Whiskey Wednesday Love-Fest

I want to take a minute to talk about Whiskey Wednesday…

I recently took a vacation out to New York City, returned to Champaign, and promptly took off again for Aspen.  Now that I’m back I’ve fallen in love all over again with Seven Saints and my little corner of America.  I’m feeling sentimental and proud…so let the love-fest begin!

Last night’s Whiskey Wednesday served up a comforting reminder of what I admire about the Midwest at large and Seven Saints specifically.  You think you love drinking half-off whiskey?  Well, I’m here to tell you that I love selling it to you even more!  Put yourself in my place for a second…

We packed the house with several hundred people over the course of the night this Wednesday.  Dozens of these people are regular customers that I see each week, sharing what’s new, interesting, and fun in the word of whiskey.  After venturing forth to far off lands, it was amazing to return home to all of you.  Thanks for sticking by us and growing with us.  Your enthusiasm bolsters my passion for craft spirits…to both our great benefit.  You guys rock the house!

I also had a great time chatting up a table of seven new regulars we hooked in from their visit on Tuesday night.  They returned for Whiskey Wednesday and were totally enamored with the selection of new whiskey delights that we rolled out on our Irish list.  One guy had literally never tasted whiskey before in his life!  I had the great honor of serving him up a Bushmills 21yr, and I watched as a contented smile drew across his face at his first sip.  We talked a bit about what whiskey was and how it was made.  Within three minutes his friends were passing their glasses around and he was sipping from each glass, asking me what made each whiskey so unique.  Welcome to the club, brother!  It’s exactly this type of interest and vivacity that endears our best customers to us and keeps our own enthusiasm burning bright.

I am especially proud of the Seven Saints staff members that make the whole show run.  In many ways I am the man behind the curtain, but it’s really the servers, barbacks, and bartenders that have built up this merry old land of Oz!  Just this week alone, we saw stellar performances from Anne (my bedrock, my foundation, my standard) who pulled a very arduous double shift to cover for Zach who was broken-hearted to have come down with the flu (thereby breaking a two-and-a-half-year streak of consecutive Whiskey Wednesday bartending shifts).  We saw great rookie efforts from Adam and Marcus, and we benefited from swift and stellar barbacking from Tim.  The lovely Suzy is back in WW action (much to everyone’s benefit), and JennyJenny pulled out one of her last WW shifts for a while.  Anna could sell ice to Eskimos, but finds it easier and more profitable to sell whiskey to her packs of admirers. And Pretty Ricky…what can you say abut Pretty Ricky?!?  Simply put, the guy’s a vision.

Regulars…rookies…staff members.  Give yourselves a pat on the back for being charismatic, cool, and all-around awesome.  Love-fest over…Andy out!

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Speakeasy at the Saints: New Year’s Eve 2012

This New Year’s Eve, Seven Saints will once again indulge in an evening of hot jazz and cold cocktails!  We’ll be slinging gin fizzes, gin flips, gibsons, gimlets, sazaracs, and saratogas…not to mention champagne cocktails, St. Germian cocktials, and a traditional champagne toast at midnight!  We’ll be breaking out our best vintage threads, and we encourage you to slip on a flapper dress or your sharpest vest and bow tie and join us!  The ragtime melodies of King Oliver, Louie Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton will keep the party popping until the ball’s done droppin’!

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Prichard’s Rye

 

Prichard's Rye

I was more than a little bit excited when I heard that the Prichard’s distillery was working on a rye whiskey for its portfolio.  As a fan of rye as well as of Prichard’s, I thought the two were made for each other.  Rye can be a tricky endeavor, however, and a lot of other micro-distillers have rushed products to market that just weren’t ready for the bottle.  I hoped that the good folks down in Kelso would be wise enough to take their time and actually bottle up a rye worth drinking.  After jumping at the chance to put the Prichard’s Rye on the Seven Saints bar, I am pleased to report that all my hopes have been realized.  This is a quality rye!

