Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wheaters Part 2: Van Winkle and Air, a Blinded Comparison

Most of what is written about whiskey and exposure to oxygen revolves around the rate at which it spoils when exposed to air. "Finish off the bottle quickly once it's below 1/4 full," we are told, because it goes downhill fast from there.

In my experience, this has certainly been true of peated scotch, which makes sense as peat phenols are "antioxidants;" the phenols more readily react with oxygen, sparing the rest of the compounds in the whiskey at their own expense. Over time exposed to air (and indeed even exposed to air in the maturing cask), peat flavors diminish. I have also found a reduction in complexity in older American whiskeys, like George T. Stagg and some older ryes. Here, I think it likely that many of the volatile compounds that contribute to pleasant aroma on first opening simply evaporate away with repeated air exposure.

However, I have not found the evolution of bourbons when exposed to oxygen to be universally negative. In particular, I have found that wheated bourbons tend to improve over time. When first opened, I have tended to find Weller 12, a previous Van Winkle Lot B and ORVW to be pleasant, but a bit simple. As the bottle journeys toward empty (usually in my case over several months) I find that I enjoy it more and more. I have even gone so far as to split new bottles of wheater into two 750ml bottles to accelerate the process. I can't help but think that this is due to oxidation reactions, but it could be many other factors (my palate, light, phases of the moon etc.)

To be empirical, I planned ahead this time. When I opened  my latest Lot B (AKA Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year-old bourbon), I immediately stored 200ml in a sealed bottle with almost no airspace and happily drank the remainder for a little over 2 months until there was only about 200ml left. I then sadly put both bottles away in dark cupboard until today. They have been in the same environment with respect to temperature, light, humidity, etc. In order to be as circumspect as possible, I will be tasting these blind. I have poured 20g of bourbon each into identical Glencairn glasses, randomized after being placed on identical coasters, marked on the bottom. I will be tasting them sequentially, cleansing the palate with filtered water and 2 wheat crackers before each dram. No difference in color was noted, so no precautions against unblinding by color were taken.

Glass 1

Nose is medium intensity: Faint citrus and stronger wood and caramel and vanilla notes, along with dulce de leche and acetone/aldehydes, also a fainter nutty note and hint of pine. Pleasant, but not aggressive. The palate is unmistakably "wheater", with caramel, citrus, milk chocolate, integrated oak and very well-tamed alcohol. There is a slight bitterness here that distracts. The end-palate and finish start with a pleasant baked-goods flavor (almond croissants, white bread); this trails on for about a minute leaving a very faint herbal note along with a small amount, again, of bitterness.

Overall, this is pleasant, but I would not $60 for it again, nor do I even prefer it to Weller 12.

Glass 2

The nose here is more intense, with more prominent caramel and vanilla; these seem "sweeter" and more in balance with the acetone. I prefer this nose: it is a preview of the PVW 15 nose, in many respects. The palate is again sweeter with apparently bigger body and less burn. I'm here getting less complexity, but it is more pleasant. Mainly primary wheat/caramel/vanilla notes, but none of the previous bitterness. The finish is without burn and otherwise very similar.


I prefer Glass 2. It is a bit more "primary," but the complexity of Glass one was due partially to flavors I found unpleasant. Mainly, glass 1 was bitter, and glass 2 was not. The nose on Glass 2 was also notably more intense. Even after letting them both sit out for 15 minutes, the findings are the same. The differences are not night-and-day, but they are significant. I still don't think Glass 2 is worth $60, but it is closer. I prefer ORVW 10/107 and Weller 12 to both glasses.

So, which was which? Glass 2 was without air! Hm. I expected differently. Perhaps I have been mistaking complexity for pleasure, or maybe it is mood-dependent, but in any case I today prefer the fresh Lot B. I guess its time to finish these off!

Next: Wheaters Part 3: Battle of the 12 year-olds (Weller, Van Winkle, and Old Fitz)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Rebel Yell Review: Wheaters Part 1

Maybe it's because I'm a Yankee?
I admit it. I did not at first want to do this review. I wanted to drink fancy, hard to get bourbon and talk about how great it was. But on a diversion during an emergency run to buy some collar stays, I saw this bottle of Rebel Yell for $12.99. Six whole dollars less than a box of brass collar stays: I couldn't afford not to try this.

