Chad Arnholt is as good as it gets- both behind the bar and as a person. His last night was Tuesday behind the stick at The Franklin, he's leaving us for San Francisco, but before driving out of town kindly penned the following post:
'Tis the season
Decorative trees are being trimmed, blinking red-green lights strung about town, and dry air crystallizes my nostrils into ice dams. I have an 'ah ha' moment--its whiskey season! To be fair, for me whiskey season is year long, with booms in spring and fall (and summer). Yet, nothing can compare with the warmth of some barrel-aged wrapping around you like a blanket on a frosty winter night.
Perhaps it's obvious to say but whiskey is back! After years of idly collecting dust on back bars, witness to the fame of so many flavored vodkas and fill-in-the-blank-tinis, brown spirits have slowly muscled their way to the speedracks of our favorite bars, to be enjoyed alone or in cocktail.
Gone are the days when a bourbon or scotch would wait desperately to be mixed with cola, or pine for a crew of victorious lawyers to toast. Here are the days of the corner bar with 200 bourbons and brown spirits peppering cocktail lists nation-wide.
Scotch for My iPod
Scotch is perhaps the earliest ancestor to what we today call whiskey, and for over a century was eponymous with whiskey. By the time I arrived behind the stick around the turn of the millennium (and about 17 years into the venerable Josh Childs career!) whiskey was what you mixed with coke and single malt was what you gave grandpa. There were about three to choose from--a lighter one, a smokier one, and one that was sherry tasting.
Nowadays the booze industry rewards diversity across the board. New botanical blends and old tom gin recipes pop up daily, a dozen rums on the back bar seems normal, and bourbon, once paired down to a lone bottle in the well, comes in small batches, single barrels, high ryes, wheat-eds, and craft labels. In an era where consumers can access a million varieties of million of things right from their iPhone, its no wonder that drinkers would support the same sort of diversity. Now scotch may have been the last to pick up on such an obvious trend, but one could argue that it is better suited to offer variety than any other spirit. With a combination of geographic variables, regional style preferences, and blending, aging, and finishing techniques, scotch inherently offers range.
So lets look at a few burgeoning scotch trends that are probably worth paying attention, and in so doing maybe find a few holiday gift ideas for some latent malt drinkers.
Blended scotch isn't just the last result drink at a wedding reception anymore. For those who don't comb through British legal jargon on the regular, blended whisky contains a mixture of malt spirit and grain spirit (usually less then half malt) barrel aged for minimum 3 years. Robust malt flavor can be a little much for some drinkers. Blending in grain spirit gives a lighter quality to the whisky, and blending different malts attains a more balanced flavor. Lighter and smoother whisky can appeal to the less experienced whisky drinker, so, understandably this area has a lot of room for growth. AND blended whisky often sells at a fraction of single malt prices--double win!
New great entries from boutique producers Pig's Nose and: Compass Box: Great King Street offer good quality, value, and underdog inspiration. Some of those dusty labels are resurfacing as well. If you like Macallan but want to have money left for groceries, try Famous Grouse.
Blended/Vatted/Pure Malt Whisky
If you love the funk and spice that malt brings to the table but don't want to commit to all smoke, blended malts are the way to go. Blended Malt Whisky (historically called Vatted Malt) is a tradition that dates back almost two centuries. In the old days wine and tea merchants would buy single malts from different distilleries, mix them together, and throw their name on the label. While blended whisky has been ubiquitous since the 1800s, blended malt whisky has stayed under the radar. Today new labels are popping up all of the time, as there are plenty drinkers who want a more rounded experience than any one whisky can offer. Vatting is a true art of the palate, and sometimes mixing five whiskies can give you something that one cannot. Sheep Dip, Compass Box: Peat Monster, and Eades are all fun examples here. The folks at High West have been pushing further the vatting technique, with their Campfire label, which marries scotch malt whisky with some American rye and bourbon.
Want to taste a single malt distilled at Old Pulteney that has been aged for 21 years but don't have a couple hundred dollars to spend? Want to see what port finish does to a Caol Ila? Houses like Gordon & MacPhail buy stock from the big guys or for that matter whoever is offering, and by aging it in their own style create a whisky that is unique to the merchant but traceable to the distiller of origin. Literally hundreds of products from independent bottlers are showing up in purveyors' books every month. Many of them are quite unique one-offs or value buys, and sometimes both. Some of them are new takes on old favorites that the whisky enthusiast can really geek out on. There are many, many independent bottlers out there. Douglas Laing, Gordon & MacPhail, Duncan Taylor, and Signatory do a stand-up job. A now extinct Blackadder bottling of Caol Ila changed my life forever.
International Malt Whiskies
Mimicry is the highest form of flattery. Scottish malt whisky is popular enough for others to take notice, and in turn fire up their own stills. India, Japan, South Africa, Australia, and yes, the US of A are some of the non anglo-celtic malt whiskies out there. In some cases international malts are exemplary counterparts to their Scottish buddies, deserved of a place in a flight of scotch--Japanese whiskies from Nikka and Suntory ring a bell. In other cases they are more indicative of local distilling styles, as is the case with some of the new malt whiskey brands on the US markets. Beech-smoked California single malt whiskey anyone?
In a climate where visibility is crucial, many American and international malt whiskies jump out in contrast to the ubiquitous bourbon and rye selections on shelves and back bars. McCarthy's, Wasmund's, and St. George simply offer something very different while maintaining the patriotic allure of drinking a native spirit.
Further, here in a new golden age of our industry, a drinker or barkeep has what seems like limitless options to chose from--a type of cordial for every course or different mescal for every occasion. And finally, crotchety old grandpa scotch has caught up with the times and got a facelift, and it looks pretty damn good.
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