Straight out of the bottle, a pleasant aroma of field apples and light cinnamon spice approaches the nose without overpowering it.  The flavors of rich rye grains and an apple character reminiscent of calvados emerge initially, but the long finish develops into a sustained oaky vanilla experience.  I am normally a fan of water and whiskey relations, but this Prichard’s Rye is rounded enough to drink neat, and I encourage you to enjoy it that way.  At 86 proof it won’t knock your socks off.

Rye whiskeys fall into two unique flavor profiles in my book.  There are what I call the “bright” rye whiskeys as well as what I call the “pickle juice” ryes.  These two categories are completely subjective, but I find them useful tools to employ in a discussion of rye.  In the process of distilling the rye grain, some distillers unleash a bitter acidity that I find distinctive.  At times it’s a pleasant tang and at other times it morphs into an aggressive pickle juice funk.  The next time you are in front of a bottle of Templeton Rye, close your eyes and give it a whiff…it’s pure pickle juice on the nose.  Other distillers, however, are able to conjure the brighter side of rye.  These “bright ryes” are in my opinion more complex and exhibit a more charismatic flavor profile.  Prichard’s Rye is one such “bright rye” worth investigating.

Prichard’s Rye occupies a very valuable piece of real estate in the Prichard’s portfolio.  It joins other winners like the Double Barrel, the Tennessee Whiskey, and the Single Malt in this prestigious lineup.  The guys down in Kelso got it right once again…and we can’t wait to share their success with you here at Seven Saints!

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Balcones Brimstone: Texas Scrub Smoked Oak Blue Corn Whiskey

I’m not going to pull my punches in reviewing the Balcones Brimstone smoked corn whiskey.  From the first impression all the way through to a lasting finish, this whiskey was a lesson in “daaaaang!”  What I’m talkin’ about here is the whiskey equivalent of a smash-mouth middle linebacker knocking the cleats off a blind-sided quarterback.  I’m talkin’ about a lady so jaw-dropping gorgeous you have to reel in your tongue and pick your jaw up off the ground before you can muster a mumbled hello.  I’m talkin’ about “daaaaang!”

Chip Tate and company have created another juggernaut of the micro-distilled whiskey world with their Brimstone.  They show some real Lone Star know-how as they use Texas scrub oak to smoke this blue corn whiskey.  The result is not only innovative, but impressively bold and delicious.  If True Blue is the bright and handsome Apollo of the Balcones pantheon, then Brimstone is the war-scarred Aries waiting to unleash a blitzkrieg of flavor across your palate.  Brace yourself, because it’s about to get real!

From the first whiff of the uncorked bottle, I knew immediately that this 106-proof whiskey had layers upon layers of character.  The nose is both smoky and richly sweet, and the first impression I muttered out loud was, “Raisinets.”  Yep.  If you put the smoke aside, there are chocolate-covered raisins on the nose of this whiskey.

I always like to take the first nip of my whiskey without water, even if it’s a higher proof.  I just want to get a sense of its natural character before I start adding water to it.  In this case I pulled a lot of up-front flavors of grilled sweet corn and chewing tobacco from the palate.  Just beneath these savory components are hints of cherry and maybe even some huckleberry.  When taken neat, Brimstone’s intense flavor profile trumps its inherent “proofiness.”  It’s bold and aggressive, but it doesn’t come across as “hot” like other lesser whiskeys.

A little bit of water opened up the flavors for a closer look: What I picked up was a good dose of earthy tannins and more tobacco smoke.  The “campfire” flavors of autumn stick around on the finish for a really long time…a lot like how a sweatshirt keeps the smell of a good campfire for a few weeks.

Not everything’s really bigger in Texas, but Balcones Brimstone is.  As innovative as it is impressive, Brimstone brings a refreshingly new experience to the whiskey game.  This one goes in my, “If You See It, Buy It” category!

