A Little Christmas Cheer
Here is our irreverant version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas". Meaning no disrespect to author Clement Clarke Moore, we have our own take on this classic holiday poem. Please enjoy this bit of nonsense but do take the moral seriously and drink responsibly this holiday. Season Greetings from Sip Smoke Savor!
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even my spouse
The presents all wrapped, each one chosen with care
Tree ornaments twinkled with great Christmas flair
Preparing myself for the bustle of tomorrow
I poured a few drops of Tobermory
On Dalmore, Bruichladdich, Balvenie, Glenkinchie
Each dram was delicious and went down so quickly
Those cookies for Santa were hastily ingested
No whole milk for me, a Laphroaig's my digestive
Sweet fudge and Glenmorangie make a great pairing
The clock tolls at midnight, I'm really past caring
I should be in bed and getting quite dreamy
Perhaps I should pass on that last shot of "Bunni"
On the roof could be heard a startling sound
Down the chimney slides Santa, I sit there spellbound
He spoke not a word, but his sack he unloads
When finished I offered a dram for the road
He loudly retorts "Just what are you thinking?"
"No Saint in his right mind would drive after drinking"
As he rose up the chimney and out of my sight
I swear that he chuckled: "Merry Christmas to all and to all who are tight!"
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Sipping in Sin City - Best Scotch Bars in Las Vegas
Las Vegas has always done things in a grand fashion and it seems that today that bling just keeps getting brighter. This town has evolved from a mob-ridden and rather seedy past to become a top resort, convention and entertainment destination. In fact it is expected that over 285,000 visitors will have invaded the city for Super Bowl weekend. Fortunately our visit was during the quiet before this proverbial tourist storm. Room rates were decent and balmy weather made our recent February trip exceptionally enjoyable. While we occasionally rolled a few at the craps table there was still plenty of time to stroll the strip in search of the best scotch bars in Las Vegas.
Our single malt safari starts on the southern most end of Las Vegas Boulevard. First stop at Mandalay Bay finds two establishments that are not to be missed.
Chef Michael Mina's flagship steakhouse "StripSteak" receives frequent accolades from top food critics across the nation, it gets our enthusiastic thumbs up for their great scotch collection. Sitting at a bar that is just "too cool for school", you'll have over 120 offerings to choose from. Their selection generously covers every scotch region, palate and price range. StripSteak at Manadalay Bay - lounge opens 4:00 p.m. nightly.
Head through the Casino and out to the shops at Mandalay Place to find one of the most comfortable liquor outposts in the city. Ri Ra is our pick for pub extraordinaire'. Not only does it have that relaxed and familiar feeling, but Ri Ra employs some of the friendliest, most knowledgeable staff in Vegas. As tempting as their book of 80 scotches might have been, it seemed more appropriate to settle in and let Cyril recommend an Irish malt. Sipping on a Bushmills 16 year old, alongside a Redbreast 12 year old was just the ticket to enjoy the amity and ambience. Ri Ra is more neighborhood joint than resort showcase. It is pleasant and unpretentious with one heck-of-a-whiskey collection. Ri Ra in the Shoppes at Mandalay Place. Open M-F 11:00 a.m.
Board the free tram at Mandalay to its last stop at the Excalibar casino. From here its just a brief walk to the MGM Grand and Craft Steak. Tom Colicchio right now is probably the highest profile Chef in America, but his restaurant Craft Steak is on our list for only one reason. It is one of the swankiest places to enjoy a single malt spirit. This beautifully appointed establishment has a much more than respectable scotch and bourbon menu (200). It seems that this "Top Chef" has the highest standards for both food and drink throughout his enterprise. Our only complaint is that we wish their happy hour started just a little earlier. Craft Steak at the MGM Grand. Lounge opens everyday at 5:30 p.m.
