Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rum Review: Appleton Estate Vertical Tasting

Appleton is one of about half a dozen distilleries on the island of Jamaica. The Appleton estate was established in the Nassau Valley, roughly a century after the English capture of Jamaica in 1655, with rum production beginning in 1749. This makes it the second oldest continuously operating rum distillery in the world, between Mt. Gay (1703) and St. James (1765). The estate was independent for most of its history, but was absorbed into the J. Wray & Nephew company in the early 20th century. The company grows all of its own sugarcane on their 11,000 acre property, producing both refined sugar and molasses.

Arial view of Appleton Estate from the Jamaica-Gleaner
As with all Jamaican rums, the key to the distinctive quality comes from the use of dunder in fermenting the molasses mash. Dunder made from the residue left in the still at the end of a run, which contains dead microorganisms, minerals, and other residual material that was not digested during fermentation. This provides a rich source of food for wild yeasts and bacteria that colonize it when the dunder is left in outdoor pits. The vile mess is then added to the next batch of molasses mash to begin the fermentation. Because of the numerous varieties of microorganisms present in the dunder, fermentation often produces a much higher quantity and variety of esters and other 'funky' aromatic compounds than are found in mashes fermented with carefully cultured yeast strains. This is why the one of the distinctive characteristics of Jamaican rums is often described as 'dunder funk'.

A closer view of Appleton's production plant from O Canada
Appleton uses both copper pot stills and continuous column stills to produce their rums, providing them with a wide array of spirits for aging and blending to generate their final products. From these raw materials, Joy Spence, the first female master blender in the rum industry, pulls together casks to make the various expressions produced by Appleton. The best of these are bottled under the Appleton Estate label. The two bottom rungs have no age statement (though they do outside of the US), while the higher level bottlings include 12, 21, 30, and, most recently, 50 year old rums.

Appelton Estate V/X


Nose: prominent esters, but still relatively light, definite hogo, underlying fruitiness, dusty oak, nutmeg, sugarcane and molasses, with growing sweetness over time. After adding a bit of water, the nutmeg aromas become stronger, while the esters become less sharp.

Taste: light sweetness with some sharp acidity up front, some black/chili pepper in the middle along with swirling esters of citrus, berries, and funk, oak, chocolate, and molasses near the back, growing sweeter into the finish. After adding water, the beginning of the sip becomes smoother, losing the acidity, while the black pepper remains fairly strong.

Finish: balanced oak and esters with a touch of molasses

In bottlings outside of the United States, V/X is listed as a five year old rum and that sounds about right to me. It's a good choice if you like your rums on the drier side - V/X isn't nearly as sweet as older rums tend to be. The oak is present, but hasn't had time to clobber the inherent characteristics of the rum aside. While ofter derided as 'not a sipper', I actually find it to be rather pleasant (though you should not that I think Smith & Cross is a good sipper, so your mileage may vary). However, I will admit that it shines even more in cocktails. It's one of my go-to rums for mai tais and fits in well with other drinks calling for Jamaican rum. There's just enough hogo to make itself present in cocktails, but it doesn't have the aggressiveness of Smith & Cross. The greatest testament I can give to the importance of Appleton V/X is that after finishing off my first bottle, I purchased an entire handle (which can be bought from Hi-Time Wine for all of $34), proceeded to finish that off, and then bought another bottle. While I have a strong tendency to buy a bottle, use it, then move onto something new, this is a rum that I will always have on my shelf. If you only get one Jamaican rum, make it Appleton V/X.

Appleton Estate Reserve

Nose: gentle sweet molasses balanced with savory esters, lightly fruity, almost malt/corn graininess, dry oak, grassy, nothing particularly assertive. After adding a few drops of water, the grain notes and oak become more prominent while the molasses fades a bit, with the hogo taking a supporting role, while some baking spices (cloves and nutmeg) emerging with time.

