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Dangerous…

That is the only pertinent flavor thumbnail for the new Copperworks (Seattle) Single Malt Batch #39, Salmon Safe Whiskey.

I’m going to admit, much to my shame, that I had no real idea what the term “salmon safe” actually meant when I got this sample from my FedEx whiskey pimp. As a determined and life-long environmentalist, I had no real excuse for not checking into the term, which I have read/heard probably 300 times, over the past twenty years. In studying for the past four days, so that I won’t come off a a complete bonehead when writing this, I found that Salmon Safe is an actual Thang, not just some adjective used to describe certain products, as a suck-up to enviro folks like me. The organization, Pacific Rivers, appropriately located on Water Street in Portland, O, spawned (of course) a website and certification process called SalmonSafe.org, and getting this certification for your urban development project, vineyard, farm, college or corporate campus, infrastructure project, or golf course is NOT easy and is not at all a slam dunk. Basically, it means that your project or land use has to be built and used in such a way that you can prove that it does no damage to wildlife habitats and water quality. H. T. Rea Farms of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, is one of those certified farms and grows a gorgeous, aromatic species of barley called “Genie”, which is the single constituent grain used in #39.

After almost thirty years in the wine trade, explaining the concept of “terroir” to people, I can tell you that, yes, it is absolutely a real thing and does show up in the tangible flavor profiles of nearly everything that we eat or drink that originates from the soil. It’s a French term, of course, and in true Gallic fashion, it is both childishly simple and hideously complicated to convey. Simple: it is the effect of the soil, groundwater, air, and nearby vegetation upon that thing which springs from that soil. Hideously complex: a raft of other factors figure in: mean temperature, humidity, rainfall, altitude, even certain freakish factors like California’s devastating wildfires of 2020, which resulted in some more adventurous wineries issuing “smoked wines”, made from grapes that had suffered smoke damage. Is that considered terroir? It’s a natural occurrence. Lightning strikes, starts fires, smoke settles into grapes…I say of course, many people say no. Who’s right? Probably both of us. Hideous, right?

The term terroir is almost always applied to flavor attributes, most commonly in wine, but I can personally attest, as a former chef, that it applies to every single growing thing we consume. The same species of apples, grown in my birth state, Virginia, tastes sorta radically different when grown in my home state of Washington. This definitely applies to cider, which proved out, in a recent taste test I did with a Gravenstein cider from Virginia and one from Washington’s Chelan Valley, to be a difference almost as pronounced as day and night.

And terroir, which taps neatly into my AncestryDNA analyzed 61% French/Belgian roots, is one of those phenomena which is easier to detect in some plants than others. Turns out, in Coppeworks’ experiments with barley terroirs, that this happy primary suds ‘n’ booze grain displays maybe even more environmental character than in wine grapes. This was a fairly stunning thing for me, as a veteran wine weenie, to get rubbed onto my face or, more precisely, my taste buds. Line up a Kentucky Whiskey made with those hearty, Midwest-y strains of barley, from your Kansases and your Nebraskas and such, with a Canadian from Alberta or a Northwest bottle from the Palouse or the Oregon side of the Columbia River and you have three vastly different Whiskeys, even if they are all made to a slavish degree in the same style.

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In the harvest at H.T. Rea Farming
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The Genie malt is grown in exactly ONE place on Earth, the H. T. Rea Farm, down there at the intersection of Birch Creek and Hood Roads, about three miles northeast of quaint, pretty little Milton-Freewater. A Walla Walla winemaker friend who has tasted and gotten a sample of Genie said that it made him feel nostalgic, just to nibble a bit. “It smelled and tasted like…well, this area used to be when I was a kid, growing up here,” he said, smiling, “Unspoiled, y’know? This pure, clean, nutty, beautiful taste when you bite it. Almost makes me want to make Whiskey, just from eating it. Kinda, uh, jazzy flavor, too. Not your average cereal grain.

So, I was floored without being really surprised, at how explosively vivid and even a tad exotic were the flavors that came booming out of my first shot of this Whiskey. As with almost all good Whiskeys, a caramel and a barrel-derived volley of vanilla surfaced first and with authority. My wife went wide-eyed for a moment, and gasped, “Wow!” The exact term that was on my mind was “Lively“, that sensation of riotous sensations all at once. “That’s…well,” she grinned, “Kinda…lively.

I don’t know if, after 21 years, we’re starting to develop telepathy or whether my wine-geeky descriptors are just rubbing off on her, but that was how it went and that lively sensation, instead of evening out, as most such first impressions normally do, held fast through the entire tasting. Other flavors developed: mild baking spices, teaberry (the gum, not the plant), brandied raisins, black plums, sumac, dried cranberries and cherries, and some other grace notes that were just developing as the glass went dry. I didn’t have any more in the sample bottle but I plan to find more and may rewrite this a bit when I have more time to spend with it. “Dangerous“… that was the nutshell adjective that came to mind after tasting this. If you’re a Whiskey fan, you WILL want to drink more of this. It is Compelling, with a welcoming character that begs you to sip again. Just be home and hide the car keys if you do.

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Shameful confession time: I heard a fair number of people, over my time in the wine trade, say they didn’t drink organic wines and was puzzled by that for a long time. I finally asked a lady, one slow business day in Seattle, why she never chose organic wines from me.

“Well,” she sighed, thinking about it, “I tried maybe five or six and I just felt like the wineries were more interested in selling ‘organic’ and not so much in selling ‘tastes good’. A wine just being organic is not enough for me to buy it.” Even at that time – about 2005 – there were plenty of fine organic wines available, so I thought her view was a bit limited but it was certainly true with a small handful of wineries. So, seeing a Whiskey promoted as “salmon safe”, I made the same dumb generalization.

One sip buried that little prejudice. This is a borderline brilliant bottle of American-style Whiskey. Those looking for a Scotch wannabe or a Bourbon clone will be frustrated, maybe. While not embracing either of those two styles, respectful nods are given to both. In thinking about this stunning Whiskey, the distillery which comes most to mind is Shelter Point Distillery, about halfway along Canada Route 19A between Courtenay and Campbell River on Vancouver Island, BC. Both are creating whiskeys and Vodkas and Gins that wink at other styles and land squarely in none of ’em. There is an evolving awareness that distilleries can survive and thrive without benefit of a cozy pigeonhole. American makers of Whiskey all walk in the shadow of Bourbon or Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey. It can’t be avoided altogether and certainly not with consumers who pretty much demand some touchstone, some familiar comparison they can grasp before laying out anywhere from $40 to maybe $125 a bottle. So, mine for this, while admittedly inaccurate, would be “body like a Bourbon, complexity like a Highlands Scotch.” And anybody who doesn’t agree with that is probably just as right as I am.

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Copperworks founders Micah Nut (L)
and Jason Parker

My Washington ‘hood is crawlin’ with distilleries, now, and many are delivering bottles that would stack up neatly with any spirits made in the US today. But Copperworks, from whom I have now tasted three of the four Whiskeys, stands out for both expertise and imagination, ranking right alongside Westland and Bainbridge and Chambers Bay and Golden and Woodinville and Dry Fly atop the heap of WA State makers of Whiskeys. 98 Points

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Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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