Mezcal Vago Part II - Tio Rey

July 27, 2016

Mezcal Vago Part II - Tio Rey

Mezcal Month continues here on SmokyBeast with part two of Jake Cahill's piece on Mezcal Vago...  (we'll be back to whiskey in August!)

Alright Alright Alright. Next up for this lovely month of Mezcal madness we're continuing with the imports from Mezcal Vago. Last week we met their original mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez. Today we get to meet another of Vago's sources for their excellent mezcal, Tio Rey.

Maestro Mezcalero Salomon Rey Rodriguez 
(Tio Rey)

Photo by Joanna Pinnero

Tio Rey is doing things in the most old school of ways. He is located in the region of Sola de Vega where almost all of the Mezcal is distilled on “Olla de Barro” clay pot stills. The region itself also sits at just under 5,000 ft above sea level and is quite remote. Tio Rey's family can trace its mezcal lineage back hundreds if not a thousand years. Way up in the mountains, Rey cultivates over 15 different types of agave. Which is easier than it may sound since Sola de Vega has the most agave diversity in the world! 

Photo by Joanna Pinnero


Tio Rey's palenque is on his ranch where he lives with his family. He produces solely for Mezcal Vago (he had never before produced mezcal commercially). He makes for them a Tobala en Barro and his most famous distillate the Ensamble en Barro. Ensamble means that there are numerous types of agave in the spirit. A blend if you will. Tio Rey's batch sizes are always super small. The largest I have seen to date is around four hundred liters and the smallest was only sixty-eight liters!

All agave is one hundred percent hand harvested and dragged down to the Palenque. It's cut into pieces by axe and machete and roasted together, fermented together and distilled together for his field blends, he does not blend batches post-fermentation. The agave is roasted for only two to three days. Roasted agave is ground by hand with wooden mallets/sledgehammers. It's literally put one piece at a time on a wooden platform and pounded down by wooden hammers. I guess they feel that a donkey-pulled stone wheel is just too high tech.

Photo by Joanna Pinnero

The agave juice is fermented in one of his four vats. One of which is almost 100 years old and was carved out of one solid tree trunk from a pine tree into the shape of a giant agave filled canoe. Crazy!! He distills in a series of clay pots that hold only 45 liters each. Just for perspective, from my understanding this whole process takes about 4 times the amount of time and work as it would if he had a stone ground Tehona or if he used copper pots.

Photo by Joanna Pinnero


Tio Rey never adds a drop of water to his mezcals and all are filtered through the same sediment system as Anqilinos just before bottling. Ok so now we know how much incredibly hard work goes into these mezcals. And truly I am blown away by the tradition and lineage of both these producers.

Photo by Joanna Pinnero

Ensamble en Barro
Agave: 58% Espadin 18% Mexicano 15% Coyote 9% Arroqueno  ABV: 51.4%

Nose: Again, go for a more open glass if you can. I am drinking out of my Hicara now for this one because it was too intense out of a glencairn. Everything about this just smells more full bodies and much dirtier. In a good way. Pine needles and mushrooms with a damp smoky earth in the background. Mole chocolate and orange belle peppers. Its really interesting on the nose with a lot happening here. Smoke is subtle and deep.

Palate: There’s that burn again. Similar to the espadin this ABV is just a bit distracting at first. Once that clears out though there is a lot of fun stuff going on here. Super earthy and quite viscous. Charred cinnamon and chestnuts. Acorn squash on a grill. Blue corn tortilla and mushrooms. Cured smoked meat. Really wild stuff here.

Finish: After the burn fades, the earthiness just clings all over your palate and hangs out for quite a while. My taste buds are trying to catch their breath from the high proof but at the same time want more earthy mezcal goodness. Like when a cigar gets too damp at the end of a long smoke.

Verdict

This Ensamble is really unique. You can get all the earthiness and texture and oil from the long and arduous production process, but again its just too over powered by the proof. It abuses and pleases the palate at the same time. Like the Ike and Tina of mezcal. I love that this is such a break from the fruity and smoky sweet mezcals though. The earthiness and full bodied nature make this more of a food mezcal in my mind. Or a mezcal for a cold wet night. But if I had to drink this at proof, I might not buy another bottle. After proofing it down to 47% abv though, this becomes a much more tame beast and a really solid pour.

For both of these the abv was just too high for my liking and really got in the way of the enjoyability of them. And although I assume the gentlemen who made them would disagree with me adding water, I just cant deny the fact that bringing these down a few degrees really helped pull them together. I have had delicious high octane Mezcal that doesn't need a damn thing except my glass. These two were not in that league. However maybe this works in our favor. For the price of one bottle, we can essentially get 1 and a half bottles by proofing it down to 47 each time. There’s always a sliver lining. Love what the folks at Vago are doing and really respect their process, labor and dedication to tradition. I will certainly be revisiting these over time and exploring the rest of their line, although maybe I'll find a pour at a bar before buying a bottle in the future. It may not be what I want to reach for every night, but Vago is very good quality that should hold down at least one spot in your selection. Go for the Ensamble. Its pretty interesting. Oh and the Elote. Try the Elote. Sweet and flavorful and delicious, definitely worth the trip...


