$28,928: Now that's whisky!

A bottle of Glenavon, widely acclaimed as the world's oldest bottle of whisky, sold for £14,000 -- or $28,928.72 in U.S. currency -- at auction in London yesterday.

The green glass bottle went to an anonymous telephone bidder from Scotland bidding on behalf of a private Russian collector, at the end of a frenetic auction at Bonham's in London.

The Glenavon is believed to have been bottled between 1851 and 1858. The Speyside distillery, which produced it, closed in 1858.

Is it still drinkable? Charles MacLean, a consultant to the auctioneers, said that whisky once bottled in glass should not spoil.

“I can tell this bottle is well sealed because the whisky goes right up to the neck," he told media reporters. "It is safe to assume that it will taste as good as the day it was bottled.”

The bottle was put up for sale by a woman living in Northern Ireland, who said that it had been in her family for generations.

Little is known about the Glenavon distillery, thought to have been located near the present-day Glenlivet distillery whose 19th-century owners are thought to have taken it over.

A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association said last night that any buyer of such a bottle would be well advised to check its provenance thoroughly. “What is not known is the actual age of the whisky; the years of maturing in the barrel are as important as the date of the bottling.”

The auction price did not exceed the record for a bottle of Scotch. That mark is held by a bottle of Dalmore that was aged for 62 years before being bottled. It went for £26,000, or $50,663.08 in U.S. currency.

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Irish coffee recipe (gasp!) changed

The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, the American home of Irish coffee and the single largest U.S. commercial consumer of Irish whiskey, has changed the recipe of its legendary drink.

According to my colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle, who seem rather exercised by the whole affair, "The BV has switched from its own private brand of Irish whiskey, made by the Cooley distillery in County Louth, Ireland, to Tullamore Dew, mass produced in Dublin. The change is so subtle it can hardly be noticed, but the difference between the two Irish whiskeys has sent shock waves though the world of Irish coffee drinkers."

The change was occasioned when cafe owner Bob Freeman decided that Tullamore is smoother and better than the whiskey he had been using.

The Buena Vista, says the Chronicle, "is where Irish coffee first came to America, 54 years ago this month" and it consumes "18,720 liter-sized bottles (of Irish whiskey) a year. The Buena Vista is the cathedral of Irish coffee in the United States."

Bartender Joe Sheridan invented the drink at Shannon airport in Ireland. Stanton Delaplane, the iconic Chronicle travel writer, discovered it there and convinced Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista, to bring it to the United States. Thus, when anything about the recipe changes, the Chron folks get antsy about the Irish coffee first served in the U.S. on Nov. 10, 1952.

You can read the Chron's story here. And, you can read the Buena Vista Cafe's full story here.

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Ice whisky? Oh, Canada!

Canada is known for its ice wines, but ice whisky?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so the Glenora Distillery of Nova Scotia this week launched a new whisky called Cape Breton Ice, billed as the world's first single malt whisky aged in an ice-wine barrel.

Lauchie MacLean, president of the Cape Breton distillery, said Glenora test marketed the product by selling about 150 bottles this summer at its distillery in Halifax after purchasing the ice-wine barrels from the Jost Winery in Malagash, N.S.

“They just flew off the shelves,” MacLean told the press. “Tourists just absolutely went crazy for it and that was with no label on it, basically.”

Glenora Distillery is the only single malt whisky distillery in Canada, It also produces Glen Breton Single Malt Whisky.

Unless you have a connection in Nova Scotia, you'll have to be patient to try the new product. MacLean said sales will be limited to the immediate area at least until after Christmas.

"We’ve sold 25 cases to the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. that’s all there is going to be for a couple of months," he said.

The 250-ml bottles will cost $49.95. Canadian ($43.60 US).

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Pearing up for 2007

Distillers are hoping 2007 will be a peach of a year. The folks at Absolut are hoping pear also will figure into the equation.

That's because Absolut plans to introduce a pear-flavored vodka to the market in january, 20 years after launching its first flavored vodka, Absolut Peppar.

"We constantly have 'flavorists' on the hunt for all the new scents, flavors and tastes, and pear was ripe for us," said Jeffrey Moran, spokesperson for The Absolut Spirits Co.

