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.