Photo by Joanna Pinnero

Till next time.

Cheers/Jake


Thanks for another awesome column, Jake!  Tune in next week as we wrap up mezcal month.
Mezcal Vago Part 1 - Mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez

July 20, 2016

Mezcal Vago Part 1 - Mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez

We hope you're enjoying Mezcal Month here on SmokyBeast. Here's part one of another great piece from our resident mezcal maniac Jake Cahill!
Mezcal, real, true and traditional mezcal, is not something you can talk about without mentioning where it comes from, the people who make it, and how it makes its way into our hands. Vago is a producer that should be quite familiar to Mezcal fans here in New York and quite a few other states in the country. Although the production for these guys is quite small, their reach is long and impactful.

Vago has, for lack of a more eloquent phrase, so much cool shit about them. Now we aren’t even talking about the mezcals themselves yet. I am talking about everything from how they were started as a brand, the two main palenque they work with and how long they have been doing this, how old school their operation is and all the way down to the paper they use on their labels. Too much to cover but I’ll start with a quick blurb about how the brand was started. Then go into the Mezcaleros and their operations and finally the tasting notes and verdict on a few of their most well known Mezcals.



Mezcal Vago

It all starts with a lovely age old story of two gringos wondering around Oaxaca looking for a good time. Gringo #2 gets handed a gasoline can full of Mezcal randomly in the street! He drinks it and loves it! Gringo ends up in a hospital somehow years later (unrelated to Mezcal). Gets fixed up by a beautiful local girl who is very much not a gringo. Gringo falls in love with her at first sight. Gringo gets his ass kicked for her love because she was vowed to another. She falls in love with the Gringo. Gringo goes to meet the Family! Fears for his life meeting her father. Father turns out to be an amazing and well respected distiller of Mezcal! Gringo falls in love with mezcal as well as his new bride and decides that the world should taste how good his distillate is! Mezcal Vago is born and a Gringo becomes a loved part of the family. (This is very condensed and possible slight miscalculations but I was told the story once and had a lot of mezcal when it was told to me so…)

All palenque photos courtesy of Mezcal Vago

Maestro Mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez

At current time there are 2 Mezcaleros producing for Mezcal Vago and each has a very very different style and process. Aquilino is the father from the story above. He has had mezcal in his life since birth. And so has over 5 generations of his family. His great great grandfather started distilling Mezcal in the Mid 19th Century and has passed that tradition down to every generation since. He produces most of the mezcal in the Vago range including the Espadin, Mexicano, Cuixe and the Elote (which is a Maize infused mezcal, which is delicious). His Palenque is located on his ranch where he and his family live. He and his son Mateo do pretty much all of the work themselves. From the flowering and mating process of the agave, to the cultivation and care of the plants as they mature all way up to harvest time and production. 

They are located in Candelaria Yegole (same area as Rey Campero from last week), so its very fun to see just how different the hands of the Mezcalero influence final product if you do a side by side of these two producers. Aquilino and Vago are very aware of the footprint they have on the earth so they re-plant agave and nursery as often as possible and make sure nothing goes to waste. The labels on the bottles are actually made from left over agave mash which they boil and mash together and dry out into sheets of rough paper. Pretty darn resourceful! 




Mezcal Vago ESPADIN

Aquilino's Espadin is harvested between 7-12 yrs old. It's dug up and shorn with a machete, and hand cut into quarters before being roasted in an earthen pit for 3-5 days. Once roasted, it's stone ground. Fermentation happens in old 1200 liter pine vats for about a week as it is left to ferment spontaneously.  Aquilino distills the mash before it has fermented fully dry. So there is a much higher sugar content in his mash when it goes into the still.  Finally it's distilled twice on tiny copper pot stills. All the cuts are made by smell and taste. All of Aquilino’s mezcal goes through a simple sediment filtration through a tubular cellulose filter before bottling. This is the only thing that happens to the mezcal between distillation and bottling.



Tasting Notes

Nose: Holy Crap. Ok folks if you have this in a glencairn glass, do not dig your nose in too deep. Transfer this one over to a rocks glass if you can so it can really open up and not focus the aromas. The alcohol is very intense. Once its opened up though, this is really fun to smell. Roasted marshmallows, sweet potato, citrus and gunpowder with some sweet grilled pineapple coming through and just a bit of burnt rubber in the background.

Palate: Again the alcohol is super intense and dominates the first sip or two. Once my palate (and apparently thigh high skirt) adjusts, the flavors start to shine through a bit. Sweet potato comes back with the addition of anise and vanilla. There is a slight herbal character to it like pine or sage. And a distinct caramel note.

