EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Category: Zeitgeist

ADI adds American Single Malt Whiskey as a Judging category

The American Distilling Institute has decided to add American Single Malt Whiskey as a distinct category for their upcoming spirits competition, the Judging of Craft Spirits. American Single Malt is a burgeoning whiskey category and we at ADI believe that whiskeys made in line with the proposed standard of identity created by the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC) are different enough in character that they deserve recognition as a distinct category.  

In 2016, a group of American Craft Distilleries got together and formed the ASMWC with the express purpose to "establish, promote and protect the category of American Single Malt Whiskey." The reason for this is, at present there is no legal definition for American Single Malt. The Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) defines Malt Whiskey as whiskey made from a fermented mash of at least 51% malted barley, distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV), and stored at less than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) in charred new oak containers. Under the current definition, US Malt Whiskey can include other grains such as corn, rye, or wheat in the mash and it is required to be matured in charred new oak barrels the same as bourbon and rye whiskey. This means that a US distiller could make a whiskey from 51% malted barley and 49% corn and call it a single malt whiskey, because the word single has no legal meaning for TTB.

The ASMWC aims to bring American made single malt whiskey in line with the broader understanding of single malt whiskies from around the world. They propose that American single malt whiskey should have the following standard of identity: "Made from 100% malted barley; distilled entirely at one distillery; mashed, distilled, and matured in the USA; matured in oak casks not exceeding 700 liters (185 gallons); distilled to no more then 160 proof (80% ABV); and bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or more. This definition has a few important differences from the current TTB standard for Malt Whiskey. First requiring the whiskey be made from 100% malted barley at one distillery in the US lines up with the EU definition of Single Malt Scotch. The other key difference is that under the ASMWC's proposed standard American single malt would be allowed to be matured in used barrels. This would most likely make the largest difference in the flavor to the spirit. Charred new barrels contribute a lot of intense wood flavors over time and as we have seen with many extra aged bourbons. By allowing American single malt to be matured in used barrels, distilleries, especially in climates with large temperature swings, would be able to produce at much longer aged spirit that is not overwhelmed by wood. It is a common practice in Cognac to start a brandy off in new or young barrels and then move the spirit to used or exhausted barrels to allow the spirit to slowly oxidise and mellow over time without also increasing the wood flavors extracted from the barrel. If the ASMWC's standard is formally adopted by the TTB we could see 8, 10, 12, and 18 year old American Single Malt Whiskeys become the norm rather than the exception.

At present, there are whole realms of flavors that are largely cut off from US malt whiskey because of the current legal definition. However, innovation and pushing the boundaries of whiskey and gin has helped energize and drive growth in the spirits industry. Hopefully, the TTB will seriously consider adopting the standard of identity set out for American Single Malt Whiskey. And in the meantime, ADI will continue to support distillers as they expand the legacy of US distilled spirits.

Negroni Variations with Aged Gin

In preparation for the upcoming Negroni Week (June  5-11, 2017) I decided to create a few Negroni variations  with some of the gin in my liquor cabinet and see how the drink changed. The classic negroni is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. For these variations I used Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso, Campari and three different aged gins. 

Negroni #1: This was made using  FEW Spirits Barrel Gin (46.5% ABV) which is an aged gin distilled with an undisclosed number of botanicals which includes juniper, bitter orange and lemon peel, cassia and angelica. As a negroni the noise was woody, with fruity bubble gum notes. The Negroni tasted of sweet berries and orange with a strong whiskey character. The finish started sweet, dried out from the wood tannins and closed with notes of black pepper grapefruit zest, charcoal and menthol.

Negroni #2: This was made using High Wire Distilling Hat Trick Barrel Rested Gin (44% ABV) which is an aged gin distilled with crushed juniper berries, fresh lemon and orange peel. As a negroni, the sweet vermouth came through on nose with bright citrus from the Campari. The flavor was a dance of sweet spicy and bitter. The finish started strong with juniper and faded into bitter grapefruit and sweetness. Really nice.

Negroni #3: This was made using Old World Spirits Rusty Blade Single Barrel-Aged Gin (60% ABV) which is an aged gin distilled with 11 botanicals including cilantro, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, orange, lemon, tangerine and steamed juniper. As a negroni the nose had notes of sweet cherry and fresh orange. The cocktail tasted of maraschino cherry, sweet grapefruit, and mid palate spice notes of clove and cinnamon explode with slight bitterness. The finish was spicy dry and mildly bitter with notes of juniper and grapefruit zest.

Negroni Variations with Classic and Contemporary Gin

In preparation for the upcoming Negroni Week (June  5-11, 2017) I decided to create a few Negroni variations  with some of the gin in my liquor cabinet and see how the drink changed. The classic negroni is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. For my variations I used Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso, Campari and three different gins. 