Taste: mildly sweet molasses with light berries up front, which changes place with bitter to bittersweet esters and oak mid-palate, at which point light pepper also comes in. After dilution, it becomes sweeter (and more sucrose-like) with more robust bittersweet molasses notes near the back, while the oak retreats a bit and the esters fade towards the background, and a bit of vanilla pops up near the back.

Finish: oak comes in very late, rather bitter and less pleasant esters

Estate Reserve is bottled as an 8 year old outside the U.S., as well at a slightly higher strength of 43% compared to the US 40%. It's something of a peculiar rum - smoother than V/X, but not quite rich enough or interesting enough to make it an engaging sipping rum to me. I guess they were aiming for it being relatively inoffensive to draw people into the brand, but it just feels awkward and not really great at anything. There is more sweetness than V/X, but is so stripped of complexity as to seem almost unidimensional. To cap it off, V/X is cheaper and the 12 year old isn't much more expensive, so it doesn't even represent a particularly good value. I would give this one a pass, opting for either of the other rums here. The 43% version might make the flavors more robust, but I'm still not sure it would be a strong proposition then.

Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year

Nose: still very ester-y - which joins up with the fairly prominent oak, sweet molasses and brown sugar, lots of baking spices - cinnamon and nutmeg, dry/savory quality. After adding a few drops of water, the molasses and oak merge into one bittersweet aroma,

Taste: sweet pepper up front, brown sugar, tropical fruit, and berries mid-palate, then lightly syrupy esters, more pepper and oak at the back, slightly vegetal. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter throughout, though still balanced by bitter notes of oak, hogo, and molasses, with lots of nutmeg going into the finish.

Finish: esters, wood spices, bittersweet molasses, pepper, and oak, fading into sugary sweetness

Estate Extra is the oldest and strongest of the bunch I'm tasting in this series, at 12 year old and 43%. It is also the only one that gets an age statement in the United States. Containing rums aged up to 18 years old, the extra time in barrels really shows, though it isn't nearly as tannic as I would have expected. It has a richness that isn't found in its younger siblings, making it a more pleasant sipping rum. With that said, you still have to enjoy the esters that are so characteristic of Jamaican rums to find this one agreeable. Age may have mellowed it, but the dunder funk still shines through. The richness that makes it a pleasant sipper also makes it killer in cocktails calling for dark Jamaican rum. It's obviously smoother than something like Myers or Coruba, making for incredibly elegant drinks. For instance, put it in a Navy Grog for an out of this world experience.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mixology Monday LXXXIV: Temperance

This month's Mixology Monday theme is a bit counter-intuitive: temperance. While the event has historically been all about the booze, this time we were challenged by Scott of Shake, Strain & Sip to come up with non-alcoholic drinks.

While many of us today think of overly sweet and unimaginative uses of fruit juice combinations when we hear of nonalcoholic beverages, there is a growing resurgence and movement of creating real craft “mocktails” in cocktail bars around the world.  With there being more exotic and unique ingredients available to us then ever before, there are an abundance of innovative spiritless libations being developed today.  Believe it or not, there’s actually a company that produces non-alcoholic versions of rum, vodka, brandy, and a number of other faux spirits and liqueurs.
As such, this month’s theme challenges you to create unique craft “mocktails” only limited by your imagination.  Perhaps you have an abundance of that homemade lavender syrup sitting in your fridge?  Maybe you’ve been thinking about creating a non-alcoholic version of your favorite cocktail.  Or maybe you just wanted an excuse to mix up an Angostura Phosphate you saw in Imbibe.  Oh yes, non-potable bitters are fair game here since they are legally classified as nonalcoholic in the states.  However, if the Teetotalist inside of you won’t allow it, you can go without them.  Cheers!
I've been enjoying Jeffery Morgenthaler's tonic recipe for a few months now. It's a great choice when I want something non-alcoholic that's still full of flavor. So I decided to see if I could tiki-fi it a bit.

