Archive for category Bourbon

Grass Widow

Grass Widow Bottle Image

Used with permission of Two James Spirits LLC

Maker: Two James, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: Bourbon whiskey finished in Madeira casks.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 91 (45.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $60

Thanks to Amy for the sample.

Appearance: Light auburn with long thick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, balsamic vinegar, black cherry, grape bubble gum, cayenne pepper.

Palate: Wine grape jelly, oak, jalapeno, honey.

Finish: Madeira, spicy rye, oak, ghost pepper.

Mixed: It did very well in all cocktails I tried it in. Made a good, spicy Manhattan and boulevardier but it did best in an old fashioned. The bitters and sugar brought out the spice and jam very nicely. Similar cocktails should also do well.

Parting words: Many microdistillers have released sourced whiskey products as a way to pay the bills while their own products age. Some, like Two James, actually do have distilled their their own whiskey and are actually waiting for it to age.

The only other product available to that bears much resemblance to Grass Widow that is Angel’s Envy. The latter is Kentucky bourbon finished in port wine barrels. There are big differences between Madeira and Port but both are fortified Portuguese wines. Grass Widow is much richer and spicier than AE. The Madeira wine cask influence adds a dark, grapey taste and aroma to the spirit as opposed to the bright strawberry notes of AE. Both are delicious, but Grass Widow’s finish works alongside the sweetness and spice of the bourbon to while AE’s finish takes the lead and leaves the bourbon to play a secondary role. That puts it slightly ahead of AE for me.

As with most micro-producer products price is an issue. At $60 it’s not going to be anyone’s go-to, but it’s definitely worth a place in any whiskey enthusiast’s cabinet as a weekend after-dinner sip or for a top-shelf cocktail. Grass Widow is recommended.

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Head to Head: Weller 12 vs. Van Winkle Lot “B”

W12= W.L. Weller 12 y/o (purchased 2013)W12 vs LotB

VWB= Van Winkle Special Reserve, Lot “B” (purchased 2014)

Maker

W12; Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

VWB: Van Winkle, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (A joint venture between Sazerac and the Van Winkle family).

Age: 12 y/o (both)

Proof

W12: 90 (45% ABV)

VWB: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Price

W12: $24 (Spec’s)

VWB: $55 (Michigan State Minimum)

Appearance: Dark Copper with thin prolific legs (both)

Nose

W12: Alcohol, homemade bread, leather, vanilla extract, cut grass.

VWB: Alcohol, leather, vanilla extract, grilled sweet corn, basil.

Palate

W12: Full bodied and round. Vanilla butter cream icing, oak, alcohol.

VWB: Medium bodied and soft. Oak, a hint of vanilla, sweet cornbread.

Finish

W12: Cherry walnut bread, oak, alcohol. Lingers for a long time.

VWB: Fairly hot, but very well balanced and more subtle than the Weller. Oak, vanilla icing, alcohol. Also linger long, getting sweeter and fruitier as time goes on.

Parting words: This head to head was inspired by a forum thread inspired by a long running discussion in bourbon circles regarding the Van Winkle line of wheated bourbons and the Weller line. Are they the same whiskey in different bottles? Is Weller just a dumping ground for Van Winkle rejects? Is Weller 12 “basically Pappy” as one store owner told a bourbon lover recently?

These two expressions are the best two to compare the differences because they’re the same age and virtually the same proof. Both are made using the same mashbill, same yeast, same distillery and aged in the same warehouses. They are also most likely put into barrels with the same char level at the same proof. So all the pre-aging variables are the same.

The difference is in barrel selection and it does make a difference. Not a huge one but it’s there. Both have the same mix of aromas and flavors, but in different proportions. Weller 12 has a little bit of an unrefined grassy bite to it but it is only noticeable to me when doing the head to head with Lot “B”. Lot “B” is more elegant and seems to have more depth. The herbal note is there but it takes the form of a subtle Basil aroma. Perhaps the areas of the warehouses in Frankfort reserved for Van Winkle are less prone to developing the earthy, grassy aromas in bourbons aged there or perhaps there’s a higher proportion of older bourbon in the mix.

So, what’s the verdict? Lot “B” is the superior bourbon, but only by a little. Weller 12 is a much better bargain than its Van Winkle cousin. Lot “B” is not more than twice as good as Weller 12 but Weller 12 is probably underpriced, so it evens out in my mind. Both Weller 12 and Van Winkle Lot “B” are recommended.

