Monday, November 25, 2013

Thirst Boston: Whiskey--From Kentucky to Japan

With the growing popularity of Whiskey, and new distilleries constantly opening all over the world, Thirst Boston showcased whiskey in several seminars, from Bourbon to Japanese Whisky. I attended three of the Whiskey seminars and there was little overlap in the subject matter. Each presenter offered their own unique viewpoints on the topics, and we got to taste a variety of whiskey, including some that I have never tasted before. Because of my predilections, I was especially interested for the Japanese Whisky seminar.

The first seminar I attended was The Evolution of Bourbon presented by Bernie Lubbers, known as the "Whiskey Professor" and Ambassador for American Whiskey for Heaven Hill Distillery. Bernie was a funny, knowledgeable and energetic speaker, and he presented a basic history of Bourbon. This wasn't a dry recitation of historical facts, but showcased history through a tasting of whiskey representative of what would have been produced at various times in the past. He also provided the essentials of bourbon, such as discussing how corn and wheat are the two grains of Kentucky, as well as the differences between toasting and charring barrels.

Though I knew much of the history of bourbon, and have read Bernie's book Bourbon Whiskey: Our Native Spirit, there were things I learned. Though I knew George Washington was once the #1 distiller in the country, I wasn't aware that his primary customer was the U.S. Cavalry. Washington produced a rye whiskey, though it was only known then as "whiskey" and there were two versions, one distilled twice, costing 50 cents a gallon, and the other distilled four times, costing $1 a gallon. On the jug, there would be either "XX" or "XXXX" to indicate the number of distillations. Unfortunately, when Washington died, he had no children to take over his distillery so it ended up closing.

With the advent of Prohibition, those states located on the borders had an easier time as they could import, aka smuggle, alcohol from where it was legal. For example, Florida imported Caribbean Rum, Texas brought in Tequila, and Minnesota bought Canadian whiskey. Kentucky, lacking such a convenient border, often had to rely on itself, which led to them making their own moonshine, a tradition that continues to this day.

After World War II, gin started gaining in popularity so numerous bourbon producers decided to change their products to make them lighter, more gin-like in some respects. Bourbon started to be watered down from 100 proof to 86 proof. Coincidentally, to "86" something is slang for "getting rid of something." They got rid of some of the bourbon, substituting water, and they may have lost some bourbon lovers who were not pleased with the change, preferring the higher proof bottles.

Our historical tasting began with a whiskey that was reminiscent of what Washington once produced, back in the late 18th century, an un-aged whiskey made with lots of rye. The Trybox Series Un-Aged Whiskey uses the Ritttenhouse Rye recipe but without any aging, and it is 125 proof. Lots of spicy flavor and a high enough alcohol that it would be best by adding a little water to it. We then moved onto corn whiskey, both un-aged and aged, including the Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey and the Mellow Corn. The Mellow Corn, like corn whisky in the early 1800s, was aged, for four years in charred barrels and is 100 proof. Bernie described it as "popcorn with a kick" as well as the "PBR of whiskey."

By 1836, Kentucky had established a reputation for its whiskey, both corn and wheat. So we tasted the Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, which is 90 proof, and has a little sweetness from the addition of some corn. It is relatively smooth, with lots of upfront flavors, and a strong grain taste.

The next major step in bourbon was the Bottled In Bond Act of 1897, which helped to protect straight whiskey. Nowadays, very little Bottled in Bond whiskey is produced, though we tried the Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, a 100 proof bourbon that was aged for four years. This is the type of bourbon they were drinking around 1897, and it was smooth and sweet, with notes of vanilla, caramel and spicy notes on the finish.

In the modern age, the emergence of small batch and single barrel bourbon was a big innovation. We tasted the Larceny Small Batch Bourbon, which was aged for 6 years and is 92 proof. It is a "wheated bourbon" meaning that the secondary grain is wheat rather than rye. It is a nice sipping bourbon, with sweet corn notes, honey, caramel, mild spice, and a lengthy finish.

Kudos to Bernie for a fun and informative seminar.

I knew I wanted to attend the Whiskey Women seminar as my good friend, Fred Minnick, was one of the presenters. Fred is a talented writer and photographer, and often writes about whiskey topics. In fact, he recently wrote a fascinating book, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey, which was one of the primary focuses of this seminar. If you love whiskey, history or women, then this is a book you need to read.

