Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Beam Bourbons Part 1: Old Grand-Dad versus Basil Hayden Bourbon Review

You down with OGD?

Having flirted with outlandish spirits for a while there, I am firmly back in the US with a 2-part series on the bourbons made at Jim Beam's Cleremont distillery. Beam currently utilizes 2 bourbon mashbills, one with a traditional 15% rye and another, 27% high-rye version. The latter serves as the base of the venerable Old Grand-Dad series of bourbons as well as the more up-market, "small-batch series" Basil Hayden (which was OGD's name, by the way).

Basil Hayden, Sr. himself was a prominent Maryland Catholic who led a mini-Exodus to Nelson County Kentucky in 1785 and promptly established the first Catholic church in Kentucky. Like the similarly famous Elijah Craig, this religuous man was also a distiller, and one known to favor a higher proportion of rye in his whiskey. His grandson, Raymond B. Hayden founded a distillery in Nelson County, Kentucky  in 1840 and named it in honor of his "Old Grand-Dad." The distillery would change hands a number of times over the years: in 1899 it was sold to the Wathen family, who would later form the National Distiller's Group. An interesting note is that this group was one of the few able to continue production through prohibition, producing OGD as "medicinal whiskey." I've yet to prescribe whiskey myself, but I'm sure there is an indication somewhere... Anyway, in 1987 ND sold the brand to Fortune Brands that would become Beam Inc. (NB to the dusty hunter: if it says "Cleremont" on the label it's Beam, if it only says "Frankfort," then you've found an ND dusty... or so I'm told, I've never had any luck in this regard.) If you like this sort of history, be sure to check out Mike Veach's new book, where (along with wikipedia and straighbourbon) I so far have gotten the info for this blog.

Fast-forwarding to today, the market for American whiskey is currently exploding, as I'm sure you are all aware. This piece in the Washington Post noted that Basil Hayden is the fastest growing in Beam's portfolio, having grown 35% in 2012. I rarely hear people talking about it so it is hard to know what to make of this. However, I also find it notable that as part of its growth, they have dropped the 8 year-old age statement. Beam high-rye mashbill and NAS? Sounds like Old Grand-Dad to me. Not that there is anything wrong with OGD, I find the 114 one of the best values in bourbon: near-barrel proof, high rye and $20 on sale. However if all you are going to do is water this stuff down and put a fancy label on it for $40, I begin to wonder. No one is confirming that NAS Basil is exactly that, but I've my own suspicions.

As a preliminary survey of the differences between the current Beam high-rye expressions, I picked up a few minis of OGB (86 and BIB) to taste against the mini of BH I got as part of a "small batch" sampler (we'll be seeing the others in the next post). Of note, I did not have any OGD 114 handy at the time of the review; nor did I have the new NAS BH or the new, 80 proof OGD. Can't say I'm really excited about the latter two in any case. But on to these guys:

Basil Hayden's KSBW 40%ABV 8 Years Old ($38)

Nose: Wood heavy with worshop and hot-attic notes. Earthy Beam yeast is definitely here, as are rye and spice notes, especially cloves. Also notable is orange zest, leading to a pomander-like smell with the spices. More faintly chocolate and butter. A bit woody, but a nice nose

Palate: Very spicy attack with ginger, cinnamon and cloves, distinct rye as well as oranges. The mouthfeel is very thin and among the driest bourbons I've tried. Wood and yeast here as well. Interesting but also very hot and "angular."

Finish: The finish echoes the palate, trailing into spices and butter. Very clean and relatively brief.

Overall this is a nice high-rye bourbon. I think that the wood predominates a bit much and it is a little lean and dry for my palate, as well as a bit thin, likely due to the low proof. It's a nice enough drink, but I think the price is higher than Bulleit and Four Roses, high-rye competitors that I find superior. 85/100

Old Grand-Dad KSBW 43%ABV ($16)

Nose: Similar, but less intense that the BH with wood notes essentially absent. Caramel here that is not present in the BH. Less yeasty as well but overall a more corny/generic bourbon nose than the BH. It's pretty faint.

Palate: Somewhat weightier than the BH, similar heat. Sweeter and more rounded, but also more simple. Oranges and spice are still here as well as a faint mustard note. Corn/popcorn notes here as well. Simple.

Finish: The finish is warm and sweeter than the BH.

Overall this is a simple, serviceable bourbon that shares an obviously similar flavor profile to the BH, but with overall less intensity and interest. Not really interesting enough to drink straight and I'm not sure it wouldn't get lost in a cocktail. 82/100

Old Grand-Dad KSBW Bottled-in-Bond 50%ABV ($20)

Nose: The nose is similar to the 86 with more oranges, orange blossoms, more spice and definitely more earth/yeast (almost knob creek level). Still little wood.

Palate: A big payoff here. After a barely improved nose vs. the 86, the palate has very good weight with balanced sweetness, butter, caramel, and loads of rye/spice notes. The only detractor here is a very high level again of the (to some people off-putting) Beam yeast notes. Notably not much hotter subjectively than the 86

Finish: The finish is warm and sweeter than the BH, as with the 86.