A great steak paired with amazing scotches in a stylish setting. Do you sense a pattern here? If this suits your fancy, don't leave Vegas without a stop at CUT in the Palazzo Resort and Casino. Here you'll find a well curated, albeit smaller 50+ selection of single malts in this suave 60 seat lounge attached to Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse restaurant. What CUT lacks in quantity it makes up in quality, listing more independent bottlers and unusual cask finishes. Their whisky program is thoughtful and well priced. Its clear the bar manager really knows her stuff. CUT in the Palazzo Resort and Casino. Bar opens nightly at 5:00 p.m.
If you fall into the category of whiskey fanatic, then grab a cab and get yourself over to the Freakin Frog. This college dive bar practically borders the UNLV campus and is owned by Adam Carmer, a part-time professor of beer and wine in the Hospitality program at UNLV. Adam practices what he preaches and his beer offerings are impressive, but the upstairs attic holds a real whiskey treasure. Hidden out of general sight is probably one of the most extensive collections of scotch and other quality whiskies on the planet (600). What the Freakin Frog lacks in ambience, Adam makes up for in knowledge and sheer passion. When you visit, call ahead to make sure he is there or you will miss the real experience and education. Freakin Frog, 4700 S. Maryland Parkway, 702-217-6794. Open every day at 2:00 p.m.
Andres at the Monte Carlo has just started a series of whisk(e)y tastings called Whiskey Wednesdays. On the 1st Wednesday of every other month, there will be unlimited samplings of selected spirits in their lounge from 9:00 p.m. til 11:00 p.m. So get over there, you local aficionados and report back! Tickets are $25.00 with reservation or $35.00 at the door. A bonus feature is that you can walk over and enjoy a cigar with your dram in their adjacent Cigar & Cognac Lounge. Their March event will feature Irish whiskies. Please call for more information on their subsequent future tastings. Andres at the Monte Carlo.
If we missed a great scotch bar in Las Vegas, please let us know in the comments section below so that we may add it to our growing directory of bars on this website.
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Reflections on 2011 - The Whisky Year Past
Filled with optimism and fresh resolve at the start of each New Year, it is fun to take a look back at the significant events and trends that shaped the year past. So with a glass of Old Pulteney 21 year old in hand, we reflect on 2011, which turned out to be a pretty good year for whisky.
While global financial uncertainties clouded the horizon, the "economics of whisky" was on a steady and positive path. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, exports of Scotland's finest soared by 22% in the first six months of 2011. The strongest sales were in Asia increasing by 33%. It seems that scotch, along with golf and cashmere, is becoming THE new status symbol of a growing class of upwardly mobile Chinese.
The United States contributed healthy sales growth of 14%, with single malt purchases at an all time high - reaching nearly 1 million cases annually. This seemed to buck the general trend of stiff consumer resistance to high prices in other liquor categories. According to Impact Databank, The Glenlivet has the number one spot in our scotch cabinets, while The Macallan and Glenfiddich were closely matched at second place.
Consistent rumors of the demise of blended scotch were again proven to be greatly exaggerated. While interest in single malts clearly continues to grow, Blendeds held on to their 95% share of worldwide consumption of scotch. Expert Jim Murray took a further poke at single malt brands by declaring that Ballantine 17 year old blended was not only the best scotch, but the "Best Whiskey in the World." Ballantine beat out thousands of malt, bourbon and other whiskey entries for this title in his 2011 edition of The Whisky Bible.