Joining Fred as a presenter was Joy Richard (pictured on the left), aka “Bourbon Belle” and the Bar & Beverage Manager of Franklin Restaurant GroupJoy has long worked in restaurants and ended up working as a bartender at a dive bar in the Hamptons, acquiring a love for mixology. She is a member of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC) and acquired her nickname from the name of a whiskey cocktail she created. The Bourbon Belle is made with bourbon, peach liqueur, bitters, and sweet vermouth, and was made to be an approachable cocktail.

The third presenter was Allisa Henley (pictured on the right) who is the Dickel Distillery Marketing Director and the Dickel Barrel Program Director.  Allisa was born about five miles from the distillery and she has worked for Dickel for about 9 1/2 years. The distillery is located in Tennessee, in the Bible Belt, with poses some challenges, though matters have improved over time.
Fred began the seminar by discussing his inspiration for his book. A new organization, Bourbon Women, started spreading the word that women were some of the first distillers. Fred wondered why no one had really told this story before so he began researching the matter to write just such a history. Fred continued his talk, providing a brief historical summary of some of women's contributions to brewing and distilling, back to the time of the ancient Sumerians. The historical outline continued to the modern day, highlighting some of the women that now occupy important and influential spots in the whiskey industry.

His presentation was compelling, providing lots of fascinating historical tidbits, and enticing attendees to want to read his book. In fact, each attendee received a hardcover copy of his book as part of their ticket, and the seminar didn't cost anymore than the other seminars. After his presentation, Joy and Allisa spoke about their own experiences in whiskey and spirits, and later Fred asked them both a series of questions about women and whiskey. It was compelling to hear their viewpoints, and the stories of their lives with whiskey. The overall presentation gave plenty of evidence of the significant role women have played in whiskey both historically and in the present. It isn't a man's world, and hasn't ever really been so.  

One of my favorite slides from Fred's presentation was why "women were the best bootleggers" during Prohibition. You see plenty of stories about male bootleggers, from Al Capone to Lucky Luciano, but when was the last time you heard of a female bootlegger? 

Of course we got to sample some whiskey. First, we began with a tasty Whiskey Punch, made with Dickel #12, black tea and lemon. It sees like black tea is being used more and more in cocktails, and I fully approve. We then moved onto Bulleit Bourbon, which is made with about 28% rye, making it very different to many other bourbons. It is a mix of sweet and spicy, and is good on its own or in a cocktail.

Next up were three Dickel Whiskies. The Dickel Rye, which has only been out for about a year, is made from 94% Rye, is about 5-6 years old, and undergoes cold filtration, making it taste smoother and mellowing some of the spice notes. I was impressed with this Rye, especially as it is priced around $25 or so. The Dickel #8, is made from a blend of 84% corn, 8% rye, & 8% malted barley, is 5-7 years old and is 80 proof. It has an intriguing smoky finish, and those who enjoy Scotch were said to like this whiskey. The Dickel #12 uses the same mashbill, is 7-9 years old and is 90 proof. It didn't seem as sweet and lacked the smokiness of the #8. The additional age and higher proof definitely create a different tasting product.

Kudos to Fred, Joy, Allisa and all the women who have contributed to the history of whiskey.

I was eager to attend the seminar, Japanese Whisky: Pride. Perfection. Passion, as the Japanese Whisky industry has been producing so much excellent whisky, which has won some of the top international whisky awards. However, in the local area, only a few Japanese whiskies are available and it is always interesting when a new product hits the shelves, such as Nikka Whisky
. Brought in by the Anchor Distilling Company, this seminar was an excellent introduction to their whisky.

The presenters included Alyssa DiPasquale, advanced Sake professional and manager at O Ya, and Nick Korn, a bartender and Japanese whisky enthusiast. The presenters did a good job of providing a brief history of Japanese whisky production, background on Nikka, and some general information on Japanese alcohol. There would also be a tasting of Nikka whisky accompanied by a couple snacks from O Ya.

