There’s nothing quite as cool as old school Italian class. I don’t know where I’m getting this image, Fellini or something probably, but I see a mid-century man in a perfect suit. Wayfairers, scarves, and Alpha Romeros zipping along the coast. He’s definitely smoking a cigarette. And he’s drinking Campari, probably with soda. Has to be. There’s no other way.
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
ABV: 24% ABV, in the U.S. anyway.
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1860.
Nose: Herbal, like chinese medicine. Orange and rhubarb. Wood chips. Lightly floral.
Taste: Floral into orange sweetness, with a slow building bitterness that crescendos after you swallow and lingers for a minute+, leaving you either (1) begging for more, or (2) wondering why anyone would ever do that to themselves twice.
In 1860, a 32 year old bartender and salesman named Gaspare Campari finalized the recipe for a bitter liqueur he’d been working on. He had other liquers — fruit and cream cordials, mostly — but this bitter red business was propelled by an unusual tastiness. As its fame increased, he soon earned the money to move from the suburbs to the center of Milan and opened a cafe in the newly built Galleria Vittorio Emanuele across the street from the Duomo, making his booze in the basement and serving it in the afternoon to the Milanese intelligentsia.
Caffe Campari was the place to be. If there were movies back then, movie stars would’ve hung out there, and when Gaspare died his obituary ran on the front page of the Milanese daily. His son Davide took over, built a production plant in 1904, and stopped making almost all other products in 1926, focusing heavily on the eponymous apertif.
It is Davide Campari’s name wrapped around the neck of every bottle, not his fathers’. Davide is the one who took Campari from a popular local phenomenon and put it on the road to what it is today, which is multinational leviathan selling 3 million cases a year across 190 countries. Which, if you’re wondering, is a whole hell of a lot.
Of all the aggressively bitter Italian liqueurs, and there are many, Campari is by far the most pervasive. Speakeasy or sportsbar, towny dive or rooftop club, it’s one of the few bottles you can find in pretty much any bar. Which is nice, because it is also amazing.
It is an aperitivo — the aperitivo, really, as it is widely credited with inventing the category — and is sharply bitter, more rust than dirt, one of those things that you’ll hate the first time you have it but grows on you over time. This aperitivo business suggests that you drink it before meals: the acute bitterness, they say, rouses your body’s digestive enzymes from their twixt-meal slumber and prepares you for eating. Italians are big on that kind of thing (there are also digestivos, which is even more bitter liquor, for after the meal).
As for the product itself, we don’t know what’s in it. Oranges for sure, with rhubarb, ginseng (maybe), plenty of herbs and roots as well as the unmistakable bitter gentian and Red #40, but beyond that, Campari seems to take a dickish pleasure in their own secrecy. “Many have guessed simply at the number of ingredients,” they say on their website, toothy smile implied, “some say there are 20 or 60, but others list the ingredients at 80.” There are only three living humans who know the recipe, and no one even knows who those three humans are. So ok: you don’t tell people. Got it.
Regardless, Campari is one of those bottles that is somehow more than its ingredients. Their secrecy doesn’t frustrate me, because a list of herbs would only tell half the story. It’s like Angostura bitters. Yes, there are similar products, in some cases very similar, but all Campari’s peers lack whatever ethereal magic it possesses that makes it sublime and absolutely indispensable. It is at once bitter and sweet, aggressive and subtle, and has that most charming of ingredient characteristics, which is to elevate whatever drink it is mixed in — specifically and especially its three brilliant, canonical cocktails:
(1) Campari & Soda, which is so popular in Italy that an adorable little 3oz version has been pre-bottled and sold since 1932, and which holds the noble purpose of being the one real drink you can get in almost any bar in the world that the bartender literally cannot fuck up.
(2) Americano, a Campari & Soda with sweet vermouth. The greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made, and which more or less defines the category of aperitivo. Still near impossible to fuck up, though some particularly incompetent bartenders have risen to the challenge. Some have also returned with an espresso and hot water, which is less a fuck up than a hilarious misunderstanding.
(3) Negroni, equal measures Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. It deserves its own post, and will get one shortly. Bitter, sweet, strong and seductive, the Negroni is good before dinner, after dinner, before bed, in a mountain lodge, at the bottom of the sea, or really anywhere, at anytime at all. I’m not being hyperbolic about Campari as indispensable: a world without Campari is a world without Negronis, and in that case we should all just kill ourselves immediately.
Trivia #1: Campari has historically not been a vegetarian product. The brilliant red color was, from 1860-2006, the crimson dye carmine, which is created by collecting a bunch of cactus-feeding cochineal insects in a bowl and grinding them up with a pestle. For reasons either compassionate or capitalistic, they changed in 2006 to artificial color.
