Friday, August 30, 2013

Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2: Experimental Hotbox, #7 Char and French Oak

For the bourbon drinker with empirical leanings, Buffalo Trace periodically comes out with 2 lines of quasi-experimental offerings: the Single Oak Project and the Experimental Collection. The SOP is a sprawaling project mainly focusing on (you guessed it) oak, while the BTEC is more varied. The latter is really fun for me, because many of the offerings really seem to be products of a "I wonder what would happen if we..." sort of conversation than those of a marketing discussion. The BTEC have often been odd, always sort of overpriced, and sometimes awful (BT even regrets the oat bourbon, I hear). Though these are overpriced when compared to bourbon bought simply for pleasure (~$50 per 375), they are often fun and novel.

Keeping with the recent theme of Buffalo Trace's 15% rye mashbill, we will look at three BTEC whiskies (they are not all legally bourbon) that differ most obviously by their cooperage (also age). Before we begin, it is best to review that Bourbon is legally a spirit made using at least 51% corn, distilled at less than 160 proof and entered into unused, charred, oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (among other requirements). Distillers vary on how they char the barrels; Buffalo trace typically chars theirs for 55 seconds (#4 char), but for this release they experimented with different oak aging regimens.

The "Hotbox"-treated bourbon was put into barrels made using staves that were toasted before being assembled into a barrel and charred in the traditional fashion. The hope here was to improve the flavoring potential of the uncharred oak layer that absorbs and exchanges whiskey during aging.

BTEC Hotbox Toasted Barrel (16 years, 8 months old, 45%ABV)
Nose: Hot attic, orange peel, some tropical fruit (hint of bananna, maybe papaya), caramel and vanilla.
Palate: Medium-thin texture, well-controlled alcohol. Wheater-like wood influence and nuttiness. Little rye spice, but age notes of acetone, coconut, almonds, maybe a bit of ginger.
Finish: Very tame, mildly tannic, medium sweetness and length. Fruit and vanilla persist the longest.

Overall this is an excellent bourbon that reminds me of Van Winkle wheater offerings more than anything else out of Buffalo Trace. For whatever reason, this barrel seems to show a lot more wood, nuts and fruit than rye spice, chocolate or char notes. I suspect the toasting added some of the extra oak flavors that take such central prominence in older wheaters. The aging here sure didn't hurt. I really like this and would love to see it at a bit higher proof (to solve the thin mouthfeel) and at a slightly more reasonable price (though it is nearly 17 years old).

The #7 Char experiment differs in oak treatment from the BT standard practice by charring the inside of the oak barrels for a full 3.5 minutes instead of the usual 55 seconds. I suppose that this experiment should at least demonstrate the upper end of the influence of charring on the finished bourbon.

BTEC #7 Heavy Char Barrel (15 years, 9 months old, 45%ABV)
Nose: Apples, milk chocolate and charcoal. Also some rye spices. Overall reminds me of a more muted Blanton's
Palate: Similar in weight to the Hotbox. Overall pretty mild. Corny sweetness, apple, faint spices (clove and ginger), again milk chocolate and some butter.
Finish: Very easy, warming and sweet. Tannins appear at the very end, though not unpleasantly.

Overall this is a much more subdued experience than the Hotbox. It is nice, but not what I would have hoped for a 15 year expression of a bourbon that starts out essentially as Blanton's. I suspect that the huge amount of char may have acted to "charcoal filter" out some of the flavor. This reminds me a bit of the George Dickel Barrel Select in it's drinkability. The result is mild to be sure, but not interesting enough to call a success, or to go out of your way to find.

Finally, the French Oak experiment. Typically, bourbon is aged in American white oak (Quercus alba). For this experiment, #2 mashbill new make was entered into barrels made of French oak (both Quercus robur and Quercus petraea are called French oak in wine/spirit making, the latter is more likely here). In winemaking, French oak is considered to impart a fruitier, spicier and more "exotic" profile to wine, compared to the sweeter, vanilla dominated profile of American oak. Interestingly, in this experiment, the barrels were toasted only, thus making this whiskey not technically a bourbon as it has never seen the inside of a charred barrel.

BTEC 1995 French Oak Barrel Aged (15 years, 3 months old, 45%ABV)
Nose: First impression is rum-finished Scotch. Incense, floral perfume notes, overripe mango, white chocolate and a scented-candle note I can't quite place.
Palate: Medium bodies, drier and more astringent than the above. Very wine-like and a bit bitter. Wood tannins are evident, but little of the typical vanilla/caramel/butter seen with charred oak. A funky note that reminds me of single malt or pot-still Irish.
Finish: Astringently tannic and a bit bitter. Some spice/incense lingers, as does a fruity sourness.

Overall this is an odd one. I would never have picked this as an American whiskey. I would have guessed either a Balvenie* I've not yet tried (the winey, funky notes are reminiscent), or maybe a wine-finished Scotch. It is very a very interesting illustration of the effects of oak and a very unusual drink; just not one I find pleasant, unfortunately. I have to applaud the willingness to experiment and the dedication to empiricism, but I have to categorize this as an informative failure.

I have to say I think these experiments of Buffalo Trace's are really pretty cool. We get to see the effect of so many of the different contributors to a finished whiskey. As I've said before, I think we all get too hung up on mashbill, when so many other variables come into play, in this case cooperage. Proof also seems to be a major factor in how enjoyable and intense a bourbon is, but really just changes intensity, rather than character. Warehouse location seems really under-appreciated when you see how different the AAA tastes compared to Blanton's. Entry proof is another big one, but that will be another post.

So are any of these worth buying a full bottle of? Not really at these prices. I split these half bottles with a friend, so it was worth it to me for curiosity and novelty, but I'm not sure I'd drop $100 a fifth on any of them But if BT were to produce larger quantities of any of these at a lower price, I'd definitely go with the Hotbox. And not just for the name.

I'm off on a brief hiatus for a road trip; along the way I hope to find some interesting things to share. I will also turn my attention soon to the excellent Four Roses distillery, that I have so far neglected for no good reason.

* Despite the reminiscence, I will clarify that I like Balvenie, before you start to object!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bonus Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2 Review: Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year

Ancient Ancient Age? Really?
Ha! The bourbon gods were smiling on me as I prepared for my upcoming mashbill #2 extravaganza: while out with the wife and daughter I ran into an unfamiliar NJ liquor store to do my usual scan of the bourbon. I almost passed the large plastic bottles of Ancient Age, but noticed the gold label. "Hmm," I thought, "10 star in New Jersey, that's odd..." but then on closer inspection found this to be the now-on-hiatus and supposedly never distributed out of Kentucky AAA 10 year. Given that it has not left KY in recent history and this bottle was covered in dust, this seems good luck indeed. I've wanted to try some of this for years: same mashbill as Blanton's, 10 year age statement and $33 for a 1.75, granted it's 86 proof, but otherwise on paper it sounds like an incredible deal.

I can't really confirm the recent rumors of AAA 10 year's hiatus/discontinuation, but in today's market I'm sure that BT/Age have more lucrative plans for this juice than a $20/L treat for Kentuckians. Either way, I'm glad to have found this.

Ancient Ancient Age 10 year-old KSBW (43%ABV, $33/ 1.75L) Distilled by Buffalo Trace

Nose: Butter/buttered corn (diacetyl?), apple pie, caramel apple, and a small amount of baking spices
Palate: Easy, moderately sweet with thin mouthfeel. Definite apples here, as well as vanilla.
Finish: Brief but with finally evident rye spice

I was very happy to have found this and, having tried it, I totally understand the cult following. Interestingly, I don't find it to be very like Blanton's: this is thinner (obviously from the proof) but also more buttery and less rye-forward. There is also less barrel influence overall, despite the 10 year age statement. I suspect the less prominent barrel character is to do with warehouse location (a lower floor or different warehouse perhaps?). Overall, though a very nice and classic bourbon.

I was initially going to run back and buy the rest of the store's stock, but I think I will leave it for others: this is more a reminder of how good and cheap bourbon was just a few years ago than something worth hoarding. Though it is definitely worth drinking if you are of the type that likes a standard/go-to/house bourbon. For me, I am always going to want more variety, and a handle of this is enough for now. That said, I don't think we'll see it's like again for this price, at least not for a long time.

Outstanding value and very good/excellent regardless of price

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2 Part One: Blantons Original Single Barrel, Gold and "Straight from the Barrel"

Then did he raise on high the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, saying, "Bless this, O Lord, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the people did rejoice and did feast upon the lambs and toads and tree-sloths and fruit-bats and orangutans and breakfast cereals ...

Blanton's has always pleasantly reminded me of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (known to the observant as the globus cruciger), but unlike the symbol I first remember seeing in terribly boring and neurosis-inducing CCD classes, I've nothing but fond memories of Blanton's. As the first successful single-barrel bourbon, Blanton's was the late Elmer T. Lee's  gift to the bourbon world and the beginning of bourbon's rise to its current place of recognition as an equal among world-class whiskies.

