Whisky Women, Champagne Widows

ChampagneWhisky.com wouldn’t be ChampagneWhisky if it weren’t for women in whisky and champagne. And not just the one sitting here behind the keyboard writing this post.

I’m just going to put up a couple of excerpts today, in honor of International Women’s Day 2014, which has been celebrated for a century on March 8.

“In Whiskey Women: The Untold Story Of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch And Irish Whiskey, US writer Fred Minnick says that despite the drink’s macho image, women played a key role in its history.

A woman places labels on Old Crow bourbon bottles sometime in the early 1900s. Photo: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History / NPR

A woman places labels on Old Crow bourbon bottles sometime in the early 1900s.
Photo: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History / NPR

“Not only did they invent the first stills, they were involved in bootlegging during the Prohibition era, led the repeal movement and whipped up demand for uisge beatha worldwide.

But it is those Scottish women who not only owned and managed distilleries, but modernised them, increasing their capacity and profile, that Minnick credits with transforming the industry.” (from The Scotsman)

Elizabeth Cumming, who owned the Cardow (Cardhu) distillery in Speyside in the late 19th century, took over the business when her husband died, and successfully expanded it before selling to John Walker & Sons, known these days as Johnnie Walker.

Bessie Williamson, who owned Laphroaig in Islay in the 20th century (due to the death of its original male owner, her boss) is credited with laying the groundwork for the popularity of peaty single malt whisky today.

Veuve Clicquot Source: Wine Sisterhood

Veuve Clicquot
Source: Wine Sisterhood

And, on the bubbly side:

“‘Champagne is the story of widows,’ said Francois Godard, scion of Veuve Godard et Fils Champagne house. ‘Women who lost their husbands, and then outshone the men.’

Widowhood gave these figures an independent social status in France. Unlike other women – who were the property of a father or a husband – only a widow could become a CEO.

‘In the 19th century … if you’re not married you’re dependent on your father, you can’t have a bank account and you can’t pay staff. If you are married you are reliant on your husbands,’ explained Fabienne Moreau, Veuve Clicquot’s archivist. ‘Only a widow can take this position as head of a company.’

Experts say that Champagne was one of the first industries in the modern world that women shaped and in which they enjoyed a prominent role.” (from Daily Mail)

Brut Champagne was invented by the Veuve (‘Widow’) Pommery at the behest of another widow, Queen Victoria, who liked the drink but found it too sweet. The ‘Veuve’ was dropped from the Pommery name at some point, and many other houses established by widowed Champagne women, like Bollinger, no longer carry the signifier.

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger Source: Wine Sisterhood

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger
Source: Wine Sisterhood

There was a time (1500-1660) when European governments  burned women for distilling liquor, labelling them witches. We are past the outdated marriage customs and property laws when women could only be taken seriously in business if they had been married and then widowed (well, in some countries, anyway), yet somehow the whisky and champagne businesses have still come to be seen as a man’s world again.

So on this day, a clink of the glass to the women of whisky and champagne, and all the women who hold up half the world. centredinternationalwomensdaySome of my fellow whisky women writers:

Rachel MacNeill – Whisky for Girls

Allison Patel – The Whisky Woman

Barley Doors

barley-field-3-lowresWhen one door closes, another door opens, in a quote attributed to Alexander Graham Bell that’s meant to reflect an optimistic perspective on the ebb and flow of opportunity.

In the case of the spring barley intended for Scottish whisky production, a genetic door closing on one pernicious blight unexpectedly led to a door opening on another.

Ramularia effects on leaves Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

Ramularia effects on leaves
Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

For thirty years, the promotion of a specific gene in barley – the mlo gene – has shielded barley crops against what used to be one of the main pests for the crop, powdery mildew fungus, (Blumeria graminis f. sp. hordei). Unfortunately, in recent years it has become apparent that the very same barley gene that works as cell protection also renders barley more vulnerable to a previously minor pest, Ramularia (Ramularia urticae).

Ramularia under the mircroscope

Ramularia under the microscope

Ramularia, a leaf spot blight that damages leaves and makes the plant unable to absorb sunlight, has been responsible for ruining up to ten percent of recent crops.

And so, researchers are heading back to examine older varieties of barley to look for genetic strains that will help increase resistance to Ramularia. After all, barley grown for the whisky industry accounts for over £ 4 billion of the Scottish economy. Shortfalls in local production mean barley is imported for malting.