Trivia #2: Campari was initially called Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda, which translates to “Bitter – the Use of Holland,” or Holland-style bitter. There is, of course, nothing whatsoever Dutch about it, just that Gaspare wanted to tie in something exotic and the Dutch have long been at the center of the spice trade (just like the Branca people did with their imaginary Dr. Fernet). But as “Bitter – the Use of Holland” is an extremely stupid name, they changed it.
There’s something about Holiday Gift Guides, in magazines and such, that I find tremendously frustrating. Not because the suggestions are worthless, but because every single one seems to be just barely on the far side of useful. There are two kinds: the chintzy necessities you already have, except this time imprinted with kitsch (i.e. R2-D2 Measuring Cup Set, $19.99) or the solutions to problems that really don’t exist (i.e. a small electronic pouch to pre-warm your pijamas, $39.99).
Sitting, ostensibly, in the latter camp, nearly standard on such lists for the last few years, are Whiskey Stones. Whiskey Stones are 1″ cubes of soapstone that you keep in the freezer and drop (gently) into your glass of whiskey, they claim, to chill your whiskey without diluting it. One package gets you nine little rocks, and it costs $20.
I get asked about Whiskey Stones a lot, about whether someone’s boyfriend or son would like them, about what the best kinds are (there are a few), about how I feel about ice, and several other versions of the same basic question: are Whiskey Stones worth it?
This is not one question, but three:
(1) How much cooling power do they have?
(2) Is chilling without dilution something you even want?
(3) What is it like to use them?
The first question can be answered with science. The second two fall to personal taste, and are therefore more vexing. But we’re going to tackle it anyway, because this is a blog.
(1): How Much Cooling Power do they Have?
I’m going to save you the suspense: almost none.
You would think that 2oz of whiskey stones and 2oz of ice, both straight from the freezer, would have a similar effect, no? Just that one dilutes while the other doesn’t? While that indeed does seem intuitive, you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because ice is magic.
Without getting too much into it, the fact that ice is cold isn’t why it’s so good at chilling liquids. It doesn’t take much energy (a.k.a. chilling power) to take ice from 31°F to 32°F, or water from 32°F to 33°F But it takes a ton of energy to turn 32°F ice into 32°F water. Like 80x more. It’s the melting, called the “heat of fusion,” that makes ice magic.
So what does this mean for whiskey stones?
In the marketing materials, they say they used soapstone because it has “unique ability to retain temperature for extended periods of time.” and that’s true: compared to most stones, the specific heat of soapstone is high. But comparing it to ice is like comparing a foot massage to oral sex: it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fucking sport.
In my trials, 2 Whiskey Stones in 1oz of whiskey, which is not much, brought the temperature down a measly 10.3°F. By comparison, a frozen glass (very thin) chilled it 14.9°F, ice chilled it 22.5°F, and a frozen glass (thicker) chilled it 25.2°F.
I’m also definitely not the first person to do this:
• the Art of Manliness found Whiskey Stones register a 8°F difference
• the appropriately named Cool Material posted a 7°F difference
• drinkhacker put a ridiculous 3 stones in 0.65oz whiskey and posted a 12.8°F difference
• Doing Science to Stuff found a meager 6.2°F difference
• the metric folks at Scotchblog.ca found it to be 9°F (I converted for you).
This graph is pretty typical:
Basically, somewhere between 6-10 degrees, depending on how many you use. Which if you’re wondering, really isn’t much. It’s barely noticeable in the glass against the room temperature ones.
Conclusion: Whiskey Stones don’t chill for shit.
(2): Is Chilling without Diluting Something You Even Want?
But what’s the value of this? I mean, what’s the relationship between spirits enjoyment and temperature anyway?
I tried 1oz of 45% whiskey, side by side, 5 different ways, and took temperature readings after 5 minutes:
- neat, at room temperature (66°F)
- whiskey stones (56°F)
- frozen thin glass (51°F)
- frozen thick glass (41°F)
- ice (44°F)
Because so much of this falls to personal taste, I tasted with Vikki and we both silently jotted down our favorites, then shared them:
• I usually drink Japanese whiskey straight, so it’s unsurprising that I would like that best. Vikki’s no stranger to Japanese whiskey either, though she liked it 2nd best.
• The frozen thick glass was the coldest, and while the cold temperature did suppress some of the more delicate flavors, it also suppressed some alcohol burn and also added silky viscosity, which we both loved. I wouldn’t always have whiskey so cold, but for casual drinking (instead of tasting/experiencing all possible nuance), it was great.
• As for our old friend ice, we both loved it in the beginning, as a little dilution of a 45% spirit does release and stretch out some flavors. But after a while it became too diluted and therefore gross. Get bigger ice or drink faster.
