Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Arizona Distilling Company

Just about two weeks ago Arizona Distilling Company started offering tours of their facility in Tempe.  Seeing as I am actively working to promote whiskey-craft (and whiskey-presence) in the Valley, I jumped at the chance to see the distillery firsthand.  My wife and I lucked into getting a private tour after another group bailed at the last minute.  Our tour guide was none other than one of the co-owners and Master Distiller, Jason Grossmiller.  I should note that "tour" is probably a slightly generous word as it was more of a stroll around the one-room distillery/rickhouse/ bottling center.  But what it lacked in amenities was more than made up for by Grossmiller who was as easy-going and approachable a host as could be hoped for.  Truth be told it seemed as though he craved some company.  He later informed us that most of his days are spent distilling, barreling, and bottling all alone in his giant one-room distillery.

As with most brand new craft distilleries, AZ Distilling Co. is a small operation, though there are plans in motion to significantly increase production.  A three-hundred gallon still has been purchased to replace their current hundred-gallon still, and their product line should be growing over the next year.

AZ Distilling Co. uses a large number of smaller, 10-gallon barrels (as opposed to the industry standard 53-gallon) to accelerate the aging process (by increasing the wood-to-spirit ratio).  Also, because barrels aged in Tempe will get significantly warmer than their Kentucky-aged counterparts, the aging process may further shorten, though this has not yet been fully tested.  AZ Distilling Co., new as it is,  hasn't been aging whiskey for long enough to know exactly how this extreme temperature exposure will affect their product.  (It is also yet to be seen how the extreme weather, regularly reaching 100+ degrees in the warehouse in the summer, even with the swamp coolers, will affect the aging process of Grossmiller).

Currently, AZ Distilling Co. only has one liquor for sale -- their Copper City Bourbon.  It has a mash bill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley.  For now they're sourcing their bourbon (as practically all craft whiskey distilleries are/have to until their product ages sufficiently), though they're currently aging their own Copper City with the goal of matching the current mash bill and flavor profile.

Grossmiller tells us that if all goes as planned they'll soon be adding a 100% wheat mash bill whiskey to the lineup.  Only one other distillery in the nation (Dry Fly in Washington, where Grossmiller studied before starting AZDC) has a 100% wheat whiskey.  "Wheaters" typically are very sweet in comparison to ryes (rye), bourbons (corn), or scotch (malted barley), but Grossmiller explains that using locally-sourced Desert Durum wheat, due to its heartier makeup, won't reflect a typical "wheater" flavor profile.  We tasted a sample and it was very good -- albeit young.  It didn't have any of the young, vegetal qualities typical of a young whiskey, but it did have some of that hot, unaged heat (not from high proof).  It had a little of the spicy quality that I'd think of when drinking a rye -- very unusual for a wheated whiskey -- but also somehow reminded me of a rum; very interesting.

Grossmiller tells me that they're also working to partner with a nearby rye farmer in order to produce some locally-sourced rye whiskey in the future.

I ultimately opted to wait until the Durum Wheat is bottled to make a purchase.  The Copper City was very drinkable, but, while there's nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey until you can age it yourself, I like the idea of buying something that's uniquely Arizona.

Please take the time to support this local distillery, owned and operated by local guys (Grossmiller is a fourth-generation Arizonan like myself), and working to obtain their grains locally, so that they can locally produce great whiskey (and possibly gin).

All-in-all it was a great experience, and it will be well worth your while.  But even if you don't want to do it for yourself, do it for poor Jason Grossmiller who is hankering for some human interaction.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Too Much to Ask?!

My brother-in-law lives in Portland.  When my wife and I have visited in the past we have patronized several incredible whiskey-serving establishments -- Pope House Bourbon Lounge, The Old Gold, Whiskey & Soda Lounge, Highland Stillhouse, Branch Whiskey Bar, and Southland Whiskey Kitchen to name a few -- truly, that's just a smattering.

Just one of the above, or any one of the numerous not-listed establishments would be all I'm hoping for in Phoenix.  Portland?  Portland has at least a dozen great whiskey bars, with a population 1/8th that of Phoenix.  Is that good enough for them?  Oh, no!  They have to go and one-up themselves and open the Multnomah Whiskey Library.

If you don't want to read the above article, here are the highlights: 1500 bottles (mostly whisk{e}y with some other quality beverages mixed in), and table-side service (presumably from one of the whiskey librarians).

When the Misses and I visit my brother-in-law for Thanksgiving, I will assuredly go to the library, "check out" a few selections, and update you all; I am confident that it will be at once one of the greatest whiskey days of my life and one of the worst.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pig & Pickle

As with many of the establishments I review, a friend recently suggested I peruse the whiskey selection over at the Pig & Pickle.  Tucked away in a strip mall in south Scottsdale along Hayden and Thomas, the P&P doesn't look especially promising from the outside.

