A Visit to Lux Row

Now that our youngest is getting older, our regular trips to Kentucky have been slowly becoming regular again. Last April, friend, cocktail enthusiast, and StraightBourbon.com Bourbonian of the Year Bruce organized a couple of tours of Luxco’s new Lux Row distillery for all the SBers who had gathered in Bardstown that weekend.

The bourbon boom has seen a lot of activity around Bardstown and Louisville on the part of whiskey start-ups and even old players. One of those older players that is now making the transition from non-distiller producer (NDP) to distiller is Luxco. Luxco was known as the David Sherman Corporation for many years. It was founded in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1958 by…wait for it…David Sherman along with his partner Paul A. Lux. The Luxes gained control over the company over the years and it was renamed Luxco in 2006. The distillery is named Lux Row because it’s owned by Luxco and they, uh, like to arrange things in rows. No joke, that’s literally what our tour guide said.

Luxco/DSC has long been a large NDP in the bourbon business. Its brands currently include Ezra Brooks, Rebel Yell, Blood Oath, Yellowstone, and David Nicholson (infamous for its labels stating that it was distilled at DSP-KY 16 long after it actually was). Luxco is also now 50% owner of Limestone Branch distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. Tightening of the bulk and contract markets companies like Luxco rely on for their brands has forced some to start distilling for themselves. Luxco’s plans are ambitious. They told us they were planning to build six warehouses on the Lux Row site (they had one completed when we were there), one being completed every six months. They planned to transition to filling their brands entirely with their own stock in a few short years. The numbers didn’t seem to add up, but math isn’t my strong suit and I don’t own stock in the company or anything so I don’t really care.

The distillery/visitor center is a pleasant, modern-looking building inside and out. After years of touring one hundred year old, industrial-style plants, it was eerie to tour this neat and clean new building.  No drips, no rust, and no low-hanging pipes to hit my head on.

 

As with most distillery tours, this one started out with a look at the cookers and fermenters. Lux Row has two 4,000 gallon mash cookers and twelve 8,000 gallon fermenters. Four of the fermenters are uncovered and the rest are closed. They are only running two mashbills currently, a rye recipe bourbon (for Ezra Brooks and David Nicholson Reserve) and a wheat recipe bourbon (for Rebel Yell and David Nicholson 1848). Our guide told us they only run one at a time. He also said that the fermentation usually takes three to four days.

 

Next we got a look at the still, which was made by Vendome and is a beaut, as they say. The column is 43 feet tall with a 36 inch diameter. It has 19 copper plates inside. According to our guide, the distiller’s beer is added at the third plate from the top.

 

 

We then went on to the barrel filling room and saw the equipment and a few barrels there. 90% of their barrels come from Independent Stave and rest come from Speyside cooperage and a few others. A level 3 char is used. The bourbon enters the barrels at a whopping 124.5% alcohol by volume.

 

On to the warehouse. It’s beautiful on the inside with a large open entryway allowing visitors to see all six stories to the top. It’s an impressive sight. Less impressive is the nearly empty warehouse behind those barrels.

 

Bottling takes place at the Luxco bottling plant in Missouri, so our next stop was the tasting bar. As you can see it is decorated in the same slightly old-timey modern style. We tried just about everything they had. The standouts were David Nicholson Reserve and Blood Oath. Blood Oath was very good but not worth the high price tag in my opinion.

We exited through the gift shop, which was full of well-designed apparel and glassware.

 

The tour was quite good overall and our guide was knowledgable, more so than many of the walking automatons that pass for guides at other places. The worst part of the tour was the tasting, simply because most Luxco bourbons just aren’t very good. That’s not the fault of the guides and other staff at Lux Row though. The tour at Lux Row distillery is recommended. Big thanks to Bruce for organizing the tour!

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The old barns. Home to peacocks, or so we were told.
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Domaine d’Ognoas XO

Maker: Domaine d’Ognoas, Arthez d’Armagnac, Landes, France.

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The Bottle

Grapes: Baco, Ugni Blanc, Folle Branche.

Place of origin: Bas-Armagnac

Age: XO (at least 10 y/o)

Purchased for $60 (Astor Wines)

Appearance: Oxidized blood.

Nose: Alcohol, old oak, raisins, cherry wine.

Palate: Burn, macerated raisins, oak, cherry vanilla ice cream.

Finish: Dates, walnuts, old leather.