• The big question was why did we love the frozen thick glass but not the frozen thin one? For this, I can only guess — the thin glass made the spirit cold enough to suppress flavor but not enough to add texture, and seemed to be in some weird middle ground, neither as flavorful as neat nor as silky as actual cold.
(3) What is is like to use them?
And finally, Whiskey Stones. Both of our least favorite, by far. The temperature change was negligible. The threat of taking a rock to the teeth, however, was not. Drinking whiskey, or really doing anything at all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum: the same whiskey in the same glass at the same temperature would taste a lot better enjoyed around a fire with old friends, and a lot worse at a Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana.
Atmosphere and aesthetics matter. Temperature-wise, it didn’t really do anything but disappoint me. Beyond the disappointment, beyond the constant specter of dental injury, I ultimately found it a weird bit of superfluous pageantry to drink with actual rocks clunking around in my glass.
So, are Whiskey Stones worth it?
No. They’re not.
In late 2012, a few guys named Simon Ford, Dushan Zaric, and Jason Kosmas launched a booze line under the banner 86 Company Spirits. For those of you who don’t know, 86 is restaurant slang for either we’ve run out (“86 lobster, we’re subbing shrimp”) or we threw someone out (“Guy on 22 was drooling like a basset hound and tried to pay in nickels, so we 86’d him.”)
All three of these guys come from the bar, and wanted to create a spirits company specifically accommodating to bartenders. So in this case, the 86 refers to “86 the bullshit.” As in, we are going to tell you exactly what is in our products, exactly how we made it, in what proportions and in what amount of time. No apocryphal yellowing recipes, no arbitrary ties to great men of history, no juju magic. Here is what we make, here is how, here is why.
That why is important. The transparency alone would be enough, but the fact that each of these products has a why — a real reason to exist — is what makes them so special.
There are way too many craft distillers making vodka and gin and shitty white whiskey and 9 month old bourbon just to do it, and their products neither taste better, nor are meaningfully different, than what is already abundantly available. This is why so many of them attempt to tie themselves to Napoleon or Hemingway for no reason at all, and why so many of them claim that their recipe dates to the 18th century, even though they’ve only been making it for 9 fucking months. And this is why the 86 Co. products are so refreshing. Each stands on its own merits, and each one (save, of course, for the vodka) is made to satisfy a cocktail need that had, up until now, been unmet.
If you’ve ever stood within earshot of the cyclonic bloviations of liquor marketing you’ll know that almost everyone says their products are designed “specifically for cocktails,” but in this case, it is fundamentally true: when creating them, the Ford and Zaric let the needs of the cocktail shape the spirit, not the other way around.
I’m not going to write everything about them. They have been extensively reviewed all over the web, to say nothing of fact that every production detail about them can be found on the website, or, handily, on the labels themselves. But a couple weeks ago, Dushan himself came to Kettner Exchange to give us a little training on their wonderful line, and there are a few interesting things that are worthy of special note.
Caña Brava Rum
First things first: daiquiris (rum + lime juice + sugar) are amazing. In the desperate yearning heart of every 2oz of rum is the unspoken desire to be turned into a daiquiri. Yes, rum is mixed with other stuff sometimes, but it never really wants to be. It wants to be a daiquiri. Because daiquiris are amazing.
So, the goal with Caña Brava was to create an authentic, prohibition-era Cuban style light rum, a robust, dry spirit bottled at higher proof so to shine in daiquiris. They went to Don Poncho Fernandez, who was the master blender of Havana Club for decades and is now in Panama (making him, let’s just say, a Panamaniac), and together created Caña Brava. Apparently Dushan showed up to the distillery with sacks of limes and boxes of sugar, and made daiquiris with each rum sample until they nailed it.
It is extremely dry, allowing you to manage your own sweetness. It’s bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, providing cocktail infrastructure, and it has a mid-palate explosion, the point in the tasting experience where most drinks suffer. It makes a brilliant daiquiri, and is, therefore, an enormous success.
Note: Loyal readers will recall I once wrote something similar about Banks 5 Rum, and indeed, these two products aspire to the same thing. The difference, then, is in how they try to get there: Banks blends in Indonesian Arrack for a dynamic and wholly original flavor profile, while Caña Brava aims at recreating the Cuban style straight through distillation. They’re almost too different to compare, but I can say that the two products make daiquiris that taste nothing alike and yet are both enormously tasty.