The Absolut Pear bottle design incorporates the shape of a pear. It will launch with a print campaign featuring a green snake wrapped around an Absolut Pear bottle with the tagline "The New Temptation."

The flavor of pear -- particularly in brandies and some premium malt beverages -- is popular in Europe, so Absolut thinks the new beverage will work there. It's not quite as common in the U.S., but there is a slight groundswell of pear-flavored drinks.

Most popular at the moment is pear-flavored brandy from Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery which took a double gold medal at the 2000 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for its eau de vie de poire. Clear Creek also makes a limited-production $80 Pear-in-the-Bottle product, growing the fruit inside the bottle and then filling it with pear eau-de-vie.

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Virginia is for (vodka) lovers

Photo by William M. Dowd

RICHMOND, VA -- Paul McCann obviously doesn’t mind doing things the hard way. He’s staking his financial future on the success of a new product he recently introduced into one of the most competitive sectors of the commercial spirits industry –- vodka.

Vodka is the fastest-growing niche, with new brands popping up virtually weekly. Given that it can be made from nearly any kind of organic matter, as the plethora of concoctions being made from grasses, grapes, beets and soy in addition to the usual grains and potatoes shows, there is little likelihood the competition will ease off.

The major assembly line products – the Smirnoffs, Grey Gooses, Chopins, Absoluts and the like – still have a strong hold on consumers while such quality boutique brands as Peconika from Long Island, N.Y., and Cold River from Maine still are trying to gain a foothold outside their immediate neighborhoods.

So, why is McCann stirring up so much interest?

McCann, essentially a one-man-band known as Parched Group LLC, has been putting his money where he hopes consumers’ mouths are, a half-million dollar investment over the past 2-plus years to develop Cirrus Vodka.

The boutique distiller, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s in environmental health from Old Dominion University, experimented for 18 months to come up with his present formula, which went on Virginia store shelves during the summer.

It is literally cooked up in a Richmond facility from 400 pounds a day of locally-grown potatoes and is selling for about $22 for a 750ml bottle, which puts it in the crowded mid-premium category, although McCann refers to his product as “super premium.”

One edge McCann has over other newcomers to the field is that his vodka already has won a prestigious honor, a gold medal last spring in the renowned San Francisco World Spirits Competition. That came less than a year after Cirrus, with a formula then still being tweaked, scored 88 of a possible 100 points, meaning “highly recommended” in testing by the impartial Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago.

Besides being a fan of vodka as a consumer, McCann got into the production end of things when he thought he spotted a niche within a niche.

“Two years ago, there were very few of what you would call 'American premium brands',” he said. "All you would see would be all imports.”

Now, there is one more American premium, although making it a lasting success still is an uphill climb for the Virginia entrepreneur.

"I work a lot of hours with little reward at this point, but my greatest reward is the response I have received from people,” McCann said.

His early successes have quickly put a spotlight on Cirrus that other boutique producers might envy. In addition to what’s inside, McCann was smart enough to realize having a distinctive bottle also was necessary to get scarce shelf space in stores.

Cirrus uses elegantly understated black lettering on a frosted glass bottle along with a sky-blue neck label and cap, and small blue clouds interlaced with a simplistic yellow sun, all explained on the reverse side of the bottle: “As with cirrus clouds that herald sunshine and perfect weather, Cirrus quality offers the promise of a good day.”

How is the product being received outside its home state?

“We are in talks with different distributors and are looking at expanding to North Carolina after the first of the year and to Texas, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Tennessee in the next six months,” McCann told me. “We have had additional interest from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kansas and Colorado. We will certainly expand to other states as the opportunity arises and we feel we have a distributor that is a good fit for us.”

Finding a good boutique spirit is one thing. Finding a reliable supply of it is another. At the moment, Cirrus is a limited production item, “a maximum of 150 cases a month,” McCann said.

However, “We are expanding the process to produce as much as 300-plus cases per day in the next six to nine months. The equipment and distillery design and relocation here in Richmond is in the works.”

Tasting Notes: A recent sampling of McCann’s triple-distilled product shows he’s got the basic product down right. Cirrus is flat-out good stuff.

