Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, February 27, 2023

As American as I. W. Bernheim

The story of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim is, in many ways, a familiar one.  In 1867, he left Germany for America in search of a better life.  He had 4 dollars to his name, but was rich with drive and determination.

Like most immigrant stories, the early days weren’t easy.  He started off as a travelling salesmen in Pennsylvania, but that came to an abrupt end when his horse unexpectedly died.  Unfazed, he made his way to Kentucky, where he found work as a bookkeeper for a distillery.  He was good with money, and eventually saved enough to bring his brother over from Germany.  Together, they started a distillery with the help of a silent partner.  In the early 1870s, the Bernheim brothers launched I. W. Harper.  I. W. is short for Isaac Wolfe.  As for the Harper part, well, that’s an interesting story.

Antisemitism didn’t start with the Nazis, it’s been around for centuries.  It’s the reason why Bernheim moved to America, and why he was hesitant about putting his name on a bottle of whiskey.  The brothers knew they needed a name that sounded “American.”  While reading the paper one day, Isaac came across an article about a horse breeder named John Harper.  At that moment, I. W. Harper was born.  It’s won numerous medals at fairs and expositions over the years, and was the drink of choice during the Japanese bourbon boom of the 1980s and 90s.  In 2005, Isaac Bernheim finally got his name on a bottle of whiskey.

Bernheim Original is a wheat whiskey, not to be confused with a wheated bourbon.  A wheat whiskey needs to be at least 51% wheat.  A wheated bourbon is mostly corn with some wheat in the mash bill.  Bernheim Original is 51% wheat, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley.  Like most wheat-heavy whiskies, it’s a little on the sweet side.  Caramel, honey, baking spices.  Rather delicate.  Bernheim Original isn’t just a whiskey, it’s a symbol of progress.  A reminder that today is more tolerant than yesterday.

Happy dramming,


Monday, February 20, 2023

Whisky Made Using Coffey

My undiluted vignettes tend to focus on trailblazers who played an important role in shaping the whisky world of today.  In 1830, Aeneas Coffey arguably patented the most important invention in distilling history, the Coffey still.  It required little labour, and made a light, cost-effective spirit.  It was loved by some, hated by others.

Aeneas Coffey was an Irishman who spent a good chunk of his life working as a distillery tax collector.  He was dedicated and incorruptible.  He once suffered a fractured skull and stab wounds while trying to close an illegal distillery.  Shortly after retiring, he decided to run a distillery of all things, and focused his efforts on how to make distilling as efficient as possible.  When Coffey started pitching his idea for a still, Irish distillers passed, even though they knew it’d probably end up saving them money.  They feared it would strip away character.

Despite being shown the door in Ireland, Coffey’s still was a hit in Scotland.  It was used to distill a variety of things like whisky, gin, even knock-off Cognac.  Irish single pot distillers, worried their juice would get lumped in with the second-rate stuff coming from Scotland, decided to add an “e” to their whisk(e)y in protest.  As fate would have it, Coffey’s invention is now used everywhere, whereas Irish single pot still whiskey has pretty much gone extinct.  Redbreast and the Spot whiskies are among the few that remain.

Japanese whisky has been a hot mess for a while now.  They just can’t keep up with demand.  Many companies use whisky from other countries to fill their blends.  A couple years ago, a series of standards were put in place by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association in an attempt to clean up the industry.  Just one problem.  Unlike the US and Scotland, where whisk(e)y practices are bound by law, the new Japanese standards are voluntary, so it’s pretty much been business as usual.  Nikka may not entirely play by the rules, but at least they’re honest about it.

Nikka Coffey Malt was launched in 2013, and is made by putting malted barley from Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery through a Coffey still.  If you go to the Nikka website, you’ll see the following:

This product does not meet all the criteria of “Japanese whisky” defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association.

Ben Nevis, a single malt from Scotland, is among the whiskies used to make this product.  Ben Nevis is owned by Nikka.  I guess you could say this whisky is made using only Japanese-owned distilleries.  Coffey Malt is an easy-going, approachable whisky that can be enjoyed by drinkers of all experience levels.  Caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, fruit.  Malty too.  Love the twist cap.

Happy dramming,


Monday, February 13, 2023

A Few Good Drams

In the 1980s, the whisky industry was on life support.  Over 20 distilleries in Scotland closed their doors, some of them for good.  The 1988 Tom Cruise film Cocktail didn’t help matters much.  Bottles twirled, bodies gyrated, and whisky was nowhere to be seen.  The film did great at the box office, and helped further advance the cocktail craze worldwide.  What if they made it about scotch whisky?  Would that have taken the industry out of the darkness and into the light?

