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:

View Larger Map

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tops Liquor

Depending on your personality and how much time you have you will either find Tops overwhelming or exhilarating.  It is hard to conceive of a more eclectic liquor store, both in terms of the products on its shelves and its clientele.

In the 20 short minutes I had during this visit I saw:
     -Several college students devising optimum strategies for how to most efficiently get drunk and make huge mistakes which will possibly severely hamper their lifetime earning potential (to be expected given Tops' proximity to ASU).

    -I also saw several other professionals just getting off from work; these were most-often perusing the neatly-laid-out wine section (in contrast to the free-for-all which is the liquor section).

    -Then there were the clearly homeless folks looking to get their fix.

    -And finally the college student who was buying a large Red Bull and a Blue Moon (if this admixture isn't called a "Red & Blue" it is more of a crime than combining these two in the first place).

When not people-watching I was busy perusing the whiskey selection -- not an easy task given the "layout" of the liquor section.  If I'd had an hour this would have been a fun process, akin to a treasure hunt.  As it was, it was somewhat infuriating that I'd glance a Willett Rye hidden behind a Wild Turkey 101, and a High West 21 in the back of a locked cabinet which I was only briefly allowed to peruse given the one staff member who had to attend to all the desperate-to-get-their-drink-on college students with their Jager and PBR.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by their large selection of both rare and local/craft whiskies.  They had whiskies from Washington, Montana, and two from Arizona.  They also had the Wild Turkey 101 Rye which is a pretty good find.

Ultimately I picked up the Dickel No. 12.  I'll post a better review later, but the short notes are this: Dickel is not remotely complex, but it is darn-good down-home Tennessee whiskey.  Too sweet for my everyday consumption, but good for when I'm craving something syrupy-sweet.  If you have to choose a Tennessee whiskey, this is far-and-away superior to Jack Daniels, and for $20-$22 you don't have to take my word for it; go to Tops and pick up a bottle.

View Larger Map

Monday, August 12, 2013

Seamus McCaffrey's

In my initial post I concluded that I've yet to find a good bourbon/rye bar in Phoenix, and only a few good scotch bars.  Well, I'd be remiss to not review Seamus McCaffrey's which has (at least per their website) the largest selection of scotch in all of Arizona.

Seamus McCaffrey's has been in the same location in downtown Phoenix, partly occupying the first floor of the historic Hotel San Carlos, for 22 years (per my server).  They indeed have a substantial selection of whisky, but be warned, the prices currently listed on the website are way off from what you'll actually find in the bar.  Many, like the Aberlour A'Bunadh I sampled, are only a dollar or so off.  Others, like say, a Macallan 30, are a whopping $50 different (from $50 on the website, to $100 on the menu at the bar).

I was pleasantly surprised to see, in addition to their extensive scotch selection, a decent (not great, mind you) selection of bourbons and ryes.  But, as I was in an Irish pub it only seemed right to drink scotch.  In addition to the A'Bunadh listed above I also had a Laphroaig 10.

Aberlour A'Bunadh
As the A'Bunadh is a single-barrel, cask-strength scotch, which barrel it came from matters.  When I prefaced that I was about to ask a technical question about this particular scotch, my server replied, "I probably won't know...they don't train us on that."  She was more helpful when I pointed out that this information would likely be listed on the bottle.  She returned and informed me that I had a pour from Batch 41, which is 118 proof (the lowest of any batch since 1999).

Color: Hard to tell in the darkness of Seamus McCaffrey's, but I'm going to go with reddish brown.

Nose: Fruity -- specifically red apples.  Surprisingly little alcohol on the nose given its high ABV. There was also a little bit of smoke in the back, but significantly less than in most scotches I've had.

Palate: This is one of the fruitiest scotches I've had.  Lots of apples, apricots, and cherries, followed by a little bit of wood and medicinal flavor.  As with the nose, it is remarkably smooth for being 118 proof.

Finish: Sweet fruit, followed by a bitter-sweet flavor I can't put my finger on, and then, again, a some wood.

Overall: 8.0 out of 10.  Very good.

Laphroaig 10
If given the choice between a high-quality bourbon and a high-quality scotch, I'll almost always go with the bourbon.  Yet, for an admittedly silly reason (which truthfully affects my impression of it) the Laphroaig 10 is one exception.  I can't help, as I'm drinking my Laphroaig, imagining an old Scotsman, walking along a boggy shoreline on the island he lives on in Scotland.  As he's walking he's being buffeted by wind and rain, at times falling in the mud and peat.  Finally, he comes across an old pub where he takes shelter.  What does he order in the pub?  What else...a Laphroaig 10.  I don't know how anyone's mind can conjure up anything else as he's drinking it.  Without that image, this beverage is such an oddity I'm not sure why anyone would drink it (as with other islays as well); with it, it is a very enjoyable experience.