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The Domaine in 2014

Parting words: The history of the Ognoas estate dates back to the viscounts of Marsan in the Central (aka High) Middle Ages but the estate as it exists now traces its history to the 18th & 19th century Lormand family. Etienne Lormand, born around 1701 to a bourgeois family in Bayonne, purchased the estate in 1770 and added a neighboring one in 1775. The last of the Lormands, Jacques-Taurin (b. 1762), died without heirs in 1842 and left the estate to the church. Armagnac was first made at the estate by the Lormands.

In 1905 the property (along with many others) was nationalized and it has remained in the hands of the French government since then. The over 1600 acre estate includes hiking trails, vineyards, forests (which supply the wood for the barrels), other agriculture, a fortified 13th century house, an 18th century mill, renovated tenant cottages available for rent, and more.

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The still

The wood-fired continuous still at Ognoas is said by the domaine to be the oldest working still in Gascony. It dates from 1804 with additions and improvements made to it throughout the 19th century.

The d’Ognoas line includes the usual suspects: VS, VSOP, XO, hors d’age, XO premium, and Millésime. Quality XO Armagnac can be hard to find around here, and harder to find at a reasonable price. When Liz had to be in NYC for work a few months ago, I asked her to pick up a bottle of this for me. At $60 (plus NYC taxes) d’Ognoas XO is an excellent value. It’s the sort of thing that’s right up my alley: affordable and easy-drinking but not boring. Domaine d’Orgnoas XO is highly recommended.

Photos: 1- mine. 2 & 3- from Domaine d’Ognoas media library.

Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Chardonnay, 2013

Maker: Chateau Grand Traverse, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20180706_164834.jpg

Grape: Chardonnay (at least 85% by law)

Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 10.5%

Purchased for $12 (Meijer)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Sweet cream butter, papaya, mango, orange com? con? cow? (notes unclear)

Palate: Medium sweet. Butter, golden apple.

Finish: Pineapple, butter.

Parting words: Chateau Grand Traverse has a history of producing uncommon wines along with quality grocery-store varietals. This is one of the former, obviously. Before this bottle, I’d had late harvest Gewürztraminer and Riesling, obviously, but I had never even heard of late harvest Chard.

The result is very nice. It’s fuller-bodied than the usual style of Chard with big tropical fruit drenched in butter. I expected it to be sweeter than it was, but that may be due to the cool vintage. I’m eager to try a 2016 CGT Late Harvest Chard. Pick me up a bottle if you see one. 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Chardonnay is recommended.

 

A Visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards

On Saturday, June 9, Liz and I headed up to Traverse City, Michigan for the fourth City of Riesling Festival (For my review of the first, click here). We had a great time. We drank wine, we walked on the beach, we drank more wine, we learned about wine. On Sunday we also visited Good Harbor and Chateau Fontaine wineries and drank and bought wine.

On Monday we had one more wine stop: Nathaniel Rose winery at Raftshol Vineyards. Nathaniel Rose started his own business operating out of Brengman Brothers winery were he worked at the time. Last year, he purchased the Raftshol Vineyard in Suttons Bay in Leelanau and is now using it as his HQ (and homestead!).

Raftshol is one of the oldest wineries and vineyards in Leelanau. It began at the turn of the last century as the dairy farm of Anders Raftshol. In 1930 the cows left home and the farm was converted to a cherry orchard. In 1975 the cherry business was bad so the trees had to go. Sometime after that, hybrid grape vines were planted. Anders’ grandsons, Warren and Curtis were not happy with the results so in 1985 they planted vinifera instead, being the first commercial vineyard on Leelanau to do so. Instead of the usual practice of grafting vinifera vines onto native rootstock, they grafted them onto the existing hybrid ones. Rose believes this unusual set up may contribute to the high quality of the fruit produced by the estate. When Warren decided to sell last year, Rose jumped at the chance to own some of the oldest vinifera vines in the state, including Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Rose, the vineyards had been neglected for the past ten years, but he’s in the process of whipping them back into shape using careful pruning.

Nathaniel Rose’s namesake project is mostly about making quality, single-vineyard red wines. They are currently sourced from vineyards in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA and almost entirely red except for an orange Marsanne and a dry Traminette (we bought a bottle of Traminette for $13 minus trade discount). Rose has worked at nine different wineries in various capacities over the years, including Raftshol and Brengman Brothers, which he operated out of until purchasing Raftshol. His extensive knowledge, experience and contacts in the Michigan wine industry allow him to get quality fruit from quality vineyards. His wines There may also be a Chardonnay in the works, but Roses says he doesn’t really have the proper equipment for whites at the moment.