The unfortunate, recent passing of Mr. Lee (more thoughtfully eulogized in many recent articles by those who knew him than I could do justice to by adding my own) has put us all in mind of his efforts and legacy in the bourbon world. I have been excited by the prospect of the next two posts for some time now, as I have in any case long been a fan of bourbons made with the "#2 rye bourbon mashbill" of Buffalo Trace. This mashbill is often referred to as BT's "high-rye mashbill", but at ~15% rye this is really about the average for traditional bourbon, though higher than the ~8% mashbill used for the "#1" mashbill used for the Stagg, Eagle Rare, and Buffalo Trace label bourbons, which is one of the lowest in the industry.

As a point of trivia, the #2 MB Brands (Ancient Age, Blanton's, Eltmer T. Lee, Hancock's and Rock Hill Farms), while distilled at BT, are actually owned by the Takara Shuzo Lrd Co, who acquired Age International a few years back. This is why the Japanese get more Blanton's variety than we do. I wonder if this is also why my prayers for a #2 MB in the Antique Collection have gone unanswered for so long...

Last weekend, my friend Greg and I sat down to try to get a handle on the 3 major expressions* of Blanton's: The Original Single Barrel, the Gold Edition, and "Straight from the Barrel." Only the Original is available in the United States; Greg's SFTB came from Master of Malt, and I traded for the Gold (thanks again u/dementedavenger99). All 3 of these are single barrel bourbons from the same mashbill, aged in Warehouse H, distilled to 140 proof, and entered into barrels at 125 proof. While there have been speculations about different ages and barrel selection profiles, the clearest differences between them are the bottling proof: Original is bottled at 93 proof, Gold at 103 and SFTB at cask strength. On to the tasting (note these are all single barrel bourbons, so variability is to be expected):

Blanton's Original Single Barrel Bourbon (Barrel # 184, dumped 7-4-13, 46.5% ABV)
Nose: Apples, pears, sawn wood, vanilla bean, ethanol
Palate: mid-heavy weight, quite smooth, more intense than average, sweet with fruit, vanilla, mild spiciness and well-balanced oak. No yeasty or off flavors. Classic bourbon profile, but more intense and heavier bodied than is usual.
Finish: Relatively short and overall echoes the palate with no real bitterness or harshness. Leaves the mouth cool.

Overall, this is a very classic and very well made bourbon. I would almost go so far to say that if you don't like this, you don't like bourbon, as this is basically archetypal, if maybe a little sweet. My only gripe is that $50 is a little high for ~8 year old bourbon made in this quantity, even with the inclusion of the nice stopper and the velvet bottle scrotum (bag? cozy?).

Blanton's Gold Edition Bourbon (Barrel #239, dumped 3-1-12, 51.5% ABV)
Nose: Similar to the Original but more intense and more butter/caramel and ether notes. Also perhaps less wood. More interesting
Palate: Heavier and more intense with more evident alcohol burn. More tannic and textured as well. Honey and oak, perhaps less fruit.
Finish: Compared to the Original, more warming and persistent with lingering fruit and spice.

Overall this is a small but clear step up from the Original, it is basically Blanton's but modestly better in every way. It is hard to imagine liking Blanton's Original and not liking this a little bit better. I think that this is almost 100% due to bottle proof, as watering it down to the 93 of the Original yields a bourbon that while not identical (perhaps due to barrel variation) seems much more parallel.

Blanton's Straight from the Barrel Bourbon (Barrel 270, dumped 3-7-12, 66.25% ABV)
Nose: More alcoholic, a bit burning to the nostrils. With air ether/acetone notes join the alcohol as well as some rye spiciness, followed by wet oak. Much less fruit here.
Palate: Hot, numbing. Still sweet like the others, with prominent vanilla and butter. Some molases as well as cookie spices.
Finish: A bit numbing due to high ABV, but very long and overall pleasant and echoing the palate.

Overall, this seems less complex and more alcohol dominated in a way that makes me think that it may actually be younger than the other two. Watering it to 103 does not yield gold (with again the caveat that barrels vary); the result is much more thinner, a bit lighter in color, less sweet and less complex. I like it less than the Original, even at 103 proof. As it is not 100% pleasant to drink at barrel strength, and less pleasant diluted than the others, I'm afraid to say this may be my least favorite of the three.

In summary, this was a very enjoyable survey of some of the more elusive Blanton's expressions, and here is my final take:

Blanton's Original is excellent bourbon, full stop. It is, however, a bit overpriced consigning it to the category of bourbon to buy when you have no access to limited releases and want to throw money at the problem. A fine gift and a nice occasion bourbon. I would buy loads of it for $30. As is, I would happily get rid of all of it for more access to Gold in the US.

Blanton's Gold is much more clearly a premium product, and one that provides an "A-Ha" moment when first sipping. This is the version that I think should be the one we get, if we get only one, and would be worth the $50 the original now commands. If they were to present us with this, there may not be so many bottles of Blanton's in every liquor store I've ever been to. As it stands, I think this is actually worth seeking out for fans of the Original.

Blanton's SFTB is a bit of a disappointment. Maybe it was the barrel I got but I was excited for this to be the most intense and enjoyable of the three, but it was just more alcoholic. The disappointment came from the sense that it had more alcohol without a proportional increase in flavor, which was seen when watering it down. Whether or not my suspicion is true, this tastes younger to me and in any case I prefer the Original, so there is really no reason to buy this.

Next, we will examine whether a $33 plastic 1.75L of Ancient Ancient Age can stand up to any of these, and then we will look at 3 iterations of the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection that all treat this mashbill in very different ways.

*There is also an 80 proof version that I assume mainly exists for markets who tax proof excessively. By all accounts (as if the 80 proof weren't enough) this is not worth trying to smuggle/import. There have also been silver and black labels for duty free editions.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Canadian and Irish Whisky Fans:

Stop writing me to tell me that I just don't understand Canadian and Irish. I do. These are different styles to the Scotch, bourbon and rye that I most enjoy. The problem is that so many that are sold in America are not different but inferior, and the only reason that many people think otherwise is that add-supported softball review blogs say otherwise. Here is my case:

I love all well-distilled whiskies, whether they be from Japan or Kentucky, and made out of rye, corn or barley. The best examples show craft in distillation that displays the true flavor of the grain, as well as in aging that displays the depth of secondary flavors that aging in wood can bring. This is almost guaranteed in "straight" American whiskey, due to legal limits on distillation and entry proof, as well as the mandate to age in fresh barrels. Single malts similarly have pretty stringent parameters that dictate at least some minimal quality. However, the regulations on Irish and Canadian are less stringent, and so companies that would like to make more profit have used the following maneuvers that uncritical fans have accepted as "the style," such

  • Large proportions of relatively flavorless, but cheap high proof grain whisky = less or off-putting flavor
  • Terribly re-used, but cheap oak = makes the age statements nearly meaningless, especially in cold climates, ending very little barrel character or age notes
  • Low ABV, because water is cheap = less flavor

What these all have in common are that they are cost-saving measures, not "part of the style." I say there are very nice Irish and Canadian whiskies, but almost to a one the better they are, the more likely they are use more malt (or rye/corn if Canadian), fresher barrels and to be presented at higher proof.

The issue, for me, is that these good ones are hard to find and expensive in the Northeast US, whereas the cheap ones cannot usually compete with straight American whiskey which has no neutral spirits, or caramel color. Many good, cheap options are also to be had at reasonable proof.

An exception to this would be the Alberta-sourced Jefferson's 10 year rye which is $35, new oak, 94 proof and 100% rye: more like this is what distillers could do in Canada. In Ireland, more single malts or pure pot still whiskies (Redbreast, Green Spot) , or at least more reasonable blending (Middleton).

Shitty Canadian or Irish whiskeys would be acceptable if they were at least cheap, but as it stands, the US market is full of over-marketed, whisky-flavored vodka. I think that buying a 750ml bottle of Jameson is like buying 250ml of decent whisky and 250 each of Everclear and water. But rather than being angry about this, consumers have become so convinced by advertising above urinals that they actually defend the stuff and send me hatemail.

Anyway, as I responded to a recent commenter, you can all rest easy: as I buy all the whisky for this blog myself, and work pretty hard to make it, I'll not be spending any of it on this stuff in the forseeable future.

On to more positive thougts and reviews: I have some Wild Turkey American Spirit, Talisker DE/10/18, and Hirsch 25 rye open, so I think we should have some pleasant reviews coming.

Eagle Rare 10 and Eagle Rare 17 Reviews

Hi all. Sorry for the lapse in posting, this fatherhood thing is a bit demanding, but I think I am getting the hang of it (mostly thanks to my very dedicated wife) and so am back and will try to crank out an article on a weekly basis if I can.

This post was inspired by having bought the best bottle of Eagle Rare 10 year-old (ER10) that I have ever tried. As a widely-distributed single-barrel bottling, this one varies quite a bit, and while I have always liked it as a very well-priced representation of the Buffalo Trace mashbill #1 (low rye, also seen in Old Charter, Buffalo Trace, George T Stagg), it has sometimes erred on the soft and sweet side for me. This has been in contrast to the Eagle Rare 17 year-old (ER17) that I have long felt to be an underrated member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC).

