Birth of a Sherry Cask

The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.

Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.

Continue reading “Birth of a Sherry Cask”

Mystery Isle or Distillery? Unveiling Lost Spirits’ new Los Angeles Location

In his 1895 book, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells posits a tabletop device that takes people backward and forward in time. Even if you can’t literally travel through time (yet), the ability to compress it has nearly limitless appeal. With his disruptive, rapid aging technology for spirits, Bryan Davis is doing just that: A way of forcing the chemical reactions that occur during barrel aging to happen orders of magnitude faster than Mother Nature would allow in her own sweet time.

It’s no surprise that Davis has latched on to a time machine metaphor for his rapid-aging spirit reactor (“a time machine for booze”), even using it as the title of his TEDx presentation about it.  Now, I realize this may be old news to many of you, as the story of Lost Spirits and Bryan has spread far and wide.  Stories in Wired, the Huffington Post, and numerous other spirits publications (including yours truly) have told the story many times over.

Continue reading “Mystery Isle or Distillery? Unveiling Lost Spirits’ new Los Angeles Location”

Peeking Inside Scotch Whisky Stalwart Cragganmore

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Cragganmore distillery in Ballindalloch, Speyside.

Day five of our single malt distillery sprint dawns with a crisp, cold morning, the skies clearing after the prior evening’s rain. Most of the snow has melted and the roads are blessedly free of cars as we hurry along the two-lane A95 from Dufftown to Banffshire. It’s our first daytime experience in the rural parts of Speyside outside of Dufftown and Rothes, and the sights are everything we’d hoped for–lush green farmland rolling as far as the eye can see, bridges over sparkling streams, and rugged low mountains in the distance. Today is our “Diageo Day,” with visits to two of the Scotch whisky powerhouse’s lesser known distilleries in store. Our first stop: Cragganmore.

Continue reading “Peeking Inside Scotch Whisky Stalwart Cragganmore”

The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2016

While 2016 was a year many would have gladly skipped, here in the Cocktail Wonk corner of the boozy blogosphere, it’s been gangbusters for great experiences and stories. As I wrote my 2015 roundup post a year ago, I wasn’t altogether convinced that 2016 would be able to top it. Boy, was I wrong!

Over the past twelve months, I’ve written fewer straight-up spirit reviews and cocktail recipes and more long form essays. It’s taken a while to get to that level. The opportunities for unknown stories and fresh takes on topics are there to be found, but it requires waiting for the right contacts and opportunities to fall into place, as they did this year.

What follows is my take on the most important topics I covered this year. It’s an entirely subjective ranking on my part, without regard to actual page visit statistics. Some entries represent a single post that particularly resonated with readers, while others are a collection of posts.  Hyperlinks to the original posts are interspersed in the descriptions below.

Continue reading “The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2016”

Touring Speyside’s Glen Grant Scotch Whisky Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Glen Grant distillery in Rothes, Speyside.

A particular challenge during boozy expeditions to faraway lands is the Sunday syndrome. You’re excited to see everything in a precious few days, but the locals have (deservedly) taken the day off. Places are closed! With strategic planning however, you can avoid the dreaded “Sorry, we’re closed!” disappointment, which is how Mrs. Wonk and I came to visit Glen Grant, one of only two Speyside whisky distilleries open on a snowy January Sunday.

Continue reading “Touring Speyside’s Glen Grant Scotch Whisky Distillery”

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.

Continue reading “Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?”

Touring Speyside’s Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Speyside.

Continue reading “Touring Speyside’s Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky Distillery”

Bruichladdich Distillery – Stepping Back in Time and Into the Future

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay.

While on Islay, you’d be hard-pressed to skip visiting or at least not drive through scenic Port Charlotte, home of one of the nicest hotels on the island. Heading southwest on the A847 toward town, you have to work to keep your eyes on the road rather than gawk at the roving bands of sheep and splendorous views over Loch Indall to your left, just a few dozen yards away. Passing a cluster of white painted houses perched on the right side of the road, you might think you’re on the outskirts of Port Charlotte. Except that, blink once, you’ve passed by a white, two-story stone-walled compound. This is your first encounter with Bruichladdich– an Islay distillery vastly different than Laphroaig and Lagavulin, who get the lion’s share of this small island’s attention.

Sheep near Bruichladdich
Sheep near Bruichladdich

Our arrival at Bruichladdich coincides with a slight break in Storm Gertrude, which hammered Scotland with high winds exceeding 100 miles perhour at times—thankfully not while we were crossing open water in our car ferry two evenings before. During a short lunch break between our morning Bowmore tour and Bruichladdich, we stopped at infamous Bowmore round church for a quick peek at the grounds and found ourselves—hardly wee people, we sturdy Americans–barely able to stay upright as wind gusts hurled us around. So it was with great relief that we pulled into the protected courtyard of Bruichladdich, sheltering walls on all four sides.

Continue reading “Bruichladdich Distillery – Stepping Back in Time and Into the Future”

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?

Continue reading “Lagavulin Brings its Ultra-Rare Whisky And Stories to Tales of the Cocktail”

Bowmore – An Inside Look at the Legendary Islay Distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bowmore distillery on the island of Islay.

1966 was a pivotal year in history:  The first episodes of Star Trek and Batman aired on U.S. television, the Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick Park, and the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. The first pictures from the moon were transmitted back to earth, and a certain wonkish cocktail aficionado was born in Fort Worth, Texas. And on a tiny island in the North Atlantic, eighteen-year-old Eddie MacAffer worked his first shift at the Bowmore distillery after having no luck finding other work during a seaman’s strike.

Quite literally starting at the bottom of the ranks, performing backbreaking work such as moving 500-pound barrels in the warehouse and turning over ton after ton of wet malt with a wooden shovel, Eddie worked his way up the ranks at Bowmore. Along the way he’s performed nearly every job at the distillery, so it’s only fitting that after all those years he became the distillery manager. These days he’s claiming he’ll retire soon, so we were extra lucky to have Eddie entirely to ourselves during a two-plus hour tour of Bowmore.

Continue reading “Bowmore – An Inside Look at the Legendary Islay Distillery”