Overall this is very well made bourbon, a great representation of the high-rye syle and really a bargain at $20. It still lacks some of the complexity of the BH but it makes up for this with power and more balanced sweetness. I think it's a dead heat between this and the Basil Hayden. 85/100

So, I have to say that I expected things to go about like this. The BH is certainly the most complex, but I don't know that it makes it any more pleasant. It certainly does not make it, to my palate, worth a 100% premium over the OGD BIB and there is absolutely no way it is worth 2 bottles of the 114. All of that said, this should really read as praise for the underpriced and over-delivering OGD 100 and 114 than as a criticism of the Basil Hayden's.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A New Hope

Those of you who have not come here from Reddit's r/bourbon, should really check out what is becoming a great new bourbon community. As a case in point, we recently had an AMA with Harlan Wheatley of Buffalo Trace. It was really fun to hear about BT right from the distiller himself, but I was particularly eager to hear the answers to my questions:

Q1: Sazerac 18 and VWFRR are currently produced from old stocks, but I know you are producing fantastic young rye in the form of baby Saz and THH. Can you give us a ballpark as to when the rye fanatics among us can expect a Buffalo Trace-made 12+ year rye from you guys? Even if its 2015, as I expect, I really just need something to look forward to once the tanked stuff runs out.

Q2: Could you comment on the relative importance of barrel selection, warehouse location, mashbill and entry proof to the final products you produce? We all tend to get wrapped up in mashbill, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about the other variables at work.

Q3: Any chance of ever having a #2 mashbill in the BTAC?

Thanks so much for doing this!

Buffalo Trace:

A1: Not long now, just a few more years to wait

A2: These are the key markers in production. Barrel selection being probably the most influential on the final taste. You can take the same day’s production and age in a barrel side by side in the warehouse and get different results. This is why we put so much emphasis on the evaluation and tasting of our whiskies. From our experimentation we know that the mashbill is one of the more important influences on the flavor. However as above they are all very important. I have broken it down before basically like this: Mashbill – 12 %, Fermentation/Yeast – 12 %, Distillation – 20 % Aging Technique – 50%, Bottling/Processing – 5%. All being their relative % responsible for flavor.

A3:You never know, but any plans like that are proprietary.

So! Maybe it won't be long until we get a fresh crop of well-aged ryes; this is very good news.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Forty Creek Barrel Select Review

My last review, of Jefferson's 10 year rye, a sly Canadian, drew a bit of discussion over on Reddit, generally (as I did in my post) bemoaning the poor reputation of Canadian whisky (sometimes undeserved), and noting that there are some rising stars. One of these is John Hall, who makes Forty Creek, a newish distillery that has won much praise for their special releases, especially the Confederation Oak, which won Whisky Advocate's Canadian Whisky of the Year, with a stellar 95 point rating. It was, then, a nice coincidence that I found a 50mL bottle of Forty Creek Barrel Select on my weekend shopping rounds yesterday. Though no where near as highly regarded as the confederation oak, the incomparable Ralfy gave this bottling an 89/100.

This expression  is their basic entry, and the only one I can easily get my hands on. Bottled at 40% (ಠ__ಠ) this goes for around $23. This one apparently marries corn, rye and malt whiskies aged separately in barrels of varying char in order to allow the blender flexibility to produce the intended profile. An interesting approach, but I'm suspicious that like Irish or blended scotch that the good stuff gets extended with base whisky at this price point.

Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whisky 40% ABV ($23 for 750 mL)

Color: Light, more yellow than amber.

Nose: Butter, custard, vanilla (specifically vanilla yogurt), and caramel. Also dried pears, a touch of roasted nuts, and a subdued -but still present- grain/rubbing alcohol note. This latter is what usually steers me away from the Canadians, but it is faint here: overall a nice nose.

Palate: Gentle and sweet attack with noticeable malt influence. Starts off like Irish or a sweeter blended Scotch in this regard. Corn sweetness follows with only a small amount of rye spice. The alcohol is not very well controlled here and seems far higher than 40%. The palate is thin.

Finish: Noticeable spirity burn, then a lingering hint of the cheap vodka we drank in college. Maybe a touch of rye in there and a faint perfume note. Really falls apart here.

Final rating 82/100*

I really hoped for more out of this, and what is frustrating is that I can tell there is good whisky in here. I think the blending process went awry, leaving it to seem disjointed and not well-integrated. Also, there is just too much spirity heat, I'd guess from too much base whisky. I understand that this is $23 whiskey, but I'd far rather pay more and get more rather than have some really good stuff watered down with alcohol and water. Even at this price point I can think of many bourbons that thoroughly crush this spirit.

All of that said, I suspect that the upper-level offerings from Forty Creek are quite good, as this tastes like it has that potential. Further, based on the Jefferson's I last reviewed, it is clear that Alberta seriously knows what they are doing, and I'm told Wiser's does too. For these reasons, I will continue to have hope for Canadian, but will leave off drinking or reviewing Canadian whisky until these higher quality offerings are available to me.

*You may notice that I have begun to adopt the widely used, and widely controversial Robert Parker 50-100 rating system.  I was initially against this, and still think that it connotes an impossible level of precision, but since I have increased my involvement in the Reddit r/bourbon and r/worldwhisky fora (who like a rating) I have started. I also think that it is not a terrible way for a reader to get an idea of my comparative feelings about whiskies. I will note, however, that I try not to take price into account with the ratings to the extent that it is possible. However, I suspect I under-rate expensive stuff, because I really think it has no excuse when not stellar.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Jefferson's 10 Year-Old Rye Whiskey Review

The Third President of Canada?
Today we have a review of a rare beast in the American market:  an affordable rye with a bit of age on it. Nearly everything else in current production is 6 years old or younger or else carries no age statement. Though we will likely have a resurgence (and, I hope, a glut) of older rye offerings once the current stocks mature, for now the pickings are slim. However, there remains a great, white, northern hope: Canada.

But this has an image of Thomas Jefferson on  it and is produced by a Kentucky company. Read the fine print: IMPORTED BY CASTLE BRANDS, PRODUCED IN CANADA.

