Nose: Crushed walnut, bubblegum, caramel, allspice, dried Cayenne. With water the Cayenne turns to sweet cinnamon.
Palate: Medium bodied. Caramel on entry, then burn. Turns chewy and spicy with water.
Finish: Grape bubblegum, alcohol. Water brings out the oak, but doesn’t turn down the heat.
Parting words: Old Forester 1920 is the third installment in the Old Forester Whiskey Row Series. The first, Old Forester 1870 (in honor of the founding of the company), was released in 2014, 1897 (in honor of the Bottled-in-Bond act) was released in 2015. This one, released in 2016, was named in honor of the fact that Brown-Forman was one of the handful of Kentucky distillers that received a license from the US government to distill spirits for medicinal purposes. So it was actually possible to get Old Forester during Prohibition, with a prescription. It is 115 proof, not because that was the proof at which OF was sold in those days but because that was a common proof at which Old Forester came out of the barrel at the time.
All three Old Forester Whiskey Row bourbons have been good. This one is the best. It is what we OF fans have been waiting for. It does an excellent job of balancing the spice and oak of older OF with the fruity roundness of younger OF. It does this without falling into the weird plastic aromas and unbalanced oak that can come into some of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon vintages. 1920 is both elegantly balanced and powerful, like a JS Bach organ composition or a Brahms symphony. This is the Old Forester I had hoped B-F was capable of producing all these years but thought I would never see. Now all I can think about is the next installment. Single barrel? True barrel proof? Distillate of DSP KY 414, the old Old Forester plant? I can hardly wait. Old Forester 1920 is highly recommended.
Parting words: Bonded Beam was a staple of the Jim Beam line for decades, but was discontinued in the 1980s. Jim Beam Bonded was (re)released in 2015 at the demand of bartenders, according to Fred Noe. It has a touch of the grassy Beam Funk, but it doesn’t overwhelm. JB Bonded mixes well in everything from Coke to eggnog to Manhattans. It’s not particularly complex but it’s what one expects from a bond at this price. Speaking of price, now that Knob Creek has dropped its age statement, it might be worth looking at JB Bonded for your sipping needs if KC’s price (currently at $37 in Michigan) goes up any more. Jim Beam bonded is a good choice to work into your middle shelf mixer rotation. It is recommended.
Once a summer, our family has what we call Grandparent Camp. We send our daughter to Indianapolis for a week to spend time with the grandparents, all four of them. When we were thinking about what to do that week, returning to Lake Michigan Shore wine country was on the top of the list. The wrinkle was that we would have the baby with us, since he’s still too little for Grandparent Camp. As most parents can tell you, taking a baby along on trips is actually much easier than taking a toddler or an older child, though. The baby doesn’t complain about getting bored or knock over shelves or have temper tantrums. If the baby cries changing the diaper or feeding will usually do the trick.
Anyway, we wanted to visit some new places but also hit some old favorites in our limited two-night stay. On the way over, we stopped at Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo for a tasty crepe supper and some wine tasting. The whites were good as was the service. Friendly, homey, neighborhood type place. The next day (Thursday) was our busy day. We started off with a visit to Fenn Valley in Fennville (north of the cluster of wineries around Baroda but worth the trip), got lunch at Crane’s Pie Pantry (good pie and cider but mediocre food otherwise) and then headed back south stopping at old favorites Domaine Berrien (great as always), neighboring Lemon Creek (cozy tasting room) and newbies Dablon with their beautiful hilltop tasting room.
I had wanted to do a “A Visit To…” profile on one of the LMS wineries and I thought Round
Barn would be the perfect choice. I had a nice conversation with winemaker Matt and then Brand Ambassador Bethany of Round Barn/Free Run Cellars at the Michigan Wine Showcase so I thought I’d send Bethany and email and ask if she’d be available to give us a tour for blogging purposes. A man named RJ replied that Bethany was no longer brand ambassador, but he was now and he’d be able to give us a tour. Unfortunately, he ended up having a conflict himself, and we got our tour from veteran tour guide Jessica.
Round Barn opened as a winery in 1992. It was founded by Rick Moersch, who was winemaker at nearby Tabor Hill at the time. He had owned vineyards since 1981, so he used them as the basis for his own winery which he named Heart of the Vineyard. In 1997 the round barn was purchased and moved from Rochester, Indiana to the property where it was reassembled by Amish builders. Rick intended it to serve as a home for a brandy distillery. In 2004 the winery was renamed after the remarkable building. The spirits and brewing program began then as well.
