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Blog about a blogger who's blogging whiskey: Josh Feldman

Posted on by Eric Burke

I first ran across Coop (Josh Feldman of CopperedTot.com) a couple years ago as I was starting to scope out the whisky blogs before I started my own. I was (and am) obviously interested in the topic and wanted to get other points of view. What I didn’t realize as I clicked on that link for the first time was that I was also going to gain a friend. We started talking on twitter. He and my wife started talking on twitter. We commiserated about the awfulness of watching someone we love suffer through cancer. He helped me get through it and helped my wife as well. Then, all of a sudden, one day he was gone from twitter. In a massive outpouring of goodbyes, I realized that my new friend was everyone’s new friend. And that he was a pretty special guy on top of that.

Fast forward a few years and Coop has been back on twitter for a while. He’s blogging again and though it isn’t with the frequency he had at first, the posts are longer, more thought out and more interesting. He hits topics dealing with whisky history, the treatment of women in whisky advertising, old dusty whiskies, and local New York whisky coverage. And he’s still a great guy. 

Hey Josh, thanks for agreeing to be the second guinea pig for this series. First things first: who are you, anyway?

Hi Eric. I'm a dilettante - a person with many many passions and interests but who has lacked the ability to make a truly deep study of any of them. The downside of this is that I lack any advanced degrees, work in IT without being a master in any particular area, and partake in many subjects, ranging from whisky, climate science, jewelry making and design, astronomy, climate science, evolution and genetics, history and literature - all without an demonstrable expertise. The upside of my scattered (more generously, "Renaissance Man") approach is that I'm something of a polymath. My knowledge of many different areas allows me to make connections between areas that don't often get connected. When I encounter other writers and researchers doing that it really excites and inspires me. Examples include Adrienne Mayor's "The First Fossil Hunters" which is about how ancient myths of chimera creatures and the remains of giants actually represents how ancient peoples studied fossil remains of extinct giant mammals and reptiles. Another example is Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred" which is a fusion of philosophical commentary about the schism between religion and science in Western civilization and how the science of Emergence provides a way to knit up that schism because of the inherent mysticism in the science. A final example is Fred Minnick's "Whiskey Women" which fuses history and social commentary about the evolution of whiskey culture. Books like these can really expand your world view. That's what excites me and, I hope, is the silver lining my butterfly approach to my studies of things. I want to write like that. Recently I've found a voice on my whisky blog that brings some of this to bear.

I know you are a whiskey fan, you're active in the comments section of a ton of blogs, write your own, keep a Facebook group, etc. How'd you get into it?

When I was in college in New York I drank copious quantities of beer and bourbon like most of my peers. Having come from Berkeley's epicurean scene I knew a little about gourmet beer and undertook to taste ALL of the world's beers. I tasted hundreds and kept notes in a small binder - sadly now lost. After a while I realized the futility of the endeavor but along the way I explored, extensively, Scottish, English, and Irish ales, porters, stouts, and lagers, German wheat beers and lagers, Czech pilsners, Belgian Trappist ales, and so on. It was an object lesson in the creativity of diversity of the way brewers approach the craft of making alcohol. A few years later (late 1980s) I noticed that new single malts were being imported. I picked up a few: Glenfiddich Special Reserve (NAS), Macallan 12, Bowmore 12, Bruichladdich 12, and the Diageo Classic Malts Collection which in those days was Talisker 10, Lagavulin 16, Dalwhinnie 15, Oban 14, and Glenkinchie 12. I fell in love with Talisker right off the bat (how many times have heard that?) I was on my way. I didn't pursue Bourbon, however. I had drunk too much of it at a weekly card game where we made a point of killing a bottle before leaving the table as a display of macho stupidity. We were doing shots of what I now know was very good National Distillers Old Grand Dad, Stizel-Weller Cabin Still, Jim Beam White, 90 proof Jack Daniels and the like. In doing shots I missed the flavors. In getting drunk I established adversity. I didn't rediscover Bourbon until an event at Keen's steak house in 2006 when Paul Pacult had Wild Turkey take us through the line. Kentucky Spirit and Rare Breed were a revelation when properly aired, nosed, and sipped in a glencairn. I fell in love and my exploration of Bourbon began shortly thereafter. If only I had known what was coming I would explored the high end of Bourbon and the dusty world more vigorously in those days. So many things were available then which are absolutely gone (or insanely expensive) now.