Now wait. I know what you are thinking. Canadian "rye" sucks. Mostly you are correct. This is for a number of reasons:

  • Many colloquially refer to Canadian as "rye" even though it often contains a majority of other grains and so often bears little resemblance to an American straight rye.
  • Most Canadian that is imported to the States is "blended" whiskey, with as little as 20% of what we could call whiskey (in their industry "flavoring whiskey"), and the balance made of "grain neutral spirits," which makes the stuff essentially whiskey-flavored vodka.
  • Having produced the dubious whiskey-flavored vodka, Canadian is typically diluted down all the way to 80 proof, as apparently the taxation becomes ruinous above that point.
Pretty dismal. And it's mostly our fault. For years the major market for this stuff was south of the border where palates asked for "smooth" and easy to drink spirits that were usually mixed with soft drinks. But we don't judge American whiskey on blended crap, nor do we dismiss all of Scotch after trying some Johnny Walker Red. What would it taste like to try the unadulterated "flavoring whiskey," maybe at a respectable proof? Apparently, Wiser's, Alberta Premium and Forty Creek are putting forth fine efforts in this area, though only the latter is officially available in the US (again at 80 proof). But oddly enough, hope is not lost, as a number of American bottlers have released Canadian rye, though it is not always easy to tell where the juice is coming from. The best hint is the small number of 100% rye whiskeys currently on the market. Other than microdistillers (including the excellent Old Potrero), this stuff is all Canadian. They include:
    • Whistlepig 10 year-old Straight Rye Whiskey, 100 proof (now available around $60; 11yr/111 proof for $111). Bottled by Whistlepig Farms (VT)
    • Masterson's 10 year-old Straight Rye Whiskey, 90 proof (now available around $60). Bottled by 35 Maple Street (CA)
    • Jefferson's 10 year-old Straight Rye Whiskey, 94 proof (available in the $30-40 range). Bottled by McLain and Kyne (Ky)
    • Pendleton 1910 12 year-old Candadian Rye Whiskey, 80 proof (available around $35). Bottled by Hood River Distillers (OR)

    All of these likely come from Alberta Distillers, though none of them disclose the actual source. Alberta is said to be the only possible source for 10 year-old 100% rye. The Pendleton is the odd man out as it is older, lower proof and is not labeled as "straight" rye, which gives me concerns about used cooperage or perhaps the addition of flavorings or grain whiskey (which are legal in Canada), so we will defer discussion for now.

    Of the "straight" offerings, I have had the WP in a bar and am about to review the Jefferson's. As these likely all come from the same place, the Masterson's, at the lower proof and equal price to WP, is a bit of a hard sell unless there is some interesting barrel selection going on. Will still have to try it at some point.

    So, on to the review:
    Jefferson's 10 Year-Old Rye Whiskey, 94 proof (I paid $32.99)

    Color: Bright copper, very clear (no mention of filtration either way)

    Nose: Warm rye bread, vanilla custard, apples/cider, small amounts of alcohol/volatile chemicals, fresh grain and leather. This is really a lovely nose. Reminiscent of the Saz 18, or what I think it might smell like at this age. Combines the young, bright rye notes of the popular LDI ryes, with the older, darker flavored aged ryes I'm always going on about, though the latter are subtle.

    Palate: Very spicy attack with well-controlled alcohol and a candied ginger note. Baking spices, vanilla and caramel follow, along with rye bread and leathery notes. Also a hint of butter. Sweetness is more in line with a bourbon (higher) than most ryes. Weight is medium and overall this gives the (pleasant) impression of chasing candied ginger with cinnamon toast made with rye bread.

    Finish: Largely echoes the palate with warming burn then a clean and cool sensation. The ginger and spice linger a bit, as does the sweetness.

    Well. We definitely have a winner here. It is not nearly as far evolved in its aging process as the prestige 18+ ryes out there, but this whiskey has many similar qualities, and combines them with the pleasant characteristics of more youthful ryes in a very successful way. In truth, I'm not sure I would have guessed that this was even 10 years old, though, and I assume the climate in Alberta is a good reason for that.

    In any case, I find this a good deal more interesting than the Whistlepig (which was sweeter and higher proof, but more one dimensional; still a fine desert whiskey), and at $33 this is just an insanely good deal for rye whiskey. I'm going to bunker a few more of these guys and laugh every time someone brags about their $100 rye "from Vermont."

    For more info on the increasingly interesting Canadian Whisky market, see:

    Tuesday, March 19, 2013

    Wild Turkey: Then and Now

     Old # 8 vs Current 101. A Blinded Trial

    This bottle of Wild Turkey Old #8, 101 proof was my first successful dusty find. Squirreled away in a terrible shop in Gloucester, NJ, and protected by an almost insurmountable wall of cat urine odor, I was inordinately pleased to find this. I have been hoping for some time to find some 8 or 12 year old Turkey, but this is a fine start. I've been carefully having a sip now and then and marveling over how good it is. "They don't make it like this anymore." But I guess that's more of a testable hypothesis than a statement of opinion, really.

    Old #8 was a short-lived product put out as a transition from the 8 year-old 101 proof that had been their longtime stalwart. Like George Dickel and others, a change from 8 years old to #8 brand still left a prominent "8" on the bottle for an unwary consumer. The initial few years of the Old #8 in the early nineties (our special occasion bourbon in college) were considered great and largely equivalent to the 8yo. Turkey afficionados (I'm more of an admirer), would say the #8 went downhill until the late 1990s, when they dropped the age statement and that it has gone downhill since then: The age has been dropping, they've put out lower proof versions and their entry proof has gone up (lower entry proofs typically extract more flavor, but use more barrels per bottle of whiskey). That said, my casual encounters (Southwest flights, neighborhood bars) over the years have remained positive, so maybe it is memory that is faulty.