I used to think that ER17 was sort of useless; if Stagg is about the same age, same mashbill but barrel-proof, why would I buy the same thing at 90 proof for the same price? Well, the recent releases of ER17 have actually been closer to 19 years, I hear, and I think barrel selection also plays a role. Finally, there is something that seems to happen with a few months of airtime to the 17 that I just love: it maintains the sweet and soft ER profile (in contrast to the spicier Stagg profile) but gains the "age" notes that I have often admired in extra-aged bourbons and ryes that is not evident when you first pull  the cork. So:

Eagle Rare 10 year-old KSBW (distilled by Buffalo Trace, $26, 45%ABV)
Nose: Lots of fruit, mostly apples and some pears, then honey and a trace of anise. Less of the usual caramel and vanilla, though these are also still here.

Palate: Heavier than I remember with lots of oak and tannins. Still sweet, but with texture from the tannins. Chocolate, caramel, fruit and hints of grass and sap.

Finish: Drying, warming and rather long; faintest bitterness, but overall very nice.

This is a fantastic bottle of bourbon and better than any other ER10 I've had. I went back and bought the 2 remaining bottles that seemed to be from the same barrel. Though this one stands out above other bottles of ER10 I've had with its extra fruit and wood (really hits the sweet spot of youth and aging), I overall have to say that I think ER is underappreciated. Near me this is usually only a couple dollars more than standard Buffalo Trace, and I think it brings extra refinement and depth of flavor from aging that make it a pretty exceptional value.

Eagle Rare 17 year-old KSBW (Spring 2012 bottling, $59, 45%ABV)
Nose: Much woodier: polished furniture and bookstore, also pretty intense vanilla, ether/acetone, candle wax and a hint of buttered corn.

Palate: Drier and yet woodier, though not to the point of being overoaked. Coconut here, along with some almond, toasted bread, custard and  cherry.

Finish: Very long, with vanilla and cherry flavors predominating, along with wood notes. No bitterness here, really pleasant.

Overall: This is clearly a close relation to the 10 year-old, and when first opened, I think it tastes pretty similar. On my second bottle of this now and I think it consistently improves with a few weeks to a month of airtime, when it develops much more pronounced "secondary" flavors of coconut and almond and the ethereal notes that I like so well come out. This is also nothing like Stagg (even Stagg diluted to 90 proof), despite the mashbill similarity, which goes again to show how much warehouse placement and barrel selection must come into play.

These bourbons illustrate how my palate has changed over the last few years: when faced with my yearly BTAC wish list it used to be Stagg>William Larue Weller>Sazerac 18>Thomas H. Handy>ER17.  This is probably close to the internet consensus, and I hope it stays that way, because I'm going after a different list this year. I think my whiskey tastes are following my wine palate: I started out loving 15% ABV highly rated fruit bombs, but have settled into enjoying balance and nuance more. I no longer find most barrel-proof monsters all that pleasant (though I will probably buy a Stagg Junior and regret it).

Given this, for October, I have now settled on: Sazerac 18 (I'm going to buy as much as I can reasonably afford this year as perhaps my last chance to really stock up on aged rye), followed by ER17 (such is my newfound love for it) and maybe one Stagg, because it is fun and one of the few barrel-roof releases that retains complexity and balance. No WLW (I like it no where close to as much as Pappy, and about the same as the $25 Weller 12), and no Handy (It's fun, but it's really just barrel-proof Sazerac 6, as I either mix or dilute Handy to drinking strength, the $30 Baby Saz it s much better deal).

Anyway, October is still a long way away... Will try to be back next week.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vintage 21 and Rittenhouse 21 Rye Whiskey Reviews

Old enough to drink themselves.
Along with Islay Scotch, aged rye is my abiding whisky love. So it is with much happiness that I was able to change out of my baby-vomit-covered shirt, sit down, and write this review. As you may remember from my first posts, I am a big fan of the many extra-aged whiskies bottled from the Old Medley or Cream of Kentucky (Heaven Hill) distilleries, and these are two of those. The Rittenhouse is a product of Heaven Hill, and was therefore likely distilled in the old Bernheim distillery; likely a similar stock to the excellent Sazerac 18 sold by Buffalo Trace. The Vintage 21 is a KBD product that does not reveal it's source, but I am 99% positive it is from the same stocks of Medley rye that we find in the Hirsch 21/22 and that makes up part of the mixture that is the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. If anyone has any further info on these, please feel free to let me know as I would love more details.

I think the things that I find so exciting about these older ryes are the unusual intensity of the nose these guys tend to have, and their combination of spice and dryness. These things are very hard to find in bourbon (though wheaters do age really nicely). The nose, I find, is what develops most in the extra-aged expressions. The other notable characteristic that seems drastically to increase with aging is the presence of tannins (the same chemicals responsible for the mouth-drying quality of red wine), which many find off-putting. My favorite wines are the relatively tannic Baroli and Barbareschi of Piedmont, though, so this does not bother me a bit; I actually kind of like it. 

Vintage 21 Rye Whiskey (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers) 47%ABV ($120 if you can find it)

Nose: Attic, church pews, incense, dark rye toast, toffee, raisins

Palate: Chewy, with well integrated alcohol. Toast, vanilla, intense spices, caramel and lots of wood. Brooding.

Finish: Very long, warming and drying. About 1 minute in , apples and grape skins come through, finally 
ending cool.

Overall: This is much better than I remember a prior tasting in a bar, which I though was too dry and woody. This is still a very woody drink, but I think it has the fruit and spice to balance the wood assault that makes for an overall very intense, interesting experience. Those who find their wood/tannin tolerance lower than mine would likely prefer the Saz 18 which is at this point easier to find and cheaper, but I like this a bit better. 93/100

Rittenhouse 21 Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey (Heaven Hill) 50%ABV ($150)

Nose: More ethereal with notes of rye bread, red fruits and caramel, in addition to incense, antique shop wood and old books. More alcoholic as well. 

Palate: Big mouthfeel with buttered rye toast, cinnamon and cloves, very faint pickle, also lots of wood. Bright overall.

Finish: Shorter than the V21, not as drying. Apples and their skins, vanilla, faint incense. Ends with slight grapeseed bitterness.

Overall: The nose on this is just fantastic and is by far the high point of this whiskey. I could smell this stuff for days. The palate and finish are much better than when I first opened the bottle (at that point the palate was quite thin and boring), but they are still a bit of a let-down after the promises of the nose. This is still excellent whiskey, but not quite as good as the V21, and I don't think I'd spend the rather high price on it (better to get Saz, Michter's 10 or any other old rye you can find). That said, I am still looking forward to opening the 23 at some point and will of course report back. 91/100

These are both excellent rye whiskeys, but they sort of illustrate what I think is a great sadness of the recent boom in bourbon and rye: look at how expensive these are. A few years ago, people were complaining that the V21 wasn't worth $40 because you could get VWFRR for that price! Now, there are just so few options for a good aged rye without impoverishing yourself. Luckily, the majors have all increased their rye production, so maybe when attention moves on to the next phase of "clear drinks are now cool again," we can have a rye glut, but until then, make sure to share these bottles with friends.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wiser's 18 Review

Whisky Advocate's 2012 Canadian Whisky of the Year
Those of you that follow this blog or know me personally, know that I am always on the hunt for extra-aged rye whiskey. Taken together with my recent esteem for the Alberta-produced Jefferson's 10 year, it was with excitement that I learned of a US retailer who was selling the otherwise hard-to-get Wiser's 18 (also marketed as Wiser's Very Old).

I have been known to make disparaging remarks about Canadian whisky before, usually decrying their practice of adding up to 9.09% syrup/color/wine/maple syrup or whatever, as well as their even more rampant practice of blending perfectly good "flavoring whisky" (whence Jefferson's, Whistlepig and Masterson's) with very high proof "grain whiskey" that differs little from vodka.

I put all of this aside as I read the Advocate and other reviews. All touted huge amounts of oak and notable rye spices. As I forked over my $54, I was really looking forward to an available alternative to keep me from raiding my stash of older, straight rye whiskies.

This was some of the worst whisky money I have ever spent.

At first, I was going to write that I must just not understand Canadian whiskey, but I don't think that is fair to me. This is really overpriced, disappointing stuff, and I cannot understand how it is so well reviewed. When I first opened it, I got a whiff of oak, that was quickly gone and has not come back. Otherwise:

Nose: Vanilla, apples, a touch of butter and something bitter smelling that may be tired oak. Notable rubbing alcohol.
Palate: Vanilla, reused oak, a touch of cardboard, vodka and water.
Finish: Bitter and alcoholic. Despite being diluted to a pathetic 80 proof, it still has a very spirity burn that in no way suggests 18 years of aging. Otherwise mercifully brief.
Could this be a bad bottle? Do they counterfeit Wiser's? I'm not even sure what to do with it. I tried water and ice to no avail. I think I may just dump it to use what is really a very nice bottle. 70/100

I really like Canada and Canadians, and I also know that good whiskey can be made up north; this just really isn't it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Hi All,
Thanks for the patience during my hiatus; I'm just finally able to start up with this blog again. I will be easing back in with shorter reviews before launching into my usual (excessively?) long format. Today, we have two whiskies from Japan. Those of you less familiar with world whisky may not think that this sounds very appealing but Japan actually has a history of making great whisky dating to the 19th century. Japanese domestic whisky production is very similar to that in Scotland, relying on single malts and grain whiskies (the latter usually in blends) and using peat smoke and reused bourbon or sherry barrels for flavor. For more and excellent reading on Japanese whisky be sure to check out the blog Nonjatta.

