The online retailer Rueverte sent us this little sample of Darroze – Les Grands Assemblages 12 ans d’age over a year ago, and it just sat on the shelf the whole time because I didn’t really know what to do with it. It wasn’t a large enough of a sample to make cocktails with, and if we’re being honest, I really don’t know anything about Brandy. I know even less about Armagnac. Before we gave this a shot, I was actually under the impression that it was distilled from apples for some reason, which is incredibly wrong.

It turns out that Armagnac is actually made the same way as Cognac (wine, distilled to a spirit), but in a different region of France, and with continuous column stills, rather than the pot still more commonly associated with Cognac. It was the first spirit distilled in France, and is only distilled once, resulting in a more fragrant and flavorful spirit than Cognac, but at the cost of smoothness. Aged in oak barrels softens the flavor and brings out more complexity.

The similarities in production to whiskey (which I relate everything to because it’s where I’m the most comfortable in what I know) didn’t end there. Even the nose was distinctly bourbon-like. Brown sugar and vanilla and butter with a little stonefruit at the end.

The taste was bold and woody. Sweet, but not the brandy sweet I’ve never been a fan of. Some notes of white grape, but none of the tartness of the skin, and a little grassiness as well. It had a nice deep belly burn, with almost none on the tongue. There was no ABV statement on our sample, but it drank like a ~94 proof bourbon. The aftertaste was candy sweet, and almost the best part of the drink.

We tried it with a drop of water, and chilled with an ice cube, but both just kind of ruined it. Room temperature was easily the best. Of the night, the Darroze was easily the favorite spirit we tasted, every one of us pretty much floored how much we were enjoying this tiny glass of brandy. In retrospect, I’m kind of glad we didn’t have enough to try in a cocktail, because it probably would have been a waste of flavors.

When we were finished, we tried a glass of the only other bottle of Armagnac we owned, Marie Duffau Napolean, but unfortunately it wasn’t what we had hoped. It wasn’t BAD, but a lot of the complexity was missing, and the sharp sweetness and strong grape flavor was there.

In the end, I’ve got to say I recommend picking up a bottle of the Darroze if you come across it. I hate to heap too much praise on something I’ve been sent for free because it makes me feel like a bit of a shill, but damn, if that wasn’t some tasty liquor.

It can be purchased online here, but I’m guessing it can’t be shipped to PA because the PLCB is the worst. Thanks again to Sarah, Jordan and Denise from rocksorneat.com and asideofketchup.com for helping us taste everything.



Last week, we decided to get together with a few of our friends from Rocks or Neat and Whiskey Club to do some tasting and experimenting with the backlog of samples we’ve been sent by people. We just gathered up the booze and went out to buy a bunch of generic cocktail ingredients to have on hand, and really get into experimenting with drinks rather than preparing complicated syrups and shrubs in advance. First up was Philadelphia Distilling’s newest offering, Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin.

To start things off, we did a tasting not only of the Barrel Finished edition that we were sent, but a side-by-side with the original Bluecoat from our own collection. The first thing we noticed was how similar the two smelled. Strong juniper nose with a little space, with a touch of oak to the aged version. I think we had been expecting a rich, sweet bourbon-ish smell, but it was still unmistakably gin.

Until we tasted it, that is. With the Barrel Finished, the nose had nearly nothing to do with the flavor, which was a bit odd at first, but not necessarily a bad thing. There was a ton of citrus flavor with a little pith for kick and notes of caramel. Not much juniper/anise flavor at all. It had a great rich, round mouthfeel, closer to that bourbon experience I was hoping for. Comparatively, the original Bluecoat was much sharper and thinner, with far less character. I’m not the world’s biggest gin fan, but the barrel finished is definitely an interesting entry to the category. The aging did a nice job rounding off the traditionally “ginny” flavors that might put off some drinkers that aren’t particularly fond of the classic flavors of gin. The consensus was the Barrel Finished was superior, and generally pretty damn tasty.

Experiments and recipes after the jump.