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

The study that identified the problem with Ramularia was also interesting because it states that it was the very introduction and success of the mlo gene around the world, combined with changes in the climate, that could have contributed to the sudden strength of the new threat.

“It has struck us that plant breeding relying on the successful use of a single major resistance gene can increase susceptibility to another disease,” said R&D breeder Peter Werner from KWS UK.

Through the use of genetic mapping, the research has already pointed the way towards resolving the Ramularia issue. And now, I suppose, it is just a matter of waiting to see which door closes next, and which door opens.



Locavores and Disruptive Technologies

A recent exchange with woman whisky writer Rachel MacNeill last week about whiskies produced in Austria was based on a misunderstanding. I thought she had been to a tasting of Austrian-produced whiskies, when actually she had been holding a whisky tasting in Austria.

The moment between miscommunication and clarification, though, got me thinking that whisky is the latest Chardonnay, i.e. that popular alcohol known mainly from France that gained enough cachet to become a popular marketing target for development all over the world.

The global demand for whisky has expanded over the past few years, so it’s natural that other people besides the traditionally known producers would want to get involved, driven by passion or business, or both.

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009) Source: Master Of Malt

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009)
Source: Master Of Malt

In this age of globalization when we often can’t follow the long comet tail of a product’s origins, there’s a cachet to buying locally. New small-batch whisky producers have been springing up around the world over the last few years, many placing a heavy emphasis on their local roots.

Whisky has an image of slow production. It’s bottled time, something to be savored. Mind you, I’m talking about aged sipping whisky here, not the rough stuff meant for doing shots, or destined for mixed drinks.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me – although this says more about my naivete than whisky production – that there are new whisky producers who have aimed to speed the production process along a faster than the usual multi-year start-up time required of a whisky distillery.

Some small batch distilleries use the straightforward method of using smaller oak casks to increase the surface area of whisky against the oak surface.

One distillery uses a sort of pressure cooker combined with oak wood cuttings to process unaged whiskey bought elsewhere (getting back to the quick Chardonnay trend again), another company has developed a technique of oxidation and ultrasonic waves to process product.

TerrePure by Terressentia Image: Gizmodo

TerrePure by Terressentia
Image: Gizmodo

A couple of quotes from a New York Times article:

“In a matter of weeks, if not less, we have product coming out that rivals 10- to 12-year-olds.”

“Twelve to 18 hours will completely clean 250 gallons of whiskey in a way that is far better than barrel aging.”

So, what is whisky? If it’s simply a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash at less than 190 proof, with the defining characteristic of being stored in wooden containers for some length of time, than whisky is as versatile in its manifestations as beer.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I like trying local stuff, and when I travel, I always try to get a taste of something I can’t get anywhere else. So I would definitely try local whiskies even if they’ve been rushed with what has been called ‘disruptive technologies’. And I am big fan of buying local and supporting small businesses.

But in the end, time rushes by so quickly all on its own without rushing an ageing process. Comparing these fast-forward methods with traditional ageing might persuade newcomers, but I don’t anticipate many long-term whisky fans will be swayed beyond the appeal of trying something novel.

Origin doesn’t matter as much to me if the whisky is good. But in the long run, I’ll probably be sticking with the whiskies that have captured a bit of time in a bottle.

Mortlach 70 Year Old Image: Decanter.com

Mortlach 70 Year Old
Image: Decanter.com

*On a side note, I found this, the Austrian Whisky Association, a group of fourteen distilleries making whisky in Austria. I’m not sure whether they export at all.

Barrel Art, Without the Whisky

I feel that so many traditional handicrafts qualify as art, and one of these still has to be barrel-making – the cooper’s art. When it comes to whisky, the type of barrel used and what was previously stored in the barrel make up a good portion of the art of the spirit.

Cooper's workshop, Open air museum Roscheider Hof, Konz, Germany Source: Helge Klaus Rieder

Cooper’s workshop, Open air museum Roscheider Hof, Konz, Germany
Source: Helge Klaus Rieder

A few years ago, Glenfiddich commissioned Barrel Art from Johnson Banks, and I liked some of the results. All are quite clearly made from whisky barrels.

And then there’s this wood-less piece:

Johnson Banks Barrel Art - Double Helix Source: Johnson Banks

Johnson Banks Barrel Art – Double Helix
Source: Johnson Banks

Here are some more recognizable barrels from a set commissioned by Brown-Forman Travel Retailer:

Brown Forman Barrels Source: Bornrich

Brown Forman Barrels
Source: Bornrich

From Wikipedia:

“Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.

