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Scotch Whisky Club Tasting Notes: 2015

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Alexander Murray & Co Ltd ‘Highland Park’ 13yr
Distilled in 2000 at Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland
Bottled by Alexander Murray & Co Ltd at cask strength 56.1 % abv

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Summer is in finally here, and we have the second quarter Scotch Whisky Club Tasting Notes for you! We’re excited to be featuring another new broker bottler to the Scotch Club, Alexander Murray & Co Ltd. While they specialize in custom label bottlings for individual customers and businesses like Trader Joes and Costco (Kirkland), they also bottle their single malts under their own name. We tasted nearly 30 expressions and this was one of our favorites. It didn’t hurt that it was one of few that were bottled at cask strength! Highland Park is a favorite of many regular scotch drinkers (myself included). The last time we featured an expression from Highland Park was in our inaugural release of the Scotch Club in 2007. While most of the core expressions of Highland Park are matured in sherry casks, this one was matured entirely in bourbon casks, making it daytime appropriate and summer approved.

Joshua Thinnesnew balance 992

The island of Orkney is simply a magical place. Definitely not British, not really Scottish, as it was a Norse settlement for more than 700 years until it was assumed by Scotland through a marriage. Civilization has occupied this land since 8000 BC. Orkney, along with all the other Hebridean islands including Islay remained loyal to Norway until the 13th century. In 1262 Angus Mor, the Lord of Islay, fighting alongside the Vikings lost control to Scotland in the Battle of Largs. Scotland needed the land for strategic naval positioning fighting off the Danish as they settled on lease terms with Norway. Later in the mid-1400s, after years of unpaid rent to Norway’s King Christian I, Scotland’s debt was forgiven in exchange for the marriage of Scotland’s King James III to Christian’s daughter. The next 300 years solidified a Scottish Norwegian alliance that resisted countless attempts at Danish overrule to no avail. Though Orkney had officially become part of Scotland, most Orcadian people never considered themselves Scottish, and the islands have truly a distinct feel.
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Kirkwall, Scotland

                            Kirkwall, Scotland

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Highland Park distillery was established in 1798 by Magnus Eunson. The famous 18th century rogue smuggler set up shop on the former site of an illicit still that had been in operation for decades before. Ironically, in the basement of a church where he was a preacher that once stood on the site. It was known as ‘High Park’ for its location on a hill above the town of Kirkwall. In one telling story, it is said that Magnus got word of an imminent inspection by the local exisemen John Robertson, looking for evidence of whisky smuggling. He quickly assembled some of the parishioners and moved all the barrels of whisky from the cellar into the church, where they put coffin lids over the barrels, and draped them with white funerary shroud. When the taxmen arrived, the mass launched into a roar of loud and soulful mourning. One of the parishioners mumbled to the visitors “smallpox”, and just like that, Robertson bailed without completing his search. Eunson was finally arrested in 1813, and as irony would have it, the distillery was sold to the same tax excisemen John Robertson, who promptly turned it legit and began legal distillation. Highland Park distillery has been in continuous operation ever since. Today Highland Park along with sister distillery Macallan is owned by the Edrington Group. And both are renowned amongst collectors and drinkers alike as one of the best, most well-rounded drams.
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Highland Park also boasts the title of northernmost distillery in Scotland. The distillery’s location in the Orkney Islands provides a setting that encompasses the very best of all of Scotland’s distilling regions. The Orkneys are now considered a part of the Highlands, and its whiskies share many of the traits of the more familiar highland distilleries, like aromas of heather, wildflowers and honey. The barley for their whisky is malted and then slowly kilned dry over a period of 5-7 days using peat smoke, imparting a slight smoky quality to the whisky, although this peatiness is not nearly as strong as malts from Islay. They are one of the few distilleries peating their own barley, up to 20% nowadays. The island location also exposes the whisky aging in cask, to strong breezes and storms coming off of the North Sea, imparting a slight saltiness on the whisky as it matures. Whisky at Highland Park is aged predominately in used Sherry casks, which imparts a vinous, fruity quality to the malt, as well as a touch of sweetness (although this particular bottle saw no Sherry cask).

