Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scary Stuff for Halloween!

Happy Halloween! Here now, some scary stuff from the archives. Warning: Not for the faint of heart.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Recent Reads: Life on the Line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Chicago chef Grant Achatz has, in a very short time, become one of the most lauded chefs in the United States. Making his name at Trio in Evanston and then opening his own restaurant, Alinea, the French Laundry veteran has become the American spokesperson for modern cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) and an advocate of the dining room as theater, the plate as stage.

Achatz's autobiography, Life on the Line, written jointly with his business partner Nick Kokonas, traces his rise to legendary status in a career in which it seemed nothing could go wrong, then turns to his highly publicized battle with cancer of the tongue and the treatments which left this chef without the one sensation he valued above all others: taste.

It's a fascinating story, and a more jarringly real one than most cooking memoirs: the standard cooking memoir turned nearly tragic. Achatz isn't an emotional guy and his take on his own cancer is refreshingly handled without outsized sentimentality. If anything, Achatz' writing seems a bit too emotionally detached when dealing with his relationship with his children and his first marriage. Overall though, he strikes the right balance and comes up with a memoir worth reading.

My biggest complaint about Life on the Line is that about half way through, co-author Nick Kokonas joins as a co-narrator. From that point, the narration switches without warning between Achatz and Kokonas, and while having the second perspective can occasionally be enlightening, more often it's redundant and a bit confusing to boot. While they usually tip you off in the first sentence as to who the narrator is, I found myself losing track in the narration ping pong that plays out between different sections. The muddled narrator-switching, though, is a small blemish on a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Devil or Angel: Angel's Envy

Released earlier this year, Angel's Envy has been on of the most touted new bourbons of the year. The brainchild of Lincoln Henderson, formerly of Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve, Angel's Envy is a Kentucky Bourbon from an unnamed distillery finished in port casks.

Wine finishing is huge in Scotch but still relatively rare in bourbon. Jim Beam tried it about ten years ago with a few, very expensive special releases, Woodford Reserve finished one of their Master's Collection bourbons in chardonnay casks, a few of the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collections have included wine finishes, and the upcoming annual release of Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage Collection will be a Cognac finished bourbon. As far as I know, though, Angel's Envy is the first bourbon to be finished in port pipes since the Beam releases a decade ago (independent bottler Big Bottom now also appears to have a port finished bourbon). How does port interact with bourbon? Let's see.

Angel's Envy, 43% abv ($42)

The nose is full of sweet, floral notes. It's like a rose garden. The palate is also very floral and perfumy. There's a very light character to it. The port is most evident in the late palate and into the finish, which is where it really shows, so much so that the finish recalls port finished Scotch.

This is a decent enough bourbon, but I don't think it lives up to the hype. I should admit that light and floral are not my favorite notes, so in part, this just isn't my style of bourbon. Beyond that though, it's not particularly complex. If you like light, floral and sweet, give it a try.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scotch & Ice Cream

No, Scotch & Ice Cream is not a new Ben & Jerry's flavor nor is it some combination ice cream parlor/speakeasy that just opened downtown. It's a new whiskey blog, and one you should read. Founded by my pal and regular commenter Regular Chumpington, Scotch & Ice Cream is his place to document his tastings. I always love to read RC's notes because he has a real gift for doing the whole flavor analogy thing (something that's never been my strong point). His reviews are helpful, entertaining and unpretentious.

And there's more than Scotch, including plenty of bourbon and some really interesting musings. So far though, the site is sorely lacking in ice cream. Come on RC, time to live up to your title.

Check it out!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Important Customer Notice: Buffalo Trace Antique & Pappy Van Winkle Distribution

Dear Valued Customer,

We at Sku's Great Big House of Liquor do our level best to try and please each and every customer. In fact, our spirits directors, the Steves, will be travelling to Mexico next month to procure a specially selected, single barrel, cask strength, unfiltered, port-finished Tia Maria, even though we wrote in our blog last week that not everything should be cask strengh and unfiltered, and aren't we losing some amount of whiskey tradition by placing these demands on our spirits, and what is the purpose of drinking in our culture, and do we prove our importance or even our existence through drinking certain whiskeys and what are the sociological implications of that anyway, isn't drinking, like language itself, a mere construct? But I digress...

Unfortunately, it is simply not always possible to please the neurotic, OCD, border line paranoid-schitzophrenics who make up our dedicated customer base. We already have 10.5 million people on our standby list for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the fall releases of Pappy Van Winkle. We have just been notified by Buffalo Trace that we will only be getting one bottle of each of these, so there will, unfortunately, not be enough for everyone. Therefore, we have come up with what we think is a fair way to distribute these very coveted bottles.