Finish: Burn baby burn! It leaves you breathing out through your mouth like you just took a bite of food that was a little to hot but you didn’t want to spit it out in front of your date. When this dissipates however there is a really nice texture. Like burn ointment after you forget to use an oven mitt. Its soothing and cooling almost minty or aloe which is needed after all that proof.

Verdict

I usually do pretty well with high proof stuff. This is by no means the highest proof Mezcal I have had and the others were beauteous. This is a bit clumsy for me and just too overwhelming at its proof. I want to like it so badly out of the bottle but I just don’t. The alcohol is too distracting from all the nice flavors trying to sneak past the burn. HOWEVER! I have never put water in my mezcal before. But I did with this guy and had a second go round at it. The water helped immensely with my enjoyment. I know they wouldn’t do it and I hate to even insult them the slightest bit. But proofing this down to about 47-48% really made this much better for me. All of the flavors were free of their chains and there is a wonderfully subtle oiliness to it that I didn’t feel at full proof. The smoke is soft and sweet and really tasty. So basically, out of the bottle this Espadin is high octane and a bit distracting. But a little bit of water and this became a very enjoyable mezcal that I will have again. Not my favorite but very good. Each batch is different too so I will have to try another one down the line and report back.

Cheers/Jake


Tune in next week for Mezcal Vago part II - Tio Rey!
Mezcal Month Part 1: Rey Campero!

July 12, 2016

Mezcal Month Part 1: Rey Campero!

July is Mezcal Month!!  Here's the first installment from our resident Mezcal expert, Jake Cahill, a wonderful piece about Rey Campero mezcal, a traditional Palenque in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Enjoy!

A Word About The Importer

William Scanlan is a gem. A prophet sent to us from Mayahuel herself with a great responsibility, nay pleasure to spread the word to the world about the wonders, traditions and beauty of mezcal to all of us. He is not a distiller, however he is the reason that we get access to this wonderful brand of mezcals that have been made traditionally in Mexico for a very very long time.



Rey Campero

Rey Campero is one of the few mezcals sold here in the US under the original Mexican name. Most imports are rebranded and lose valuable information about the crop and location, or "terroir", which is so important in mezcal. Rey Campero translated means “King of the Countryside”. This family has a LONG history of producing mezcal. In 1870 the family moved to a little community named Candelaria Yegole (75 Miles from Oaxaca city) and established that communities first ever Palenque (distillery). That’s over 145 years of making mezcal!!

The Brand currently sells 7 different expressions in the states. Only 2 of those are made from cultivated agave. The other 5 are all made from wild "Silvestre" agave that grow in the countryside. Each different bottling represents the name of the species of agave that's used in the mezcal: Espadin, Madre Cuishe, Cuishe, Tobala, Mexicano, Jabali and Tepextate. The plants are hand-harvested at maturity after growing anywhere from seven to eighteen years.

Process

The agave is roasted in a conical earthen pit for four to five days over a fire of fallen branches and wood found floating in the local river. It's then rested 5 days prior to milling. The milling is mule-powered (yup, mule-powered!) with the animal towing a traditional stone wheel called a Tahona around in a circle to grind out the pulp. The juice is then open-air fermented in pine vats with wild yeast. The process is completed with double distilled on hand-made copper stills and the product is bottled at full proof.

Conservation

Rey Campero is committed to the conservation and care of wild and cultivated agaves. Due to its popularity in mezcal production, the Mexicano (Rodacantha) agave is teetering on the edge of extinction. In 2013, Rey Campero planted a nursery of approximately 8,000 bulbils of the Mexicano. These 8,000 agaves were transplanted during the first rains of 2014. In 2014 Sanchez planted 10,000 additional bulbils of the same agave to be transplanted during the first rains of 2015. Then they kicked off 2015 by expanding their nursery to facilitate the planting of 5,000 more bulbils of Mexicano, 3,000 seeds of Cuishe (Karwinkski), and 1,500 seeds of Tepextate (Marmorata). They will also study the reproduction of JabalĂ­ in order to begin planting these plants in 2017. Beginning in 2017, their goal is to increase the amount of agave planted by fifteen percent every year, for the next ten years. We, not just as lovers of Mezcal but also as decent human beings, need more people doing things like this. 

Tasting Notes




Rey Campero Espadin
Varietal: Espadin cultivated 6-7 years
ABV: 48%
Produced October 2014
Bottle 1435/1678


Nose: The Nose is charged. Really aromatic. Fruity and smoky. Pineapple and white flower with the most subdued and integrated smoke. It’s characteristically very similar to sticking your nose into a glass of Alsace Gewertztraminer for all my winos out there. Its bright and tropical. Flowery and spicy. But there is this unshakable acetic smell. Like nail polish remover. In a good way though. Like how we enjoy the smell of gasoline as we fill our cars up at the station.