On the inside it is a mix of hipster bar and sports bar, though not completely pulling off either.  As you walk in you are confronted with one of the mainstays of hipster icons: the pig (which I think is ranked third behind  birds, and obviously bikes).

However, instead of the standard metal and wood aesthetic to maintain the hipster feng shui, the rest of the establishment is stainless steel tables and your standard hip-ish sports bar.  This just proves that hipster style has become so mainstream that owners/decorators are incorporating pieces of it, even if they don't really understand how to create the whole package.  Hipsters will not be pleased.  They'll probably write some angry prose about it while twirling their mustaches and smoking their pipes (it's reassuring that hipsters are generally a pacifistic bunch).

Why do all of my posts seem to return to hipsters and my love/hate relationship with them?  Probably because they're inextricably connected to whiskey, for better or worse.

Speaking of whiskey - as this is a whiskey blog - the P&P, as advertised, has a fair selection.  Unfortunately, they also have gone the Rokerij and Lux route of not having a whiskey menu.  However, when I protested, I was provided with a "servers' menu" which, while not listing prices, at least informed me of what was available without having to pester the barkeep.

I decided to go with the High West Son of Bourye (ignominiously listed as "SOB" on the menu to the right), which, if you couldn't guess, is a blend of a bourbon and a rye.  While most whiskies are a blend of grains, and often corn (making bourbon) and rye (making, you guessed it, rye), somehow this blend manages to highlight both.  Rather than being any other bourbon with high rye content (or rye with high corn content), the Bourye manages to somehow be fully both: a hypostatic union of bourbon and rye if you will.  It succeeds where the P&P fails at combining two divergent styles.

If you're interested in checking out some fairly good whiskies for fair prices in a slightly schizophrenic setting, the Pig & Pickle can be found here:

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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Whiskey Becoming a Young{er} Man's Game?

With the recent swift rise in popularity of whiskey (American in particular), there is a growing scarcity (artificial or otherwise) of quality whiskey.  Whiskies which once regularly lined shelves have become seasonal; whiskies which were once seasonal rarely see the light of day (or the neon inside liquor stores) before being sold. And along with this rise in popularity comes a new breed and generation of whiskey drinkers.

In the past few weeks I've read several well-known, highly-respected whiskey bloggers lament the current state, and the probable trajectory, of whiskey in the US.  Tim Read over at Scotch & Ice Cream recently bemoaned the hoarding nature of whiskey drinkers given the scarcity of limited release whiskies, ultimately deciding to pull out of the rat race altogether this year, even opting to pass up rare whiskies should he stumble upon them.  His blogging will consequentially be dialed back as well.

Steve Ury over at Sku's Recent Eats echoed some of Read's sentiments (as well as re-tweeting Read's post).  Though, for Ury it seems to be less the frenzied nature of the whiskey market that's got him down as much as the fact that simpletons (such as myself) are asking stupid questions (like where can we score some Pappy? -- we've heard it's good!), and some even questioning his tasting process to account for his clearly (in their opinion) errant views on some well-known recent releases.  His sarcastic explanation clarifying his tasting process is downright snarky (to hilarious effect).  Note: per Sku's comment below, the issue he takes is not that people would disagree with his review, as will inevitably happen, but that they would presume some confounding factor which would cause him to disagree with what others have so clearly concluded.  Unlike Read, Ury will continue writing, but now, it seems, he'll be doing so with a fair-sized chip on his shoulder.

And while Read retreats and Sku stews, Jason Pyle over at Sour Mash Manifesto seems content to quietly drink his whiskey while tweeting about football (go Volunteers!).

Conversely, Pops Garrett at Bourbon and Banter, perhaps sensing the chance to capitalize on this whiskey-writer vacuum, is doubling down, recruiting a hoard of new contributors (eleven to be specific -- eleven!) who are creating an onslaught of new content.  Sadly, their collective content (and there's a lot) seems to be more directed at marketing (cool new bourbon wallpapers!) than to discussing and promoting whiskey-craft.  They're even creating content about how much content they're creating (Twitter toast results).  Pity -- because I don't know how much I'll be willing to sift through the fluff to get to the substantive posts.

As for me? The hunt is still fun -- regardless (maybe even because of?) the rat race; what good's a treasure hunt if you don't have to hunt?!  Tasting new whiskies is still fun.  Hanging out with friends while trying new whiskies is really fun.  And writing about the whole experience is still fun -- even if just my friends and the few saps unlucky enough to stumble upon this blog will ever read it.

