A Hiccup in Trueheartedness: My Sidetracking Affaire de Coeur with California Brandy

14 - 1-1Remember these names: Hubert Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale and Dan Farber. And this book: American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution.

I’m asking you to remember what I am convinced I shall never forget. The book, by James Rodewald, is compelling from beginning to end and provides a selective but relevant and informative overview of the art of craft spirit making in America. Though I am not typically a cheerleader for American distilleries – with a few very remarkable exceptions, I prefer Scotch malt whisky in every way – this book, consisting for the most part of interviews with the distillers themselves – is a delight to read and may persuade you to sample a few or a dozen American spirits that you might never have tried otherwise. I suggest you go buy the book right now and read it. I’ll wait…

There we go… The chapter that stood out as unique for me was #7, on the Germain-Robin and Osocalis brandy distilleries in California.

After searching through five large liquor stores in my region, I finally found a store that had one bottle from each distiller, both entry-level bottlings costing about $45 each. More searching in more stores in both upstate NY and in MA has turned up nothing. I resist ordering good spirits online, but again, as so often, I am left no alternative.

As I wait for the mail, and before I get to my notes on the entry-level brandies themselves, I’d like to quote a few things Ansley Coale and Dan Farber said to James Rodewald when he was visiting their distilleries in preparation for his book.

Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin:

We keep the varietals, or even individual vineyards, segregated. We vinify them, distill them and age them separately because that gives us the maximum complexity when we blend.… 

Another thing we do, we dilute with rainwater. That’s important. Distilled water is flat and dead; rainwater’s alive and beautiful.

He goes on to say how, using that rainwater, each distillate is diluted slowly, 4 or 5 percent at a time, and that the spirit needs “about nine months to recover” from each dilution. And, from there, he says, “the real work begins” – meaning the cellar work, which Coale estimates takes up about 85 percent of his time because it is very important to know exactly what’s going on in each of his fourteen hundred French oak barrels – some new, many used, with a few being 100 year old cognac barrels – at all times.

My point in quoting and relating all this is to show how thorough and thought-out and slow and patient the entire process is if you want to make brandy as good as Germain-Robin makes brandy.

And remember: All this is new. Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin didn’t start making American brandy until the 1980s. Yes, there’s a centuries-old tradition and practice to learn from and to look back on and to use as a guide, but in America the grapes are different, vinification techniques are different, the climate is different, the soil is very different, the whole process is different than in Cognac, France, where there are 100+ year old brandies maturing in casks built in the 17th century stored in chai warehouses much older than that. It’s a truth that needs telling: Germain-Robin and Coale invented great American brandy by themselves only about 35 years ago. When you taste what they’re making, you’ll find that hard to believe.

Daniel Farber of Osocalis

Brandy is the only brown spirit that can beneficially spend time in wood for the time scale of a human life.

If Ansley Coale is California brandy-making’s pioneering practitioner, its vanguard, pinnacle and most articulate advocate, Dan Farber is its fanatical, single-minded, selfless, soulful master. While the Germain-Robin distillery produces many things other than brandy – Hangar One vodka (now sold off to a conglomerate), Low Gap whisky, Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails, Russell Henry gin, an incredible absinthe and a line of Los Nahuales and other mezcals – all of them winners of many awards – Dan Farber’s Osocalis distillery makes only one thing: Brandy – one apple brandy and two traditional grape-based brandies including the entry-level juice I found in NY and a very highly regarded XO.

The art is to try to get the essence of great fruit, wherever it comes from. We don’t drink grape juice with dinner; we drink wine because of that transformative character that fermentation gives to that grape juice. In the same way, we ferment the fruit and extract from it the entire essence of the fermented wine. Then we put it in barrels for long periods of time to again have it undergo a transformative process and produce something new.

Having learned his craft in Cognac, France and through his friendship with Hubert Germain-Robin, Farber started out to make apple brandy but realized it could take as many as 25 years of maturation in his fine-grained French Limousin forest oak casks before he would consider it good enough for bottling; so, he turned, like Germain-Robin, to grapes. By doing so, however, he was not lowering his standards. It took seven years before he blended and bottled anything for the public – all of it from his own stills and casks, needless to say, unlike so many bottlers of bourbon and rye – and about 16 years before he blended and bottled his first XO. How he can afford to be such a high-minded, no-compromise distiller, I don’t know – but I’m certainly glad he has found a way!