We arrived at Round Barn shortly after opening. The place has changed quite a bit since our first visit several years ago. When we last visited, the eponymous round barn was used for production and the tasting room was in the other barn. The round one has been beautifully remodeled and now serves as the tasting room. The bar runs in a circle around the interior with bottles on the wall opposite. The second level has another bar
and six compartments for small group tastings. The group tastings are a popular bachelorette party activity according to Jessica.
Our tasting was on ground level and went through the usual tasting procedure with a few add ons. The system has been in use since mid May. You can see the tasting menu and the format they use in the photo. The menu changes monthly. Nothing we tasted was bad, but the standouts were Vineyard Tears (dry Riesling/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend), Albariño (American, but estate grown grapes are in the mix), estate Merlot (we had a lot of Merlot on this trip!), Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (also estate). Farm Market Blueberry and the wine-based Black Walnut Crème were standouts in the dessert arena (also the name of my new gameshow). When I mentioned that I wanted to try the Farm Market Blueberry, Jessica and had a short discussion about fruit wines. We agreed that fruit wines are really their own category that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of wine grape wines.* As I put it, it would be silly to say that a Chardonnay was bad because it lacked hop character. It’s just as silly to dismiss fruit wines for tasting too much like fruit. That’s entirely the point.
According to another employee, Round Barn has eighteen acres of vines, plus an additional four used for Free Run cellars (see below). Another two acres are used for something else, but I forgot to write it down in my notes (fruit maybe?). The vineyards didn’t suffer much damage in the polar vortex, according to Jessica. The only losses were their black currants, which I thought were illegal in Michigan, but can be grown with a special license.
We also tasted their spirits. The rum and agave spirit (distilled from imported agave juice) are both unaged and of mixer quality (as you can see above, those spirits are offered in cocktail form in the tastings). The real standout was the bourbon which is a very pleasant surprise. It is of limited production and will be reviewed in the near future. They also produce an aged brandy and a “grappa” but those are under the Free Run label and not currently offered for sale at the Round Barn tasting room. They are available at the Public House (see below). According to Jessica, there are no plans to produce an aged rum or agave spirit. There is also a blended American Whiskey on the menu that is a blend of rye and bourbon, according to RJ. I did not taste it. An Applejack is in the works too, made using locally grown apples.
The roof of the round barn
Round Barn’s best known spirit is DeVine Vodka, made from grapes. As I’ve ranted about on Twitter a few times, I don’t understand the desire to take perfectly good fruit like grapes or apples and turn them into a spirit that is by nature flavorless. It’s always seemed like a waste, but as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success and DeVine Vodka has been a success. They recently followed up the success of DeVine with 269 Gin, named after their area code. It’s a basket infused gin made using the grape spirit used for the vodka and will be reviewed in the future as well.
The column on the still
After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-
roundbarn (built in 1907 on the property), now christened the Round Barn. Upstairs is a smallish bar and gift shop with seven Round Barn beers on tap and all their spirits behind the bar. It’s a decent size space with a good sized deck attached. It seems like it would have a good flow of people between the two spaces when busy (and warm). We tried a sample of Vanilla ‘Stache, a vanilla porter, there. The vanilla comes through but in a subdued way. I liked it.
Deck at the other barn with hop vine
Black Walnut tree
The next stop was the production facility. It’s a non-descript industrial building set several yards away from the barns. It houses the winemaking equipment, automated bottling line, still and oak barrels, (all French for the wine). Since 2014, all brewing has been located adjacent to the Round Barn Public House in downtown Baroda (such as it is). That was our next stop. RJ’s meeting was over so he was able to meet us there.
The Public House is a red building with a bar and a large seating area and a large covered patio. It once served as a tool and die shop, owned by RJ’s father, as a matter of fact. The food is limited but good. Sandwiches mostly. Our lunch (RJ comped us for this) was good. They exclusively serve their own beer and spirits. With my lunch (turkey Bahn Mi and a cup of chili) I ordered a pint of Escaped Goat, the Hef PA. It was good. I told RJ that I was a fan of wheats, so brought me a couple samples of their current wheats (Vacation wheat ale and Straw Beery Strawberry wheat ale, both good) plus a couple experiments. The first experiment was a Saison they had been working on. It was good, but was not as flavorful as I had hoped. The second was a dry, tannic cider with Balaton cherry juice added. It was really intriguing. The result was closer to a sour beer than a fruit cider. It was not ready for prime time, but it had a lot of potential that I hope is realized soon!