Made at the Thames distillery in London, Ford’s aims to be the ultimate cocktail gin: to be good for Tom Collins’, good for Negronis, good for Martinis, and to work with both lemon and lime. I admit, this education was the first I’d ever heard of this lemon vs. lime business — apparently some gins work better with lemon and some with lime, which through some deficit of palate or experience, I’ve never encountered (it’s also always possible that’s not a real thing, but honestly, I’m inclined to trust Dushan’s palate over my own).
In any event, they experimented with oil extraction and botanical steep time until they got it just right, at 15hrs. Its viscosity and balance is ideal for martinis (it was the best London Dry Gin in the Great Martini Experiements). Like the rum, it has a mid-palate explosion of flavor. Because gin is all about specific tastes at specific strengths, much of it falls to personal preference. What I will say is that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with its legendary peers, which is, for a London Dry Gin, the biggest compliment I have to give.
The tequila is bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, which in and of itself gives it broad shoulders. But more than that, they wanted a tequila that could present a bold agave flavor even when mixed. The agave is the most delicate flavor and the first to get drowned out, Dushan complained, and too often you’ll have a margarita that has all the pepper and vegetal notes and creaminess of the tequila, but no agave.
They went to El Ranchito distillery in the highlands, NOM1414, and worked with the distiller to craft the product. They found the tequila can only be made in the winter, interestingly, when the temperature is lower and fermentation can happen more slowly, because only a long fermentation can give the flavors they wanted. So after about 10 days of fermentation, it’s distilled to industry standard 55%, cut back to 43%, and bottled.
Taken neat, it’s a bit rougher than it’s peers, probably because of those proof points. But those are what makes it pop in cocktails, with a giant mid-palate agave sweetness, a bit of bitterness from the extra booze, and a nice creamy texture. Very cool, utterly unique.
Aylesbury Duck Vodka
… is vodka. I don’t know. It’s good vodka. It’s well priced and well made and it’s not hurting anyone. Plus, the label is funny.
Trivia: I had always assumed the term 86 was some antiquated computer code or something, but apparently it’s at least 70 years old and no one actually knows how it came about. There are several competing theories, and they are all equally unsatisfying.
More Trivia: I wrote “juju magic” up there because it felt right in the sentence, then got nervous because I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of slur. In the process of looking into that, my googling took me to The Racial Slur Database, an organization that for some bizarre reason categorizes these things. They have a search bar, or you can just browse by ethnic group. They have a homepage feature, “Racial Slur of the Day.” In the submission section, they take pains to remind you that only racial slurs will be accepted, and gender and sexuality slurs are strictly prohibited.
I have nothing more to report on this, just that it exists and I find that fact endlessly amusing.
I know several people who probably followed this link just to tell me that there is no problem with the Martini, that it is the Platonic ideal of gin cocktails and God’s Perfect Drink. Let me first tell you that I agree, for the most part, that a well-made Martini is a radiant and profound drink, and also that you’re wrong, there is indeed a problem, but it has nothing to do with taste.
Get 20 cocktail bartenders in a room and ask them all for a recipe, and you might get a little individual variance.
Ask for a Last Word, and you’ll get the same thing from everyone. A Corpse Reviver #2, and there might be a little trembling on whether to use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano, but the ratios will be the same. I have, embarrassingly, killed a whole drunken hour arguing about whether it’s lemon or lime juice in a Southside, but again, it’s essentially the same drink.
But the Martini. The goddamn Martini. The Martini diffusion is hopeless.
Everyone agrees on the principle ingredients: a martini is gin, dry vermouth, (sometimes) orange bitters, stirred, up, with a lemon peel. If you disagree with any of this, I invite you to explore your wrongness in the footnote(1) at bottom.
But it’s not that easy, because look it up 10 times and you’ll get 8 different ratios, the range of which is both hilarious and absurd. Just gin and vermouth, right? How much of each? Consider the list below, which is the Martini ratio given in all the books I have at home, plus a bit of google poking. I didn’t cherry pick these. These are the first 15 I found:
Ratio of Gin to Vermouth
1:1 — Edmund Spencer, via The Flowing Bowl, 1898 (+orange bitters)
2:1 — Sam Ross, via Bartender’s Choice (app)
3:1 — Jim Meehan, via PDT Cocktail Book
3:1 — Death & Co. Cocktail Book (+orange bitters)
3:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
4:1 — Andre Domine, via Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails
5:1 — David Wondrich, via Epicurious (+orange bitters)
5:1 — Simon Ford, via Liquor.com (+orange bitters)
5:1 — Gary Regan, via Joy of Mixology
6:1 — International Bartender Association (IBA)
6:1 — Dushan Zaric, via Food Republic (+orange bitters)
6:1 — Dale Degroff, via The Essential Cocktail
8:1 — Ted Haigh, via CocktailDB.com
10(+):1 — Cookworks, via FoodNetwork
10(+):1 — David Wondrich, via Esquire
You’ll notice that some people don’t even agree with themselves. I want to make the best drinks I can, and this list gets me no closer to the perfect Martini than I was before.
