Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Obligatory Robert Parker Post

When Dave Driscoll posted that Robert Parker decided to tackle bourbon, my reaction was a Tourette's attack that I don't feel comfortable repeating here. Most of the writing in the bourbon world has been negative, as exemplified in the thoughtful article by Tim Read at Scotch and Ice Cream. Everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon in decrying this move by Parker, mainly citing his reductive rating system and apparent ignorance of bourbon before reviewing them (to be fair, the article was really hilarious in its ignorance.)

My reaction was somewhat different. I don't actually think Bob is evil. There, I said it. This article from 2000 in the Atlantic paints a very human picture of a guy that discovered he really enjoyed wine and food and made his own business writing his opinions of wines that he tried. He seems to both be a pretty regular guy at base and is also possessed of an almost savant-like power to remember and describe wines. 

Over the years, he has become an unlikely arbiter of wine taste in the world. He has also been demonized for "Parkerizing" the appreciation of wine, and for the increasing trend of winemakers to put out (over)exctracted, aggressively-oaked, high-alcohol wines, in preference to the traditional styles that get fewer "parker points." The silly thing here is that no one is making anyone do anything. The guy likes wines of a certain style and pretty much put the Southern Rhone on the map for this reason. But who said that Bordeaux had to break down and produce black-colored wine that tastes like vanilla ice cream? No one made them, they did it because Parker likes that sort of wine, and wines he likes sell.

Here is the problem. It is us. We, the consumers, are too impressionable by opinion, expectation and peer pressure. Not you and me in particular, obviously, but certainly our friends and acquaintances. When some douchey friend shows up with a $200 bottle of wine that got "98 points" in Parker, we are all impressed. Even if we are not, we can never discount that information enough. Sure, we might not think it was nearly perfect or worth that kind of money, but we are likely to have a positive experience, and our douchey friend will probably buy a case, his friends will do the same, and soon Chateau Petrus is $8000 a bottle.

This is exactly the same thing as happened to Pappy. It was, for many of us, a really nice treat of a bourbon at $50 dollars or so that we loved to share with our friends as an example of how good a bourbon could be. Then the hype machine then took over. We then made it worse by buying all we could as we saw availability declining and prices rising, creating a feedback loop that ends with assholes selling Pappy for $800 in Craigslist.

My fear is that we are going to let this happen to other bourbons (Blanton's seems to have been rated scarily high at 97) that we like. There is only one solution to this: we need to educate each other and our friends better about our favored hobby in an accessible way. We need to create an alternative for the confused guy in the liquor store that is being drawn to the "95 points!" shelf talker. We also need to spread the word that, if his last article is indication, Parker knows very little about bourbon and we don't have to listen to him. This is the reason that he doesn't even try to review Burgundy anymore: he made a number of bad calls and embarrassing mistakes early on, no one listened to him about Burgundy, and now he doesn't even review it anymore. We have to encourage the same thing.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Parker's Heritage Collection 2012

Water, lipids and alcohol.
The last 2 variables of bourbon experience we will deal with in this series are the effects of chill-filtration and proof. Often "barrel-proof" and "unchillfiltered" are proudly marked on bottles, and like all "extra" designations ("small batch," "limited," "handmade") these can often motivate higher prices. But what do they really mean, and what effect to they really have.

This one is pretty easy. The current standard US proof is equal to 2 x ABV, so a bottle containing 50% alcohol would be 100 proof. The term itself was an English one and used to refer to 7/4 the ABV, making 100 proof 57.14% ABV. This was the minimum ABV that spirit mixed with gunpowder would ignite, this providing a handy test for 18th century British captains to "prove" the strength of the rum they used as payment to sailors.

On of the main practical considerations of proof is an economic one. In most places some variation on proof X gallons (or proof gallons) is used to calculate taxes due on whiskey. As such, the tax on the barrel is fixed and can be mitigated by watering down the stuff to the legal minimum. This is why barrel-proof whiskies are not priced as the "bourbon concentrates" that they essentially are, but rather a little higher.

This leads to the first effect of ABV: concentration of flavor. When you tap the barrel it has all of the flavor molecules it is going to have and watering it down, well, waters it down. This is not to say that all whiskey should be drunk at barrel proof (which I do not believe), but that having the producer water it down for you saves them money and prevents you from trying it at full strength or deciding how much water to add. The legal minimum proof is 80, and for American whiskey I find very few examples that taste good with this much water.

So concentrated it blocks out the sun!
That said, water can improve the experience of a whiskey, and this is because there are a number of lipophilic (fat soluble) molecules that impart flavor. Anyone who has ever made bacon infused bourbon can attest to the solubility of fatty flavor compounds in alcohol; these are often not soluble in water. This is highly dependent on alcohol concentration: as the ABV drops, these compounds come out of solution and are easier to taste and smell (hence some of the "opening up" talked about when adding water to spirit). If there are enough of these compounds in the solution, they will cloud the liquid as water is added and they precipitate out. This is what is responsible for the dramatic louche seen when dropping water into absinthe.

That this is not always apparent in whiskey is due to the following variable.

Chill Filtration
People apparently don't like buying cloudy whiskey and they don't like their whiskey to cloud up when they add ice (these are apparently the same evil people that prefer their wine to be clear). In order to prevent this aesthetic disaster, distillers often subject whiskey to chill filtration. In addition to alcohol/water ration, the other thing that effects solubility of fatty acids in whiskey is temperature. So, the distiller proofs down the whisky to the desired strength, chills it until it is cloudy and then filters out all the cloudy stuff. This leaves you with a spirit that will not cloud up when cold or watery, but is also without a number of its flavor compounds. You may like the flavor better after filtration, but it is definitely different.

