  • 23 year old, 81.2 proof
  • 24 year old, 81.2 proof
 The meeting will be on Sunday, August 17 at 7:00 pm at Far Bar, 347 East 1st Street in Los Angeles.  There is a fee of $69 which includes food. You can sign up at the Southern California Whiskey Club website.

As with the rye tasting, its unlikely that a tasting like this will come around again anytime soon, so even if you're not in the Southern California area, you might want to consider attending.

Note:  Sku is not affiliated with the Southern California Whiskey Club and receives no compensation from them.  He just thinks this is a really cool tasting.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Blog of the Month: The Whiskey Reviewer

This month's Blog of the Month (well, technically blog of last month...I'm running a bit late) is The Whiskey Reviewer. This is a group blog, but it's mostly the project of Richard Thomas, a Kentuckian who lives in Europe and writes Civil War fiction in his spare time. The blog, which has been around for a few years now, is sleek looking with tons of well written content. Having a team of writers means there are new posts almost every weekday.

The site runs the gamut from general news to commentary to reviews.  The reviews are fair and even handed without much in the way of grade inflation (though purists might cringe at the flavored whiskeys and other novelties that they sometimes enjoy).

Thomas has a particular affinity for Irish Whiskey, and does a  nice job of covering an area that doesn't always get the publicity it deserves.  Check out this well done wrap up of new Irish distilleries.

On issues of American whiskey, the blog does tend to be a bit too pro-industry for my tastes, especially on questions of sourcing.  That being said, they are running a new series on deceptive practices in American whiskey which began with a very fair evaluation of Templeton Rye and its critics.  I'll look forward to more from that series, even though I'm sure there will be some I'll disagree with.

Check it out!