Now, here’s something that, in all my endless hours of reading about Scotch and whisky/whiskey of all kinds, I never came across nor thought of for myself:

Part of the aging process of great brown spirits is the aging of the warehouse. You don’t get as much of that in bourbon because you have this rotation of new barrels in. You get a little bit of it in the rickhouse itself, but it never really gets to permeate the wood or penetrate into the whiskies because you never have that rich development of microflora on the barrels. Here, from the inception, we knew we needed to age the building, the barrels, the whole thing. You’ll never get that kind of character by just throwing spirit in a cask and putting it in a metal building. It’s not to say it’s necessarily bad or good, but if you like it that’s the only way to get it.

By “it” he means finesse and rancio, the first of which requires deep knowledge and precise, patient, unwavering application of very high standards, the best grapes, the best wood and very ancient techniques; and the second of which, rancio, does not even begin to develop until at least 10 years in cask (if the cask is the right cask, made from the right wood, its staves properly dried in open air before it is assembled and filled and stored in the right place in the right old wooden chai warehouse, I suspect). Farber is a man who, like Coale and Germain-Robin, knows his craft thoroughly and profoundly, puts all that he knows (along with all his money and time) into making his brandy, and who finds all the motivation he needs to pursue such a selfless craft in the very thing he is making: Brandy. Who wouldn’t at least want to try a spirit made by a man of such character?

TASTING NOTES

a2f97e4482498fb754cd19532c9589b9Germain-Robin Craft-Method Brandy 40% ABV

I opened both this bottle and the Osocalis the night I brought them home; at the time, this Germain-Robin struck me as slightly superior despite some real similarities between the two. The color on this is a gorgeous translucent copper. On the nose there is cedar and a fresh fruitiness that is mostly grape (not of the too-fragrant Welches grape juice kind; the components here are primarily colombard, with pinot noir, riesling, zinfandel, all of various ages, but each aged at least six to seven years, blended in); there is a hint of marshmallow, and oak sugars of a far more confectionary kind than one experiences with spirits aged in new white American oak, which seem far less subtle by comparison. In the mouth, one is immediately struck by the rich, refined quality of the drink, by how rounded this is despite it being ever so slightly spirity, by a warming grape-fruitiness and a very long, slow burning, fragrantly flavorful finish. The influence of the limousin oak cask is both ever-present and nuanced – yet there is a slight sharpness that I’m sure more time in such tight-grained casks would tame. Despite its relatively young age and it’s entry level status for this distillery, this is obviously an exercise in soft, fragrant delicacy unlike (though not necessarily better than) anything I have ever experienced in grain-based whiskeys. And for $45 this is absolutely superb.

OsocalisOsocalis Rare Alambic Brandy, Lot No. IX, 40% ABV

I am pouring the final drams of these brandies from their respective bottles tonight and I will replace them both as soon as possible. However, if I found myself staring at bottles of each, but having only enough cash to pick up one bottle, I would be going home with the Osocalis. Don’t get me wrong, the Germain-Robin is superb and, upon first impressions, it seemed a shade superior to me. The Germain-Robin was “easier” and more rounded at first, while the Osocalis leaned ever-so-slightly to a more monolithic youthfulness. Nonetheless, as the eight or so days I’ve been sampling these fine spirits have gone by, oxidation has blessed the Osocalis, in my opinion, with somewhat finer qualities. Though the color, a pellucid copper, is very similar, the legs here are slightly slower and the mouthfeel just a bit more oily and substantial. On the nose, the Osocalis has become far fruitier, far grapier than the Germain-Robin, though the influence of the limousin wood is less obvious here – making me suspect that the Germain-Robin has some older brandies in the blend. That only makes sense considering Germain-Robin was fired up at least a decade before Osocalis. Still, there is something here, in the fresher, more complex fruitiness and the less obvious influence of the fine-grained French oak, that makes this Osocalis experience one of immense promise – and for some reason I find that more exciting. The Germain-Robin is a better example of the art of blending, perhaps, but the promise contained in this Osocalis is, as I said, immense, and that, too, is of appreciable merit. On the palate, the Osocalis is a jot more flavorful, more intense, but still so well-rounded it could almost be called “smooth”. Yes, there is more youthfulness here, but there is nothing spiritous about it whatsoever. And the finish here is, if anything, even longer, more flavorful, more complex.