Palate: On the palate, the weather is exactly how the nose predicted the forecast. Super ripe tropical fruits and flowers mingle nicely while the smoke intensifies to be a bit more charred than it was on the nose. A delightful addition as opposed to a distraction (as is the case will all the best mezcal, smoke is an additional flavor but not the only one). A green note finally slips in too. Cucumber and Green Pepper. The texture is also really appealing for me too, rich and oily but light on the palate because of that fruity and ginger spicy edge. Same slight acetone/nail polish-y thing here too.

Finish: The finish is long and absolutely delicious. That oil coats your tongue and rises to the top of it as if it were separating from vinegar. Grilled pineapple with ground ginger and a neighbor grilling in the summer all linger and slowly fade off leaving my mouth feeling lonely but satisfied. Time to refill my cup and start again!



Rey Campero Mexicano
Varietal: Mexicano (wild) harvested at 10-12 years old
ABV: 48.4%
Produced October 2014
Bottle 195/954


Nose: Hell yea this smells great. Slightly green upfront with beautiful vanilla and cinnamon peaking through. Lots of baking spice coming though actually. Clove and cracked pepper. Very floral as well. Can't pin down the exact botanicals but they are delicate and pretty. Hint of soft smoke covers everything ever so slightly.

Palate: The palate is round and supple yet really exciting. Its hard to focus on one thing at a time because there is so much happening. Its like a bunch of really great jazz musicians jamming but for very short bursts of time. A little trumpet, then you catch a second of the bass just before the sax lays into a roll but all the while you hear the drums laying down the beat in the background. It’s a pleasant chaos of lavender and rose pedal, campfire and chocolate. Green pepper and olive oil. The flavors AND texture of clove being ever present. It all swirls around in a confused but happy balance.

Finish: The finish is long and quite dry. The oiliness from the palate dissipates fast and the dryness really takes over. Spicy and woody. A great but abrupt halt from all the madness of flavors from the palate. Very interesting. Like an episode of LOST, it kinda leaves you hanging and wanting more. Really like this Mezcal. Quality and super interesting. 




Rey Campero Tobala
Varietal: Tobala 13yrs (Wild) harvested at 6,000 ft in San Pedro Martir
ABV: 48.5%
Bottle 61/893


Nose: Now we are talking about some aromatic robust goodness. The nose is filled with spices and tropical fruit. Mango and pineapple smash together with a burning campfire. Oh its like smelling Puerco Al Pastor down the street. When that roasted pineapple juice drip’s down the cooked meat. Dee-lish!

Palate: Big and complex. The leading force here is the tropical fruits again, but some baked apple pie comes in. Salted caramels and clove and paprika. Smoked paprika! Great balance of smoke and florals. White peach. Really beautiful and full bodied on the palate. Texture coats and helps add nuance to the flavors big time. That slight bit of acetone that I get from their Espadin creeps back in a bit towards the end here. But in a good way.

Finish: Oily and coating at first and then dries off leaving this lingering smoked fruit hanging around for quite some time. This is the more full bodied of the three which is funny because the Tobala agave is way smaller than either Espadin or Mexicano. All that concentration of flavors and power in such a small package. This is the one you want if you’re eating with your Mezcal. Damn good.

Review

All of these Mezcals are bottles I would happily buy again. You can start with Espadin and work your way up from there, but I would rather spend the extra $40 dollars or so to get any of the wild agave expressions. When I get that soft elegant touch from the Mexicano or the bold and wild flavors from the Tobala, there's no doubt it was worth digging a touch further into my pocket.

Dixeebe and Cheers!  /Jake
James MacArthur's Fine Malt Selection Caol Ila 14 Year

June 30, 2016

James MacArthur's Fine Malt Selection Caol Ila 14 Year

For a weekend in the country with friends and family we wanted a nice lightly peated malt for porch-top sipping at sunset. Digging through our bunker for something interesting, we found this independent bottling of Caol Ila from James MacArthur.

We couldn't find a lot of information about James MacArthur other than that they were founded in 1982 and produce uncolored and un-chill-filtered (yay!) limited release private case bottles.  This Caol Ila is from the lower proof line (43%) which seemed appropriate for our summer drinking plans, and comes from a sherry cask. Peated malt matured in sherry has always been a favorite. So far so good. 


Caol Ila is perhaps not as esteemed as some of their Islay neighbors like Laphoaig, Lagavulin, or Ardbeg, however they're one of our favorites. Perhaps it's this lack of acclaim that makes it a bit easier to track down interesting expressions and older releases. We picked this one up a few years ago for around $50. These independent bottlings of Caol Ila are pretty easy to come by if you keep an eye out and always fun to experiment with.



Tasting Notes

Nose: Simple and pleasant nose dominated by ocean scents. Sea air, mossy rocks, and light waves of peat. There's some sweet citrus - lemon meringue perhaps, and some vegetal notes like putty and hay. Very mellow nose with just the right amount of peat for sipping neat.

Palate: Very nice balance here with a mid-thick mouth-feel leaving a nice oil on the tongue. The peat fits in nicely with the sweetness and spirit warmth. More tropical fruits come out like a hint of mango and peach, and also some nice complexity of vanilla, white chocolate, and a little spice.

