Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

A friend recently asked me for a recommendation for a decent quality Islay whisky. Hitting an online site to see what’s available locally, I came up with Laphroaig 10, Bowmore 12, and Ardbeg 10–all good candidates and priced within a few dollars of each other. Sending him the list, I braced for the inevitable question: “All things being equal, why wouldn’t I get the twelve year? It’s better than a ten year, right?”

While it’s true that the time a spirit spends aging has a huge impact on the resulting flavor, an attempt to reduce the complicated factors and interactions that go on inside a barrel to a single number is a hopeless oversimplification that confuses consumers. Spirit production and the resulting flavor is complicated and messy, and not readily quantifiable in every dimension. Sure, you can compare the alcohol by volume (ABV) content across two whiskies, but ten years of aging from Producer X may be vastly different than ten years of aging done by Producer Y.  Unfortunately, this fixation on aging as reduced to digits leads some producers to play a numbers game, putting big numbers on their label to draw the eye of an unsuspecting consumer.

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It’s a Gas! Preserving Your Expensive Spirits Collection

We all know that the finer things in life require a bit of care and upkeep from time to time. Got a nice car? You’re probably keeping it under cover, having it waxed, and changing the oil regularly. Love rare vinyl? You’re probably keeping those records carefully sleeved and in a spot that that’s not too warm or too chilly. Even something as basic as your iPhone gets protected by a case and screen film. In each of these scenarios, exposure to the elements has a negative effect over time.

If your experience with spirits is just buying a few bottles for mixing in cocktails, and regularly replacing a bottle when you’ve emptied it, this article might have little to offer. However, if you’re wonky enough about spirits to have a nice collection of whisk(e)y, rum, or mezcal that’s growing faster than you can reasonably (or healthfully) consume it, read on!

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Rum is made from Sugar – And so are Bourbon, Cognac, Vodka and Tequila

A recent article in Harper’s, The Rise of Rum Part 2: Reaching new sugar highs, has been making the rounds in the rum community, and not in a favorable way. While purporting to educate, promote and document rum’s recent rise in popularity, it actually does quite the opposite, with inane, and misleading passages like this:

Rum is sugar-based so it is more of an upper rather than downer. It’s suited to late night bars and rum-based cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris….

Rum has a broad appeal because its ingredients are sugar cane and molasses,” he explained. “I’ve noticed that the younger generation like a lot of sweetness in their drinks”

It’s not stuffy like cognac, overly traditional like whisky, depressing like gin, or superficial like vodka. It’s made of sunshine.

No, to be quite honest, rum is made from fermented sugar, and so is every other distilled spirit. Surprised? Read on.

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Lagavulin Brings its Ultra-Rare Whisky And Stories to Tales of the Cocktail

The early bird catches the worm. It’s day five of Tales of the Cocktail 2016, and the penultimate sessions have just wrapped up. An 8 AM alarm clock rings—what? In New Orleans?–to taste precious Cognacs from 1975, 1969, and oh… 1914, aged for 72 years. But that’s a story for another post. A brief spell back in the hotel room would be luxurious. Idly flipping through the options for the final sessions of the event, I suddenly froze: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar! Having visited Lagavulin on Islay just six months earlier on my fiftieth birthday, I feel a connection to the distillery, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to go to this session. My Tales media credentials had been great the past five days, getting me into sessions by way of the standby line, after all the paying ticketholders got their rightful first shots at the good seats.

Reading the Lagavulin session description again, I realized to my concurrent joy and dismay that it’s an Exclusive Tasting session. These are the crème de la crème of Tales events. Costing in the $130 range, they’re limited to just twenty people and sell out fast, sometimes even during the Tales365 presales, before they open to the public. The spirits at these sessions are exceptional and very hard to come by. Given Lagavulin’s popularity with the whisky crowd, it was a foregone conclusion that all the tickets had been sold. And who drops $130 on a ticket and doesn’t go?

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Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want

It’s Saturday night in Tacoma, WA and I’m perched in my usual spot at the bar at Tacoma Cabana. Tiki master Jason Alexander is showing me his latest well lineup. Strangely, there’s no Plantation rums, typically the core of his lineup. I ask about their omission. “Can’t get ‘em anymore” he says. How can this be?

Plantation parent company, Maison Ferrand has been a darling of bartenders and spirits aficionados for years, selling well-regarded brands like Plantation, Citadelle Gin, Cognac Ferrand, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, and many others. You’ll find their brands on craft cocktail menus all over the U.S. However, here in Washington State, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of Pierre Ferrand products on a bar menu or liquor store shelf in recent days. But only six months ago, the situation was very different–Ferrand’s products were readily available and pouring into cocktails in bars everywhere. So what gives? The answer is a microcosm of what’s wrong with how liquor is sold in the United States.

Up till recently, Washington stores and bars would order their Ferrand products from American Northwest, a regional wine and spirits distributor. Until one day a new distributor, Crush & Cooper of Washington LLC, announced they were the new Washington distributor for Pierre Ferrand. Hmmmm…. Order fulfillment shifted to Crush & Cooper, and things were running smoothly for months, till one day when the flow simply dried up. American Northwest had filed a lawsuit to prevent Crush & Cooper of Washington from selling a number of products previously distributed by American Northwest, including Ferrand’s. The end result for Washington State consumers (at least in the short term) is that a large number of spirits are suddenly unavailable in bars or on store shelves.