    Two identical Glencairn glasses were filled with 30g of bourbon (WT#8, WT101) each, after being first rinsed with water and then rinsed with a small amount of the respective bourbon to eliminate any contaminants or effects of the water rinse. The glasses were then placed on identical coasters, one of which had been marked (the WT101). The glasses were then randomized and presented to me for tasting. I tasted them sequentially, eating a wheat cracker and taking 4oz filtered water before each. Drams were tasted against a black countertop to prevent differences in color from unblinding. Most of each sample was taken orally and then expectorated to avoid accidental intoxication from impacting the results.

    Bourbon 1 Tasting
    The nose is revealing of sawn and toasted wood notes, along with a hint of ground coffee. Caramel, vanilla bean and waxy notes follow with some swirling, as I find typical of WT product. Really a perfect dessert bourbon nose. The palate is middle weight with very prominent rye spices, and a good level of sweetness that is balanced by char and tannins. The wax is back here as well, along with smoke and incense, giving a slightly Novena-like flavor. The alcohol is well tamed for 101 proof. The finish is medium to quick in length, pleasantly warm and slightly bitter at the end. This is very good and very typical high-rye bourbon, though not particularly exceptional.

    Bourbon 2 Tasting
    The nose is similar to Bourbon 1, with the addition of more acetone/organic notes, making me think the cut was wider on this. Also more vanilla and cognac-like notes. The palate is heaver, with spice, chocolate, coffee, toffee, butter and dark tannic wood flavors. Syrupy, but the sweetness is again well balanced with acid and tannin. The alcohol is more evident here. The finish is very long, drying and warming, reminiscent of a much older spirit than either of these is. This is all Bourbon 1 is, but better. To borrow a term from the brits, this is very moreish. Clearly, I think this is the Old #8.

    I was totally wrong. I liked the second one better. The more prominent alcohol and slightly more muted spice character are the only departments in which the new version fell short.

    I'm a little disappointed to have been wrong, but since I've not had the current 101 in a long time, I'm not too concerned about my tasting acumen. However, this is the best possible outcome. I like this better than the dusty and better than the Rare Breed I had a few months back. More importantly, I never have to go back to cat-pee-store again! Maybe the #8 was from the tail end when it was nto so good, but in any case, I shall drink more turkey in the future. Aside from the comparison, they were both very good; my bottle of 101 bordered on excellent. I'm interested to try the RR single barrel, but this, at only $23, is pretty compelling stuff.

    Sunday, March 17, 2013

    Jameson Black Barrel Reserve Review

    Hapy St. Patrick's Day!
     I don't usually drink Irish whiskey, but I have this open, the wife still isn't home, and I'm trapped in the house while a thousand gobshites in green antennae are shit-facedly snogging and throwing shit all over my neighborhood. Which I assume has something to do with St. Patrick's day.

    As one of Irish extraction, myself, I'm sort of torn between my enthusiasm for any celebration of our modest race and at the same time a little put off by the sterotypicity involved. Also, neither I nor any Irishman I know cares for corned beef.

    Anyway, here is Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel Irish Whiskey. Bottled by John Jameson and Son in Dublin at 40% ABV, this cost me a bit north of $30.

    As we all might have noticed, it seems that "black" is the new black in the spirit world, with Crown Royal Black, Courvosier Black, Cuervo Black, etc, pandering to our more melanotic desires, as well as the more longstanding JW Black and Black Bowmore. I think it usually means more wood is involved.

    This is positioned as a step up from standard Jameson, but not all the way up to the 12. Apparently there is more pot still whiskey in this than the standard bottling, but they are both blended whiskeys. This brings me to why I so rarely like Irish whiskey, it is usually pot still (lovely) blended with grain whiskey (vodka). Just like blended American or Scotch whiskey, it is the rare whiskey that is improved by the addition of neutral spirits. This is why Redbreast is so appealing and Jameson is usually used for shots. Anyway, the black barrel offers:

    Nose: Grain and barley notes similar to unpeated scotch, some apples a touch ot "pot still funk," and very little barrel influence. Clean overall, but not inspiring.

    Palate:  Caramel, apples and a hint of vanilla that makes me suspect refill bourbon casks used in maturation. The palate is hot and thin, the latter consistent with its 80 proof. The palate is also a bit bitter. Fairly boring.

    Finish: Slightly oily, sweet and ends with a touch of bitterness and mint.

    Overall, I wish I could like this whiskey, but I just don't. I want to like Irish as a category, but have found few good examples. Redbreast, Jameson Gold and Powers 12 are all lovely and I wish I had some for today. On the other hand most are like this one: mostly water, neutral spirits and, I suspect, tired cooperage. I've been hearing about the recent Irish whiskey Renaissance, but this guy ain't it. I will still look for the Power's John Lane,  the Green and Yellow spots and will continue to hope for the Jameson Gold to go on sale, but this, like the standard Jameson, is really only fit for shots which, unlike the hooligans outside, I try to avoid.

    Happy SPD anyway!

    Wheaters Part 6: Pappy 15, Jefferson's 18, and Vintage 17 Bourbon Review

    Wheaters Finale: The Best 3 Wheaters Under $100?
    Including, in my opinion, the best wheater at any price I've had.

    Welcome to the last installment of this series on wheated bourbons. I have found, in drinking the spiritual heirs to Stizel-Weller that there are some very good whiskies in this segment, and that price does not always equal quality. I have also found the market to be a bit crowded with a number of expressions that I don't have a lot of time for. This is because, in my now reasonably extensive experience, wheaters really only become impressive after fairly protracted aging, around 12 years. I find wheated bourbons younger than this to be good, easy-drinking spirits, but I can't say that they offer much to my palate beyond standard low-rye bourbons. I think it is a shame to drink in their youth such bourbons as these will become in their age. I'm sure I will enrage OWA and Maker's die hards, but de gustibus non est disputandum.