Tiki Tonik
1 oz tonic syrup
0.25 oz BG Reynolds passion fruit syrup
0.25 oz lime juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 dash Trader Tiki's falernum bitters

Build over ice and top with 2-3 oz of soda water. Garnish with the spent lime shell - optionally add a lump of sugar and some high-proof spirit and light (carefully) for some extra tiki flair.

In a sense, the tonic water that this is derived from is already pretty tiki - with orange, lemon, and lime plus allspice berries and lemongrass. The passion fruit syrup and bitters help to push it further down the path, adding more layers of fruit and spice to the mix.

This would be a good one to play with if you have other options around - guava or grapefruit would both work beautifully. Actual passion fruit juice rather than syrup would also be a great pick. No matter how you end up making it, it's a nice way to have a tiki-style drink that won't knock you on your back.

Thanks to Scott and Fred for another great MxMo.

Friday, April 18, 2014

When Whisky Was (Possibly) (Slightly) (More) Carcinogenic

Let's be honest with ourselves. When we drink alcohol, especially distilled spirits, we are drinking poison.

Now, as Paracelsus noted, "The dose makes the poison" and in moderate amounts, alcohol may have beneficial effects that outweigh its downsides. But there was a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was worry that beverages made from malt, including beer and whisky, contained dangers above and beyond their standard risks.

The fear was caused by a compound called N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). Nitrosamine compounds form when nitrogen oxides react with amines. For instance, nitrosamine levels used to be fairly high in meats preserved with sodium nitrite, such as bacon, and are still rather high in tobacco products.

Beginning in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, evidence began to accumulate that nitrosamines could lead to cancer. Studies in rats showed that administration of NDMA led to liver cancer and there was an incident in Norway where pigs fed herring (fish tends to have high levels of amines - hence its smell) preserved with sodium nitrite developed liver diseases, including cancer. At this point, while it was known that nitrosamines were dangerous, analytical techniques were unable to detect it in human foodstuffs.

That made it very alarming when studies released in 1979 found that beer and malt whisky contained detectable levels of NDMA. While concentrations were low, as little as 0.4 to 0.7 parts per billion (PPB), this was still unsettling as some studies on rats had concluded that even 10 PPB were enough to triple lung cancer rates. It is known that nitrosamines can react with DNA to form adducts, which is a plausible mechanism for much of their carcinogenicity.

How did this happen? While nitrosamines were likely always present in malt to one degree or another, increasing levels came about from the advancing technology used in the process of drying malt. Heat is used to arrest germination and dry the malt to preserve it in a stable form. Though peat and coal had been historically used all over Scotland, they were being phased out in favor of gas burners, which are more flavor-neutral sources of heat. These appeared to burn cleanly and dry the malt without imparting any flavor, making it easier to produce the unpeated malts distillers needed for the making lighter, more cleanly flavored whisky.

However, the temperatures produced by gas flames were significantly higher than those of peat or even coal and oil, which increased the formation of nitrogen oxides (primarily dinitrogen trioxide and dinitrogen tetroxide) from the nitrogen present in air. Those nitrogen oxides would then react with nitrogen-containing compounds in the malt to produce nitrosamines. As noted, the most common nitrosamine is NDMA. This is formed primarily from hordenine, a dimethyl derivative of tyramine (itself a derivative of the amino acid tyrosine), which is at its peak concentration early in the kilning process. The nitrogen oxides in the hot air act both to cleave dimethylamine from hordenine and convert it into NDMA.

Formation of NDMA from hordenine
As many of these nitrosamines have boiling points comparable to phenolic compounds (~150º C vs ~180º C) that also find their way into malt whisky, they can be carried through the production process and ended up in the final product.

Thankfully solutions to this problem were found fairly rapidly. The simplest was to heat the malt indirectly rather than directly. Heat from a gas burner is fed into an exchanger, which transfers that heat to clean air, which is passed through the malt. This is the process now used in almost all maltings, especially larger ones.