Negroni #1: This was made using Bombay London Dry Gin (43% ABV) which is a classic gin vapor distilled with Juniper, Coriander, Liquorice Root, Almonds, Lemon Peel, Cassia Bark, Orris Root,  and Angelica. As a negroni, sweet and bitter  notes were well balanced but the gin got lost under the vermouth. It had lots of herbal complexity from the wormwood and citrus, with a nice juniper finish.

Negroni #2: This was made using St. George Spirits Botanivore Gin (45% ABV) which is a contemporary gin with juniper, bay laurel and fresh cilantro in a vapor basket and angelica, bergamot peel, black peppercorn, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, citra hops, coriander, dill seed, fennel seed, ginger, lemon peel, lime peel, orris root, Seville orange peel, and star anise macerated in the pot. As a negroni it had a strong citrus aroma on the nose, sweetness from vermouth was still very strong however the finish had a slight spicy character from the gin. Made with equal parts the negroni was slightly out of balance however, adding a touch more gin does the trick.

Negroni #3: This was made using The Spirits Guild Astral Pacific Gin (43% ABV)  which is a contemporary gin pot distilled with Juniper, coriander, angelica, cinnamon, grapefruit peel, clementine peel, orange tree leaves, pink peppercorn, pistachio, sage, and orris root in a neutral brandy made from clementines. As a negroni bright floral notes came through on the nose with a light fruity aroma almost like bubble gum. The flavors were well balanced between sweet and bitter with juniper and citrus coming through clear on the finish.

How Johnnie Walker Helped me to be Less of a Whisky Snob

In my last post I described a blind vertical tasting I helped put together of 11 different expressions of Johnnie Walker Blended Scotch Whisky. Post tasting I realized that my price bias (less expensive whiskies are not as good at expensive whiskies) was getting in the way of me realizing how good Johnnie Walker Red Label actually is. Now that isn't to say that Red Label is world's best whisky however, it is fantastic for what it is and how it is meant to be consumed.

The first time I drank whisky and fully enjoyed the experience was a glass of Macallan 12 Year Old Single Malt. The few times I tried Johnnie Walker Red or Black Label neat I didn't really enjoyed them as much. I took this to mean that my refined sensibilities (read inexperience) prefered single malts to blended Scotch because they were of higher quality. This belief was confirmed in part by my price bias since many blended Scotches are less expensive than single malts. However, in recent months I have started to rethink these assumptions.

After the blind tasting I began working my way through some of the leftover blended Scotch. I drank it neat, mixed with ginger beer and on the rocks. I realize that it wasn't that I didn't like blended Scotch because I prefered single malt but that I was mostly just drinking blended Scotch in the wrong way. Most blended Scotch is meant to be consumed with some dilution either from ice or with a mixer like water, soda, ginger beer or almost anything else. Lengthening the whisky in this way smooths out any rough edges it might have while retaining its core flavor. In addition to Johnnie Walker, I recently tried J&B Rare, and Dewar's White Label Blended Scotch Whiskies on the rocks. While each varied in flavor, they were refreshing , easy to drink , easy to prepare, and a bottle for your home bar can be found for less than $20! Who says blended Scotch isn't any good?

My change of heart on blended Scotch is similar to how I fell in love with Pabst Blue Ribbon. Years ago I participated in a blind tasting of about two dozen light beers and lagers in which PBR ended up being the clear favorite. While up to that point I usually drank craft ales, the tasting helped me to discover a fantastic American lager that works perfectly on hot days or when you're just not in the mood for a beer with more hops or malt flavor. In a similar way, I now see blended Scotch as an excellent choice for a satisfying and refreshing drink when other whiskey drinks or cocktails may not be as appealing. Or, maybe when you just don't want to think about what you're drinking and instead focus on enjoying your time with others.

There are three great things about being less of a whisky snob: first, it increases my options; two, it's easier on my wallet; and three, it increases my opportunity for drinking enjoyment. David Driscoll of K&L Wines has done a series of blog posts called "Drinking to Drink." Much of Driscoll's writing echoes the idea that the reason we drink should be because we like drinking not what it says about us. This is an easy trap to fall into for anyone but especially for those connected on social media and drinks writers in particular. I like to think about the process of how spirits and other amazing drinks are made and what makes them extraordinary. I also like to have a good drink while talking with friends or watching a baseball game or reading. When you have something special like a rare beer that you can only get directly from a monastery in Europe, the beer becomes the focal point of the evening, but when every drinking experience focuses on drinking the rarest, most exclusive, obscure, or expensive liquid, we lose track somewhat of why we are drinking in the first place. More and more when I'm not working, I turn to a drink I know I don't have to think about much. I want to enjoy the drink but I want to enjoy my experiences and the people I'm spending my time with more.

