American Whiskies: Hard to Keep Up

The explosion of American Whiskies is being written about and discussed at every turn. On a recent trip to Texas I saw at least three highway billboards during the three hour drive between Houston and Austin advertising a local distillery. Yes, hard to keep up. As a whisky enthusiast, the thrill is in the hunt, the tasting and the sharing. So, as I pick up new bottles here and there, conjuring up whisk(e)y tastings for friends starts percolating. Should the American tasting be focused exclusively on bourbons, single malts, ryes, blue corn? The list feels endless. Oh the fun yet to be had!

I had a dentist appointment this week, which means to those who follow me, a whisky tasting after all the drilling and cleaning has been completed. On his own Dr. Paul doesn’t usually stray too far from single malt scotch, in which I find no fault. Yet, he is always open to trying something new from my stash (smart man); and I can’t drink it all. For this week, I selected American Whiskies as the theme….in an attempt to keep up with the trends all the while pretending to be hip. (Do people still say “hip”?)

The willing accomplice. Don’t look…plastic cups!


The bottles chosen for this “event” are not rare nor priced over $100 each. As it turns out my copy of the summer issue of Whisky Advocate arrived the day before the tasting. There is an interesting article written by Jake Emen called “The Rise of the American Single Malt.” Perfect timing! I immediately switched out one whisky on my list with one mentioned in the article and packed the magazine in my not-so-discrete carrying case.

Dr. Paul brought in two bottles: a Highland Park 18 YO and an Irish Yellow Spot 12 YO. I arranged the now six bottles in the order of tasting and the serious business of imbibing at 12:30 pm on a Tuesday began in earnest. Naturally, somewhat through the tasting Dr. Paul’s wife called knowing he was working only a half day. We have never met but she has long since been resigned to the fact that twice a year there is whisky and women in the office. Well, this time we spoke and I encouraged her to join us sometime and partake in all the foolishness.  She laughed and said, “I don’t drink whisky and I see Paul acting foolish every day.” With that, we got back to business.

My ranking system is simple: 1=don’t buy, don’t drink  2=fair, middle of the road 3=good, very good-buy it 4=OMG, must have at any cost (well almost any cost)

Yellow Spot a sweet and gentle precursor



The let’s get warmed up dram was the Irish Yellow Spot. I have a bottle of one of the Green Spot expressions but this was a first taste for me with the Yellow. Yup, it is Irish…light and spicy, easy to please, good to have around during the warmer months as opposed for the dead of New England winter. I rank this a strong 2+, can’t quite give it a 3-, personal preference wins out over objectivity.

Young yet


First up was a local single malt distilled by Ryan & Wood in Gloucester, MA. “The single malt starts off with a hint of sweet and finishes with a touch of grain. It is light and feathery and makes a nice summer dram.” This is what I wrote a few months back after a visit to the distillery and sampling several of their products. After tasting this week I am modifying my opinion a bit…while it might work in a cocktail, on its own it is too mild for me and a bit off putting with a cardboard like finish. Somehow the grain finish didn’t come forth for me this time. I rank it a 2- at best.

I wonder who else ranks these Americans equally high


Next up was the well respected Clear Creek Distillery’s McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt. I admit to not being impressed with this whiskey when I first tasted it in 2010. Let’s just say I have grown in understanding more of the nuances of whisky. There is a subtle sense of the peat on the nose, a touch of peach on the palate and a sprinkle of ash in the finish. I would certainly go back for seconds this time around! I rank it a 3-.

Not to be undone by a fellow West Coast whiskey, the McCarthy’s was followed by a Washington state Westland Peated Single Malt. This one is fruitier on the nose, perhaps pear. A tip-toe of peat and sherry on the palate and a smooth and lingering smoky grain on the finish. Hmm, the two West Coast editions are neck and neck here. I am leaning towards the Westland. I rank this a proud 3-.

We stopped at this point, I spoke to the wife, as mentioned above, and we chatted for a while before cracking the Highland 18 YO. I have tasted this bottle before, and I am not a genuine fan but can appreciate its appeal. All my previous notes call it a “middle of the road” whisky. That is not a bad thing. You know what I rank this one.

Brimstone such a fitting name


Finally it was time for the extra kick during the business of tasting in a dentist’s office! I pulled out the Texas Balcones Brimstone.  I wrote about this last month and exclaimed, “it has changed my life.”  No, it is not everyone’s idea of a whisky. For me it is a blast of excitement, unabashed whimsy, popcorn and campfires in an old Western movie that has gone from black and white to full glorious color. Dr. Paul agrees.  I have won another over to the new American Whisky side. And, yes, Balcones spells it “whisky.” I rank it a 4 out of 4 – a rare rank from this fussy old bird.

American whiskies are proving to be carving out a sometimes bumpy and sometimes thrilling new path for those of us on a whisk(e)y journey. My walking shoes are always ready as I try to keep up the pace.

A couple of hours had passed, another whisky tasting adventure wrapped up and an appointment set for the end of 2016. I believe the theme will be independent bottlers. Yum.

I raise a glass to whisky. ‘Nuf said.



Too Young to Retire So Lets Make Whiskey!