You write about whiskey at CooperedTot.com. What's the history of The Coopered Tot? 

In the late 2000s I was a fierce Amazon reviewer. At my peak I made it into the top 50 ranking briefly. I reviewed a lot of different things, but also reviewed whisky. This was a frustrating enterprise as Amazon didn't actually sell whisky in the USA (as it does in the UK). They hosted listings from liquor stores and I put my reviews on those. These listings frequently expired and were deleted, and my reviews along with them (Amazon stopped listing hard spirits entirely in the US in 2012). To save my reviews I started a blog on blogger and just dumped the major portion of my Amazon reviews as blog posts. This is why I have a hundred or so reviews in my first few months of blogging. I wasn't expecting the social connection that the blog opened. Soon I was interacting on Twitter and Facebook with whisky people from all over the world. This led to a wealth of connections, learning, and great drinking. It has only built from there. This is the golden lining of Internet addiction.

You've recently transitioned from straight reviews to taking more of a historical bent. You've recently covered advertising, sexism, historical bourbons, etc. As these are my favorite posts, I have to ask, what's the cause of the switch?

I don't have time to write and do tasting notes on a regular basis. There a large number of great blogs out there doing tasting notes far more comprehensively and better than I can. I thought about what really interested me - and it's the history and the social context of whisky, distilling, and the culture of drinking. When I look into these back stories I find I'm able to make novel connections and really say something of value that's new. This excites me tremendously. I feel like I've found my voice as a whisky writer with these topics. I have a ton more in this vein in the works. Upcoming pieces include a riff on a 1994 academic paper by Adrienne Mayor about the iconography of the female body in Western art related to alcohol. I studied the topic and found I was able to extend her thesis (which begin in medieval European art) back to the ancient Greeks and forward through belle-epoque France and into the modern era in a host of areas ranging from fine art to stripper's dance acts. I've also indulged my obsession with the topic of how whisky expressions have changed over time by assembling a number of flights of certain brands that span many decades. I have bottles and samples of Old Overholt from Prohibition through the modern era. I have similar flights for brands ranging from White Horse, Teachers, Johnnie Walker Red and Black, Old Forester, Jim Beam, Old Grand Dad, etc... Some of these flights have big gaps (please send me samples of your dustys!) I'm a big fan of the bloggers who have done similar work - in particular Tim Read of Scotch and Ice Cream, Steve Ury of Sku's Recent Eats, Oliver Klimek's Dramming, and Serge Valentin's Whisky Fun. I'm also studying the pre-Prohibition and Prohibition era of American whisky. Important blogs for me in this area include John and Linda Lipman's Ellenjaye, and Jack Sullivan's Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men! I hope to eventually be able to contribute something new and important in the history of American whiskey space - particularly in the area of rye. There's a whole lot of stories left to tell. 

As a guy who follows this stuff, what's your take on the state of the bourbon industry right now? What would you like to see happen? 

It's an incredibly exciting time for Bourbon and American whiskey as a whole. Rapid growth has produced a mess, with Bourbon producers cutting age statement expressions and (related or not) a reduction in quality in many expressions. At the same time the explosion in American craft distilling is producing some fabulous new creative whiskies (Balcones, Westland, MacKenzie, Koval, St. George, and Charbay come immediately to mind - among many others). While, at the same time NDP producers threaten to confuse consumers and muddy the waters for the people legitimately doing the hard work of creating whiskey. The backlash against NDPs threatens collateral damage against rectifying houses that are doing real valuable and creative work (such as High West, Smooth Ambler, Angel's Envy, and Big Bottom). Chuck Cowdery, in particular, has been attempting to light a fire under regulators to enforce laws that make the State of distillation known on the label. I'd love a law that required the name(s) of the actual distilleries where the whiskies were sourced from to be listed. Marketing that makes confusion is obviously adaptive in the short term for building market share but is ultimately unhealthy for the American whiskey market over all. Object lessons include Michter's, who bottled amazing whiskies on the way to setting up their own distilling operation while generating ill-will from the Bourbon enthusiast community which is a shame, given the excellent stuff that they have out there. Other examples are Widow Jane, Whistlepig, Templeton, Calumet, just to name a few. Some of these places are actually making whisky, but have hopelessly muddled their names up with dishonesty about what their whiskies actually are. The one distillery that seems to have negotiated these perilous waters in an exemplary way is Willett's/Kentucky Bourbon Distillers - who have played all the roles, from broker, rectifier, blender, NDP, and distiller of their own stuff - in a fairly open and straightforward way. It doesn't hurt that the Kulsveens have excellent palates and have bottled a bunch of great bourbons and ryes. In the end the market will shake out of its own accord, but in the absence of clear intelligible laws and any kind of consistent regulatory enforcement, consumers and enthusiasts have been confused and misled and a lot of unnecessary anger has been produced. If you want to feel some of that anger, I highly recommend reading Bourbon Truth.

