Monday, 23 November 2009

Four Roses Bourbon Tasting

I’m a very lucky man.
Not only do I have the pleasure of tasting three different bourbons from the Four Roses distillery today, but I get to do it in the company of Jim Rutledge, or “Mr Four Roses”, the master distiller there since 1995. That’s a full three years longer than I’ve even been drinking!

Granted, I’m merely one of around 40 other bourbon fans, but in fact that made the experience all the better. Tasting is such a subjective experience by its nature, that having as many other palettes involved as possible always improves the event.
Initially based in Atlanta, Georgia, the Four Roses distillery was set up in the 1860s, and moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1884. The business was owned by Mr Paul Jones Jr. The name Four Roses was inspired by a marriage proposal made by Jones Jr to the lady he was courting: she subsequently wore a four rose corsage to a ball they were both attending, thereby indicating her acceptance.

Prohibition (1919 – 1933) was of course a difficult time for the distillery, but they weathered the storm by producing small amounts of whiskey for medicinal purposes, with G.Ps actually writing out prescriptions of a pint every 10 days for those deemed ‘unwell’ enough (one imagines that ‘thirst’ was a common and chronic complaint).

Mr Rutledge provided a concise history of the events surrounding prohibition, the evolution and development of the whiskey trade in the USA. Unfortunately, there’s only so much I could note down whilst also trying to taste constructively, so if you wish to find out more about this fascinating subject, I encourage you to take a look at www.fourroses.us

As I mentioned, we had three whiskeys to peruse this afternoon; the Yellow Label, Small Batch, and Single Barrel. I was surprised to discover that each of these if made to a completely different recipe, utilising two different mash bills and five different yeast strains, which therefore provide ten different recipes from which to blend their bourbon together.

They have a ‘target recipe’ for the Yellow Label, which can then be tinkered to perfection and consistency depending on their interaction with the American white oak casks, the weather, temperature, and other influences which can affect the outcome of a quality bourbon.

This approach, aside from fuelling geeks like me with information, enables Jim to be able to turn out fantastic tasting bourbon year after year.

The Yellow Label was served in a branded Four Roses jam jar, for reasons visual rather than olfactory. This light straw coloured liquid has a sweet nose of honeycomb, cloves and honeysuckle.
Apple and pear provide a fresh background to the gentle spiciness of the rye grain, which keeps this bourbon lively on the palette throughout a long, soft finish.

I know the idea of this kind of exercise is to retain a degree of objectivity, but it must be said that enjoying this bourbon, with all its prohibition era history, from a jam jar really does add to the experience. There’s a “hick drink” unpretentiousness, a snubbing of the cognac snifter plea to be taken seriously, and it works.

Our next subject, the Four Roses Small Batch, was presented in the same vessel. Defying gravity as it defies convention, the brick red liquid clings to the jam jar’s sides as though it were its given right to be there. This recipe brings the bourbon in at around 27.5% rye, which is apparent on the nose. I don’t know whether it’s due to Jim’s description of the measures they have taken in the warehouse to reduce the temperature differential between barrels from 36f to 6f, or the mustiness of the nose, but the sensation here is almost of being teleported to the Four Roses warehouse (which, incidentally, is located rather unusually 50 miles from the distillery). There’s also an energy here, almost effervescent, perhaps a result of the 45% abv.

Maturity is obvious upon tasting, with dried orange and lemon peel and increased spiciness. Mr Rutledge tells us the small batch target age is 6.5 years, but more often than not it works out a little over 7. You’ll never see an age statement on the bottle though, since the blend is achieved by how it tastes, not what the calendar says.