Step 1: Lottery. We will pick 150,000 names out of a hat. This will involve the procurement of a very large hat.

Step 2: Quiz. Each of the people who are picked out of a hat will be sent a detailed quiz about these bourbons. Please be familiar with the mashbills, provenance, romantic histories of the various brand ambassadors and other characteristics of these whiskeys.

Step 3: Triatholon. The 10,258 best scorers on the quiz will compete in a triatholon.

Step 4: Cage Match. The top two competitors in the triatholon will engage in a cage match. The winner of the cage match will get the bottle. If it is a tie, the tie will be broken by a game of backgammon.

Remember, you can sign up for more than one bottle, but you will have to participate in each step for every bottle you sign up for, even Eagle Rare 17.

The good news is that everyone who participates gets a free bottle of Rain Vodka!

Good luck and let the games begin. And thank you for choosing Sku's Great Big House of Liquor.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Devil You Know: Jim Beam Devil's Cut

By now, I think most people know the back story of Jim Beam Devil's Cut, which was released earlier this year, but if not, here's the short version: When bourbon is aged, some of the liquid gets trapped in the barrel. After it is dumped, you can sweat the bourbon out, usually by adding water and agitating the barrel. This can reportedly produce liters of whiskey. Beam extracts the trapped whiskey and then blends it with a six year old bourbon. The result is Devil's Cut. The name is, of course, a play on the "angel's share," that proportion of whiskey that evaporates during aging.

I've never been a huge Beam fan, but it's nice to see some new product coming out of them. After years of pretty much nothing new in the whiskey world (excluding flavored whiskey), they've given us Knob Creek Single Barrel, Maker's 46 and now this.

Jim Beam Devil's Cut, 45% abv ($22)

The nose on this is quite nice and very Beam with sweet corn syrup, maybe a bit of cough syrup as well and some fruit candy notes. The palate starts with some nice fruit notes, turns vanilla and then goes flat pretty quickly, becoming thin and watery. It's one of those where you try to hold on to the first taste on the tip of your tongue but inevitably lose it. It's inoffensive but not at all interesting.

It always bugs me when a distillery comes out with an innovation and then blends it with their regular whiskey (see also Ardbeg Alligator). We never know how much of the innovative whiskey is in the bottle or what it would taste like on its own. I'd be interested to taste what the actual "devil's cut" extracted from the barrel, pre-blending, tasted like, but then again, maybe the devil we know is better than the devil we don't.

Monday, October 17, 2011

We All Scream for Sweet Cream

People who are obsessive about coffee insist on drinking only straight espresso or drip coffee. In their view, milk obscures the fragrances and flavors that make the coffee distinct and exceptional. Whiskey lovers are the same numbs the palate, and while a little water is acceptable, neat is preferred. Yet in the world of great ice cream, the trend seems to be to create the most bizarre flavor combinations. Everyone wants you to try their new bacon-wasabi-cheddar ice cream.

Well, when it comes to ice cream, I like fun flavors as much of the next person, but I also like to taste it in its purest form, and that means sweet cream. Sweet cream is the basis of all ice cream. A creme anglaise (a custard of milk, eggs and sugar) with heavy cream. Creme anglaise itself is one of the wonders of the world and I am totally happy to eat it straight, but when you add cream and freeze it, it's sublime. Tasting the core ingredients stripped of any additives makes you understand that all ice cream really is "frozen custard."

When I lived in New England, sweet cream was on offered at all the great ice cream places. I've seen it occasionally since then, but recently it seems to have dropped off menus, or maybe it was just never as big in California.

So now, I make it myself in a little ice cream make I recieved as a wedding present many years ago. My only addition is a few teaspoons of maple syrup which adds to the depth of the sweet element but isn't enough to give a maple flavor.

After 40 minutes in the machine, it's soft, white, fluffy and pure. Ice cream at its most basic and wonderful form. Long live the sweet cream!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project - The First Release

I wrote about the innovative Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project earlier this year when they announced it. Now I've had the chance to taste through the first release, and I thought I'd give you my impressions.

First, the tasting process is really fascinating. Each release has a number of constants and a number of variables. For the first release, the variables were grain coarseness (fine, average or coarse), what part of the tree the barrel was made from (top or bottom) and mashbill (wheat or rye). Everything else was constant. This gave the taster the opportunity to measure these factors alone.

