Thursday, August 16, 2012

Camp Whiskey

"Hello Muddah,
Hello Fadduh.
Here I am at
Camp Granada.
Camp is very
And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining."

Well, it didn't stop raining last night, but that didn't keep us from having fun at Camp Whiskey! Camp Whiskey is a new tasting group founded by "head counselors" Char No. 4's Jeff Galli, The Whiskey Shop's Jonathan Wingo and brown spirits enthusiast Gary He. Each week, the campers gather in a commercial space in Brooklyn TBD and taste a selection of whiskies with a particular theme. Last night was a roundup of experimental selections from American craft distilleries Corsair, Kings County, Smooth Ambler, Balcones and Charbay. As you can see in the picture, many of these are samples that are not yet on the market, or examples of items that aren't available here. This is the shizzle, whiskey geeks!

The tasting is very well organized, and the counselors make sure we're well hydrated as we taste through the selections (so no visit to the infirmary is necessary.) Each whiskey is presented with background information and we taste them together as a group. What I found refreshing is that unlike most group tastings I've attended, we weren't called upon to yell out our thoughts on the dram or exclaim the flavors we detected. Instead, we were given time to reflect on what we were experiencing and ask questions.

Last night, we had the great fortune to hear Derek Bell from Corsair and Dave Smith from St. George speak to us via phone about their projects. The speaker phone was a little muffled, so to keep the distillers from sounding like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon, Jonathan rigged up a plastic trash can to the phone as an amplifier. Science in full effect!

There was also a very special guest camper, Nicole Austin, master blender from Kings County, presenting the latest batches of unaged corn whiskey and Bourbon. She spoke about the perils of aging whiskey in an un-temperature controlled environment in Brooklyn. The fluctuating conditions make it difficult to age a spirit for long stretches since too much time can result in "over-cooking" as extremes of weather beat down on the barrels. She also discussed the size of the barrels (5 gallons) and how that affects the flavor and aging process (larger the barrel, the more the whiskey needs time to age, but also the more room it has to develop complexities.) Since Bourbon must be aged in new charred white oak, the most cost effective process must be in place. Therefore, medium-sized barrels make sense here.

Of course, there is always the guy in the crowd who asks the question, "Isn't Bourbon always from Kentucky?"

Nicole: "It can be made anywhere in the US as long as it follows the rules."

He: "Alaska?"

She: "Anywhere in the US."

He: "Hawaii?"

She: "Anywhere. In. The. US."


Unlike many corporate whiskies, Kings County is not a uniform product that will taste the same from bottle to bottle, batch to batch. Having tasted the unaged corn whiskey a few years ago, the newer batches are less "moonshine-y" and more sippable. However, personally, I do think the aged Bourbon could use a little time to whack out some it its kinks. Am curious to try it again as the product develops at the distillery.

In all it was a fascinating lineup. The Corsair selection (and these guys really like to push boundaries) included the Wormwood Wit, 12 grain Bourbon, Mocha Porter, Cherry Wood, Rasputin and Amarillo. Corsair's signature flavor is very hoppy and cereal-y. The 12 grain was especially so, using the required amount of corn for Bourbon and then 11 other grains, which made it taste like old kasha. Also, the Mocha Porter did indeed taste like mocha, but if it were made with Quik and Nescafe instead of richer chocolate and coffee. My favorite of these was the Wormwood Wit, which had a pleasant anise, Asian spice (ginger, lemongrass, cardamom) and tart cherry flavor that balanced nicely with the hops.

St. George offerings were the new Bourbon and the Port Barrel, which is actually the very same distillate given a Port finish. I liked both. The Port was a little heavy and masked the whiskey too much, but I can see wanting to drink it at the end of a meal with or for dessert.

The Balcones and Charbay both tasted familiar and distinct, in a good way. Balcones Baby Blue is a corn whiskey from the blue variety, consistently tastes of sweet spices and pretzels. Charbay Hopped American Whiskey really tastes like what it is, an IPA beer with a sophisticated, spirited kick.

But my favorite of the night was the Smooth Ambler Triple Malt. It didn't seem too gimicky or ongepotchket, just simple flavors of cereal, subtle oak, citrus peel and maple. After tasting so many hot and hoppy expressions, this was very satisfying.

In all, I was well impressed at the group and the leadership and I'm very excited to go back to camp again soon. Especially since what they give us to drink sure beats bug juice!

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