When some Scotsmen, already distillers of Scotch, decided in 1999 to begin distilling a gin, they had the good sense not to name it something like MacAlastair’s or MacFarlane’s. I think this counts as a case of mind over matter: no matter what the gin tasted like, with a name that evoked Scotland and Scotch whisky, it would simply not taste right. Instead they christened it Hendrick’s, a name seemingly well chosen for its lack of a very obvious national character. It sounds like a name from the British Isles, to be sure, but from where within them, precisely? It stands fairly solidly on its own, a fate that the distillers may well wish for their gin. Continue reading Hendrick’s Gin→
[PLEASE SEE CRUCIAL ADDENDUM TO THIS REVIEW AT BOTTOM]
If vous are like moi, you certainly don’t associate France with whisky (or even with whiskey). Cognac and brandies, to be sure, but not the kind of whiskies one might order on the rocks or mix with soda and guzzle while gobbling peanuts or potato chips. So very un-French. Indeed, the one time that yours truly visited France, I tried ordering some favored spirits on the rocks, and was disappointed; the portions were skimpy, the glasses were inappropriate, the ice was bad, and the drink just plain didn’t feel right while sitting on a sidewalk in Paris. I soon realized that one should not try to drink like an American while in France. Instead, drink like the French do: alternate red wine with cappucinos, act blasé, and take August off.
Yet, it turns out that French whiskies do exist, and, like so many things both good and bad these days, they appear to be multiplying uncontrollably.
Let’s try to get a handle on at least one, recently encountered, which goes by the name of “Bastille.” The large “1789” on the bottle does not refer to the origins of the whiskey, which are considerably more recent, but instead to an event known as the French Revolution. (I suppose they don’t mind if a few impulse-buyers are fooled.)
It is described as a “hand-crafted whisky,” distilled from wheat and barley, and utilizing water “naturally filtered for centuries through Grande Champagne limestone.” It is a blended whisky. It is aged in wood casks, “including the most luxurious French Limousin oak.”
Cutting to the chaseContinue reading Bastille 1789 (a French Whisky)→
The Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, describes itself as the oldest licensed distillery in the world, and no one seems able to mount a serious challenge to that assertion. The license to distill in that spot was granted by King James I in 1608.
As with my previous considerations of Jameson and Tullamore Dew, this review is only concerned with the plain, common man’s variety of Bushmills Irish Whiskey; i.e. the Bushmills Original blend, sometimes known as Bushmills White Label or just White Bush (there being another popular but pricier blend by the same distiller called “Black Bush”). And as with Jameson and Tullamore Dew, Bushmills is a triple-distilled blended whiskey, and that’s enough on the technical end.
Speaking of Bushmills cannot but be a little personal for me. I was relatively young when I decided (or realized) that I was not cut out for drinking beer. One is always fine, but any more than that is just too much liquid. I find it wearying to consume. So, I looked to the spirit world for guidance. To order a mixed drink all the time seemed like it might be a bit fey, not to mention the link to monster hangovers. Being of Irish stock, I made a try of drinking Jameson, but as my review would’ve hinted, it did not ultimately please. I think I went straight from there to Scotches. I tried single-malts occasionally, but my standard go-to in a bar became the blended J & B. It was unostentatious, and quite sturdy enough for my youthful palate, although a little problematic to order in a loud bar since it was sometimes misheard as “Jim Beam,” which I found wasn’t my cup of tea at all. Continue reading Bushmills Irish Whiskey→
Jameson Irish Whiskey is easily the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world. It has long been a fixture as such; if a bar stocks only one Irish whiskey, it is almost certainly going to be Jameson. I’m not the sufficient historian to know how and why this came to be so. But it likely has something to do with the fact that Jameson was one of the few survivors of the destruction of a once-thriving international market for Irish whiskey, caused by a trade war with Britain and worsened by the era of prohibition in the United States, both events occurring early in the twentieth century. In addition, being a whiskey manufactured in the Republic of Ireland, Jameson has arguably generated loyalty from many Irish expatriates and their descendants, as opposed, say, to the “Protestant” Bushmills Irish Whiskey from Co. Antrim.