So I did what any sensible person would do: I made them all. Over the course of about 6 weeks, I made every ratio, with every gin I have at home, across two different vermouths, with and without orange bitters. And then I drank them.
So Who’s Right?
Possibly everyone. Or at least, everyone between 5:1 and 1:1. Also maybe no one. Because, as it turns out, there is no single perfect recipe. The ideal recipe varies wildly from gin to gin, and further depends on your dry vermouth, and even further, likely, personal taste.
To find the best ratio, first assess what you’re looking for: a good martini radiates out of the glass. It shines like a diamond. It is a strong, bracing drink, that nonetheless charms you with impeccable balance and clarity of flavor, a harmonic resonance that’s remarkable when hit just right. So make everything between 1:1 and 5:1. Then try again, this time with orange bitters. Find your champion, make sure to write it down (you’re pretty drunk by now), and write off the moral cost of today’s inebriation as a learning experience (the story of my damn life).
Eight gins in all, and here are my last page conclusions, sorted by my personal preference:
(1) Beyond 5:1, you’re just drinking cold gin.
(2) When the vermouths did disagree, Dolin almost always wanted to be a bigger part of the drink than Noilly Prat. It also tasted better every time.
(3) Orange bitters works with more juniper-forward gins, like Beefeater and Fords. In the others it made the flavors less clear.
(3a)… with the obvious exception of Hendrick’s, which was admittedly a very close call, maybe the closest of this whole experiment.
(4) If you’ve got to guess, go 3:1. It was best 5 of the 8 times, and even when it wasn’t best, it was never bad.
(5) Even my least favorite of the eight, Hendrick’s, was still damn tasty at 3:1 with orange bitters. A well made Martini is a wonderful drink.
My Favorite Martini
2.25oz Aviation Gin (for elegance/licorice accents) or Tanqueray 10 (for brighter fruit accents)
0.75oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
Stir briskly in a mixing glass, over ice, for about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled Martini glass, and express the oils of a lemon peel over the top.
Notes from the Martini Trials:
1st (tie): Aviation Gin, 3:1
More licorice, like licorice candy (good & plenty). Bubblegum. Has an elegance that’s hard to touch. Deep and strong and balanced. 2:1 with orange bitters was a close second… it had more flavor, but muddied the clarity of 3:1 without bitters. Savory. Wonderful.
1st (tie): Tanqueray 10, 3:1
Made with whole orange, grapefruit, and limes, as well as chamomile, this had a much more citrus forward clarity. Lemon Starbursts. “All kinds of candied citrus,” I wrote, “I could drink these all the time.” Radiant. Dynamic. This pops.
3rd: The Botanist, 1:1
Nice sweetness. Surprisingly balanced at 1:1. How weird. The gin complements the vermouth very well, and makes the overall cocktail almost savory. This is a great drink.
4th: Ford’s Gin, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
Nose is great. 1:1 without bitters was actually pretty good here too, but 3:1 with takes the day. Probably my favorite of the classic London Dry style martinis.
5th: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength, 5:1
Nice cucumber dryness. This is the gin in which I actually taste cucumber, and that note is highlighted here, as opposed to masked. This is an example of why gin martinis are so cool.
6th: Plymouth, 4:1 + Orange Bitters
Very nicely textured. Orange bitters bring a candied orange flavor that’s quite nice, and make it a little front heavy. This is very nice but not extraordinarily memorable, like a white dress shirt.
7th: Beefeater, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
At its most balanced. It’s still a little raw, but 2:1 is too weak and 4:1 is too much. It’s a stiff, tasty drink, meant for those who want their drinks stiff and tasty, and care about those adjectives in that order.
8th: Hendricks, 3:1 + Orange Bitters
This was a really tight choice between orange bitters and not. 1:1 was good too, but a little tart. 3:1 had nice acidity, mouthwatering. Clean. Floral. Probably cleaner without bitters than with, but I thought the round orange flavor made it more dynamic.
• • • • • • •
(1) A Martini is made with gin and vermouth. It doesn’t matter at all that 95% of the “martinis” I’m asked to make are with vodka. This is a gin drink. If you want a 5oz cone of 19°F vodka, fouled with tepid olive brine and made murky by lactose wisps of dissolving cheese, fine, but a martini it ain’t.
(2) Martinis may or may not contain orange bitters. Orange bitters are traditional, satisfying the original requirement of being called a cocktail, but most people these days choose to omit them. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not. We’ll deal with it case by case.
