Palate: Black walnut, a little peat, some smoke, brown sugar.
Finish: More peat and smoke, oak, a little bite.
Mixed: Very good in strong cocktails like Manhattans or Boulevardiers.
Parting words: This is the second of two bottles I got at Motor City Gas a few months ago. I was very impressed with it at the distillery. It seemed smokier and peatier (?) there too, probably because I tasted it after their rum-finished bourbon. It was still enjoyable at home, though. The peat blends seamlessly into its young, woody character to the point where it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the two. It doesn’t drink like 105.8 proof, either, which is dangerous. It’s at its best in cocktails, though, where it can stand up to just about any mixer, even amaro and black vermouth.
The price is high (even though I can remember what it was), but it’s barrel proof and the best peated bourbon I’ve had, although there aren’t very many to be had. Available only at the distillery on the outskirts of downtown Royal Oak, Michigan. Midnight Oil is recommended.
Parting words: Tommyrotter was founded in 2015 by Bobby Finan and Sean Insalaco in Buffalo New York. They currently produce three regular products, vodka, gin, and this Triple Barrel Whiskey plus a line of limited releases (including a bourbon barrel gin to be reviewed in the near future).
Triple Barrel Whiskey is composed of three whiskeys. Two Indiana bourbons (one high-corn, one high-wheat) and one Tennessee whiskey. The high-corn is around 18 months old, the wheater is about 5 years old and the Tennessee 7 y/o. The bourbons are aged in new charred white oak, and the Tennessee Whiskey is aged in used charred oak barrels. They are mixed together and then finished in French red wine barrels. As Bobby Finan told me, Triple Barrel doesn’t count as a blend of straight whiskeys because of the youth of the high-corn bourbon. That could change in the future though.
The result is a delicious, easy-drinking whiskey. It’s young, but the rough edges are smoothed out by judicious use of cooperage. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough in the sample to do any mixing, but I suspect Triple Barrel would do very well in Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. I’m very glad Bobby reached out to me. Triple Barrel is recommended.
Palate: Medium-bodied and hot. Behind the heat there’s toffee and caramel and grape soda.
Finish: hot pepper-infused peanut brittle.
Parting words: Jim Beam has been putting out so many new expressions in recent years, I’ve literally been unable to keep up. If I had, I would have probably purchased and reviewed this bourbon sooner! It’s 100 proof like its stablemates Jim Beam Bonded and Knob Creek. Unlike those, it’s not chill-filtered and is 5 y/o (the label annoyingly calls it 5-6 y/o). This makes it identical on paper to the Urban Stillhouse Select. In the glass, the USS is more rounded and shows more baking spice than peanut brittle. Compared to Beam Bonded, it is older and less funky but the price is identical, at least in this state. If you like the funk, stick with the Bonded. If you want something a little more refined but still firmly Jim Beam, pick up some JB Distiller’s Cut. It is recommended.
Mixed: Due to limited time frame, I only tried a couple. Very good in a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned.
Appearance: Medium-light copper.
Nose: Toasted hazelnuts, caramel, new leather.
Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Grade A maple syrup, vanilla cream soda, cinnamon.
Finish: Hot and a little syrupy, fading into oak.
Parting words: Motor City Gas is a bar/distillery on the eastern edge of downtown Royal Oak, Michigan. Most other Bar/Distillery combos focus on using their stable of spirits in cocktails, but at MCG the emphasis is on the whiskeys themselves, of which there are a bewildering amount. When I was there, they had seventeen different whiskeys and whiskey-based liqueurs on the menu, including bourbon, rye, corn whiskey, malt whiskey, oat whiskey and ginger and hickory nut liqueurs. Most of the whiskeys were finished or infused with rum, apple cider, hops, apple pie, and stout barrels making an appearance. There were a couple peated whiskeys too, with a peated malt and a peated bourbon (review coming soon) on the menu.