    I have also decided to finish the series here, with these three, and leave critical reviews of the Old Rip and OWA for another time. I'm getting a bit of wheater fatigue, and you too may be hoping I will move on. So, tasted neat (as I just really can't enjoy water in my bourbon unless it starts at over 50%):

    Vintage Bourbon 17*
    47% ABV Bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, $64.99
    This prosaically named and hideously packaged bourbon was likely distilled at the Bernheim while it was owned by United Distillers. At this time, UD had just closed the S-W plant and were producing Old Fitzgerald and Weller products there (the plant would later be sold to Heaven Hill and the Weller brand to Sazerac). Some of the bourbons in the Van Winkle line have a proportion of this distillate as well. As such, this stuff has a pretty good pedigree (unfortunately, it seems to have been discontinued and, like many non-distiller labels, it is impossible to confirm any of this).

    Nose: When poured into the fancy snifter I decided on today it fills the room with buttered apples. It smells like pie is about to happen.The nose also has some well-tamed alcohol, brown sugar, and no hint of acetone or other organic compounds.

    Palate: The mouthfeel is weighty and smooth. The initial attack brings caramel, more buttered apple, pastry dough and a higher than average level of sweetness.

    Finish: moderate length, very warming and pleasant. Apples and pears continue for some time, and no bitterness or real burn is detected. This one really asks you to have another sip.

    Overall this is a very well-done effort. If it has a failing, it is somewhat simple and sweeter than average. However, with it's intense and pleasant flavor profile and very nicely integrated oak, the apple pie and sweetness thing makes this an exceptional desert bourbon and cognac alternative. I just wish I had more.

    Jefferson's Presidential Select, 18 Years Old KSBW
    Batch #27, 47% ABV, Bottled by McLain and Kyne, $89.99

    Like the JPS17 that I had and loved last year, this bourbon was distilled in 1991 at the Stitzel-Weller distillery before it closed. Unusual for an independent bottler to tell us where the bourbon comes from, but in a world where kidneys are sold to get a bottle of Pappy, the S-W name sells. M&K do have a 21 year JPS coming out, but it looks unlikely to be from S-W or even wheater. But on to this one:

    Nose:Wood. Woody, woody wood. Sort of nice wood, though, like walking into an antique shop in New England. Some incense, some cherries in there somewhere, vanilla and maybe a hint of milk chocolate. Orange zest too? All of the latter are initially overpowered by the wood, but as the wood blows off, they come to the forefront.

    Palate: Again woody. There initial sweetness with vanilla and caramel, as well as faint cherry and maple, but it then feels like it dries up and  falls into a hole: the midpalate is full of dried grass, dried wheat and pencil shavings. There is also some bitterness toward the end.

    Finish: The finish is long, but that nagging, grassy note dominates. Also pencil wood, citrus and some faint spices.

    Overall, I'm finding this a lot less pleasant than the 17, as well as the last glass I had in a bar.  I suppose batch variation is a partial culprit, but I really think they left this guy in the barrel way too long. As I mentioned in a previous post, this stuff really comes alive with a few drops of Stagg, and I found the same with the addition of a few drops of Pappy 15. In both cases it was totally salvaged and really enjoyable. But I think $90 is too much to ask for a bourbon that needs "correcting." It is probably still worth trying, just to get some S-W into you, if you've never been exposed, and also worth seeking out if you can find a better batch than this one.

    Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, 15 Years Old KSBW
    53.5% ABV, Bottled by Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, $99.99

    Pappy. Just saying the name makes liquor store owners shudder. As the most sought-after bourbon in the world, it's popularity at this point is based mostly on the fact that you cannot buy it anywhere. It used to come out twice a year, with the 15 year around $50-60; it's now down to every fall for $100 in many places, and we see it on Craigslist and (illegally) on Ebay for hundreds more than that. It's become the holy grail of bourbon hipsterdom and a great illustration of the fact that nothing makes people want something more than to be told they can't have it.

    The 15 year was initially introduced as a line extension to the  original, 20 year-old Pappy (a 23 was also introduced), which I find more refined but less pleasurable at its lower proof. My one tasting of the 23 is lost in the mists of time. The bottle I have in front of me is likely a mixture of bourbons from Bernheim (like the V17), S-W (like the JPS18) and Buffalo Trace. Eventually it will (like the current Old Rip) be a 100% BT product.

    Nose: When poured, the room again fills with the buttered apple aroma as with the Vintage 17. The oak is also there, more like the JPS and with the same antique-store and incense note. Cherries are also present as are caramel and vanilla. It is easy to smell what each of the Bernheim and S-W bourbons bring to this; harder to say with the BT, but their products are relatively neutral and 'clean' overall so this may not be surprising. This is a much better balanced nose than the JPS and more complex and interesting than the V17.

    Palate: The attack is more aggressive here, likely due to the higher proof. There is butter, a touch of acetone, vanilla, brown sugar, dulce de leche,apples and a hint of coffee. The sweetness is medium and the body is huge.

    Finish: the finish echoes the palate and, by virtue of the 53.5%, goes on for days. It is very warming and satisfying, leaving apples as a final note. There are no off notes and when the finish finally fades, the mouth feels clean.