Our film opens with Cruise showing up late to his bartending gig at an upscale downtown establishment.  He’s a brash hotshot who’s only interested in wowing female patrons with his fancy bottle work and umbrella-clad cocktails.  One night, after the last of the lonelies stumble home, Cruise sees an elderly fellow sitting at the end of the bar.  He curiously approaches.  The man asks Cruise to sit.  “Good evening son.  The name’s Angus.  Tonight you’re gonna learn about the greatest spirit the world has ever known.”  His voice oozed with poise and maturity.

Angus takes out a bottle of Lagavulin 16 from his coat pocket.  Cruise gives it a quick inspection and instinctively flips it.  He pours a few ounces into a martini glass and garnishes it with a lemon.  Just as he’s about to knock it back, Angus grabs him arm, looks deep into his eyes, and says, “Don’t shoot son, sip.”  Once the sweet, smoky nectar hits his lips, he’s forever transformed.  He leaps onto the bar and screams, “As God is my witness, I’ll never drink another Pina Colada again!”

Cruise starts obsessing over still shapes, washback types, and barley yields.  He attends tastings on his days off.  Just like the training sequences in the Rocky movies, everything is shown in montage-form.  His passion for scotch eventually starts to become a problem at work.  Customers tip him to not talk about whisky.  The movie ends with Cruise, now an old man, teaching a young cocktail slinger about single malts, just as Angus taught him.

Lagavulin 16, the whisky responsible for the arc in Cruise’s character, is an iconic peated expression from Islay that can be enjoyed by drinkers of all experience levels.  It’s sweet, fruity, and coastal (think kippers), with a respectable mouthfeel despite being chill filtered and presented at 43%.  This may be due to how it’s made.  Lagavulin’s stills are filled almost to capacity, giving the vapours little time to interact with the copper.  Less copper contact usually produces a meatier spirit.  Lagavulin 16 is a quality product deserving of your now inflation-impaired dollar.

Happy dramming,


Monday, February 6, 2023

The Other Mountain Dew

I’m sure all of you are familiar with the term “moonshiner.”  He (or she) was someone who distilled unlicensed spirit (usually corn with a touch of malted barley) in a tucked away location to avoid excise (tax) officers.  This work was almost always done cheaply, quickly, and without refinement.  In many cases, a blanket or old felt hat would be used to filter the end product.  Once filtered, it’d be put into whatever was on hand and promptly sold.  Moonshine (or any whiskey for that matter) straight off the still looks like vodka.  Whiskey gets its colour from the barrels used for maturation (or the caramel colouring added to some prior to bottling).

My favourite shine story could easily be a Dukes of Hazzard episode.  A still was on its last legs, so a group of good ol’ boys banded together and came up with the perfect plan.  One of them would get caught makin’ on purpose, while the rest would attest to his unlawful behaviour.  With the money received from witness fees and mileage reimbursements, the accomplices could go out and buy a brand new still.  As for the guy who took one for the team, prison life would be paradise compared to what he was used to at home.

Corn whiskey, moonshine’s “cultured” cousin, is similar to bourbon, but also a fair bit different.  It must be made from at least 80% corn.  Bourbon needs to be 51% corn, but most mash bills (recipes) often use 70% or more.  What makes corn whiskey unique is what’s done after distillation.  Corn whiskey can only be put in used or uncharred barrels.  Bourbon must be matured in virgin (new) charred oak.  Distillers can also bottle corn whiskey without any barreling whatsoever, making it the only (legal) whisk(e)y in the world that doesn’t have to be matured in something.

Mellow Corn is bottled in bond (minimum 4 years, one growing season, 100 proof), and made using 80% corn, 8% rye, and 12% malted barley.  I love the classic bottle design and plastic twist cap.  I’m not a fan of corks (especially the ones that rip).  Corks may look pretty, but they’re a real nuisance if you plan on setting aside bottles for a decade or longer.  I can’t tell you how many times old corks have let me down over the years.  Mellow Corn hasn’t changed much since 1945, and is matured in barrels that once held Heaven Hill bourbon.  Ex-Evan Williams black label would be my guess considering how much of it is made each year.

Mellow Corn is a little nippy upon first contact, like an untrained puppy.  There’s no way this product is a second older than four.  Big fruit notes upfront.  Vanilla, coconut, honey.  The ex-bourbon barrels are definitely at the wheel.  Decent mouthfeel.  This probably won’t be the best whiskey you’ve ever tasted, but you’ll be richer for the experience.  It’s always been my objective as an enthusiast to never stop exploring.  As Einstein put it, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...