Friday, October 5, 2012

Camp Whiskey Back In Session!

Fall is here and it's time to get back in the groove! Sorry for the long silence. September was all about tending the coals and now that it's October, time to get things fired up!

Can't think of a better way to start than meeting up with the Camp Whiskey folks again. After a short late summer break, Jeff, Gary and Jonathan have assembled a roster of impressive drams fall!

On a schvitzy October night (competing with the Presidential Campaign Debates on full blast upstairs), we gathered in the basement bar of the Counting Room in Williamsburg for this week's theme - New Malts on the Block. On offer was a mini tour of new Scottish offerings from Benromach Organic, the latest edition of Compass Box Flaming Heart, Kilchoman 2006 Vintage, Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or and Highland Park Thor.

Benromach Organic is "interesting" in a that's-the-kindest-thing-to-say about it sort of way. It's a certified organic single malt. Which is tricky if you consider that not only do all the ingredients and production methods have to comply with certified organic guidelines, but so does the wood it ages in. Most single malts are aged in previously used barrels, most commonly sherry or Bourbon. To be absolutely sure of the source material, Benromach used completely new, unused American oak barrels, a.k.a. virgin oak, from a "green" forest, meaning one that complies with environmental re-forestation initiatives so as not to deplete all the trees.

So how does it taste? In a word, "interesting." It's very thick, almost chalky, but also manages to have an almost oily feel. There's a pungent smokey flavor mixed with bitter chocolate. But that's about it. Short finish. Sedate. Guess that virgin oak needs a few more times round the block to show some gusto, nudge nudge wink wink know what I mean? Weird, considering new barrels should impart more robust, not subtle flavors. It's a malt that would definitely benefit from more experience and flavor integration, which I hope they work on, to match quality with the humanitarian message.

Flaming Heart 2012, on the other hand, is a prime example of what is produced with time and experience. This is John Glazer's fourth go at blending a selection of single malts and letting them get to know each other as they spend time in the appropriate barrel where they achieve a precise, flavor-driven dram. It's a pleasure to sip, at once smokey, sweet, floral and spicey, with none of the flavors too loud or pointy, and no artificial colors or fancy filtering. Last night happened to be Flaming Heart Night around Williamsburg, as there was also, from what I hear, a rip-snorting great time at Noorman's Kil for its official release. Cheers, Glazer et al! Well done.

Kilchoman 2006 Vintage Release. Another "interesting" one. Kilchoman is the first new distillery on Islay (btw, the name of the island is not pronounced "iz-lay" or "eye-lay," though at least that's close. It's "eye-lah," rhymes with "sky-la") in something like 124 years. They're taking cues from American cousins by growing their own grain, doing their own floor malting, etc. Seems like they're on the right track, but also, much like a few American whiskies who are excited to greet their public, this five year old tastes very young. It's super peppery, not just in the vegetal sense, but also the chili sense. And oddly, kind of garlicky, almost like an Asian garlic chili pepper sauce. Then it's just smokey. Do we drink this or pour it into a bowl of ramen? Mmmmm. Ramen...

Well, after some salty ramen, one might want to drink Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or. Not exactly sure why this was considered one of the newbies, though it seemed new to many of the campers who hadn't yet tried it. This product is an example of the sort of board meeting discussion they can have at (parent company) Moet Hennessy in which people say things like, "We have access to some of zee best Sauternes casks. What eez zee harm in aging all zat extra Glenmoran-jjjie in it, non?"

Answer: "Zer eez no harm."

Although it's a very sweet expression. This time tasting it, I detected more of a balanced acidity, much like the nuances of, well, a good Sauternes - ripe and dried apricots, orange peel, ripe peach, dates, vanilla and caramel. It's a pleasant treat once in a while. Just try not to think about all that extra caramel color they add to it.

Finally, we tasted the Highland Park Thor (God of Thundah!!). This is the first of their "Valhalla" series, named for Nordic gods. The distillery is the most northern in Scotland, on the isle of Orkney, where they no doubt saw some Viking action back in the day. Essentially, this is Highland Park 16 in very fancy packaging (that wooden ship skeleton that holds it is fastened by magnets and looks just as impressive open as it does closed.) I've always been a huge fan of Highland Park, which in my opinion is one of the few single malts that is consistently smooth and complex throughout its range, without getting too hot in the older vintages. The 16 was previously only available as a duty free release. So hey, dress it up in armor, bump up the price by $100 a pop and...

Honestly, I can't get too mad at it. It's quite delicious, with tropical flavors of coconut and banana bread in the fore, vanilla, macadamia nuts and figs in the middle and a salty, sweet barbecue smoke to finish it out. If I could afford a bottle... face it, it looks awesome. Glad to know it's beautiful on the inside too.

Looking forward to seeing the campers again in a couple of weeks! Until then, drink responsibly, kids.

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