    I'd like to be contrarian and say that the PVW is more hype than substance, but I could honestly drink this stuff for days. It is really the platonic wheated bourbon and I can think of no way to improve upon it. It was the best value in the whiskey world when it was $60, and it remains well worth the $100. Why is it so good? I have a few ideas:
    • Vatting: in a market where single barrel automatically equals good, I think we can forget too easily the benefits of vatting.** Just as I found adding Stagg or Pappy to the JPS, using bourbons with slightly different profiles can often provide complexity and bolster weaknesses in a way that might not otherwise be possible. I think this is an approach that not used enough. As a caveat, though: I wish they would tell us when they did it and with what; there needs to be more transparency.
    • Proof: a given barrel of bourbon has all the flavor it's ever going to have. Adding water doesn't just cut down the alcohol. PVW15 has an extra 6.5% on the other guys, which is more than enough to make a difference.
    • Age and aging conditions: Given long enough in a barrel, I feel like all spirits tend toward "extra aged" in nose and taste. When done well, it's lovely, as in XO cognac, aged scotch, extra añejo tequila or Pappy 20, for that matter.  However, in the hot climate of Kentucky, it is easy to let a spirit age to far, resulting in the unpleasant woodiness we found in the JPS18. I think the Pappy 15 was dumped just as the barrels gave all they could, while preserving the qualities of the spirit that make it bourbon.

    After all of these wheated bourbons, I will continue to buy Pappy 15, provided it doesn't reach much higher prices. I will also not turn down a Vintage 17 if I find it. I think I may well hoard a small amount of Weller 12, for when I'm in the mood for a wheater and it's not a special occaision, and I will also buy more of the Old Rip, which is supposed to be in better supply this fall. It'll be twice as expensive as OWA, but I think it's twice as good. I will probably not be buying any more Van Winkle 12 (lot B), any more OWA or WSR and will probably make my WLW decisions on a case-by-case basis. I am fortunate enough to have a hoard of Pappy and WLW that would see me through a medium-sized zombie apocalypse, so I think I will likely overall shift my money away from wheaters.

    This leads me to a final thought. I love Pappy, and I really like most of the wheaters I've tasted. However, to my palate, only the PVW has held a candle to George Stagg, Van Winkle Rye, Sazerac 18, Hirsch 22, or special editions of Four Roses. I know I don't like wheaters as much as straight ryes, and I'm beginning to wonder about my feelings about them compared to high-rye bourbons... I guess that might be the next series to discuss.

    If forced to rank-order and give scores to the wheaters I've had this year since  (with price as a consideration), I would rate them:

    99/100 Pappy 15
    94/100 Vintage 17, William Larue Weller
    92/100 Weller 12
    89/100 Van Winkle 12,
    88/100 Jefferson's Presidential 18
    79/100 Rebel Yell

    *Note that older expressions of Vintage 17 were actually rye recipe bourbons
    ** I use Vatting, versus blending, as the latter connotes the blending of bourbon with inferior grain spirits as is "blended whiskey," aka bourbon flavored vodka.

    Monday, March 11, 2013

    Wheaters Part 5: William Larue Weller Review

    Barrel-proof Wheater from the BTAC
    So, I got a few heated responses both here and on Reddit to my suggestion that BTAC should simplify their wheater lineup. Let me clarify for a moment before I begin this review. I either very much like or totally love every bourbon from the last post. However, I think there is some redundancy and unless BT ramps up their production of wheated bourbon, I would rather make Sophie's choices than never be able to find what I want.

    One of the bourbons whose role I found unclear was the Willam Larue Weller. Willy occupies one of the coveted spots in BT's Antique Collection, which has three extra aged whiskies: Sazerac 18, Eagle Rare 17 and George T. Stagg (NAS but usually around 17 years old). The collection also has 3 barrel proof offerings: Thomas Handy Sazerac, George T. Stagg (serving double duty here) and William Larue Weller. Why the 6 year old Handy is in the "antique" collection I am not sure. The Willy Larue is itself usually only 11-12 years old, so it's not exactly long in the tooth either. The reason that I found the WLW potentially redundant is that it appears to be Weller 12 at barrel proof: that's  18.3% more alcohol for 2.4 times the price, which seems poor QPR, unless you really like to drink your bourbon at it's full 126.6 proof (some do). The question really, is whether Willy can offer something more than Weller 12 at drinkable proof. The answer, of course, will depend on what proof you find drinkable. I don't like to drink barrel proof very often: the intensity of flavor is great but I find drinking responsible amounts to go too quickly, and I just can't imagine it's healthy. So here's some tasting:

    Full Proof 126.6 proof 2010 release William Larue Weller
    • Deep orange-amber color with a hint of cloudiness suggesting that it is unfiltered.
    • The nose is unsurprisingly alcoholic and very woody. It has prominent acetone aroma and smells like it came from a high floor in the warehouse. The nose also reveals dry wheat, maple syrup, oranges and caramel. This is a very nice nose. Perhaps a bit woody, but it competes well with Pappy and Jeff 18.
    • The palate entry is aggressive and I admit it's clearly too alcoholic to be comfortable, unless I'm trying to impress you with my drinking prowess. There is maple again, caramel, vanilla and cinnamon. I remember this being better when first opened (I thought it tasted like concentrated Pappy then, 3 months ago), but now it's hard to get past the alcohol.
    • The finish is initially anesthetic from the alcohol, but this fades into a lasting, warm pleasant finish of dark fruit, caramel, vanilla and maple.
    This is really great, but the alcohol is just too much; Maybe the 2012 will fare better.