The name Rebel Yell refers to the battle cry of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The whiskey itself was initially a Stizel-Weller brand, named by the then-mayor of Louisville, Charles Farnsley, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of S-W in 1949, and was distributed "especially for the deep south."

This was a product made using a wheated bourbon mashbill at S-W until the plant closed in 1992. It is currently made at Heaven Hill's new Bernheim distillery under contract for Luxco, who also market Ezra Brooks.

Made perhaps more famous by the Billy Idol song, which was itself inspired by the Rolling Stones' apparent enthusiasm for the bourbon, the S-W of that time is long gone; so how will this guy drink out? Apparently a group review by Sku, Jason Pyle and Tim Read did not go so well, but as I don't know those guys (though their blogs are great), I'm going to make up my own mind.  Besides, apart from all of the obvious controversy of Confederate themed things, this somehow connected with pleasant memories of Dukes of Hazard watched on the living room floor during my few childhood years in Georgia.

Still made using a wheated mashbill (like all the ex-S-W brands except Cabin Still), this bourbon is labeled as Straight Bourbon without an age statement (so at least 4 years) and bottled at an uninspiring 80 proof, the legal minimum for bourbon.

In the glass, the RY pours a very light color, say apple juice or maybe something more personally biological. Maybe it's the heavy dilution, but this is likely also very close to the minimum 4 years.

This smells like wheated bourbon, from far away. I got my nose wet trying to actually smell it. I get faint caramel, a touch of pine resin, some nondescript graininess (wheat crackers, cooked pasta?), and prominent alcohol despite the low proof. Also here and there a wisp of bubblegum that is not at all welcome. (edit: I think this is actually a dance party fog machine smell).

Dear god this is young. Very hot on the palate for 80 proof. Sweet, but only a little of the vanilla and caramel flavors that usually accompany oak sweetness. Cereal grains and some bitterness. I'd be lying if I said I could find much else.

So far, the stuff has been boring, but inoffensive. The finish, while not too harsh from the alcohol burn point of view, is objectionable. The initial finish is sweet but then quickly turns bitter with a rancid corn-oil note. It leaves the mouth feeling unclean, greasy and, somehow, guilty.

I live in Pennsylvania. This is the only wheater under $20 I can buy locally. I wanted it to be better. I knew it wasn't going to be great, but it takes a special kind of bourbon to let me down at the $13 price point. But this. This is pointless.

This bourbon makes me sad for the world. I'm going to go lie down. I'll have a review of some Weller and Van Winkle products soon. I'm just sorry.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Children of the Wheat

S-W Bourbons and Their Descendants

The proportion of bourbon articles in the last few months mentioning either Maker's "new Coke" manuver or Pappy Van Winkle's elusive awesomeness makes me think a discussion of wheaters is in order.

A traditional bourbon is, at its heart, a spirit made from corn, with a touch of barley added for its enzymes to aid fermentation. Most bourbons have rye grain added to this mashbill to add flavor: tradionally around 15%, but up to 35% in the case of "high-rye" bourbons, such as Four Roses. "Wheaters" use wheat instead of rye for the flavoring grain (typically around 75:15:10). A story has been around for years that this began with Bill Samuels baking a bunch of bread of different recipes, not having had time to distill and age different mashbills, and liked the wheat recipe the best, thus the Maker's mashbill was born. This story is almost certainly pure bullshit, as the mashbill, and much other initial assistance was given to him by Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr., in the 1950s.

The real history of wheated bourbon is an interesting and slightly incestuous one. The best illustration of this is to behold a bottle of my favorite wheater, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 year-old bourbon. Depending on when the bottle was released it will be composed of up to 3 different wheated bourbons: those from Buffalo Trace (current producers of all new bourbon to be bottled as Van Winkle), The New Bernheim Distillery in Louisville and the (soon to reopen?) Stitzel-Weller distillery (read more about this on John Hansell's blog). The latter is the spiritual home of wheated bourbon.