My panel of four tried Cirrus three ways -- straight from the freezer; in what passes for a “standard” martini these days now that the original gin component has been supplanted by vodka, and in a Cosmopolitan to see how the vodka would stand up to various cocktail flavorings.

Although the technical definition of vodka is a neutral grain spirit that is colorless, odorless and tasteless, any vodka aficionado knows that is not the case. The water, in particular, can impart as many taste aspects as the grain, potato or other matter used, and the filtration methods have much to do with the smoothness of the distillation.

Cirrus, syrupy cold from the freezer, exhibits a certain creaminess along with a hint of vanilla and a vague sweetness present in most multiply-filtered potato-based vodkas. For those who enjoy vodka cold and straight along with salty tidbits or strong cheeses, this is a drink that will hold its own.

In a martini, it worked well with my house brand vermouth, Noilly Pratt original French dry. I like the oak notes derived from the vermouth’s aging in wood, something that brings out the best in gins or vodkas. It certainly complemented the Cirrus, expanding the middle notes and finish while letting that signature creaminess come through.

However, we found the Cirrus wasted in the Cosmopolitan, with too many warring ingredients that tended to overshadow the nuances of the vodka. Better to use a lesser distillation for a drink that doesn’t require the finest vodka to be successful.

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Hot cocktails of the moment

Pay no attention that it's on the Wine Enthusiast online site. The well-regarded "spirtualist" Gary Regan is merely using that venue to tell readers about his survey of imaginative 2006 cocktails.

It's worth the time to read it. There are some very clever mixologists operating in numerous outposts across the nation.

Dart to AP, laurel to DISCUS

The Columbia Journalism Review, a respected magazine devoted to all aspects of journalism, has a longstanding column called "Darts & Laurels" in which it calls special attention to missteps or special achievements. In the current issue, CJR gives a stinging dart to the Associated Press, the world's largest news organization.

In the words of Gloria Cooper, CJR's deputy executive editor:

(A dart) to The Associated Press, for a delayed reaction due to impaired judgment.

When the American Medical Association released the heady findings of a survey that showed an appalling degree of excessive drinking and promiscuous sexual behavior on the part of an astonishing number of college women during their spring break, the AP could not resist, characterizing the survey as "all but confirming what goes on in those 'Girls Gone Wild' videos."' Nor could countless outlets the AP serves, from the morning news shows and the daily newspapers to the cable newscasts and those on the Web, most of which flashed and splashed the damned — and damning — statistics with an unmistakable leer.

The morning after, however, soon arrived. First came a devastating analysis of the survey’s grossly unscientific methods and deceptive claims — an analysis published on the Mystery Pollster blog and emphatically reinforced by the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research; then came the AMA’s admission that the study had in fact been a “media advocacy tool.”

For its part, though, the AP seemed reluctant to lose the buzz. Indeed, in an e-mail to the AP pressing for a correction, Frank Coleman, senior vice president for the Distilled Spirits Council [of the U.S., or DISCUS], took strong exception to what he said had been the AP’s first response — namely, that “a correction would only spread the story further.” As it turned out, however, the AP did eventually take the needed step toward the recovery of accuracy — right after Coleman sent the AP a copy of a Howard Kurtz column in The Washington Post that poured light on the media’s sordid binge. Cheers!

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Not all that bubbles is champagne

OK, now they've gone and done it.

Not content with boasting that they invented vodka -- along with most other things enjoyed in the modern world -- the Russians have come up with the world's first sparkling vodka.

I speak not of some fizzy pseudo-spirits concoction like a "cooler" (ugh). Rather, O2 vodka from Ikon actually has oxygen bubbles injected into the smooth grain-based vodka.

To be perfectly accurate, however, it really wasn't Russians who came up with the new twist. That just made a catchy lead-in for this item. The old Russian brand is owned these days by International English Distillers and the patented bubbly version of the 80-proof beverage was developed in England by Philip Maitland.

The vodka, made mostly with wheat and a touch of malted barley, is distilled and filtered three times in 100-year-old copper pot stills. Creating the bubbly version was an 18-month process of trial and error.

Meanwhile, Diageo, one of the drinks industry's giants, has patented a new technology that creates a fizz in its vodka and other spirits by mixing a spirit with yeast and a fermentable carbohydrate, a method similar to that used to produce Champagne and sparkling wines.