Today's reviews will be two high-strength, reasonably priced, primarily bourbon-barrel finished blended whiskies. Though I have tended to avoid all but a very few blended Scotch whiskies, Japanese blends often pull it off really well (Hibiki is a notable example), and these two are no exception.

1. Kirin Fuji Sanroku (foot of mount Fuji) NAS blend, 50% ABV (about $15)
This one is a very well-priced "supermarket whiskey" in Japan, that I added to an order to get free shipping. I initially had very low expectations.

Nose: Vanilla, apples, grapes, grains and hints of coffee and caramel

Palate: Medium to heavy body, roasted grains, Four Roses bourbon, cooked milk and a touch of must

Finish: Fruit from the nose re-emerges, moderate burn, finishes cleanly.

Overall: This is really surprisingly good. There is no mistaking this for a single malt but the grain component here lends a nice, heavy mouthfeel and the bourbon presence lends really pleasant floral and vanilla notes (I presume that the bourbon barrels used were from Four Roses, also owned by Kirin, and you can really smell the similarity). Often, when it is hot and I want a whisky with ice that I do not need to think too hard about I will order a Johnny Walker Black; this does about the same thing for me, for much cheaper. 82/100

2. Nikka Whisky "From the Barrel" NAS blend 51.45% ABV (about $30)
I first had this whiskey in Reims, after a day of champagne tasting. Just writing that makes me pine for my pre-child life a bit... Anyway, The FTB is a marriage of malt and grain whiskies from Nikka's two distilleries, Yoichi (Hokkaido) and Miyagikyo (Honshu). The whiskies are vatted together and "recasked" for additonal aging, then bottled directly from the cask. Unlike the Kirin, this whisky is relatively well-known and gets great reviews, including frequent World Whisky Awards.

Nose: Incense/spices, apricots, citrus peels, vanilla, and faint solvent and perfume notes

Palate: Sherry, butter, roasted nuts, vanilla, malt and milk chocolate. Alcohol well in check and medium-bodied.

Finish: Seamlessly trails of from the palate for a few minutes. Despite the high strength, this warms rather than burns.

Overall: This stuff is just great. It holds its alcohol percentage very well and provides a much more nuanced and polished presentation than the Kirin. At the same time, it has a complexity and power that keep it from being a smooth, boring whiskey. Though not stated on the packaging or website, there seems to be a definite sherry influence here in addition to bourbon barrel. There are also some oak notes here that seem really rather exotic; I don't know that any of this was aged in the famed Mizunara oak, but I'd not be surprised. I'd love to know the cooperage regime here, as it is truly pretty interesting. 89/100

In much the same way that the Japanese seem to be able to turn out a high-quality, reasonably-priced version of just about everything, these 2 blends absolutely destroy any blended Scotch competitor even close to their price range. The Kirin can totally replace any inexpensive blended scotch for on-the-rocks drinking, and I would imagine the Four Roses nose would also appeal to bourbon drinkers. The Nikka is also just a stunning value: though a blended malt, I think it can hold its own with any unpeated scotch up to easily twice its price. The only real problem I see with either of them is that they are not imported into the US.

Next up will be a less glowing review...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brief Hiatus

Hi All,
With the earlier than planned arrival of the Breastmilk Obsessive, I will be taking a brief break. There has been too little sleep or time to really enjoy a drink lately, much less obsess. I fully intend to be back with a number of pent-up reviews, but for now, I have to take a break. I continue to appreciate your readership, comments, etc., and look forward to rejoining you soon.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Obligatory Robert Parker Post

When Dave Driscoll posted that Robert Parker decided to tackle bourbon, my reaction was a Tourette's attack that I don't feel comfortable repeating here. Most of the writing in the bourbon world has been negative, as exemplified in the thoughtful article by Tim Read at Scotch and Ice Cream. Everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon in decrying this move by Parker, mainly citing his reductive rating system and apparent ignorance of bourbon before reviewing them (to be fair, the article was really hilarious in its ignorance.)

My reaction was somewhat different. I don't actually think Bob is evil. There, I said it. This article from 2000 in the Atlantic paints a very human picture of a guy that discovered he really enjoyed wine and food and made his own business writing his opinions of wines that he tried. He seems to both be a pretty regular guy at base and is also possessed of an almost savant-like power to remember and describe wines. 

Over the years, he has become an unlikely arbiter of wine taste in the world. He has also been demonized for "Parkerizing" the appreciation of wine, and for the increasing trend of winemakers to put out (over)exctracted, aggressively-oaked, high-alcohol wines, in preference to the traditional styles that get fewer "parker points." The silly thing here is that no one is making anyone do anything. The guy likes wines of a certain style and pretty much put the Southern Rhone on the map for this reason. But who said that Bordeaux had to break down and produce black-colored wine that tastes like vanilla ice cream? No one made them, they did it because Parker likes that sort of wine, and wines he likes sell.

Here is the problem. It is us. We, the consumers, are too impressionable by opinion, expectation and peer pressure. Not you and me in particular, obviously, but certainly our friends and acquaintances. When some douchey friend shows up with a $200 bottle of wine that got "98 points" in Parker, we are all impressed. Even if we are not, we can never discount that information enough. Sure, we might not think it was nearly perfect or worth that kind of money, but we are likely to have a positive experience, and our douchey friend will probably buy a case, his friends will do the same, and soon Chateau Petrus is $8000 a bottle.

This is exactly the same thing as happened to Pappy. It was, for many of us, a really nice treat of a bourbon at $50 dollars or so that we loved to share with our friends as an example of how good a bourbon could be. Then the hype machine then took over. We then made it worse by buying all we could as we saw availability declining and prices rising, creating a feedback loop that ends with assholes selling Pappy for $800 in Craigslist.

My fear is that we are going to let this happen to other bourbons (Blanton's seems to have been rated scarily high at 97) that we like. There is only one solution to this: we need to educate each other and our friends better about our favored hobby in an accessible way. We need to create an alternative for the confused guy in the liquor store that is being drawn to the "95 points!" shelf talker. We also need to spread the word that, if his last article is indication, Parker knows very little about bourbon and we don't have to listen to him. This is the reason that he doesn't even try to review Burgundy anymore: he made a number of bad calls and embarrassing mistakes early on, no one listened to him about Burgundy, and now he doesn't even review it anymore. We have to encourage the same thing.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Parker's Heritage Collection 2012

Water, lipids and alcohol.
The last 2 variables of bourbon experience we will deal with in this series are the effects of chill-filtration and proof. Often "barrel-proof" and "unchillfiltered" are proudly marked on bottles, and like all "extra" designations ("small batch," "limited," "handmade") these can often motivate higher prices. But what do they really mean, and what effect to they really have.

This one is pretty easy. The current standard US proof is equal to 2 x ABV, so a bottle containing 50% alcohol would be 100 proof. The term itself was an English one and used to refer to 7/4 the ABV, making 100 proof 57.14% ABV. This was the minimum ABV that spirit mixed with gunpowder would ignite, this providing a handy test for 18th century British captains to "prove" the strength of the rum they used as payment to sailors.

On of the main practical considerations of proof is an economic one. In most places some variation on proof X gallons (or proof gallons) is used to calculate taxes due on whiskey. As such, the tax on the barrel is fixed and can be mitigated by watering down the stuff to the legal minimum. This is why barrel-proof whiskies are not priced as the "bourbon concentrates" that they essentially are, but rather a little higher.

This leads to the first effect of ABV: concentration of flavor. When you tap the barrel it has all of the flavor molecules it is going to have and watering it down, well, waters it down. This is not to say that all whiskey should be drunk at barrel proof (which I do not believe), but that having the producer water it down for you saves them money and prevents you from trying it at full strength or deciding how much water to add. The legal minimum proof is 80, and for American whiskey I find very few examples that taste good with this much water.

So concentrated it blocks out the sun!
That said, water can improve the experience of a whiskey, and this is because there are a number of lipophilic (fat soluble) molecules that impart flavor. Anyone who has ever made bacon infused bourbon can attest to the solubility of fatty flavor compounds in alcohol; these are often not soluble in water. This is highly dependent on alcohol concentration: as the ABV drops, these compounds come out of solution and are easier to taste and smell (hence some of the "opening up" talked about when adding water to spirit). If there are enough of these compounds in the solution, they will cloud the liquid as water is added and they precipitate out. This is what is responsible for the dramatic louche seen when dropping water into absinthe.

That this is not always apparent in whiskey is due to the following variable.

Chill Filtration
People apparently don't like buying cloudy whiskey and they don't like their whiskey to cloud up when they add ice (these are apparently the same evil people that prefer their wine to be clear). In order to prevent this aesthetic disaster, distillers often subject whiskey to chill filtration. In addition to alcohol/water ration, the other thing that effects solubility of fatty acids in whiskey is temperature. So, the distiller proofs down the whisky to the desired strength, chills it until it is cloudy and then filters out all the cloudy stuff. This leaves you with a spirit that will not cloud up when cold or watery, but is also without a number of its flavor compounds. You may like the flavor better after filtration, but it is definitely different.