Van Winkle and Weller 
Julian Sr., before he was "Pappy"
 Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr. got his start  as a salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons, a Kentucky liquor wholesaler in 1893, at the age of 18. in 1908, he and another salesman bought the company and, in 1910, they acquired the A. Ph. Stizel Distillery, that had been supplying the Weller firm with much of its whiskey. Old Rip Van Winkle was one of their few surviving brands produced prior to prohibition. After prohibition, the famous Stizel-Weller plant (DSP-KY-16) opened near Louisville, Kentucky in 1935 and produced a number of famous, wheated bourbon lines including Cabin Still, W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell. The ORVW line was not reintroduced until 1972, after the sale of the distillery. After 1972, Pappy's son (briefly) and granson, Julian III, took over operations, selling the now-familiar Van Winkle line of wheated bourbons, mainly from S-W stock, though apparently stocks from Bernheim were also used at times. These currently include:
  • Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve  23 years old (95.6 proof)
  • Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve  20 years old (90.4 proof)
  • Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 years old (107 proof)
  • Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon (Lot B) 12 years old (90.4 proof)
  • Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon 10 years old (107 proof)
In 2002, the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery Company entered a partnership with the Sazerac Company to have their products distilled and bottled at Buffalo Trace. While, as noted above, the older products in this line contain spirit from other distilleries, eventually the plan is for them all to be made at BT. BT has been making wheated bourbon in earnest since 1999.

In addition to the VW bourbons, buffalo trace also produces the Weller line, which was briefly also produced by the Bernheim distillery after the closure of S-W. This line currently includes
  • W.L. Weller Special Reserve (90 proof)
  • Old Weller Antique (107 proof)
  • W.L. Weller 12 years old (90 proof)
  • William Larue Weller (part of the BTAC, barrel proof varies by year)
Finally, though sold by an independent bottler,  McLain & Kyne, the current Jefferson's Presidential Select 18 year old contains wheated bourbon produced at Stizel-Weller.


Historically, there have been 2 Bernheim Distilleries, which causes some confusion. The orginal Bernheim distillery was previously known as the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery until I.W. Bernheim, his brother Bernard, and a partner, Nathan Uri bought it and renamed it the Bernheim Distillery Co. Their aim was to make an elite bourbon brand, I.W. Harper, which they continued to make through prohibition (as a medicinal whiskey). They sold the business to the Schenley Distilling company in 1937. This distillery, would eventually produce the Cream of Kentucky Rye featured in the Van Winkle Family Reserve and Sazerac 18 rye whiskeys. This distillery was demolished in 1992.

The "new" Bernheim distillery was built in Louisville Kentucky by United Distillers in 1992 as a replacement for the S-W plant. This was sold after UD became Diageo (after a series of mergers) to Heaven Hill in 1999. This served HH as their main distillery (DSP-KY-1) after the previous Heaven Hill Distillery (DSP-KY-31) was destroyed in a fire in 1996 and is the current site of production for Heaven Hill wheated (and other) bourbons. After the fire, but before the purchase, HH had their bourbon made Brown-Forman and Jim Beam. (Thanks to Eric, in the comments, for helping to clear some of this up).

Wheated Bourbons produced at Bernheim but not sold by Heaven Hill include:
  • Some versions of the Weller series in the interregnum between S-W and BT (notably the discontinued Centennial)
  • Some versions of Vintage 17 bourbon (likely discontinued, bottled by KBD)*
  • Some versions of Willett Single Barrel Bourbon (KBD)*
*It is also nearly impossible to determine whether a bottle of the latter 2 is a wheater until you open and taste it.

Heaven Hill

As discussed, a stock of wheated bourbon made at the new Bernheim distillery from 1992-1999 was sold to the Sazerac company in 1999 and has featured in a number of Van Winkle Products. This is the distillate also used for the Weller line until the brand was assumed by Buffalo trace. Since then, Heaven Hill has continued to make wheated bourbons, which currently include:
  • Old Fitzgerald Bourbon (prime, 1849, BIB and 12 year versions)
  • Parkers Heritage Collection (some editions)
  • Larceny (92 proof)
Heaven Hill now also produces Cabin Still, historically a S-W wheated bourbon brand, but no longer uses a wheat mashbill for the product. Rebel Yell was sold by Heaven Hill to Luxco who now sell it as an 80 proof wheated bourbon thought to be sourced from HH.

In the coming weeks, we will excitedly shift our attention to these wheated bourbons, having spent a while on the rye side of the spectrum (lovely as rye is). There's a lot of Van Winkle and Willy Larue to taste, there's an examination of the effects of air on wheated bourbon (I suspect significant, but we will examine this in scientific fashion), and we will also include at least one wheater in our forthcoming, blinded bottom-shelf throwdown, and I'm sure you can guess which one.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sazerac Rye Review

To wrap up this streak of rye-focused reviews, today we have, from the Sazerac Company,  their eponymous rye whiskey. Distilled at Buffalo Trace and handsomely bottled at 90 proof, "Baby Saz" runs around $30.