At the time I bought this bottle, I didn’t realize this bourbon was finished in a rum barrel ( I may have been a tad tipsy at time of purchase), until I sat down to write this review. If I hadn’t know that I probably wouldn’t have guessed. The rum barrel brings a sweet, slightly syrupy, vanilla taste that works very well in classic cocktails. I don’t remember the price but a full bottle is pretty expensive. The 375 ml bottles cost the same per ml but as I’ve said before, it’s better to pour out half of a $30 bottle than three quarters of a $60 one. Belly Up Bourbon is recommended.
As I write this, the US federal government has been partially shut down for about twenty days, due to an impasse over President Trump’s desire to build a wall on the southern border.
One of the agencies affected by the shutdown is the Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB), the division of the Department of the Treasury charged with regulating and taxing alcohol, tobacco and firearms. The TTB was created in 2003 when the old bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was split in two. The law enforcement functions of the agency were moved to the Department of Justice and retained the ATF name. The tax and regulation functions stayed within Treasury and were re-christened the TTB.
If you’re interested in my personal take on the politics of the shutdown check my Twitter feed and likes. You should be able to piece together my politics from those.
More interesting than my dumb opinions is how the federal shutdown, particularly the closure of the TTB, is affecting beverage producers in Michigan and elsewhere. So I reached out to some friends of the blog to ask how the shutdown has impacted their business. Here’s what they said:
At this point our biggest concern (besides the unraveling of our civil society) is getting new labels approved by the feds. I’m glad that we don’t have too many new wines that we need to get to market soon.
-Sean O’Keefe, Winemaker, Mari Vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan
I just found out about [the shutdown] yesterday (January 8, 2019). Government shut down, tax collecting part of the TTB not shut down so I still have to do my 5120.17 annual report. So if it does affect me, I am unaware of how.
Nathaniel Rose, owner & winemaker, Nathaniel Rose Wines, Suttons Bay, Michigan (via text).
Only real effect (so far) has been the slow-doon (sorry) of federal label approvals, which I believe is considered a non-essential governmental service. Obviously, if the shutdown continues indefinitely, you will not see the emergence of scores of new wine, beer and spirits labels. (This may in fact be the only real blessing of the shutdown.)
-Randall Grahm, president & winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz, California
Obviously not this one, but from the shutdown that happened while we were getting licensed I can say that the timeline for approval was extended 25%+ *after* things started back up. From memory it was the same for existing companies getting label approval. So even if the shutdown ends tonight I’d expect it would be the end of the month at least before everything was back to normal.
-Corey Bowers, formerly of Tualatin Valley Distillery, Hillsboro, Oregon (via Twitter).
The government shut down actually impacts us quite a bit. Unlike most other distilleries we release new products very often. Since we opened in March of 2015 we have released over 50 whiskies. Most of these required government approval on their labels before we can sell them. When the government shuts down so does review of our new labels. We actually have several labels currently out for review that we’ll need to wait for the shut down to end before we can release those products. We are also in the process of designing our second distillery expansion that will include additional barrel storage and a new still that will increase our production capacity. Depending on how long the shut down goes this could delay our plans as government approvals are required before we can start construction and order our still.
-Rich Lockwood, owner, Motor City Gas Distillery, Royal Oak, Michigan
We are fortunate we had our pending approvals finished before the shut down, but I am certainly feeling it for the people in queue. The TTB always slows over the holidays, so if the shutdown ends soon, the catch up for them may be eased. But…if it continues for any length of time, there will be a mess. I know I’ve had product on allocation in the past and waiting on formula and process approvals to have to wait again on labels, a lesson in patience when things are normal so I’m guessing there are producers, let’s say politely, tearing their hair out!
-Lisa Wicker, president & head distiller, Widow Jane Distillery, Brooklyn, New York
So, it seems that the shutdown is not yet a huge issue for winemakers and distillers without new products in the pipeline. The longer it drags on the greater the impact becomes, though, even after things start back up again. Here’s hoping they do soon.