The Highland Park that you hold in your hands was not bottled by the Highland Park, but by independent spirits bottler Alexander Murray & Co. As we’ve discussed before, prior to the last quarter of a century or so, almost no Single Malt Scotch was bottled with the intention to be consumed straight. Nearly every cask of whisky was sold to the blending houses, who, according to their house style, would blend dozens of different single malts, along with more neutrally flavored grain whisky, to achieve their house style. Frequently these blends will contain in excess of 50-60 different whiskies, each used sparingly to lend a bit of their character to the final product. Starting in the mid-1800’s, specialized wine & spirits brokers, and even a few licensed grocers began purchasing casks that they thought were especially distinctive. These merchants would bring the whole casks to their shops, and display them on site. Their customers would come in, frequently bringing their own flasks, bottles, or other containers, and buy their whisky by the liter, tapped straight from the barrel. When the bottling of whisky became cheaper and more commonplace, these merchants switched over to selling their whiskies by the bottle, so that they could market their products to a larger audience than just their local customers.
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After distillation, the ‘new make’ spirit was filled to what is known as a refill American hogshead: a barrel of specific size (a hogshead is 66 US gallons, or 250 liters) that was previously used to age Bourbon whiskey in the United States. According to law, bourbon must be aged in brand-new, heavily charred casks. After bourbon is bottled, there are a lot of used barrels left over that are of no further use to the Bourbon distiller. Most are sold to Scotch distilleries, as the more neutral qualities of used wood are great for the milder, subtler Scotch whiskies made of malted barley. This type of barrel will slowly lend its color to the aging Scotch, without imparting any overt oaky flavors. This whisky is lightly peated, providing just a hint of smoke on the nose and palate. The nose expresses an unmistakable Highland Park quality of orange, honey and heather that is further developed on the palate. Flavors of spiced orange, burnt orange peel and heather linger on the finish. Every sip conjures aromas of zested orange and memories of summertime flowers while aromas of salty seaside air permeate. At cask strength the finish is spicy but with the addition of a dash of water the flavors really open up and develop. I’ve also noticed that as I drink the bottle past the shoulder mark the whisky continues to open up and develop. This whisky is a perfect summertime sipper – light enough to sip in the sunshine while still being expressive and full of character. If it gets hot out, try it with splash of chilled soda water with an orange twist. Enjoy!
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Blazing Down the Bourbon Trail

Woodford Rickhouse

Woodford Rickhouse

The popularity of bourbon is at an all time high. With a whiskey crisis looming in the US, PlumpJack Wine and Spirit Noe Valley‘s General Manager Josh Thinnes set out on a journey to secure as much bourbon as he could. The booming popularity of our American Whiskey club is so large that a barrel is pretty much the best way to buy it. Not to mention how cool it is to have selected bourbon exclusively by the cask, to ensure that our customers get only the best. Come along for the ride!

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Four Roses Barrel Tasting

Four Roses Barrel Tasting

Day 1-2 – Louisville:
Kentucky is truly a unique state, often referred to as the Southern most Northern state, or Northern most Southern state, in the US. Louisville is like America’s largest small town. Even with the largest city in the state boasting a population of nearly 600,000 people, it feels smaller than a town half its size. Many people have raved about the bourgeoning nightlife scene with loads of new bars and restaurants popping up all over the place. I decided to put my big city standards aside and enter with an open mind. Happily, it over delivered.

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brown hotel

The Brown Hotel

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While in Louisville we stayed at The Brown Hotel, one of Louisville’s oldest and most prestigious hotels. This place oozes old school southern charm and class, with loads of character boasting an excellent downtown location right on the redeveloping 4th street. Back in the roaring 20s, nearly 1,000 people would fill the Brown’s ballroom on the weekends to dance the night away, stopping downstairs for the signature ‘Hot Brown’ breakfast in the morning before going home.

610 Magnolia

The dining room at 610 Magnolia

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Willett Distillery

The Willett family Distillery

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We had dinner the first night at 610 Magnolia, a self proclaimed contemporary approach to southern cuisine, serving the people of Louisville for nearly 30 years in a quaint refurbished carriage house. I’d seen the chef on a recent season of ‘Top Chef’ on TV, and luckily was reminded of his establishment just before departing for my trip. The prix fixe menu is seasonally inspired and designed by chef Ed Lee. The staff was exceptionally welcoming, and Ed took at least ten minutes to chat with us about our trip and recommend some other favorite eating spots while in the city. I highly recommend this place, excellent atmosphere and character, delicious food, great wine list and cocktail menu.