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photo courtesy of Geekadelphia

photo courtesy of Drink Philly

This week in gin: Philadelphia Distilling, one of our personal favorite distilleries (we may be a little biased) has released a limited edition barrel aged gin, and now they have the unenviable task of selling out of product in PLCB stores in order to stay on the shelves.

We’ve got a whole load of things to taste and experiment with this coming weekend, and Bluecoat Barrel Reserve is at the top our expectation heap. In the meantime, if you think you might be interested and live in Pennsylvania, you might want to head out and grab a bottle before it’s gone forever. I haven’t tasted it yet, but if the unaged spirit is any indication, it should be pretty delicious. But hurry, there are only two days left!

At the time of this writing, there’s still 1 bottle left at 11th and Wharton, 9 bottles at 7th and South, and a whole bunch at 43rd and Chestnut for you Philly folks. You can check for yourself on the PA Wine & Spirits website. Look for our full review and experiments next week.

Review: Woodchuck Hopsation


Though we don’t usually review beer and cider, sometimes when a rep reaches out and asks if you’d like to try out a new drink, you’re just in the mood to try out a new drink. That’s exactly what happened with Woodchuck Cider’s newest addition, Hopsation (5%ABV). If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure why I was interested in trying it, because while I do enjoy ciders, I find most Woodchuck expressions to be too sweet, and I am not the biggest fan of the current style of A MILLION HOPS FOREVER that seems to have taken over the beer industry. Lucky for me, Hopsation seems to have predicted this and decided it would prove me wrong.

Right off the bat, it smells different than most ciders. It has the sweetness, but also a large floral component that really made it smell like a carbonated Gewürztraminer (which is a semi-sweet, floral German wine that I happen to like, for those who haven’t tried it).

The taste wasn’t far off from the nose, either. It wasn’t as sweet as I expected, but not particularly dry either. Floral and very crisp, the hops did not impart any bitterness to the Hopsation at all, but rather a bright grapefruit/citrus tone. The most surprising thing wasn’t that the sweetness was under control or that the hops actually gave it an interesting flavor, but how restrained and subtle it was. Whenever I see a beer with a gimmick, I expect it to be heavily leaned upon, like cloying nutmeg Christmas ales, or pumpkin beers that taste like they’ve had a whole container of pumpkin pie spice dumped into them, but in this case, the gimmick actually improved the product.

If you hadn’t gathered by now, I was really expecting not to like the Hopsation at all, but I’ve got to say, I think I may have a reason to buy a case of Woodchuck Cider for the first time in many, many years.

Review: SIA Scotch Whisky


Photo: SIA Scotch

New kid on the block and recent Kickstarter success SIA Scotch Whiskey is creator Carin Luna-Ostaseksi’s attempt to create a blend (50% Speyside, 40% Highland, 10% Islay) to appeal to a “modern palate,” or as I take it, people who think they don’t like Scotch because it smells like their grandfather.

It is an interesting market to target, one that’s already being aggressively lured away from flavored vodkas with flavored whiskeys–think Fireball, and those flavored Jim Beam and Bushmills things. A lot of writers whose opinions I take as gospel are on opposite sides of the fence, ranging from “who cares, it’s not even whiskey” to “this will ruin us all,” (outlined really well here by Drew Lazor for Punch) but the general consensus among whiskey drinkers is that the stuff is gross if you have to put it in your mouth.

Personally, I’m ambivalent. I cringe a little when I hear people say “yeah, I love whiskey! Fireball is my favorite,” but for every one guy content with his Fireball, there’s one less buying an increasingly-tough-to-find bottle of something I love, bringing it home, and drowning it in Coke.

But I’m getting off track.

SIA seems to be taking a much more reasonable approach by blending a Scotch specifically tailored to these novice palates without adding other flavors to mask the natural flavor of the drink. Starting with the packaging, SIA has more in common with perennial liqueur favorites like St. Germain and Domaine de Canton than most Scotches I’ve seen, and even the name is a far cry from the Bruichladdichs and Laphroaigs of the world that the Scotch-shy might have a lifelong (albeit unfounded) aversion to. So far, I see what SIA is going for, and they seem to be doing an admirable job. But all this is just surface; how does it actually taste?