I came away with this with a few impressions. The bottom cut barrels were almost always more intensely flavored than the top cut. This wasn't always a good thing. In some of the rye recipe bourbons, bottom cut barrels seemed to produce more vegetal flavors, while top cuts were more balanced and elegant.

Grain coarseness is not something I could really pin down as having a distinct impact, though I liked the average grain bourbons better than both the fine and coarse grain.

Interestingly, this whole project is probably less likely to produce a single "perfect bourbon" (as was originally touted) than to give Buffalo Trace an extremely specific idea of what elements produce what flavors, allowing them to fine tune their vatting and know more specifically how to produce desired flavor profiles.

The whole tasting process is fascinating, and I intend to taste through the whole 192 bottle series (splitting it with a group). Should you? In most cases, I would say no.

These are not the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. None of the bottles I tasted in the first series was great. They mostly ranged from good to pretty good, but I can't say I would recommend running out and buying any of them. If you can even get them individually (many stores are selling them only by the case) and you want to get a glimpse of the project without investing in 12 bottles, I would recommend getting a pair of bottles with one variable. For instance, barrels 99 and 100 from the first release are both wheaters with average grains, but one is a top tree barrel and one is a bottom. Taste these two and you will get some sense of the impact of the part of the tree the barrel comes from. You could make similar match ups based on any of the variables which will give you some of the experience.

Would I recommend getting the whole set to anyone? Only the most serious whiskey geeks who have whiskey geek friends to share with. There is no way I would be doing this if I wasn't splitting it. It's just too much not-great bourbon. But if you are a serious geek and have some geek-friends, you will have a unique educational experience.

I'll be tasting through the second release soon, and I'll post my reactions.

Monday, October 10, 2011

No Fry Zone: (fōnuts)

Fonuts, or (fōnuts) as the proprietors spell it, is a shop on West Third Street that sells non-fried doughnuts (i.e. faux-nuts, get it?). It's hard to understand what would make someone make a non-fried doughnut. The first guess might be that they would do it for health reasons, but given that these are decked out with thick, syrupy toppings, filled with creams and even sprinkled with bacon, I'm thinking this wasn't a health decision. Whatever the reason for the decision, they should reconsider.

Like most doughnut shops, Fonuts has cake and yeast varieties. The cake do fine, they are cake after all. The unfried yeast doughnuts have a taste and consistency similar to Portuguese sweet bread. It's not offensive but it doesn't have the yeasty zing of a good yeast doughnut, plus that type of bread has a perpetually stale mouthfeel.

It's sad because the toppings at Fonuts are remarkably good. The Hawaiian doughnut is a round yeast doughnut filled with an almost mousse like coconut cream with a strong coconut flavor; it's rolled in powdered sugar and just a touch of salt. The sugar/salt/coconut combination is unexpectedly brilliant. The salted caramel doughnut has a wonderfully thick caramel topping with a creamy consistency. The maple bacon doughnut has a white glaze which tastes more of vanilla than maple and a nice sprinkling of bacon; it catches the sweet/smoky/salty balance exactly without any unwanted grease. The PB&J has a rich, dark filling with a strong burst of peanut butter. While they run quite sweet, the flavor combinations are wonderful and are clearly made with great care. The problem is that they lose out to the flat flavor of the bread. While eating them, I couldn't help but think, my God, this would make a really great doughnut, like Doughnut Plant great. Eating at Fonuts is like living a pastry tragedy.

I get that this is an innovation or gimmick (the difference can be hard to tell), but please Fonuts, get a fryer and make us some real doughnuts.

8104 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 592-3075

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Big Mac Daddy - Macallan 30

Macallan is one of the most storied single malts. The consummate sherried malt, it's one of the only widely popular malts that is also well respected among whisky geeks. Now, personally, I've never been a huge Macallan devotee, but I generally like the stuff, so when one of my whisky pals and blog commenters, the Regular Chumpington, offered me a sample of the 30 year old, I was more than happy to accept (he also took the professional quality bottle shot to the right - and see his own thoughts on Mac 30 on his new blog).

The Macallan 30 is 43% and goes for a whoppin' $1,000. Needless to say, I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The nose had grape juice and sweet sherry. The palate was quite sweet with sherry and soap and the finish went fruity. The whole thing was rather thin and lacking in complexity. When you pay $1,000 for a bottle of whisky (well, even when someone else pays $1,000 for it), you expect something profound. You expect to take pages and pages of notes, trying to document the complexities, the deep flavor profile, the ethereal notes that are hard to pin down. None of that was here. In fact, while I didn't do a side by side, my recollection is that the 18 year old is more complex on the palate that this one.