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Barterhouse Kentucky Bourbon

Maker: Diageo, London, UKBarterhouse

Distilled: Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky, USA (Now owned by Heaven Hill, then owned by United Distillers, a precursor to Diageo)

Bottled: George Dickel, Tullahoma, Tennessee, USA

Style: High corn bourbon

Age: 20 y/o

Proof: 90.2 (45.1% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $70

Appearance: Dark auburn with long slow legs.

Nose: Oak, walnut, caramel.

Palate: Full bodied and mild. A tiny bit of alcohol burn, hint of caramel, a little licorice. Very subtle.

Finish: Short and mild. Dry oak, black walnut, burn.

Parting words: Barterhouse is one of the first two releases in Diageo’s new Orphan Barrel series of overaged stuff they had sitting around their Louisville warehouses. The other is the 26 year old Old Blowhard (actual name) that was likely distilled at a distillery called at the site of what’s now Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Bernheim and its predecessor were home to the I.W. Harper and Old Charter brands. Barterhouse and its older sibling were probably intended for one of those two brands when they were distilled.

I usually don’t go in for bourbons this old. I find them one-dimensional and flat. They’re all wood and very little else. I bought this one because of its pedigree. One of my favorite out-of-production bourbons was the Bernheim-distilled version of Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve (distinguished from the other version by its slope-shouldered bottle). I was willing to pay the rather high price for Barterhous because I hoped it would bear a resemblance to that sweet, butterscotchy old favorite of mine. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear much resemblance at all.

Barterhouse bears a resemblance to just about every other bourbon over 16 years old I have tasted. It’s woody.  A little sweetness and spice manage to keep it drinkable but barely. It’s not bad by any means, but I expect more complexity out of something this expensive. Most bourbons at half the price have twice the flavor. Barterhouse is interesting as a piece of history, but I can’t help but get a little melancholy when I think about how great this might have tasted at 12-16 y/o. Barterhouse is mildly recommended.

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Fighting Cock

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USAFighting Cock

Age: 6 y/o

Proof: 103 (51.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $18.50

Appearance: Dark copper with long thick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, jalapeno, caramel. Water brings out butterscotch and basil.

Palate: Hot and sweet with a touch of oak. Softer with water but still spicy. Caramel and cayenne.

Finish: Hot and spicy with caramel and a hit of oak. Finish is basically the same with water, but a little less hot.

Mixed: Does very well in all applications I tried. Stands up to Coke and does well with Benedictine. Shines in a Manhattan and an old fashioned. Gets a little lost in a boulevardier but almost everything does. Performs nicely on the rocks.

Parting words: Like most chickens Fighting Cock is delicious but flies under the radar. It’s Heaven Hill’s answer to Wild Turkey. It has a high, odd numbered proof (mine goes to 11!), a bird on the label and a spicy, aggressive taste and aroma. It originally was aged stated at 8 y/o too, just like Wild Turkey used to be.

I like it better than Wild Turkey. It’s hard to find an age stated bourbon at that proof for under $20 these days. The closest cousin to FC is Old Ezra at 101 proof and 7 y/o. It’s probably also distilled by Heaven Hill and it’s a little cheaper. It tends to be grassy which can be off putting to some. I’d probably rank FC above Old Ezra but both are very good. If you like bold, spicy flavors in your bourbon and the name doesn’t make you blush, Fighting Cock is recommended.

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New Orphan Barrel Project release

I received a press release from Diageo in my mailbox this morning and as I don’t receive many of these so I thought I’d pass the highlights along to you. It’s about the latest new release in Diageo’s orphan barrel series of premium, very old bourbons.

 

TULLAHOMA, Tenn., April 1, 2014 – From Tennessee to Kentucky to Ireland, stories of old whiskies forgotten in the back of rickhouses and warehouses drift among distillers the world over.  From lunch breaks to happy hours, their debates over which whiskey would taste best has become the stuff of legend.  To offer resolution and expand a new line of rare spirits to a growing base of whiskey aficionados, DIAGEO (NYSE: DEO) today announced the latest project of  the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company, Very Old Beaver Straight Bourbon Whiskey to be joining Old Blowhard and Barterhouse Bourbons this spring.Very Old Beaver is expected to begin appearing on select shelves throughout the U.S. in April 2014 under strict allocation due to limited supply of approximately 1,000,000 cases worldwide.  Very Old Beaver won’t disclose her age but enthusiasts will be able to tell that she’s been around the block a few times.

Very Old Beaver stocks were discovered in old warehouses at the Stitzel-Weller facility in Louisville, Ky.  Rumor has it warehouse workers have already begun lining up for a taste of Very Old Beaver with a soft aroma reminiscent of buttercream and smoked halibut.  The whiskey’s mellow taste includes notes of old leather box, salt cod, and aged gorgonzola cheese.  Very Old Beaver is filled in Tullahoma, Tenn. and will be expected to sell for a suggested retail price of $50,000.

