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Lost Lantern Single Distillery Series: Desert Dessert by Whiskey del Bac

Few things are more divisive among whiskey enthusiasts than smoke. I use that term deliberately rather than “peat,” as peat is only one possible source of smoky influence on a whiskey. Additionally, any type of whiskey can be smoky, despite most people immediately thinking of their grandfather’s old blended Scotch that smelled mostly of the ashtrays it may have sat next to. There are smoky American single malts, Irish whiskeys, even bourbons.

So what exactly is “smoke” in a whiskey, and where does it come from? As mentioned, historically the source of smoke profile in single malt has been peat. This was not originally a matter of taste, but simple pragmatism: malted grains must be dried or heated to halt the malting process before proceeding with mashing. Two centuries ago in much of rural Scotland, particularly island and coastal regions, peat was the most readily available fuel source. The imparted earthy, vegetal, smoky flavors (however you define “peatiness”) was merely a side effect. And not all peat is created equal. Since peat is basically just compressed vegetation and other matter, the fauna and local environment can have a significant impact on the end character. Islay, Scotland is famous for the medicinal and bonfire-like nature of its smoky whisky profile, but peat from the Scottish Highlands, or even North America, may impart a more subdued, earthy character. Although terroir remains a somewhat contentious concept in whiskey circles, peat or other heating/smoking fuel sources can absolutely be agents of Place, tying the liquid to its land of origin.

It’s for this reason that I always encourage those who “don’t like peat” to continue their exploration. Not only is there a vast range of smoky profiles out there, but a spectrum of intensity. Some whiskies may contain only a small portion of peated malt, while the heavily peated Octomore from Islay is some of the smokiest whisky ever produced.

As a brief aside, peat ultimately is a fossil fuel, unrenewable save by the extreme passage of time and patience of Mother Nature. It is a valuable resource not only as a fuel source, but as a carbon sink, containing a larger fraction of soil carbon than even the world’s forests. Only recently have we begun to understand its importance in global thermoregulation, and the urgency of conserving this vital resource.

But a milieu of other factors or processes distinct from peating malted barley – what we typically think of as “peat smoke” – can imbue a whiskey with smolder. Other fuel sources can be used to heat the malted grain, such as a particular wood. Whisky could simply be stored in a barrel that previously held a smoked product of some kind. Occasionally, even bourbons that have been aged in heavily charred barrels may offer up some light smoky sensation on the nose or palate.

Which brings us to the malt in question: Whiskey del Bac is a small distillery based in Tuscon, Arizona focused primarily on single malt. They were born of an idea in 2006 when then-furniture-design-specialists Elaine and Stephen Paul discussed the possibility of mesquite-smoked single malt whiskey as opposed to the peated Scotch of which they were so fond. Their barley is malted and dried over velvet mesquite, before being barreled, aged, and bottled onsite in the Sonoran desert. Aging whiskey in such a hot, dry environment can be a fickle process and the majority of their distillate matures primarily in unconventional 15-gallon oak casks. This is a subject worthy of its own discussion, but contrary to some popular thought, is not a shortcut to aging “faster” so much as merely aging “differently” from larger, more conventional cask sizes.

Lost Lantern is a young independent bottling company based in Vermont started by Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam “Apolon” Polonski. They concentrate on craft distilleries, often with unique takes on American grain spirits, including single malts. Their most recent release series focused on single distilleries, specifically Whiskey del Bac in Arizona and Balcones in Texas, consisting of bottlings that were collaboratively assembled by both the individual distilleries and the Lost Lantern folks.

The pour du jour is the “Dessert Desert” collaboration between these two teams, consisting of “Whiskey Del Bac’s classic mesquite-smoked mashbill–40% mesquite-smoked malted barley, 60% unsmoked. A portion of that whiskey was also finished in casks that previously held Sauternes… and Pineau des Charentes.” Both French in origin, a white desert wine and essentially brandy fortified aperitif respectively. Adam of Lost Lantern was kind enough to respond to an email inquiry confirming that these were truly French oak casks refilled with the Whiskey del Bac distillate, rather than seasoned American oak barrels. The primary maturation was a mix of both new charred American oak 15 gal and reuse 15 gallon American oak for 1-1.5 years before the French oak finishing.

Lost Lantern “Desert Dessert” by Whiskey del Bac, Single Distillery Series – Review

56.9% ABV. MSRP $100.

Color: Crème caramel, medium thin legs, rested 20 mins

On the nose: Charred nectarines, with mild campfire smoke. Gentle baking spices, caramelized sugar, other assorted fruit; crème brûlée topped with black raspberry. Familiar weightiness and hint of sun-baked leather from French Oak, which intertwines with additional mesquite smoke.

In the mouth: Medium mouthfeel, maybe a little thin for proof, but also maybe the only component that hints at the young age. The caramelized sugar from the nose transitions nicely to the palate, but this isn’t remotely saccharine. There is a savoriness from the mesquite smoke, rather than just straight bonfire, with cognac-like dark fruits, leather, and varnish from French oak hovering in the background. A bit of charred nectarine again. The finish is pleasantly astringent and at least moderately drying, with nice tongue-coating feel and light smoke. Relatively little ethanol is evident on the nose and palate, with some expected chest warming consistent with proof. A few drops of water somewhat mute the smokiness on the nose, but bring richer fruits to the foreground, ripe plum making itself known.

Conclusions:

There is generous complexity here, belying the age. While there is no substitute for time, and I think the texture suffers minimally, overall Whiskey del Bac’s smaller cask maturation seems to be paying off. This is a vibrant, well-composed dram. I have seen at least one review suggesting the “dessert” name may be a little misleading, but I would encourage patience (see: 20 mins rest time) and water. Both the additional time in the glass and a few drops of water allowed deeper caramelized fruit notes to come forth. Smoke and cask forward this is not, rather the French oak and mesquite provide steady background support. If I had any other real “complaints,” it might be that I would have enjoyed a little more of both, as I am a sucker for both French Oak and smoky whiskeys in general. Regardless, this is a unique demonstration of creativity and collaboration in American single malt, unequivocally a product of its Place – whiskey terroir for the 21st century.

Score: 7/10

CategoriesAmerican

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