Everything we tasted there was wonderful, but my favorites were his excellent Syrahs (we purchased a bottle of the single barrel #4 Syrah at $85 minus trade discount). They were the best Michigan Syrahs I’ve tasted and maybe the best Michigan reds I’ve tried overall. For the single barrel, Rose was aiming for a wine reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône valley, so he cofermented the Syrah with Viognier. When we were tasting, he helpfully provided a bottle of Côte-Rôtie for comparison and the two wines were indeed very close and I would be hard pressed to say which I liked better.

His signature wines are his Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Left Bank and Right Bank. They were both very good. Rose is rightfully very proud of these, especially the Left Bank. He loves to tell the story of the tasting he attended with several sommeliers (including a Master somm), winemakers, writers and other experts in which his 2012 Left Bank Blend went up against a group of Second Growth Bordeaux and cult California Cabs, including Cardinale (~$250), Ridge Monte Bello (~$250), and Jos. Phelps Insignia (~$190), all of the 2012 vintage. None of the experts could pick Left Bank out of the lineup blind and tasters could not tell the difference between it and the 2012 Cardinale Cab at all. Rose believes that Northern Michigan and his new vineyard in particular (which is not the source of Left Bank) has a climate that is very similar to high elevation viticultural areas in California and is capable of producing reds of the same high quality.

Left Bank sells for $150 (we also purchased a bottle of this at a trade discount) which puts it at or near the top of the price range for Michigan wines, even higher than wineries like Brys Estate or Mari Vineyards. When I asked him if he thinks consumers will be willing to pay that much for Michigan wines, regardless of quality, he responded with a few points. First, that his wines are plainly worth the money as tastings like the ones he’s entered Left Bank into prove. Second, that he’s had no trouble selling any of his wines so far. Finally, he pointed out that, while he is selling it at the Raftshol tasting room, the primary purpose of a wine like Left Bank is to enter into contests and tastings to bring attention to the quality of his wines. In other words, he’s not expecting Left Bank to fly off the shelf. It’s intended as a showpiece, not pizza wine (although it would be good with pizza!).

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Nathaniel’s current residence. To know the grapes, one must live amongst them, or at least down the road from them.

Nathaniel Rose’s winery is one of the most exciting things happening in Michigan wine right now. I’m a cheap skate but his wines are as good or better than ones from more prestigious and expensive regions and if any wines deserve to push the price envelope in Michigan, Nathaniel’s do. A visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards is highly recommended! Joining his wine club is also recommended, so you can get the generous club discount!

Stalk & Barrel: Red Blend

Maker: Stillwaters Distillery, Concord, Ontario, Canada20180601_200954.jpg

Style: Blended Canadian whisky (Malt, rye, corn)

Age: NAS

ABV: 43%

Michigan state minimum: $42

Purchased for $35 Canadian at the LCBO ($27 US)

Appearance: Brassy orange.

Nose: New oak, corn whiskey, sweet cinnamon.

Palate: Medium bodied. Corn whiskey with a bit of rye spice with creamy malt on the back-end. Green cardamom, milk chocolate, oak.

Finish: Drying, chocolate covered pretzels.

Mixed: Stalk & Barrel Red did very well in all cocktails I tried: Old Fashioned, high ball with ginger ale, Manhattan, Trois Rivières, and a couple of others I don’t remember.

Parting words: Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein (actual names of two different people) founded Stillwaters Distillery, makers of Stalk & Barrel, in 2009. Their first blend was 11+1. It was entirely sourced. It has since been replaced by the Stalk & Barrel Blue (40% ABV) and Red blends which contain a combination of sourced and Stillwaters distillate. Stillwaters may be best known for their highly regarded Stalk & Barrel 100% Malt whisky which sells for $70 at the LCBO ($54 US). They also have a new (I think) 100% Rye whisky which sells for about the same price. Both are entirely made from spirit distilled by Stillwaters.

Red blend’s price is a great one in Canada. Not so much in the US. This is a good weeknight or mixing blend, but it’s not $42 US good. If you can get a bottle at LCBO prices, Stalk & Barrel Red Blend is recommended.

 

Ch de Leelanau Rosé of Pinot Noir

Maker: Chateau de Leelanau, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA20180530_220820.jpg

Grape: Pinot Noir (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Chateau de Leelanau estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 11%

Purchased for $26

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Watermelon, cranberry juice cocktail, cedar.

Palate: Medium-bodied and semi-dry. Cranberry/raspberry cocktail, cherry juice, toasted oak.

Finish: Dry, oaky, slightly tart.

