THIS WEEKEND'S WhiskeyFest Northwest is exactly what Portland's craft distilling industry needs: an opportunity for local distillers to go up against the standard bearers of the industry. As a community, our purveyors can no longer lean on the crutch that they are a fledgling industry, and therefore deserving of slack. Most of our recognizable names have been at it for almost a decade now, and should be turning out a product that can stand on its own merits. As they move from infancy into adolescence, it's a great time to check their progress.
No less than eight local products—such as Bull Run Distilling's Temperance Trader Straight bourbon and Eastside Distilling's Burnside bourbon—will get a chance to stand side-by-side with such stalwarts as Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace. With over 60 labels duking it out in every major category of whiskey (straight, bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Canadian), it's a rarely seen spectrum for comparison.
First, a note about provenance. Leaps and bounds have been made locally (and across the country in general) to be more transparent about where these spirits are actually made. The distinction between someone simply buying unbranded bulk distillate from a major distillery, and someone who is distilling from grain at their distillery, has become a contentious issue, and it's something to note when examining our various young whiskeys.
From the day you pull the first run off your shiny, brand-new still, it is a dead minimum of two years (most bourbons are four-plus years) before you can pull it out of the barrel and sell it as "straight whiskey." With that in mind, it's understandable (and financially critical) that start-ups choose to bottle something made and aged by another distillery in the interim. I highly doubt any drinkers have a problem with this, though I do find it distasteful when someone tries to obfuscate the origins of the juice. This brings me to the good and the bad, with my own tasting notes on each.
Bull Run Distilling laid down their whiskey over a year ago, and then went about finding a bourbon that they loved to bottle as a stopgap (read: how they keep the lights on until 2015 when their whiskey is ready). Their Temperance Trader label also has full disclosure that they did not make the base spirit. Flavor-wise, it's for the Knob Creek drinker who's looking for something new. High rye content lends some spice to pair with the caramel and sweet toffee notes. Recommended.
Big Bottom Whiskey out of Hillsboro makes no bones about not being a distiller. They market themselves as a "premier independent bottler of whiskeys," and as such set themselves up much more truthfully. Their value-add is in taking bourbons and whiskeys and "finishing" (aging) them in various types of casks to impart nuance. In general, their whiskeys have a round mouthfeel and just the right amount of heat (all bottled at 91 proof) to deliver the aromas that the individual cask agings impart. Recommended.
Snake River Stampede: A Canadian whisky that has a small amount of sherry added. They never acknowledge whether or not they produce the base whisky and it's almost impossible to tell if they're even the ones that add the sherry. The result is—ta-dah—a mellow one-note Canadian whisky with added sweetness. Recommended for Crown Royal drinkers only.
Hood River Distillers: Now, no one is going to come along and purport that Hood River Distillers is remotely a craft distillery, but their Pendleton 1910 Canadian whisky is nice, with sweet caramel and Christmas spice flavors. Recommended. The standard Pendleton itself has very little wood flavor under the low rye mash bill, with toasted corn and burnt toffee notes. Not recommended.
Then there are conundrums, such as Ransom Spirits. Ransom for the most part does an extremely good job with their products, like their fantastic Old Tom gin, Small's gin, and ethereal Gewürztraminer grappa. Then along comes their WhipperSnapper whiskey and all that previous dedication is seemingly thrown out the window, replaced with a slapdash mix of barrels and aging lengths, and then partially mixed with white dog (unaged whiskey) they buy from somewhere in Kentucky. The result is a young, hot spirit with slight sandalwood and brown sugar notes. Not recommended.
Nose: Look for high phenols in the aroma. These will be the floral component. Aromas of sweet wood, ripe fruit, and caramelized sugars will be present in increasing intensity in longer-aged whiskeys.
Mouthfeel: Syrupy/viscous whiskeys are indicative of higher sugar content, either residual from distillation or inherited from the barrels it was aged in. Also, look for a smoothness to the alcohol. Even at higher ABVs, a sharp, harsh or biting characteristic is a sign of haphazard distillation. Does it burn on your tongue, or wait to heat your chest?
Finish/Aftertaste: This is where a quality whiskey will show itself. Long lingering notes of caramel and toffee from the barrel should mingle with mild acidity and a smooth cooling sensation of the alcohol. Some Scotches will even have a bracing sea salt note to them.
Age Statement: If an age statement such as "eight years old" is present on the label, that means the youngest component (meaning, barrels that are in that particular blend) must be that age. Worth noting, age is seldom a reliable predictor of quality.
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): A measure of the ethyl alcohol present. Scotch must be a minimum of 80 proof (proof being measured on a 200-point scale, hence 80 proof has a 40% ABV). "Bonded" whiskey is a minimum of 50% ABV.
Barley (AKA Malt, Malted Barley): Barley that has been germinated (begun to sprout) then halted by kiln drying (malting). Malted barley has enzymes that aid in the conversion of starches to sugar, and yeast needs sugar to make alcohol, so a percentage of malt is added to the grain bill (recipe of cereal grains in the mash) of virtually all whiskey. Single malt whiskeys use 100% malted barley.
Small Batch: There is no legal definition as to what constitutes "small," "hand-crafted," "artisan," etc., so read these as a ploy for cachet. Remember: In spirits, smaller doesn't necessarily mean better, but it can mean inconsistent.
Peat: Partially carbonized/fossilized vegetation that has formed over thousands of years in bogs. It's harvested and dried, then used in the kilns that dry the barley. This is where Scotch gets its smoky character.
Straight Whiskey: Any whiskey that is made with a minimum of 51% of any one particular grain (e.g., straight bourbon must be 51% corn). Additionally, straight whiskeys must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred-oak barrels, distilled no higher than 160 proof and be put in barrel at no higher than 125 proof.