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.

Serendipitous Walk

Near St. Austell, earlier this year. If I had known about Hicks & Heaney whiskey back then, I would have gone in search for it.  Photo: PK Read

Near St. Austell, earlier this year. If I had known about Hicks & Healey whiskey back then, I would have gone in search of it.
Photo: PK Read

I read some time ago about a new whisky produced in Cornwall, the first in 300 years. Small-batch, impossibly difficult to get a hold of, and well out of my normal price range. Hicks & Healey, who spell their whisky with an ‘e’. Cornish whiskey, made with Cornish barley and local spring water. It’s a collaboration between St. Austell’s Brewery and Healey’s Cider Farm.1

I love trying drinks, foods, customs that are highly localised, so of course I was intrigued. But Hicks & Healey’s is hardly the kind of drink that your average whisky bar is going to have sitting around. At a limited edition of only a few hundred bottles a year, this is specialized stuff.

So, this weekend, I am back up in Exeter with my daughter. I thought to myself, maybe I should try and find a sip of H&H, but St. Austell is just a bit too far outside my driving range for this short visit, so I had silently chalked this up to one experience I was not yet destined to have.

Mill on the Exe

Mill on the Exe

Instead, we took a long walk down to the Mill on the Exe, a riverside restaurant and pub that gets very high praise from visitors and which we hadn’t yet tried.  It’s a lively and excellent place. We had a lovely meal, tasty wine, and I decided to see what kinds of whiskies were stocked at the bar.

Chatting with the bartender, I decided to revisit Monkey Shoulder – my first impression of it last year was good but not great, and I like second chances so that’s what Monkey Shoulder was going to get. And as we were talking over whiskies, Ashley Millgate – who turned out to be the manager of the establishment – mentioned that he had bought a wonderful, limited edition Cornish whisky.3

Well, long story short, Ashley went up and got his own private bottle of – you guessed it – Hicks & Healey, bottle number 105. Then Ashley went beyond the bounds of regular hospitality and offered me a taste.

It’s funny how small, unspoken wishes can sometimes manifest themselves in our daily lives.

I don’t know which was better – the light, floating caramel, apple flavors of this unusual, delicate and rare whiskey with an ‘e’, or the generosity and friendliness of a fellow whisky enthusiast.

All in all, a perfect whisky experience, and a great night out. Thank you, Ashley and thank you, Hicks & Healey.


St. Austell Brewery website

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.