Following the Small Batch was the Single Barrel, a 100 proof spirit with a red/gold hue, baring more than a passing resemblance to a light rum. Served in a wine glass, the high alcohol content was immediately obvious, followed by a creamy, vanilla style as a result of the eight or more years this spirit spends in American white oak. Surprisingly though, it is the rye, not the alcohol, which tickles the tongue with its spicy character.
For what it’s worth, my palette found the Small Batch to be the superior sipping spirit in the selection. Yellow Label perfectly drinkable, and certainly a good ‘mixing spirit’, and the Single Barrel a powerful, spicy, bourbon – ideal as a digestif after some traditional southern cooking.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Ocho Tequila Tutored Tasting

The Porterhouse, Covent Garden.
It's a legendary pub, but it's fair to say, not a venue noted for its tequila heritage.
Today's events will probably not change that notion: except in the minds of a select group of bartenders in the inner circle of tequila aficionados.
For today, under the watchful eye of the European Tequila Ambassador (a title annointed upon him not once, but twice, by the Mexican Government) Tomas Estes would invite all present to "change their perception" of this often misunderstood spirit.
That perception, perhaps more obvious to those not present, is that of tequila as some kind of devil spirit. That which leads to bouts of irrational drunkenness, lost memories, and at it's worst long conversations on the porcelain telephone.
Perhaps then, this is why Tomas introduces himself, tongue in cheek, as "the guilty one".
The group present, however, had no such preconceptions - which in itself was an interesting subject for the man at the helm.
"It's tequila's time" he announced with conviction. None present argued. But why? Well, one of the main reasons seems to be the very preconception which so often works against tequila as a category.
People are afraid of tequila. They don't know about it. Unless, of course, you have the inside knowledge. And let's be honest : we all enjoy knowing something our immediate peers don't. Which, of course, is why we're all here.
On his long, and often diverging exploration of the category (but all credit to him, he'd hosted the class awards the previous night and showed no other signs of the hangover which would've reduced any other man to tears) Tomas explains that since 1983, when a 100% agave tequila was released under the name Chinaco, the world of tequila changed.
Suddenly its potential as a serious spirit became obvious. The  World's largest brand owners (Pernod Ricard, Diageo, Beam Global etc) became interested. The consumer saw the change, and started to demand the best.
Of course, this is in no small way down to our host: opening his first venue in Amsterdam back in 1976, he literally introduced Europe to the distilled agave himself.

I should mention at this point that it was Tomas, in collaboration with the Camereńa family (of Los Altos distillery) who first gave credit to the notion of terroir within tequila production. For those unfamiliar with this term, it is one (of many) borrowed from the wine world. In short, it refers to the immediate environment of the growing agave: soil type, precipitation, orientation, temperature etc) This led to the conception of Ocho Tequila; a range of geographically defined, vintage dated tequila, which we would have the pleasure of tasting today.
Why "Ocho" (eight)?  Well, there are a string of coincidences too significant to ignore: there are 8 brothers and sisters in the Camereña family, which has been producing tequila for eight decades, using eight kg of agave per litre of tequila, which each take an average of eight years to grow, then a further eight days to be turned into tequila when they arrive at the distillery.
So on to the task at hand; a tutored tasting of five tequilas in the more than capable hands of Mr Estes, and his infallibly reliable right hand man, Carlos Londono of Cafe Pacifico.
Our first venture was the 2008 Ocho Blanco, made entirely of agave from Los Pomaz Ranchos (field - a single vinyard tequila, if you will) in the same year, the cystal clear liquid shimmers at us from the glass, almost begging to be freed.
On the nose, light, floral sugars are obvious, together with a gentle minerality, menthol, and a light whisp of smoke.
Upon tasting, the overwhelming comparison is of citrus. Personally, I found a strong lime flavour, followed almost immediately by cracked black pepper. Tomas also pointed out a tangerine note, together with red stone fruit.
This tequila enjoyed a long, sweet finish.
For comparison, we then moved to the Ocho Blanco 2009, hailing from El Cerrito dé San Agustin. Proof, if it were needed, that terroir plays such an important role in the production of the Mexican national spirit was now staring us squarely in the face. A far saltier nose carries through to the palette, with a drying acidity which one can feel constricting the roof of the mouth.
Chamomile tea was spotted by one of the group, and I found the bitterness of dark chocolate to be particularly moreish.
The length of the latter, it must be said, was very different to the former, with the initial sweetness closing off much faster.
Moving into the Reposados, each rested for eight weeks and eight days (naturally) gave us a real treat. Starting with the El Vergel 2008 was a rare opportunity to get involved with a true collectors item. The double edged sword of producing vintage tequila is that they will inevitably run out; which is exactly what has happened here. Rumours abound of bottles of the El Vergel exchanging hands for prices well above their initial value as the supply / demand wheels crank into action.
It's also a very special spirit in it's own right. Grassy, green and herbaceous on the nose, there's a definite whisky smoke in the background, though more Speyside than Islay.
A rasping acidity carries a far longer finish, along with a distinct olive brine characteristic. Pronounced agave nuances abound, mingling with flinty, earthy tones. It's easy to see why these bottles have become so highly coveted.
The current Ocho Reposado vintage is the El Carrizal 2008, which provided our next subject.
Prominent here is a buttery, creamy style. There are hints of toffee, perhaps even butterscotch in the mix, but the true character can only be appreciated on the palette. For me, this tequila almost felt like tasting upside-down. It zipped past the tongue and to the back of the throat effortlessly, at which point it warms, and the evaporating particles making their way up to the olfactory nerve from the back provides a quite bizarre sensation. Perhaps due to the area of the mouth in which this occurs, a very salty, olive briney style is achieved. It's oiliness gives great length, sitting on the palette long enough to be able to really chew all the flavours.
Finishing off the day, we were presented with Ocho's 2008 Anejo, another product for El Vergel, this time aged for 12 months. The use of fatigued oak allows the agave to express itself, rather than just wood, and this is obvious in the burnt butter and nuttiness on the nose. Complex layers on the palette reveal themselves one after the other; caramel, dark chocolate, vanilla, and again the olive style we're used to from the previous expressions.
Wrapping up with a delicious avacado, tequila and chili mouse brought the afternoon to a close all too soon.
I would like to express my deepest thanks for Tomas and his team putting on such a great event, and encourage all of those reading this to put their preconceptions aside and venture into this wonderful world. And if you get the chance to be present when Tomas is talking, make sure you do so. Truly an inspirational figure.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