We were sent a little taster bottle to figure that out, and Sarah from Whiskey Club came over to try it with me. We didn’t get enough to do any cocktail experimenting, so we just did a straight tasting review.

NOSE: Pleasant, surprising lack of astringent burn. That band-aid smell most new drinkers complain about was entirely absent. Light and fruity was the consensus, with a little woodiness. Sarah got raisins and apple, I smelled more stonefruit.

TASTE: More wood and less fruit than the nose. I got a little pineapple. Overall, we agreed it was eminently drinkable, like the Scotch version of a session beer.  Almost no burn at all, with a lot of interesting flavors all mixed together. Once swallowed, the flavor doesn’t linger particularly long, as you normally might expect from something this light in body. We both agreed it would make for a great warm-weather drink.

VERDICT: Honestly, it was better than expected. We both agreed we’d drink it again (which is a rarity among blended Scotches for us), and we wouldn’t mind keeping a bottle around. We might not seek it out at a bar where a lot of other options are available, but really, SIA isn’t (in my opinion) for us. I like my bourbons north of 100 proof and so full bodied that you practically have to chew them, and Sarah is on an endless quest to find the most absurdly peated, smokey Scotch on earth. What SIA seems to do well is bridge that gap between people who like to say they drink whiskey and people who actually like whiskey. It’s bright, balanced, and pleasant, and a damn sight better attempt at catering to less experienced palates than I’ve seen among the flavored spirit offerings.

So if you’re one of the many that don’t LOVE Scotch, but you’d like to learn how, SIA could be a great first step down that path, in my opinion.


If I had to sum up last night’s Philadelphia Magazine Whiskey Festival at Lincoln Financial Field, it was a well-attended trade show for assorted alcohol. There was a smattering of solid whiskeys, and a few people there genuinely interested in talking about what they made, but for the most part, there was one trade show model on roller skates trying to pull you into some kind of Smirnoff-powered 40-year-old’s concept of a rave for every bottle of something rare that you could taste if you asked nicely.

That’s not to say that it was all bad, or that I think Philadelphia Magazine did a bad job. All the best whiskeys available at PA Liquor Control Board (PLCB) were represented, but for those familiar with the PLCB, that alone wouldn’t have filled a much smaller room. There was even a pop-up PLCB store right in the middle of the room, noteworthy only because they actually had Elmer T. Lee in stock. Everything else offered is generally available in any of their larger stores.

If the hobbling of the vendor variety weren’t enough, one of the most disappointing things to me was the majority of the booth staff, who were clearly PR reps, most of which didn’t seem to actually work for anyone in particular. They’d do the stock patter while pouring the sample, but once you showed interest in something they said, they would often simply turn away and start talking to someone else interested in hearing “aged in new white oak barrels” as though that were something special for a bourbon. Not all, mind you. There were a few stand-outs that were great to talk to: Four Roses, Tullamore Dew, Clyde May and Jefferson spring to mind. I’m sure there were other capable vendors as well, but I can’t help but be disappointed when the person hocking the stuff couldn’t give less of a shit about the product. And NONE of them had any water, which was pretty weird if you’ve ever been to a tasting.


During the VIP tasting portion

During general admission

During general admission

The first hour of the VIP ticketing ($150), which included 1.5 hours of tastings before the General Admission ($95) masses arrived, was actually pretty pleasant. There was room to move around, people that seemed genuinely interested in what they were tasting, and some decent notable tastes to be had. The Ardbeg Supernova, as listed in the press release, but also a bottle at the end of a long line of Pappy 20, a bottle of Jefferson Ocean, a Tullamore sherry-finished 12 year called Phoenix, and most exciting for me, a bottle of 2013’s bottling of the George T. Stagg Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, clocking in at a healthy 137-ish proof. These few were what saved the night for me from the weird sales pitches listing qualities that applied to basically anything in the building.