“A cask is any piece of cooperage containing a bouge, bilge, or bulge in the middle of the container. A barrel is a type of cask, so the terms “barrel-maker” and “barrel-making” only refer to one aspect of a cooper’s work.”

These days, coopers are mainly called upon to make barrels for wine or spirits, and most barrels are no longer produced by hand.

Many years ago, I found an old example of a cooper’s work in Germany, a well-used, hand-made wooden washing tub that had been dismantled. It’s not quite whisky barrel art, but I made a small shuttered window in a door that had been permanently bricked up in the old stone tower of our house.

A stone door in our tower, with an installation we put in. The stripes on the wood doors are from the metal bands, the frame of the piece is from the bottom of the old wash barrel. Photo: PK Read

A stone door in our tower, with an installation we put in. The stripes on the wood doors are from the metal bands, the frame of the piece is from the bottom of the old wash barrel. 
Photo: PK Read

The interior of the barrel window.

The burnt-looking stripes mark where the level of the water and soap once churned. A tiny Balvenie dram with lavender from the garden. Old ceramic plates we found in the house form the mosaic. Photo: PK Read

The burnt-looking stripes mark where the level of the water and soap once churned. A tiny Balvenie dram with lavender from the garden. Old ceramic plates we found in the house form the mosaic.
Photo: PK Read


A video on barrel-making:

The Long View

By definition, aged single-malt whisky is a product made with a long-term vision. Nothing about the process is fast. Starting with the season it takes to grow the necessary grain, to the distillation process, to the aging – this is not a short-term investment.

So it makes sense that one of the first artisan distillers in the United States,  St. George Spirits, would be asked to create whiskey for The Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that aims to provide “a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

In addition to elegaic projects such as the 10,000 Year Clock and Revive & Restore, one of the ways Long Now plans on doing promoting the longer view is the establishment of a Salon space to foster discussion and collaboration.

And what does a Salon space require? Books, conversation, a warm space and beverages. Tea and coffee during the day, wines, whiskey and gin at night. All liquids known to foster conversation.

Who will supply the evening spirits? St. George Spirits, based in Alameda, California – just across the Bay from San Francisco. But they won’t be just any beverages.

The Salon will feature Long Now gin or whiskey each created exclusively for it by Lance Winters of St. George Spirits. Stored in the rafters of the Salon, members will have their bottles available to them whenever they visit. There will be the afore-mentioned whiskey, St. George Spirits Bristlecone Gin, and a number of other wines and spirits produced for Long Now.

High-level donors/members will be able to indulge in the 15 Year Founders Whiskey Bottle.  Each year for 15 years the private bottle will be filled with the new bottling of the Long Now whiskey as it ages.

For mere mortals such as myself, I would be happy just to wrap my hands around a few sample glasses of St. George Spirits product, which sounds quirky, unique and well-crafted.

There is a beautiful article on St. George Spirits  over on Handful of Salt, a publication I am very happy to have discovered during the process of researching this post. The magazine itself is devoted to any craft that takes patience, attentiveness, skill and love of material.

Given what they have to say about the distillery, it sounds like it fulfills all their criteria.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried St. George Spirits whiskies.

Until then, I’ll take the long view, and plan on trying some the next time I am Stateside.

St. George Spirits Photo: Regina Connell/Handful of Salt

St. George Spirits
Photo: Regina Connell/Handful of Salt

Hashtags and Picklebacks

The Tasting Samples and Set-Up Photo: PK Read

The Tasting Samples and Set-Up
Photo: PK Read

Hashtag: TweetTasting

Every so often Fortune smiles down upon me and hands me a treat. Last week, the treat came in the form of a tasting across the Internet via Twitter, courtesy of The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines.

With around twenty very game tasters, many of them quite knowledgeable, we cracked five sample drams of American whiskey and shared our thoughts. If I can’t by any stretch of the imagination count myself among the knowledgeable, I was at least as game as anyone else to try the products of my native country.

Like any tasting, sharing the same sample is no guarantee of sharing the same flavor. What’s fascinating about a live online tasting is the range of different subjective impressions, the overlap of impressions, and the complete lack of cues as to what anyone else is thinking until the tweets hit the feed.

Last week I felt very lucky to be able to participate in the #LiquidAmericana, a TweetTasting sponsored by The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines.