Parting words: The Statesman was intended to be a limited release to promote the film The Kingsmen: The Golden Circle in 2017. The movie got mixed reviews, but the bourbon was popular so they kept it around.
It’s richer and spicier than the 86 and 100 proof Old Forester expressions and it occupies a place at the top of the price range of the main Old Forester line, ten dollars above Old Forester Single Barrel. It pushes a bit on its $55 price, but it’s full-flavored and good for sipping or high-end mixing with nothing unpleasant at all. It does get a little thin if it hangs around too long in the bottle, but drink it before it gets to that point and it’s not a problem. Old Forester: The Statesman is recommended.
Mixed: Very good in an Old Fashioned. The sharp wood pokes through the vermouth in a Manhattan and even the amaro in a Boulevardier. I didn’t try it with cola or ginger ale.
Parting words: I reviewed Tom’s Foolery’s apple brandy early in the history of the blog and I looked forward to trying their bourbon some sweet day. Now, that day is here.
When I first tried this bourbon, I really didn’t like it. It had the classic splinter-up-the-nose micro-distilled bourbon aroma. Not as bad as Hudson Baby Bourbon, but present. This sharpness serves well in cocktails with sweet or strongly flavored mixers.
To get a better handle on this whiskey, I included it in a casual BiB bourbon tasting with friends. The tasting also included Old Bardstown, Early Times, Old Grand-dad, Heaven Hill white label and Very Old Barton in a cameo at the end. Tom’s Foolery stood out in this line up. I still wasn’t sure but everybody else really enjoyed it.
Maybe it’s peer pressure, but Tom’s Foolery is growing on me. I doubt it will ever be a favorite, but it’s not as bad as I feared it would be. At $44, it was the most expensive in the tasting, but factoring in micro-distillery inflation, it’s not too bad. It is 4 y/o and bonded, which is more than you can say about most micro bourbons in this price rant. I guess Tom’s Foolery Bonded Bourbon is recommended.
The last time Liz and I were on Leelanau Peninsula we visited a winery we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t yet. We got a chatty, but professional pourer. I didn’t mention my blog, as usual. I usually don’t mention it at the beginning of a tasting because 1. I don’t want to get special treatment and 2. Nobody knows or cares who I am.
We were tasting through the menu and we came across a wine that had no appellation visible on the label. I asked our pourer whether the wine was American or Michigan or Leelanau. Our pourer replied by kindly asking me if I knew how to read a wine label. I said, yes, I asked because I didn’t see an apellation on the label. Pourer’s response was, “If you know how to read a wine label, then you already know the answer. Don’t make me lie.”
I was taken aback. Our pourer went on to explain how in 2014 and 2015 that winery, like many others in Michigan, did not have enough local grapes (due to the dreaded Polar Vortex) to produce their usual array of varietals and blends, so they had to buy out-of-state grapes to stay afloat. The owner of the winery felt weird about this, apparently, and so omitted any statement of origin on those labels at all. This is in contrast to most wine makers who put “American” on the label in the same place where the usual appellation appeared, since most bought grapes from Oregon.
That is annoying, but what our pourer told us next was shocking. They said that the owner had told them to lie about the wine’s origin to tasting room visitors who asked. “I wish I didn’t have to lie. I wish I worked for Charlie Edson. He’s very honest.”
Why would a winery want its employees to lie about the origin of its wines? One reason may be marketing. Many Michigan wineries, large and small, use local-ness as a large part of their marketing. If their grapes aren’t locally grown, that could be embarrassing. That said, many Michigan wineries aren’t embarrassed about that at all. Black Star Farms, Round Barn, Brys Estate, Mackinaw Trail and many others have regular offerings that use out-of-state grapes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t believe most Michigan wine customers care either. Personally, I’m less likely to buy a wine from a Michigan winery if it’s “American”, but I don’t think any less of wineries that do.