Hypothetical question: A new bourbon magazine comes calling and offers you a column. Would you be interested and what beat would you choose to cover?

This would be a dream come true for me. I'd absolutely love it and would do it if I could. I would love to write about American whiskey history, the whisky blogosphere beat, whisky in a wider cultural perspective, or, heck, tasting notes! I'm in love with all of it.

Plug time: where can people find you online and is there anything else you'd like to plug?

My blog is The Coopered Tot I have a bunch of great content on the blog (and don't miss checking out the blog roll on the left) - but I also have a ton of additional content related to tastings and my thinking and the accumulation of ideas for future posts on various other social media sites:

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/cooperedtot/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheCooperedTot

Instagram: http://instagram.com/cooperedtot

I help administer a closed Facebook group for whisky bloggers, vloggers, journalists and writers called "Whisky Bloggers". Any bloggers on Facebook who aren't members should consider joining. A URL is required, however, so if you don't have one, don't bother to apply.

A great open Facebook group for whisky bloggers to link their latest posts is "Whiskey Blogroll". I encourage everyone to check that out and join.

I would like to thank Coop for taking the time to answer a few questions and encourage everyone to check those out. I can honestly say, he’s one of my favorite people I’ve never met in real life.

Finding an I.W. Harper dusty while antiquing

Posted on by Eric Burke

It was a Sunday afternoon in early April. My wife had recently purchased an old Beam decanter for me. Something about it had made me excited to see what else was out there and it was easy for her to talk me into going with her when she decided to visit a few antique stores. I like the consignment style stores. The ones where a person rents a space and fills it full of their old crap. I don’t find many bargains that way, but I do see more things that I remember from my own childhood. And that’s fun.

As I wandered around this particular store, I saw some cool things. I saw a couple Ezra Brooks decanters from the 60s. A bear and a Native American. I didn’t pull the trigger on either since the labels were peeling off and in that condition I didn’t feel like paying that much for what was just a curiosity to me. I saw a NDP decanter of an old Minnesota Gopher mascot in a football helmet. It was probably from about the same time. And since I’m a huge Gopher football fan, I was tempted…until I saw it was over $100. That made me much less excited even though it looked as if it may have still been sealed.

Sealed and full of bourbon most likely contaminated by high levels of lead. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t buy it, I would probably have given myself lead poisoning since I doubt I’d have had the willpower to leave it sealed. I’m more curious than that fabled cat. 

But one thing did catch my eye. It was just about halfway down the center aisle, all the way down on the bottom shelf. It was a tax stamp on a mini bottle. Even though my knees hate it when I do this, I got down and took a look. It was a bottle of Canadian Club and it said 1962 on the tax stamp. Even better it was full and the seal hadn’t been broken. There were other bottles down there too. The other sealed one was a miniature of IW Harper. It was missing the tax stamp, but the seal was unbroken and the bottle was full. And best of all, both were under five dollars each. So I grabbed them. I wandered around for a little bit but didn’t see anything else I felt like buying, paid my bill and wandered out.

I wondered a bit at the legality of selling them. I doubted the antique store had a liquor license. Plus it was a Sunday and there are no spirits sales on a Sunday. But since I got something cool and I didn’t see a boatload of cops standing there, I decided to tamp down the curiosity and think about things that were a little more important. Like how long it would take to get home and crack it open.