Like the rickhouse and warehouse workers who uncover them and the consumers who drink them, Orphan Barrel Whiskies have distinctive personalities in taste and packaging.  Very Old Beaver packaging nods to the inspiration behind the whiskey’s name.  A vintage pink and brown label features a furry beaver after she’s been lightly groomed and stuffed.  Because when you’re tired of youth and immaturity, nothing is better than the warm comfort of Very Old Beaver.

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Baker’s

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USABaker's

Age: 7 y/o

Proof: 107 (53.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $47

Appearance: Dark Copper with thick legs.

Nose: Leather, alcohol, caramel. Water brings out a weird rotten vegetable smell.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Cotton candy, plum, oak, oregano, clove. Goes down a little easier with water and brings butterscotch into the mix.

Finish: Hot and sweet. Peppermint cotton candy. I don’t know if such a thing exists but if it does, it tastes like this. Milder and sweeter with H2O.

Parting words: Baker’s is named after Baker Beam, grandson of Jim’s brother “Park” Beam (not to be confused with Parker Beam, Heaven Hill master distiller) and thus second cousin to Booker Noe. For further confusion, consult the interactive Beam family tree here.

It’s is a part of Beam’s Small Batch collection. The other members are Knob Creek, Booker’s and Basil Hayden. Basil is the whipping boy of the group, being no more than Old Grand Dad in a fancier bottle. Knob Creek is very popular and rightly so. It’s the oldest and the only one with line extensions (Rye, Single Barrel, Smoked Maple). Booker’s is barrel strength and is the sort of flagship of the group, with a 25th anniversary, 10 y/o edition being released soon. Baker’s is 7 y/o and 107 proof and unfortunately occupies the “ignored middle child” spot in the Small Batch family.

I bought this bottle when I learned that Baker’s price was going up substantially in Michigan. I hadn’t had it in a very long time and I was pleasantly surprised. I reviewed the now dusty Beam Distiller’s Series last year. It was also 7 y/o and tasty, but Baker’s has a depth of flavor and weight that the DS lacked. This is probably because of the lower barrel entry proof used for Baker’s and Booker’s. It also fares well compared to Booker’s. Booker’s is higher proof but its age has been creeping down as its price has been creeping up. Booker’s currently sells for close to $60 in Michigan, which in my opinion is absurdly expensive for a 6 y/o bourbon, barrel strength or not. Baker’s price has risen in tandem with Booker’s, but it has stayed 7 y/o which gives it the edge over its cousin.

The only flaw is the inexplicable rotten garbage smell that came out with water. That problem is easily solved by not adding  water or using it very sparingly. Overall Baker’s is a very good bourbon at a decent price. That earns it a recommendation.

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Old Medley

Maker: Charles Medley, Owensboro, Kentucky, USAOld Medley

Distiller: Unknown (Contract distilled)

Bottler: Frank-Lin, Fairfield, California, USA

Age: 12 y/o

Proof: 86.8 (43.4% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $46

Appearance: Copper with thin legs.

Nose: Dry oak with a hint of sweetness.

Palate: Medium bodied and a little hot. Light brown sugar, oak, cocoa powder, alcohol, cayenne pepper.

Finish: Well-balanced and long. Alcohol, oak, caramel.

Parting words: Old Medley is a relatively new product and a very new one to Michigan. According to the best information available, Old Medley is a (relatively) high malt bourbon, coming in at 13% malt, higher than the percentage of rye in the mash. 1792 Ridgemont Reserve has also been rumored to be made with a high malt mashbill, but there has never been any evidence to confirm those rumors.

The Medleys are one of the great distilling families of Kentucky with a history that reaches far back into the nineteenth century. Most of that history is in and around Owensboro, Ketucky. The current Roman Catholic bishop of Owensboro is even a Medley. A distillery with the name of Charles Medley still stands there, but it is currently not in operation although its owner, the government of Trinidad & Tobago (long story), have been shopping it around for years with little success. After the Medleys lost control of their own distillery, they carried on as a non-distiller producer with Wathen’s Single Barrel ($33 state minimum), named after ancestor R. Wathen Medley (himself named for the Wathen family of which his mother Florence was a member). Wathen’s son Charles (b. 1941) and grandson Sam (b. 1975) are currently running the business. Recently a NAS, 102 proof bourbon by the name of Medley Brothers has also been released, but has yet to make it to Michigan.

As for the bourbon itself, it’s quite good. It’s an easy drinking mature bourbon. Sometimes I think it’s too mature and might be a little better at 10 y/o with more sweetness and less oak. But that’s a minor gripe and most of the time I enjoy it.

