Whiskey research trips, contrary to the first images conjured up in one’s mind, are serious undertakings. On a recent drive from Southern California to Seattle, Washington, I wanted to talk with a variety of professionals in the retail end of the whisky business to learn what unusual whiskies they elevated to the top of their personal lists. The criteria for the quest included taste, rarity, uniqueness, and a personal affinity, but not necessarily age or cost. As it turned out, the whiskies listed in this article range from “NAS” – no age statement, but usually assumed to be around 10 years, to 48 years, with prices from under $100 to thousands.
Las Vegas, NV: The Whisky Attic
In addition to being a professor of beer and wine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Adam Carmer is also an expert on whiskies, and owner of The Whisky Attic. Routinely referred to as “a hidden gem”, or “a whisky oasis in the desert”, The Whisky Attic started out as a private club, but now welcomes everyone. It is on the second floor, above the popular Freakin’ Frog bar. Adam serves a large inventory of whiskies, including 150 from America, 30 each from Ireland and Canada, and over 100 from Scotland. At the top of Adam’s “Proud to Carry” List are:
Charbay. This expression is Release II of the hops-flavored whiskey from Charbay Winery and Distillery, St. Helena, CA. Traditionally, one of the first steps in making whisk(e)y is to produce a liquid called wort, which is the result of adding yeast to barley grist and hot water. It is about 7% alcohol by volume (ABV) and is sometimes called distiller’s beer. Charbay Whiskey is the result of distilling nothing but bottle-ready Pilsner beer. Release II consists of five barrels, or 124 cases, bottled at 55% ABV and is nine years old.
Black Maple Hill, Kentucky Straight Rye. Once relegated to dusty bottom shelves, rye whiskey is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. At one time it was THE whiskey of America – George Washington distilled it; it was at the heart of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion; the Manhattan cocktail was invented for it. This rare expression is from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Bardstown, KY. Fruity aromas and taste, suggestive of cherries, caramel apple, and cinnamon, all come through, with chocolate and wine hints in the finish. It is bottled at 47.5% ABV after 18 years in cask.
Seattle, WA: Canlis Restaurant
This renowned restaurant strives for “ultimate hospitality”, even to the extent that the valets do not record the driver’s name on the parking stub, but commit it to memory, and call the driver by name when it’s time to retrieve the car. Owners Brian, Mark and Matt Canlis support the passionate efforts of Head Barman James MacWilliams in James’ search for unusual additions to his famous “Back List” of available spirits. A pair of James’ favorites on the list:
Four Roses Mariage Bourbon. This exquisite, very limited edition, small batch Bourbon, is named for the French word for marriage. This is significant, because, for this bottling, two barrels were selected by the Master Distiller and married (blended together) by hand to honor the day the distillery’s founder proposed to his wife. The story goes that if she agreed to the proposal, she would wear a corsage of roses to an upcoming ball. When she arrived, she was wearing a corsage of four red roses. Paul Jones, Jr. not only gained a wife, he also gained the name of his Bourbon! Ranked 5 Stars – Highest Recommendation by F. Paul Pacult in his Spirit Journal, this expression is bottled at 54.8% ABV. NAS.
Poit Dhubh. Pronounced “potch ghoo”, this whisky is named for the Gaelic translation of “illicit still”, or “black pot”. The Gaelic name for the company that makes it, Prabanna Linne, Ltd, means “a smugglers’ outlet”. Made on the Isle of Skye, on Scotland’s West coast, Poit Dhubh is a vatted malt – a blend of several single malts. The dark amber color leads to a vanilla and chocolate aroma, followed by a nice balance of fruit and a hint of smoke. The finish is long and smooth. It is bottled at 43% ABV, after 21 years in cask.
Portland, Oregon: 10th Avenue Liquor
The city is indeed fortunate to have this retail store, owned by Vance Burghard, both for purchasing product, and for educational guidance. However, not all of what Vance owns is available for purchase. I am grateful to him for sharing these two extraordinary whiskies:
The Last Drop. The Last Drop is the latest creation of three icons in the spirits world: Tom Jago, James Espey, and Peter Fleck. This trio shares not only over 120 years in the business, but also direct credit for the creation of such well known brands as Malibu Rum and Bailey’s Irish Cream. At 12 years of age, the blended whisky that will become The Last Drop was put into sherry casks, where it aged for another 36 years! At 48 years of age, it is surprisingly light, with a delightful balance of fruits, leather, and tobacco. Adding just a touch of water explodes a floral nose and the taste of molasses. It is bottled at cask strength, with no chill filtering, at 52% ABV. The total production run consists of 1300 bottles.
Ardbeg Rollercoaster. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Ardbeg Committee, a members’ fan club for the brand, the distillery offered this commemorative expression. Rollercoaster is a vatted malt from Ardbeg, using whisky aged in ten different types of casks from each year, 1997 to 2006. The result is a distinct layering of sweetness, spiciness, and deep smoke. Candy profiles like fudge, burnt sugar and toffee combine with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg (can you imagine enjoying this whisky with a slice of pumpkin pie?), and the finish seems to last forever. Rollercoaster is non-chill filtered and bottled at 57.3% ABV. It is an Islay Malt.
Three experts, six rare and unique whiskies, each with a tale to be told – their fascinating stories add new dimensions to the amazing world of the water of life!