However, once 6:30 hit and the front doors swung open, the room was awash in packs of 5+ guys in ill-fitting suits high-fiving over glasses of Makers Mark and Jim Beam. The booth models changed gears from “milling around being friendly” to “sexy carnival barker,” and everything just got louder.

My crowd-based crankiness aside, the whole night served to reinforce how disappointing the PA state liquor system truly is. In order to get half the things I tasted (nearly everything I liked), I would need to illegally purchase it out-of-state. If I’m VERY lucky, I can get it special ordered, which means I have to navigate the horrible PLCB website to purchase it, pay upwards of $14 shipping to have them send it to one of their own stores, and still have to pick it up in person from people that have no interest at all in the product they’re selling. The whole system is such a giant goddamn bummer. That the only reasonable solution for anyone working with them to host a Whiskey Festival is to pack the room with Smirnoff, Orchata, and some neon orange something called OR-G kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? I don’t know that I’d count Bailey’s Chocolate Cream as a “fine spirit” as promised by the sub-title.

But at least on the card at the Buffalo Trace booth, they listed the SLO number for Pappy 20, so that should be pretty easy to get now, right?

Even with the Staggs and the Supernovas and the Oceans, I’m not sure I’d come back. Again, not due to anything Philadelphia Magazine did wrong, I just can’t see the up-side to spending money on a whiskey festival in Pennsylvania while the PLCB is still sucking all the air out of the room and replacing it with OR-G liqueur. I’ll just look for one in another state, and maybe get the chance to take home a bottle of something I like.

In closing: Fuck the PLCB.


Our Man in Havana


Our Man in Havana
1 oz Spiced Rum
1 oz White Rum
2 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Spodee
1 tbsp Coconut Cream

Pour over crushed ice
Shave nutmeg on top, garnish with mint

NOTES: The folks over at Spodee sent us a bottle of their new white version to try out, so we thought we’d work it into a drink. We tried it out on its own, and the label wasn’t lying when it said “notes of pineapple.” Solo, it’s a touch sweet for my taste, but I found that the sugar and fruity flavor makes it a really nice ingredient in a cocktail, fitting snugly into a spot between a heavier, sweeter syrup and a boozier liqueur. In this case, it played a nice part in a spin on the Pina Colada. It played well with the spiced rum to make the drink a little more interesting than the old coconut cream and mildest-rum-available standby. All in all, I’d say the Spodee White makes a good addition to a tiki-style arsenal. It’s different, but familiar. We tested this one out at a cocktail party, and it was a favorite of the night. Overall, I’d say the recipe was a solid one.


The final distillery we visited was Four Roses. I’ve been a fan of the Single Barrel for a while (and unsuccessfully tried to get my hands on the 2014 special release all year long), so this was another I was looking forward to. Somewhat disappointingly, Four Roses doesn’t age on-site, so we got to see the factory end with none of the sweet-smelling art portion of production.

Four Roses takes a somewhat different approach to aging than others. Unlike Buffalo Trace, who put the majority of their stock in where and how long the whiskey is aged, Four Roses produces 10 distinct distillates that are mixed after maturation. You can see the mix (which taste surprisingly different from one another in some cases) on the labels of the Single Barrel in the form of a 4-letter code (OESF, one of my favorites, for example).

They produce 2 different mashbills: E (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% barley) and B (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% barley). The “S” indicates the blend is a straight whiskey, and the final letter stands for one of 5 yeast strains Four Roses uses. Using the codes is a nice way to ensure the bottle you buy will taste just like the one you enjoyed last time.

This was the first distillery we visited that was actively working while we toured through, which was interesting. While it is fun to see in action, I have to say that seeing people eat a sandwich from a control booth while monitoring levels on screens takes a little of the magic out of the whole process.


As the distillate is produced, it is shipped off in tanker trucks to the aging location to be barreled and aged in single-story rickhouses for consistency.