Finish: Mid-length finish, it's still a peater, but it's extremely smooth and leaves just a brush of smoke on the throat with honey and lemons lingering on the tongue.





Review

This was a totally pleasant if not altogether remarkable malt. We'd buy this bottle again. It's a great Islay for people who aren't committed peat junkies like us. You can pass this around to your relatives without worrying about scalding their palates with an assault of ashtray Islay goodness. It has enough age to show maturity, enough sherry to bring forward a good sweet balance to the smoke, and a very solid mouth-feel and finish to complete the package.  Should you go hunting after this bottle to the ends of the earth? No. Should you pick it up if you happen to see it around? Yes.

Happy Drinking!  Cheers/SB

Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013

June 21, 2016

Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013

For the past two weeks we've been sipping some highly indulgent bottles, limited edition releases from Islay's annual spring festival Feis Ile. Caol Ila's 2015 Feis Ile bottle was a real treat, combining grace and fire with a powerful seventeen year cask strength offering. Lagavulin's 24-year Feis Ile release was simply mind-blowing, combining huge gentle peat smoke warmth with an incredibly sophisticated and elegant flavor profile.

This week, our friend Al Pop came to town to see the Belmont Stakes. I took him and his son Brock to Koreatown for some Bibimbap. And of course he had a whiskey surprise up his sleeve - Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013. Sweet! So why not continue our Feis Ile reviews and dive in. 



Tasting Notes

Nose: Distinctly sweeter than the 2015, it's starts with leather, smoke, and honey. Vegetal aromas follow like okra or fresh cut green beans. Then it tails off with pink peppercorns and rock salt. It's actually quite similar to the 2015 overall but with a more sweet fruit-forward character.

Palate: OMG Yum!  (ok perhaps that was less than professional, but damn this is good). It's got a huge mouth feel with some signature Lagavulin elements. The smoke and sea air are there. The little pops of citrus and melon. The old men's club stuff like creaky leather and tobacco are here big time. It's definitely got more punch than the 24 year, which is kind of awesome.

Finish: Extremely well balanced finish with lingering smoke, strawberry jam, and tobacco.



Head to Head with Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

What a privilege to be able to taste these two beauties head to head. They're both just top top quality malts. The 2013 is sweeter, but also has more heat with a little spirit burn. The 2015 is pure elegance with perfect balance and no burn at all. But there's also something nice about the younger bottle, it's got more of the fire, a stronger finish, and definitely a more rounded taste with the additional sherry influence. We'd have to go with the 2015 as the winner, but these are both gems.

Cheers/SB


Continuing our vicarious trip to Islay - Caol Ila Feis Ile 2015!!!

June 3, 2016

Continuing our vicarious trip to Islay - Caol Ila Feis Ile 2015!!!

We've been sobbing ourselves to sleep thinking about how we're missing ANOTHER Feis Ile - the annual spring festival in Islay, Scotland where all our favorite distilleries celebrate another year with music, food, and malt malt malt.  One day we'll get there!!

Oh well, we are consoling ourselves by popping open some gems that have been patiently waiting on the shelf at SmokyBeast headquarters.  Last week we corked the mighty Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015, a truly magnificent 24-year old beauty that set the bar just impossibly high for what a subtle old smoky beast can deliver.  Today we're sampling the sister bottle, Caol Ila's 2015 Feis Ile release.


Caol Ila's offering, hand picked by distillery manager David Wood, is younger than Lagavulin's release. It's a seventeen year expression distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2015. It's cask strength, bottled at a whopping 57.3 ABV. It's triple matured, barreled in American oak, Moscatel (Spanish sherry) casks, and finally in "old oak puncheons". We're not sure what that last one means except that they're old and a puncheon is a very large barrel. They're about 150 gallons or three times the size of a standard whisky barrel.  Are the "American Oak" ex-bourbon barrels? Is it possible that they took these bourbon casks and some sherry casks and dumped them together into the large puncheons for additional aging?  Unclear, but that would make sense... In any case, we love Caol Ila 18, with the only gripe being that it's proofed down to 43%. So if this is similar juice at cask strength then let's get this party started.




Tasting Notes

Nose:  Wow again this nose is extremely delicate. First we get salted cashew nuts. Then cologne. Then sea air. Meyer lemons start to emerge with some tangy citrus notes. Then it wraps up sweet like that gooey honeyed crust on a lemon cake. The smoke is like a dark canvas on which all these flavors sit, definitely not in your face, but ever present.

Palate: Very subtle palate.  Are you kidding me, this is 114.6 proof????  That has to be a typo. But no, the flavor is there. Still, damn, it's just so smooth. We've maybe never tasted an Islay malt this smooth at this high a proof. You'd be crazy to add water. The palate pulls you right in with some lovely wood and leather notes, more of that gooey lemon cake, and a delightful mouth feel that's just a perfect thickness.