New / Old Fashioned


I've got a new toy.
It's a 0.5 ltr Mosa Nitrous Oxide Cream Whipper. Sounded very masculine until that last bit...
Anyway, I've decided to put it to the test. And of course, a new toy calls for a new recipe!
Starting out with my all time favourite rum, I made the basic inroads towards a rum old fashioned. A bar spoon of demerara sugar, a dash of orange bitters, a healthy slug of Los Valientes 10 year, and a good deal of patience.
Slowly twisting in cubed ice allows time for gradual dilution, as well as seemlessly combining all the elements in the glass. It also allows time for reflection, so the bartender can mix to taste (for we all know, however good the bartender facing us may be, only you can make one perfect for your own taste). A dash of bitters here, a splash more rum there. Never rushing, simply guiding the drink to where it needs to go, and hoping to be invited along for the journey.
Once I'd taken the old fashioned to just short of complete (not fully diluted, and a pinch away from the sweetness I prefer), the new toy came out to play.
Before starting out, I'd poured out a pint of fiery ginger beer, and stirred it well to remove the bubbles. Mixing it with hy-foamer, this was then decanted into my new cream whipper. Fuelled with an 8mg dose of nitrous oxide, and left in the fridge whilst I went to work on the base drink, it was now ready for action.
After a practice run onto a plate first, the ginger foam was applied directly onto the drink. Here it serves the function of not only flavouring the drink, but also providing a rather attractive garnish.
I finished the drink off with a touch of grated cinammon.
So how was it? I'm pleased to say; delicious! Having long been a fan of ginger with Los Valientes, there were no surprises in the flavour, but the texture was something completely new for me. The effervescent foam is a delight, not in anyway cloying or adhesive, although I will probably add more stabilizing agent next time around to improve the longevity of the foam once served.
There's something incredibly satisfying about a Guinnes-like moustache adorning your top lip as you take a gulp from an old fashioned. It's a sensation I intend to repeat. Often.