For the single malt Scotch drinker, I think the Osocalis may be more than minutely more satisfying because it is (just) more discernibly rich in complexities. But anyone who reads this – and especially you, my good friends and Ethanolics – should run out and buy both of these exquisite bottlings as soon as possible and give them a thorough savoring. You’ll be amazed, I promise – and, if not, well, I’ll gladly take those bottles off your hands!

The Pleasures of Promise: Kilchoman’s 2007 Vintage Single Malt Scotch Whisky

14 - 1-1I first tried this at a tasting some time around the beginning of this year and I liked it – along with the Loch Gorm and Machir Bay expressions – enough to add them to my ever-growing “must buy this someday” list. (In truth, I only added two of them to my wish list that day because I took a bottle of the Machir Bay home.) Since then, stronger obsessions – can you say Campbeltown? Springbank? Glen Scotia? – raised their fair heads and interrupted my Kilchoman train of desire. Thus, I never got around to picking up the 2007 Vintage, nor the Loch Gorm. As luck would have it, in the first package of samples sent to me by the good people at ImpEx Beverages, a goodly sample of the 2007 was included. Thank you, Katia!

The Whisky

According to Kilchoman’s own website, the Vintage series of bottlings is “created from specially selected fresh and refill bourbon casks. The bourbon casks selected for the Vintage releases are some of the oldest we have maturing. Being matured exclusively in bourbon barrels gives these releases powerful peat smoked fruit on the nose and mouth-filling butterscotch and clove sweetness on the palette”. Sure enough.

The 2007 Vintage, at 6 years of age, is the oldest Kilchoman juice bottled to date. The ABV is 46 percent. It is natural color (a nice summer hay) and un-chillfiltered. I had the 5 year old 2006 Vintage last year and liked it, but this 2007 represents a leap in quality in my opinion. With this bottling, you get the sense that this distillery, always courageous and far-sighted, has really begun to come into its own. When I sip and savor the 2007 Vintage, as much as I enjoy it, I can’t stop myself from dreaming ahead four to six years to the 10 and 12 year old vintages. Those, I am confident, will be vintages truly worth celebrating.

A New Rating System for Samples

Because I am dealing with a smaller amount of the juice here than I am wont to drink in undertaking one of my more in-depth, fully indulgent and indulging reviews, I have decided to simplify my process, using four categories instead of my usual six.

Nose

Sootiness and a clean, bracing freshness combine as if by alchemy. Sweet peat smoke, sweet soot, sweet tar (or should I say, macadam) and bright, sweet oak rise and comingle with a lemon-minty honeysuckle cloud wafting on the salt sea air. Its youth is so sensual it makes me blush. Like a bag of seashells left in the back seat of a minivan parked beside a bonfire and only discovered the next day, smoky ocean scents float an ambience in which a broad assortment of aromas dwell. Hints of vanilla and butterscotch – not caramel – and an ethereal yet earthy spice I can’t quite place. And a wonderful, rather prominent interweaving of sweet butter and what my aroma kit refers to as balsamic hay – a delightful, provocative medley of nose-pleasuring scents. But that is not all the nose of this potion has to give. There’s a menthol quality that reminds me a bit of Vick’s VapoRub and a slight powdery quality that reminds me of Desonex foot spray. These are admittedly odd, but not detrimental, elements of the nose here. They are very slight, but, in this context, I actually enjoy them. I enjoyed identifying them as well (it’s good exercise, running from the whisky in my dining room upstairs to the medicine cabinet and back downstairs to the whisky again). Finally, there is that spice I can’t define. Yes, it’s a bit clove-like, as the distillery says, and also a bit ether-like, but, still, it is darker than that, earthy and herbal. Altogether a heady mix of treasures from the ocean deep all wrapped in the t-shirt of an arsonist running home on itchy feet past a lemon cart to treat his sinus congestion with vaporous salve from a little blue jar… Mmm-mmm good! (24/25)