By way of example of how diverse the impressions can be, one fellow taster seemed to taste a hint of chocolate in just about everything, but also admitted to suffering from an acute chocolate craving. Another quoted the taste of candies or fruits which were likely spot-on in terms of description, but which tasters outside that country hadn’t ever experienced. One whisky inspired a characterization of strong tea flavours, which a couple of tasters didn’t find no matter how thoroughly they searched their palates.

Image: Luc St. Pierre via National Geographic

Image: Luc St. Pierre via National Geographic

Finally, with a virtual web drumroll, the sample drams were revealed:

Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon,

Noah’s Mill Small Batch Bourbon,

Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey,

Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey

High West Double Rye Whiskey

You can visit the TwitterTasting to see what our impressions were of each sample. Personally, I liked the Bernheim Straight Wheat for its sweetness, and the High West Double Rye for its complexity – but the ranking of favorites was as diverse as the aromas and flavors tasted.

Many, many thanks to The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines for the opportunity to educate myself in faraway France as to the diversity that is American whisky, and to Steve Rush of the Whisky Wire for running a great tasting.

Pickebacks and a doomed Buffalo Trace double Photo: PK Read

Pickebacks and a doomed Buffalo Trace double
Photo: PK Read


On a slightly related note (American whiskies, to be exact), we stopped by the Honky Tonk Bar in Chelsea, London last night and I saw something I’d never seen before at the rustic, rough-hewn bar on a very posh street: Tiny little jars, the kind used for single jam servings, filled with either brown or opaque liquid. Two cheerful drinkers at the bar (who had about twelve small jars, all empty, before them) told me these were Picklebacks.

Whisky in one jar, pickle juice in the other. “From dark to light, out of the darkness and into the light,” is what the friendly barkeep said as he served us our own round and showed us how it was done. Whisky first, pickle juice second, in quick succession.

This is not for sipping, this is for shooting. And it’s not a technique devised for fine whiskies – the pickle juice back cuts the taste of the whisky as well as (I imagine) imparting some of vinegar’s health benefits to the liver when under assault.

Image: Jughandles Fat Farm

Image: Jughandles Fat Farm

Now I’ve done my homework and found out that the Pickleback, also known as a Piskey, has been popular Stateside for a little while now, and the picklejuice can be just as finely tuned as a fine neat whisky – nectarine pickle juice, artisanal pickle juice, pickle juice served like a martini, etc. If it has to do with drinking, trust people to dress it up.

I can’t say its something I’ll be doing on the regular, but I can say it was fun. Also, I can say the Buffalo Trace neat that I’d ordered was completely lost on me because after that initial Pickleback, pretty much everything tasted like pickle juice.


Liquid+Americana+TTBack in January, I felt very lucky to get a taste of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old whiskey. I grew up drinking bourbon, but I can’t say I really discovered whisky until I visited Scotland. And although the Pappy 23 was a revelation, I haven’t sampled all that many different American-made whiskies. Yet.

The popularity of North American artisan whiskey has been growing for a while now, but many of the smaller distilleries aren’t heavily represented over here in Europe. Yet.

From a good article on the history of whiskey in North America:

“The (American) Revolution meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England rum distillers converted to whiskey. Whiskey had a patriotic flavor. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed.”

Farmers on Virginia’s frontier began making whiskey with corn instead of rye in 1789, but what made it distinctive was aging. The Virginians discovered that charring the inside of oak barrels gave their matured whiskey a superior flavor and dark, rich color.”

Production had its ups and downs – particularly during the Civil War and the Prohibition – but over the last few years, a wide variety of American whiskey has been created that branch out from the standard bourbon I grew up with. A lot of the newer stuff is rye whiskey. Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51 percent rye (a legal requirement), and is described as more peppery and complex by some than bourbon, which is at least 51 percent corn and has a sweeter, smoother taste.

So, as an American living in France, I am very pleased to have been selected as one of the tasters for the upcoming tweet tasting sponsored by The Whisky Wire and Arkwrights Whisky and Wines, #LiquidAmericana.

For me, the benefits are twofold: I get to see what’s going on in the whiskey world Stateside, a touch of home, and I get to discover some great (I hope) whiskies among fellow whisky lovers.

I’ve already received my five numbered sample dram bottles in the mail. One of the bottle caps was slightly loose, so the postal service got a tiny share of Number 3 and I got a nice whiff of what’s to come on Wednesday, June 26. I tightened the cap, and lined up the five bottles on a shelf. The rest remain a mystery – I haven’t opened them. Yet.