Maybe someday I'll become disillusioned with the whole game too.  Whiskey, sadly, seems like rock-and-roll, college football before the BCS, and most other things; those who were there "before" typically end up lamenting the loss that invariably accompanies change.  Maybe when I've been around the whiskey world long enough to see it change I'll resign myself to the fact that "it's not like it used to be," hunker down, and quietly drink what I will know to be good whiskey.

Still, here's hoping that the old-timers get a second wind or at least fight through the pain, because while I love reading Chuck Cowdery and John Hansell (who will never stop writing), they're like Master's-level professors, reveling in the minutiae.  That's great, but I also need the likes of Read and Ury who are like the adjunct Community College professors, teaching the Whiskey 101 class to those of us who are still cutting our teeth (or, you know, soaking them in whiskey).  It is largely thanks to their taking the time to dumb down their vast knowledge that I have any idea of where to start on this whiskey journey (ironically, further depleting the whiskey available to them, and further annoying them with my stupid questions).

Now, seriously, where can I find some Pappy?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lux Central

When Lux Coffee opened in downtown Phoenix in 2005 it quickly became a key hub of hipsterdom within the Valley; overflowing with MacBooks, mid-century modern furniture, thick-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, and all things Neo-Retro.  If you were intelligent (or lucky) enough to maneuver the opaque ordering process, you were rewarded with a very good cup of coffee.  Lux still offers one of the three best cups of coffee in the Valley (along with Giant, and Cartel), but I'm generally not willing to put the time and effort into navigating the unspoken rules governing the ordering of said coffee.

Then in 2011, not content to just offer coffee any longer, Lux Coffee closed and reopened later the same day as Lux Central, offering food and adult beverages in addition to its fine coffee.  (I suspect that this change was at least partly due to the fact that an establishment cannot be a true hub of hipsterdom in any meaningful sense without offering Pabst).

My wife came across an article a while ago, likening Lux to a "dinner party in full swing."  She agreed, but added, "it's just a dinner party that we haven't been invited to."  Assuming you're not a fully-decked-out hipster, with tons of hipster cred, you'll immediately understand what she means when you walk in.  All of the eyes in Lux, peering from behind their thick-rimmed glasses will quickly assess you, deem you inadequate for Lux standards, and shun you, hoping you'll take the hint and leave.  I'm just being defensive, you say?  Projecting a little of my only-slightly-hipster insecurity, maybe?  I don't think so; for evidence take a gander at their website and tell me that it's not the epitome of pretentious hipsterdom.  I'm right, right?

When you walk in, upon making it past the above-described hipster passive-aggressive bouncers (assuming you make it that far), you'll come across what may possibly be a menu (?), taped to glass enclosure encasing the near corner of the coffee bar.  You're not sure that it's a menu, because, mixed in with it are random pieces of art, and more inexplicably, random pictures of some child kneeling beside a soccer ball and another sitting on a tractor.  Why are these picture there?  Who are these children?  How should you weren't invited to this party.

If you survive to make it past this second-level defense (the annoyingly and unnecessarily confusing menu defense), you are confronted by the last level of defense in Lux: fruit.  Bushels of fruit.  Fruit everywhere.  In bowls on the counter-tops.  Hanging from the ceiling in baskets.  On the window sill behind the people busy behind the counter (presumably staff?).  What is it there for?  Can I just take one of these apples?  How much would it cost if I wanted an orange?   "Stop asking questions and get out!" the invited guests silently entreat from behind their thick-rimmed glares.

If you make it past the Fruit Defense you will finally come to the bar section of Lux.  That's what I went for -- this is a whiskey blog after all.  I wish I could have just determined that Lux had a terrible whiskey selection and terrible prices, turned around and marched out self-righteously, but alas, they had a fairly large selection, and even some hard-to-find whiskies.  Also in Lux's favor was that they had no truly terrible whiskies to offer; I have to (begrudgingly) respect a bar that doesn't even offer Jack Daniels or Jim Beam White Label.

It was annoying to have another Rokerij-type experience wherein, because of a lack of a menu, I had to ask the barkeep what each bottle was, given how far back the bottles were sitting and the seemingly-random distribution of whiskies.  It was that much harder in this situation because the barkeep was being kept very busy by the hoard of thirsty hipsters behind me.

I ultimately decided on the Willett Rye.  I'll write an extended review later, but this is easily the most minty whiskey I've had.  There's other stuff going on here too, but it's a mint kick in the teeth, in a good way.

In spite of the good whiskey selection, and reasonable prices, I think I'll largely avoid Lux.  I'll leave the hipster enclave to the hipsters.  If that's more your scene, then by all means, enjoy some good whiskey there.  Just beware the ubiquitous fruit; you're bound to be buried by a fruit-slide sooner or later if you're not on guard.

