Cocktails and COVID

I will confess that I’m missing bartending at Number Ten and helping guests expand their cocktail experiences by trying some drink they’ve never had, or, of course, just doing the best job I can for those whose choices are firmly predetermined.  There are people who know what they like, and there are people who love to find out what else they might like, and thus turns the world.

Except, of course, the world isn’t turning in any usual way, and it has been six weeks since my last shift at Number Ten, and I’d guess there be many more weeks yet before we figure out the all-clear.

Despite my interest and practice around American whiskey and classic cocktails, I don’t drink much—in fact, a typical wisecrack I’ll make is that I don’t drink nearly enough.  Existing in the twilight of social distancing, this may hold ever truer.

And I haven’t mixed a lot of cocktails—some Martini here and there, some lime juice-based drinks, too—and my go-to drink in my particular shelter from the coronavirus storm is a bourbon or a rye, but even here the consumption is modest, where a second glass is rare, although I might have a beer or glass of wine with dinner, too, since cooking nice dinners at a time like this seems to be important, just like shaving regularly and wearing a jacket and tie.  If Facebook comments are any reliable indicator, most people seem inclined toward pajamas, but I always like how a jacket and tie helps me feel alert and make cocktails taste their very best.

As many of my friends know, I’ve built up quite a nice liquor shelf over the years, and this includes—or should I say in some cases, included—about three dozen American whiskeys, with various levels, from unopened (one or two) to nearly empty.  I’ve been going through this stock, I’ll admit.

And what stock it is!  Of late, the dead soldier rolls include Litchfield Distillery’s Batchers’ Double-Barrel Bourbon 10 Year, Orphan Barrel’s Barterhouse, a 20 Year Bourbon, and Whistle Pig’s 10 Year Straight Rye whiskey.  There are others as yet not drained, but these three are all excellent whiskey stories.

Sheltering in place, or whatever this strange time is called, I’ve been “cleaning” up my whiskey by finishing up opened bottles. Three of these recently finished selections are Orphan Barrel Barterhouse 10 Year Bourbon, Litchfield Distillery Batchers Double Barreled 10 Year Bourbon, and Whistlepig’s 10 Year Rye.

Litchfield Distillery is thirty-something miles from my home, across the border into Connecticut, in, no surprise, Litchfield County. This operation started a few years back, and it is quite the operation, including special order barrels that may well be from wood harvested and aged locally.  The distillery is like a lot of other young and small operations, making gin and vodka as well as whiskey, and who can blame them—whiskey takes a long time to age in barrels, while vodka and gin are ready as soon as distilled or soon enough after whatever process(es) are used for botanicals, in the case of gin. New businesses tend to be hard-pressed for cash flow, and vodka and gin can make the cash flow almost out of the gate.

Not so for bourbon and rye, especially if one wants to produce a good bourbon or rye.  And yet, despite being a fairly young distillery, Litchfield Distillery’s Batchers’ Double-Barrel Bourbon 10 Year is an excellent bourbon.  And that is because this bottling is sourced, which means that someone from the distillery bought the stuff from another distillery, and so acting as a Non-Distiller Producer (NDP).

This is actually rather common, especially for young distilleries, although some of the big boys do this too, with a soon-to-be-outdated example being Bulliet Rye, which is made by Midwest Grain Products (MGP), in Indiana, in what was once the huge Seagrams Distillery. A lot of the all-rye rye whiskey (well, 95% rye grain in the mashbill, along with a balance of barley grain, which holds enzymes that jumpstart fermentation) comes from MGP.  (Bulliet has built its own distillery and reportedly in making its own whiskey, but whether any of this non-sourced liquor is yet on shelves is beyond my knowledge.)

But back to Litchfield Distillery and the bottle of their bourbon I recently finished off: This is a great bourbon.  The company found a great batch somewhere, bought it, brought it to Connecticut, took it out of the original barrels, and put the bourbon back into their own barrels, and let these barrels age more in Litchfield Distillery’s very fancy modern rickhouse. I don’t know how much time the second barreling was given, and if the bourbon was already great and already ten years old, the second barreling might have been very short.

Litchfield Distillery products are still hard enough to find, even this close to the place, and I’m pretty sure that the Double-Barrel Ten Year is now hard to find anywhere.  The bottle I just finished off was a gift (Thanks, Gabby!) and I’d been nursing it, regretting, in anticipation, its emptying.  But even though bourbon is a stable liquor, and even though I store my liquors well, it was time.  I got two glasses—over two evenings—out of the already well-consumed bottle, serving the whiskey with a big block of ice.