Challenge of the week

Mrs Lowe has set me a challenge!
She likes red wine. She also likes chocolate.
Can I create a concoction which combines the two? I've got until this weekend to come up with a solution to this tricky predicament.
My first thoughts turn to the problem of temperature. Red wine is, almost exclusively, enjoyed at room temperature. Chocolate, however, prefers to be served cold. There in lies the problem.
I'm thinking perhaps a red wine reduced film, wrapped around a chocolate sorbet, with a stabilizing agent to enable it to withstand higher temperatures. Or perhaps a red wine straw filled with a chocolate foam...?
Watch this space...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Los Valientes 10 Year Tasting Note


"Wow"
"Holy Sh*t"
"I couldn't ask for more than that in a glass"
Those are a selection of the comments I have heard upon introducing people to this rum for the first time, a smug, self satisfied grin on my face knowing the reaction which awaits.
This has got to be a serious candidate for 'best daily drinking' rum (although the clipboard waving politician types may have something to say about such an award).
For those of you who don't know about L.V, it's made from a blend of 70% pot stilled sugar cane juice, and 30% column stilled molasses. This is the same across the range, with age being the only difference. This a a completely unique approach to rum production. Whilst there are other rums which blend pot and column stills, I have yet to discover another which combines both raw materials and distillation methods. But I'm not so interested in recording the history here as the tasting note, so I'll crack on.

A mouth-watering, sweet and enticing nose reveals the fresh tropical fruit scents of the sugar cane juice, whilst the chocolatey sweetness suggests the molasses content.

On the palette, caramel gives way to butterscotch and milk chocolate, then vanilla as the oak expresses itself. Arriving promptly after is the herbaceous freshness of the agricole style cane distillate, with a taste of earthy capsicum.
The aftertaste develops the spicy edge, and a crunchy green freshness you can almost chew.
This spiciness lends itself well to a "Mexican Mojito" - made as you would expect, then topped with a dash of fiery ginger beer. Delicious!
Already gracing some of the most highly respected tables in London, I hope to see this Mexican marvel taking the rest of the country by storm in the not-too-distant future.

Los Valientes 15 year Tasting Note


I just love this rum! And I'm not the only one...
When this rum entered the Drinks Business Rum Masters, as an unknown new comer, it made one heck of an entrance. Picking up the only Gold medal in it's class is a pretty strong debut.
Slightly darker than it's 10 year old counterpart but, confusingly, pretty much identical to the 20 year.
The nose offers raisin, vanilla, and dark chocolate.
On the palate, we pick up exactly where the 10 year left us. Starting with the peppery notes we found in the finish of the 10, this develops into a very rounded, almost ginger bread spice. As this fades into subtle wood characteristics, the sugar cane expresses itself again with luscious tropical fruit.
Overall, this older brother of the 10 year is a definite progression, and a very welcome addition to the rums available in the UK. The 70/30 sugar cane / molasses blend works beautifully, with the molasses providing a strong backbone on which to hang the delicate flavours of the cane juice.
The real appeal to this rum comes in the price. Buying a single bottle from an online retailer would set you back less than £30, which for a rum of this calibre is simply brilliant - a definite 5/5 for value for money.
I like to drink this rum either as a Rum Old Fashioned, or with a splash of Jamaican Ginger Beer.
It's available now from www.thedrinkshop.com, www.specialitydrinks.com or for wholesale through Bibendum.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Cognac Audry Tasting Lunch