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

George Dickel No. 12

There are only a handful of Tennessee whiskies, and even fewer that are worth drinking.  It's always amazed me how many people are willing to drink the swill that is Jack Daniel's; there are no shortage of better whiskies out there which cost less, are higher ABV, and, most importantly, taste better.  Even if your only goal is to mix drinks you could do much better.  You could instead use something like the George Dickel No. 12.

Don't be fooled by the "No. 12," it's not an age statement.  With Tennessee whiskey, your guess on age is as good as mine -- though the collective wisdom of the internet pegs the age at "between six and 12 years."  I'm inclined to think it's much closer to six.  That's not to say it's not good though.  It is.

Color: Straw

Nose: Burnt butter, candied apples, caramel corn -- all of which is pleasant

Palate: Sticky sweet, but not cloyingly so.  This is not a complex whisky (Dickel goes with the no "e" spelling); the nose follows through but with less candy flavor and more over-ripe fruit (apples, pears).

Finish: The finish is where things get interesting, but not in a good way.  Very quickly, after the initial rush of sweetness subsides, the burnt butter on the nose really starts to come through but with more burnt and less sweet butter.  Some woody flavor also starts to come through, but it doesn't blend well with the burnt flavor.  The finish initially reminds me of a younger, rough-around-the-edges scotch with the burnt malty flavor.

Overall: 6.5 out of 10; the finish is disappointing, but this is overall a great whisky if you're craving something sweet
-- especially for the price ($18-$22).

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Centurion/Bar Maximus

Centurion and Bar Maximus chef Eric Osburn knows his alcohol.  Toward the end of my recent hour-long chat with him at Maximus he pointed to the top of the wine-bottle-lined bar and asked if I knew where all of the empty bottles had come from.  After letting me guess errantly for a while he concluded, "I drank them all."  Impressive enough until he pointed to the adjoining Centurion restaurant and the wall lined with several dozen more bottles.  His point was that in order to know what good wine is, one has to be constantly drinking wine; a job many of us would clamor for, but one he takes seriously.

Chef Eric brings this same enthusiasm to the world of whisk{e}y.  After having a vivid deja vu moment in which Eric contested my assertion that there is no good American whiskey bar in the Phoenix area by saying, "yeah, except for Magnums," he explained that he is perhaps more hopeful than am I about the future of whiskey in Phoenix.  Maybe he has reason to be so hopeful since he believes he's going to have a hand in this future.  Within five years (ideally within two to three) he's planning to have 200 scotches, 80 bourbons/ryes, and a very healthy smattering of other worthwhile drinks (gin, cognac, etc) lining the shelves at Bar Maximus.  He's well on his way for the Scotch at least.

He recently hosted a "350 Years of Scotch" event during which participants (those willing and able to shell out the $200 entry fee) walked (and drank) their way through the history of Scotch with Eric serving as tour-guide.  After brainstorming a while about his next whiskey-centric event we decided that a blind tasting of several American whiskies would be entertaining and enlightening; Eric is hoping to host this event in the fall or early winter.

Chef Eric and I disagree on a variety of issues related to whiskey; he's a Scotch guy who appreciates American whiskey; I'm an American whiskey enthusiast who drinks enough Scotch to keep the "e" in "whiskey" encased in hipster brackets -- {e}.  Perhaps most contentious was his assertion that American whiskey drinkers tend to fall into one of two camps: those who just want a smooth drink experience regardless of complexity or flavor, and those who want to be punched in the face by their drink (i.e. those like me who enjoy drinking their cask-strength George T. Stagg without adding water).  I'd argue that he's perhaps right about the first group, but sorely mistaken on the latter; I don't mind a good Stagg punch in the face, but I'd argue that a Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, a High West Rendezvous Rye, or even George T. Stagg itself -- even with all of its brute strength -- would rival most Scotches out there in terms of complexity (and flavor).

In spite of our differences, I inherently trust someone who is as knowledgeable, and as detail-oriented as Eric is.  At one point in our discussion, as he was explaining why he so thoroughly enjoys the Glenlivet lineup (each successive iteration is a unique formulation, not just a further refinement of the lesser-aged version), he interrupted himself to ensure that a server at the bar was serving a drink correctly.  Only when he was satisfied that the drink was to his specifications, and after educating the server on proper beverage storage, would he return to our conversation.  If he takes this same approach to whiskey, I can live with his specious views on American whiskey and its adherents...after all, someone as educated as he is on the world of whiskey (and alcohol in general) will surely be willing to learn a little more from American whiskey lovers around town.

Here's hoping that his vision for the future of whiskey in Phoenix comes to fruition...and sooner than later.

In the meantime if you want to drink some good scotch and perhaps chat with Chef Eric yourself, Centurion and Bar Maximus can be found here:

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