PHC6 left, ECBP right; both with water
All of that said, then, it would be my preference that all whiskeys be offered at barrel proof and unfiltered because 1) I like their unprocessed flavor and 2) I have access to water and don't mind a touch of cloudiness. That we don't have these is due to 1) the ATF and 2) people who drown their stuff in ice but still want it to look pretty. 

Anyway, today we will finish up with our Heaven Hill series with the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and the (premsuably barrel proof) Parker's Heritage Collection 2012.

The ECBP is a new offering that is essentially a barrel proof and unfiltered version of the EC12 reviewed in the last post. This offering is 12 years old, but the fact that this is relegated to the back label makes me suspicious that it will always be so. The most recent PHC is a blend of an apparently similar 11 year-old bourbon (we'd have to guess the usual 75/15/10) and an 11 year-old wheated mashbill bourbon (as seen in Larceny and Old Fitzgerald). 

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 12 years old, 67.1% ABV ($40)
A new offering from heaven hill, this is essentially the EC12 presented at full strength and unfiltered. A you can see from the photo above it is ridiculously concentrated in terms of color, and the alcohol is very high, making us think that it lost a lot to evaporation, especially water (it likely entered the barrel at 62.5%). I would have to guess by this that it came from fairly high up in the warehouse. Tasted uncut:
Nose: Starts of with ethereal notes and very obvious alcohol. Then caramel, dry attic, maple syrup and a hint of charcoal.
Palate: Numbingly high alcohol. Should probably not be put into the body in this form. Popcorn, caramel, cloves and maple with caramel toward the end. Heavy bodied and medium sweet.
Finish: Warming as expected, but clean. The caramel and spice flavors are joined by apple and fade over abour 2 minutes.

 This is interesting and very intense stuff. While I find this easier to drink neat than Bookers, it is just too hot undiluted and actually anesthetizes the palate. As such, I think to drink this at full proof is a mistake as many of the flavors are lost.

Diluted to 107 Proof
Adding distilled water at room temperature produces a glass like the picture above. I've really never seen a whiskey cloud up to this degree before. It even leaves a film of fatty compounds on the walls of the glass. Having watered it, the nose becomes much fruitier and adds apple and pear notes to the above aromas as well as butter; the ethereal quality is also enhanced, leading to a more EC18 like nose in this regard. The palate also improves, adding cherries and anise to the previous flavors. The finish is not notably different.

As long as you are willing to water it down to a reasonable proof, this is a powerful, hugely flavored version of Heaven Hill's well-liked EC12. To be honest, I think the lack of filtration is more of a draw than the proof, but either way this is excellent stuff for $40 and I have to recommend it highly.

Parker's Heritage Collection 6th Edition (2012), "Blend of Mashbills" 66.6% ($90)
The yearly PHC releases are considered to represent the best that Master Distiller Parker Beam can put forth from Heaven Hill. Previous releases, such as the 27 year-old bourbon, the Golden Anniversary, and the 10 year-old wheater have been very well received. The most recent offering is a blend of 11 year-old wheated bourbon with 11 year-old standard mashbill bourbon, presented at barrel strength and unfiltered. This move is unusual, and presents us with what is essentially a barrel-proof four-grain bourbon. I can't think of many other examples of that (maybe some versions of Noah's Mill?). In any case, this all sounds interesting, as well as expensive.
Nose: This is an incredible nose. Loads of caramel. Caramel for days. Then cloves/cinnamon and other "spices" and buttered corn. This really smells delicious.
Palate: Much easier, despite proof. Butter, caramel, pastries, cinnamon toast. Noticeable bitterness (the same I find in lot B... maybe a wheater thing?). Sort of boring and disjointed. Neither a wheater nor  a rye bourbon in profile, and the alcohol is pretty high still.
Finish: Still a bit bitter, some wood pops up here as well. Fades quickly.

Watered to 107 proof
Watering this down, as expected, produces cloudiness, though not to the extent of the ECBP (see comparison photo above, in controlled conditions at home they are actually more similar). Something really cool happens here, though. The nose goes from being a classic wheater at full proof, to smelling very like a rye with water. This has notes of wood, maple, strong rye spices,  and even rye bread. Still a very nice, but completely different nose. The palate, unfortunately does not improve and tastes more like an Evan Williams and Old Fitz cocktail. The finish dissappears other than the alcohol burn.

This is one of the more interesting noses in a bourbon I've run across lately, and the magic change with water is really pretty cool. However, do not find it pleasant to actually drink. The palate seems disjointed and dilution does not really help. I think it would have been interesting if they had marketed this as two, 375 ml bottles and let us try to blend it ourselves, but no one is asking me. Sadly, I think this stuff does not deliver what it should for twice the price of either the 18 or the Barrel Proof.

So, thanks for joining us on our tour of the Heaven Hill Bourbons and some of the non-mashbill variables that affect our whiskey. In closing, I would recommend buying at least one ECBP. It will last you a long time due to the proof and, even if it is not an every day drinker, it's certainly worth trying out. I would also suggest EC12 as a fine all-rounder that totally over-delivers for $23. I would recommend trying the PHC before you buy it (I still see it on shelves), but I can't really recommend it for the price. For the EC18, I can only suggest you buy as many as possible and send them to me.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Elijah Craig 12 versus 18: The Effects of Aging

Next up in our series is this comparison of Elijah Craig 12 year and Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 year. The most obvious and most dramatic difference between these two is their age. The 18 is from a single barrel and is 2% lower in ABV, but otherwise these guys start off as the same 75/15/10 distillate at DSP-KY-1. (Thanks Eric, I totally forgot that this 18 was distilled in 1990 and so would have been made at DSP-KY-31; the 12 was at the new plant).As such, these provide a good example of the effects of barrel aging.

When bourbon is aged in its required charred oak barrels, a number of things happen: flavors are extracted from the wood, very slow chemical reactions take place, and evaporation occurs. All three are important, which is why just putting the stuff in a small barrel (as many start-ups do) or mixing it with wood chips does not result in good whiskey as oak flavors are extracted, but little else occurs. (Thanks to my fellow reddit users, especially the flavor chemist, “Flavorless” for expanding this. I have also heavily relied on the text and references from the excellent blog Whisky Science)

Charred Oak Extracts
All bourbon and straight rye whiskies are aged in new, charred oak barrels. Charring is a process where flame is applied to the inside of a barrel to form a layer of charcoal. This can be done for varying lengths of time, resulting in the different “char levels” used by different distilleries. Burning the oak in this way produces reactions that form free sugars that react with proteins. Well these sugars burn (caramelization), they form a lot of the aromas that we associated with caramel, bread, burnt sugar, beer, coffee etc. This burning process has made a lot of new chemical species that are released through smoke, but after the charring is done some compounds remain in the charred wood.

Some of the compounds related to flavor are as follows:

Hemicellulose is broken down by heat of charring and time to furfural (nutty aromas), hydroxymethylfurfural (musty, waxy, caramel aromas), maltol (malty aromas) and cyclotene (maple, caramel, licorice).

Lignins are polymers (long and chain-like molecules) that in the case of oak lignins, have different sugars and aldehydes attached to them. These compounds break down during charring or toasting, but also over time in the native wood to provide a number of characteristic aromas like smoke, spice or floral notes. Most notably, though, are the vanillins, which lend the characteristic vanilla flavor to bourbon.

Lactones occur in a number of conformations and impart coconut-vanilla aromas or a more incense-like aroma; I love the latter when I come across it.

In addition to imparting beneficial flavors to the spirit, the char layer also serves to reduce unpleasant and immature ones. Simplistically, charcoal tends to bind and draw some off flavors out of the whiskey (like your Brita filter), while others are extracted into it.

Native Wood Extracts/Reactions
Beneath the char layer of the barrel, native, uncharred wood remains. As you might predict, this contributes flavors and aromas that one would expect from dry wood, specifically oak. The compounds in this layer contribute to the "oakiness" of the whiskey over time. Oak from different areas and of different species may contribute different flavors. In wine this is why American oak (much more vanilla flavor) is very different than French oak (spicy as well as dill-like flavors). For the whiskey to extract compounds from the native wood, the liquor needs to first pass through the char layer. It is a slow process for the spirit to diffuse through the char layer, and again a slow one for it to extract native wood flavor compounds.  

Most of these compounds are actually bound to polymers (such as the lignins above) that do not readily extract into the spirit, and so must be liberated by hydrolysis reactions that “clip” them off the chains of larger molecules to which they were bound. Once freed, these compounds can be incorporated into the spirit, which must then diffuse back through the char layer (which may filer out other compounds, see below).

As the spirit slumbers away in the wood, seasonal variations in temperature cause the barrel expand and contract and spirit is drawn in and out of the wood, allowing passage of the spirit through the char layer as discussed above. The rate at which this occurs is dependent on a number of factors, including the humidity and temperature of the warehouse as well as the temperature shifts that occur; the more dramatic the temperature changes are, the greater the transit of the spirit in and out of the wood will be. The tightness of the oak grain and the species of oak can also affect this (though American whiskey uses almost exclusively the Quercus alba species).