Palate

On the tongue, several elements of the nose are referenced, but nearly always in a less pungent way. You get the peat and soot and smoke and salt – even a bit of campfire ash – but that complex amalgam that blossomed in the nose is less giving here, less present. There’s a trickle of buttery sweetness, some nectar, some malt, a good bit of lemon – enough strands to weave a wide wrist band, but it’s not nearly as compelling as the nose, from which you could weave a multi-family house. The mouth feel, too, is a bit thin. After the gloriously Gordian, cornucopia-like aromas rising from the glass, the impression made on the palate, while not quite a disappointment, is something like a disappointment. Still, it has a roundness to it that is surprising for a 6 year old whisky. And I appreciate the practical joke quality of imparting some ash on the palate after all the smoke in the nose… (21/25)

Finish

Unfortunately, more like the palate than like the nose. You get the peat and soot, some sweet oak spice with a bit of clove and pepper, but it’s wrapped in something rather sour. Though long enough in terms of duration, it’s rather quick to dry, and while the burn holds on, it lacks much discernable character beyond that of a vaporous burning and even that doesn’t reach much past the throat. It’s not a repugnant finish by any means – there’s enough going on to hold your interest for half a minute or so – but, like the palate, it doesn’t nearly quench the anticipations aroused by the splendiferous nose. (19/25)

Balance/Structure

The overall impression this gives is one of immense promise on its way to fulfillment but not quite there yet. Perhaps for the first time with this Vintage series, the core product leaves you with no doubt that truly great things lay ahead. The nose is world class, right up there in terms of pure pleasure and complexity with some major contenders, but the palate and finish grew exhausted too soon to make it to the peak where those aromas live. They haven’t fallen down the cliff, but they’re barely within earshot. Nevertheless, there is great promise and a sure sense of direction running through every aspect of this surprisingly mature youngster. Perch your nose over the glass and you will harbor no doubt that this capable kid, barring unforeseen accidents, has a wonderful future ahead of him. (21/25)

kilchoman-2007-vintageTotal points for this whisky: 85

Kilchoman has a very good website: http://kilchomandistillery.com

The Texture of Evening: McGibbons Provenance 1991 Bladnoch 13 Year Old

IMG_20140408_144458_050~2~2Is there any point in reviewing a whisky bottled and shipped in 2004 and only recently found all dusty and alone in a liquor store 10 years later? I often wonder about this kind of thing when I see reviews of a whisky of which only 30 bottles were ever released (Wow! Murray gave it 96 points!), or reviews of some $16,000 50 year old Glenfiddich. Really? Are you gloating? Boasting? I suppose not all reviews are buying guides, but, still…

On the other hand, when I opened this dusty bottle of Bladnoch and realized how good it is, I found another bottle within days. And a quick look online has uncovered other bottles of this dazzling juice in other states that are still available for sale.

And there’s something else… Since early on in life, starting when I was maybe 13 years old, I’ve been fond of books (my Mom was a librarian), and I always loved the search, the quest. I would read one book and find, in the notes or the bibliography, another book, or several books, on the same or a related subject that I would then set out to find. Once I had my driver’s license, crawling along the shelves of old used bookstores quickly became my calling, and, though I seldom found the books on my list, I would find other books and read those books and those books would send me off searching for yet more books. It was a satisfying, purposeful cycle to lose oneself in. A smiling Ouroboros. I’ve crossed many a state line in search of some obscure monograph (and, later, for old vinyl jazz LPs, but that’s another story altogether), and this whisky quest is similar.

The internet has robbed us of a mode of thinking that justified devoting days and weeks and endless miles in search of an old commentary on the Song of Songs or a few original Saturn pressings of the one and only Sun Ra.

And yet, though used record stores and books shops are now few and far between, there are many old liquor stores just waiting out there, some in plain sight, some off the beaten path, and the dust on the shoulders of the bottles one will sometimes find in such places is the same compelling, provocative dust that once settled on those books and long playing records so many years and decades ago. And with good whisky, as with good music and good books, it’s not just the quest, the love of the hunt, that keeps us going – it’s the potential rewards and wonders inhering in those things we find…

