Wednesday, November 10, 2010

WhiskyFest No. 4: Lessons Were Learned

That time of year again? Why yes, as the leaves turned, the wind grew crisper and our daylight savings ran out, we knew this had to be coming. For just as every year the fourth Thursday in November is Thanksgiving, the annual event known as WhiskyFest falls on the second Tuesday of the month. And here we were. Again.

The fact that I am able to write this with a clear head the morning after just proves lessons have been learned.

Lesson 1: Hydrate. Yesterday I drank enough water to drown a small village.

Lesson 2: Eat. Prefest anchor steak lunch at Les Halles with Stephanie, Rob and his Idle Hands partner Mark. (Lesson 2 1/2: that iPhone Catpaint app just keeps on giving).

Lesson 3: A VIP ticket is totally worth it!

So glad I threw down. After dealing with the still-clunky registration process and getting my wristband and swag bag (if you can call a free issue of a magazine I already have a subscription to and a mini bottle of crappy blended Scotch "swag") I had a whole hour to taste things the rest of the crowd wouldn't, plus more space in which to do it. Within that hour, I had great face time with my pal Kenny Ng at Michters, who gave me some lovely, smooth and rich Michters 25 Year Bourbon to try. A quick hello to Parker Beam and the delicious Parker's Heritage wheated 10 Year old Bourbon (close contender for dram of the night), which I had originally tasted at the Char No. 4 Heaven Hill dinner back in September. A warm greeting from Dave Harper of Buffalo Trace and the new Weller Antique, which was perfectly nutty and rich with just a little heat. The Glenmorangie Finealta, Glenrothes Vintage 1975 and Vintage 1979 (the warmer and more flavorful of the two), the delightful High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 Yr old and their fab Bourye (bourbon + rye) hybrid. There was just ten minutes left before the big crowds would charge through those doors and I knew I had to make this count. So Rob and I elbowed our way in to taste Johnnie Walker Blue, which, believe it or not, was my first time. Stephanie had been saying how ironic it is that all these manly men prize that dram, being that it's so soft, floral and feminine in character. And she's right. But I get it. There are no hard edges. All flavor notes are distinguished and it's very easy to drink. I'll gladly let someone buy a $40 dram for me any day.

 Lesson 3: No matter how rare that cup of liquid gold, don't drink the whole thing if you plan to taste more things.

This is a painful lesson, but one that three past years of training has taught me well. Yes, each and every one of those whiskies I just mentioned only lasted one or two sips, (OK, the Johnnie Blue I had like 5 sips of). If I don't want my palate totally shot and plan to stay standing for nearly four hours, one has to do this in moderation.

Lesson 4: Even though you love it, forgo the old favorites. It's the only way to try new things. And this year, I mostly stuck with American independent craft distillers once the regular tastings commenced. I was most impressed with Roughstock Montana Whiskey, which had a nice banana bread appeal that reminded me of a much younger version of the now extinct Woodford Reserve Sweet Mash (aliva shalom) as well as Chicago's own Lion's Pride, which offer a white rye (less rough than most new white dogs on the market) and two expressions of oat whisky, which are toasty and comforting. I was impressed that most people with white spirits stayed away from using the term "moonshine" which, I'll say again, is just wrong. Unless you are selling your product illegally, under cover of night and have gangsters chasing after you and at least one roll over, a mean dog, a crying baby and a bum leg, it ain't moonshine, it's just un-aged spirit. Jenni and Marko at Charbay also had some fun offerings, like Double and Twisted IPA, French Oak Barrel IPA, barrel samples of vanilla rum and the new hop whisky, though sadly, no brandy as promised.

But this rule meant I didn't drink any Pappy Van Winkle this time, or Jefferson's or any of the other big boy Scotches like Compass Box, Springbank, Glenfiddich, Auchentoshan, Ardbeg or Laphroaig, though I couldn't resist saying hi to Martin at the Macallan table and taking a sip of cask strength. 

Lesson 5: Sit down, take a load off, attend a seminar!

Stephanie had the brilliant idea of attending the Yamazaki seminar halfway through the night and so glad I did. It was a good chance to regroup, have some water (see Lesson 1) and let things settle a bit, plus learn something new. I enjoyed the presentation (Lesson 5 1/2: According to the Japanese, Spaniards apparently will cheat you on sherry casks unless you pay close attention to your product) and it was interesting to taste through the expressions and get to spit without vying for the bucket. But I'm gonna say it, after a second taste (the first during VIP hour), not a fan of the prized Hibiki 1984. The cinnamon notes totally overpower the spirit.

Back down for another forty-five minutes. We decide to head to the Bruichladdich table to see what our pal from Friday night, distiller Jim McEwan was up to. He immediately reached out and pulled us behind the table as we tasted a 42 Yr Lonach.

Now with only a few minutes to go before the heavily enforced last call at 9:15, I go back to Buffalo Trace to taste the Sazerac 18 (a little hot, but settles well with a little water) and the Thomas Handy.

Lesson 6: End on a good note. If you're gonna have a last dram, have a last DRAM.

This year I wanted something slightly sweet and easy, so after making a few quick circles, went for the Dalmore King Alexander III. Perfect choice.

Lesson 7: Just go home.

As tempting as it was, I didn't attend the after party at Ward III that my roving gang and many of our favorite presenters were attending. I did get a fun subway ride on the C train with Steph, Rob, Elana and Abigail. But I had to bid the adieu as they exited at Chambers street into the beyond. I'd had enough. Already.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Schustertastic Vintage Wine Dinner

My dad isn't merely a wine collector. He's a wine HOARDER. He buys wine. He stores it. And instead of drinking it in its prime, or even opening the very bottle he bought for the weekend or for casual company, it sits in a cabinet in the cellar, languishing. On some shelves, there are dusty bottles of 70s vintage Bordeaux next to forgotten roses from two summers ago, now only good for vinaigrette.