RB Public House & Brewery
Public House bar
The one aspect of Round Barn’s business that we didn’t get to see was Free Run Cellars. Free Run is a multifaceted project. The name comes from the juice produced from the initial pressing of the wine, called free run juice, but also from the Rick’s sons (Matt and Christian) being given “free run” in the Round Barn Cellars. All the wines under the Free Run label are from free run juice (appropriately), and are single vineyard, estate wines. Free Run also has its own facility (opening later this month) that will host four wine, four appetizer pairing tastings with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.
Many businesses that try to do a lot of different things end up letting their ambition getting the best of them. They are mediocre at everything instead of being good at one or two things. Round Barn does not fall into this trap. Some products are better than others, obviously, and wine is what they do best, but their beers and spirits were good too, some of them very good. If anything maybe they to be more ambitious with their beers and spirits. An aged rum could be very good. Ramping up their production of brandy might be a good idea as well. Bourbon is hot right now, but rum is also popular and getting more so. Brandy is on the way up as well. Copper & Kings in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention for bottling and selling Michigan-made brandy. Michigan producers need to be getting that attention.
Beautiful grounds, well run facilities and delicious products. Round Barn does it all and does it well. A visit to Round Barn is highly recommended.
Note: I received a free lunch at the Public House and a 25% media discount on purchases on this visit.
*”Wine grape wines” may seem redundant but the phrasing is intentional. In my opinion, wine made from grapes like Concord, Niagara or table grape varieties belongs in the “fruit wine” category. While they are grapes, they are not grown for the express purpose of winemaking. The line gets fuzzy when it comes to some native North American grapes like Muscadine that are eaten as fruit but also have a long history of being made into wine. Maybe this discussion would make a good My Two Ounces post.
Palate: alcohol, vanilla custard, caramel apple, red pepper flakes.
Finish: Long and hot but with a strong underpinning of sweet vanilla.
Mixed: Did very well in an Old Fashioned, Holdfast, Boulevardier, with Benedictine, with Cola and with ginger ale. The sharp lumber aroma cut through the sweetness and other strong flavors nicely. Threw my Manhattan out of whack, though.
Parting words: Union Horse Distilling is a microdistillery in the greater Kansas City area that has been operating since 2010. It’s family owned, and the master distiller is co-founder Patrick Garcia. All spirits (bourbon, rye, white whiskey and vodka) are distilled and bottled in house. More information on their operation is here.
I had never heard of Union Horse before I received an email from a member of their PR firm asking if I was interested a bottle of this and their rye to review. As you know, dear readers, I don’t get a lot of samples and given my lukewarm review of the Old Hickory Blended Bourbon I wasn’t sure I would get any more. The first thing I did after opening it was mix myself a Manhattan. Then I got scared. The sharp lumber aroma really overwhelmed everything else and I found myself wondering if I should email my contact back and tell her that I didn’t like it and wasn’t going to review it. I stuck it out though, and everything else I tried it in was better. Maybe the aroma settled down as the whiskey breathed or the brand of Vermouth I used clashed with it. I’m not sure what happened there.
When I tried it neat today, that lumber note was right up front and I got scared again. Thankfully, it’s counteracted by creamy vanilla and spice in the nose and it’s barely evident on the palate at all. The finish is hot but pleasant.
Union Horse is unrefined, but that’s to be expected from a distillery that’s less than a decade old. After six years in business they’re already making whiskey that is miles ahead of most distilleries their age. Unlike many of their peers, they seem to be committed to improving and holding back stock to produce good, mature whiskey. As a greater amount of older stock gets into the mix, hopefully the sharp wood will fade away and the delicious dessert flavors that lurk underneath will come into full view. As it is (at MSRP) Union Horse Straight Bourbon Whiskey is recommended.
Palate: Hot, but still drinkable neat. Roast corn on the cob, hard toffee, sage, alcohol.
Finish: Alcohol, oak, black licorice.
Parting words: Our timing was very poor this Spring. For the first time in years, my wife and I weren’t able to go to Kentucky on the last weekend of April. That was because my wife was due to give birth on April 28. I was excited at the prospect of having my son born at the fabled Gazebo in Bardstown but my wife wasn’t so keen on the idea. So we had to skip this year.
As a result of that and of living over 700 miles from Marietta, Georgia, I didn’t get my bottles of the Georgia Bourbon Society Knob Creek until just a week or so ago. My post about how we selected them has been one of the most popular posts on this blog. It’s here.
This bourbon lives up to its promise. The cinnamon notes I got at the barrel selection aren’t nearly as pronounced now as they were then, but they’re still present. This is a great bottle from a great barrel, if I do say so myself, and the fact that my friends and I helped pick it out makes drinking it an even greater experience. Highly recommended.