Now don't get me wrong. It wasn't a bad whisky. It was perfectly drinkable, but when you get up to the four figures (or even the three figures), you demand a lot more than something that is unobjectionable.

It seems like Macallan just phoned it in. Hey, they know people will pay huge bucks for a Macallan 30, so dump whatever old, imperfect casks they've got and bottle it up. Very disappointing. Come on Macallan, you can do better than that.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Compass Box's Newest: Great King Street Artist's Blend

John Glaser of Compass Box has long been known as a rebel and innovator. He nearly single handedly brought the vatted malt back to prominence and was an early champion of grain whiskey. While Glaser has also made traditional blended Scotch in the past, he is now making a serious push to rehabilitate the long derided category with a new series: Great King Street.

The first release in the Great King Street series is the Artist's Blend. Per the Compass Box web page, the Artist's Blend is composed of:

  • 51.4% Lowland Grain Whisky

  • 23.2% Northern Highland Malt

  • 17.7% Northern Highland Malt

  • 7.7% Speyside Malt

This doesn't tell us that much about the specific distilleries. Many of the big grain distilleries are in the Lowlands, but we do know that Compass Box previously used Port Dundas grain whisky for last year's Double Single. And knowing Compass Box, it's probably a pretty safe bet that one of the Northern Highlanders i Clynelish.

The various whiskies are aged in American Oak casks, French Oak casks and sherry butts. The abv is 43%.

Compass Box has done two big things right in marketing this. First, they've priced it very competitively, second they've released a half bottle. Locally, the 750 ml bottle is going for around $40 and the 375 ml for $22.


This has a really wonderful nose. It's very fruity with grapes and cherries and white wine notes. The palate is rich with vanilla, fruit and oak and just a bit of sherry toward the end and lasting into the finish, though the finish is on the short side. Upon tasting, I'd say there is definitely some Clynelish in there because it has some of that Clynelish richness.

It's got a certain lightness and a feint grainyness that let's you know it's a blend, but a really good one, not hugely complex but a real easy drinker. Something you don't need to think too much about but that would be pleasant anytime (and probably do well with ice, soda and such), and I especially appreciate the 375 ml option.

Based on this, I'm interested to see where Compass Box will go with this series.

Monday, October 3, 2011

RIP: BonBonBar - But Still a Chance to Get One Last Order

BonBonBars are so good that I've written them up several time. Nina Wanat's Bay Area based one-woman candy company makes amazing chocolate bars and marshmallows. She is a true artisan and a whiskey lover to boot, doing crazy things like making a chocolate Scotch Bar with Talisker and a Bourbon Bar with George T. Stagg. Her standard caramel nut bar may be the best candy bar I've had anywhere.

I suppose all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately, BonBonBar is no different. Nina announced today that she is closing down the shop. All orders must be in by this Thursday, October 6, so this is your last chance to enjoy these fabulous candies. Get some now!

The saving grace is that Nina just published a candy making cookbook which will hopefully allow some of us to recreate her wonderful creations. I've ordered mine and will post a review when it comes in, but for now, I'm stocking up on the last set of BonBonBars.

Good luck to Nina and I hope she's abel to continue to pursue her passions.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fair Warning: Eating Carefully at the LA County Fair

As an annual pilgrim to the LA County Fair, I have learned certain lessons about fair food. If you're not careful, you can leave disappointed and nauseous. If you do it right, you can find some really good eats, but you have to be careful.

Beware the latest deep fried or chocolate covered novelty. With the exception of the excellent deep fried Snickers, these things are almost always sub-par. In particular, the over-hyped Chicken Charlie's, home of the annual "Look What Crap They're Deep Frying Now" news story, is pretty uniformly bad.

Remember, just because you can deep fry it or cover it with chocolate, doesn't mean you should. There are a reason people have been deep frying potatoes and onions for centuries, because they're good, and the homemade chips at the Tasti Chips stand are as good as any you'll find.

What the Fair does have are a number of stands from great local eateries. A carnitas torta from King Taco or a Pink's hot dog beats out pretty much all of the other crap. This year, I was pleased to see that Harold & Belle's, the South LA Creole/Cajun restaurant, also had a stand. So, yeah, you could get a three foot long corn dog and a plate of french fries as big as your head, or you could get a perfectly spicy gumbo, a rich and succulent crawfish etouffee or a shrimp po-boy and a bread pudding with Jack Daniel's sauce (pictured).

Finish it off with a scoop or two of Dr. Bob's ice cream and you will leave knowing you have conquered the culinary obstacle course that is the LA County Fair.