Day 3 – Bardstown, Willett Distillery
On Monday, we set off for a morning appointment at Willett Distillery, located about an hour south of Louisville in the sleepy old town of Bardstown. Bardstown has the feel as though everyone should be riding around in a horse-drawn carriage; the town center is about two blocks long in each direction centered on a roundabout with an old church, turned visitor center, in the middle. The Willett distillery is just five minutes from town, with a long winding driveway leading up to the property. Willett is family owned and operated, a rarity in today’s bourbon world. Hunter, the son-in-law, was there to guide us through the facilities. It was the smallest operation we visited in Kentucky, and the attention to quality and detail was evident everywhere. Hunter wanted to be sure to show us the warehouse, or ‘rick house’ where all the whiskey was aging. 
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Willett Rickhouse

The Willett Rickhouse

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We climbed up to the fifth floor of the rick house via the rickety and dark narrow staircase in the center, taking notice of the thermometer posted on the wall, which depicted a nearly 25 degree difference in temperature between the bottom and top floors. We took a spin around the still house; stopping to taste the new-make, white un-aged whiskey straight out of the still. Out of all the distilleries I’ve been to over the world, Willett’s new make whiskey was the smoothest tasting of them all. Not bad for 130 proof! We concluded the tour with a stop at lab to taste through a few of their older single barrel bourbons. The journey was off to a smooth start.

Seelbach Hotel

The Seelbach Hotel

That afternoon after returning to Louisville, we visited the historic Seelbach Hotel, home to one of the world’s greatest bars. While at the Seelbach, one must order their signature cocktail, The Seelbach Cocktail; made with Bourbon, curacao, bitters and champagne. The bar is 50 feet of solid mahogany, the kind of place you could imagine smoke filled with a jazz quartet blaring in the corner until 3 am.

Seelbach Cocktail at the Seelbach

sippin’ on a Seelbach Cocktail

That evening, we had dinner at Holy Grale, a recommendation from chef Ed Lee of 601 Magnolia. This was one of the coolest spots. Holy Grale is an old church converted into a beer bar/restaurant with more than 30 beers on tap and a menu that is heavily-German influenced with food designed to work well with the beer. This place was awesome. It seemed to be a foodie-like crowd, and we even noticed our waiter from the night before at 601 Magnolia, drinking as a patron in the corner. The pickle plate was the highlight, as well as the burger served on a pretzel bun.

Holy Grale

The backyard at Holy Grale

Holy Grale Food

Pickle plate and pretzel bun burger

Day – 4 Bardstown, Heaven Hill Distillery
Heaven Hill’s bottling facility, where we would be taking our tour that day, is located just off the same road that Willett is located. They couldn’t be more different. Heaven Hill, home to Evan Williams, Henry McKenna and Rittenhouse whiskies, is aging more barrels of whiskey than anyone else in Kentucky, with more than 1.4 million barrels. The distillation happens at the Bernheim distillery located in downtown Louisville, but the bottling for all their brands (including many different vodka labels) happens at this facility.

Heaven Hill

Heaven Hill’s Vodka Bottling Line

The distillery used to be located onsite, but burned in a fire in 1996. This was by far the largest and most corporate of the operations we visited, even though it is 100% privately family owned. As luck (bad) would have it, we visited on an election day, so they were unable to serve any alcohol or worse yet, sell any bottles! The tour was very cool to see how a company of that size bottles and packages their products, but it was less bourbon centric, and not nearly as charming as the Willett experience the day before.

After arriving back in Louisville we had dinner at another recommendation of chef Lee, Jack Frys. This place was great, an old school take on fine dining – think Mad Men era white tablecloth. They had a live jazz trio playing, great food, and the cheapest Van Winkle pour we had seen in Kentucky.

Jack Fry's

Jack Fry’s

Day 5 – Cox Creek, Four Roses Distillery
Four Roses was the most highly anticipated part of the trip, and thankfully it lived up to the expectations. With a mission to source bourbon for the store, and specifically the whiskey club, we had arranged for a barrel tasting with Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge. The stories I heard about Jim before arriving built him up to be some type of wizard of the bourbon world. It all lived up to the hype.