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Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2011

 

The good folks at Woodford Reserve have finally released the 2011 incarnation of their limited Master’s Collection! Previous releases have each showcased a unique twist on various steps in the bourbon producing process.  The 2008 release was a Sweet Mash that kicked the old sour mash process aside and yielded a less acidic bourbon with notes of dark fruit like blackberries and cherries.  In 2009 we were treated to the Seasoned Oak release, which was aged in barrels whose staves were aged outside in the elements of Kentucky for several years (as opposed to the normal term of only a few months).  The result was a bourbon that penetrated the barrel more quickly, resulting in a rich oak experience.  2010’s release was a Maple Finish, which reposed in maple barrels to add a flavor profile that was charismatic and well worth trying, though in my opinion not worth repeating.

This year Woodford decided to shake things up and delve into the world of rye.  The 2011 release is actually a set of two half-sized (375ml) bottles of rye.  This release is not only another bottle to throw on your bar shelf, but rather it is an exploration of the history and character of rye whiskey.   The first bottle represents an “Old World” expression, which is grain-focused and lighter in color from aging in an older barrel.  The second bottle is a “New World” rye whiskey, which is from a fresh barrel and is subsequently darker in color and richer in its oak profile.  The inner detail in the package provides a nicely summarized summary of Woodford’s take on rye history.  I think it was bold of Woodford to adopt this educational concept.  The whiskeys should definitely be tasted side-by-side or at least in the same sitting.  It really misses the point to only experience one of these expressions without the other.

The Old World rye has a light spicy nose of thin cinnamon and rye grain.  I would almost mistake it for a robust Canadian whisky…and maybe that’s partly the point.  The Canadians often distill with rye and are known for using high-repetition barrels, so they spring from a similar pedigree.  This rye does not exhibit the acrid “pickle juice” nose or flavor of hastily made rye whiskeys.  I enjoy its middleweight mouthfeel and approachable flavor.

My favorite aspect of this whiskey occurs on the extended finish.  The flavor that sticks around the longest cued a memory for me of eating a toasted marshmallow off of a campfire stick.  It wasn’t so much the cloying sweetness of the marshmallow itself, but more like what you’d get if you cooked one, peeled it off your stick, then scraped off the bits that were still stuck to the smoldering stick.  Yep.  These are the things I think about when I drink whiskey.

The New World Rye really grabs your attention with an oak-forward look and feel.  It is noticeably darker than its little brother, and the aroma practically steps up and smacks you in the face.  After a first sip, one of my most proficient tasters was quoted as saying, “Whoah.  (Cough…cough)  (Teary-eyed)  Whoah.”  I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the flavor is rich and well developed.  This rye definitely dries out the corners of your mouth, smacking you right in the jowls.  This one ends with what I called “Wood-chip suckin’ flavor.”

This one-two whiskey punch is well executed and cleverly presented.  Overall, I say Wodford scores again with their Master’s Collection.

 

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Under-Appreciated Whiskys at Seven Saints

In the four years I’ve been creating the spirits list at Seven Saints, I’ve learned that putting together a quality list is goes far beyond throwing kick ass bottles onto a back bar.  I quickly learned that educating my staff and engaging the Seven Saints customers are important components of making sure the spirits sell, which allows us to move bottles through and replace them with equally interesting and charismatic products.  There are, however, a few bottles that I adore which have not been as equally appreciated by our customers.  I don’t know why some products seem to fall between the cracks, but this blog entry represents an effort to put a few of those underdog whiskeys into the spotlight for some much deserved attention.

EADES HIGHLAND Double Malt Whisky:

This is a classic bang-for-your-buck scotch whisky.  It’s a vatting (combination) of Ben Nevis and Clynelish malts.  It’s really tasty.  It’s $7.50 a glass.  You rarely see so much complexity in a whisky with such a low price tag.  The Ben Nevis sees some time in a Grenache Blanc barrel, and the Clynelish is laid down in a Chateau Lafitte barrel.  I find myself going back to this whisky over and over again…and I can’t figure out why it doesn’t fly off the shelves at Seven Saints.  NOTE:  there is a possibility that there will be a disruption in the distribution of this scotch…so you better get while the gettin’ is good!

