Whisky Wind-down, 16: Festive Midpoint Mistletoe

A bottle of cask-strength Maker's Mark bourbon, adorned with mistletoe, sit alongside a filled glass. In the background, a cat tree bears Christmas lights.

Today’s dram: Maker’s Mark, Cask Strength, Batch 15-04 (bottled at 110.4 proof)

Today’s educational preamble to the tasting notes: Bourbon, as you may recall, is whisky made from at least 51% corn, aged on new charred oak barrels, and … well that’s the essential information.

(It must be made in the States, and there’s some math about distillation alcohol percentages, as well as more math for barreling, bottling, and settling, but I majored in English to avoid a lot of complex numbers, so we’ll stick to the simple but nonetheless important ones.)

Let’s talk about that 51% corn requirement. That’s the minimum, but some distillers use much more in their mash bill.* Corn adds most of the sweetness in bourbon, so most mash bills use quite of bit of corn, plus malted barley, topped with a bit of rye.

A few,** however, diverge and use wheat in place of rye. These bourbons, of which Maker’s Mark is one, tend to have less pronounced spice or “bite” to them.

Apart from the mash bill, the major influence on what comes out of the barrel is how that barrel itself is treated over the years. Say, for example, you took two barrels filled from the same mash bill and aged them both for seven years. One, however, you left in place at the very top of the rickhouse, several stories up in the warmer air, while the other you left at ground level, subject to more cooler temperatures. Seven years later, these would be different bourbons with different flavor profiles.

A lot of distilleries do this, and they sell several different bourbons. The Jim Beam Distillery,*** for instance, produces a couple dozen varieties, aside from the namesake. Barrels from the top floors of their rickhouses might end up blended as Knob Creek; meanwhile, barrels from the ground floor end up as Basil Hayden’s.****

Meanwhile, down the road at Star Hill Farm, the folks who make Maker’s Mark bourbon don’t make two dozen brands. With a few variations, they make only Maker’s Mark. They use one mash bill, and all barrels start their life on the ninth floor of a rickhouse. After a year or so, when the master taster judges them ready, these young barrels are brought down to the eighth floor. And so on and so forth. By the time each barrel rolls out at ground level, it has had a pretty similar journey to its peers.

“Pretty similar” is an important distinction here. Within any particular run, there will be minor variations from barrel-to-barrel, but the overall vibe is such that, when blended, the final product is consistent from year-to-year. However, an especially interesting variation may catch the master distiller’s eye — er, palate — and end up flagged to be sold as part of a small batch variation, or, oh-to-be-the-lucky-one, a single-barrel bottling.

What else?

Oh, right. Bottling strength. For the most part, after blending the various barrels, the batch will be diluted to bourbon’s traditional 90 proof (or, perhaps, a slightly higher or lower proof to which a particular bourbon is made).

Now and then, the distillers will decide to honor us with a little something special, and they’ll sell a batch at cask strength, undiluted as it came off the wood: strong, pure, bourbon as nature intended.

Today I’m drinking one of those.

Today’s tasting notes: The aroma on this one is something else. It’s, as you might expect, a stronger version of the regular Maker’s Mark aroma — rich, sweet, inviting — and you start noticing it before even bringing the glass up to sip. It’s big, bold, beautiful, and, despite the high proof, there is little discernible alcohol burn on it. Even if you stick your nose right down and inhale deeply, it’s just a big, sweet, friendly aroma. Oh, I love it.

The flavor is an intense version of the regular stuff — warm, on the sweet side, and barely any burn, even at 110.4 proof.

Dangerously drinkable.

Today’s thoughts: I owe this bottle to attention to detail.

Over the years, my family has gradually become accustomed to my “hobby” of whisky tasting (and the associated writings that arise therefrom).

During last year’s Christmas shopping season, while he happened to be out at a nearby military base exchange store, my dad saw this. The words “cask strength” clicked in his mind in association with words I’d written, so he bought it and gifted it to me.

Good call, Dad.

