There are just too many California wineries now, let alone wineries from other wine-producing regions in this world. I used to taste perhaps 35 to 50 new wines each week—more than the typical consumer, but not enough to cover everything. No, not even close to being comprehensive. Other publications can attempt that task, but it must be difficult—even for those with greater resources and bigger staffs. We haven’t abandoned wine reviews, but we try to spend a little more time (and words?) on fewer entries. We think encyclopedias (or the modern-era digital equivalents) are worthwhile but can’t imagine setting out to create one. Better to narrow the focus and write a column or blog.
When craft beer came along, we began covering new entries in that category. This soon became a Sisyphusean task, too.
Spirits is the third category of alcoholic products that we deal with at Taste Publications, though we’ve never attempted to cover them in any substantial way. I enjoy sprits personally, but claim no expertise in the category and, as editor of the California and Washington editions of Taste, just haven’t time to do them justice. On the other hand, over three decades of judging wines and foods, I have developed my palate somewhat. Friends and colleagues will weigh in with inputs in this area, too.
At this point, we cover some—unfortunately, not all—that we find unusual and intriguing in this latter subset of our publication’s “Drink” category. Whether it’s a devotion to the duty of bringing new and sometimes quirky products to the attention of our readers, or just indulging our own eclectic tastes isn’t completely clear to us. A while back we were contacted by a New York firm representing three whiskies—one from Scotland, a second from India and the third from France. Would we like them to send samples?
Here was an opportunity to broaden our horizons. India? France? Who knew these people made whisky? For that matter, I don’t think I’d ever tasted the Scottish whisky in the trio, The Famous Grouse. Of course, I should let them send samples.
Not having a specific protocol for tasting trios of whiskies, I decided to get to know them slowly and over time. None of these whiskies went into a mixed drink. Each was tasted straight and not over ice. A splash (maybe a tablespoon full) of water was added to each tasting volume of maybe an ounce or ounce-and-a-half of whisky.
It seemed appropriate to use The Famous Grouse (suggested retail $29.99) as a sort-of baseline. I recognized it as a popular blended whisky but didn’t realize that it is the best-selling such product in Scotland. As an occasional, rather than frequent, whisky drinker, I usually opt for something from the more esoteric category of single malts. Whatever buzz the single malts generate, truth is about 80% of Scotland’s whisky is blends. The Famous Grouse seemed a worthy representative. Over the course of several weeks, I became more familiar with it by tasting every few days. After a while, I’d taste a little of the Grouse alongside one of the other bottles. The Famous Grouse showed aspects of spice, dried fruits and, of course, some of that smoky maltiness that is the hallmark of Scotch whisky.
Rampur Indian Single Malt Whisky ($50) was bolder and showed more of those spice and dried fruit qualities, some honey and much more of the smoky/peaty personality. I was surprised that it tasted so much like what I (an admitted non-expert) thought a genuine single malt should be. This is a substantial whisky, not matter where it comes from. The distillery is situated in Rampur, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, and has been making whisky since 1943.
French brandy is well known in this country. Before the state said I was old enough to drink, I experienced Cognac when given sips from my father’s snifter of Courvoisier. Later, this introduction begat legal experimentations with other brands in the category and, still later, I got into Armagnacs. Like most brandies, these liquors from the southwest of France were made from distilled grapes. Whisky, another brown-colored spirit of similar alcoholic strength, is distilled from grains.
Maison Daucourt’s Bastille 1789 ($39.99) is a blended whisky made from malted barley and wheat grown in the northeast of France., also produces a single malt, which was not tasted for this review. The Bastille bottle indicates the distillery is located in Angouleme, a city in the French department of Charente, which includes the commune of Cognac. The family which owns the distillery has a history of producing wine and brandy. Their Master Distiller Jean-Marc Daucourt is said to have worked in a Scottish distillery in his youth and traveled the world in studying whisky-making styles and techniques. The blended Bastille 1789 whisky is 80 proof and has been aged 5-7 years in French Limousin and other, non-specified, oak barrels.
Though our three-whisky tasting was not a competition and all these products were of good quality, it was the Bastille 1789 that stood out. Did it taste exactly like Scotch (or Indian) whisky? Well, not exactly, but more like Scotch than bourbon, thought this (usually wine) reviewer. The aroma, like the taste, was understated. There seemed to be some candied fruit and citrus to the nose, along with some spice—perhaps cinnamon or wisps of nutmeg. In the mouth there was a richness—a full, but not too full, texture. The taste showed an initial sweetness, followed by some more of that spice and subtle smokiness that we’d expect in a Scotch whisky, Tasted just after a strong single malt, the personality of the Bastille probably would be totally overwhelmed. That doesn’t mean it’s insufficient, thought the wine writer, who imagined the pairing of a quality Chardonnay with the shellfish preceding the Cabernet Sauvignon and beef course. The more often your reviewer tasted the Bastille 1789, the more he found to like. There was more to it than first met the eye—or, in this case, the palate. The concept of balance often comes up in the world of wine. Like chefs, winemakers strive to produce a whole greater than the sum of the parts in their complex work. We have no idea what Monsieur Daucourt’s intentions were when crafting this whisky, but we found its appeal continued to grow as we became more familiar with very subtle charms. His Bastille 1789 made us smile
Dan Clarke also enjoys an occasional lusty and peaty whisky. See https://www.tastecaliforniatravel.com/drink/spirits/item/273-bowmore-s-7000-bottle