HOGSHEAD Blended Scotch Whisky:

Here’s the point of the entire paragraph to follow:  Hogshead is delicious and you shouldn’t ask questions.  Reliable information about exactly what is in this blended whiskey is for sure very hard to find and possibly doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t make it any less tasty.  This dram is plenty Islay peaty with a touch of Highland malty mellowness.  I’ve been told on good authority that it’s a combination of young Lagavulin and old Linkwood…but don’t’ quote me on that.  Regardless of is pedigree, this dram is another solid value.  Islay fans will notice a familiar flavor profile of peat and smoke but the astute will find the body a bit under-developed, which is where a deeper Highland influence kicks in.  Think “Highland body with Islay top-note.”  In any event, we charge six bucks a glass for it.  I think you should order it if for no other reason than a palate-trainer…it’s a great introduction to peat as well as an exercise in teaching your palate to discover “layers” of a whisky’s tasting profile.

EDRADOUR CHATEAU NEUF DE PAPE:

This release is one of my top five favorite scotches of all time.  The fact that it even exists at all is by virtue of an incredibly ballsy move by Scotland’s smallest distillery to finish their spirit in a Chateau Neuf de Pape cask.  I find it tremendously innovative.  On the simplest level, it’s delicious.  To the whisky critic, it is rich and complex in to an almost unparalleled degree.  I’m going to spare you the intricate tasting notes until your visit to Seven Saints, but I’ll assure you that this whisky will not disappoint.  Only 297 bottles were ever made, and we scored…a couple.  Be warned, though, that this stuff ain’t cheap.  It’ll set you back fifteen well-spent bucks.  Don’t hesitate to drink this while you have the chance…it’s one to remember!

These scotches represent the tip of the under-appreciated whiskey iceberg at Seven Saints.  As we march through the Whiskey Wednesday schedule, I’ll be sure to share some underdog stories from each of our whiskey categories.  Until then, drop me a line below or on the Seven Saints Facebook page to let me know what you think about these selections!

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Bourbon Season!

There’s a little ember of excitement brightly glowing in my heart.  It’s been waiting all year, quietly smoldering, in anticipation of the weeks when Oktoberfest brews begin to run dry.  It’s been waiting for the beer gardens to be packed away to really grow into its own autumnal fire.  This year’s warm weather means it’s had to wait a little longer than usual, but it’s beginning to shine through.  This burning…this unbridled anticipation, is for bourbon season!

To be clear, I do not mean that this is a particularly appropriate season in which to DRINK bourbon.  We all know that any time is as good as any other to enjoy a good bourbon.  What I mean is that this is the season when an entire roster of allocated, limited-release, and experimental whiskeys come flowing down the distribution lines and into Seven Saints!

This is the time when Buffalo Trace puts out its profoundly awesome Antique Collection: George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare 17-year, William Larue Weller, Sazerac 18-year Rye, and Thomas Handy Rye (every single one of them are absolute gems).  Woodford Reserve turns loose its annual Master’s Collection release in which past years have featured a Sweet Mash, a Seasoned Oak, and a Maple Wood Finish.  Old Forrester answers with the Birthday Bourbon.  Heaven Hill throws down its always amazing Parker’s Heritage collection.  I’m getting excited just talking about it.

If you aren’t familiar with any of these lineups, you owe it to yourself to branch out and explore them.  Many of these top-tier offerings represent the very best of their home distilleries’ portfolios.  They are crafted with care and purpose, but they don’t often get a lot of attention outside of a few mentions in the whiskey nerd publications or a choice location on a liquor store shelf.

I’ll do my best to train my Seven Saints staff to represent these whiskeys adequately.  I’ll train them to tell their stories and share with you their unique characteristics.  If, however, you find yourself particularly curious, ask for me personally during your visit, drop me a line at andyborbely@gmail.com, or just keep up with posts here on the blog.  In the meantime, I’ll be like a kid at Christmas…running downstairs to check my deliveries, ranting when I’m shorted on an order, and celebrating when the new roster of amazing whiskeys hits my liquor room.  Happy Bourbon Season!!!

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Guy Fawkes Day: Remember, Remember, the 5th of November!