Other Reactions
In addition to extraction of the charred oak flavors there are other, slower reactions that take place in the barrel. Notably are those involving tannins; familiar to anyone who drinks red wine. These compounds lend mouth-drying astringency to red wine and this effect can also be found in whiskey. Tannins are also involved in a number of chemical reactions that break down unpleasant flavors in the spirit and oxidize alcohols to the ethereal top notes so valued in extra-aged bourbons (the acetone or ether-like aromas in Pappy or Stagg, for example). Tannins also serve to stabilize color.

The important thing about all of these factors is that they take time. The extracted flavors (lactones, vanillins and others) actually come out of the wood relatively quickly (likely by the time a standard 4 year-old bourbon is dumped), but the breakdown of polymers and the reactions with tannins are not very fast at warehouse temperatures and are actually slowed down by alcohol, so it is not unreasonable to expect years or even decades worth of continued flavor evolution from a barrel of spirit, accounting for the increasing complexity of extra-aged whiskies.

In addition to imparting wood flavors, the barrel also serves as a semi-permeable membrane that allows passage of water and alcohol but little else. As such, part of the contents leave the barrel as the "angel's share" each year; about 8% the first year and about 3% per year thereafter. If this occurs in hot, dry environments (high warehouse floors), more water is lost, leading to higher proof spirits (like Stagg); lower floors and higher humidity lead to more alcohol loss (e.g. barrel-strength Four Roses at near 100 proof). Either way, the flavors are concentrated. This typically leads to a more intense spirit, and also one that is significantly more expensive (by our math an 18 year-old barrel will have lost 60% of its original volume)!

So, there really seem to be two phases of barrel maturation: an initial, extractive one and a longer maturation phase. Most young bourbons on the market are basically bottled after the extractive phase (they have pulled out a lot of oak flavors and have had new-make flavors tamed by the charring). However, the truly special whiskeys make it through many years of concentration and chemical reactions that lead to much more complex complements if volatile chemicals and thus more complex aromas and flavors. That said, it is actually an art to produce such whiskies, as there is a reasonably high risk that too much time in a barrel can lead to whisky that is just too "woody."

Anyway, on to the reviews at hand:

Elijah Craig 12 year-old KSBW 47%ABV ($24)
Nose: Lots of caramel and honey, some corn and vanilla, no overt oak.
Palate: Very smooth, medium sweetness, some popcorn, lots of caramel, touch of oakiness
Finish: Simple: predominantly again vanilla and caramel, but clean and nicely warming.
Overall: 90/100

Elijah Craig 18 year-old Single Barrel KSBW 45%ABV ($43) Guest note by Greg
Nose: volatile, acetone, vanilla, nutty
Palate: possibly the weakest part, slight astringency and a little alcohol poking through, nice buttery and vanilla notes (I like the tannins here, however)
Finish: long but subtle finish, the flavors and tannins coat the mouth and are slowly released over time or after a drink of water, very nice.
(Bottle was from Barrel #3893)
Overall: 92/100

Both of these bourbons were far and away better than their Evan Williams cousins. The 12 year just exceeds the EWSB in every way and is the same price, higher proof and is easier to find. Everyone should go buy one of these that has not tried it and should give it serious consideration for official bourbon of the summer: it is great neat, actually handles rocks well and is cheap enough to share with your friends that want to put coke in it.

The 18 year was for many years the most affordable extra-aged bourbon and is now universally missed. It has become, in Greg's words, the girl from high school that you never really noticed until she was gone. I will pull a hipster and assert that I liked it before it was cool: I thought it stood up well to Pappy and was criticized for this. But even I took for granted that I could pretty much wait for the periodic sales when it would dip below $40 and not give it too much of a second thought. Now it is off the market in favor of the $130, 20 year version. God I wish I had bunkered a case of this stuff. That said, your experience may vary a bit as with all single barrel products, but definitely buy this if you can find it. If you do not enjoy it I will happily dispose of any unused portion.

Overall, I think these are two excellent examples of the best features of Heaven Hill: very well-made, very well priced, and very classically styled bourbons. These may not be the absolute pinnacle of bourbondom, but I'm pretty sure that if you don't like these, you don't like bourbon.

Greg's Thoughts
Elijah Craig 18 year is not a current product.  This makes me sad.  I had only had it two times before it got the axe - presumably to make way for the MUCH more expensive 20 year version on shelves now - and was underwhelmed the first time, and modestly impressed the second.  The second experience motivated me to grab 3 bottles when I heard it was being retired, and that is what makes me sad.  I should have gotten more.  A lot more.  The EC 18 is somewhat similar to the Eagle Rare 17, and that is a great thing.  While the 2011 and 2012 ER 17 needed a few months of air to transform into something wonderful, this bottle has been great from the first pour.  It has those wonderfully interesting tannins that you only get from a long time in barrel and I love it.  I am not as good with flavor descriptions as Ryan, so I will sum up my review thusly: my Evan Williams vintage 2000 has been open for over a year and is 40% full, the EC 12 open for a year and is 25% full, the EC 18 was opened 2 weeks ago and probably won't make it to a month old.  The only caveat is that the EC 18 is a single barrel product and I have read reviews of variable quality.  That being said, if I can find any lightly dusty bottles still on the shelf for sub $50, I will not hesitate to purchase more.

Next: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, PHC 2012 and Chill-Filtration

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Heaven Hill and the Variables of Bourbon

I have been thinking for a while about the different influences that lead to the profiles of our favorite bourbons. Almost everyone goes on about mashbill (the complement of grains), but while this is very important to the final flavor, there are a number of other important factors.

Wanting to explore this further, wanting to talk about something more interesting than a straight review, and really wanting to drink some of these, my friend Greg and I dipped into our hoards for a very diverse set of bourbons that (with one exception) start off as the exact same whiskey and end up very different. It is also time for Greg's long overdue entry into writing about whiskey.

For our first comparison, we evaluated 2 bottles of Evan Williams Single Barrel, bottled in 2000. What makes this comparison potentially interesting is the variable known as barrel selection. The reason "single barrel" bourbons are potentially fun (but not always superior) is that they can show off just how different seemingly identical barrels can become. Bourbons distilled identically and aged for the same amount of time can differ for a few reasons. Warehouse placement may lead to a barrel experiencing more heat (often in the higher floors of the warehouse) leading to an increase in water evaporation and thus a concentration of flavor, color and alcohol. They may also be exposed to more dramatic temperature changes: this leads to more dramatic wood influence as the spirit is drawn more deeply into and out of the barrel staves. Differences in the barrels themselves may also impart differences (they are from non-identical trees after all); apparently the grain of the wood can also impact flavor. And sometimes, there seems to be no real way to know why one barrel is different from another. Here's a great video  on Drink Spirits by Heaven Hill's Larry Kass about the subject. But on to the bourbons:

Evan Williams Single Barrel 2000, Barrel 655 vs Barrel 192 (Both 86.6 proof, 9 years old, $25)

This is an annual release from Heaven Hill, adhering to their standard 75/15/10 mashbill. Notably this is not actually a limited release as such; they continue bottling to meet demand each year. It has regularly been around 9 years old is reasonably priced and is a darling of critics, especially the 2000 vintage we opened: John Hansel gave it an incredibly high 95 points in Whisky Advocate, and most other reviews followed suit.

In this case, barrel 192 went to sleep in the wood 11/8/2000, while 655 stayed up until 12/16/2000

Barrel 655
Nose: Oak and polished furniture first, then vanilla buttercream, faint cloves, cinnamon and dried herbs.
Palate: Medium weight, obviously corn-heavy: popcorn, vanilla, some caramel. Hint of butter.
Finish: Flavors from the palate persist briefly,  fading over 30s. Some roasted nuts and bitterness (hazelnuts?).
Overall: 80/100

Barrel 192
Nose: More muted. Corn and light vanilla predominate with a hint of sawdust.
Palate: More interesting with an incense spiciness, more cinnamon and cloves and more caramel. Some tannins here as well.
Finish: Nearly identical to the 655
Overall: 80/100
Sitting in the corner 

These bourbons are "correct." Really they most evoke the thought: "Yep. That's bourbon." This is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a really boring thing. If this were a student it would get a "C." The kind of "C" where you really want to give a "D," but you know they will just go bitching to the Dean for an appeal... I really wanted to like these.

Anyway if there is some interest that can be wrung from this experience is how different they are: the nose on the 655 was actually rather nice, while the palate on the 192 had significantly more wood and interest for me. We have no idea where the 95 point rating came from, but I suppose that it may illustrate how different single barrels offerings can be.

Given that the nose of 655 excelled and the palate of 192 won, we decided to vat them together and see what happened. While this was certainly no scientific experiment, we decided our "extremely small batch" bourbon was actually a small improvement, which I think argues for the potential benefits of "vatting" or "batching" (just don't say mixing as it implies the addition of neutral spirits), but more about that  another day.