But I waited a bit. The next week was the season premiere of Mad Men and since Don’s favorite drink is Canadian Club and since it was from just about the right time period, I decided to drink that during the premiere. It was good, though it was so floral that I found it a bit like drinking perfume. The IW Harper though, sat on my shelf for a while. I wanted to look into it a little bit and see if I could find out anymore about it. Specifically: “What is this?” and “how old is this thing?”

The first thing I learned is that currently IW Harper is owned by Diageo and isn’t sold in the US anymore. And hasn’t been for a while. Ok so, at least the 80s. Cool. No bar code and no metric units so that pushed the youngest it could be back into the mid to late 70s. I did a bunch of searching of old ads and the earliest I could find that label used was in a 1970 ad. The next oldest ad I could find was from 1965 and had a slightly different label featured. So roughly early to mid-1970s. At that time it was owned by Schenley. That was close enough for my curiosity now I just needed to open it. 

But I waited. And waited. It got shoved behind some other samples I had and so I forgot about it. Until I found it this weekend, decided that enough was enough, and cracked it open.

IW Harper Gold Medal Bourbon (roughly mid 1970s)

Purchase info: an antique store $3.99 for a 1/10th pint

Details: 6 years old and 86 proof (no ABV listed so I deviate from my standard even though I know it would be 43%)

Nose: Started out very floral. Dark brown sugar, baking apples, allspice, cardamom and a sharp wood note. After sitting a bit it settled into a general fruity candy.

Mouth: Nice thick mouthfeel. Floral again with more dark brown sugar. Spicy with allspice and cinnamon. Oak and caramel as it moves back in the mouth. 

Finish: Long and warm with lingering floral hints.

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Thoughts: I just wish there were more. Sweet, spicy, rich and floral sum this up nicely. The color is even beautiful. It is a joy to look at, smell and taste. Just yum.

Bargain hunting: Rich & Rare Reserve

Posted on by Eric Burke

September: it’s National Bourbon Heritage Month here in the US, it’s also the month that BourbonFest is held in Bardstown, KY and when a lot of the Fall bourbon releases come out. Add in the facts that it’s also the month of my birthday, my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary and you get a month that’s great for a vacation.

I may have mentioned before that I have a bit of a shopping problem. Last time I spent more than an overnight in Kentucky I came home with 35 bottles of bourbon. I had to find a new place to store the overflow. In fact, some of those bottles are still waiting to be opened. And it’s not like they are special releases or anything.

So based on past history, since September is National Bourbon Shopping…err…Heritage Month, August had better be Bottle Emptying Month. I’ve spent the summer trying to make room for the shopping I know I’m going to be doing, but August has been where I’ve really resisted opening anything new. And it’s paying off. I’ve been emptying heels at a fairly rapid clip.

The most recent of which was Rich & Rare Reserve. It’s a Canadian whisky that is aged and blended in Canada, but Sazerac bottles it at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, KY. I initially purchased it after reading about it in the afterward of Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. I love bargin hunting and am willing to drop $10-15 dollars on a whisky to see if it’s one of those “hidden gems.” Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but often I find something that I’m willing to pick up again.

Rich & Rare Reserve

Purchase info: $10.99 Gordy’s County Market, Rice Lake, WI

Details: 40% ABV

Nose: Delicate. Initial faint hints of nail polish remover. After sitting, it’s sweet with delicate hints of maple, caramel, citrus and corriander.

Mouth: Salty. Light with faint hints of soap. Sweet with buttery caramel.

Finish: Decent length with lingering maple that slowly fades to a tannic bitterness.

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Thoughts: This is merely ok. I have nothing bad to say about it, but personally prefer something a bit less delicate. It’s cheap enough though, that if you are a Canadian whisky fan, you might want to risk picking it up to see if it sits better with you than it did with me.

Maker's 46: an easily found "step-up"

Posted on by Eric Burke

It’s coming up on autumn again. Apples, pumpkins, football and of course, fall bourbon release season. Authors will be lining up all the free samples they received from various PR firms and distilleries to tell you about all those special, rare, and limited bourbons that you will never see, sniff or taste. 

