Saturday, June 24, 2017

Bourbon: The New International Style

Once when my father came over to my house he asked if I had any whiskey. He was a whiskey drinker. Dewar's. I shrugged and told him that I had some bourbon. He grimaced and said OK. I poured him a glass with some ice. I handed it to him he took a tentative sip. He then winced as if he was in pain. 

"This shit is so sweet." he said making a face like Lucille ball. And that's always been the rip of whiskey drinkers about bourbon, especially Scotch guys. Bourbon is too sweet. A quintessentially American sugar bomb.

That is until now.

The International Style

In architecture, The International Style was "the name of a major architectural style that is said to have emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the formative decades of modern architecture, as first defined by Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932, with an emphasis more on architectural style, form and aesthetics than the social aspects of the modern movement as emphasized in Europe. The term "International Style" first came into use via a 1932 exhibition curated by Hitchcock and Johnson, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which declared and labelled the architecture of the early 20th century as the "International Style". The most common characteristics of International Style buildings are said to be: i. rectilinear forms; ii. light, taut plane surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and decoration; iii. open interior spaces; iv. a visually weightless quality engendered by the use of cantilever construction. Glass and steel, in combination with usually less visible reinforced concrete, are the characteristic materials of the construction," according to wikipedia.

Major international styled buildings include The Seagram Tower, the United Nations, and Lever House all in New York City; The Prudential Tower in Boston; The Willis Tower (formerly The Sear Tower) in Chicago; and Westmount Square in Quebec, Canada are among the many shinign examples of this style.

The idea was that it was form over function. That these steel and glasses boxes fit in  any skyline, and were urban chic of a kind. Sophisticated. Industrial. Elegant. Monolithic. An ethos of sorts. But the main idea was that the style traveled well from country to country, from city to city. The style caught on and still informs many designs for commercial office space even today.

The New Bourbon International Style

In a recent trip to Kentucky and Tennessee I noticed several phrases and words that kept reoccurring when talking to major master distillers in the region. Works like brandy and cognac stone fruit and French oak.

These new bourbons tend to be finished (after they are first aged in charred in new American white oak) in various toasts of French oak. This new style of bourbon tastes more like whiskey or brandy or cognac, and eschews, however slightly, the sweeter bourbon profile. These bourbons play down the sweet caramel, brown sugar notes in popular American bourbon, and instead replace the finish with a dryer more sophisticated ending.

Others are choosing port barrels, like the Scottish use, to finish their whiskies. These barrels, as well as sherry barrels accomplish the same ends.

Nino Marchetti's The Whiskey Wash, highlighted a number of these bourbons made by small craft distilleries:  Breckenridge Port Cask Finish; Litchfield Butcher's Block Port Cask Finish; Big Bottom Distilling; Travrse City Distilling; and Luxco Bllood Oak to name a few. Jefferson's Reserve Groth Cask Finish is another.

"Wine cask finished whiskies, as we’ve explored before, most commonly take the form of sherry cask aging. Beyond sherry, one sees other fortified wine types as barrel choices, including madeira and port. Regardless of the wine type, however, the barrels chosen for either exclusive or additional maturation retain elements of their former inhabitant, which can then be carried over to the new resident in smell, taste and color," wrote Nino eloquently.

That's a nice, quirky trend when it's in the craft distilling business. But what I observed goes far beyond that.

The Great Brass Ring

In distilling, for many whisky makers, the great brass ring has always been single malt whiskey. To emulate the great single malt whiskies of Scotland has always been seen as the pinnacle of distilling. These whiskies are collected by deep pockets collectors and aficonados. And they command huge prices, and their availability is scare in many cases.

Bourbon's achhille's heel is that outside a few major brands (Jack Daniels (in truth a Tennessee whiskey) and Jim Beam are the two best distributed American whiskies around the globe in somewhere like 130-160 countries. Few American products have that kind of reach. But the rest of the industry has no carried over. Bourbon is still a curiosity in may foreign countries, and JD and JB are seem as iconic liqueurs, rather than a category in a portfolio destined for other nations.