The name Sazerac comes intially from a brand of cognac, Sazerac-de-Forge & Fils, imported to New Orleans in the 19th century and used in what was called the Sazerac Cocktail in the Merchants Exchange Coffee House. Orginally owned by Sewell T. Taylor (the importer of the cognac), the coffee house was sold to Aaron Bird, who renamed it the Sazerac House. It passed again to Thomas H. Handy around 1870, who apparently first recorded the recipe for the cocktail, which may have been invented at the House, or by Antoine Peychaud, of bitters fame. The purchase of this business by Handy also marks the founding of the Sazerac Company.

But wait, cognac!? Indeed. Whiskey in America, and for that matter the UK, had been a second choice to brandy for many years until the late 19th century. In 1863, a North American louse, phylloxera, decimated the vineyards of Europe, leading consumers to look beyond the grape for drinking ingredients. A small step for lice, a giant leap for whisky-kind.

So, we have the Saz. This one is, by all accounts, a diluted version of BTAC THH, thus made from the BT rye mashbill of 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malted barley. This mashbill is similar most American ryes other than LDI. Current Sazerac 18 is different and, as mentioned in the ryeday post, was produced elsewhere. If you calculate proof/$, Baby Saz comes to 3 proof/$, while THH comes to roughly 1.8. So in this sense the Baby is a much better deal, but again part of the beauty of the THH is its barrel-proofness.

In the glass it is a darker and redder whiskey than most bourbons of this age. The nose is pleasantly lifted with a hint of acetone that carries along with it cloves, cinnamon, anise and warm rye bread. There are also some fainter dulce de leche and corn notes if you really get your nose in there. The palate is warm, rather than hot, and almost completely dry. The spices from the nose return, along with peppermint, ginger and vanilla caramel. The finish is quick and leaves a faint apple flavor along with a clean and cooling feeling I associate with good distillation (few tails).

Overall, I like this a lot. It is totally obvious that this is THH + H20, and that is a very good thing for$30. It certainly lacks the pleasantly punishing 130 proof concentration of flavor and alcohol of the Handy, but sometimes I want a whiskey that doesn't require the use of a "safe word." It is in many ways similar to the Knob Creek Rye, minus the love-it-or-hate-it Beam yeast, but drier, spicier and a bit more typical. This is far better sipping than the Willett, for my taste, but this stuff is so spectacular in cocktails that that's where most of it will end up.

So. We have finished the current round of American ryes. Not completely comprehensive, but I'm satisfied for now, with the exception of Russell's Rye (which I'd like to try) and some of the cheaper guys that may yet end up in a bottom shelf tournament (and before you ask, Whistlepig, Jefferson's, and Pendleton are actually Canadian). My final thoughts:

  • Willett 3yr single barrel
The Willett single barrel gets a lot of love, as do the Dickel, Templeton, Redemption,  Bulleit, James Pepper and other near-identical LDI ryes. I can say that the Willet was not to my taste on its own, though I would like to try an older barrel before passing judgement. Also, I suspect that I am unusually averse to the Lawrenceburg juice, as I seem to be in a minority here, so I will recommend you try some yourself; it's everywhere lately.

  • Sazerac Rye (NAS)
  • Knob Creek Rye
These are moderately priced and very well made. I think I tend to like the Knob on its own, where it reminds me of a pleasantly high-rye bourbon. I think it is a bit too bourbony to stand out as a rye in cocktails, however. Just as good on its own, the Saz additionally makes some of the best Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and, yes, Sazeracs that I've had. It is a perfect cocktail rye.
  • Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye
  • Hirsch 22 Rye
  • Michter's 10 Year Rye
  • Sazerac 18
These are all perfect or near-perfect ryes. They are expensive and hard to find. In the words of Ferris Bueller, if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

Next up: Children of the Wheat

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Belated Vantenines Dinner

Knowing that I've been blogging about whiskey lately, my wife requested salmon with a bourbon glaze for our belated Valentine's dinner. The recipe I recommend is this one, though I like to use a shallot instead of garlic. I used Eagle Rare and it turned out wonderfully; usually I use whatever bottle I'm trying to kill. Along with the salmon were what we call "floor potatoes" as they are so good that when I once dropped them on the floor we decided they were too good not to eat anyway. They are a Heston Blumenthal recipe, and if you actually go through all of this, you will also be willing to eat them off the floor. Luckily, this was not necessary last night.