A new sense of spirit has swept across the land, here and abroad. The spirit of ingenuity, entrepreneurial visions, thinking local, sourcing local is bursting forth. Brave and bold people are creating small businesses focused on brewing and distilling at a record pace. We the consumer are benefiting from all these new products. Naturally, over time, there will be a shake down and some will fail or choose to close, some will continue to thrive independently, some will succeed and be bought out by conglomerates. All the while we get to sample, sip, and slurp.

Owners Kathy and bob Ryan
Owners Kathy and Bob Ryan

I visited a local distillery this past week, Ryan and Wood of Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Their products include a rye whiskey, a single malt whiskey,  Folly Cove rum, Beauport vodka and Knockabout gin. Kathy Ryan, owner with husband Bob, spent more than two hours with me talking about how they entered the world of distilling, their learning curve, and how the company trudged through the federal and local requirements. Additionally, the tour alone was jammed packed with information not only about their company operations but the impact local history has on their mission and vision. I did try the rye and single malt at the end of the tour! Tasting notes at the end of this article.

The following is a synopsis of my interview with Kathy and Bob:

Why did you start Ryan and Wood Distillery?

K. We were in the fish processing business here in Gloucester. We were well aware that  overfishing, ever changing federal and state regulations and other fishing concerns were making the fishing industry difficult; it made sense to sell. We were too young to retire so we had to do something.  There is a long history of distilling in Massachusetts – the rum trade of our forefathers, breweries, distilleries. Ethanol was produced here during Prohibition for munitions, and there was an active illegal running of alcohol right here on Folly Beach. Folly has deep water and a sandy beach, perfect for unloading banned liquor and making a dash back out to sea.We wanted to do something again in Gloucester. We knew distilling could be done here.

What did you know about distilling when you decided to enter this field?

B. We were a blank slate in 2006 when we began the process.

K. We knew nothing related to distilling. We went to a workshop in Arizona sponsored by Arnold Holstein, the German makers of our still. We visited Kentucky. We brought in the 70ish year old son of the family who produced Appleton Estate Rum to guide us in our rum production.

Arnold Holstein 600 liter alembic copper pot still
Custom fabricated Arnold Holstein 600 liter alembic copper pot still

Weren’t you brave and bold!

K. It took us almost two years to actually start production. It gave us lots of time to do research. The still took one year to build. The licenses took eleven months. Recipes had to be approved, labels had to be approved, background checks had to be completed to make sure we weren’t felons nor potential terrorists.  The government took this quite seriously. Some of the bureaucracy has changed but recently a Massachusetts Distillers Alliance was formed with fourteen members so we can have one strong voice when discussing what is best for our small business industry.

Tell me about your rye whiskey.  It was the first one I tried about four years ago.

K. Rye has a long history in America and it is popular again. Our rye whiskey is aged over two years in new American White Oak barrels. We use up to 80% rye, along with wheat and barley. As with all of our products, the production is cyclical and not really seasonal. It makes a great Manhattan, Old Fashion or Sazarac, but I usually sip it neat.


And you now have a single malt whiskey?

K. Yes, our single malt is made using malted barley from Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts. As our label states, “The barrels are then matured under the influence of Cape Ann’s unique coastal climate.” Our single malt is bottled at 80 proof while our rye whiskey is bottled at 86 proof. For both our whiskies we use spring water, our other products use distilled water. We have a wheated whiskey coming out sometime in the next year – we are waiting for it to reach the right level of maturation to be called a Ryan and Wood.

Tell me about the Jack Daniel’s barrels.

K. We were fortunate to know someone, who knew someone who could set up the transactions. We are so small that this would not have happened otherwise. We receive used Jack Daniels barrels and our rum spends some time in the barrels before being finished off in new American White Oak barrels. An interesting side note, a local restaurant, the Blue Ox in Lynn MA, purchases our used chopped up barrels to aid in the smoking of their filet mignon steaks. Our products are used in some of their cocktails.

I have had their cocktails and the smoked steak – absolutely fabulous. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it!

Bob, any last words that you would like to add?

B.  I read the very old book “The Compleat Distiller” when we were first starting out.  It was a very helpful book.  The other thing is, not everybody is in it to make a good product. for some it is about profits.

K. We are only in Massachusetts for now and we have just brought on a distributer, Ruby Wines. We don’t want to become huge.  Our children and grand children will benefit from our company over the long term, we are building the business and paying off the loans.

B. Our son, Doug, works here full time. He went to school to be a lawyer. On a sad note, David Wood, Kathy’s nephew, was our original back-up person to run the company, if anything happened to us.  David, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. Doug is now here.


Ryan and Wood Distillery is a small shop but they have wonderful products and the desire to live and work and support the community. I applaud their commitment to being “local” and for creating products that meet their high standards without being concerned about the conglomerates. Do spend some time looking at their web site. Try their whiskies when you can!

Tasting notes: The single malt starts off with a hint of sweet and finishes with a touch of grain. It is light and feathery and makes a nice summer dram.  The rye is also on the light side with a hint of spice.  I like to make an Old Fashion with it.

The shiny door for the beautiful Holstein still
The shiny door for the beautiful Holstein still