Wrote Stephen Kaufman in dispatches magazine in 2016, "The United Kingdom, Germany and Austria were the biggest markets. France, Spain and the Netherlands were significant. But, by-and-large, bourbon’s stratospheric growth remains a U.S. phenomenon." "he continued, "According to industry research firm IWSR, U.S. sales of super-premium bourbons rose 28.8 percent from 2011 to 2015. Super-premium cognac sales increased only 9.5 percent during that same period. For some perspective, Euromonitor International found 2015 domestic retail bourbon sales were worth $3.8 billion compared to $1.3 billion worth of cognac. Bourbon sales rose 19.1 percent vs. 8.5 percent for cognac year-over-year growth."

So, it would seem the bourbon gods have gathered their collective heads (albeit individually) to be the first amongst them to create their first premium bourbons to make the jump to the international market, in a way that resembles the great highlands Scotch whiskies.

What are the tenants of these whiskies?

1. They are a Super premium expression/label and meant to be the equal of Johnnie Walker Blue, for example.

2. They tend to be older bourbons, aged a minimum of 6-8 years old.

3. They are not as sweet, possessing a muted caramel/brown sugar palate an finish less sweet, an Not as sweetly.

4. The feature more wine wood: red wine, port wine, and sherry cask finishing.

5. The exhibit more characteristics akin to scotch, brandy, or cognac.

6. They are perfectly positioned for international market.

7. More sophisticated, internationally appealing packaging.

8. They come from big producers...not craft. The craft don't make it out of the country, left alone out of their respective markets in most cases.

Who Are the New International Bourbons?

The bourbons I am focusing on include:
Maker's Mark 46
Angel's Envy
Woodford Reserve Master's Collection

These Bourbons are crafted to woo Scotch whiskey drinkers and reflect a more international palate.

I am not suggesting that this is a coordinated effort. Nor has this been sudden. But it has gathered a noticeable momentum of its own.

Several of these in fact taste like a cross between good cognac and Highlands single malt. They are made to appeal to an export market. And they are to be premium bourbons that I meant to stand shoulder to shoulder with the highest expressions of single malt and cognac. Big Bourbon, is now beginning to follow suit and following scotch whiskey and single malts lead.

In extensive meetings with Master distillers Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve and Greg Davis of Maker's Mark, it was clear that the flavor profile was absolutely intentional, though neither ever made the connection to overtly, the aims of these two master distillers (and their corporations) was clearly obvious. But both men emphasized less brown sugar, while playing up the cognac, brandy, and stone fruit notes.

The only reason I include Angel's Envy in this category is that they were made specifically for this purpose. Legendary master distiller Lincoln Henderson (whose shadow still looms large over the industry) established these criteria as the hallmarks of his final doff of the hat to the industry when he came out of retirement and created the new brand with his son and grand sons. It may prove to be his most lasting contribution to the industry.

Certainly Henderson and Morris together worked for many years, with heavy Scottish influence, in experimenting at Woodford with various finishing techniques. Morris slyly hinted at the numerous single malt whiskey-like expressions that will come out of Woodford Reserve in the next two-to-three years ot peek writers and enthusiasts interests alike.

Who's to say if the if the bourbon gods have done this on purpose or not. Better to be lucky than smart. I am reminded of the great quote from the Coca-Cola's then President (and later famed CEO) Donald Keough when new coke failed and classic Coke doubled its sales in the meantime. Keough remarked, “We’re not that dumb. And we’re not that smart.”

That said, there is no question that Woodford and Maker's Mark are the two best positioned bourbons for this brass ring. Morris is one of the legends of the bourbon industry, and is the grand Southern man of manners (with a general's steely gaze), who presides over what can olny be called the Augusta National of the Kentucky bourbon world.

Like wise, in a younger, more robust way, Davis (a big man) over sees Maker's Mark (also a perfectly manicured oasis) like a champion college football coach, with a hardy laugh, a big hand shake, and a determined eye. Both men are not to be trifled with, and yet, are both incredibly friendly, as well as shrewd.

Morris's Woodford Reserve Master's collection most recent release was finished in brandy barrels, As their own tasting notes reflect, "Finishing fully matured Woodford Reserve in these barrels does not add any new flavors to the whiskey, but instead accentuates Woodford Reserve’s rich dried fruit and nut characteristics that come from our grain recipe and long fermentation process."