(3) A Martini is stirred, not shaken. If you shake it, you lose the velvety texture, overdilute it, and make it all turbid & ugly. James Bond has gauche taste and he should keep it to his fucking self.
(4) Our garnish will be a lemon twist, not olives. I hate olives. Sorry. Bias.
(5) Yeah, I’m really using footnotes.
While I am a person who enjoys beer, I am not a Beer Person.
How do I know I’m not a Beer Person? Because I have no opinion on the Fuggle hop. Because I can and do drink Miller High Life in public, I don’t know what flavor crystal malt imparts, and I don’t give a single lonely fuck if you serve me a saison in a pint glass. I’m not proud of my ignorance, nor am I ashamed. I just don’t care that much. Because I’m not a Beer Person.
The corollary is that I don’t get to try the worlds best beers, because I’m not willing to do things like fly to Belgium, or even really set an alarm. The beer I drink is the beer of convenience; it is the beer that is already in my path.
That being said, when my excellent friend Justin Platt gifted me a bottle of the elusive Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, I admit, I got Christmas-morning excited.
Dark Lord Day:
The Dark Lord is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, and sugar, weighing in at around 15% alcohol. It is available for exactly one day a year, Dark Lord Day, the last Saturday in April, and only at Three Floyd’s Brewery, in Munster, Indiana.
To get it, you have to perch yourself online for the moment tickets go on sale, as they will sell out very quickly. You are allowed to buy two tickets. The ticket is $30, and doesn’t get you the beer, but rather earns you the opportunity to buy the beer. Upon showing up on Dark Lord Day (itself a beerfest with live music and such), you’re sorted into groups A-E, and when your group is called, you wait in line for the privilege of buying one (1) allotment of Dark Lord, which is between 2 and 4 bottles, depending on that year’s yield.
And if that all seems like a giant pain in the ass, consider this: the two variants of Dark Lord currently sit at #8 and #11 on ratebeer.com‘s Best Beers Ever list, and #8 and #61 on beeradvocate’s. Which is why it’s not something I’d fly to Indiana for, but it’s something I’ll absolutely fucking drink.
Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout:
This beer was seriously amazing. Sits heavy. Mouthfeel like heavy cream. Caramel, obviously, but also a very pleasant fig/dried fruit presence. Darker fruits like plums show up too. Not very bitter, a balancing presence is all. Lots and lots of complexity. And as I settled into it, the dominant flavor for me turned to be milk chocolate, probably because of the mouthfeel. “So much damn chocolate,” I wrote. Coffee and vanilla integrated seamlessly. Crazy good. A+.
A warm thank you to Justin for this bottle. What a cool experience. California’s a bit far, but if I still lived in Chicago, I can see driving an hour for this.
“It’s not easy. It’s not simple. And there’s no way to make it faster or better.” — Martin Daraz, of Highland Park Distillery
Distillery: Highland Park distillery
Location: Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Owned By: Edrington Group (also owns Famous Grouse, Macallan, and a couple others)
Origin: Allegedly founded in 1798. Actually founded in 1826.
A Sense of Place:
No matter which way you’re headed, the Highland Park distillery, on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, is out of your way. From Glasgow, you would head 300 miles north to the seaside port of Scrabster, the northernmost port on mainland Britain, and somewhere that sounds, to me, like a place where you could get punched just for having a full set of teeth. There, you catch the 2 hour Northlink ferry to the tempestuously named Stromness, on an island known as “Mainland,” head east for half an hour, and there you find Highland Park, waiting to reward your journey.
Orkney is an archipelago of some 70 islands off the northernmost tip of Scotland. In terms of latitudinal brothers, we’re talking about Oslo, St. Petersberg, Stockholm, and Juneau, Alaska — historically not whisky hotspots, but the fact that it’s an island tempers the seasons: winter temperatures range tightly between 34°F-45°F, and summer average high stretches to a giddy 61°F. It’s the northernmost distillery in Scotland, and everyone who goes — from the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas to travel writers today — say to be in Orkney feels like the edge of the world.
Highland Park was allegedly founded in 1798 by a butcher, church-official, and secret distiller/smuggler named Magnus Eunson, about whom there are plenty of charming and roguish stories that, in the grand tradition of liquor, are likely all between 50 and 100% untrue. Nonetheless, the story goes, he was distilling on that spot in Kirkwall, and finding amusing and blasphemous ways to hide the liquor from the taxmen until they finally arrested him.
In 1818, a straw-plaiter named Robert Bordwick felt like a legitimate distillery could succeed as a business, and together with his son-in-law John Robertson (Eunson’s arresting officer, as it turns out) bought Eunson’s land on High Park and officially founded Highland Park. They built what is still the current distillery, received their license in 1826, and have been distilling more or less continuously since then. In the last 188 years the company has passed through more sets of hands than I care to list, and has since 1999 been owned by the medium-sized Edringer Group, who also own Macallan.