Greg's Thoughts:

As Ryan mentioned, these two are clearly bourbon, but just that.  I think Heaven Hill deserves a good deal of respect on the consistency front as both barrels were very similar.  As for differences, 655 had a slight edge in the nose, and 192 a slightly better palate, but both were pretty boring.  In general, I have found that I prefer older American whiskey (old wheated bourbon and really old rye) that are at least 90 proof and neither of these bottles changes my opinion.  At 9-ish years old there is plenty of age here - the vanilla and tannic notes are present and really nice - but I can't help but think that these bourbons would be much improved with a slight bump in proof to say 90-95 (all the Evan Williams single barrels that I have from 2000-2002 are 86.6).  Oh yeah, and let's drop the cold filtration as well and leave in some of those possibly delicious fatty acids.  Both are tasty and inexpensive whiskeys that would be excellent introductions to those new to bourbon - they are lower in alcohol and have no burn when drunk neat and offer very typical bourbon flavors.

But let's move on to why I am so critical of the Evan Williams bottles: Elijah Craig.  More specifically, Elijah Craig 12 year and the recently departed Elijah Craig 18 year (more about that soon).  The 12 year version is routinely available for sub $30 in my area while the 18 year was purchased for $42.  Herein lies the issue.  The EC 12 and Evan Williams can be had for the same price, and I liked the EC 12 more in every way. The additional age and proof gave it a better nose and longer finish.  Plus, the 94 proof makes it a great candidate for a few ice cubes on a hot summer day.  Now, if you are very sensitive to the drier notes that come from extra oak - they are definitely present here - then this may be a negative, but for me this is one of the great values in bourbon.

Anyway, it gets better. This was only a warmup. Next we will look at the effects of aging (Elijah Craig 12 versus 18), the effect of proof and chill-filtration (EC12 versus Elijah Craig Barrel Proof), and just for fun we'll compare ECBP to Parker's Heritage Collection Mix of Mashbills.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Evan Williams Black Label Review

While preparing my upcoming series on EWSB, Elijah 12, 18, barrel proof and PHC, I realized that I had not had the regular old black label in many, many years. Picked up a 200ml at a really sketchy place while dusty hunting (found a WT American Spirit!), so I thought I’d give him a shot for a quick review as the basic prototype of the whole Heaven Hill Range. For comparison is a bottle of EWSB 2000 (barrel 655).

Evan Williams KSBW, 43%ABV ($4.59 the 200ml, just found out it’s on sale for $11.50/ 750mL in PA)

Nose: Classic Heaven Hill and reminds me most of the Current VSOF. Mint, cinnamon lime rinds, caramel
Palate: Relatively thin, sweet entry. Lots of cinnamon and caramel. Vanilla is here but only a touch of actual “oak” flavor. Hint of light roast coffee.
Finish: Sweet and about 45s long. Echoes the palate and then finishes minty and with a very faint hint of gummy candy Overall I am shocked by how good this is. Where was this in college? Why would anyone drink JBW? Anyway, this will be my go to recommendation for anyone looking to save money and have a nice drink. 83/100

What is most notable is that this earns 3 points more than the EWSB for my palate (that review is upcoming). While the black is fresh and has a lot going on (especially like the cinnamon), the single barrel I have just tastes like very generic and watery bourbon (though the nose is trending toward nice.)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Beam Bourbons Part 2: Small Batch Collection

Sorry for the short break, but I'm back, it's Friday and I finally have time for a  tasting session.

Having started tasting the "Small Batch Collection" with the comparison of Basil Hayden's to its younger, OGD brethren, it is only natural to finish out the Small Batch Series. Unlike "single barrel," "small batch" is a term in the whiskey industry with no mutually agreed-upon definition. Operationally, it tends to mean a product produced in significantly smaller batches than the base level product (in this case "Jim Beam"). Also presumed (sometimes incorrectly) is the idea that these smaller batches allow the distiller to target a more specific profile through barrel selection favoring characteristics that might be otherwise obscured if they just mixed them all together.

The term and marketing idea itself was created by Booker Noe, then the master distiller at Jim Beam in 1987, and began with his namesake Booker's, a barrel-strength and unfiltered bourbon aged around 7 years. This was in the early days of premium bourbon offerings and was likely in response to offerings like Blanton's, the first single barrel bourbon, itself released in 1984. Since the release of Booker's, the Small Batch series has expanded and now includes:
  • Booker's: aged 7 years, 120–129.2 proof (60–64.60% ABV)
  • Baker's: aged 7 years, 107 proof (53.5% ABV)
  • Basil Hayden's: aged 6-8 years, 80 proof (40% ABV); recently lost it's age statement.
  • Knob Creek: aged 9 years, 100 proof (50% ABV), with a 9 year, 120 proof (60% ABV) single barrel expression.
As noted in the Basil Hayden's post, that bourbon uses the OGD mashbill of 27% rye, while Booker's, Baker's and Knob Creek all share a traditional high-corn mashbill with 15% rye (the same as Jim Beam). The latter 3 will be the subject of this review and will serve, I hope, to illustrate how important barrel selection and aging can be in imparting a flavor profile to bourbon. As I've said before, mashbill is important but I think we can get too hung up this one variable. These will be tasted in order of proof so as to avoid burning out my palate unfairly.

Knob Creek KSBW 9 years old, 50% ABV ($32/ 750mL)

Nose: Oak, vanilla, earth and citrus first, then noticeable cinnamon candy. No trace of acetone or other volatile aromas. Intense overall and here the earthy yeasty quality is well matched by the other aromas.

Palate: Medium bodied with noticeable alcohol on the attack despite the 9 years. The palate brings more earth, lots of oaky/vanilla flavors, cinnamon, cloves and small amounts of orange. A bit hotter than would be preferred for a 9 year 100 proofer.

Finish: The initial finish continues the palate quite pleasantly and is rather warming, but then trails off quickly, leaving a faint and less than ideal bitterness.

On Ice: Interestingly, this is one of they few bourbons that I have had that can not only stand up to ice but improves on the rocks. Perhaps this should not be surprising as I'm sure most of the KC made is drunk in this fashion. I find that ice fixes the hot palate immediately, and brings much more prominent vanilla and clove notes to the fore. Apparent sweetness also increases. The only part that suffers is the nose, which becomes predictably more muted.

84/100 (but a champion on ice will be my go to once temperatures dictate ice in my drinks this summer)

Baker's KSBW 7 years old, 53.5% ABV (~$40/ 750mL)

Nose: Notable for much less Beam yeastiness. Very prominent caramel here as well as oak, honey, cloves and a wisp of acetone. More of a dry attic/ furniture oak aroma here.

Palate: Thinner than the Knob, but apparently less hot despite the increased alcohol. The palate here is much more balanced with caramel, toasted bread, and popcorn along with caramel, honey and vanilla. Very well balanced.

Finish: The finish is more focused on vanilla, has less of the bitterness I found in the Knob and fades gradually and more cleanly, leaving a note of apples.

Overall I like this one, and find it far more refined and pleasant to drink neat than the KC. It is on the generic side, but it is clear that this batch was selected from barrels than show an impressive degree of balance, versus the more raw intensity of the Knob Creek. This, as has been said elsewhere, seems a good crossover for brandy drinkers and I am now sad I missed the PA closeout sale of this ($25). For the full list price, though, it is a bit generic: it has no real flaws, but has little of special interest. I like the departure from the Beam house style into something more elegant, though.


Booker's KSBW 6-8 years old, 63.7% ABV, ($50)

Nose: Much more intense; round. Lots of earth, lots of vanilla. Seriously lots of vanilla. Otherwise more similar to the Knob than the Baker's, but I can't overstress how powerful the vanilla is here.

Palate: Good Christ. This is anesthetic at full proof, and while vanilla, oak and toast flavors arrive, they are fleeting and lost in the alcohol.

Finish: Alcohol and maybe some apples. Really just feels like GERD.

So, this is not really pleasant at full proof, as I think tends to be the case with most barrel strength American whiskies that reach into the 120s. Some bottles of Stagg are an exception; this is not. However, while I rarely enjoy a mouthful of alcohol like this, I do favor high proof bottles for the reason that you can taste them undiluted, and then make your own decision about how much water to add. And so:

Watered to 107 proof and rested for 5 min:

The nose remains very pleasant, with the vanilla toned down a bit and a bit more nuttiness coming forward along with some honey and citrus. Smells more like dessert than a bottle of vanilla extract and is really rather nice. The palate is really much improved as well and is very different from the Baker's despite similar age and proof. This is much more forward, still hotter, but sweeter and more focused on desert-like flavors than spices or oak. The finish too is more manageable and fades into apples, vanilla and a cooling sensation that I usually associate with good distillation.


Tasting these together, as I had hoped, has been an interesting exercise in the effect of barrel selection and (maybe) aging on flavor, considering they all enter barrels as basically identical spirits. The Knob Creek seems like it was designed to be iced, and in this capacity I will likely see it again this summer; even with the extra 2 years in oak factored in, this seems a very different bourbon from the other two.

The Booker's and Baker's comparison at 107 I think is the most illustrative: they are totally different. Baker's has a much more refined and balanced profile, though maybe to the point of boring, while the Booker's is much more aggressive if rough.