Maker's Mark 46 is an incredible dram that takes older bourbon and finishes it at cool temperatures with French oak staves, at cooler temperatures, so the whiskey only picks up the top char and not the woods notes from deep in the wood. The barrel select program at Maker's Mark is a story for another post, but safe to say, that Maker's is positioning itself for a big run at making a bourbon that belongs head and shoulders with Scotch on the premium shelf in the coming years.

The rise of super premium, international styled bourbons cannot be denied.

Read more at the Whiskey Wash:

Friday, June 09, 2017

Crow Vineyards: Turning Heads in the Mid-Atlantic! (MD)


In March of 2017 I went to a great mid-Atlantic wine tasting organized by Paul Vigna, a terrific mid-Atlantic wine writer. The wines featured were among the best on the entire seaboard. One of the ones feature was Crow Vineyards of Maryland.

Roy and Judy Crow, owners of the beautiful 365-acre working farm located in Kennedeyville, MD, have succeeded in implementing sustainable changes to their third generation family farm by adding new opportunities for growth while still preserving its original flavor.

A new business plan allowed for farming operations to be expanded beginning with the renovation of their 1847 family farmhouse into the Crow Farmstay B&B. This change created a communal feel, giving people a firsthand experience of farm operations, such as corn production, angus beef, small flock of chickens, hay, etc.

A movement in Kent County promoting grape growing to farmers in the area prompted the Crows to begin their next development. 

“We knew that growing grapes was something that would fit well with our overall business plan,” said Roy Crow, which then expanded the business to include vineyard manager son Brandon Hoy, Schmidt Vineyard Management Company to help guide operations, ShoreVines as a valuable promotion partner, as well as becoming members of the Maryland Grape Growers Association. All of these additions led to the planting of 3 ½ acres in 2010 contributing towards the production of wine.

The Crow Vineyards Sparkling Vidal Blanc 2014 was produced using the traditional méthode champenoise. The wine is made from Clone 256 on Rootstock 3309, on Matapeake Silt Loam, 5-120 ft elevation, on 5-10% slopes at the Crow Vineyard, Kent County, Maryland. Harvested in September. The wine went through primary fermentation in stainless steel, and was followed by a secondary fermentation in bottle. It was then aged for 13 months before being hand disgorged in small lots, then hand corked, caged and labeled.

This was a spectacular sparkler!!! The first whiff was a of fresh baked bread. Then, lots of tropical fruit such as pineapple, lychee, as well as traditional stone fruit like red ripe apples, and a hint of honeysuckle. Across the palate baked apple led the way, with peach and apricot in close support, followed by a nice minerality and a lovely citrus ending. Excellent!

The Crow Vineyards Barbera Rosé 2015 is made from Clone VCR 15 grown on Rootstock 101-14, in Matapeake Silt Loam, 5-120 ft. elevation, on 5-10% slopes at the Crow Vineyard, Kent County, Maryland. It was hand harvested on September 24 and 28, 2015, and was bottled April 26, 2016, and aged 3 mos prior to release. 122 cases were produced.

This was another lovely surprise! Fresh strawberry and red currant were complimented by a lovely floral bouquet. Across the palate cam mango, oranges, and peaches with a lovely citrus ending and a hint of cream. Silky smooth and refreshing!!!!!

Katrina Jordan was the winemaker at Crow at the time, and deserved a ton of credit for these fine wines. She has since moved on, having traveled across the country to California where she now works for Jackson Family.

Roy and Judy are making some incredible wines at Crow Vineyards! Go! And taste some!

Friday, June 02, 2017

Outer Coastal Plain AVA Has Arrived....Cue the Music (NJ)

I hate award shows. The "banter" is so painfully scripted, that it's hard to watch without wincing. And I cannot sit there and watch a bunch of unqualified fashionistas pick apart some of the worst gowns and displays of bad taste as some industry or another pats itself on its own back. Ugh!

On the other hand, I cannot lie, I love when someone walks up through the audience, with the theme song from their film blaring, and jogs up onto the stage to accept their award. I have an affinity for Henry Mancini and John Williams....I can laugh at me now.

Cue the music....

For anyone seriously following East Coast winemaking there can be no question that the Outer Coastal Plain has become one of the premier AVAs on the Atlantic seaboard.

More and more and more it boasts a lineup of seriously good wine that belongs in any conversation about fine wine.

Never heard of the outer coastal Plain? It's an official designated AVA and it is in New Jersey!!!

