Friday, January 30, 2015

Koval at The Knock Back - Craft whiskey makes its way to Alberta

One thing that Portland has plenty of in the wintertime is rainy Saturdays.  Well we recently happened upon a nice prescription to chase away those rainy day blues: Drink a bunch of whiskey.

Fooditka got invited to a whiskey tasting at
The Knock Back on Northeast Alberta, and knowing my fondness for mellow, smokey brown spirits, she invited me to tag along.  The added bonus, in addition to some damned fine whiskey, was the venue itself.  I've been meaning to check out The Knock Back for quite awhile, and here was the perfect opportunity.  The tasting was courtesy of Koval, a distillery in Chicago that is steadily gaining traction with whiskey drinkers across the land, and with good reason.  Their product is top-notch; I'd rank it up there with any American whiskey I've tasted to this point.  The food came out of The Knock Back's kitchen, and I'd say it was also very good.  However, this post is a team effort, and we'll leave that part of the review to the expert.  I'll mainly stick to the liquor.

The Knock Back has some serious curb appeal.  It just looks like the kind of place where good times are found in abundance.  The outdoor area looks fantastic for the warmer months, and the inside has the exact right balance of class and neighborhood joint.  There is a ton of cool artwork all over, highlighted by a painting of Chuck Norris with a pair of Super-Soakers aimed and ready.  The bar itself is nicely appointed, and all of the different drinks and menu items are up on the back wall in plain sight.  It's in a perfect location, smack in the middle of Alberta Street, and will hopefully remain there in perpetuity.  

Koval Whiskey - 
Founded in Chicago in 2008, Koval is a relatively new company.  It was started by a married couple who decided to leave behind a life of academia, and begin a new pursuit:  craft high-quality whiskey from organic grains that are produced by farms in the Midwest, thereby supporting sustainable agriculture and the local economy.  As lofty as those goals sound, at its heart, the decision was probably an easy one for the simple fact that whiskey is more fun than school.

The tasting itself consisted of 4 different types of whiskey, plus the good people at The Knock Back made a delightful punch to go with all their food.  The base for the punch was Koval's White Rye, which I believe is the same spirit as their Rye Whiskey, but it's not aged in oak barrels.  All of their limited edition whiskey is aged 2 - 4 years in toasted 30 gallon barrels, as opposed to charred 55 gallon barrels, like most other American whiskeys.  The smaller barrel allows the spirit to mature faster, and the toasted wood seems to make the finished product more mellow than a charred oak barrel would.

Millet - This was the first whiskey we sampled and while it was decent, it was definitely the weakest of the four.  I thought it was slightly smokey, and rather clean tasting, but a little too thin.  It lacked the substance you usually find in a high quality whiskey.  Perhaps I'm just not a fan of whiskey made from millet.  This is the only time I've had any, and again, not bad, but nowhere near as good as the next three whiskeys on the menu.  Maybe that's why they put it out there first.  On a scale of 1 - 5, I'd have to give it a 3.

Rye - Ahhh, yes.  There it is.  This was a much more substantial whiskey than the first, but somehow not quite as smokey.  It was smooth and even, and not overpowering.  It had a great, almost silky texture, that coated my palate in just the right way.  A little drop of water swirled in enhanced the overall experience, so I imagine it would be fantastic on the rocks.  I'd give it a 4.5 out of 5.

Bourbon - The bourbon was the bomb.  I like bourbon in general, so I was especially interested in critiquing theirs.  This, in my opinion, was fantastic.  What stood out to me was the aftertaste.  The initial sip was great, and then it bled slowly away, lingering with a slightly sweet and smooth flavor.  It was just the right amount of bite and texture, and somehow not too "bourbony."  The Knock Back guys came around with stylish Manhattans in frosted glasses made from this delightful spirit, proving the point that it is perfect in mixed drinks also.  I'm going to say 4.9 out of 5, but only because perfection is supposed to be unattainable.

Four Grain - This one reminded me more of a scotch than an American whiskey.  I'd have to say it was the smoothest of the four, and not too smokey, on account of the toasted oak that it's aged in.  The overall taste was remarkably even, with no one flavor standing out above the others, yet all contributing perfectly.  Again, a tiny bit of water really opened it up, and I would love to try it on the rocks.  Fortunately, Koval is being distributed in Portland now, so I'm sure I'll get my chance soon.  Let's say another 4.9 out of 5.

As Dan promised, now it's time to get to the food portion of this post, which I was lucky enough to sample.  Overall, the food was impressive and delicious and enough of a reason to return to the Knock Back.  Here's what we tried:

Potato Croquettes - I love a great croquette and this had all the winning elements, including a crispy exterior, a soft, pillowy interior and some cheesy goodness on top.  Their size was perfect for popping into your mouth, and both Dan and I indulged in a few pieces.

Dirty Popcorn - An appropriate snack to have with the whiskey, their seasoned popcorn packed a punch with lots of interesting spices.  Although we felt a little bit of heat with each bite, the flavors were nicely balanced and didn't overpower the palate.

Bruleed Marshmallows - My favorite part of the afternoon was when the Knock Back's talented mixologist brought out a sampling of boozy marshmallows made from Koval's fruity liqueurs and then proceeded to brulee them on the spot.  I don't know how he did it, but he managed to get a flawless brown crust on the outside of the marshmallow, whereas the inside was oozy, sweet and oh so delicious.

Service and Cost:
As we were invited to a private event, there was obviously no cost to speak of.  However, I'll tell you that all of the whiskey that we tried retails for around $50 a bottle, give or take a few dollars.  For that price, and the quality of the product, I'd say it is definitely worth it.  It may sound a little pricey, but you usually get what you pay for, and I've had more expensive whiskey that wasn't nearly as good.

3 Mmmms

The Knock Back - 2315 NE Alberta St, Portland OR 97211

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