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One of the most distinctive features of scotch whisky is the use of peat in the early phase of the production process, kilning. Used to terminate barley germination and growth in preparation for mashing and sugar conversion, peat adds the most unique of flavors to the final spirit at the very front end. Water addition temperatures, yeast and bacteria during fermentation,  distillation cuts, and of course the type, size, and length of time in oak barrels all have a significant influence on the final flavor profile, but no other ‘nose/taste contributor’ has such a dramatic effect and so early in the process.

Its no wonder that Islay whiskies, with their overwhelmingly heavily peated barley, are renowned for their big and powerful malts. Did you know that the PC series from Bruichladdich sports the Islay peat while its big brother Octomore benefits from mainland peat? A little less known altogether are the heavily peated mainland malts. I had the chance to pick up this bottle in a travel retail location (airport in Taiwan) and was astounded!

The peated malt

Old Ballantruan, the peated malt

Its starts out with a burst of medicinal phenols, peaty, earthy and salty, but also somewhat floral in the herbal and haylike sense. Its a NAS (younger?) and the nutty, malty flavors come through nicely. Rich and full bodied, the sweetness is evident and the fruity tartness is in balance. In a blind tasting you could have convinced me this was a young Ardbeg or a heavily peated Bunnahabhain. Finishes long and crisp, like a sweet wood fired oven roasting some hazelnuts.

Produced by Tomintoul, a speysider, it is named after the Ballantruan Spring where the distillery draws its water. Well done Tomintoul, excellent expression!

In his famous 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey says that in order to have success and happiness in life, you must develop and maintain strong relationships, building your circle of influence outward by being more proactive, and keeping all interactions as healthy as possible. Whether you are talking about family and childhood friendships, or casual work place exchanges and the many people you meet on the job day to day, the value of nurturing the “relationship” as you would an organic living thing is immeasurable.

As i think about last year in general, the people I have met & the friendships i have made, and all the connections I have established in the whisky business in particular, I find Covey’s words more true than ever for me.

Our main goals this year will be to be more proactive, maintaing the relationships we have established with producers, distributors and retailers, and expand our network to new ones.

One of the producers in particular that we are looking forward to continued growth with is Kilchoman. Last year we had the pleasure of meeting the crew running the operation. We toured the distillery with general manager John mcLellan. His deep whisky knowledge and passion stems from decades of experience in the industry.

After spending 21 years at Bunnahabhain and being responsible for roughly 2 million liters a year in production, he joined the Rockside farm distillery in 2005, where experienced illeachs participate in every single aspect of production, from growing the barley and malting it on the floors seen below to maturing and bottling on site.

Floor malting at Kilchoman

It takes 1 Ton of barley to yield 400 liters of new make spirit at 70% abv. While these are typical yield rates for single malt producers, the limited space and capacity means that Kilchoman is at the moment a small operation, producing roughly 120 thousand liters a year.

We had visited them soon after the remy – bruichladdich deal was announced making kilchomand the only Islay distillery that is independently owned.

Despite the small production, the quality of the product is starkly evident beginning with the new make we were fortunate enough to sample. The excellence of “100% islay”, released in 2011, is yet another testament to the care taken in the production process and the quality that results.

We hosted Kilchoman at our tasting in Monterey last October and the Machir bay was a huge hit. I am sure 2013 will be a good year for Kilchoman as more product matures and the fantastic releases continue and we can’t be more eager to engage with them even more.

On a ‘travel-tip’ note, if you ever have the pleasure of visiting this amazing island of peat smoke and spirit, make sure you check out the visitors center; best breakfast on the island, period.

Jan 17

Reflections

As we begin planning for this years activity, our next scheduled tastings, and our upcoming events, we wanted to make sure we took count of both the successes and the failures of 2012; to enjoy all our wins while reflecting on what got us there, and capture our mistakes, learn from them, and improve.

In 2012 we discovered that while many are lamenting the whisky boom and predicting a bust, the general public is still in the early phases of their interest in whisky and thus there is significant potential for momentum in the direction of providing education (being open about the making process and AGE) and excellent quality spirits from producers.

Its true that there are plenty of poor quality, over priced bottlings out there, from big producers and the so-called, and, self-proclaimed craft distillers alike. However as whisky awareness increases and the curious out there becomes a fanatic, market forces in favor of the quality, transparent  moderately priced producers will exert their power and only these strong few will survive. There is also a possibility that people will continue to pay increasing prices for their favorite expressions regardless of whether they use coloring, chill-filter, use younger whisky to push out more product, slap a new label on it and sell it for 5%, 10%, 15% more. At least for now I am not that cynical.

As for Off The Rocks, in 2013 we will continue to be focused on our mission of providing education and access. As we engage in more conversations with our customers about what they like, how each distillery differs from the other thus making it unique, we will be able to arrange access through our events, rounding off the whole spirit enjoyment experience.

We are expecting 2013 to be a year of significant growth. Stay tuned to our upcoming activities through this blog and our facebook page.