Finish: It's not a barn-burner. The finish just has great balance with the smoke fading slowly into some honeyed cough drops, pears, and lemons. There's absolutely no bite, just none, even upon freshly opening the bottle, the first sip is incredibly smooth out of the gate.

Couldn't help going back for another splash on this one. The smoke and power actually come out as the bottle opens up. This is surprising, usually cask strength whiskies can be harsh at first and then open up smooth. This one almost reverses it with a very smooth entry and then more fire and smoke coming out while it opens up in the glass. This is not a bad thing. The power and flavor increase as well and the whole experience is very welcome. The finish particularly gets longer and more satisfying with a big wad of peat smoke rolling around your mouth many minutes after the last sip is gone.


Review

Caol Ila is quickly becoming one of our favorite malts. It's got all the beautiful beastly smoke of the big boys like Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but while those brands can sometimes be overly phenolic and have some of that "ashtray" quality, Caol Ila has kind of signature warmth and smoothness. It's probably the most like Lagavulin in that respect, which is still our all time favorite.

We were so ready to be let down by this bottle. Last week's review of the Lagavulin 24 year was absolutely mind blowing. This one is not nearly as old, coming in at a paltry seventeen years old. And, well, it's not Lagavulin. But it's really just damn good. It's got everything we look for in an Islay malt. Balance, warmth, smoothness, big smoke (after another dram it's definitely smokier than the Lag), a hefty sense of a seaside campfire with salty ocean spray mixing with rich smoke, and delicious sweetness mixing in. A superb treat. We've had thirty year old cask strength Caol Ila's before, and they're awesome, but this may well be the best expression we've tasted yet from this fantastic distillery.

Another dream dram here which makes us both happy and doubly sad we still haven't made the mecca to Islay.  Next year my friend, in the Hebrides!
The Long Awaited Pop of that Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

May 20, 2016

The Long Awaited Pop of that Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

Ever have a best friend that you've never met, never spoken to, never emailed or texted?  That's how we feel about Thomas and Ansgar Speller, fellow bloggers who write WhiskySpeller about their travels and tastings around the world. How did the Spellers capture such favor? Well they know the key to a beasts heart: vintage Lagavulin. Thomas and Ansgar went to last year's Feis Ile (Islay's annual spring festival) and sent us a bottle of Lagauvlin's limited release Feis Ile 2015.



Feis Ile happens the last week of May. All week long, one day is dedicated to a specific Islay distillery. They open their doors with tours, parties, music and tastings. Malt whisky fanatics from all over the world come to celebrate the beauty that is Islay. It's also become tradition for each distillery to offer a limited release festival bottling. These are small batch releases of casks hand-picked by the distillery managers. They're often served up uncolored, at cask strength, and have some special characteristics like age or maturation. If that doesn't make your eyes light up, then we're just not speaking the same language.


We haven't been to Islay yet. It's in the cards, but with a 4.5 year old at home it's not so easy to hop over for a week of sipping malt, sleeping in a charming B&B, and watching the waves at Port Ellen. Just writing about it brings a tear to my eye. We'll get there. 

That's why when our bottle from last year's festival arrived, we were excited. Excited doesn't even really cover it. Ecstatic? Giddy? Something like that. As you know if you're a fan of SmokyBeast, Lagavulin is our first and still greatest love when it comes to whisky. And we'd never tasted one of their special limited release Feis Ile bottlings.


The 2015 Feis Ile bottle was a very special run, even by Feis Ile standards. Iain McArthur, Lag's legendary warehouse manager of 40 years, chose extra aged casks for a twenty-four year release that came in at a whopping 59.9% ABV. This will be the oldest, and the strongest Lag we've ever tasted.  in summary: Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!!!!!

We were so excited that we let the bottle sit on our shelf and gazed longingly at it for almost a whole year. It was like an unspoken pact that we would save it for a special occasion. Well almost a year later, with Feis Ile 2016 coming up next week, this seemed like as good an occasion as any.  



Tasting Notes

Nose: The peat is so subtle in the nose here it's all rose petals and heath and lavender. There's a healthy punch of saddle leather and expensive men's cologne. It tails off with a little more smoke, and some melons - cantaloupes and honeydew.

Palate: It opens up and shows its Islay roots in the palate with a big thick mouthfeel of peat and honey. More melons, apricots.  It's so integrated, the peat and the spirit and the sweetness are all wrapped up into a perfect balance.

Finish: Compared to the cask strength 12-year this is a very subtle finish. It's not a fire-breather by any means. The tongue is coated in honey and the smoke rests at the top of the palate drifting up into the nostrils.

Conclusion

It's just superb. At almost 120 proof we expected this to be a ripper, but it's just the opposite. It's a super mellow well balanced whiskey that hits all the right notes. It pulls you in with sweetness and florals before rewarding you with the desired smoke. We felt this one was just perfect with about two eyedropper drops of water (room temperature spring water of course) per ounce. The tiny bit of water opens it up beautifully and it's just a killer dram. Real desert island stuff here, probably in the top ten malts we've reviewed on the site.  A big SmokyBeast "A"!