I’ve been hanging onto it for a year now, waiting to include it in this year’s Whisky Wind-down. Sure, I could have opened it earlier, with the intention to save some for now, but … open bottles of bourbon have a tendency to disappear around The Empress of Whisky.

I’m not saying she would steal from her most loyal subject, but there is a troubling “evaporation rate” in her presence. Must be a body chemistry thing.

Today’s note on festive bourbon decorations: You probably noticed the mistletoe. That was a holiday greeting from the distillery. Why is Maker’s Mark sending me a holiday greeting? A few years ago, when we toured there, The Empress and I signed up to be part of the Maker’s Mark Ambassadors.

Aside from adding us to its Christmas card list, the distillery put our names on a barrel of bourbon that is currently winding its way down the racks in a rickhouse at Star Hill Farm. When it finishes, we’ll get a call to attend a bottling ceremony and the chance to purchase a unique bottle from that single barrel. Cool, eh?

Today’s toast: To the seasons, let them turn, turn, turn … white dog into bourbon.

—–

* — “Mash bill” is distiller-talk for “recipe.” It’s expressed as percentages (by weight) of each type of grain that goes into the brew kettle. And, while you’re here, “rackhouse” is just a bastardized spelling/pronunciation of “rickhouse,” which is just what Kentuckyians call a warehouse full of racks for storing bourbon.

** — Okay, more than a few, if you want to get into some of the newer permutations of bourbon. Since the only legal requirement is the 51% corn, you could go nuts and use any other grain for the rest. But your established bourbon-makers are content to focus on variations of the classic corn/barley/rye or corn/barley/wheat blends. Subtle changes in those ratios can make a big difference, before you even get to variations in wood char, aging times, aging conditions. Put simply, master bourbon makers don’t need to play with weird grains to set themselves apart.

*** — The distillery itself, as distinct from its parent company, Beam Suntory, which is the owner of many other brands including — surprise! — Maker’s Mark. I can’t say I’m a fan of corporate conglomerates in a general sense, but in the specific case of Beam Suntory, I have to give the company credit for allowing its disparate holdings to operate in whatever fashion has proved historically viable to their success, with little interference from the top.

**** — Disclaimer: These are brands owned by Beam Suntory and made at Jim Beam Distillery. The floor levels I describe are, however, just made-up examples. Knob Creek might actually be a mid-floor bourbon, while Basil Hayden’s is top. The process is otherwise as described.

Whisky Wind-down, 21: Are We There Yet?

A small bottle of Bruichladdich Laddie whisky sits next to a filled Glencairn glass and tabletop clock.

Today’s dram: Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie

Today’s rambling preamble to the tasting notes: Yesterday I mentioned the Hebrides. I’m not going to give you a complete Scotland geography lesson — not least because my knowledge of this subject is almost entirely whisky-related — but I will note that these islands are collectively home to several distilleries.

The whiskies made on the Hebrides — with one exception — are considered part of the Highlands, but that region is vast and it’s probably just a matter of time before the Scotch Whisky Association elevates The Islands to region status, which is what happened with the former sub-region Speyside. (Despite this recognition, a few Speyside distilleries still describe themselves as makers of Highlands whisky, but that’s marketing inertia for you.)

Anyway, the exception: Islay.

It’s part of the Hebrides, but it’s not part of The Islands for whisky purposes. Oh no; this island is a region unto itself, as well it should be.

Unless you’ve just stumbled upon this series — in which case, welcome! — you may recall me mentioning Islay frequently. A couple of my favorite distilleries (Laphroaig and Ardbeg) are located there, as well as Bowmore (of which I have enjoyed one and want to try more) and Bunnahabhain (new to me, and also fascinating). Still on my list are Caol Ila, Kilchoman, and Lagavulin.

All of these are known, to one degree or another, for the heavily smoky, often briny flavors in their whiskies.

Now, the exception within the exception: Bruichladdich.

