Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Tasting at the End of Vacation

On his travels this summer my son Travis discovered an unsold cache of Ardbeg's legendary Airigh Nam Beistie. The 'beastie' was a blend of barrels of old Ardbeg whisky distilled in 1990 before the distillery was mothballed. The first release in 2006 was followed by bottlings which were produced and released in 2007 and 2008. Sadly, there is no more whisky to be released. So when Travis found some for sale, it was the latest, the 2008 release. And he bought. At least one.

Back in Dallas, I had the remains of a bottle of the 2007 release and one of the goals of the last couple weeks of vacation has been to do a serious comparative tasting. And tonight we finally did.

The evening started with a couple of beers and hamburgers as we watched the packaged Olympics. Even though we knew the result, the watching was better then the Texas Rangers baseball game. The Rangers were down 4-0 to the Angels and Jarod Weaver was pictching. So the results were known there as well.

One of the beers was BRUX, a limited release collaboration between the renowned Russian River Brewing and the well known Sierra Nevada. It was a "domesticated Wild Ale. A dry and complex Belgian style ale refermented in the bottle with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis." 'Brett' is considered by many to be a flaw in table wines, as it imparts an earthy, barnyard flavor. The beer was reminiscent a of red Scotch Ale, but had the perfumed aromatics of the Belgian yeast. The gaminess of the 'Brett' was subdued and in the background, though that could change if the beer is aged as recommended by the brewers.

For a nightcap we turned to whisky. 2007 and 2008 Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beistie, to be precise.

Initially the two whiskies seemed quite different. The 2008 was yeasty, peaty, tarry and smokey with grace notes of honey, with a long dry finish. The 2007 was much more waxy and floral, with much louder notes of spicy, rich honey and a sweeter finish. The complex smokiness of the peat was a common bond between the two whiskies.

Both bottles of Ardbeg had yeasty floral notes similar to the beer. Which makes sense. The Ardbeg stills are  famous for their low, fat columns which let the flavor of the fermented beer come through the distillation process. They both had a salty, mineral flavor that spoke of  bog myrtle, pounded for centuries by the Atlantic Ocean.

Next I pulled out a bottle of Lagavullin. It was the 12 year old limited release bottled in 2009. My memory of it had been of the peat and honey, similar to the 2007 Beastie, but the younger whisky was characterized by white pepper and yeasty floral notes of freshly cut aloe. The honey seemed sweeter than the Ardbegs  and floated on top of the dark peaty flavors which were there in ample supply.

The Lagavulin made the Ardbeg whiskies taste more similar, althought all three bottles were easily differentiated in the glass.

The combination of white pepper, smoke and honey led me to throw a couple of bottles of Mezcal into the tasting arena. First was El Senorio Reposado. My wife had sourced from a bookseller in Oaxaca who bought it from a friend who produced it. While it had the flavors I was looking for, it was much too smooth and refined to join the conversation.

So next I brought out a bottle of Del Maguey Minero Mezcal. Minero is an artisanal mezcal produced in a small village high up in the mountains outside of Oaxaca. The wild, indigneous, local agave is smoked by hot stones in dugout pits, crushed by giant milling stones pulled by donkeys and fermented in clay pots with bamboo piping.

Amazingly complex and powerful, here was a spirit that could converse with the Scotch whiskies. Except that where the Scotch spoke English, the Mezcal spoke a completely foreign language. The Mezcal was complex and smoky with vague suggestions of agave, the salty minerality spoke of sweat and dirt, where the whiskies spoke of peat bogs. The Mezcal spoke of desert sands, the Scotch spoke of the ocean.

Yet, in many ways they were very, very similar.

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