Josh, Jim Rutledge, and Josh's dad Steve Thinnes

Josh, Jim Rutledge, and Josh’s dad Steve Thinnes at Four Roses

As we entered the bottling facility, we were escorted to the back, where 15 barrels were laid out, all ready for us to sample. Four place mats with 15 glasses on each were situated on a table in front of us. Jim walked in about two minutes later, and we got  to it. He pulled out a bag of tortilla chips and six bottles of water and said, “One time a client brought his own bag of tortilla chips to the barrel tasting to clean his palate in between tastes. It worked so well, we now do it every time.” Pulling samples directly from the barrel, we filled all the glasses, sequentially in order of the barrels on the floor. Jim, his assistant Mandy, my Dad and myself all got to work sampling through the first five. We each made notes on our favorites and compared them after everyone had chosen a favorite. Surprisingly everyone shared the same favorite, which made my choice pretty easy. We then sampled through the next ten, each a different recipe. As soon as barrel #8 hit my glass, I could smell how amazing it was. I knew after the first whiff that it would be my favorite. I narrowed it down to a second favorite and we all compared. Amazingly again, Jim and I shared the same favorite, while Mandy and my Dad shared the same favorite. Their favorites turned out to be Jim and my second favorites. The decision was tough, so we decided to take both! We closed up the three barrel selections, signed the barrels, and took a few pictures. Then Jim took us on a tour of the rest of the facilities. We spent the entire day, rummaging through the warehouse and the still house, soaking up all the information. Just hearing him speak about bourbon and his passion for quality was contagious.

four rosesBarrel selection at Four Roses

Day 6 – Frankfort, Buffalo Trace distillery
The morning we arrived in Lexington, we set off for Buffalo Trace distillery. Buffalo Trace distillery is situated on the prime location of the Kentucky River. When you think of Kentucky, with the picturesque horse farms and green pastures, you picture this area of Kentucky. The distillery produces a slew of extremely popular premium bourbon brands:  Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, Sazerac Rye, Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, and many more. Our private tour was in-depth and very behind the scenes, climbing up to the top of the mash room and across the catwalk to the still house. The size and capacity of this place was HUGE. They had the largest fermenter tanks in the industry at 90,000 gallons, and certainly the largest column still out of all the distilleries we visited. After a small tasting, we had some lunch at the company BBQ hut, and got ready for the most exciting part of our visit: selecting another barrel of Eagle Rare bourbon for the store. We were taken to warehouse where four barrels were arranged for us to sample. That will mark the 14th barrel of Eagle Rare 10 year bourbon that our store has purchased.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Barrel Selection at Buffalo Trace

Barrel Selection at Buffalo Trace

That evening we went to one of the countries best bourbon bars, the Bluegrass Tavern. The place was packed, but we managed to snag a seat at the bar. This place was ridiculous, they must have had more than 400 different bourbon selections, more than half of which went from $100 to “You can’t afford that” per shot. It’s a good thing it was walking distance from the hotel.

Bluegrass Tavern

Bluegrass Tavern

Day 7 – Versailles, Woodford Distillery
The next morning we journeyed to Versailles to visit Woodford Distillery. This was even more in the heart of horse country. We must have passed over a dozen horse farms on the way to the distillery, all with manicured landscapes divided by black wooden fences. The distillery grounds were pristine and equally well manicured. Woodford has a number of unique features in the bourbon world. They have longest barrel rolling line from filling room to warehouse. The barrels actually roll across a track on the ground, crossing a road on the grounds, hundreds of feet from one building to the next. Unlike any other distillery in Kentucky, Woodford uses three Scottish pot stills for distillation, instead of one column and one single pot still. We took a spin through one of the warehouses and the bottling line, and concluded with a tasting in the old tax excise office building.

Woodford Pot Stills

Woodford Pot Stills

Day 8 – Back to SF
All in all it was a great trip to Kentucky. I was thoroughly impressed with the food and bar scene in Louisville. It was also a great pleasure to be able to select the barrels exclusively for our store, and I look forward to another trip in the future to secure more!