Four Strikes and We're Out! Longrow Peated, Benrinnes 23, Tamdhu 10, Ledaig 2005

May 3, 2016

Four Strikes and We're Out! Longrow Peated, Benrinnes 23, Tamdhu 10, Ledaig 2005

Ok, some folks have been accusing SmokyBeast of throwing softballs.  Only a month into baseball season, that hurts.

"You guys seem to like everything!?!"

Well the truth is, we try plenty of stuff that we don't like. But that doesn't make for a very interesting article. Why would we recommend something to you that we didn't like? There's so much great whiskey around, we tend to focus on that. Also we don't like being mean.

But, since you asked, here are four bottles we tried recently that we'd categorize as a miss...


Longrow Peated

Springbank makes some incredible whiskies. So we were excited to try their heavily peated variation, Longrow. We'd heard really good things about the older release from this line "Longrow Red" and this is the newer addition from that label.





Nose: Salty dry ocean brine, mild smoke, light wood, lemon zest, angostura.  Smells a bit like cigarettes when the pack has been open too long and they get brittle.

Body:  Burn and spice. A bit sweet around the edges, curry / exotic spice mixture, coconut, berries. Not a big body and not a smooth body, so kind of like "well he's not good-looking, but hey he's got a lousy personality."

Finish:  Ends sour. Not very balanced and the smoke ends too abruptly, leaving you tart. Can't imagine many people preferring this to a Lagavulin 16 or Ardbeg... Maybe if you just want a little peat - who just wants a little peat??!??

Review: It's like if someone asks you what punk music you like and you put on Green Day.  "C+"


Benrinnes 23 Year

Look at this bottle, it's gorgeous! Cask strength 58.8% at 23 years, this was part of Diageo's special release program for 2009. It's super hard to come by these days (sold out at TWE and MasterofMalt at over $200) so expectations were very high.



Nose:  Chocolate covered cashew nuts, heavy sherry, purple grapes, chocolate, wet grass, heavy tannin bitterness, heavy heavy oak adding to the bitterness.

Body:  Plummy fruitiness, Welches grape juice, Luden's honey cough drops, reduced red wine. More wood.

Finish:  Honestly it's harsh for it's age (and price!). This one went too far on the oak to the point where the fruity / sweet elements fight against the bitterness but ultimately lose. Smokybeast "C-".


Tamdhu 10 Year



Nose:  A vegetal nose with heart of palm, aloe, and jade bulbs backed by a little bit of sweet malt and green grapes.

Palate:  Very mild, if somewhat uneventful.  Creamy, oily, and sweet, sort of like those little milk chocolate baking chips you use for cookies.

Finish:  Smooth, but at $65 bucks, it's tough to give this one a good review. Honestly we'd probably prefer a good blend, which might not blow out minds but would be drinkable with no surprises. A SmokyBeast "C".


Ledaig 2005


Nose: Wow we got a weird one here.  It's definitely peated that's for sure.  Not a peat bomb like some of our favorites, but it's got some smoke.  But the smoke is wrapped in this very strange mix of vegetable oil and..  what is that.. like palm fronds.  Not even sure if a palm frond is a thing, and if it is we've certainly never smelled one. But there's no doubt that this is what they smell like.  Kind of like that coconut water smell that removes all the sweetness and just leaves the putrid hand lotion quality.

Palate: This is a very ACTIVE palate.  Haven't ever used that word before, but it's appropriate here. There's a LOT going on. The peat is strong, there's a ton of sweetness too, and a lot of spice, and then a very weird sort of rubbery taste.  Perhaps this is the young age of the malt showing (to the eye it's almost as pale as water), but it's banging around the sides of the mouth like many of the new craft whiskies do when they just haven't had enough years in the barrel.

Finish: Well ok on the one hand for eight years old and a whopping 113.4 proof it's mighty smooth, you have to give them that. But it's a weird sort of nasty smooth. Kind of like a lot of good components (peat fire, honeysuckle sweetness, and citrus tang) all banging against each other instead of integrating together. This one's just missing the wood, and so there isn't that base flavor anchoring all the other elements.  SmokyBeast "D+".




A Wheater Tasting at Wheated Brooklyn

April 19, 2016

A Wheater Tasting at Wheated Brooklyn

People ask us all the time where to go for bourbon in NYC. The truth is, it's tough. Anyone with a decent selection gets swamped with investment bankers until they either run out or take a hint and raise their prices through the roof. Luckily a new solution has presented itself in the form of a slightly off-the-beaten-path whiskey & pizza joint near Prospect Park.  Meet Wheated.

The Bar at Wheated

"Lesson learned," says owner David Sheridan, "don't name your bar after a very specific spirit that's about to become nearly impossible to supply!" He's talking of course about the explosion in popularity of wheated bourbon that's been taking place over the last few years inspired by Pappy Van Winkle.