After dinner, another request by Mrs. Whiskey Obsessive, was bourbon pudding. First had at 1833, my reverse-engineered version was based on this recipe, with the exception that I substituted 1/2 cup of the milk with extra bourbon (Buffalo Trace), and another 1/2 cup of milk with cream to make up the difference in fat.

And, since it was a special occasion, I decided to get a preview on my upcoming wheater series with PVW 15, which I hear is pretty popular:)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Unavoidable Maker's Post

Edit 2/17 makers has apparently reversed their decision. I don't think this materially changes my thoughts or relevance of this post. Though you have to admit that, at least belatedly, Beam listened to their customers.Thanks to Coffee Guy for the heads up.

I thought I could avoid it, but everyone is asking me for my thoughts: my father, my wife, the dude I met at Joe Canal's, and this morning, Scott, a fellow blogger who wrote a thoughtful open letter to the Samuel's Family. Sadly, I suspect that if the company listened to consumers, they never would have dropped the proof to begin with.

One of the things I like best about this hobby is how friendly and positive most people are and how little snobbery there is. I also enjoy that while distillers are certainly trying to earn a living, many are truly passionate about their craft and genuinely want to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their consumers. This latter quality is what draws me to certain brands and makes me feel pretty lukewarm about others.

Look at Jim Rutledge, the master distiller at Four Roses. When he participates in an 8-part interview with Greg at BourbonDork, you get an overwhelming feeling of someone who cares deeply about what he does, loves sharing all he can about it and is not for one moment trying to BS anyone for the sake of profit. It makes me want to go buy more 4R just to support his lifelong effort.

By contrast, look at this shambles of a "Q&A" with Tom Bulleit on Bourbon & Banter. The man is blowing smoke through the whole interview and sounds more like a lawyer or politician than a "master distiller." That's because he does not distill anything. He and his coporate partner, Diageo (a world leader in commodity whiskey, and sadly also the owner many fine single malts) buy their Bulleit Bourbon from Four Roses and their Rye from LDI. It's a nice bottle and bullshit story, but if you like the taste of Bulleit, just buy some Four Roses, water it down and read the interview with Jim Rutledge again.

On the positive side again, we have Heaven Hill, the second-largest maker of bourbon in the world. This interview with Larry Kass on Drink Spirits is unusually informative and interesting, as well as it is transparent. Contrast this with Drew Kulsveen of KBD having a tantrum on straightbourbon when forum members theorize that, as he sells only sourced whiskey, that some of it may come from Heaven Hill (a half mile away).

There are many other examples of this. Julian Van Winkle III, god of the bourbon enthusiast world, is totally transparent with where his stuff comes from, he participates on the straightbourbon forum and recently weighed in on this Maker's business himself. Overall, with consumers he is nothing but cordial and as honest as you could expect a businessperson to be; you get the feeling that he loves what he does, and wants you to love it too.

So, I think we have a choice when we are ready to spend our money. We can either spend it to support people that are dedicated to their craft and as enthusiastic about this hobby as we are, or we can fork over cash for some purchased or watered-down alcohol and a bullshit story about old Kentucky families, rolling hills and creeks.

So what are my thoughts about Maker's? I really have almost none. I don't think about it, because it is a boring, commodity product that is not even a good value. They long ago stopped being an enthusiast/luxury brand (though they've kept a relatively high price) and there is no reason to spend time, thought or money on them when there are producers like Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill and Four Roses that continue to reliably produce whiskey of incredible quality while respecting the consumer and involving them in the process.

(Edited for spelling 2/16)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Knob Creek Rye Review

Continuing the rye theme is this guy, who was on sale at the state store on the walk home from work. Knob Creek Rye is a 100 proof offering distilled at Jim Beam, carrying no age statement. Beam Global is the subject of lots of complaining over the past few days about the decision to decrease the proof of Maker's Mark (who they recently acquired) from 90 to 84. I never drink it anyway, so I don't really care. This will be the Jack Daniel's story all over again, and I expect that, like JD, MM will have no problem selling whiskey to brand loyalists (as opposed to enthusiasts). Every Weller product is a superior wheater in my opinion  as is Larceny from Heaven Hill.