    Watered to 100 proof
    Using a digital scale, I watered the Willy down to 100 proof with highly filtered water. After it settled down:
    • The nose has improved. The woodiness has faded and there is more caramel, vanilla and fruit. Some of the acetone has faded as well, which is good because it was too much.
    • This time around, the palate entry is not as shocking and traditional wheated bourbons are evident immeditately: white bread, pastries, butter, caramel, vanilla. There is more cinnamon here. The alcohol burn is still not the smoothest I've encountered, however.
    • The finish is no longer numbing, but is otherwise nearly the same. The only detriment I can find is a slight bitterness (that I also find in the Lot B, to which I did not add water), but this is faint and hardly significant.
    Overall I really like the 100 proof WLW; It could stand a bit of rounding out, however, as I still find it surprisingly harsh compared to the similarly aged, but higher proof Old Rip.

    Watered to 90 proof
    As a final test, I watered this down to Weller 12's 90 proof.
    At this proof the nose suffers, if only by becoming less intense. The palate actually becomes sweeter and feels fuller bodied, but otherwise is just a less intense, but still nice, version of the 100. The finish again is similar, if milder.

    By way of comparison, I brought out the Weller 12 to compare to the 90 proof WLW (see my prior post for a full review of the Weller 12).
    •  The nose has more butter and caramel.
    • The palate is rounder and seemingly heavier, but with more corn flavor and less complexity.
    • The finish is smooth and without bitterness, but again simpler
    This is a very singular barrel-proof wheater. It is very complex and well-made but unfortuately a bit too much to take straight as the complexity and pleasing flavors are overwhelmed by alcohol (in a way that is not the case with Stagg, which I will drink straight). Watered to 100 proof it is, I think, my favorite expression of Weller and is significantly better than the Weller 12. Watering it down to 90 does it no favors. At 90, however, it is not identical to the Weller 12 however, and I can think of a few reasons:
    • WLW is unchillfiltered, leaving a number of fatty acids and other flavorful compounds that are removed in Weller 12.
    • I would bet money, based on the woodiness, that the WLW is from higher floors of the warehouse where more dramatic temperature shifts impart more oak compounds to the spirit.
    • WLW is a limited barrel-selection, so the profile is likely chosen to be different
    Overall, I like this and will continue to enjoy the bottles of these I have. I am still not sure that when I can get bourbons like Stagg that do barrel-proof better, and Pappy 15/107 that does wheater better, that I will buy much more of this. Maybe the 2012's I have will be better, but for now if I want to spend close to $100 (after taxes and the inevitable gouging) on a bottle of bourbon, I will have PVW or GTS.  If I want to drink a 12 year old wheater, I'll have Weller 12 for $25. For now, I have a not unlimited budget for this stuff and I will spend it as wisely as possible, which means no high-end whiskey that I don't absolutely love. If they were to age WLW a few more years, on the other hand, I think I might be able to get into some trouble.

    Sunday, March 10, 2013

    Wheaters part 4: The Great Wheater Night

    Wheater Night
    It was ambitious
    We might have gone a bit overboard with this one. My friend Greg and I finally got to have a whiskey night after a long interval. Reviews of the Pappy Van Winkle 15, Jefferson's Presidential Reserve 18, Vintage 17, William Larue Weller, Old Weller Antique and Old Rip Van Winkle will follow.

    The point of this evening was to take a broad survey of high-end wheaterdom and  compare in a few cases  to more standard offerings to get a feel for the actual value added by the more expensive and harder to get bottles. We also tried or hand at a couple vattings (not so insane when you remember that PVW and lot B have often been vattings of different bourbons). It's really great to be able to try everything together to allow comparisons and really bring perspective. Here are our most notable thoughts:

    Buffalo Trace

    • Pappy 15 is an awesome, just incredible, perfect wheated bourbon. It roundly beat everything else here and we both agree we like it better than the Pappy 20 (which we did not open last night). I don't have a clear enough memory of the Pappy 23 from my one tasting, but I think I would always pick 3 15's over a 23. At $100 this is not inexpensive but may be the best bourbon currently made and certainly ranks among the best $100 whiskeys of any kind. The only thing I can say to temper this is that I'm not sure that the best wheater really beats the best straight ryes, but that is personal preference.
    • Buffalo Trace makes too many wheaters. We think they should consider discontinuing Lot B. The best bottles of Weller 12 are as good, and less stellar examples are still well worth the $25. Lot B is too expensive and too hard to find. If we got rid of it, Weller 12 could be more available. 
    • Along similar lines, we think that Old Weller Antique should go. Screaming OWA fans hear me out: OWA is a very nice value bourbon, but if we had more access to either Weller 12, or ORVW 10/107 (which these OWA barrels grow up to be) I think we could live without the OWA. We need to stop tapping these barrels in the flower of their youth and wait until they are the far superior 10-12 year-old versions. I guess we could keep the WSR as an incredible value alternative to Maker's.
    • WLW can also go: obviously a well-selected barrel-proof Weller 12, we could stop fooling around with this and make more W12 available. While we are at it, why not put the Weller 12 in a nicer bottle at 100 proof, charge a touch more and split the difference.
    • Because of all of the above, our dream lineup BT wheaters would be a pared-down roster of WSR, ORVW 10/107, Weller 12/100 and PVW15. This would maximize all that is good and right about BT wheaters while perhaps helping availability. The PVW 20 and 23 should obviously live on as limited editions.

    Other Wheaters

    • The Vintage 17 wheater was really, really nice. A KBD-bottled wheater made at Bernheim with KBD's usual flair for creative names. Too bad this stuff is no longer made.
    • The JPS18 was not as good as the JPS17. The extra year seems to have done it no favors.


    • The 50:50 blend of OWA and W12 made popular on Straight Bourbon remains a great thing, though the nose is better than the palate. 
    • A step-up version of the above with ORVW and W12 was incredible, and was the inspiration for our plea for W12/100.