Whatever the reasons for Jameson coming to connote “Irish whiskey” in much of the world, I do think that Jameson’s dominance explains why Irish whiskey has had such a low status for so long. (This has been changing in recent years with a proliferation of good quality new and resurrected brands.) Jameson—and here I am speaking of the plain, ordinary type and not the single-malt and aged varietals—is simply not a good whiskey.
Before I get more specific about my dislike of it, however, I’d like to indulge in a brief reminiscence that perhaps shows how even bad liquor finds its appropriate place.
Those who traveled back and forth between Ireland and the U.S.A. in past years and decades would undoubtedly remember a strange feature of the trip: the forced stop at Shannon Airport. That is, if you had booked a flight from the U.S.A. to Dublin (the capital city on Ireland’s east coast) you would fly across the Atlantic for six and half hours or so, and then, with your destination about fifteen minutes away, the aircraft would descend and land on Ireland’s west coast, at Shannon, a place that seemed more of a glorified airfield than a true, busy international airport. Passengers would be required to leave the plane, for perhaps an hour and a half or so, and then would have to get back on so the plane could take off again for one of the shortest jaunts a jumbo jet would ever make, over what seemed just a few fields and rivers to Dublin city. Although Shannon was at one time a standard refueling stop, nobody was fooled as to why this stopover was maintained as a compulsory one for modern transatlantic airliners; its purpose was only to provide work to the employees of that airport, and to get the travelers to open their wallets in various ways. Indeed, duty free shopping originated at Shannon Airport. And that is not the only thing that Shannon Airport gave to the world. Continue reading Jameson Irish Whiskey→
St. Patrick’s Day is days away, and what better way could there be of celebrating the conversion of the Gaels to Christianity than to meditate upon some Irish whiskies. Indeed, were it not for Irish Catholic angst (speaking from some experience) the whiskey industry might never have flourished in that country at all.
The very word whiskey (or whisky) in English is derived from the Gaelic term for the same substance, namely uisce beatha (pronounced ishka bah-ha), which is translated literally as “water of life.” Drop a mouse in a bowl of whiskey and you’ll see how long it lives; nevertheless, even poison has its place in God’s creation, as Proverbs 31:6-7 tells us:
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Indeed. It is not for yours truly to review any top-shelf whiskies; I am just not a top-shelf kind of guy, as my friends would readily attest. Instead I plan on looking at three of the old mainstays: Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew—the plain versions, not the new-fangled single malt variations and such.
I will begin with the latter of the three. Tullamore Dew is a blended Irish whiskey. It shares the most common characteristic of Irish whiskies, namely that it is triple distilled. (Rumors that St. Patrick used the process of triple distillation to explain the Holy Trinity seem unfounded, however.) And as opposed to most Scotch whiskies, peat is generally not featured in the Irish malting process, resulting in a smoother-rather-than-smoky finish. (I will not go further into all of the more tendentious distinctions between various types of whiskey.)
Tullamore Dew is certainly nothing if not smooth. It is so smooth that it is best appreciated neat, or with the merest splash of water, or poured fairly generously over a single ice-cube. You will hear it described by educated tasters as medium-to-full bodied, light-straw in color, featuring notes of wood and honeysuckle, with a long finish. I’d endorse all of these descriptions, emphasizing again that it needs to sipped nearly or entirely straight in order to bring its personality to the fore. Continue reading Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey→
It was Kingsley Amis who introduced me properly to gin.
I would like to say that it was at some soirée hosted by that famous (late) English author, but no; it was instead in a collection of his writings on alcohol-related topics, titled Everyday Drinking, released in 2008, with an introduction by another well-known (and late) English drinker, Christopher Hitchens.