Blind Vertical Tasting of Johnnie Walker

Last year with the help of David T. Smith (Summer Fruit Cup) and Virginia Miller (The Perfect Spot) we arranged a blind vertical tasting of Johnnie Walker Whisky. A vertical tasting is typically when you drink several vintages  or expressions of the same wine, beer or whiskey. In our case we tasted 11 different bottlings of Johnnie Walker both from their core expressions as well as a couple of their more limited/less common expressions. We had Johnnie Walker Red Label, Red Label Export Blend (45.8% ABV), Explores' Club The Adventure, Black Label, Double Black, Green Label, Gold Label (pre-2013), Blue Label, Select Rye Cask Finish, Swing, and XR 21 Year Old. While Johnnie Walker has not been one of my favorite whiskies in the world I had strong opinions about a couple of them and I was excited to see if those beliefs held up when you strip away knowledge of price, age and bottle design.

The event's festivities were hosted by Virginia and her husband Dan, and while we had a good number of whiskies to taste, there were just five couples in attendance which made the event more intimate and relaxed. Now, while I suggested that we just bag the bottles and give them random markings like I'd done in my two previous blind tastings, David insisted that he would act as the steward for the evening and as usual he did an excellent job. David flighted the whiskies with the lighter character ones coming first and leading up to those with a heavier/smokier character at the end.

David and and my wife Tia brought out one whisky at at time which gave us the opportunity to taste, take notes and give it a score from 1-10. As much as possible, we refrained from talking about the whiskies until everyone marked their score  so as not to unduly influence each other's perception of the spirit in the glass. For the most part I didn't have any idea which whisky was which except for the Select Rye Cask Finish and the Double Black which are so distinct that they stood out from the rest.

After David tallied all of the scores the clear favorite among the whole group was Johnnie Walker XR 21 Blended Scotch Whiskey. According to Diageo (owner of Johnnie Walker) the XR 21 was created to commemorate when Alexander Walker II was knighted by King George V. XR 21 happened to be served fifth in our tasting and when I looked back on my notes I was in the minority only giving it a 5 out of 10. I was also very curious to see how I and the other tasters rated the Blue Label. My opinion of this whisky has changed significantly over the years from ecstatic to meh. Not too surprisingly Blue Label came right around the middle of the pack which matched my score of 6 out of 10. Since I have Blue Label so infrequently I don't know if the quality has declined over the past decade as it's popularity and prestige has grown or that I have consumed a lot more high quality whisky. Blue Label is a nice whisky but for the price, I can't justify a re-purchase. Rounding out the bottom of the tasting were The Adventurer, Red Label Export Blend and Johnnie Walker Swing.

Going into the tasting I thought I would score Green and Gold near the top followed by Black, and Double Black. I also thought that I would score Red Label near the bottom however that wasn't exactly the case which is why I love blind tastings.

Here is how I ranked the 11 expressions of Johnnie Walker:

  1. Select Rye Cask Finish Blended Scotch Whisky Aged 10 Years
    • The whisky picked up a lot of flavor for the Rye Cask and tastes sort of like a blend of American and Scotch Whisky.
  2. Double Black Blended Scotch Whisky (No Age Statement)
    • Extra smokey and has a very full mouthfeel for a blended Scotch plus it's easy on the wallet. 
  3. Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • This was big surprise for me, I really like the flavor of Red Label its got a medium body and best of all I can get it at K&L Wines on sale for $14!
  4. Gold Label (pre-2013) 18 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • A nice blended Scotch with a medium body and unfortunately much better than the current Gold Label Reserve being sold.
  5. Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Lots of character in this blend and significant oak character from the long maturation which is partially why I gave it a lower score and some people love it.
  6. XR 21 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • This blend has well balanced flavors between the fruit, oak, sweet and dry but for me the finish dropped off quickly and didn't leave a lasting impression.
  7. Green Label Blended Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 15 Years
    • Lots of malt and a good balance of smoke and fruitiness though I marked it down for having a thinner mouthfeel and more heat on the palate. Unlike most other expressions of Johnnie Walker, the Green Label is a Blended Malt which means it does not contain any aged grain whiskies.
  8. Explorer's Club Collection - The Adventurer Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Main flavors are malt and smoke though this blend is very thin with a short finish.
  9. Black Label 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • I didn't find the flavors to be very complex and it had thin mouthfeel and a long hot finish.
  10. Red Label Export Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Had an odd menthol note in the nose, mouthfeel was thin and it had a lot of alcohol on the finish.
  11. Swing Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • My summary for this blend is light, thin and sharp. One of the best features of this whisky is its bottle, which has a rounded bottom which allows it to gently rock back and forth on a boat without tipping over.

Thank you to Virginia and Dan for hosting and supplying the Blue Label. Thanks also goes to David and Sara who supplied the XR 21 and Red Label Export Blend.