The solution? Buy your own barrel of wheated bourbon from a local craft distiller and make it your house brand. David purchased his cask of McKenzie Single Barrel Bourbon from Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York.

David Sheridan - Proprietor

You'd be happy too... It's a 4.5 year old high-corn wheated mashbill bourbon that only produced 129 bottles at cask strength.


The McKenzie is really nice, very fresh with a familiar rich wheat nose (not unlike a young Van Winkle) that's popping with mint and florals, vanilla, honey, and a nice drop of saddle leather. It definitely tastes older than it is and sits in a really smooth place for almost 110 proof.

The other nice part about this bottle is that it's sitting on a table full of brother and sister wheaters. It turns out Wheated is a good place to go if you like drinking wheated bourbon.


We taste through this lovely mix of craft wheaters and some all time favorites.


Dry Fly was a big surprise. Looking at the bottle you'd think "ok we're in for another super young marketing experiment gone awry." But not at all! Dry Fly is a serious farm to bottle operation with a real eye for quality and craftsmanship. The product was deceptively rich and lovely for a three year bourbon. They use a higher percentage of malt (20%) than you'd usually find in a bourbon. It was very drinkable, and captured some of that spice and molasses that you look for in an older wheated bourbon. A very nice surprise.  (Maybe a bottle redesign would help this brand??)


After our last experience with the Jim Beam Signature Spanish Brandy Whiskey, we almost passed on this one without tasting it. That would have been a big mistake! We were pleasantly surprised. The "Red Wheat" Beam bottle was lovely with a combination of smoothness with rich notes, sweets, and earthiness.  SOOO much better than the brandy, they're not even in the same league.


This Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project #168 was one of the best in this lineup that we've tasted. Another cracking wheater, it had a very dry and sophisticated palate going on with subtle spice, grass/hay, and vanilla.


For reference sake, David threw in a couple of old standards: Weller 12 Year and Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year.  These were superior bourbons to the craft brands, yet we both marveled at how well both the McKenzie and the Dry Fly held up. Considering folks are paying $300 a bottle for the Van Winkle, and the Weller is getting extremely hard to come by, it's great to see new wheaters coming out. If these two continue to put aside some stock for aging, we bet that in a few years they'll be right on par, if not better, than the older mass produced stuff. Still, both Weller 12 and ORVW are delicious whiskies and a righteous addition to any wheater party.


It's time for dinner. If we keep drinking at this pace on empty stomachs we're going to end up singing Commodores' numbers with our pants down (don't ask). Luckily David's crew makes the meanest meatball calzone in recent memory, served with homemade Sriracha sauce. Pair that with a smoked meat and hot pepper pizza and we're in heaven.

"Won't all that spicy food blow your palate?" you may be asking? Well luckily the next whiskey on our list is a real barn-burner (no pun intended).


We've been resisting the Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon because it's $200/bottle. Generally speaking, we need another $200 craft bourbon like we need a hole in the head. But lo and behold it's pretty fuggin awesome. The most comparable thing would be the Balcones Texas Single Barrel that we got to taste recently (aka the bottle that does not exist). It's like a huge George T Stagg of craft corn/wheat whiskey. Just exploding with richness and flavor. Are we going to run out and spend $200 on it? It's still a big ask, but we were surprised by how good it was for sure.


Finally, since we'd never tasted it, David brought out one more treat to finish the night. The Kavalan Soloist. Now here's a whiskey that's gotten so much fanfare we figured it had to be something special. And maybe it was just because we'd been drinking so much nice mellow wheated whiskey all night, but this stuff was so cloyingly sweet it was almost hard to get down. Sort of like a Speyside malt whisky with so much sherry influence it totally overwhelms the whisky. It must be a first fill sherry cask (really it tastes like they actually added sherry to the malt). This one was a big miss, but still a cool way to end the night. David carries an impressive menu of single malts in addition to the American whiskey list. We may have to go back and sample through more of those...

Anyway Wheated is a winner. A very warm environment, good family style place for an early dinner, and one of the best whiskey lists in NYC.  Cheers to David for showing us a great time and if you're in the area, tell 'em the beast sent you!


SmokyBeast leads a charity tasting!!!

April 15, 2016

SmokyBeast leads a charity tasting!!!

For anyone in the New York City area, we're working with our friends at Xavier Wine Co., to sponsor a charity auction to raise money for Promise Project.

We'll be doing a whiskey tasting for up to 8 people at the gorgeous tasting room at Xavier Wines, featuring some awesome and rare whiskies.






About Promise Project

GOAL at PROMISE PROJECT is that all children with learning disabilities get the chance to succeed.

THE PROMISE is to provide an educational path for underserved children who struggle with learning disabilities, evaluating their learning disabilities and getting them the support they need.



Learn more at: http://www.promise-project.org/promise/


CLICK HERE TO BID OR DONATE!