Overall these are all well-made and pleasant bourbons, but other than waiting for a sale to buy some Knob to drink in the rocks on my roof deck this summer, I probably won't buy these again. I like the other 2, but I just don't think they represent a good value at the prices for which I usually see them listed. The Booker's and Baker's are about equal to each other in price per proof, but the former is too rough and too much a vanilla bomb, while the latter lacks interest. There is just too much good competition for these to move me to spend $40-50. At a 15-20% discount, however, I might be swayed.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Glenlivet 12 year and 15 year French Oak Reserve

Or, how to move from Bourbon to Scotch comfortably

Like many, I cut my single malt teeth on Glenlivet. Prior to this, I thought I did not like scotch whisky, having been exposed to Dewar's white label, J&B and worse. Compared to the Wild Turkey I was drinking at the time (mid 1990s), and even to Jim Beam, I could not really understand how anyone found these enjoyable. I persisted, however, and was thankfully introduced to the Glens by my local bartender, and then later to more esoteric whiskies by my uncle and some of my older friends.

Also, like many, I then transitioned to heavily peated stuff: Ardbeg before they went on hiatus, Laphroaig and (when bought for me as a gift) Lagavulin. Oh how I loved this stuff: I both genuinely loved drinking it and also how off-putting it was to many others. I felt a bit superior, I admit. And I immediately turned my back on the Speysider that gently took my malt virginity. A typical immature young man story. Also typical of younger men, I was broke and so I did not risk my meager cash or gift requests on anything I wasn't sure to like; I had in my house almost no scotch other than Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Talisker until recently. Don't get me wrong: I still have all of these in the house and continue to love them, but as I have matured a bit and my tastes have changed, I have begun to appreciate the occasional subtlety in favor of power. Once in a while.

The two malts I will review today are from Glenlivet. This is the self-proclaimed originator of the single malt phenomenon; virtually all malts prior having been made to be a part of blended whiskies (as is still the case with the majority of whisky produced in Scotland). For those unaware:

  • single malt Scotch whisky: all from one distillery, 100% malted barley mashbill, aged at least 3 years in wood
  • blended malt Scotch whisky (formerly vatted malt): blend of single malts
  • blended Scotch whisky: blend of malt whiskies and grain whiskies 
  • grain whiskey: more neutral spirit made from a variety of grains (increasingly corn), also aged in wood
Glenlivet is the best-selling single malt in the United states, and is number two in the world, behind Glenfiddich. The distillery, now owned by Pernod Ricard, is the oldest in the Glenlivet parish; part of the Speyside whisky subregion of the Highlands (that around the river Spey). These guys produce about 6 million bottles of single malt per year, with a smaller portion going to blends. Today, I will review the two most entry-level malts they produce: the ubiquitous 12 year and the 15 year-old French Oak Reserve. The latter is by all accounts the former finished in new, uncharred Limousin oak casks (the sort used for cognac) for an additional 3 years.

Glenlivet 12 year-old Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, 40%ABV ($42)

Nose: Green apples  trending almost toward Jolly Rancher territory, but with some supporting brown sugar. Crushed pineapple. Less prominently vanilla and cereal grains. Not a very intense nose, but rather pleasant.

Palate: Very mild and surprisingly round. Apples and pineapple are back, but along with it some definite vanilla, caramel and toffee flavors. Roasted nuts, mild oak and some ginger.

Finish: Short but with building sweetness. Trails off cleanly with a bit of candied ginger and a return of the more bourbony vanilla/wood flavors


Overall, this is far better than I remember it. This is a well-made, very gentle but pleasant whisky with not a trace of off-flavor to be found. The lack of sherry or peat reveals a pleasantly fruity distillate that is made more interesting by the obvious bourbon influence. It is somewhat mild however, which is not helped by its 40%, and much of its nuance would likely be lost in a setting other than quietly and somewhat autistically studying one's dram. This is a good go-to in a less than well-stocked bar or airplane and would make a pretty good standard to have around the house, as it is very well priced (for scotch).

Glenlivet 15 year-old French Oak Reserve Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, 40%ABV ($55)

Nose: Slightly more intense. Much like its brother but with noticeably more caramel, vanilla and a touch of Asian spices. More caramelapple than apple pie.

Palate: Spicier attack. Alcohol seems a bit pricklier. Five-spice powder, vanilla/toffee, a hint of coffe. Other flavors as with the 12, but drier overall.

Finish:  Warmer and more drying, but again spicier and more complex. Longer. Flavors evolve more and seem to switch between bourbon and cognac. Maybe a hint of cough syrup, oddly. Finally the palate is left cool.


This too, is much better than I'd recalled. The extra aging and/or oak treatment lend additional interest that, more than it's sib, invites another sip. This is a lovely dessert whisky that is less subtle than the 12 and combines some interesting spice and new-oak notes with the bourbon and apples profile. My only real gripe with this one is that it's pretty expensive for what it is. Scotch prices are what drove me to American whiskey in the first place, and I just can't see this as worth the same money as Blanton's or the like. Even among single malts, this was only three dollars less than the 94-point beast I reviewed yesterday. I get that this is a different style, but I'm not sure it's worth the money.

In tasting these, I think I have found the perfect gateway from bourbon to Scotch that I did not previously appreciate: the Bourbon barrel influence in both of these is both very clear and very pleasant. Here, though, the vanilla and caramel flavors really play well with sweet fruit and nut notes in an overall more gentle and elegant whole. I cannot imagine a bourbon drinker who would find this unpleasant; maybe just boring. For this reason, I really look forward to trying the NĂ durra sometime soon: I suspect 16 years and an increase in bottling strength could lift this stuff to a much better place.

Overall, I think an occasional return to less intense whiskies is likely a good thing, and these are better examples than many I've had, despite their huge production. Peat in particular, and also sherry are very distinct and, to many, acquired or polarizing flavors to have in ones drink. I think that many start off into single malts and get either big sherry or lots of smoke and end up fleeing back to bourbon or blends, and that is a shame. Starting with one of these bottles is a really nice exercise in retraining the palate to appreciate more gentle and subtle flavors

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Arbeg Uigeadail Review

Scotch, STAT!
"Oo-geh-dahl", before you ask.
(Don't worry, I will finish the Jim Beam Small Batch series soon)

Readers of this blog may have noted thus far a suspicious absence of Scotch Whisky from this blog. This is in no way due to a lack of esteem for the spirit, but mainly from my relative lack of understanding of it versus American Whiskey; in general, you are perhaps better off reading someone else's blog if you want a deep understanding of the stuff. However, I have for a while now been more in the mood for whisky than for whiskey and so I will attempt a few posts on the matter from the perspective of an American whiskey drinker.

I, like most, started my love affair with single malt whisky with Glen-something (I think Glenlivet) and quickly followed this gateway malt into the dark and intimidating world of Islay whisky. I have recently rediscovered the pleasure a well-balanced Speysider can have (more on that soon) but the bulk of my malty affections remain rooted to the smoky and peaty whiskies from Islay and the Islands.

That I happen to have a bottle of this beastie around is very good timing as tomorrow is the Reddit r/scotch community tasting of the Oogie, and I am also coming down with something that has started in my throat (but that has not yet reached my olfactory apparatus); I know of nothing that better helps a sore throat than Islay (the flavor one gets from peat is phenol, the active ingredient of chloraseptic. I'm not making this up). I will have more to say about Islay at some point, but as I mentioned, I am not feeling all that well and so will save a long discussion about bogwater etc for later.

This particular specimen is a doozy and high in my running for the only Islay I need at all times. Peated to within an inch of it's life: Check. Unchill-filtered: Check. Cask Strength: Check. Sherry finished and well-aged: Also check. If there is something else you can offer in this style of whisky I can't think of it. This is a regular release product from Ardbeg and combines 1990-1993 distilled whisky aged in bourbon barrels with "much older" whisky that had been aging in sherry butts.

Arbeg Uigeadail NAS 54.2% ($58.99 from K&L)

Nose: Peat, bonfire and barbecue.Roasted nuts. Beneath all that some vanilla, smores and a hint of olive brine.

Palate: Huge and fiery attack with good body.  Fireplace ash, grilled bread, caramel, salted nuts, vanilla and apricots. Successive sips just continue to reveal waves of evolving flavors: smoky then salty then sweet.

Finish: Long and warming. Echoes the palate then fades to a combination of apples and phenol-inflected sweetness. Slight anesthetic effect.

Water: A few spoons of water tame the nose significantly, but not in a good way: band-aid/hospital smell predominated with maybe a hint of raisin. The palate suffers less and the above flavors are easier to pick out, but not more pleasantly. The finish is creamier and spicier at the same time.

Overall this is a fantastic experience of a whisky and currently my favorite Islay. I have for some time been drawn to sherry-finishing in peaty whiskies as I think the sweetness and fruit/nut flavors bring a really nice balance.  This, while enormous, actually still succeeds in balancing a tremendous amount of flavor together in a well-integrated package that seems like it might otherwise overwhelm. I will definitely keep buying this as it is an absolute steal for the $60 I paid, and is probably worth closer to $100.


Of note, this is not for the faint of heart, palate or esophagus as I tend to taste this for hours and am nearly sure it is made in part of liquid GERD (in these respects overshadowed only by the Octamore Comus).