There was one blended scotch however, whose publicity eclipsed all others. The story begins in 2010 when the media was consumed with the finding of a case of MacKinlay whisky abandoned by adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Buried in the Antarctic for 100 years, this discovery was the marketing gift that kept on giving, especially when the distillery who now owns the MacKinlay brand, decided to replicate this now infamous scotch. The task fell to Master Blender Richard Paterson from Wythe & Mackay, who nosed and married various whisky stocks before releasing said reproduction to much fanfare in 2011. MacKinlay Rare Old Highland Malt in a run of 50,000 bottles garnered pretty good critic reviews and is now fairly widely available. If you missed the PBS TV special by National Geographic that documented the replication process, pour yourself a tipple and enjoy these shorter videos that tell part of this wonderful tale:
1. Whiskey Find of the Century (Click here)
2. MacKinlay's Whiskey Recipe (Click here)
Aficionados and collectors had much to swoon over in 2011. In April, The Macallan released its "Royal Wedding" commemorative bottling just in time to celebrate the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. This highly rated scotch was considered a pure bargain and with only 1,000 bottles available it nearly doubled on e-Bay the week it was released. That same month Glenmorangie announced their rarest expression to date "Pride 1981" . This exceptional 28 year old expression was extra-matured in Chateau d'Yquem barriques and retails for $3,600. Certainly showing that age matters, Bowmore released its 40 year old, (said to be Bowmore at its best) proudly sporting an $11,000 price tag. But topping the premium charts in 2011 was touted to be the oldest whisky in the world. Independents Gordon and MacPhail released their "Generations: The Glenlivet 70 year old". This tear drop shaped, hand-blown crystal decanter, nestled in a sterling base can be yours for $21,000. But hurry, supplies are limited.
While it is clear that price climbs in proportion to the age of an expression, whoever thought that the age of the person for whom it was bottled, would be a factor? Just ask super-centenarian Janet Sheed Roberts. The 1955 Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve fetched a whopping $72,630 at auction in December. It was bottled to commemorate "Wee Janie's" 110th birthday. She is the oldest living person in Scotland, and just happens to be a member of the Grant family who lives next door to the Glenfiddich distillery. This was one of eleven bottles available for the public and all the proceeds were donated to charity from this auction. We wish Janie "Many More"!
Other distilleries marking important milestones were Glenfarclas celebrating its 175th anniversary and on the other end of the scale, Bruichladdich who completed their 10th year under new management. Richard Paterson, Master Blender of Wythe & Mackay, passed his 40th year in the industry. John Hansell and Amy Westlake, celebrated the 20th anniversary of Malt Advocate magazine (now called The Whisky Advocate). In November, Serge Valentin completed his 7,500th tasting notes for popular website www.Whiskyfun.com.
More personal congrats are in order for our friends who received the recognition they deserve:
- Steve Beal, Senior Master of Whisky for Diageo was bestowed the honor of Keeper of The Quaich, a title reserved only for whisky's elite.
- Laphroaig's own Simon Brooking was awarded Whisky Magazine's 2011 Ambassador of the Year Award
- Diageo veteran ambassador and Master Distiller Emeritus Evan Cattanach, received a Lifetime Achievement Icons of Whisky award from Whisky Magazine
- Charles Joly, master mixologist from the Drawing Room in Chicago, won the Auchentoshan Switch Bartender Challenge and is headed "across the pond" at the time of this posting.
While auctions, awards and anniversaries are rather discrete events to pinpoint, prevailing flavor trends were a little more elusive and harder to summarize for 2011. It was however noticeable that the peat wars seemed to have somewhat subsided as new expressions were displaying more depth of flavor alongside their generous dose of smoke. At the end of the year, Old Pulteney 21 year old, hit the shelves at a reasonable price only to fall quickly out of stock once Jim Murray crowned it the World's Best Whiskey for 2012. Amrut delivered a wonderful port finished expression in late December, that we hope to soon sample and Dalmore released another excellent cigar malt which we have yet to see on shelves in the U.S..
Cocktails continued their "carefully crafted" trend with all manner of infused scotches moving towards the herbal and savory. Mixologists have literally become liquid chefs, creating their own bitters, syrups and tinctures. And it seems that a page from Scotch Maturation 101 had been stolen, with the sudden rage for barrel aged cocktails.
On the food front, scotch along with other liquors made progress in becoming known as an essential "food" ingredient, as products containing whisky/whiskey reach an all time high at the Fancy Food Festival last year.