DK


THE WHISKY EXPO 2012  – MONTEREY, CA

Off The Rocks presents The Whisky Expo, a premier Scotch whisky tasting event and education for the Central Coast, to be held in Monterey, CA, debuting on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at the elite Pasadera Country Club.  This event will attract malt appreciators and whisky connoisseurs, spanning the California Central Coast with particular focus on San Louis Obispo, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.

With an impressive list of over 55 whiskies from around the world, this event will allow guests to interact with distillery representatives and provide a forum for whisky tasting education. Indulge your senses with tasty Hors d’oeuvres and sample some of the finest spirits in the world. All guests will receive a complimentary Off The Rocks Glencairn glass and will be entered to win prizes, such as hats, exclusive bottles, golf clubs and more. This is an event you don’t want to miss

! Invite your friends and follow the event on Facebook!

 

Leviathan Cask III

The Lost spirits’ Leviathan I cask III

Look at the color on this! a result of an extra active cask that was just over half filled. An inkling into was this spirit will be like after several years of maturation, could be the best I’ve tried from Lost Spirits Distillery.

On the nose:

Beery notes set aside as compared to Cask II, sweet fruit with just hints of smoke.

On the palate:

Initial taste you’d never guess this is cask strength; lots of flavor with little acid.

Smoke punches your mid-palate and then retreats, the richness comes in with all the creaminess you’d expect from a wine cask though making you crave the smoke to come back. And come back it does on the finish but just for a brief moment. Finish is sweet, slightly smoky and long.

Couldn’t have enough of this! So drinkable it is dangerous!

Leviathan I Cask I

Lost Spirits’ Leviathan I

The latest edition from a pioneer California single malt producer. Lost spirits has a unique take on the whole process of whisky production. From a hand-built smoker burning Canadian peat, to a hand built log and copper still, their product is a definite standout. ‘Leviathan I” is peated to 110 ppm phenols, the highest in the world outside of Islay Scotland. Aged in late harvest cabernet casks, the spirit explodes with flavor. Despite its high %ABV it’s not overpowering.

On the nose, you are greeted by the smoked barley, malty, yeasty, husky, but also by nutty flavors of bitter hazelnuts and chocolate in the background. Smoky, but not with an iodine, turpentine type of medicinal note, but rather in a bonfire, earthy way.

On the palate, the sweetness of the late harvest cab casks comes in. Some floral notes but later almonds and coffee over a wood fire.

Nice long-ish finish, leaving you mystified as to how to categorize this “monster”.

There have been plenty of articles on the overuse of “Craft”/”Artisanal” anything. Artisanal pizza from Dominos, Artisanal bagels from Dunkin donuts… Check out Lewis black’s hilarious take on it .  The word artisanal has practically lost “quality” from its definition as many bloggers have picked up on.

To be sure, quality is no insignificant factor when assessing craft spirits. We are impressed when we hear that distillery X is malting their own barley, use traditional methods of distillation, or bottle on-site. We applaud them for taking more of the process in house to ensure that every aspect can be overseen and that care can be taken at every level. What if you found a distillery that not only malt their own barley and bottle on site but also perform every other process in between? We’d want to know whether it is of the high quality sort. Enter “Lost spirits” – what is most likely the latest addition to the American craft distilling world.

I must say that when I first heard about them I was very excited – ‘A distillery the produces a highly peated single malt in my city? Fantastic!’

Unless you live in Salinas though, you may not share my enthusiasm…yet. The story gets much better. This relatively young distillery (opened in 09) was founded by Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta. They moved back to their native California, after a period of US alienation during which they produced the famed Obsello absinthe in Spain, full of enthusiasm for producing great whisky in the US catching the rising wave of craft distilling sweeping the country.

Bryan has such a solid grip on every aspect of producing a fine spirit, it is no wonder he wants to make sure every step is supervised by his expert eyes. To that end, he ventured out starting essentially from scratch. The picture you see below is a hand-built, custom designed still modeled after the lost ‘log and copper’ stills – a method of distillation that uses wooden barrels and is powered by steam. The process essentially doubles the spirits content of the organic compound Furfural which imparts unique aromas typically associated with oak maturation. In practical terms, they are achieving faster maturation, but not quite getting the full oak maturation effect since it is only the compound Furfural that is being doubled, the only oak derived compound that can pass over the still. If all other aspects of the process including barley selection, smoking methods, fermentation, and maturation were the same as other producers, they are still getting something very unique.

Lost spirits use California grown organic barley, supporting local producers. They malt the barley on site, smoking it in the case of the ‘Leviathan I’, to an impressive 110 ppm phenol level in a hand built smoker pictured below. –Read the tasting notes.

The peat is imported from Canadian bogs. Bryan notes that “pretty much the whole northern part of planet earth is a giant peat bog.” Differing climates and habitats make themselves pronounced in the peat that develops and thus becomes very much terroir specific. Canadian peat bogs impart coffee chocolate flavors in much higher concentration than the phenolic iodine type notes found in Islay peat.