Composition: Medley of two mashbills: 38% 21% rye bourbon distilled in 2006 + 3% 36% rye bourbon distilled in 2006 + 59% 21% rye bourbon disilled in 2008.
Proof: 93% (46.5% ABV)
Purchased for $75 (Vine & Table. $70 at Binny’s).
Appearance: Medium dark copper.
Nose: Spicy. Hot thai peppers, pink peppercorn then malt, butterscotch.
Palate: Medium bodied and surprisingly hot. Habanero hot sauce with some background amaretto, oak and vanilla notes.
Finish: Aggressive. Refuses to stop burning your mouth even after a minute or two. A fleeting taste of chocolate ice cream on the front end, though.
Parting words: I have tasted some really great whiskeys distilled at MGPI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Just about every bottle I’ve had from Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout line, for starters. Metze’s Select is unique because it’s the first distillery bottling from MGPI that I am aware of. Only 6,000 bottles were released so it truly is a limited edition. It’s named for Greg Metze, MGPI’s long time master distiller.
When I paid $75 for this bottle, I realized that I was probably paying too much. I was right. This “medley” isn’t undrinkable but it’s unbalanced and shows no integration whatsoever. There is some of the soft fruity sweetness that one associates with its former sibling-distillery Four Roses, but that’s overwhelmed by brash, immature chili pepper and alcohol flavors. Water doesn’t seem to help this at all. It only washes any flavor out entirely.
I’m not sure what happened but I’m guessing that the seven-year-old bourbon component (59%) is what’s dragging this down. Seven years of age is an uncertain time for a bourbon. Some are already world beaters at that age and others taste like they just came off the still. Metze’s Select has way too much of the latter to come close to being worth the money. This is the most disappointing bourbon I’ve tasted in a while. Metze’s Select, 2015 Medley is not recommended.
SB: Even more leathery. Grape juice, alcohol, hay.
BP: More balanced. Peanut brittle, roasted corn, leather, purple koolaid.
Sm: Mild and sweet then slowly warms up. Caramel and little else.
SB: Fuller bodied with more oak. Drier but still has a sweet backbone with a pinch of allspice.
BP: Fully full bodied. Big grassy entry, prune then slow burn. Water brings out sweet caramel and cotton candy with oak and cola on the back end.
Sm: cherry juice, oak, caramel, sage.
SB: Following the pattern. Similar to the Sm but more intense. Brown sugar, allspice, oak, burn.
BP: Bursts into the room big and hot, but leaves gracefully. Oak, caramel, splash of black cherry then fades to a delicate fruit flavor.
Parting words: I’ve had these three sitting around for a long time. I had hoped to review them a few times before but never had the time to do a three-way review like I wanted. With other bloggers reviewing Col. Taylor again, I got inspired.
All three of these are Buffalo Trace’s #1 mashbill (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Benchmark, Stagg). This is the core range, with limited editions popping up from time to time like the Old Fashioned Sour Mash, Tornado Survivor, Seasoned Oak and a possible Opossum Survivor edition in the near future. There is also a rye that occasionally shows up. It is a different mashbill from the standard Sazerac rye, though.
I enjoyed all three of these quite a bit. The prices are a bit wonky, though. $40 is OK for Sm, but why is SB $20 more? It’s better, but not really $20 better. The Barrel Proof is excellent at $70, unless one considers that Stagg Jr, also cask strength, mashbill #1 and NAS is $50. BP is better than Stagg Jr. but I’m not sure if it’s $20 better. Complicating matter is that George T. Stagg is listed at a minimum price of $80 in Michigan. So I’m not sure what to tell you. All are recommended, but I’d have to give the edge to Sm because its price is not weirdly impacted by the Staggs or its CEHT siblings. You can’t go wrong with the other two either, though.
Palate: Medium bodied and medium sweet. Cinnamon, mincemeat pie, sugar plums, caramel, oak.
Finish: Hot and leathery, like me in my senior year of high school.
Parting words: Old Forester 1897 is the latest entry in OF’s Whiskey Row series. I reviewed the first one, 1870, here. Old Forester is a great old bourbon brand. I won’t recount its long history here. Google it if you’re interested. This iteration is named in honor of the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond act that established the BiB designation for spirits (not just whiskey) and other quality controls. Bottled-in-Bottle aged spirits are at least four years old, the product of one distiller at one distillery from one distilling season, and bottled at 100 proof. The distillery must be identified on the label as well as the bottler, if bottled at a different facility than the one at which it was distilled. Old Forester BiB was in production for decades (maybe even a century) until it was replaced by Old Forester Signature. Signature is 100 proof but not technically a BiB presumably because it is not taken from one distilling “season”.