Seeing as I've got 45 minutes to kill on the train this morning, I thought I'd take the opportunity to report on a fantastic event I had the pleasure of attending last week.
In the oppulent surroundings of the Knight's Room of Simpsons in the Strand, Cognac Audry's own Bernard Boisson guided some of London's most respected somelliers through a three course meal, together with five of the worlds most highly acclaimed Cognacs.
With a range comprising the Audry XO, Reserve Speciale, Memorial, Exception and Tres Ancienne, and a delightful menu put together by Simpsons, this was a working lunch we all thoroughly enjoyed.
Hosted by Bernard Boisson, Willie Lebus of Bibendum, and yours-truly, the order of the day was digestif matching: an often overlooked element of the dining experience.
The first brightly shining star of the show was the Reserve Speciale (a blend of equal parts grande and petit champagne eaux de vies, aged between 15 and 30 years) alongside a roast quail with truffled mash, spinach & port sauce. With the specifically selected wine - a 2007 Savennieres - the Reserve Speciale's delicate, floral body went down a treat.
Next course was pan-fried venison with parsnip tart and brazed onions. This time around, the concensus of the somelliers favoured the Exception. A truly ethereal spirit, the 30-90 year aged blend of 80% grande champagne and 20% petite champagne displayed the wonderously ellusive rancio which is so often sought and so rarely achieved. An extremely powerful cognac which more than held it's own against some strong flavours on the plate, all at the table agreed this spirit punched well above it's weight in terms of pricing.
Finishing off with a hot chocolate fondant (pictured) really laid down the gauntlet for the final match.



With such rich, palette coating flavours, we really needed to move up a notch.
We found that the 100% grade champagne Tres Ancienne - a single cask aged for more than 5 decades - with it's 50%abv was the perfect match. The higher proof cut smoothly through the unctuous chocolate, and the ancient, vegetal notes which only a mature spirit such as this can bring to the table were simply devine.
A surprise at this point though, was the XO. Despite being "entry level" for the Audry house, this is no ordinary XO.
The youngest E.d.V in the blend is aged more than twice as long as required by law, and the oldest just a touch older than myself (for the time being) at 30 years.
Overall, all present were very impressed at the outstanding quality of these cognacs, the complexity which can be achieved at such low price points, and the unwavering enthusiam of Bernard Boisson - surely one of the hardest working retired men around!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Bourbon and Bacon?

I know I'm not the first to try this, and I'm certainly far the the first to blog it, but I've finally succumbed to the temptation to play around with fat washing Bourbon.
Those of you with a disgusted / bewildered look on your faces right now might be finding out about this concept for the first time, so let me help you out.
The theory goes: Bacon = Yum. Bourbon = Yum. Therefore Bacon + Bourbon = YUM!
Specifically, it's hoped that the smokiness of both elements will interact to produce a super smooth, smokey sipping experience - quite possibly served as a 'Breakfast Manhattan'.
The plan is basically this:
  • pour half a bottle of Bourbon (i'll be using Bulleit) into a jam jar
  • make some massive bacon sandwiches
  • collect the bacon fat, and pour into the jar with the whiskey
  • leave for 2 hours
  • eat massive bacon sandwiches
  • freeze jar of whiskey and fat for 12 hours
  • scoop off the fat later, and enjoy
However, the reality was slightly different. Due to a slight timing error, I ended up leaving the fat in the Bourbon for about 10 hours, rather than 2. Also, due to a purchasing error earlier in the day, I used unsmoked bacon. This did pretty much defeat the point, but I thought I'd give it a go anyway.


So here's the Bourbon & Bacon fat at the beginning of the process. I will be the first to admit that it doesn't look entirely appealing.

So much so, in fact, that I turned my back on the entire jar in much the same way one might to a ginger step-child, and tried my best to forget about this horribly crime against humanity (or whiskey, at any rate).
After leaving this for FAR too long (about 10 hours, instead of the recommended 2), I placed the jar in the freezer over night.

I had hoped for a nice even layer of fat to settle and solidify at the top of the jar, allowing me to poke a hole in the top, and pour the bourbon out. What actually happened, was what you see in the picture on the right.
It was then apparent that some kind of filtration would be necessary.

I tried using the traditional double straining method, familiar to bartenders world wide, with very limited success.
On the second attempt, a funnel with a coffee filter gave the desired result: a beautifully sparkling clear liquor. Feast your eyes on this!

I've tried it, and it's... hmmm. Well, I don't think we've arrived at perfection just yet.
I'll give it a fair go, and shake up a drink or two with it before I speak of it too harshly, but suffice to say I will be having another attempt.
Most importantly (I think), I will be using a smoked bacon, and for much less time on my next venture.
I'll post the drinks I come up with for this one soon enough, and next time I get a hankering for a bacon sandwich, have another go at fat washing.