My parents have moved four times in my lifetime. The last big move was from a house in Wilton, Connecticut to a duplex in New York City. Some of these wines have moved a couple of times before I was born. They have carefully packed and re-stored each bottle each time (and also bug repellent, sunscreen, frozen tupperwear containers of fish stock and I suspect, cheese). Waiting. Waiting. There will be the special occasion to drink them at some point.

Since I embarked on my boundless wine education journey a few year's back, I've learned more about many of the wines in the cellar. And one main thing, these need to be enjoyed before they've lost their mojo! So in past years, instead of waiting for that special occasion (of which indeed there have been a few) we also have to create them.

My friend Stephanie, who became a good friend back in my Astor days, has my back, After spending a few holidays and special events with my family, and drooling with me over many of my father's 1980s vintage Bordeaux, Burgundy, German, Italian and Californian in the big temperature controlled cabinet, she has also voiced concerns for their flavor welfare and proposed we start having some wine dinners. This needs to start happening now.

And so, this past Saturday, we made it happen.

I was allowed up to four additional guests, and so these were John (now an honorary Schuster, especially since he still uses a VCR), and other Astor pals Ali and Beth (sadly there was another no-show when others would have gladly taken his place).

We started with a magnum of 1993 Pol Roger champagne. Dad just "found" a case of this in a crate in the cellar when digging for something else. We drank this with assorted cheeses and spreads as guests arrived.

My mom made an astoundingly wonderful butternut squash soup, which my dad had the brilliant idea of garnishing with cut up shrimp with shallots and crispy sage.

We ate this with a pair of Zind Humbrecht wines, my dad's favorite producer in Alsace. A 1983  Gewurtztraminer and a 1986 "Brand" Riesling. The Gewurtz had mellowed enough that the aromatics were present, but well in check (instead of tasting like the inside of my Grandma Nina's purse as they tend to do) with good acidity and classic stone fruit flavors. But the Riesling. Whoa. It just kept getting better. Already a golden raisin color in the glass, it also held its acidity and fruit, not too much residual sugar (this is a dry version) but with a firm hazelnuttiness I've never before tasted from this varietal. Stephanie and Beth held on to theirs throughout the dinner and let us sip as the evening progressed. It continued to evolve and please. Both matched the soup well, especially the magical Riesling.

I helped Dad select the reds. Decisions, decisions. We got a bit distracted by some older Californian finds, but I reigned us in. The whole point of this was to drink the old world wines we knew were starting to lose edge. Focus! We settled on a 1978 Haut Brion (a gift from family friends), 1983 Palmer and a 1982 Sociando Mallet before deciding to try them against one older Californian, a 1981 Conn Creek Zinfandel. Mom made yabba dabba doo-sized short ribs, horseradish mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts to accompany our riches.

The Haut Brion was insane! I half expected it to be corked when I first opened the bottle of decanting. But after a couple of hours, the temperature had settled and the flavors began to shine. Yes there was characteristic dark cherry and earth, a little leather, but what is that finish? REALLY spicy. Peppery. Ancho chili! Crazy. We all loved it.

The Palmer (not shown) and Sociando Mallet were also beginning to evolve with some air. Both showed some decent dark fruits and mossy earth, and also matched the food. The Sociando had some mushroomy umami notes and the Palmer went more in the other direction with warm spice. I do feel each was a tad over the hill and slightly muted. Wish we had opened them a few years ago as they would have been spectacular. But that's kind of like comparing Sophia Loren in the 1950s versus the late 1960s.

I'm finding the more I have the opportunity to taste vintage Californian wines of certain local varietals, the more impressed I become. People don't tend to think of these wines as having age potential the way the other Bordeaux grapes do from either old or new world growths. But in my opinion, these are standing the test of time like their more famous cousins, maybe even more so. This zin was gorgeously smooth, fruity, spicy and silky. Probably the easiest on the palate, and surprisingly not heavy and alcoholic the way Zins have been more recently produced.

Here it is in the decanter. Ain't it purdy?

The gals and I had the fun task of choosing wine to go with our dessert (as if we needed either it or more food). After deciding Port would be too heavy despite the great choices from Osborne in the cabinet, we settled on a 1983 Prum Auslese. Beth made a delectable chocolate cheesecake and John brought Black Hound chocolate covered strawberries.

The wine was still beautifully balanced with just the right amount of residual sugar and acidity. Not a great match for the food, but hey, not too shabby to hang out and drink.

But we also stumbled upon some other "treasures" in the cabinet, which we opened mostly for a laugh. And maybe with some hope.

Can you read the label? Get this, a 1961 (!) Portuguese wine, an Astor Home selection! That's right, a private label cheapie my parents must have bought from the old Astor incarnation back in the 1960s and totally forgotten about, probably for something shinier, or maybe they went out instead and never got around to drinking it. Poor thing. Stored in some sort of "wine purgatory" the cabinet with all the big boys. I hope they weren't too mean to it. We also found a white Buzet (huh?) from 1986. Neither was any good. I've had older Portuguese wines that held up beautifully, but this just sank immediately when exposed to air. The fruit quickly slipped away and all that was left was savory weirdness and spice, like beef bouillon gone wrong. The Buzet was grassy and skunky. The kindest thing I can say about it is it tasted like a Heinecken can someone pissed in at a frat party when the line for the bathroom was too long.

Finally, it was time to clean up. Stephanie graciously washed all the glasses. Oy.

Many, many thanks to my parents for their generosity, fabulous cooking and last but not least, good humor. What a fantastic night!