While it may not have been the most thrilling tour we went on, we did pick up a few fun facts along the way. The first of which being that the distillation process produces a chemical that turns the surrounding trees black. It’s harmless, but unmistakable, and was used during prohibition by agents looking for hidden stills. The other interesting fact that I didn’t know beforehand is that Bulleit, everyone’s favorite standby, doesn’t actually exist. For all the marketing and back-story, all their bourbon is Four Roses bourbon, and the rye comes from KDI in Indiana. purchased in bulk and bottled as their own. With the looming bourbon shortage, it is likely that Four Roses will cease bulk sales in order to keep their limited supply to themselves. With the mountains of money they must generate, I’m sure Bulleit will find a new source, but there are scenarios where the brand could simply vanish, or at the very least, taste completely different.

So, that was our trip. I have to say, it’s great to see where the stuff we love comes from. I’d even like to take a quick trip back down in the near future. Or perhaps the next trip should be to Scotland?


The third stop on the trip was to Buffalo Trace, producer of several of my favorite bourbons. We called in advance and were set up with a pretty great private tour of the inner workings of the distillery. It happened to be a Sunday and no one was actually working, which turned out to be fortunate for us in terms of what we could see.

Buffalo Trace has been operating continuously since 1786, Originally opened by Colonel E. H. Taylor as O.F.C. Distillery (Old Fire Copper) and the Carlysle Distillery. George T. Stagg lent Taylor money, and eventually foreclosed on the distillery for non-payment. Taylor opened a second distillery down the road, which was eventually bought out by Beam, Inc., the name of E. H. Taylor along with it. Later, Buffalo Trace was bought out by Sazerac, and in 1992 they traded a vodka brand to Beam to recover the license to use the name E. H. Taylor, the original founder of their distillery.

Through the whole story, I was most surprised to find that George T. Stagg, a big name in whiskey, was never a distiller himself, but a money lender that ended up with a distillery of his own through foreclosure.

Buffalo Trace weathered prohibition by producing medicinal alcohol. 6 million prescriptions for 100-proof whiskey were filled at the distillery in a state with a population of 1.4 million at the time. The prescription allowed for 1 pint of whiskey every 10 days, but were often written for every member of the family, so a fan of the drink could bring his 6 children and wife, and leave with 8 pints to carry him through the next week and a half. The prescriptions were handed out for just about anything that was difficult to define concretely, like the weed card of its day. During this time, George Dickel also ducked shutdown during prohibition by relocating its distillery to the Buffalo Trace property.


Former site of the Dickel distillery during prohibition

First stop along the path to whiskey is the weigh station for the grain deliveries, which arrive 5-7 times every day. The corn is checked regularly to ensure quality and lack of GMO product, then the grain is sent up to the grinding mill, dumped into the hoppers, and finally dumped into the cookers. The grains are cooked individually, and then mixed together for the mash. Following the first stage of the distilling process, the spent grain is then piped into large roasters to remove the moisture and condense it into a feed that tastes surprisingly like Grape Nuts. To prevent wasted trips, the trucks delivering the grain are then filled with the roasted spent grain, and sent back to the farm to be used as feed.


Roasted spent corn on the left, Rye on the right. It actually tasted pretty good.

Buffalo Trace only produces 3 mashbills for all its products: 2 corn and one rye. The mash is then combined with the yeast, a single strain that has been propagated for 129 years, and is maintained on 6 continents to ensure its safety in the event of disaster. Just like everyone else, they ferment the mash and pipe it to the still with some of the last batch to be distilled into whiskey. The process of adding the previous batch to the current is called “Sour Mash,” and is used to ensure continuity of flavor.

The most interesting part of the Buffalo Trace distillery (for me, at least) is that there is a microdistillery right in the middle of everything. One self-contained room with cookers, fermenters, and a little 250 gallon pot still that Buffalo Trace’s master distiller uses to experiment on his quest to find the “perfect” whiskey. It’s here that the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and Single Oak Projects are made, and any future bottlings that haven’t yet come to be.


Finally, the ricks. Interestingly, Buffalo Trace’s 13 rickhouses are brick buildings, unlike the wood-and-tin structures at Heaven Hill and Willett. They currently have 400,000 barrels on the property, and like Willett, they do not rotate. All the Blanton’s Bourbon comes from the Blanton rickhouse and the high-rye mashbill #2, etc. The incredibly specific tradition of it all is endlessly interesting to me.