Next up is Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distillery Co.’s Barterhouse, which was a gift from an old friend who I might have helped learn a thing or two about bourbon and a thing or two about cocktails, although he owes me nothing as far as I’m concerned, since he’s been a great guide about Jazz and other music I’d been embarrassingly ignorant about for far too long. Well, first off, the best thing about Orphan Barrel is a two-part answer: a) the company is another NDP, and b) the company has just about the most honest approach to what they do, because their name says it all. An “orphan lot” is a bunch of barreled whiskey that somehow gets put aside, or some contract falls through, or maybe someone in charge of a rickhouse or two just up and got confused and the lot often gets ignored for quite a while, and then, thanks to the Bourbon Craze, a company like Orphan Barrel comes along and finds, buys, and bottles it under their own brand.

The history of this company is an interesting one, in that they currently have six available bottlings, and when I checked Barterhouse is still listed as available, but back when the company was young, the bottle ran somewhere in the $50s range, but now I’ve seen it listed for around $300, which, come to think of it, may explain why this tasty whiskey still has some bottles for purchase. The other active bottlings from Orphan Barrel can now be as expensive or more expensive.  To be honest, I’ve seen Barterhouse recently at under $90, and if you look hard and have luck, you might too, and if you are looking for a special gift, Barterhouse is a very tasty 20 Year and a good enough deal at that price. But the value proposition, as they say in market-speak, is downright untenable at $300; this is very good bourbon, but it will neither make you pretty nor immortal, and beingtoo high-priced really doesn’t make it taste any better.

The price increases are due to what’s going on in the orphan lot world, where there are many more small distilleries coming online that want a showcase whiskey while their own distillates age, and as the Bourbon Craze continues to be a very active market, most distilleries are managing their inventory a lot better and turning out their own Single Barrel and Small Batch expressions instead of selling off what used to be surplus.  At this stage, I won’t buy Orphan Barrel, mainly because they’ve been priced out of the market, where great old lots are too expensive and thus Orphan Barrel’s bottlings are too expensive.

Too bad, and hat’s off to the company’s whiskey finders/selectors and their solid taste, and I certainly enjoyed the glasses of Barterhouse, and—in an attempt to buy my way into heaven, quite possibly—I even poured a glass for another friend. Now Barterhouse is gone.

Fortunately, there are other good and great whiskeys for me to use up while laying low, hiding from COVID. The final bottle discussed here is pretty well known these days: Whistlepig 10 Year Straight Rye. This is the rye that was a big part of bringing rye to the fore, and its story is good, and yet another orphan lot.  The Canadians are known for their rye whiskey—different rye, often, and differing processing, but these ryes can be good, and if aged and made well enough, these ryes can be great. (Mind you, I’m not typically a fan of Canadian rye, often because it is blended with grain alcohol, but there are “Straight” bottlings.)

Whistlepig is a Vermont-based small (now getting bigger!) distillery that got its hands on old straight rye out of the Alberta Distillery, which is now described by some Whiskey Wags as the MGP of the North. Whistlepig bottled the rye and the rye was great, awards started flying, and so did demand—and price.

Now I can’t prove it, but the second bottle of Whistlepig I bought, after it had become very popular, seemed to carry more traditional Canadian rye flavor, by which I mean more like Canadian Club than the original Whistlepig, and my guess is that Whistlepig wanted to keep up with sales and started blending the original lot down, or maybe a later lot, while still a 10 Year Straight, was simply not as good, but whatever the reason, the consequence was that it put me off the brand for quite a while.  Not long ago, I got a new bottle (maybe another gift, but I’m hard-pressed to recall that accurately, or the giver, ingrate that I am) and the rye is very good again. And Whistlepig got its own distillery operation going in 2015 and in another five years they’ll likely have their very own 10 Year Rye ready to bottle.  In fact, it could be that their 6 Year PiggyBack Rye is all their own, as some distillers seem to count the years in their own ways, but I doubt it, and guess that this is simply younger rye from Alberta Distillers.

All I really know is that 5 or 6 years is just about enough time to age rye into submission, as younger ryes—especially those given less than a year or two or even three can be spunky, or, if you are polite, “herbaceous.”  But that’s a subject for another post.

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