How is this possible? Why does who distributes a product matter? And why can only one distributor sell a product in a given market? If the answers to these questions are a mystery, you’re likely not yet familiar with the byzantine disaster known as the Three-Tier Distribution system. If you set out to design an efficient system for getting a wide variety of goods from producers to consumers, a la Amazon.com, it would look completely unlike today’s existing Three-Tier system. The number of players and regulations involved makes it a minor miracle that anybody in the U.S. has access to more than five brands. Let’s take a look at the Three-Tier, and see how it impacts what liquor you drink.

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The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2015

2015 was a banner year for this boozy, wonky corner of the web. From in-depth coverage of the Lost Spirits game-changing aging reactor and the cane fields of Nicaragua to tons of reviews and recipes, it’s been a jam-packed year that wowed us when we took in its full breadth.  Here are the top ten stories on the blog this year:

Lost Spirits THEA reactor
The equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in six days –these are the claims of California’s Bryan Davis. While his Lost Spirits rums had previously grabbed the attention of the rum world in 2014, the announcement that he would license his technology to other distilleries was big news in 2015, especially for the small startup shops looking to compete against established players. I covered the story extensively in 2015 and was the first to cover the initial announcement of the licensing, as well as the first with pictures and background on THEA One reactor. And as part of the coverage, I wrote a lengthy piece about the science and analysis of spirits flavors.

Flor de Caña sugar worker controversy
An article in Vice magazine about unusually high levels of kidney-disease related deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters caught the attention of the rum and bartending worlds. Rum was dumped and boycotts announced. Here at the Cocktail Wonk blog, we covered the initial controversy and added key additional perspectives to the discussion. The problem is wider than just one rum brand, and a scientific study points to other possible causes beside too much work and not enough hydration for workers.

Minimalist Tiki
We love Tiki and rum drinks at Casa Cocktail Wonk. However, Tiki can be intimidating for the home bartender, as recipes often contain many highly specific ingredients. In the Minimalist Tiki post, I rounded up a solid set of classic Tiki drinks, methodically analyzed them, and create a prioritized list of ingredients and appropriate rum substitutions. Additional Tiki love and recipes are found in my post about Seattle bartenders and their Iron TikiTender recipes.

Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone
Lots of cocktail wonks enjoy sharing their latest tipple on social media – I’m more guilty than most. However, there’s way too many dimly lit –or worse, overly lit–cocktail photos out there in the wild. And too many close up snaps of coupes with no bar ambience. Seeking to rectify these atrocities, I wrote a post with tons of tips and tricks for creating great looking bar photos with just your camera phone, rather than a professional photographer’s gear.

Suitcase Booze
Building an internationally sourced spirits collection that’s the envy of your friends is fun! There’s no need to limit yourself to a single bottle you picked up at the duty free. But what should you buy, and is it a good price? There are opportunities and pitfalls galore here–take it from someone who routinely returns from abroad with fifteen or more bottles in their luggage. There’s a ton of hard-won wisdom in my post about buying spirits on the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Having toured the western half of the Kentucky Bourbon trail in 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned in 2015 to knock off the eastern half. In forty-eight hours we hit up Willett (again), Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Each write-up has tons of photos and what to expect.

Using the TTB to find unannounced spirits
New releases of spirits make my heart go pitter-patter. But waiting for distilleries, importers, distributors, or your local liquor stores to tell you about them takes far too long. Why not go straight to the source and find out about them months before anyone else? In my post on how to decipher the TTB web site, I explain how every spirit sold in the U.S. must get government approval, and point toward their searchable database with label images. The site may be tricky to navigate without my tips, but once you know how to use it, it’s easy to find things like upcoming rum releases.

Tales of the Cocktail
Oooh, boy–2015 was my first year at the Tales of the Cocktail, and what an insane experience it was! From the parties and general mayhem and tons of rummy events to specialized sessions on Peruvian pisco and rare Plantation rums, it was chock full of wonky goodness. And so many great bars as well!

Rum Renaissance
The annual Miami Run Renaissance is where most of the U.S. rum nerds and overseas rum celebrities come to bask in the all the sugar cane goodness. In addition to my overall coverage of the event, I also covered the Plantation breakfast event where we learned in detail about how Stiggins’ Fancy is made, and other Plantation news.

Berry Brothers  & Rudd
Among my personal favorite highlights of the year was a private tour of London’s Berry Brothers & Rudd establishment with their spirits manager, Doug McIvor. Truly one of the greatest spirits collections in the world and with tons of history – the store and company dates back to 1698, and they’ve supplied the British Crown since 1760. Their cellars and back rooms are chock full of fabulous stories.

What’s next for the blog? While 2015 was out of control, I can’t wait for 2016! Mrs. Wonk and I depart for Scotland in January to blaze a trail through Scotch whisky distilleries in Islay and Speyside – with full coverage here, of course. We’re also planning to jump again into the fray of Tales of the Cocktail, Rum Renaissance, Midwest Rum Fest, and hopefully a few more events as well. Plus a steady stream of spirits reviews and other wonky, spirited stories as they unfold!