Anyway, this post is about KCR. As opposed to Knob Creek bourbon (which is around 75% corn, 15 % rye, a mashbill shared with Jim Beam, Booker's, and Baker's), this stuff is at least 51% rye (by law as discussed in my previous post). This is reportedly the same mashbill as Jim Beam Rye, the ill-fated Ri(1) and the stalwart Old Overholt, which just lost its age statement (it was 4 years). There must be significant barrel selection and/or age differences at play: I can't get anywhere near Beam Rye, but I still have a fondness for the OO in an old-fashioned. I've not had the new, younger stuff, but the OO I'm used to seems more tannic and older than the Beam Rye. I had Ri(1) a long time ago and ended up giving it away.

This, however, is a different story. I don't know that I would have blindly identified it as a rye, rather than a high-rye bourbon. This makes me think that it is somewhere near the 51% minimum rye in the mash. When first opened, it begins with a nose very similar to  Knob Creek bourbon, Booker's and Baker's, essentially betraying the Beam yeast, though in this application it is not at all unpleasant. As the glass airs out, candied ginger, honeysuckle and spices come through, suggesting a rye after all. The nose is actually, once the yeast blows off, surprisingly similar to Sazerac 18. On the palate it is very round, especially in comparison to the unpleasant sharpness I find in LDI ryes. The palate shows corny sweetness, but this is balanced by firm rye spices that keep it from being a round, sweet mess. In this respect it is far more balanced that the KC bourbon (which tends toward to rounds, sweet mess end). It tastes certainly older than the Willett, maybe 7 years? The finish is very pleasantly drying and brings back the candied ginger again.

Not content to leave things alone, I hoped to create a vatting of 50:50 KCR and Willett Rye, hoping for a 75% rye to combine the best of both whiskeys. The thought was to combine the roundness and depth of the Knob with the more characteristic rye notes of the Willett. Unfortunately, I ended up with a nose full of Beam yeast and a hot palate full of grass... It was worth a try.

Overall, this is a very pleasant drink and is leading my list of inexpensive rye whiskeys. It is certainly more of a bourbon-drinker's rye, as the corn content seems rather high, but if you like bourbon, I think this is as fantastic as it is easy to find (around me it's everywhere). In some ways it tastes like what I wanted Basil Hayden's to be, an upgraded Old Grand-Dad (high-rye Beaminess but with more polish, rather than just more water).This one, unlike the Willett, will be drunk neat.

In coming posts, I hope to wrap up my current streak of rye whiskey with a review of Sazerac 6 (in the mail), maybe an investigation of the effects of air on high-end rye, and hopefully a visit to the nearby Mountain Laurel Distillery, maker's of Dad's Hat Rye. I'm also happy to take suggestions in the comments below.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Poor Man's Handy?

Actually, now that I think of it, that title is terribly open to misinterpretation.

Thomas H. Handy is a young, barrel-proof straight rye whiskey and part of the well-regarded Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Despite its incredible ratings, it has attained the status of a red-headed stepchild in the BTAC, often lingering on shelves far longer than its mates. I am, however, a great fan of the THH, and if there is a better base for Manhattans to take on the train to Atlantic City for a bachelor party, I've not heard of it.

Sadly, I find myself in between bottles of THH. This is bothering me inordinately, as I have all the other BTACs and I tend toward completeism. However, there is none in my house, there is none within walking distance, and my wife has the car today. So, I bring you instead, the Willett Family Estate Bottled Single Barrel Rye:

This one is from KBD, run by the Kulsveen/Willett family. This is a straight rye whiskey, which by law must be at least 51% rye and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least 2 years (among other regulations). From their single barrel series, this Willett clocks in at a very respectable 110 proof at 4 years old and was bought for $33. So far, so good: a young, high-proof rye for half the list price of the Handy.

The liquid itself was "distilled in Indiana," per the label, which means it was almost certainly produced by the romantically named MGP Ingredients (formerly LDI). The "LDI rye," as it is still colloquially known, has a  95% rye and 5% malted barley mashbill. In this case, the malt is included to take advantage of enzymes that reduce starches and complex sugars in the grains to the simple sugars that yeasts ferment into alcohol. Rye itself can be "malted," (malting is just the germination of the seeds that comprise a grain) but barley is typically used as as it is easier for distillers to handle (less sticky, bubbly etc).