Finally, on November 23rd, it became illegal for distilleries to use the term "Vatted" to describe Scotch made from the combination of two or more single malts. This style will now have to be labelled as Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, a dictate that was determined by UK Parliament in 2009 but didn't go into effect until 2011. John Glaser of Compass Box seized the opportunity to bottle the "Last Vatted Malt" at 11:59 p.m. the night of Tuesday, November 23rd. I guess that's no stranger than starting out the new year 2012 with "Whisky in a Can"?
Any significant trends we missed? Would love your feedback.
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Serendipity and the Fine Art of Matching Cigars and Scotch
Looking for that Dram good match with your favorite stogie? Here are a few tips to guide you in your pursuit of the perfect pairing.
Begin with the wrapper, a cigar's most visible characteristic
A cigar is constructed of several types of tobacco leaves, filler tobacco held together with binder tobacco, and covered with wrapper leaf. And though the experience of smoking a cigar is truly created by the sum of all of its parts, it is commonly regarded that the wrapper imparts 50-60% or more of the cigar's flavor.
In terms of flavor, the binder tobacco presents the least amount, as these tobaccos are selected for their elasticity and their ability to hold together the bunches of fillers, and not for their taste.
It is obvious when looking at a cigar, that besides the wrapper, the other major component is the filler. Fillers of various strengths are usually blended to produce desired cigar flavors. Many cigar manufacturers pride themselves in constructing the perfect blend that will give the smoker the most enjoyment. Fatter cigars of larger gauge hold more filler, with greater potential to provide a full body and complex flavor. However, this effect can be diminished because of the generally poorer burn characteristics of thicker cigars, and the fact that these cigars burn cooler. This can prevent the full spectrum of flavors from being easily detected. It is also difficult to identify the types of tobacco used for filler, as the only visible area is the small amount that is exposed at the foot of the cigar.
Therefore, in order to select a cigar for pairing, it is easier to begin based upon the most visible characteristic, and that is the wrapper.
In the cigar world, there are over 100 wrapper shades identified by manufacturers, but the most common classifications are as follows, from lightest to darkest. We also include some specific tobacco types in the color classifications for their well known flavor characteristics.
Claro Claro / Double Claro or American Market Standard Wrappers (AMS)
A Double Claro is the lightest cigar wrapper color. It has a slightly greenish tint, a fresh leafy aroma and may be fire-cured. The light green color comes from the tobacco being picked early, before maturity, then being dried quickly. This ensures that the chlorophyll content of the leaves is retained, giving the wrapper its color. This wrapper has a mild quality and the taste of the binder and filler are discernible. Tastes associated with these wrappers typically include grass, cedar, and pepper with a little bit of sweetness. Once popular in the United States, they are out of favor with today's tastes due to their off-color and tendency to have a sour characteristic. They are also sometimes referred to as Candela or Jade.
Claro or English Market Standard Wrappers (EMS)
The English Market Standard has roots that go back to the 19th century and is the benchmark for most cigar wrappers manufactured today. The term English Market Selection refers to the designated quality for the UK market. It includes the wrapper colors Claro, Colorado and Natural (in ascending order from lighter to darker). Wrappers in this group are grown in Cuba, Cameroon and Connecticut.
Claro cigars are light tan or brown, and may have a yellowish or greenish tint. The color is achieved by growing the tobacco plants in a shaded location to full maturity. Claro wrappers have a smooth, noticeable taste of their own, are silky in texture, but do not disguise the flavor of the binder and filler tobaccos. Many fine Cuban cigars use this type of wrapper.
- Connecticut wrappers fall within this type. They are usually shade-grown from Connecticut seed either in the US, Honduras or Ecuador. Shade-grown refers to the process of being grown under giant sheets of cheesecloth, which keeps the leaves from being exposed to too much sunlight; this ensures that they have a milder flavor. Depending on how long they are aged, their tasting notes can include grass, cream, butter, black or white pepper, coffee, cedar, and many others. Many Connecticut wrappers give a cigar a spicy, ammoniac aroma, and this is due to the fact that tobacco leaves naturally contain a lot of ammonia. The aging process removes some of this ammonia, though lighter wrappers generally tend to be a bit peppery. Connecticut wrappers tend to have a bit more of a “dry” taste than darker wrappers, as they usually don’t have very high sugar content.