I say that Amis introduced me properly to gin because my first (most improper) introduction was of a character I’ve found to be all too common among my peers. As a young lad, I was in some social situation or other where the only available alcohol was gin. I drank it, mixed perhaps with tonic (or maybe with some kind of lemonade—I can’t remember), and found it went down easily and promoted cheerfulness on my part and that of my acquaintances. A little being good, it seemed a cinch that a lot would be better, and indeed it was. Until, that is, the morning, when I awoke with a kind and degree of hangover that I’ve never experienced before or since. Without ticking down through the more well-known symptoms, my overwhelming feeling was that I had drunk several pints of window cleaning solution (the blue kind, with ammonia, not the eco-friendly type you see around these days). The taste in my mouth, which would not leave, was such that I believe I could have licked clean all the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and still had potency remaining.
I swore never to touch the stuff again, and kept to that faithfully for decades, during the course of which I’ve drunk almost everything else, but gravitated mainly towards spirits, especially the Irish and Scotch varieties.
I read the Kingsley Amis collection on drinking for enjoyment and general edification, the book containing some opinions I shared and some I didn’t, some information that was interesting and some of little relevance, but all written with the Amis verve. It was his reflections on gin, however, that surprised me most, and, you might even say, turned my life around (though the final destination remains unclear). In my circles, I’d never heard someone attest to actually liking the taste of gin, on its own. This however is what Amis stated, indicating that his favored way of imbibing the old spirit (invented in Holland but adopted most enthusiastically by the British) was merely by adding a little water, and savoring the taste of the juniper berry and other assorted infused botanicals. This was fascinating to me, and presented the challenge of confronting that old demon from my past head-on, without any buffer such as tonic or even vermouth. As one gets older, one realizes that acquired tastes are, after all, the ones truly worth acquiring, and I thought I would give this one a try. Amis had fairly catholic tastes in gin—speaking well of the readily available and reasonably-priced Gordon’s—but seemed to have some difficulty identifying water of sufficient quality so as not to ruin his drinks. This didn’t surprise me so much, considering his context of time and place in England. However, I live in New York City, where we are blessed to have the best water in the world running for free through our very faucets. (Fresh out of the faucet it can be uneven, but if you let the tap run a little while, then fill up a bottle and put it in the fridge overnight, in the morning you will have a liquid so wonderful and clear and refreshing as to make the product of those Polish springs seem by comparison something more akin to milk of magnesia).
Cutting to the chase, I found myself in agreement with Amis. Gin could indeed be a wonderful drink in and of itself, with delicate and undulating subtleties of flavor and aroma. What’s more, due to its relative purity as compared to whiskies, it is actually far less prone towards giving one that terrible hangover. It is in the mixing of gin with tonic and other beverages that the mischief is wrought (though naturally excessive consumption is inherently bad and be sure to consult your doctor before adopting any new diet or fitness regimen mentioned in these pages).
Discovering a way of appreciating this heretofore-shunned spirit opened up a new world. There are lots of gins, at just about every price-point. I quickly found that I preferred what I perceived to be the ginnier gins; that is, those still most loyal to the distinctive flavor of the juniper, as opposed to those that lean far towards very citrusy and orangey flavors and seem instead to be gins for people who don’t like gin. That includes some quite expensive and fashionable brands.
This piece, however, is in the end intended as a review of just one: Fleischmann’s gin. Amis certainly didn’t deal with it in his book, as it is not even an English gin. It was, in fact, the first American gin to be distilled, beginning in 1870. And much of its marketing and claim-to-fame during the hey-day of cocktails, sixty years ago and more, seems to have been that as an American gin it was well-suited to gin cocktails which originated in America, notably the martini and Tom Collins. The ads proclaimed it as being more mixable.
In the glass, both straight and with a little water, my first impression of Fleischmann’s (which I have not had reason to revise since) was that it possessed about the same flavor balance as Gordon’s (surely about as uncontroversial and plain an English-type-gin as you can find) but was distinctly milder and smoother. That might be a pro or con for some. Sipped in a glass with a splash of cold water and/or a nice clean ice-cube, it’s quite easy to forget you’re drinking much of anything at all. However, since it is 80 proof you will eventually realize it (although it should be noted that it and a number of other currently-80-proof-gins were once sold at 90 proof and more, so they are not precisely the same spirits they were decades ago). Another perspective would be that its mild flavor demands that you savor it all the more carefully. Continue reading Fleischmann’s Gin (and Some General Notes on Gin)→