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Hard Water Newsletter, November 2016 Edition
WELCOME! This is the fifth edition of our monthly newsletter. We'll be using it to keep you abreast of changes to our extensive American whiskey selection and as a general source of information about whiskey and whiskey culture.

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New Arrivals on the Wall


Belle Meade Cognac Finish, $12
The newest release from Nelson's GreenBrier, a family run distillery in Tennessee. The whiskey is a blend of 6 - 9 year old Bourbons sourced from LDI but the finish comes from 12 year old ex-cognac barrels. An excellent after dinner dram. Try it with our pumpkin tart.

High West 'A Midwinter’s Night Dram' 2016, $20
This is the follow on to last year's highly lauded release. I'd say this one is little leaner and restrained than the 2015 but no less enjoyable. If you're feeling flush, try it as an Old Fashioned.

Parker’s Heritage 10th Edition, 24yr bonded (Spring) 50%, $40
Last month we received the our first allocation all of which came from the Fall dumps. Now we've got the Spring too. I suggest having a mini-flight of a half ounce of each to compare. Ask nicely for this off the menu experience.

St. George Single Malt, Lot 16, California, 43%, $20
All I can say is we have one bottle and I don't expect it to last very long.

Tom’s Foolery Bottled-in-Bond, Ohio 50% $13/2 oz
Tom’s Foolery Bonded-in-Bond Rye, Ohio 50% $13/2 oz

K & L Wines is the exclusive source of these whiskies here in the bay area and we are the only bar offering them for sale by the pour. They were made on a pair of very very small potstills that were originally housed at the Bomberger's distillery in Pennsylvania. That's where they made the original Michter's whiskey. Very impressive releases.

Wayward Single Malt 46%, California $8
From Venus Spirits in Santa Cruz. One of the few craft spirits that qualifies for an organic certification.
 
Et Al...

Our usual reminder that we don't announce ALL our new arrivals. We like to leave a few things as surprises for patrons scanning the wall on their own. There's a couple of very special and very limited bottles up there right now as I write this. In fact, looks like some people have already discovered 'em.

Our complete December whiskey list can be found here.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Usually Fire…Not Necessarily Peat


It’s a classic teaching moment at the bar: a patron closes the whiskey list, says they’d like a recommendation, and boldly declares that that they either want something smoky or they definitely don’t want something smoky. Folks in the “want” camp might even mention a better-known Scotch brand, like Laphroaig or Bowmore for reference. I take a breath, count to three and say what I’ve said so many times before: “Smoky is just not an American whiskey thing.” This month I’m going to do my best to give everyone a clear answer as to just why that’s the case.
 
First: why is some, but not all, Scotch whisky smoky?
 
Now when Scotch, specifically from the islands, is smoky, it’s really a side effect of natural history. Long before the Industrial Revolution, one readily available (and cheap) fuel source was peat from the islands’ extensive bogs (or mires). Peat is created when dead plant matter accumulates at the bottom of the bog and compresses under its own weight in the absence of oxygen, a process that takes thousands of years. The result is a dense organic material than can be cut and dried into bricks. The bricks can then be burned in a manner similar to coal, though producing far less heat and more smoke.
 
When whiskey making came to the islands, it required local barley to be malted before being fermented to make alcohol. Malting is accomplished by wetting and warming the grain then waiting for it to start germinating. The process is then arrested with heat, which dries the now malted grain. Using local peat to dry the malt imparted a highly smoky character to the grain. That smoky character persists through the remainder of the distilling and aging process and gives island whiskies their unique aroma and flavor.
 
Of course not all Scotch comes from the islands and in places where first wood and later coal could be used for the maltings, the resulting whiskies are distinctly NOT smoky. In fact, the great majority of Scotch whiskies are not smoky at all, though their flavors can still be assertive.

Peat for Cutting (Source: Robert Harding)
 
What then about American whiskey?
 
While there’s lots of peat to be found in the United States, by one measure twelve times as much as in Scotland, harvesting and drying it takes far more effort than cutting trees, which were abundant in colonial America. And once coal, a superior heating source, was discovered, there was simply no reason to harvest peat at all. Further, peat bogs weren’t necessarily to be found where grain was being grown and distilled, places like Kentucky, Maryland and Indiana. So using peat would have been incredibly inconvenient­—and probably expensive—for the early American distiller.
 
Also it’s important to realize that most of the grain used in Bourbon or rye is unmalted. Only about 10% malted barley is required to get fermentation going in the mash. Contrast this with Scotch single malt whiskies, which as the name suggests, are made entirely from malted barley. That’s a lot more opportunity for the source of heat used during malting to influence the flavor of the final spirit. And we also know from early American distillers’ manuals that coal was the recommended fuel for drying malt, specifically because it didn’t introduce a smoky character.
 