From Shimadzu News 3/2005
However, some maltings still use direct heat in the form of burning peat. While peat fires are generally used to generate smoke rather than heat, per se, they can still produce nitrogen oxides. This makes it important to avoid flaring while burning peat, as that will increase the production of nitrogen oxides. To prevent this from happening, sulfur is burned alongside the peat, which forms sulfur dioxide, which reduces the pH of the malt and inhibits the formation of nitrosamines. This process also occurs naturally in kilns heated by coal and oil burners, as these fuels contain fairly high levels of sulfur. In comparison, natural gas contains very low levels of sulfur, which likely contributed to the formation of nitrogen oxides when it was used to dry malt.

The kiln at Springbank distillery
Alongside the changes to production techniques, analytical techniques have also improved over the decades since this issue was first brought to light, which makes the routine analysis of malt for nitrosamine content relatively simple. This ensures that quantity of nitrosamines in malt used for brewing and distilling are far below the level that would do you any harm. So you only have to worry about what the alcohol itself is doing to you.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Madeira Review: Blandy's 5 Year Old Malmsey

Blandy's is a very old (they celebrated their bicentenary in 2011) family-owned producer of madeira.

A step up from entry-level line of 3 year old tinta negra blends, the 5 year old, single varietal bottles span the gamut from port-like sweetness (Malmsey) to sherry-like dryness (Sercial).

Malmsey madeira is fortified 48 hours after fermentation begins, leaving a significant amount of residual sugar in the wine. This is then aged for at least 5 years in oak casks in the Canteiro system, where the barrels are stored on the top floor of warehouses on Madeira, which exposes them to quite a bit of heat (Madeira is a sub-tropical island). The barrels are progressively moved down towards ground level where it is cooler.

The wine is finally bottled at 19% ABV with a pH of 3.42, 123 g/l of residual sugar, and 6.23 g/l of total acid.

Blandy's 5 Year Old Malmsey

Nose: sun dried raisin notes dominate, with some burnt sugar, earthy, a touch of cocoa powder, charred oak, some estery notes up top that seem almost floral

Taste: raisin sweetness throughout that waxes and wanes, mid-palate there's a moderate amount of savory (yeasty?) acidity that balances but never overtakes the sweetness, and some of the dry cocoa powder hanging over everything

Finish: raisins with diminishing sweetness, drier fruit notes hang around

This is, ultimately, a relatively simple wine. It hasn't had enough time in the barrel to really develop depth or complexity, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While I find it a bit too sweet to really hit the spot for me, I think it will appeal to anyone who enjoys tawny ports. Madeira, even malmsey, has more acidity than port, but I enjoy that aspect as it seems to strike a balance between the unrelenting sweetness of port and the bone dry acidity of many sherries. As an added bonus, everyone who I've gotten to try this madeira has enjoyed it, so it seems to have broad appeal.

Monday, April 14, 2014

New Cocktail: Eau de Beckham

This drink began as a joke from Oliver Klimek about the new Haig Club single grain whisky. Given the marketing angle, it appears to be designed for vodka drinkers. While whisky, Chartreuse, orange liqueur, and a dash of Beckham Eau de Toilette isn't such a promising start, I wanted to see if I could use it as the basis for a drink.

The parameters were:

•Had to contain grain whisky, Chartreuse, and orange liqueur
•The only other ingredients had to be bitter

After a little experimentation, I worked out something that fit the mold of other drinks I've been enjoying lately.

Eau de Beckham
1 oz blended whisky
0.5 oz sweet vermouth
0.25 oz yellow Chartreuse
0.25 oz orange liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters

Build over a large ice cube in a chilled rocks glass. Stir briefly.

The nose is a little off kilter, with the caramel from the whisky and sweet grape notes from the vermouth struggling with the herbal notes from the Chartreuse and hints of the Angostura's spices, with a hint of wood smoke drifting over it all. The taste comes together much better - the sip leads with the whisky's caramel, which flows into herbal/vegetal notes from the vermouth and Chartreuse, which is punctuated by spices from the bitters. The finish is dominated by the bitters and Chartreuse. Everything is undergirded and smoothed out by the orange liqueur.