- Colorado Claro wrappers are darker than a Claro and typically have a reddish hue to them. Stronger than the Claro or Natural wrappers, they have similar flavor notes and sometimes a nutty, spiciness.
- A Colorado wrapper may also be called Rosado or Corojo, and has a reddish-brown color. The tobacco leaf is very aromatic and has an oily texture. The flavors from this wrapper range from earthy to coffee to vanilla, sweet and spicy flavor.
- Slightly confusing is that there is also a tobacco called Corojo, but in terms of wrapper color it would be considered a Colorado. Corojo tobacco was originally grown in the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba, but many tobacco farmers took seed during their mass-exodus. Now Corojo tobacco is principally grown in the Jamastran region of Honduras. Corojo wrappers have a spicy robust taste with flavors of earth, leather, cocoa, cedar and black pepper. The wrapper leaves are very oily and reddish-brown, but can be dark enough to be mistaken for Maduro.
- Criollo tobacco also fits into this color range. Slightly milder than Corojo wrappers, flavors associated with Criollo wrappers are cocoa, bread, nuts, cedar and a bit of sweetness. They may also present a bit of pepper in the flavor profile. Criollo tobacco's use in cigars may date back as far as the late 1400's, but most leaves used at present are hybrid strains developed to be disease-resistant.
- Technically also a Colorado wrapper, a Rosado has a distinct reddish coloring. Rosado means “rosy” or “reddish” in Spanish. Extremely difficult to grow outside of Cuba, only a handful of companies produce this leaf, making Rosado cigars rare and highly sought after. Typically, these cigars are very spicy with notes of cedar, coffee, earth, and pepper.
The darkest of the EMS classification, the Natural wrapper is a light brown color, the natural color of tobacco grown in the full sun. Natural wrappers are typically a bit darker than Connecticut wrappers due to the fact that they are more mature when picked, and are sometimes not shade grown. These tend to be just a bit sweeter with a fuller spice profile and some additional notes of cedar, coffee, bread, and sometimes earth.Within this classification are also Sumatran, Cameroon and Habano tobacco wrappers.
- Sumatran wrappers originally were grown on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and typically carry a milder, more neutral flavor. They are dark brown and include cinnamon, earth, floral notes and a sweet aftertaste and aroma. Sumatran seed is also being grown in Honduras and Ecuador.
- Cameroon wrappers originated in Cameroon, Africa and are darker brown. Their leaves are recognizable by their grain or toothiness. Delicate and not very oily, these wrappers are rich tasting and very smooth with flavors of butter, toast, leather and pepper.
- Habano wrappers are seeing a recent rise in popularity. These leaves tend to be the darkest of the range bit, and are by far the spiciest. Habano refers not only to the fact that it’s generally grown from Cuban seed, but also to the fact that its spice level is comparable to that of a Cuban cigar. They can be grown in several countries, though a popular choice is Nicaragua, as the soil content there is conducive to producing some very strong leaves. Flavors include bread, intense spice, leather, cocoa, espresso, and cedar.
The Spanish word for “ripe”, Maduro is a very apt description for the darkest of the wrapper colors. Tobacco for these wrappers are typically sun-grown in Connecticut, Honduras, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Brazil. Though the wrapper is thick and veiny, a well crafted one will have a texture like velvet. Wrappers are also typically oily, exhibit an earthy scent and are very dark with rich, sweet flavors and aromas.There are several sub-categories of Maduro, as shown below:
- The Colorado Maduro wrapper is a dark brown wrapper still exhibiting a hint of red in it. The darker color comes from sun ripening. Like the regular Colorado this wrapper also has a full bodied flavor that offer up a tasty blend of flavors. This wrapper color is sometimes called Dark English Market Selection.