No public announcement has been made by Diageo concerning a marketing timetable, or even which of its brands will be fizzed up.

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Johnnie Walker really frosts 'em

Storing vodka in the freezer is a grand idea. Doing it with gin or some liqueurs can be OK. But, Scotch whisky?

It's OK to do, says Stuart Brown, the Walker Brands scotch Master who is suggesting the unusual move with Johnnie Walker's Gold Label Centenary Blend, an 18-year-old that goes for $80-plus.

Brown is telling beverage journalists that a day in the freezer will actually improve the whisky as an after-dinner drink by making it thicker and more syrupy, opening its caramel and vanilla notes.

He credits Guy Martin, a chef in Paris, with coming up with the idea of ultra-chilled scotch while nibbling on good-quality chocolate as a new dessert combination. But, he's insistent the Gold label is the only Johnnie Walker type that should get the treatment.


"Very simply, it tastes good," Brown said. "I can't explain why it does what it does. It's one of the few Scotches in the world that reacts this way."

Chef Guy, by the way, is a busy fellow on another front. He will open his first U.S. restaurant next year in a hotel now being constructed in Boston. Martin was awarded three Michelin stars in 2000 at the Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris. He has published more than a dozen cookbooks.

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Vodka Museum moves to Moscow

For most visitors to Russia, there probably is no more culturally iconic a thing than vodka. Which bodes well for a new Moscow museum devoted to the national drink.

The Vodka Museum -- new to Moscow, but originally located in St. Peterburg -- displays more than 50,000 bottles of vodka, including many special versions of the drink, including some bottles produced more than two centuries ago. Visitors are offered samples of 10 different vodkas.

Vodka and Russia have a mutually intertwined history. In addition to being the drink of choice for celebrations and general socializing, there was a time when a bottle of vodka became a kind of national currency, "preferable to cash payments," according to the museum's curators.

They note, "In the beginning of the 1920s during a serious financial crisis when there was a shortage of monetary units, vodka labels served as cash in Siberia. This drink also plays a significant role in the Russian language and folklore. In other words, vodka is an important component of Russian life, an element of national identity and everyday culture."

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Glenfiddich: Clearing the decks for expansion?

In a global industry that is continually shrinking in terms of how many owners there are -- think Brown-Forman, Pernod, etc. -- it's newsworthy when there is activity in a family-owned business.

William Grant & Sons, the distiller of Glenfiddich whisky, has been playing boardroom bingo, with managing director Simon MacDonald leaving to join Kabel-X, a technology company. As a result, the company has restructured into four divisions, with the head of each reporting to Roland van Bommel, the company's chief executive.

Mark Teasdale is managing director for North America, Gordon Dron for Europe, Kevin Fong for Asia Pacific and James Doherty for Latin America. Steven Sturgeon remains global marketing director.

Does any of this matter to those of us who basically are interested in what's being bottled under the Glenfiddich label, the world's No. 1-selling malt whisky? Probably not, especially considering it is doubtful the 120-year-old company would mess with a flagship brand that helped it gain an 8.1% increase in pre-tax profits for calendar year 2005.

However, William Grant & Sons is looking to expand a brand line that currently includes Grant's, The Balvenie and Hendrick's Gin. Last year it moved into the brandy field by buying Raynal & Cie, a French firm based in Cognac that produces such labels as Three Barrels. According to The Scotsman newspaper, "in October it was linked with a possible move for Invergordon Distillers, the Whyte & Mackay business that produces mainly own-label Scotch."

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Redressing the Beefeater

When you buy a new house, one of the first things you do is repaint it to give it that personal touch.

Same thing goes with some spirits labels.

Back in June 2001, Beefeater brand gin was owned by Allied Domecq and it made the bottle taller and narrower, affixing a transparent label showing a younger looking yeoman.

Now, Pernod owns the Beefeater brand and plans to reveal its own version of the famous icon just before Christmas.

I haven't been able to get a sneak peak at what's in store -- or about to be in stores, so you'll have to be content with gazing at the present label until the grand unveiling. Pernod hopes it will stem the slumping sales of its gin, which dropped 6% in the most recent report, March 31, 2005, to March 31 this year.