One of the initial ideas presented was the Japanese concept of Shokunin, which roughly translates as "craftsman" or "artisan" but it goes beyond mere technical skill. It also comes with a social obligation to work for the general good of the community. How many Western artisans, such as whiskey makers, see their work through this lens? I have seen some wineries,distilleries and breweries (and also chefs) who possess a strong social consciousness. They may not know the concept of Shokunin, but they are still adherents without even knowing it.

In 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan to negotiate a treaty to open Japan to the world, he brought a few hundred gallons of American whiskey with him as a gift. The Japanese were quite taken with it and tried to imitate the whisky by adding additives to Sake and Shochu but that was largely a failure. I've read of an incident during World War I, when a couple U.S. transport ships landed in Japan, en route to Russia. At a local bar, the American soldiers drank some Japanese-made "Queen George" whiskey and an American officer stated "I never saw so many get so drunk so fast."

Deliverance finally came in the form of Masataka Taketsuru, whose family had been Sake brewers since 1733 (and still are involved in Sake production). In 1918, Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn the secrets of distilling and eventually brought his new knowledge back to Japan. Taketsuru ended up working for Kotobukiya (now Suntory) and helped to establish the first whisky distiller in Yamazaki. In 1934, Taketsuru went out on his own, forming Nikka Whisky
 and established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. He believed that this location was very similar to Scotland, and he would later establish, in 1969, a second distillery, Miyagikyo, in Sendai. As a follow-up, during World War II, American soldiers in the Pacific were enamored with Japanese whisky.   

Japanese whisky production is about 90% similar to that of Scotch however one of the most important differences involves their use of wort, a liquid produced during the mashing process. In Scotland, they generally use a cloudy wort, which contains husk chunks, and will add grain flavors to the whiskey. The Japanese though use a clear, or crystal, wort, which doesn't contain anything else. Thus, the wort doesn't add any grain flavors to the whisky and it leads to Japanese whiskies often being said to have a purer or brighter flavor.

At Nikka, the art of blending is vital to their whiskey production and it is said there are 2000 permutations of whiskey available at any one time. This comes from different peats, 12 different still types, different aged whisky, different barrel types, different parts of the warehouse and more. They also use a special, native oak, Mizunara, which is expensive, difficult to work with, and imparts little flavor to whisky. It actually takes 40-50 years of use to provide flavor. Such a fascinating process, and uniquely Japanese.

It should be noted that even Japanese whisky is created to be food friendly. Because of this, O Ya provided us a couple snacks, Miso Pickles and Rice Crackers wrapped in Nori. All of the Nikka whiskies we tasted were 12 years old, intended to give us a better idea of the differences between the whiskies based on everything beside their age.

We had two cocktails, the first being the Sakura, which means "cherry blossom." It contained Nikka 12 year old, Italian vermouth, a reduction with Moresca cherry wine, Luxardo Maraschino liquer, and a salted cherry blossom. It had a bright cherry flavor, wasn't too sweet, and the whiskey notes weren't hidden behind the cherry flavors. The Mizuwari cocktail is kind of a whiskey soda, containing the Nikka Coffee Grain whiskey, homemade soda water, and sweet green tea. Mixed with water, you bring the alcohol content down by about 20%, making it a less potent alternative.

Next up, the two 12 year old whiskies were from the two different distilleries, Miyagikyo & Yoichi. The Miyagikyo is the more feminine whisky, being light, softer and more elegant. It had some nice spice, mellow caramel notes and more fruit flavors on the finish. The Yocihi is the more masculine, being bolder, spicier, less fruity and with a smoky edge. I preferred the Yoichi though I enjoyed the Miyagikyo as well. Both possesses a nice complexity and depth of flavor. For now, the Yoichi 12 is not available in the U.S., though the Yoichi 15 year old is available. The Miyagikyo 12 is also available.

We finished our tasting with the Taketsuru Pure Malt, a blend of whisky from both the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. This was a whisky of power and balance, complexity and rich flavors. It was smoky with peaty notes, with elements of autumn baking spices, apples, caramel, cocoa and more. So much going on in this whisky, and the finish just lingers in your mouth. A superb sipping whisky which is going to appeal to any whiskey lover. Definitely my favorite of the seminar. There are also Taketsuru 17 and 21 year old whiskies that I'll have to track down.

Keep an eye out for Nikka whisky.

Domo Arigato and Kanpai to Alyssa and Nick.

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