At the end of the tour, our guide clarified the one hazy portion of the definition of “bourbon” for us. We’d been hearing it had to be matured for 2 years, 4 years, and “as long as it passes through a charred barrel.” It turns out, it’s all 3. Bourbon whiskey only needs to pass through a charred white american oak barrel. “Straight” bourbon whiskey must spend a minimum of 2 years maturing in the barrel, but must list the number of months it spent there right up until 4 years. So basically: “Bourbon Whiskey” could be any age at all. If the label reads “Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” and has no age listed, you know it is at least 4 years old.

I can’t recommend the “hard hat” tour enough, we got to see a great deal of the distillery that we might not have known about otherwise. And if you happen to get David for a tour guide, you’re in for a treat. The guy knows his stuff.

Next up: Four Roses


Next up, and just down the road from Heaven Hill was one I’d been really looking forward to: Willett Distillery. Occupying a strange middle ground between craft microdistillery and large producer, Willett places their emphasis on very specific small-scale methods that can only really be this closely controlled when making a more manageable amount of product.


The first step in the distillation process is to essentially make some beer. The large fermenter tanks combine yeast and water with the grain mashbill, and spend several days fermenting into a mash, which is then fed into the still. Once it is cooked down, only 10% of the original liquid will remain, which is how something starting as a beer can be concentrated into a much higher-proof distillate.


Willett runs a large copper pot still, similar to the ones used to make Irish whiskey and Scotch, rather than the large column stills used by the vast majority of american whiskey producers. They cook 5 unique bourbon mashbills and 2 rye mashbills that are then blended together in specific recipes depending on the whiskey they are making, always barreled with a #4 char. Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill are both blends of the same 3 mashbills, but one is aged at the cooler lower floor of the rickhouse, while the other is aged in the heat, just below the roof.

Speaking of the ricks, they have 8 of them, each capable of holding 6,000 barrels. By comparison, Heaven hill has about 50 rickhouses, each containing somewhere around 30,000, so you could just about fit every barrel Willett has into just one of Heaven Hill’s buildings.


Another interesting part of Willett’s production is the handling of the raw distillate. The best raw whiskey is right in the middle at a very specific temperature, so the first white dog to come off the still (the head) at a lower temperature is downright bad. Same can be said for the last (or the tail) when the still becomes too hot. The really large-volume producers never really turn off the stills, so they just dump the heads and tails back in for a second try. Since Willett is cooking one batch at a time, they discard the heads and tails and only keep the good center distillate (or the heart). The distiller pumps the whiskey through the tanks above and tastes until he’s happy with it, then switches it over to the second, or the Heart Tank. He’ll continue to taste, and when it drops below his standards, he switches it back to the first.

The heart tank is then pumped over to an adjacent room for barreling. Once full, a poplar bung is hammered into the hole (the soft wood will swell and keep a tighter seal in the white oak), and the barrel is rolled down a ramp to the rickhouse, or a waiting truck, should that rick be full. There, it will sit for however many years, undisturbed, until it’s time to be bottled.

Finally, it’s ready to drink, which we most certainly did. The nice thing (for me, at least) about Willett is that they don’t make any low-quality, bargain whiskey, just Willett Pot Still, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and the Family Estate Rye & Bourbon (bottled unblended, unfiltered, and at barrel proof). I’m a little partial already, but the spectrum of taste of the Family Estates are pretty amazing. They can range from a 4 year all the way up to a 23, all bottled with the same label. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to sample the 23 year Family Estate Rye. Lots of great burn, but not nearly as much as you’d expect on something north of 130 proof.

Overall, Willett is a great distillery to check out if you’re in the area because you can see the whole self-contained process and really get a feel for how your whiskey is made. A lot of the other distilleries produce off-site, or purchase the white dog from another distiller. It’s rare to be able to actually follow the pipes and see the exact path from grain to bottle. Not to mention that you can get a tour from the actual distiller and not a tour guide.

Next up: Buffalo Trace

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