The lying and obfuscation in the realm of Michigan wine will probably die down with the recent run of two (and probably three) good, warm vintages in a row (2016, 2017, 2018?). With rising demand for Michigan wine and the inevitability of a few bad vintages every decade, the temptation to lie will rear its ugly head again, though.
Lying about place of origin is not confined to the wine world, of course. It’s quite common in whiskey, especially in the shady world of sourced “craft” whiskey. One of the most common ways of lying, or at least obfuscation, is for the bottler to “forget” to put the state of distillation on the label, as is required by law. A surprising number of producers make this mistake. When confronted about this they usually either ignore the warning or hide behind the fact that the label has been approved by the TTB. Approval by the TTB doesn’t mean the label is correct, though, as producers know. Like many other government agencies under the austerity regimes of the last thirty years, the TTB is understaffed and underfunded. It relies on consumers and the producers themselves for policing. There’s also this little bit on the bottom of the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) form:
Under the penalties of perjury, I declare; that all statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31, Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval.
More egregious than that is the phenomenon of Japanese whisky that’s not actually made in Japan. Margarett Waterbury at The Whiskey Wash breaks it down here. Due to limited stocks and the unfriendly duopoly of Japanese whisky, Japanese distillers frequently import whisky from Scotland and Canada to stretch their stocks.
Why do whiskey producers lie? The reasons are not very different from why wine producers lie. It has to do with marketing. Some distillers do market themselves as local, even using a local place-name while buying their local product from elsewhere. It only takes a second or two of boredom for a consumer to look at the back label and see that their local hero was actually born and raised in Indiana. The “craft” aspect of craft spirits is also vulnerable to accurate labeling. Articles like this one from the Daily Beast have been drifting around the internet for a few years, explaining how many craft producers buy their product from MGP’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While these articles did blow the lid off of this practice for the general public, it may have made distillers even more afraid of producing accurate labels than they were before.
What can be done about this? One thing we can do as consumers is to warn and report whiskey label violators. Universally beloved* Texas bourbon enthusiast and blogger Wade Woodard has made it his personal quest to file complaints of whiskey labeling regulations. He’s been making progress, but many still ignore regulations. With so whiskey booming and so many new labels hitting the market every year, it’s hard to keep up.
Regarding wine obfuscators, I think it’s important to always ask where the grapes come from if no appellation is listed on the label. lf at a tasting room, ask your way up the chain of command. If not, call or send an email and ask. If you get lied to, then press the owners or managers in person, or on social media. Business owners who are unrepentant liars should be shamed.
It’s important that this is done responsibly, though. It’s counterproductive and just plain shitty to do so in a way that gets someone fired or punished at work. Tasting room employees aren’t responsible for marketing or labeling of the wines they pour. That’s why I haven’t named the winery in question. It would take a minimal amount of snooping around on social media and going over work schedules to figure out who our pourer was once I disclosed the winery.
What should producers do to avoid being reported or shamed? Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, folks: TELL THE TRUTH. Disclose what you’re supposed to disclose. Disclose even more than you have to even. If truth-telling and disclosure interfere with your marketing strategy, change your marketing strategy. Being truthful to your customers should always come first. Most people don’t like to give money to people they don’t trust.
As for me and this blog, even though I did buy some bottles at the winery, I will not be reviewing any of those bottles here anytime soon. Maybe I will if the winery in question shows that they have changed their ways when the next bad vintage rolls around, but without a change in ownership, I’m not holding my breath.
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.
The distillery building and visitors’ center.
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.
Fermenter from the bottom, I think
Pre-still storage tank
One of the four uncovered fermenters.
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.
Doubler and column still.
Badge on column.
Column going up…
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.
The march to the warehouse.
Warehouse under construction.
Front of the warehouse.
Back of the warehouse.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a review of Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse Select:
Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont/Boston, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)
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.