Founded in 1881, but dormant for a good part of the 20th century, this distillery is now run by folks who are, well, let’s call them a tad eccentric. My bottle of The Classic Laddie was part of a three-bottle set that came with a 20-something page booklet almost entirely comprised of anecdotes about the history of the distillery, the people who work there, the local farmers who supply the barely, the antique Victorian-era coal-fired machinery they use to dry the barley …

I’ll stop on that last point, as it has some bearing on the whisky at hand. By using coal, (rather the traditional peat) as a fuel source for malting the barely used to make its whisky, Bruichladdich makes Islay’s only* unpeated whisky.

Today’s tasting notes: It’s briny, innit? You get it first on the aroma, which is sea air with a hit of alcohol burn mixed in. As for flavor, it bears a hint of earth about it, despite the absence of peat in its making. Then the brine comes in again; there’s not overmuch at first, but it lingers in an otherwise smooth finish. There is some burn on the back of it, too, probably attributable to the highish 100 proof.

I hesitate to admit this, considering I generally mock the practice, but after finishing two-thirds of the dram, I contemplated adding a few drops of water, just to see whether that might “open” it up. But then I realized that would require a trip downstairs, so I just finished it as poured.

Today’s thoughts: One of the first single malt Scotch whiskies I ever had, a gift courtesy of the Empress of Whisky, was a bottle from the first run of The Laddie 10. And while I do not recall exactly enough to relate the nuanced differences between that bottling and this lesser-aged version, I can report that sipping this dram brought back fond memories of that long-gone bottle.

Today’s aside: Laugh now, but when Scotland Geography shows up on Jeopardy!, I’ll be smiling. Also? I will crush in Potent Potables.

Today’s toast: To trivial knowledge, which I do not take trivially.

—–

* — Yes, there are exceptions even to this exception-within-an-exception. But Bruichladdich is the only Islay distillery regularly producing unpeated** whiskies as part of its standard range, rather than as special one-off offerings.

** — While I’m foot-noting, anyway, I’ll take the time to point out that a lot of whiskies produced with barley dried without the benefit of peat-fueled fires nonetheless still bear the subtle combination of smoke and earthiness attributed as “peatiness” in tasting notes. Why? Blame the water. When you live surrounded by peat bogs, apparently it permeates your groundwater. And while that may or may not be detectable out of the tap, it shows up when you toss in barley and boil it for whisky.

Actually, We Could Use Some Water

It rained yesterday (and again today) in metro Atlanta.

First time in a long time.

43 days.

That broke the previous record of 39 days.

Set in 1884.

I assume that record is accurate, though it dates back to when Jeb and Cletus kept count with chalk marks on the side of a barn.

If that image fills you with nostalgia, just wait until you see the president-elect’s science team.

Anyway, a long dry spell, as Jeb and Cletus would say.

And yet … I hadn’t really heard much about it.

I knew it was dry recently, but only in the same vague way I knew it was a bit warm.

It’s not like the news is very good at following more than one apocalypse at a time.

Frankly, I haven’t lately paid attention to much weather beyond my own mental fog.

Then, of course, a lot of things have been on fire across the south lately.

That’s pretty serious.

You can tell because our governor went so far as to issue executive orders saying, essentially, “it’s dry; don’t burn things, dummies.”

While that might seem like obvious advice in a drought, this is Georgia, where his predecessor once, during a drought, no shit, led a prayer group to ask God for rain.

Leadership is relative, folks.

Speaking of which, don’t look too closely at that science team, not unless you want a serious excuse to up your anxiety and/or alcoholism.

I won’t bore you with the data, but I feel it in my bones.

Huh. With statements like that, maybe I can get a job on that science team.

I don’t have a degree in the field, but that hardly seems disqualifying for working in this administration.

Then again I actually believe in science, so maybe not.

Regardless, this is just the beginning.

Fires and drought and T-shirt weather into winter.

Sea ice? What sea ice?

Buckle in.

Meanwhile, Jeb and Cletus will keep making marks on the barn, until the fires or the floods come.