Archive for category Bourbon

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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Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch (2013)

Maker: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Kirin)4R Ltd Ed Small Batch 2013

Age: 13 y/o

Recipes: OBSV (18 y/o), OBSK & OESK (both 13 y/o)

Proof: 103.2 (51.6% ABV)

Appearance: Medium Copper with thick persistent legs.

Nose: Alcohol, leather, pomegranate juice, habanero chili. After a while in the glass it settles into a more conventional high-rye bourbon profile. Caramel, jalapeno, and leather continues.

On the palate: Surprisingly easy to drink at barrel/bottle proof, but then again it’s a surprisingly low proof out of a barrel. Cherry juice, oak, sweet corn, blackberry, white mulberry, burn. Water brings out sweetness and fruity notes.

Finish: Alcohol, caramel, leather. As on the palate, water brings out the fruity sweetness in the finish and tones down the alcohol.

Parting words: For the second year in a row, the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch has won Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year, and with very good reason. Last year’s was very very good, the best since 2009, but this one is even better. It’s a very similar mix of recipes, but with a higher (probably) proportion of bourbon made with the K yeast. It’s older too, which makes its balance of barrel and fruit even more remarkable. As bourbons get into the double digits, they usually get dry and oaky. This one has all the fruit of a young bourbon like Very Old Barton at close to three times the age. It’s a neat trick. It’s balanced, complex, sophisticated and bold all at the same time and it’s one of the best bourbons I’ve ever tasted.

These limited edition Four Roses releases are the 21st Century’s answer to Very Very Old Fitzgerald. Four Roses is the Stitzel-Weller of now. Unfortunately for those of us who have loved them for a long time, they are starting to be snatched up like S-W. I was able to get several bottles of last year’s release fairly easily, but this year the prices are much higher and the bottles are harder to find, even though they are more widely distributed. If you see one, buy one. If you can get more, get more. If you break your budget buying them, I’d be happy to take a few off your hands. I paid around $90 for mine which is a lot, but worth every penny. Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch is highly recommended.

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Jim Beam Signature Craft: Spanish Brandy Finish

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont/Frankfort, Kentucky, USAJB Span Bran

Style: Bourbon finished with Spanish Brandy

Age: NAS

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $40

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Cereal, alcohol, butterscotch, leather, old oak, yeast.

On the palate: Full bodied and sweet. Butterscotch candy, burn, yeast, a touch of jalapeno.

Finish: Hot but sweet. Lingers and tingles for quite some time with butterscotch, burnt caramel, dandelion stem.

Parting words: The Jim Beam Signature Craft series is a new line from Beam with two parts. One part is a 12 y/o, 86° Jim Beam recipe bourbon and the other is an annual release of a finished or otherwise unusually treated bourbon. The Spanish Brandy Finish is the first of that second piece. This is not a brandy barrel finish, this is finished with a touch of the brandy itself.

This whiskey has gotten mixed reviews from enthusiasts, but I think it’s pretty good. Except for the finish, the brandy does a good job of rounding out the rougher yeasty and vegetal characteristics of young Jim Beam. It brings a rich butterscotch sweetness to the nose and palate too.

Complaints have also been made about the price. Yes, better bargains can be found for $40, but it’s something different and I don’t mind paying a little extra for that. Beam has been doing a lot of experimentation over the past few years. Not all of it has been successful, but I think this is. It’s worth buying a bottle to have another option for sipping after a holiday meal. Jim Beam Signature Craft: Spanish Brandy Finish is recommended.

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Head to Head: Woodford Reserve vs. Woodford Reserve Double Oak

WR: Woodford ReserveWR vs WRDO

WRDO: Woodford Reserve Double Oak

Maker: Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Style

WR: Standard Recipe bourbon

WRDO: Bourbon finished in a toasted then lightly charred oak barrel

Age: NAS

Proof: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan Minimum Price (750 ml)

WR: $36

WRDO: $60 (purchased for $50)

Appearance

WR: Copper with thin legs.

WRDO: Slightly darker with pronounced necklacing.

Nose

WR: Alcohol, oak, dried oregano, homemade caramels.

WRDO: Leather, oak, black walnut, alcohol.

On the palate

WR: Full bodied and sweet. Burn, brown sugar, a touch of cayenne and not much else.

WRDO: Medium bodied and tannic. Alcohol, brown sugar, oak.

Finish

WR: Sweet and slightly oaky with some candy. Then lots of burn.

WRDO: Very oaky. Black walnut, fresh oak, fades into alcohol and then away fairly quickly.

Parting words: Woodford Reserve is a popular whipping boy for bourbon enthusiasts. The knocks on it are that it’s young, overpriced, underpowered and its success is all marketing and packaging and no substance. Knocks on the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, a series of experimental annual releases have been similar but even more harsh.

It’s hard to argue with those points. Woodford is expensive for an NAS of 90 proof with little in the way of distinctive tastes or aromas. Woodford Double Oak, a rebarreled version of Woodford with a strong resemblance to the Seasoned Oak Master’s Collection release, adds some needed oak, but not much in the way of depth, unfortunately.

Both fare well in manhattans, but I don’t recall trying them in any other cocktails.

When the Double Oak was released, it was a marginal buy at $50 but $60 is an absurd price for what this is. If it sold for $40-$50 it would be worth a full recommendation, but as it is it is mildly recommended. Standard Woodford was overpriced when it first came out, but as bourbon prices have risen around it, it doesn’t seem so bad. Still, it is dull and its sister brand Old Forester is a much better buy and available at 100 proof. Woodford Reserve is also mildly recommended.

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