It must be pointed out that the first company to call out the AVA on its label on a serious bottle of wine that got attention was Tomasello. Give credit where credit is due.

Howard G. Goldberg in the New York Times raved about Tomasello's Cabernet Sauvignon Outer Castal Plain back in 1995! I was so absolutely shocked I went and bought a bottle immediately. The wine was very good. A huge step forward for winemaking in the state. It was immediately clear that the AVA had serious potential.

According to Wikipedia:

The Outer Coastal Plain AVA is an American Viticultural Area located in southeastern New Jersey. The 2,250,000 acres (911,000 ha) wine appellation includes all of Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, and Ocean counties and portions of Salem, Gloucester, Camden, Burlington, and Monmouth counties. The region is characterized by well-drained sandy or sandy loam soils of low to moderate fertility, and a relatively long growing season. The climate is moderated by the influence of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. The region is in hardiness zones 6b, 7a, and 7b. Many wineries located in southern New Jersey within this AVA are members of the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association.

As of 2014, there are 28 wineries in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA. Most of the wineries in this AVA are also members of the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association, an industry trade organization "dedicated to the establishment and promotion of sustainable and economically viable viticulture in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA of New Jersey.

Some of my favorite wines in New Jersey are being made there by Heritage Vineyards, Turdo, Coda Rossa, Belleview Vineyard, Hawk Haven, Tomasello, Auburn Road, and many others.

Especially given recent samplings of Heritage, Turdo, Coda Rossa, and Bellview it's very clear that the region can grow wine grapes that can compete anywhere.

If it were Heritage Vineyards alone it would be good enough to earn the region's salt. Their sparkling, their Bordeaux blends, and their other vinifera offerings are of the highest quality. Their sparkling was just featured in the Washington Post. There a Bordeaux blend is among the best East Coast red wines I have ever tried.

Image result for turdo nebbiolo
Turdo vineyards has always been one of my favorite wineries, not just in New Jersey, but on the East Coast. Their Italian varietals grown and it's semi-sandy soil's have been nothing short of spectacular. Their Nebbiolo is outstanding.

Tomasello's Polaris Pinot Noir is also an exceptional Pinot Noir and is one of the very best of offerings from the region.

Coda Rosa is another example of fine quality wine offerings from the outer coastal Plains.

And last only by necessity rather than by quality is Bellevue vineyards. Some of their winds are also quite stunning.


Auburn Road's Eidolon is an exquisite white wine of the highest quality!

The list could go on and on it is not necessarily the job of this post to review all the winds of the region. But it is meant to serve notice that the outer coastal plain deserves to be mentioned in any conversation about any of the better AVA's on the East Coast.

Cue the music....the winemakers of the Outer Coastal Plain deserve to make their acceptance speech and take their bow. They have arrived!

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Amorici Vineyard: The Sunniest Rainy Day I Ever Had! (NY)

Mark Twain once said, the coldest winter he ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco. Friend Rich Srsich and I felt the same way while driving on a dreary Memorial Day Monday just last week, when a friend suggested we make the trek to see Joe Messina over at Amorici Vineyard. In fact, this winemaker insisted we tell Joe that he was coming to dinner.

Joe Messina is a fascinating character. He is at heart an artist and an entertainer. He is a salesman, a chef, and artist, and a teller of tall tales all rolled into one. He is always among the biggest characters in the room, and you always get the impression Joe could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge if he truly wanted to. But he has too much living to do to be bothered. When we walked in and I took off my cap, his jaw nearly hit the floor. I have known Joe eight or nine years, and we love to chat, but I had never been to his place. I felt truly badly that it had taken me this long. Actually, I was embarrassed to show up, it had been such a long time. Of course, Joe dismissed those feelings immediately, and gave me a great big hug!

My friend Rich and myself were worried that Joe might not even be opened. His place is set far back from the main roads, but there were people already there, and more came in while we visited. All this on the rainiest Memorial Day Monday in recent memory. Joe credited the newest edition of  Southern Saratoga magazine which had recently published a flattering story on the unique trattoria/winery.

The article talked about how visiting Joe's establishment was like discovering a small Italian farm in your own neighborhood. And the best part? We had no idea Joe had been either an accomplished chef, much less such a talented winemaker. But there he was in his chef whites, greeting us heartily!