There’s a little variation among the individual bottlings, but what they all have in common is that they’re all (1) peated, and they (2) use sherry-seasoned casks for aging. This is not a terribly common combination, and one that has me personally coming back to Highland Park again and again:
Spanish Sherry-seasoned Oak: they source all their oak, at least for the standard line, from Northern Spain (the limited edition 15 is American oak). The staves are air-dried as opposed to kiln dried (like our friends at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky), as air-dried wood is universally agreed to be better — it gives the harsh tannic quality in the wood a chance to mellow out. They then make barrels and fill them with dry Oloroso sherry for 2-3 years. By the time they’re emptied, some 11 liters of sherry have saturated the wood, waiting to add spice and dried fruit richness to the scotch.
Local Peat: Highland Park is one of the few distilleries who still malt a proportion of their own barley (about 20%), which they then kiln dry with local Orcadian peat. Because of the climate, their peat is all moss and grass, and gives a distinctive heathery floral note to the finished spirit. They smoke it to about 20 phenol parts-per-million (ppm) over 16 hours, before mixing it with unpeated malt they contract from one of the malting houses on the mainland. This lowers their total peat levels to about 4-6ppm once bottled, which is very low, and it’s kind of amazing that the flavor translates so well.
Also, for what it’s worth: Michael Jackson (the legendary beer and whiskey writer, not the legendary pop singer) wrote of Highland Park that it’s “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky.” In Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, the 12 and 25 won best single malt in their respective categories for 2014, and F. Paul Pacult of Spirit Journal has retired the Highland Park 18 from competition, calling it “the best spirit in the world.” So there’s that.
Highland Park 12: It has a pronounced sweetness like salted caramel that gets a little bit stone-fruity, and a nice lingering peat smoke with a little depth. All in all, somewhat light. Vanilla. Not at all bad, but especially tasting it next to older versions I’d be very happy to put it back in the barrel for a few more years.
Would I buy it?: Yeah, but there are 12 year olds I like more.
Highland Park 15: No longer available outside U.S. Being phased out. This is made in American wood as opposed to Spanish wood, 35% first fill sherry barrels. Creamy, vanilla. There’s no sign of that leather I get a little of in the 12 and a lot of in the 18. Cinnamon spicy, like red hots, but also has a cool grassy element. This was the favorite of many at the tasting.
Cost: ~$80, if you can find it
Would I buy it?: Yes, if only because it won’t be around anymore.
Highland Park 18: My definite favorite of the Seven Grand tasting. It’s got a really nice raisiny sweetness from the sherry, but enough leathery depth to keep me coming back. Floral heather mixes with enough peat smoke to make me take notice. I can’t get enough of that dark leathery oak and smoke, like sinking into a comfortable chair in a dim cigar lounge. This, to me, tastes like whisky should taste.
Would I buy it?: Absolutely. One of the best $100 you can spend on whiskey.
Highland Park Freya: Part of their “Valhalla Collection” limited bottlings. 51.2%, 15 years in bourbon casks. Sweetness is more candied, almost like gum (this comment invited mockery from the brand ambassador, but I swear it tastes like Juicyfruit). Strong fruity spice. Peat is a bit subdued and the texture is a bit waxy. A surprise from the others. No dark elements at all. Tasty. Interesting.
Would I buy it?: Absolutely not. Way too much money.
Highland Park 30: Bonus! I went home and had a small glass of this while the others were fresh in my head. All that time in sherry barrels gives it a stronger dried fruit nose, but on the palate it’s all peat, leather, and caramel. Texture is concentrated, a little buttery. After a minute the caramel becomes a little raisinated. New elements keep popping into the mingling of sweetness and peat and oak. It’s not really fair to compare, but this is my favorite. Obvi.
Cost: A lot.
Would I Buy It?: Only on the most special of occasions, to be enjoyed with close friends.
Distillery: Old Bushmills Distilling
Location: Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Owned By: Diageo
Major Products produced: Bushmills, Black Bush, Bushmills Single Malt 10, —16, and —21
Origin: Founded in 1784. Distilling off and on since then.
A Quick Word:
If there were a single misapprehension I could correct in the average drinker, it’s the naïve and somewhat touching belief that the most popular thing is the most popular because it is the best. It’s sweet, really, this inclination toward justice, but the world of liquor is not a meritocracy. Not even close.
I say that to say this: there is one big reason that everyone thinks Jameson is the Irish Whiskey, and everything else is just a cheap echo thereof. And while Jameson does make some tasty products, that reason has nothing to do with either the quality or the flavor of the whiskey itself.