Parting words: In Michigan, 2016 is beginning to be spoken of in the same breath as 2012 as one of Michigan’s greatest vintages. Wines like this juicy beauty are why. It’s refreshing but never boring. It’s food friendly but also great for porch sipping. It’s all you want in a summer rosé. It’s very good now, but will surely improve or at least maintain its quality with another year or so in the bottle. 2016 Chateau de Leelanau Rosé of Pinot Noir is recommended.

Petoskey Stone Gin

Maker: High Five Spirits, Petoskey, Michigan, USA20180519_183720.jpg

Style: Dry

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $30

Appearance: Clear.

Nose: Juniper, lemon/lime soda, licorice, peppermint.

Palate: Full-bodied and dry. Juniper, cinnamon.

Finish: Eucalyptus cough drops and lemon heads.

Mixed: OK in a Martini and Negroni. Very nice with tonic and in a Tom Collins.

Parting words: The Petoskey stone is the state stone of Michigan. It’s common around lakeshores in the northwestern Lower Peninsula, especially near Charlevoix and, you guessed it, Petoskey. Polished Petoskey stones are a popular souvenir from summer vacations in the area. They’re chunks of fossilized coral formed in the Devonian period roughly 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. Loads of Petoskey Stones were deposited in northern Michigan by glaciers at some period in the past, unknown to Wikipedia. As real midwestern heads remember from school, large, shallow inland seas covered much of the central US in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. As a result, fossils of sea life are common throughout the region.

High Five is a start-up micro-distillery in Petoskey with a tasting room. It’s owned by brothers Adam and Mike Kazanowski along with someone named Mike Kolkmeyer. As far as I can tell, their only products so far are Gypsy Vodka and this. They say that a rum (unaged one assumes) is on the way next.

Petoskey Gin is a drinkable, juniper-forward gin that excels with tonic and in a Tom Collins. It’s a summertime-at-the-lake gin. Not too weird, not too demanding, not too expensive. Well, two outta three. $30 is too much for this, but with the standard micro-distillery mark up, it’s not too far out to sea, or out to lake, as it were. Petoskey Stone Gin is mildly recommended.

 

 

A Visit to Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse

The bourbon boom has been good to tourism in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s the largest city in bourbon country and home to its own cluster of distilleries. Louisville’s bourbon pedigree is second to none (except maybe Bardstown) so it’s in a great position to cash in. It started in 2013 with the opening the Evan Williams Experience downtown and continued in 2014 with the opening of Diageo’s historic Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively Kentucky to the public as a home for the Bulleit brand. 2018 will see the long-awaited debut of Old Forester Main Street Distillery.

Unlike the above distilleries, Jim Beam doesn’t have any historical connections to Louisville. That hasn’t stopped them from joining their competitors, though. In 2014 the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse opened in Louisville’s Fourth Street Live! (sic) development, three blocks south of Main.

I have been to The Evan Williams Experience a couple times and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s Disneyesque, but it does a good job of balancing marketing, education and entertainment. I went into the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse expecting that sort of experience. I should have taken a hint from the name, though. Jim Beam’s Clermont gift shop and visitor’s center is called the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. That is the Urban Stillhouse’s closest parallel, not the other Louisville bourbon attractions.

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The bourbon tree with barrel stave bark, label leaves and bottle lanterns.

The Urban Stillhouse is essentially a gift shop with a tasting bar and event space. There’s virtually no educational component and certainly nothing Disneyesque about it. That’s not to say it’s bad, not at all. It’s just not the Evan Williams Experience. This makes a lot of sense give its location in what’s essentially an outdoor mall. A long, intensive tourist attraction wouldn’t fit well with the chain restaurants and touristy nightclubs of Fourth Street Live! (sic).

Our crew (minus Liz who had a couple church things) stopped in on our way to Bardstown from Detroit. Parking was a little hard to find given the gridlock and our unfamiliarity with downtown Louisville, but we managed to find a garage. The interior is nicely decorated in a similar style to the American Stillhouse. The front part of the space is the gift shop and the back is taken up by a long tasting bar with a cocktail bar on the side. Tastings are $8 per person and include a succinct but largely accurate talk.

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The tasting bar.