PHC6 left, ECBP right; both with water
All of that said, then, it would be my preference that all whiskeys be offered at barrel proof and unfiltered because 1) I like their unprocessed flavor and 2) I have access to water and don't mind a touch of cloudiness. That we don't have these is due to 1) the ATF and 2) people who drown their stuff in ice but still want it to look pretty. 

Anyway, today we will finish up with our Heaven Hill series with the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and the (premsuably barrel proof) Parker's Heritage Collection 2012.

The ECBP is a new offering that is essentially a barrel proof and unfiltered version of the EC12 reviewed in the last post. This offering is 12 years old, but the fact that this is relegated to the back label makes me suspicious that it will always be so. The most recent PHC is a blend of an apparently similar 11 year-old bourbon (we'd have to guess the usual 75/15/10) and an 11 year-old wheated mashbill bourbon (as seen in Larceny and Old Fitzgerald). 

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 12 years old, 67.1% ABV ($40)
A new offering from heaven hill, this is essentially the EC12 presented at full strength and unfiltered. A you can see from the photo above it is ridiculously concentrated in terms of color, and the alcohol is very high, making us think that it lost a lot to evaporation, especially water (it likely entered the barrel at 62.5%). I would have to guess by this that it came from fairly high up in the warehouse. Tasted uncut:
Nose: Starts of with ethereal notes and very obvious alcohol. Then caramel, dry attic, maple syrup and a hint of charcoal.
Palate: Numbingly high alcohol. Should probably not be put into the body in this form. Popcorn, caramel, cloves and maple with caramel toward the end. Heavy bodied and medium sweet.
Finish: Warming as expected, but clean. The caramel and spice flavors are joined by apple and fade over abour 2 minutes.

 This is interesting and very intense stuff. While I find this easier to drink neat than Bookers, it is just too hot undiluted and actually anesthetizes the palate. As such, I think to drink this at full proof is a mistake as many of the flavors are lost.

Diluted to 107 Proof
Adding distilled water at room temperature produces a glass like the picture above. I've really never seen a whiskey cloud up to this degree before. It even leaves a film of fatty compounds on the walls of the glass. Having watered it, the nose becomes much fruitier and adds apple and pear notes to the above aromas as well as butter; the ethereal quality is also enhanced, leading to a more EC18 like nose in this regard. The palate also improves, adding cherries and anise to the previous flavors. The finish is not notably different.

As long as you are willing to water it down to a reasonable proof, this is a powerful, hugely flavored version of Heaven Hill's well-liked EC12. To be honest, I think the lack of filtration is more of a draw than the proof, but either way this is excellent stuff for $40 and I have to recommend it highly.

Parker's Heritage Collection 6th Edition (2012), "Blend of Mashbills" 66.6% ($90)
The yearly PHC releases are considered to represent the best that Master Distiller Parker Beam can put forth from Heaven Hill. Previous releases, such as the 27 year-old bourbon, the Golden Anniversary, and the 10 year-old wheater have been very well received. The most recent offering is a blend of 11 year-old wheated bourbon with 11 year-old standard mashbill bourbon, presented at barrel strength and unfiltered. This move is unusual, and presents us with what is essentially a barrel-proof four-grain bourbon. I can't think of many other examples of that (maybe some versions of Noah's Mill?). In any case, this all sounds interesting, as well as expensive.
Nose: This is an incredible nose. Loads of caramel. Caramel for days. Then cloves/cinnamon and other "spices" and buttered corn. This really smells delicious.
Palate: Much easier, despite proof. Butter, caramel, pastries, cinnamon toast. Noticeable bitterness (the same I find in lot B... maybe a wheater thing?). Sort of boring and disjointed. Neither a wheater nor  a rye bourbon in profile, and the alcohol is pretty high still.
Finish: Still a bit bitter, some wood pops up here as well. Fades quickly.

Watered to 107 proof
Watering this down, as expected, produces cloudiness, though not to the extent of the ECBP (see comparison photo above, in controlled conditions at home they are actually more similar). Something really cool happens here, though. The nose goes from being a classic wheater at full proof, to smelling very like a rye with water. This has notes of wood, maple, strong rye spices,  and even rye bread. Still a very nice, but completely different nose. The palate, unfortunately does not improve and tastes more like an Evan Williams and Old Fitz cocktail. The finish dissappears other than the alcohol burn.

This is one of the more interesting noses in a bourbon I've run across lately, and the magic change with water is really pretty cool. However, do not find it pleasant to actually drink. The palate seems disjointed and dilution does not really help. I think it would have been interesting if they had marketed this as two, 375 ml bottles and let us try to blend it ourselves, but no one is asking me. Sadly, I think this stuff does not deliver what it should for twice the price of either the 18 or the Barrel Proof.

So, thanks for joining us on our tour of the Heaven Hill Bourbons and some of the non-mashbill variables that affect our whiskey. In closing, I would recommend buying at least one ECBP. It will last you a long time due to the proof and, even if it is not an every day drinker, it's certainly worth trying out. I would also suggest EC12 as a fine all-rounder that totally over-delivers for $23. I would recommend trying the PHC before you buy it (I still see it on shelves), but I can't really recommend it for the price. For the EC18, I can only suggest you buy as many as possible and send them to me.