The Whisky

One rarely sees independent bottlings from McGibbons Provenance in my neck of the woods. I was happy to find this one and even happier when I saw it contained a thirteen year old Bladnoch, a Lowland distillery I knew of but had never seen nor tasted before. This particular juice was distilled in 1991, just two years before United Distillers closed and decommissioned the distillery, which did not go back into production (under the management of Irishmen Raymond and Colin Armstrong) until the year 2000. Alas, just a few weeks ago, the distillery was closed and liquidators called in. If you’re looking to buy a Scotch distillery, you could do far worse than Bladnoch, the southernmost whisky maker in Scotland with beautiful buildings, dunnage warehouses, well-kept grounds and a visitors’ center, all about a mile outside the village of Wigtown, which, incidentally, has 30 active bookstores (with more than 250,000 books altogether, or about 250 books per Wigtown resident) and is known as ‘Scotland’s Book Town’. I’m not sure if there are any used record stores there…

Appearance

In color, this dram falls somewhere between sunlight in a wheat field and petroleum jelly. Pleasant enough, but it doesn’t exactly glow like some Nectar of Apollo. It doesn’t have to, of course. Untinted by the evil E150 and un-chillfiltered, it looks just a bit hazy after adding a few drops of spring water. A very good sign. And though it is not bottled at cask strength but rather at 46%, rolling it in the glass leads to an even coating that soon dissolves into dozens of thin but alluring legs. (8/10)

Nose

The nose on this is glorious! Sweet, fresh malt, a pure nectar-like sugariness that carries all kinds of floral scents with it. Imagine a gourmet pear jellybean – that’s in there. And fresh blueberries? Fresh blackberries? Celery, crushed celery seed, on a fresh, buttery pastry. Surprisingly, I’m also getting dried basil and caraway (really, I went to my spice rack to be sure). Also some nougat and something lightly chocolaty, like a sweetened chocolate powder. First I thought lemon, then I thought meringue, then I remembered the pastry and thought lemon meringue pie! There’s also a hint of oak spice and a whisper of cereal – Rice Krispies, in fact. Finally, though it is among the first things I smelled, there is something my dear whisky friend Marco didn’t get at all when he and I shared a dram of this soon after I found it: Grain whisky. Just a wisp, but, more specifically, something vaguely reminiscent of the wonderful Nikka Coffey Grain whisky. This is not a detriment whatsoever. Not at all. There is a nearly perfect nose on this elixir of light. (19/20)

Palate

Malty sugars cascade over the tongue, making for a wonderful entry. There are not-quite-ripe pears and apples but, even more, a suggestion of black currant juice. The dark berries are gone, but there’s another fruit in there, a melon of some sort, almost cantaloupe but something slightly more tart. The spice arrives as ginger with a bit of oaky astringency. And the sweet barley is everywhere, undergirding everything. Though just slightly less complex than the nose, every whisky enthusiast I know would take his or her time savoring a dram of this one, wishing it might never end… (19/20)

Finish

Sweet, rounded malt drying fairly quickly to a light lemon-pepper, velvety broth, with ginger and some oaky tannins extending the finish to great lengths – and depths, right down to the chest. And there is still a presence of fruit, unripe apples and that tart melon again. While not this whisky’s strongest feature, the finish does not disappoint. (17/20)

Balance/Structure

While some aspects of this delectable libation might be more impressive than others (the nose is near perfect, and yet the contrasts to other aspects are slight), the balance in the nose, palate and finish is superb, with every note of sharp spice or astringency matched by a sweet counterpoint of malt sugars and fruit, Lowland floral characteristics balanced by an almost Speyside fruitiness, all carried on a breeze of ginger and oak. Unquestionably, this whisky was tended by a master and matured in a superlative, giving cask. (19/20)

Quality of the Buzz

A delicate, sweet Lowland copita of light would hardly be the conspicuous choice of the brooding philosopher drinking to prune the sharper confrontations from yet another dark night of the soul. Still, the quality of the inebriation here is not all sparkle and sunshine. Yes, there is some energy and easy intelligence in this buzz, but it is also relaxing, calming – pleasurable and even sensual. This doesn’t add a dark, sweltering humidity to one’s thoughts, nor does it incline one to ponderous melancholy nor to improvising half-assed bivouacs in the abyss. I’m not sad, not particularly happy, but I’m at peace, enjoying the texture of the evening as it passes by my consciousness, in a mood to surrender to whatever thoughts and impulses arise as the rain that falls outside my windows gently washes the hours away. (9/10)

Total points for this whisky: 91

http://www.bladnoch.co.uk

Peace with substance…