At present, there are a number of products that use the LDI rye, here is how they look on paper:

Hmm. I started this table assuming that I would say that the Willett has the best price/proof ratio, but it seems that Redemption wins; I may have to try it. That said, I still like the high proof of the Willett, as, like most Americans, I have access to clean water and can do my own dilution. The high proof also allows the whiskey to shine in cocktails, even when you are not trying to forget you are going to Atlantic City.

Unlike the older, hard-to-find and very expensive ryes I have thus far been posting about, the young LDI is everywhere. I am very interested to see what these will be like at an older age, but what if we're thirsty now?

The nose on this one initially presents with candied and also pickled ginger. Further swirling reveals mostly alcohol but also some pleasantly high-toned floral notes along with an undercurrent of spice. Neat, the palate is quite hot, rather sweet and spicy; it is too hot to really get any more specific. The finish is quick and minty/herbal. Adding a bit of water to this helps on the palate, though the nose becomes more muted. With water, some vanilla and caramel flavors emerge after the initial alcohol attack, complementing the spice and sweetness.

This should be better than it is. However, it is not incredibly pleasant to drink neat or diluted. It is too spirity and young, and has too little density of flavor, as has been my experience with the other LDI rye I have had, Bullleit. When I compare it in my mind to the "baby" Sazerac or THH, I find that the latter two are rounder with deeper and more well-developed flavors. This may be due to mashbill, as the Handy's is much closer to the minimum 51% rye, and so has more bourbon-like flavors, which I tend to prefer at this age.

So, this will be used in cocktails, as I'm sure the overwhelming majority of young rye is. Will have to do some comparisons of young ryes (maybe Knob Creek, Willett and Sazerac) in Manhattans or Old Fashioneds. Since it is too early for cocktails, however, we will have to save that for another time and admit that thought the Willett looks great on paper, it is unfortunately no man's Handy.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Michter's 10 year-old Single Barrel Rye

The undiscussed rye from Ryeday (see previous post) is perhaps the most enigmatic and opaque. Michter's is the name of a closed distillery that operated (first as Bomberger’s) near Shaefferstown, Pennsylvania until it closed in 1989 after filing for bankruptcy. This distillery was well regarded in the northeast as a producer of a sour-mash Jack Daniel’s alternative and is now most famous for having produced the excellent Hirsch 16, possibly the best bourbon I have ever tried, recently made even more famous in Chuck Cowdery's book, The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste. (Contrary to the title, I got lucky at a restaurant in Princeton). As you will note, this last was bottled by Hirsch, not Michters, and here is where things get even stranger.
The only empties I've ever saved. The Hirsch 16 was made by Michter's, unlike the Michter's 10.
The current "Michter's" is a brand owned by Chatham imports of New York, who do not distill. Their whiskey is either sourced from other distillers or made by them under contract. More complicated still is the fact that Chatham is rumored to have sourced the Michter's 10 year rye whiskey from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), who themselves did not distill it, but rather souced it from someone else. This may have been the Cream of Kentucky rye that also goes into Saz 18, or it may have been more of the Medley rye that goes into the Hirsch 13,21,22 etc. 
The Michter's 10, in particular, has the warm and rounded spice notes of the other, older medley ryes, and shares some of the maple syrup nose in the empty glass, but there is perhaps less up-front oak. There are definite notes of fig jam, apple and rye bread on the nose.  There is, in the mid palate, a very similar profile to the VWFRR (I actually mixed up my glasses at one point the other night). If there is a difference in the palate, there again may be slightly less wood, a touch more bitterness and a touch of peanut that led my friend to suggest there could be Beam product present (I'm not so sure about the latter, but would be very happy indeed to learn of an as-yet unintroduced aged beam rye). Similar to the Sazerac, there is a candied quality and lighter body overall when compared to the Medley ryes.  The finish also shares more with the younger-tasting Sazerac, with a candied sweetness and minty sensation on a moderate length finish, compared to the 15 minutes of maple syrup after a sip of Hirsch 22.
Takeout bottles are important when visiting friends with good whiskey

Whatever the provenance, this rye is certainly of a class and character with the Van Winkle, Black Maple Hill and Hirsch ryes. Really, if presented the option I would buy whatever can be found most cheaply. The only older rye that is head and shoulders above this is the Hirsch 13. The Hirsch 22 and BMH23 are by far the smoothest and almost liqueur-like, though whether that is a good thing may be a matter of taste.