There are a lot of very good 12 year old bourbons on the market that are better values than Old Medley. Elijah Craig and Weller 12 are hard to beat. On the other hand, there are also a lot of garbage bourbons on the shelves that NDPs or micro-distillers are changing $40-$50 for. Old Medley is not that. It’s an easy going after dinner porch sipping whiskey. It is recommended.

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Old Scout Ten

Maker: Smooth Ambler, Maxwelton, West Virginia, USAOld Scout 10

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Batch: 3

Bottled: 5/2/2013 by Nikki.

Age: 10 y/o

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Price: $55 Michigan State Minimum (this bottle purchased in Kentucky for $50)

Appearance: Dark copper with thin, evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Almond extract, leather, alcohol, dried flowers. More leathery and herbal with water.

On the palate: Full bodied, sweet and rich. Caramel, burn, amaretto candy, cocoa powder. With water more sweetness and some lavender and tarragon.

Finish: Hot. Red pepper flakes, with a touch of oak and caramel as it fades. Less hot with water and sweeter with a touch of basil or tarragon.

Parting words: Smooth Ambler is a breath of fresh air when it comes to micro-distillers/bottlers. Unlike the smoke and mirrors that usually goes with sourced whiskey in this country, Smooth Ambler has always been very up front about the origins of their whiskeys. Their bourbons and ryes are even called “Old Scout” as a nod to the fact that they are indeed sourced, or scouted, from elsewhere. This may not seem like a lot, but even the best known NDPs (Non-Distiller Producers) are usually less than candid about their products.

At any rate, lest that sound like faint praise, their whiskey is damn good too. I’ve reviewed MGPI bourbon before with mixed results. This one is an unqualified success. It shows excellent balance and works well as a rich, creamy after-dinner, cold-weather sipper. The family resemblance to Four Roses is in evidence. Old Scout has a certain aromatic quality (yeast-driven if I were to guess) that I get in Four Roses but no other Kentucky bourbon.

This bottle proves to me once and for all that MGPI can indeed produce high quality bourbon. At $50-$55 it’s not cheap but it’s 100 proof and very tasty. That earns Old Scout Ten a recommendation.

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Head to Head: Bourbon Supreme Rare vs. Cleveland Bourbon Black Reserve

BS= Bourbon SupremeBourbon Sup vs Cleve

CB= Cleveland Bourbon Black Reserve, Batch 004

Maker

BS: American Distilling, Pekin, Illinois, USA (facility now owned by MGPI and used in ethanol production)

CB: Cleveland Whiskey Co., Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Age

BS: NAS

CB: <6 mos.

Notes

BS: Tax-stamped, volume listed as 4/5 of a quart. In a bottle resembling Blanton’s with a gold tassel.

CB: Sourced whiskey treated with a patent-pending process intended to speed up aging. The process involves the use of high-pressure, “oxygen infusion” and “heat processed, charred white oak segments”.

Proof

BS: 86 (43% ABV)

CB: 100 (50% ABV)

Price

BS: Acquired for free (thanks Oscar)

CB: $30

Appearance

BS: Light orange. Slightly cloudy with “dusty” floaters. Some light necklacing.

CB: Mahogany with thin, clingy legs.

Nose

BS: Wood varnish, the lumber section at a hardware store.

CB: Dry erase marker, grape jelly.

On the palate

BS: Thin and light. Like sawdust-infused vodka.

CB: Medium bodied. Like sucking on a grape-scented marker.

Finish

BS: Resembles accidentally inhaling sawdust and then washing your mouth out with cheap vodka. Fades into a locker-room.

CB: Lots of burn, which covers up the taste nicely. Fades into a headache.

Parting words: This is a head to head I’ve been wanting to try for a long time. On the surface, these two whiskeys don’t have a lot in common. Bourbon Supreme is a “dusty” that was made in Illinois at an industrial alcohol plant and Cleveland Whiskey is a new product made in Cleveland by a startup company.

What they do have in common is that they are two of the most frequently mentioned names in discussions of the worst American whiskeys ever made. They live down to the hype.

Bourbon Supreme quickly belies its origins as industrial alcohol more suited to use as racing fuel than a beverage. The wood notes are very clear, but there is no integration and no balance with anything resembling traditional bourbon flavors like caramel, vanilla or spice.

Cleveland Bourbon resembles something kids might huff to get high. The headache mentioned in the finish came on just seconds after I swallowed the first sip. It was remarkable. I have never had that experience before, except for a Croatian Cabernet that gave me a headache at the moment I first smelled it. At least Croatian wine let me know how awful it was right off the bat.