Color: Gold

Nose: Peat and smoke.  Nothing else.  If you hear or read anyone else say that they smell something else (fruit, lilacs, etc.) he's lying.

Palate: Peat, smoke, and wood.  Buried beneath a deep layer of those three, there may be some pleasant medicinal and otherwise earthy flavors, but those are fleeting in the onslaught of peat.

Finish: More of the same.  There is a sweeter flavor on the finish than anywhere else.

Overall: 9 out of 10 -- with imagery described above; 3 out of 10 without it.   You have to try it at least once.

Of note, I like the Laphroaig 18 less than the 10.  I feel like it softens some of the incredible peat-punch-in-the-face the 10 offers.  If you genuinely enjoy the flavor of the 10, but feel that it's too edgy the 18 is probably worth a try.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye

In three words: Cask-strength, Spicy, Delicious

In more words: while I was enjoying dinner at Windsor, I sampled the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye.  I've long been a fan of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (of which the Handy is part), and I'm always a fan of a good rye whiskey, so the Handy and I were a match made in heaven.

The waitstaff at Windsor and the barkeep were too busy with the Friday dinner crowd to tell me the ABV on their particular bottle of Handy, but, fortunately for me, I've got my own.  So I'll be forced to re-sample the Handy so as to give you, the reader, the most accurate information possible. You're welcome.  My bottle is 132.4 proof.  Knowing my inability to divide by two, the kind folks at Buffalo Trace have done the math for me; this bottle is 66.2% alcohol by volume.

Color: Amber

Nose: First whiff, a ton of alcohol, a little spice and wood.  Second whiff, ton of spice and wood, still a lot of alcohol.

Palate: A potent blast of spice and oak.  While there's no question it's cask-strength, it is remarkably balanced and drinkable without adding water (my recommendation).  Water does bring out some more flavors buried beneath its kick (more clove, cinnamon, and a little mint), but weakens the experience overall -- maybe save the water for the last bit.

Finish: The burn lasts from start to finish, and the finish is long.  As the heat -- eventually -- dies down, some more typical whiskey flavors come through (honey, brown sugar).

Overall: 9.5 out of 10 -- do what you legally can to get yourself a bottle.  Even at $75-$100 it's well worth it.


A (whiskey-novice) friend of mine recommended I check out Rokerij in my quest for good whiskey in the desert.  Being thirsty one night I decided to head down and check it out.

Pronounced "ROW-ker-ee" (I think -- when I asked a staff member about the pronunciation this was the response, "I don't know.  It's a Dutch word, and that's how I pronounce it, but I can't say confidently that's how it's pronounced"), Rokerij is about as close to a speakeasy as I've found so far in the Valley.  It's located in the basement beneath Richardson's on 16th St. north of Bethany Home.  While there's a sign along 16th St., once you arrive in the parking lot you either have to know where you're going, be led by someone who knows, or be that guy aimlessly walking around before ultimately asking the valet where this illusive place is.  Fortunately, my whiskey-novice friend had been before; he led me around to the front of Richardson's, but then led me down an unmarked set of stairs to an unmarked door.  Now, if you've been to a speakeasy anywhere else, you'll recognize this as a good sign.  The harder the place to find, and the less-clearly-marked it is, (usually) the better the whiskey selection is.

Sadly this was not the case at Rokerij.  We took a seat at the bar, and I asked for a liquor menu.  There was none to be had, so I had to go through the entire whiskey selection with the barkeep, one bottle at a time.  Many bottles were behind others, and with no menu I had no way of knowing what they were without this somewhat annoying process -- though, in the end it didn't take very long given Rokerij's thin whiskey selection.  On the top shelf they had the obligatory bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue (they also had red and black, but not gold or green).  Also on the top shelf was, comically, a bottle of Bushmills 10; when Bushmills is a top-shelf whiskey, it's probably time to leave.

However, having come all that way, and with the whiskey-novice ordering food, I settled on a pour of Basil Hayden's (not having had it before).  I'll review it in depth later, but the short version is don't try Basil Hayden's.  For what it's worth I was given a healthy pour for the reasonable price of $11.

Rokerij has a lot of potential, but I don't think I'll be back anytime soon. But if you want to go, here's where you can find it:

Saturday, August 3, 2013


There are establishments which are primarily bars, but also sell food.  Then there are establishments which are primarily restaurants, but also sell booze.  Generally speaking, if the emphasis, from the outset, isn't on quality alcohol it's a bad sign for good-whiskey lovers.  Windsor seems to buck this trend though, focusing primarily on food, but with one of the better whisk{e}y selections I've found in Phoenix.