    DIY Hirsch 16- The best nose of any American Whiskey we have ever encountered!
    • The best, and perhaps most heretical vatting was one I conceived during my only experience with Hirsch 16. I enjoyed it after some JPS 18 and at the time thought that they were similar but that the H16 brought much more enjoyable rye complexity to the midpalate as well as more of the acetone notes I enjoy in PVW and George T. Stagg. So we did the obvious: added GTS drop by drop to JPS18 until the grassiness faded from the midpalate and was replaced by all of the intense rye-bourbon notes we love about the Stagg. The nose on this stuff was staggering. I'm not going to compare it to the Hirsch, but I would encourage any of you whiskey nerd with both of these open to try it. As Greg put it, "Stagg might be the white truffle of the bourbon world - an expensive, exotic, wonderful flavoring ingredient that is best not consumed by itself."

    Monday, March 4, 2013

    Wheaters Part 3: Lot B, Weller 12 and VSOF Blinded Review

    Battle of the 12 year-old Wheaters
    The next in our series of wheated bourbon reviews will be a blinded tasting with three arms:
    • Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 12 years old (Lot B) 90.4 proof ($60)
    • Old Fitzgerald 12 year ($33)
    • W.L. Weller 12 year old bourbon 90 proof ($24)
    I think 12 years old is an awkward time. All the girls had braces or suspiciously older boyfriends, and all us guys had unreliable voices, inexplicable hairs and periodic inabilities to rise from our seats when class ended. The main task of adolescence, if we are to believe the influential psychiatrist Erik Erikson is to solve the problem of fidelity: the conflict between identity and role confusion. I think this is actually rather apt with American whiskies: is this a $20 bottle for enjoying without thinking too hard about, or a $100 special-occasion bottle that merits a bit of respect and contemplation? Like humans, there are charming and lovely 6-8 year-old bourbons, and some grow up to be fascinating and engaging adults, but the tweens are sometimes awkward. Oak where there was no oak before, funny feelings in the tannins etc. Anyway...
    These bourbons, as discussed in a previous post , are 12 year-old, 90 proof,  wheated mashbill bourbons. The Weller 12 is produced at Buffalo Trace, as is the Van Winkle, though the Lot B may still have some proportion of Bernheim juice; it's hard to be sure. The VSOF is currently all Bernhiem, made by Heaven Hill. One major difference between these is availability. Welller 12 and VSOF are not extensively distributed, but usually a few minutes googling and maybe some negotiation with friends or relatives in shipping states can usually get you one. Lot B used to hang around longer than it does, but now evaporates just after the Pappy, usually as an expensive consolation prize. Which brings up the second point: when you can find it at list price, the Lot B is $60; the W12 is about $25. Is the Lot B better? Is it more than twice as good? Is it worth it for the je ne sais quoi that has the David Changs and Tony Bourdains constantly going apeshit? And what of the VSOF? a 12 year-old wheater for half the price of Van Winkle that no one ever seems to talk about?

    The VSOF pictured is a sample bought from Master of Malt, whose "drinks by the dram" sample program is just incredible and in sore need of replication this side of the pond. Such samples are likely to crop up from time to time on this blog as it is all self-funded, and I can't/should not finish bottles fast enough to keep delivering content, and I don't hate money.

    Tasted blind, using the same method as previously I found the following:

    Bourbon 1:
    Nose has butter (diacetyl), popcorn, cereal grains, vanilla (most like cake frosting), acetone and dry wood that reminds me of an attic. The palate is medium weight, dry, and hotter than I would like. I notice vanilla, caramel, grain, oranges (and their rinds) and there is a definite bitterness that detracts from an otherwise simple but pleasant palate. The finish starts well with grains and sweetness but trails into faint bitterness. I guessed (correctly) Lot B.

    Bourbon 2:
    This nose is very different. Menthol/eucalyptus is here in a small but unmistakably amount that I have found in a number of HH products. The nose also has notes of butterscotch, vanilla and (oddly) what I identify from a childhood memory as gummy worms. The palate is heavier and very smooth; the alcohol is very nicely tamed. Also on the palate, I get banana nut muffins, faint citrus and a touch of pine. The finish is simple and warming, leaving finally with mint. This was obviously not a BT wheater, so I guessed (correctly) VSOF.

    Bourbon 3:
    This nose was obviously similar to #1, but with more dried wheat and less acetone and butter. The nose also brought Crème brûlée. The palate, compared to #1 was sweeter and not as hot. It was lighter than #2. Overall it had a nice balance of caramel, vanilla and toffee notes and tasted "bright" overall. The finish was quick, but clean. I guessed Weller 12, mainly in the hope that I liked Mr. $25 better than Van Winkle.

    The first thing I learned is that I am not insane and can discriminate between drinks. Second, despite the "gummy worm" issue and thrashing OF products get from many reviewers, I actually quite like the VSOF and will get more. As for the BT stablemates: I think I may be finished with Lot B. I will continue to buy it for gifts as many seem to love it (but would they love it without the magical Van Winkle name on the bottle?), but for myself I will either go with the 10/107 ($40 and awesome) or PVW15 ($100 and classic). The most stunning thing, which I suspected but am glad I confirmed blindly, was how much I enjoyed the Weller 12, a $25 bourbon, which I continue to think is one of the best values in the bourbon world.

    To be clear: all of these were very nice drinks that I will happily enjoy in the future. Further, in a world where the buy-in for serious scotch and wine is rapidly nearing the 3 digits (and the latter only lasts for a night) I would even go so far as to say they are all bargains. However, I liked this Weller 12 better than the Lot B, and not just for the price.

    Next, we will find out if spending even more money on a bottle of brown liquor gets you anything...