Remember, remember, the 5th of November…of course!  But what are we remembering, exactly?  And for what reasons are we remembering it?

Guy Fawkes Day is a celebration, or rather a condemnation, of the acts of treason committed by a 17th century English conspirator of the same name.  Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators devised a plan to blow up Parliament, King James I, and his queen all in one blast by renting a cellar under the Parliament building and filling it with 20 kegs of gunpowder.  The plan was set to go off as King James I addressed Parliament on November 5th, 1605, but failed when one of Fawkes’ associates told one of his relatives, a lord, not to attend the proceedings.  The tip was spread around, authorities became suspicious, and the premises were searched.  Fawkes was arrested and tortured until he gave up the name of his associates, and was then hanged, drawn, and quartered.  The story has a hint of a happy ending though.  King James I went on to sign the royal license to distill for Thomas Phillips of the Old Bushmills distillery in 1608, making it the oldest licensed distillery in the world.  Score one for the whiskey drinkers!

As people in authority often do, the Parliament saw an opportunity to spin the events in their favor, so they immediately made November 5th a day of celebration of a thwarted plot.  Today, festivities across the United Kingdom involve a broad range of customs including traditional fireworks shows to burning Fawkes effigies in the street.  In fact, children often go door to door raising funds to buy fireworks and materials for their Fawkes effigies by soliciting “A Penny for the Guy.”  Of course the paranoia of the nearly blown-to-bits Parliament still lingers in the form of an annual room-to-room search of the House of Parliament.  A bit overly cautious perhaps, considering the ratio of exactly 1 plot to 406 uneventful years, but you never know when and where a new Guy will rise up to try to stick it to the Man!

While Seven Saints does not promote the use of gunpowder for murderous ends, we do appreciate how an act of defiance can linger through the ages.  Today’s economy of fine spirits is dominated by archaic ginormous multinational liquor companies…”dominated” by, but not “monopolized” by.  The little micro-distilleries with big hopes and great ideas dot the scene here and there, and it’s their spirit of defiance that we salute on this Guy Fawkes Day!  So come into Seven Saints on November the 5th and enjoy a craft spirit that fires a shot across the bow of the unsinkable giant liquor companies!  Drink a North Shore gin made by our friends Sonja Kassebaum and her husband Derek, two soft-spoken badasses if ever there were any!  Drink one of Dennis Downing’s whiskeys made by hand at the New Holland distillery.  Enjoy a craft cocktail made with care and love by your trusty Seven Saints bartender.  Drink with purpose and strike a blow for the little guy…for the craft spirits revolution!

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Evan & Eagle: Seven Saints Exclusive Barrels

I take great pride in the whiskey selection at Seven Saints.  At last count we had well over two hundred whiskeys available between our printed list and our private reserve bottles.  While it’s easy to get lost in the depth of such a list, each of these selections plays a specific role in rounding out our diversified portfolio; some are smokey peat-bombs, others are honey-sweet granola bars, and others pack a peppery rye zip.  Among them all, though, our two exclusive barrel selections hold very special places in my heart.  I traveled to Kentucky and called in my favors to bring you these bourbons straight from the rick houses of the Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill distilleries.  The Seven Saints Evan Williams Single Barrel and the Seven Saints Eagle Rare were selected to provide two very unique “snapshot” bourbon experiences to enjoy back home in Champaign.

The Seven Saints Evan Williams Single Barrel provides a smooth merge into the world of bourbon whiskey.  The aroma is soft and approachable with caramel and vanilla notes without any hint of harshness.  These caramel and vanilla notes emerge on the palate in a comforting stroll across the tongue.  I generally discourage the use of the term “smooth” to describe fine spirits.  Simply put, “smooth” is the rookie-speak of the uninitiated, and is generally used in the context of “Wow.  That’s smooth (because I don’t know what else to say).”  We all started at this point, but I encourage whiskey tasters to look beyond this term to more accurately describe the tastes and smells they are experiencing.  I would lift my embargo of the term, however, to describe our expression of Evan Williams.  You won’t find a rough edge or a sharp aspect anywhere in this comfortable, inviting, and “smooth” bourbon.