Here’s a nifty American whiskey map:

U.S. Whiskey Map Source: SloshSpot via Visual.ly

U.S. Whiskey Map
Source: SloshSpot via Visual.ly

A Cross Atlantic Treat – Vintage Bourbon

Evan Williams Single Barrel

I tried something new last week: the American Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2001, imported for me by my very own dear Dad, who wanted me to try it. Each bottle is marked with the date it was placed in oak and bottled, in addition to the serial number of the single barrel from which it was drawn. According to various review sites, there is considerable variation across each vintage and even across individual barrels. While the 2000 vintage was considered practically ‘Scotch’-like by many, the 2001 is not.

The setting was a very cozy and lovingly restored Victorian era room in a B&B in Devonshire, England, looking out over a garden. We sampled the Evan Williams alongside a Glenfiddich Rich Oak scotch, and while they were very different, the bourbon held up well – and costs about half the price of the scotch (if you buy it in the U.S., anyway).

For me, at any rate, this was an excellent sipping bourbon, a wee bit sharper than the single malts I usually drink, but with just the kind of caramel and vanilla notes I prefer, along with oak and char. There’s a good description here at Sourmashmanifesto.com of the various flavors, and I very much agree with the review’s positive assessment. It’s not a product that’s very easy to get where I live in France, so I feel lucky to have gotten a taste. Thanks, Dad!

What’s the definition of a bourbon?

According to the Evan Williams website:

“By law, Bourbon must be made up of at least 51% corn and aged a minimum of two years in a new charred white oak barrel. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, though almost all brands are made in Kentucky, and Kentucky is the only state allowed to put its name on the bottle. Bourbon is not Bourbon unless the label says so.

There was a time when a whiskey could only be called “Bourbon” if it was distilled in Bourbon County, KY. By an Act of Congress passed in 1964, any straight whiskey that is 51% corn, with other grains completing the mashbill, distilled at 160 or less proof (no matter where) and aged at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels can be legally called a straight Bourbon. Tennessee whiskey undergoes the “Lincoln County process”-the whiskey is filtered through a column of charcoal chips before being put into barrels, making it a bit different and not legally a Bourbon.”

Unrealized Fortuity

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23yr

Pappy Van Winkle
Family Reserve 23yr

A couple of days ago in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I was introduced to a whisky bar and restaurant called Char. The place has nice warm lighting that makes me feel mellow, like I’m already a couple of glasses into the evening, even if I’m not. It was my last night Stateside, and even though I hadn’t had my customary celebrity sighting in NYC, it had been a stellar visit.

I was with the same friend with whom I had shared an amazing meal earlier in the week – and at that meal, we’d been invited to try Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. The waiter made quite a fuss about having it, but unfortunately, we were not yet aware how rare the treat could have been ours and we ordered up something else instead.

When we got to Char, however, we decided to ask whether they had this Pappy Van Winkle stuff. We’d been told it was pretty good. “I only have a glass or two of the 23-year stuff left,” the barkeep told us. “32 dollars a glass.” And a meagre glass it turned out to be at the price.  Still, we found ourselves deeply impressed. I don’t know much about American bourbons, but I know I like Pappy 23. Perfumed and complex, smooth, rich, honeyed and a hint of caramel, a wee bit smoky – good stuff that only got better as we let it open up in the glass!

We determined that a bottle of this wouldn’t be a bad addition to any shelf. The other stuff we ordered didn’t stand a chance by comparison.

So, not having time to do any shopping for Pappy Van Winkle while on the road, and arriving too late at the airport to see if it was available in duty-free, I checked it out once I got home to France. And now I feel so very fortunate and trendy! Most reviews are ecstatic, calling this bourbon a masterpiece. Articles abound on the elusive 23-year-old Pappy, eBay auctions abound, it’s $250/bottle – if you can get the stuff in a store or online. Enterprising sellers even auction the empty bottles on eBay (so people can fill them with other stuff and have on the shelf?). The production amount is tiny, which makes the hunt all the more voracious and energetic. Avid seekers carry out long forum discussions on various bourbon web sites.

Not only was bourbon great, but clearly, this counts as a real celebrity sighting of the bourbon variety. As it was, it was more like the time my daughter and I found ourselves standing next to Catherine Deneuve in SoHo a couple of years ago. I was quietly thrilled with this NYC sighting, my daughter had no idea we were shoulder-to-shoulder with one of cinema’s greats.

If I’d only known, I would have let out a victory yelp under the amber lights of Char.