We received three samples at first. Ours were Jim Beam Black (now “extra aged”), JB Urban Stillhouse Select (essentially an exclusive version of Distiller’s Cut) , and JB Apple (which our guide correctly described as a liqueur). Our guide walked us through a tasting of the first two, which he said were about the same age. Telling us to hold off the Apple, he then poured us a sample of whatever we wanted from the back of the bar. That included the entire Jim Beam, Jim Beam flavored and Knob Creek lines plus Basil Hayden. I ordered JB Double Wood, which I liked. This extra sample was poured into a souvenir shot glass with Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Louisville and the Louisville skyline etched into it. After that, we were instructed to try the Apple. I’m not much of a flavored whiskey guy, but it was fine. Would make a decent shot, substitute for apple pucker or addition to mulled cider.

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Our samples from L to R: JBB, JBUSS, JB Apple (!)

In the gift shop portion of the space there is also a small still and bottling room where visitors can assemble their own custom version of Urban Stillhouse Select from bourbon at a variety of ages. We didn’t do that, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details of that process. I did purchase a full-sized bottle for myself and a 375 ml as a thank-you gift for our neighbors for babysitting our youngest one so we could get an early start on our trip. For the small one, I took advantage of the custom laser etching service available for $10 per bottle. I chose a short, simple message in a single font but in seemed like the folks ahead of me in line were getting the full text of Moby Dick inscribed into theirs in four different fonts. The etching looked nice but it did take a couple times through the machine to get that way.

The etching service is not just for visitors, though. When we were there, there were boxes of bottles inscribed for the Kentucky Derby Marathon, to be held the next day, sitting near the etching machine. There were also inscribed bottles for a political even being held upstairs later that day.

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Here’s a review of Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse Select:

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JBUSS & the souvenir glass.

 

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont/Boston, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)

Age: NAS

Bottled: April 25, 2018.

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Note: Not chill-filtered.

Price: $46 (only available at the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse)

Appearance: Medium dark copper.

Nose: Alcohol, yeast, leather.

Palate: Full-bodied and medium dry. Tabasco, burnt marshmallows, caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream.

Finish: oak, grape soda.

Parting words: The price is high on JBUSS (vs Distiller’s Cut at $25, Knob Creek at $35, McKenna SB at $34), but one buys a bottle like this as a souvenir, not a value sipper. Both the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse and Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse Select are recommended.

 

 

Cody Kresta Peach

Maker: Cody Kresta, Mattawan, Michigan.20180509_202720.jpg

Fruit: Peach (100%)

Vintage: 2016 (!)

ABV: 11%

Purchased for $16 from Michigan by the Bottle.

Appearance: Light orange.

Nose: Big, overripe peach.

Palate: Medium-bodied, semi-sweet. Squishy, nearly rotten peach.

Finish: Sweet, fade quickly.

Parting words: Peaches are usually associated with Georgia, but California actually produces the most peaches of any state. New Jersey, Washington and New York also rank in the top ten. Those three states are also major cool-climate wine producers, like Michigan. While Michigan isn’t a major peach producer nationally, its climate is great for growing peaches. There are few things I love more than a perfectly ripe Michigan peach in the late summer.

When I first tasted this peach wine at MBTB, that’s what I tasted. It was a beautiful experience and I took a bottle home with me. That was in September 2017. I had a few fruit wines in the cue ahead of this one, so I didn’t get around to opening it until earlier this week. That was a mistake. I love fruit wines, but they usually don’t reward cellaring.

2016 Cody Kresta Peach is tasty and recommended. It has lost some of its freshness, though, so I also recommend drinking it promptly after release!

 

Sandhill Crane Vidal Blanc, 2014

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA.20180425_094301.jpg

Grape: Vidal Blanc

Place of origin: Michigan (At least 75% Michigan Vidal by law)

Vintage: 2014

Style: Semi-sweet.

ABV: 12.5%

Price: $16 (current vintage on website)

Appearance: Pale yellow.

Nose: Peach, mango, papaya, wet limestone.

Palate: Full-bodied. Like pineapple syrup and mango nectar, but not cloying.

Finish: Clean, slightly tangy.

Parting words: Vidal is one of the best-known hybrid grape varieities in this part of the world. It’s most famous for its use in Canadian Ice wine, and is grown as far north as Nova Scotia and Sweden for that purpose. As you might have guessed from that last sentence, Vidal is cold-hardy and was able to produce good wine like this even in a Polar Vortex year like 2014. It’s grown fairly widely in Michigan, often for use in dessert wines, but not always, as in this case.

This Sandhill Crane Vidal is heavy on tropical fruit, but not overly sweet, which makes for nice porch sipping and pairs well with pork and chicken. $16 is a fair price, but much more would be pushing it for a non-AVA hybrid wine, even one of this quality. 2014 Sandhill Crane Vidal Blanc is recommended.