Joe insisted that we order something from his menu He has a tavern license as well as a winery. So in the winery there are plenty of tables, and in fact, several of the customers came in for a lunch or dinner, and of course order wine with their meals. We ordered our meals, and then began our tasting.

The first wine we had was a shocker, and set the tone for the rest of the tasting. A dry Cayuga white wine that was a big, grapefruit, citrus bomb! Amazing! Albarino move over! This was a tasty, acidic, fun white!

Next was the Capriccio Allegro Chardonnay 2015. This wine is made using 50% chardonnay grapes from the Finger Lakes, and 50% chardonnay from Long Island. It was a mineral-y, dry white with apples and pears and tropical fruit. Stainless steel driven, this wine was bright with acidity and a lovely, citrus white that had a nice, creamier finish. He has the wine with the Capriccio Allegro label which he uses for a local restaurant, but he sells the same wine using his own label as well.

The Riesling 2015 dry white wine was a a lovely surprise as well. And even made, well crafted dry Germanic-styled white with lovely tropical fruits, and a bone, bone dry finish. 

The Amorici Cabernet Franc 2012 was grown in the Finger Lakes and was a soft, lush easy drinking red with no herbaceousness at all. Very lovely.

The Amorici Marquette NOR 2015 is 100% estate grown red and was an absolute shocker! While I have tasted good Marquette, it's not always an easy feat. This was terrific! This wine had big fruit up front. Stewed red fruit, with prominent notes of strawberry and plum. Nice balance of acidity and tannins. Some nice minerality. An impressive wine. Truly amazing.

Amorici Vino Della Famiglia is a fun red classico-styled blend Joe makes for a local restaurant. It's a fabulous, medium bodied red meant for meals and family. And I loved the fact that he packaged a small part of the run in the old fashioned Chianti backet-styled bottles! Suddenly, I started humming Scenes From An Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel. A very fun touch! 

It was then that the food arrived. I had the brown rice risotto and Rich had the sausage and peppers. We split the dishes. The sausage and peppers were the absolute perfect companion for the risotto! And the wine was perfect for the meal. I sampled my two favorite wines with lunch....the chardonnay with the risotto and then the estate Marquette with the combination of the two dishes, as did Rich. The chardonnay showed incredibly well against the creaminess of the dish, and the soft, fruit forward Marquette was a perfect compliment to the combined dish.

Slowly, the dreary, rainy, cold weather, winter's last great grasp of Spring's throat, was fading away, and we were easily transported to sunny Italy. It felt like you were in some country-side trattoria, eating Italian food and drinking wine. Suddenly, it all seemed sunny, and beautiful!

A note from a satisfied customer.

Amorici vinegars....

After lunch we tried two digestifs. The first was one of my favorite grappas on the whole eastern seaboard - Amorici Grappa which is distilled from Joe's wine by Yankee Distillers, in nearby Clifton Park, NY. I have raved about it before. I knew what we were in for. It is light, super, super smooth, with a slightly floral nose and doesn't leave a horrible burn. This is great tasting grappa. Fantastic!!!

The second after dinner wine we had was the Amorici Vneyard Tawney Vintage Sweet Wine which is a slightly sherry-style apple honey wine. I was a tad skeptical. SOunded like an apple honey wne that had gone back. Some kind of wacky experiment. I was pleasantly surprised! It was a beautiful, light sherry-styled wiwne with a big nose of apple and honey, yet balance nicely by the classic sherry notes. It was only slightly sweet, not cloyingly so. A very nice surprise to end the meal with!

Another absolute secret weapon Joe has at his disposal  are Brian and Robyn! Brian makes the wine with Joe and Robyn took us through our tasting. These were incredibly hospitable and friendly folks. Down to earth, friendly, chatty, and knowledgeable. They made the experience so much more enjoyable, and their sunny dispositions set the tone for our visit far away from the gray, watery world outside.

Rich and I were loathe to leave our little Italian idyll. It had been a last minute stop, turned into an extremely fun afternoon! It was great to see Joe and taste his wines, but the real treat was the complete experience we were able to enjoy at Amorici Vineyard, and both Rich and I agreed, with apologies to Mark Twain, our visit to Amorici Vineyard had been the sunniest rainy day I had ever spent!

Go up and see Joe and tell him I sent you! Buona fortuna!