While not an obvious clutch of ingredients, I'm rather pleased at how well this came together. It might not balance the same way with a lighter whisky, but you'll have to find out for yourself. If the folks at Haig decide to run with this, a little acknowledgement would be nice.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Whisky Review: Talisker Dark Storm

This release is a travel retail-only version of Talisker's NAS Storm. It purports to be aged in 'charred casks', which is an effectively meaningless phrase as all scotch whisky is aged in charred casks. My thoughts as to what it really means after the tasting notes.

As with most Talisker releases, this was bottled at 45.8%, though I suspect that it is chill filtered and possibly colored.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for this sample.

Talisker Dark Storm

Nose: rather floral on top (diminishing with time), new lumber and malt underneath, some woody dry fruit, sour vegetal peat, savory caramel, dusty grain, vanilla, subtle sherry/bourbon fruit notes and sweet raisins, wood smoke/char, brown rice, youth is barely covered by the casks, cardboard. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more savory with a sort of woody meat pie quality and some brown sugar/maple notes come out.

Taste: very woody throughout with new lumber character, sucrose sweetness from the drop - fading towards the back, peat is hard to find through the thicket of oak, some raisin notes from mid to the back. After dilution, the flavor profile flattens dramatically - almost no development with overlapping lumber and sucrose sweetness all the way through, with raisins, bitter wood char, and some salt showing up right at the back.

Finish: rather tannic wood, sour peat residue, raisins, and unpleasantly sweet edge

This is lowest common denominator whisky. Almost all of Talisker's distinctive character has been stripped out, leaving sweetness, wood, and a bit of peat. If I didn't know already, it would be hard to peg where this whisky is from. Might have guessed Caol Ila, blind.

I have a hunch that this may be whisky from rejuvenated casks, which would explain the intense sweetness coupled with fresh lumber yard wood. It has a lot of the flaws of craft whiskey, with the same sort of wood flavors that you get when a distiller is trying to speed up extraction. Sadly this seems to be where a lot of new whisky is headed these days.

I'm glad to have tried this, mostly because it's going to keep me away from Talisker's NAS releases. They appear to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for the travel retail market. While even the standard 10 Year appears to be losing some quality, it's likely still better than this.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 2001 - The Resurrection Dram

Bruichladdich began distilling again on October 23rd, 2001 after being silent for most of a decade. Seven years later, the distillery released a bottling from that very first run, appropriately named The Resurrection Dram.

The whisky was from a single batch of lightly peated (10 ppm) barley and had been aged for seven years exclusively in ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill-filtration.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Bruichladdich 2001 - The Resurrection Dram

Nose: rather light, gentle and well-integrated vegetal peat, some maritime notes, light oak and a touch of wood smoke, vanilla sugar, malt, slightly floral. After adding a few drops of water, the malt becomes dominate and more vanilla comes out, giving a fresher feel to the whisky, the peat and wood are still present but act more as accents, and a bit of dark chocolate pops out.

Taste: woody - but not overwhelmingly so - throughout, underlying malt, grows sweeter towards the back, gently bitter peat and wood smoke at the back. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter and maltier, with the wood and peat providing a nice balance, alongside some fruity/floral bourbon barrel esters near the back.

Finish: peat and wood smoke, gentle maltiness, light bitterness

This feels like a more refined version of Bruichladdich Waves. Peat is present, but not a dominant flavor, especially after adding a bit of water. While there isn't a whole lot going on (though this was literally the last dram of the bottle, so it may be oxidized), it's quite a nice drink and would have presaged good things to come when it was released in 2008.

In some ways I find this whisky frustrating after the bizarre ride of Laddie 10. If the quality of the Resurrection Dram had been carried forward, I would have a lot more respect and hope for Bruichladdich in the future. It's not a complex whisky, but it was enjoyable and could have gotten better with time and maybe a few sherry casks. But this appears to have been a one-off, so I think we're stuck with funky Laddies instead.