- The Maduro wrapper is very dark brown and is from time to time referred to as a Spanish Market Selection. The dark color comes from extra sun ripening and higher temperature fermentation. Due to this lengthy process Maduro cigars are somewhat rarer. The Maduro wrapper imparts a full bodied, rich and spicy, flavor. Tasting notes typically include dark chocolate, coffee, espresso, brown sugar, caramel, molasses, black pepper, dried fruit, and black cherry.
- The Oscuro wrapper is an oily black. It is processed much like the Maduro but carried out even further. In fact, it’s sometimes called a Double Maduro or Maduro Maduro. Flavors of Oscuro-wrapped cigars include many of the same ones as Maduro-wrapped, with a bit of added strength and sweetness.
Body is as critical as flavor when trying to determine a successful smoke and sip match.
Rich, full bodied cigars typically require a bold and mature spirit to ensure a good marriage. It is vital not to overwhelm the spirit with the cigar or vice versa. Look to medium bodied cigars as great partners for subtle more elegant drams. Mild and creamy brands tend to be more compatible with lighter, sweeter spirits.
Flavor matching is more serendipitous than scientific.
Just as each scotch expression unveils different notes from first sip to finish, a fine cigar goes through successive stages of flavor development from cold draw to final third. Spend a little time upfront with tasting notes to avoid a discouraging first experience. Then just experiment. While matching takes some patience, it becomes easier over time with a truly decadent experience as your ultimate reward.
Here are a couple of tips we can share from our experience.
- Bourbon and rum cask matured drams are the easiest to pair with cigars. Vanilla, oak and spices notes tend to find matching flavors with smokes of medium and dark wrapper varieties. A light whisky like the Bunnahabhain 12 year old goes well with a Davidoff Millenium Blend, but also can stand up to a Camacho Select 19th Anniversary. The Balvenie 17 year old Rum Cask is fabulous with a Casa Magna Colorado cigar perfectly defining the vanilla, caramel and spices in both cigar and whisky.
- Medium and dark wrapper cigars also complement Port, Madeira and Bordeaux cask finished single malts, working well with those rich deep dried fruit flavors. The Balvenie 21 year old Portwood and the Ashton VSG are a luxurious combination of earthy, spicy, chocolately flavors. While the Bruichladdich Chateaux Haut-Brion dazzles with a La Aurora Serie 107 Anniversario.
- Sherried drams are often difficult to pair due to the wide variety of flavors and propensity to be very fruity. Look for the darker sherried malts to pair well with dark wrapper cigars. Generally the darker malts go with dark wrapper cigars such as a Glenfarclas 17 year old with a Joya de Nicaragua Antono 1970. A whisky like Auchentoshan 21 year old can easily match the complex flavors of a Partagas Benji Menendez cigar. A lighter whisky like a Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or does well with a lighter cigar like a Rocky Patel Vintage 1999.
- Peaty drams require a strong cigar, such as a maduro to stand up to the power of these whiskies. Maduros typically pull forward more of the creamy, vanilla, chocolate and coffee flavors present in the malt plus the smoke is denser due to the oilier wrapping leaves. Try the classic Ardbeg Uigeadail with a cigar like the Joya de Nicaragua Antano 1970 or an Alec Bradley Prensado to see how this works.
- Briny, medicinal spirits are the hardest to flavor match based on wrapper alone. A peppery cigar often proves to be a good alternate choice. Talisker 10 year old is easily matched with an Ashton San Cristobal or CAO Brazilia Lambada. But in contrast, Lagavulin 16 year old is an amazing partner with a Padron 1964 Anniversary Maduro.
It all comes down to personal preference and palate. A basic understanding of the flavors associated with cigars and single malts will go a long way to making your experimentation more successful. Use this guide but don't be afraid to try something new.
Most of all enjoy the journey!
Illustration 1: Cigar Wrapper Color Chart by RMR Cigar
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