The year 1608 proudly adorns every bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting like a foundation stone above the brand name itself, implicitly suggesting that Bushmills has been around since 1608. This is false — weirdly, brazenly false. While someone in Northern Ireland got a distillation license in 1608, it wasn’t Bushmills. The Bushmills company wouldn’t be even founded until 1784, a 176 years later. Just to clear that up.
(Seriously, they could’ve been founded seventy-six years earlier, and they’d still miss the 1608 date by a hundred fucking years. Once again, please ignore all historical claims from liquor companies. The ones that aren’t half-truths are outright lies, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what the liquor actually tastes like.)
Here’s the history that actually matters: in the beginning of the 20th century Irish whiskey was terrifically popular, with 20+ distilleries operating at full bore. But the twin punches of Prohibition and WWII left the industry bloodied and meager, and by the mid ’60s there were just a handful of distilleries left. To weather the times, Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilling companies merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, and set about consolidating resources. In 1972, they acquired Bushmills, making Irish Distillers the only whiskey company in Ireland, a total monopoly that would last some 15 years, and a near-monopoly that would last 15 more.
So why is Bushmills overlooked? Because by the time Irish Distillers scooped up Bushmills, they had already chosen their favorite son: they built a new Jameson distillery next to the old one, opened it in 1975, and put their resources behind it. Even more, once French liquor giant Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers in 1988, they jumped on Jameson — the lightest of the whiskies — and marketed it toward vodka drinkers. “Take it as a shot! Try it with some apple pucker!” Jameson got all the attention and popularity, and Bushmills got a black hoodie and an eating disorder.
In 2005, Pernod Ricard unloaded Bushmills on their archnemesis Diageo, who haven’t pushed it much. But apparently, they’re beginning to start, because they recently sent a couple guys to San Diego to talk to us about it.
People who love Irish whiskey call it “smooth” and “mild.” People who don’t call it “boring” and “effete.” And they’re both right, because they’re describing precisely the same thing. Generally, people who like their barley-based spirits lighter will go Irish. Heavier, they’ll go scotch.
Bushmills aims to bridge that gap, by offering higher malt, fuller flavored whiskeys that still retain their essential Irish smoothness. All their products are distilled three times in pot stills, ultimately to between 58.5%-60.5%, and all are aged in some mixture of used bourbon and used Olorosso sherry casks (the mixture varies for each product).
Bushmills Original || Aged 5 years minimum.
Light and fruity at first. A little buttery with spice. There’s an essential grainy lightness that is distractingly light/mild. Like there should be something there. A pear flavor takes over toward the end, a long-ish finish of spiced pear.
Overall: not bad at all, if mild for my taste. The fruit could use some richness to back it up.
Black Bush || Aged 7 years minimum. Unusually high percentage of malt whiskeys(80% malt, 20% grain.)
This fills in nicely that hole I tasted in the Bushmills Original. This is the product they’re pushing hard, and you can taste why — a one-time favorite of mine, back when I used to drink more Irish whiskey. More sherry influence, with apricot and apple backed up by a slight — slight — richness.
Overall: this is one of the better Irish whiskies out there, especially for the price. As a malt/grain blend, I’d put this at a respectable 2nd place behind Redbreast.
Bushmills 10 Pure Malt || Aged 10 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.
Here’s where we start getting to Bushmills real strength, their 100% malt whiskey. This has no light grain blended in, and it shows — it’s got the same essential flavors, just more robust. Cooked apples. Honey. Melon. Tingly spice. My notes say “apple-y as fuck.” Pear. That fruit really comes through.
Overall: this is my favorite of the lot, and the one that best showcases the strength of this particular distillery. Recommended.
Bushmills 16 Pure Malt || Aged 16 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 6-9 months in Port wine casks.
The port shows itself here, along with more alcohol heat. Raisins & honey, oak and heat were the dominant flavors. These are rich flavors but without much richness in the whiskey itself, it didn’t land for me. “Not much force,” I wrote.
Overall: a different set of flavors to be sure, but this one missed the mark for me… though I should say that it was the favorite of many at the tasting, so take that for what it’s worth.
Bushmills 21 Pure Malt || Aged 21 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.
Finally, here we have some richness, more from the wood I’m sure than the malt. That same signature fruit/spice is familiar, but with much more presence. Darker, richer, and more textured. Honey, almond, spice. The sherry influence itself is surprisingly subtle, perhaps muted by the wood. Cinnamon redhots finish (light).
Overall: tasty to be sure, a great choice for Irish whiskey fans who also happen to be hedge-fund managers. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine spending $120 on this. Good though.