Windsor is hipsta-tastic -- replete with its mustachioed, flannel-and-skinny-jeans-wearing barkeep.  Whether or not that is appealing to you, it is probably worth a trip down to sample some bourbon, rye, or scotch (or Irish, or Canadian if you're desperate and  have tried everything else).

The place was hopping when I was there, so I had to resort to slowly walking around the outside of the seating area of the bar -- hovering uncomfortably close for many of the already-seated patrons -- squinting to see what kinds of whisk{e}y they had.

My suspicion that Windsor has additional whiskies not listed on the menu* was confirmed when I spied a Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye -- one of the illustrious members of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection -- hiding in the back.

I couldn't resist, though I was tempted by the Blanton's, the High West Rendezvous Rye, and Rittenhouse Rye.  Also, I have always longed for street cred, and it seemed to me that ordering a cask-strength rye, neat, which isn't listed on the menu is the kind of thing which would earn a guy some street cred.

No one seemed to care...except for my wife, but that doesn't count because she's always impressed with me.

Oh well.  At $20 a dram, even for a cask-strength whiskey it was a bit overpriced.  Still, all told Windsor is a good place to go and check out some previously-untasted whiskies while eating some good food.  Plus, as a bonus, if you walk next door to Churn you can get some great ice cream for dessert.

*Word to the wise...It's always worth taking a peek at the actual bar -- or better yet, talk to the barkeep -- to see if they've got anything not listed on the menu.  It's hard to keep updating menus with new items, especially if the items are in short-supply.  That usually means that the old, easy-to-get whiskies are on the menu, while some of the rarer/limited-supply whiskies are hidden in the back.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Elijah Craig 12

When I think of bourbon I think of brown sugar, vanilla, and caramel with maybe some spice and wood thrown in.  Of course, bourbons can range widely from this taste profile, but this is what my mind will naturally return to when the topic of bourbon arises.

The Elijah Craig 12 has got to be one of the more "bourbony" bourbons around.  It's loaded with all the flavors which make bourbon good.  

Color: Deep amber

Nose: Brown sugar, red apples, and a nice whiff of alcohol

Palate: The nose follows through with the flavor.  Lots of brown sugar, vanilla, and toffee. Almost syrupy mouthfeel, but not too much so.  Behind the immediate bourbon-ness there is some spice -- wood and a little floral.  

Finish: Medium-long, caramel, sweet.  There's something else at the end; I can't decide if it's a nice woody flavor, or a little bit bitter.  For my own sake I'll just decide that it's woody and like it more.

Overall: 7.5 out of 10.  Hard to beat for the price ($23-$27). 

AJ's Fine Foods: Arcadia

I was tipped off by a friend that AJ's Arcadia had a bottle of Willett Rye available.  I'm always a sucker for a good rye, and I also thoroughly enjoy Willett's Pot Still Reserve Bourbon, so I figured that a trip over to AJ's was in order.  The good folks manning the "wine cellar" -- namely Jackie and Dave -- were kind enough to put the bottle on hold. I know enough to know that one shouldn't judge a whiskey by its bottle, but I'd still be very tempted with the Willett Rye.  It's really a beautiful bottle.

When I got to AJ's I was surprised by the large selection of whiskies they had.  Having a bit of extra time I figured I'd count, and I came up with:

68 Scotch
12 Irish
26 Bourbon
8 Ryes
9 Canadian

In addition to the Willett Rye I picked up, they had a fairly large selection of rare whiskies (primarily scotch).  They had a Macallan 25 (for $928), a rare Oban 18, and most of the Balvenie and Aberfeldy collection. Interestingly, in the same display case they also had several Hudson Baby Bourbon iterations.  I've never tried any of the HBBs, but I've heard mixed things (mostly negative); even the people who like it seem to think it's overpriced at around $60 for a 375ml bottle.  It's funny to me that it occupied the same space as the high-end scotches.

I'll definitely be back to AJ's soon.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Upcoming Events

There are two whisk{e}y-centric events coming up.

First, Magnum's is holding a tasting of staff favorites from Dogfish Head Brewery as well as Copper City Bourbon from Arizona Distilling Company on August 7th at 7:30pm.  Jason Grossmillier, the master distiller from AZ Distilling Company, and Megan Linaugh from Dogfish Head will be present to discuss their wares.  This will run $20 per person.
View Larger Map

Secondly, a little more spendy, Centurion Restaurant in downtown Phoenix is hosting a "350 Years of Scotch" event on Saturday, August 10th from 1:30pm to 4:00pm.  Chef Eric Mason will be educating attendees about a wide variety of Scotches, as well as providing them with "a full plate of food" at the end of the event.  Attending will run you $200 per person.  In return you will try 1/4oz of 28 different scotches.  For those keeping score, yes, you would be paying $200 for 7oz of scotch (or $28.57/oz); however, if half the things I hear about Chef Eric are true this might actually be underpriced.

View Larger Map