1897 is bottled in bond and it’s very good. While I like OF Signature, 1897 is superior. It’s much more complex and fruitier than its dry, spicy sibling. It’s creamy and fruity and a joy to drink. $50 is much higher than most BiBs are priced these days, but this is not Jim Beam bonded or J.T.S. Brown. This is a complex, flavorful bourbon worth sipping alongside Blanton’s or Rock Hill Farms. Old Forester 1897 is recommended.
Style: Blended bourbon (100% whiskey but not a blend of straights)
Age: 2 y/o (89% 4 y/o, 11% 2 y/o)
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Note: I received complementary bottles of this and the straight bourbon from Double Diamond Marketing & Communications. Also, coloring and flavoring additives are used in this blended bourbon.
Appearance: Shiny auburn.
Nose: Mild. Alcohol, roasted corn, caramel.
Palate: Sweet and mild with some heat on the back end. Vanilla, caramel, pinch of cocoa.
Finish: Vanilla extract.
Mixed: Did poorly in cocktails with citrus mixers, like a whiskey sour or a Holdfast. Did very well in just about everything else. Perfect eggnog bourbon. Also makes an excellent Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and boulevardier. Gets a little lost with soda but did fine on the rocks.
Parting words: There aren’t a lot of blended bourbons on the market and the ones that are aren’t very good. One of the reasons for that is that they use Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS, basically vodka) to fill out the non-bourbon portion of the blend. The makers of Old Hickory blended use another type of whiskey instead of GNS. I’m guessing it’s a young corn or wheat whiskey, but they don’t say. OH blended does use flavoring and coloring additives as noted above, but this is perfectly legal and expected for any type of blend. While straight bourbon doesn’t use additives, many styles of whiskey do. Coloring is very common in Scotch and flavoring additives are allowed in Canadian whisky, of course. The vanilla extract flavor is overbearing in the finish when drinking neat, but complements most mixers.
I think more small producers should be making blended bourbons or ryes or other types. Low or no GNS blends might be a good way to give the consumer true-to-type whiskey flavor at a lower price than an NDP or micro-distilled straight might go for. Unfortunately, Old Hickory blended isn’t at a lower price than a straight of similar quality. Selling this at $30 seems to defeat the whole purpose of offering a blended bourbon. Evan Williams, Very Old Barton, and Old Grand Dad are all cheaper than OHBB by $13 or more in this state. At $20 or even $25 Old Hickory Blended Bourbon Whiskey might be recommended but at current MSRP, it is only mildly recommended.
Note: I received complementary bottles of this and the blended bourbon from Double Diamond Marketing & Communications.
Appearance: Ruddy copper.
Nose: Spearmint, potpourri, pine.
Palate: Hot on entry. Cinnamon, clove, butterscotch, oak, alcohol.
Finish: Herbal and hot. Lingers for a long time.
Mixed: This is a fantastic mixing bourbon. The strong rye notes complement vermouth perfectly and prevent the low proof from being problematic. Wonderful in a boulevardier and Manhattan. Also good in an old fashioned and in eggnog.
Parting words: Lipman is a small, Nashville-based Non-distiller producer (NDP) that has been around for a couple decades. They purchased the Old Hickory brand in 2013 (for many years the flagship bourbon of Publicker/Continental in Pennsylvania) and resurrected it with the help of our old friends at MGPI. It is currently only available in Tennessee, but is slowly being rolled out around the country. The label doesn’t make a connection with the old brand, other than featuring Old Hickory himself on the label. They are also very open about where they’re getting their stocks from. Good on them for not taking the Michter’s route.
According to Lipman’s promotional materials, this whiskey has a very high proportion of small grains (meaning malt and rye) and it certainly tastes like it. There seems to be an even higher percentage of rye than most high rye MGPI bourbon. Perhaps it was custom distilled. Lipman makes a big deal of how it owns its own stocks of bourbon and thus isn’t just buying this stuff on the bulk market. That should mean a consistent product going forward, more so than most NDP brands. They are planning some more expressions in the future, in addition to the straight and blended bourbons offered now.
This is a weird bourbon. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted one that was like this. It’s so rye heavy that if I were tasting it blind I would probably guess that it was Bulleit Rye, not a bourbon. It took me a while to figure out whether this was good weird or bad weird, but I finally settled on good. At this price, the proof should be higher, but it does ok at 86. Like I said above, the spice makes up for the low proof. Old Hickory Straight Bourbon is recommended, and highly so for cocktails.