You know: the “best they’ve ever tasted” and the kind of bourbon where “if you see this buy two.” Of course it’s only the best until the next one and you’ll never see one much less two unless you get really lucky or you’ve got an in with someone. But though you can help it along, you can’t plan luck. And if you don’t already have an in with someone, you are unlikely to make one by the time you need it. 

So what is there to do? Aside from getting sad and bitter at the idea of all those tasty treats that you won’t be tasting, that is.

Simple. Go to your favorite liquor store. Walk up to the bourbon shelves. Open your eyes. (That last bit will be easier if you’d closed them at some point, but I’d hate to recommend unsafe behavior like walking around a crowded store with your eyes closed.) Now look at the shelf. Odds are there is something really good right in front of your nose. 

Wild Turkey, Knob Creek, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Elijah Craig and Evan Williams are all solid choices that not only won’t break the bank, but I guarantee that at least one of these is available at every liquor store in the country. And if you are looking for a step up each has one. Rare Breed, Booker’s, Four Roses Single Barrel, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Evan Williams Single Barrel and Maker’s 46.

I’ll admit. If given the choice between a wheated bourbon (one that uses wheat instead of rye as it’s secondary grain) and a rye bourbon, I’ll normally choose the rye. I find many wheated bourbons to be sharp and more bitter than I’d like. But an exception to that is Maker’s Mark. I’ve always been a fan of Maker’s. So much so, that before I started this blog I became an Ambassador and got my name on a barrel. So when they came out with a second bourbon (already about 4 years ago now…wow) I was excited to try it. 

And I liked it. I liked it so much that it got put on that magical mental list of ones I would buy again after I got through trying all the ones I wanted to try. The unfortunate thing was that the second list got bigger faster than I could buy bottles and so I never got around to buying another bottle of Maker’s 46. Well, at least not until I saw it on sale at Total Wine, remembered that long ago list, realized how long it had languished there and decided to pull the trigger.

Maker’s 46

Purchase info: $28.99 for a 750mL at Total Wine, Roseville, MN (on sale)

Details: 47% ABV

Nose: Continually changing. Starts with fermented grain, changes to distinct cinnamon and apricot before settling into a nice generically fruity oakiness.

Mouth: Slightly thick mouthfeel. Peppery, candy sweet and fruity with baking spices.

Finish: Nice and long with lingering baking spices and a faint smokey oak bitterness

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Thoughts: I’m still a fan of this one. It’s like a spicy candy. And that makes me happy.

Crown Royal: Just because people mix it with cola, doesn't mean it's bad.

Posted on by Eric Burke

Last Saturday I was talking to my friend DP (from the Whiskey Detectives blog) at a bourbon cocktail class that we both attended. After it was finished we stood around looking at the wide selection the venue offers for sale when the conversation got around to those whiskies that we know we should have tried, but for some reason never had. 

It got me to thinking. There are strange, semi-random swaths of the whisky shelf that I have—for one reason or another—avoided. And there is really no rhyme or reason to it. Some I remember hearing bad things about. Some are styles I’ve historically been wary of. Some my latent hipsterness rejects, seemingly, just because of their popularity.

I promise I’m not some hipster A-hole, but I will admit to having minor hipsterish tendencies such as a the one where I tend to not trust anything that seems too popular. Or maybe that’s just snobbishness. In any case, it’s something I need to work on. 

So in the spirit of trying something that I’d passed over every single time I went to a liquor store solely because it was one of the best selling whiskies to come out of North America, I present:

Crown Royal

Purchase Info: $3.99 for a 50mL at Hayward Bait and Bottle Shoppe, Hayward, WI

Details: 40% ABV

Nose: Brown sugar, pencil shavings, ripe peaches

Mouth: Nice mouthfeel, thicker than I expected. #2 pencils (I chewed on the yellow ones a lot). Hints of maple sugar. Some mint as it moves back.

Finish: Gentle, but with enough heat to let you know you’re drinking whisky. Lingering sweet cereal.

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Thoughts: It’s really a shame I’d passed this over for so long. It’s got a nice sweet mouthfeel that is balanced by just enough woody bitterness. It’d be a good movie watching whisky as it’s interesting enough to add enjoyment, but gentle enough to not distract you from the show. I think a full-sized bottle needs to sit on the Canadian Shelf.