Our Seven Saints Eagle Rare boasts a bit more complexity for those wishing to explore deeper waters in the world of bourbon whiskey.  Oak flavors and aromas are much more attention-forward as compared to our Evan Williams.  The nose boasts more of a woodlot complexity and the palate shows off a profile of oaky tannins before the familiar flavor of intense vanilla blossoms on the finish.

Here at Saints we have come to regard our barrel of Evan Williams as a “girl-next-door” type bourbon.  She’s approachable and sweet.  The vanilla and caramel profile is as undeniably alluring as a set of batting doe eyes and a shy smile.  Our Eagle Rare has become known, comparatively, as the “sexy cougar” bourbon.  She’s more complex and a little more sharp.  She’s a touch smoky and she doesn’t mess around, but there’s a lot to learn and enjoy if you pay attention!  Can you say, “Mrs. Robinson?”  I’m truly fond of both bourbons, and I’ll never be backed into choosing between the two!

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Cherry Limeade

Inspiration came knocking this Friday morning when Dave and I were setting up the Seven Saints bar!  Shazam!  Enter the Seven Saints Cherry Limeade Shakeup!!!  We’re pretty excited about our new cocktail, and we thought you would appreciate a glimpse at the process of creating what is sure to become a cornerstone of the Seven Saints summer cocktail list.

We started by pairing dark, sweet cherries with vodka.  We let our fruit sit in unflavored Absolut, Effen Black Cherry, and Three Olives Cherry.  We were surprised to find that Three Olives Cherry was a commanding favorite in both aromatic bouquet and flavor.  I’m normally not a proponent of pairing like flavors on top of like flavors (let alone using flavored vodka with fresh ingredients), but 3 Olives helped us get a jump on the deep cherry flavor we were looking for.

From there the process mirrored that of our lemon shake-up with a few minor tweaks.  We used lime wedges strongly muddled with sugar (the sugar crystals grind into the lime skins and extract essential oils and flavor).  We added our cherry-infused vodka and a few cherries for aesthetic appeal and color balance.  We found the effervescent component was most effective with both soda water and lemon-lime soda.

This represented the point at which I believe a lot of home mixologists would have stopped.  The drink was ok…nothing special.  Our question was, “How do we make this POP?”  The cherry and lime flavors we were looking for were there, but we realized two things were wrong:  they were not as ENHANCED as we wanted, and they were not effectively LINKED together.

The first issue was easy enough to solve.  We had plenty of acidity from the limes, so we realized the cherry wasn’t pulling its weight.  A quick splash of simple syrup really brought the cherry up to par.  Keep in mind that we applied sugar for two purposes in this cocktail…for flavor as well as to mechanically grind out more flavor from our limes.

The second problem was simple to solve, too, with an understanding of cocktail fundamentals.  I personally believe that a well-built cocktail should have a minimum of four ingredients so that it possesses qualities of strength, sweetness, sourness, and depth.  The “depth” is the linking ingredient that holds the cocktail together so that it stands on its own as a unified whole (for more info on this 4-ingredient philosophy, see my related article “Four Ingredient Cocktails”).

In this case, we added a touch of Ginjinha cherry liqueur to elevate our cherry limeade experience.  Ginjinha is a Portugese spirit normally taken as a shot with a piece of fruit at the bottom of the cup.  The rich sweetness of this spirit linked up with our loose ends of cherry and lime and gave rise to a unified taste profile.  The key to this and any other “linking” ingredient is to use as little as possible to keep the link from sticking out on its own.  Blind taste testers would never say, “I detect an obscure Portuguese sour cherry liqueur in this cocktail,” but time after time they would also choose the Ginjinha recipe over the recipe without it.

So the next time you’re struggling for cocktail inspiration, keep the four-ingredient rule in mind.  Link your ingredients together to achieve a unified whole…and don’t forget to use the word “shazam.”  It helps.  We promise.

 

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