Can anything good be said about either of these? Bourbon Supreme is still fairly easy to find on shelves (for obvious reasons) and the bottle would look attractive as a display piece on the back of a bar. Cleveland Bourbon also has an attractive bottle, is 100 proof and is only $30 which makes it cheaper than most “micro” products of similar age.

Still, these are both terrible products, worthy of their place in the “worst ever” discussion. I will say that I have tasted something worse than these two bourbons: these two bourbons vatted together. Neither Bourbon Supreme Rare or Cleveland Bourbon Black Reserve are recommended.

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My Two Ounces: Suntory, Beam and Marketing

Cap from Maker's Mark Facebook Page

Cap from Maker’s Mark Facebook Page

It was announced earlier this week that Suntory, a privately held Japanese whisky company, will purchase Beam Inc. (owner of Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Old Grand Dad, Maker’s Mark, Laphroaig, Canadian Club, Teacher’s and many other brands) this summer for somewhere between $13 and $16 billion dollars. Online reaction was swift and passionate, to put it kindly. While the response from enthusiasts has been nearly all positive, most of the non-enthusiast response was negative. Much of the negative was xenophobic and some of it was flatly racist. Most of those critical voices can and should be written off as cranks. People claiming that they will no longer drink Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam because their grandfathers fought against the Japanese in the 1940s shouldn’t taken seriously and neither should people who don’t know the difference between China and Japan.

My first reaction was was that this news signals a big restructuring in the spirits industry. It is technically an acquisition, but the result will look more like a merger. Suntory already owned two Japanese distilleries, three single malt distilleries in Scotland and the McClelland’s single malt Scotch brand. With Beam’s holdings, Suntory is poised to become the third largest spirits company in the world behind Diageo and Pernod-Ricard. Consolidation has been the theme of the booze world from the 1930s to the present and that won’t be changing any time soon. Beam Inc. itself is the result of a series of mergers and acquisitions over the past few decades.  As an enthusiast I was excited about the possibility of new ownership of Beam’s brands, especially since the management of some of those brands has been poor in recent years.

Why was the reaction so negative among non-enthusiasts? It’s because they believed what Beam told them.

Bourbon marketing is something that most enthusiasts become immune to quickly. A little knowledge goes a long way to dispel the yarns the bourbon industry spins. Yarns like the one that Jim Beam has been made by the same family with the same recipe since the eighteenth century. Or that Maker’s Mark was first whipped up in Bill Samuel’s kitchen and has been a quaint, family-oriented, backwoods operation ever since. There may be tiny threads of truth in both yarns, but they are not true in any real sense. A few minutes reading a book or searching on the internet is enough to dispel most myths like those. The harder ones might take a few hours. Enthusiasts have the inclination to do that . Most drinkers don’t.

Those drinkers who don’t are the ones who are angry. They’ve grown emotionally attached from years of hearing those myths. Hearing that their favorite little family business is actually a multinational corporation that is about to be swallowed up by another multinational makes them feel like they’ve been played for suckers. Which makes them angry, which makes them look for someone to direct that anger toward, which is where Suntory and Japan come in.

Something that is not a myth is the American-ness of bourbon. By federal and international treaty it can only be made in the U.S. It is mostly made from what we call corn and the rest of the world calls maize, a New World grain, and aged in American white oak. Congressional proclamations have been made about how American bourbon is. Bourbon producers use an appeal to patriotism in their marketing in the U.S. and even overseas advertising and labels themselves stress how American a drink it is. Bourbon producers aren’t the only ones who use this kind of marketing. American automakers have used this angle to sell cars and especially trucks over the years. Like the yarns about the producers themselves, these messages get repeated and work their way into the consciousness of the uncritical whiskey drinkers. For them, drinking becomes a patriotic exercise. What they drink shows how much they love their country. So when they discover that the maker of their patriotic beverage is owned by a Japanese or Italian or British company, they feel, again, played for suckers. Which makes them angry.

Where does this leave us? This whole ugly mess should lead drinkers, producers and their marketers to do more thinking about what they’re doing. The producers need to think about if they are setting themselves up for backlash further down the road with short-sighted marketing focused on myth-making or patriotism. For their part, drinkers (and consumers in general) need to take a little more time to know what they’re drinking, how it’s made and who makes it. This means moving beyond skimming the label, it means picking up a book or at least a few web searches.  I recognize that most people don’t have the time to do a lot of digging into what they drink, but knowledge is viral. If one person take the time to dig up some good information, that person tells another and that person tells another who might be inspired to do a little more digging herself. Let’s hope that’s what’s happening now.

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