This guy is usually about the same price at this point as the VWFRR, but (in most markets) easier to find. Many may object to the opacity of non-distiller producers like "Michter's," but once in the glass I find no problem with this stuff at all. I already have more bourbon and rye in the man-room than my wife finds healthy or sane, but I think I will be adding at least one more of these. 

And to continue the OCD, the current, update on our thoughts about the Rye Venn Diagram:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Having finally declared the Great Dusty Hunt to be dead, we returned to my friend's house/whiskey storage facility.  We decided to try my Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 against his 2012 release Sazerac 18. He also had some Hirsch 22 open. Michter's 10 year old single barrel rye was feeling left out, so we invited him, too:
These guys are all a bit confusing. None of them actually tells us straightforwardly where they were made or by whom. The Michter's is probably 18 years old, despite the 10yo label, and the VWFRR is likely about the same. After some tasting and lots of  obsessing on StraightBourbon (who I'd love to join, but am having some trouble with the ISP email only requirement...) as well as Bourbon Enthusiast (another great resource),  I have come up with the following provisional theory of provenance (please feel free to correct or discuss further!):

I've actually no idea about the Michter's
We did not take notes, of course, and I had to fly to Miami the next morning, but a few impressions predominated. First, the Hirsch 22 is incredibly dangerous. So smooth that a pint glass seems like a fine idea when faced with a bottle until one realizes it's $120. Overall, the nose presented a hint of waxed wood furniture (specifically church pew) along with (perhaps unsurprisingly) rye bread. We agreed that this was as close to overoaked a whiskey as we have had and enjoyed (I find the vintage ryes overoaked), though to be honest it really shows more barrel that anything else. This is only a bad thing if you don't like vanilla, spices and caramel.

The Saz 18, by comparison, seemed very fresh and had far less barrel influence, making it seem  younger. What it lacked in barrel-y smooth goodness it made up for in sweetness, rye spice, mint and focus. The Hirsch could almost have been any extra-old whiskey, but the Saz was unmistakably rye. At half the price of the Hirsch (if you can find it at list price...) this is an incredible whiskey. Had it again at Michael's Genuine in Miami a few days later and found that it even paired well with food. If the Hirsch is a big, slutty delicious California Cab, the Saz is a focused, brightly acidic Burgundy. Would kill a man to try the barrel proof version, but there is apparently so little Saz 18 that we will never see it.

Based on the Venn above, it should be no surprise that the VWFRR was intermediate. This thing is a freaking unicorn. I've found 3 bottles since I started buying whiskey. All the hype of Van Winkle, all the hype of rye, and tiny, tiny production. Labeled as 13 years old, it is, as mentioned, likely far older and is purported (at least for the last few years) to be a vatting of Medley and CoK. Honestly, I was hoping that the VW13 would be as close as possible to the Hirsch 13, which is the finest rye whiskey I have ever tasted. It was close, but I don't think the vatting did it justice. That said, it is probably in my top 3 rye whiskeys. We tried vatting the Saz 18 with the Hirsch 22 (just a small amount) and found the mixture delicious, but not identical to the VWFRR.

As I said, I do not have detailed notes for these, but I think they are all excellent and worth seeking out as, though expensive, they represent the end of a rye era. Whatever the age statements of these ryes, and whatever their actual barrel ages, much of this stuff is actually far older, having been "tanked" in stainless steel vats where they do not age further and from where they are periodically doled out to us. As such, they are essentially Dodos. We shall not see their like again.

Of course there has been much made lately of the rye renaissance, and we are all happy for more rye, but it will be 2015 at earliest before we see a new 13 year-old rye whiskey. I hope the years to come will bring more and equally good mature ryes, but they will not be the same. These guys are all really expensive, but they are getting scarce and not getting any cheaper. To try a bit of distilling history, I would refer Philadelphia area folks to leave the bottles in stores to me and head over to Southwark (with whom I have no relation), who have far and away the most amazing selection of rye I've seen in  any bar in the country.

Next up: Michter's 10 Single Barrel Rye