From these observations we might offer a couple of speculations. First, it is possible that early distillers of Scottish descent might not have come from the islands and thus might have had little or no exposure to peaty whiskies. Second, even if the early distillers had come from the islands, they might not have considered smoke to be an integral component of whiskey as we do today. In fact, they might have preferred to make whisky that was more neutral in character. Finally, they might have not even been aware that peat could have been had if they really wanted it. But since no one at the time thought it was important enough of a subject to write about (David Wondrich was still a century away), all we do today is make guesses.
 
So, can American whiskies be smoky?
 
As I stated in the first paragraph of this exploration, smoky, as it’s understood in island Scotch whisky, is just not an innate character of American whiskey. As discussed above, Bourbon, the most unique American spirit, does not appear to have ever been defined or measured by that standard. Nor to the best of my knowledge is anyone making it that way today.
 
When a patron tells me that they think a Bourbon we’ve poured for them is “smoky,” I suggest that what they are experiencing is different from “peaty.” They are probably noticing flavors extracted during aging from the charred inside of the barrel. Depending on how the whiskey was distilled, they may also be detecting specific congeners (flavor and aroma elements) associated with the end of the distilling run (AKA “the tails”). These heavier compounds, when present, can add smoke-like flavors to a whiskey. (In fact, they make similar contributions to Scotch!) Either way, it’s certainly not peat.
 
That said, many of the newly hatched “craft distilleries” have chosen to make malt whiskey, rather than Bourbon or rye, their flagship effort. These are defining a new style of American whiskey, taking their leads more from Bourbon (and beer brewing) and less from their cousins in Scotland. A few of these are smoky but, again, this effect isn’t achieved by using peat during malting. Instead, the grain, already malted and dried, is smoked prior to being mashed, effectively adding flavor to it. The source of the smoke may be peat (often imported from Scotland) but more often it’s a hardwood such as cherry, maple, alder, or even mesquite.
 
One famous exception, McCarthy’s, is made using peated malt imported directly from Scotland for the occasion. The distillers, Clear Creek in Oregon, even emulate Scotch in their choice of used Bourbon barrels for aging. Production of McCarthy’s is limited and it’s often unavailable. But there is hope for the smoke smitten!
 
Pushing the frontiers of smoky American whiskey is the Seattle-based distillery Westland, which recently secured rights to a peat bog located at the base of the Olympic peninsula. They’ve already started experiments, taking peat cuttings from different levels in the bog to determine how each grade affects the flavor of the whiskey. There’s a lot to learn.
 
It is worth noting that not all peat is created equally. The smoke from peat formed in areas subject to marine flooding and where the water is brackish, like the Scottish islands, will have a very different character than peat formed inland, like what can be found in the interior of Alaska. Peat character is also dependent on how much compression it’s undergone. Denser peat, dug from deeper in the bog, dries harder and burns hotter but imparts less smoky character than peat harvested closer to the surface, which is softer.

Of course, having a source for peat is only one part of the equation. One also needs a maltings designed specifically for using peat as the heat source—most modern facilities are going to be gas fired or electric. Furthermore, almost all the malted grain in the United States comes from one very large company located in Minnesota called Cargill. A company that size is hardly set up to perform the sorts of small experiments required by Westland. (And yes, that locally sourced grain your favorite craft distillery or brewery touts probably was shipped to Cargill to be malted.)
 
Fortunately, another kind of “craft” entity has begun popping around the country: the micro-malting. Now that locally grown grain can be malted by tattooed men with beards and waxed mustaches using bespoke equipment just a few miles from you. The micro-malting facility Westland works with is called Skagit Valley Malting, located north of Seattle. (Tattoos and facial hair not confirmed as of this writing.)
 
So one day, in the not too distant future, when I get asked about smoky American whiskey options, I expect I’ll able to ask with confidence “Well, are you looking for Pacific Northwest or Maine peat smoke?”

More questions? Feel free to ask any of the bar staff or just send us an email: whiskey_concierge@hardwaterbar.com.
By Alexander Eric Hasse (1875 - 1935) - A.E.Hasse, Baildon, Yorkshire. Orig. 6x6 glass plate diapositive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18031442
Sturdy souls harvesting the peat in Scotland in 1905.

Coda: A Brief Followup to Our Series on Bottled-in-Bond Whiskey


One of our astute readers pointed out that if the maximum bonding period was extended to 20 years by the Forand Act how was Heaven Hill able to offer a 24 year old Bottle-in-Bond Bourbon for this year's Parker's Heritage release? Good question!

Our understanding is that since the Forand Act passed subsequent legislation abolished any limit to the bonding period. In other words, whiskey may be held in bond indefinitely. However I suspect there's still a maximum tax benefit obtained after a certain number of years, possibly still four or maybe 20. If any of you know the details on this, please contact us and share the details!

Ask Hard Water

 
We're always standing by to answer your American whiskey questions. This past month we had some questions about bottled-in-bond whiskey that stumped a number of "experts" so we're feeling pretty saucy about ourselves. Maybe your question will stump us!
 
We look forward to hearing from you! Write soon! whiskey_concierge@hardwaterbar.com.
 
Tom's Foolery BIB Bourbon & Rye
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