Union Horse Reserve Straight Bourbon

Maker: Union Horse, Lenexa, Kansas, USA.wp-1466818295612.jpg

Age: “Over two years old” (includes bourbon up to 5 y/o, according to marketing materials)

Batch 2

Proof: 92 (46% ABV)

MSRP: $36-$38 ($50 at Drink Up NY!)

Note: Complementary 750 ml bottle for review received via FleishmanHillard PR in Kansas City, Missouri.

Appearance: Bright copper.

Nose: Cut lumber, varnish, cayenne powder, vanilla.

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.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, Georgia Bourbon Society selection

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)20160513_175337-1.jpg

Age: 9 y/o

Proof: 120 (60% ABV)

Barrel #3026, hand selected by the Georgia Bourbon Society

Appearance: Burnt (not Burt) orange with thick irregular legs.

Nose: Charred oak, caramel, leather, cinnamon, dried Thai peppers, earth.

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.

Metze’s Select, 2015 Medley

Maker: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA20160401_170206-1.jpg

Age: 7 y/o

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.

Head to Head Review: Col. E.H. Taylor Small Batch, Single Barrel and Barrel Proof

Small Batch= Sm, Single Barrel= SB, Barrel Proof= BP20160226_184255-1.jpg

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Age: NAS (Sm and SB are BiB, so at least 4 y/o)

Style: High corn bourbons

Proof

Sm & SB: 100 (50% ABV)

BP: 127.2 (63.6% ABV)

Notes: Barrel Proof is un(chill?)filtered

Michigan State Minimum

Sm: $40

SB: $60

BP: $70

Appearance

Sm: Light copper

SB: Darker copper

BP: Slightly darker than the SB. Auburn, maybe?

Nose

Sm: Leather, alcohol, caramel, grape soda, cut grass.

SB: Even more leathery. Grape juice, alcohol, hay.

BP: More balanced. Peanut brittle, roasted corn, leather, purple koolaid.

Palate

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.

Finish

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.

Old Forester 1897

Maker: Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky, USA2016-02-18-11.58.26.jpg.jpeg

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $50

Appearance: Dark copper

Nose: Dates, alcohol, dried figs, leather.

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.

Old Hickory Blended Bourbon

Maker: R.S. Lipman, Nashville, Tennesee, USAwpid-oh-blended_thumb.png

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

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)

MSRP: $30

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.

Old Hickory Bourbon

Maker: R.S. Lipman, Nashville, Tennesee, USAwpid-oh-straight_thumb1.png

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: High rye bourbon

Age: NAS (4-7 y/o)

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

MSRP: $40

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.

Old Forester 1870

Maker: Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky, USAwpid-2015-10-09-17.57.32.jpg.jpeg

Style: High rye bourbon

Age: NAS

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $45

Appearance: Medium copper with medium, evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Alcohol, caramel, old leather, squirt of wild blackberry juice.

Palate: Soft and medium bodied on the palate with nougat, caramel candies, and vanilla but then moving into cassia and burn. Water brings out some nice chocolatey flavors.

Finish: Oak, chocolate chews, amaretto, burn.

Parting words: Old Forester occupies a unique place among American bourbons. It is the only nineteenth century brand that is still owned by the company that founded it. It was Brown-Forman’s (Forman was a one-time partner) first brand. Who Forester actually was has never been satisfactorily answered. Early batches had an extra r in the name, so it has been asserted that it was named after a physician named William Forrester or even confederate general, early KKK leader and war criminal Nathan Bedford Forrest.  At any rate, over the years, Brown-Forman gobbled up Early Times (founded by a Beam) and then, of course, Jack Daniels. The company is publically owned, but the majority of shares are still owned by the Brown family.

Brown, like many of his peers, began as a broker or rectifier. He bought whiskey from various distilleries and sold it under the Old Forester name by the barrel to retailers and taverns. The concept of branding was taking off at the time and Brown wished to protect his brand’s reputation against unscrupulous retailers and bar owners, so he began selling his bourbon by the bottle instead, to insure that he had total control over what was being sold as Old Forester. The idea spread like wildfire, of course.

This iteration, Old Forester 1870 is inspired by those early batches. It is composed of barrels drawn from three different warehouses, from different barrel entry proofs and production dates, corresponding to the three different distilleries from which Brown sourced his first batches. I would not be surprised if some of those barrels were from the old Old Forester plant (DSP 414).

As for the bourbon itself, I was underwhelmed at first but it has grown on me. It has a subtle richness that is very satisfying after dinner or as sipper to accompany a book or good TV. 1870 also stands up very well against its little sibling, the 86 proof Old Forester. Where the 86 is thin, simple and slightly astringent, 1870 is creamy and multi-faceted. It lacks the fruitiness in the Old Forester Single Barrel selections I’ve had, but it more than makes up for it in rich candy flavors. Frankly, I wish the 86 proof would taste more like this.

It’s pricy at $45 but I do think it’s worth the money (although not much more). Old Forester 1870 is recommended.

Picking a barrel of Knob Creek: A photo essay

Have you ever selected your own barrel of bourbon? I have a few times. Well, me along with a dozen or two of my drinking buddies. I’m a member of the Georgia Bourbon Society, a group that selects a barrel or two of bourbon for ourselves once or twice a year. No, you don’t have to be from Georgia to be a member, obviously. It’s just a group of friends from all over the country, organized by two men who live in Atlanta.

There are dozens of groups like the GBS around the country. Some are ad hoc groups, some are loose affiliations like us and some are organized clubs with rules and membership rolls and whatnot. This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, but it has become much more common as bourbon’s popularity has taken off.

GBS has made the rounds over the years. Our first selections were of Elijah Craig and Elijah Craig barrel strength. Our next one was Elmer T. Lee, then two barrels from Four Roses, then a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel from Wild Turkey. Last weekend we selected a barrel of Knob Creek Single Barrel at Jim Beam. It was a great experience.

We gathered at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse (aka the gift shop) in Clermont, Kentucky at 10 AM that morning. First on the agenda was, of course, the tasting and selection. We gathered in Warehouse K amongst the barrels.

Photo by R. Turner
Photo by R. Turner 

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The view

There were tables set up with four glasses each, one with a red band, one with a green band, one with a blue band and one with no band at all. A glass water bottle was on each table too. Three barrels had been rolled out for us to choose from, each one corresponding to a colored band. Red was first, green second and blue third. We sniffed and tasted all three in turn and then over again and then took a secret ballot. Just one vote separated the first and second places so we considered a taste off, but in the end we just went with the first place finisher. I thought it tasted and smelled like snickerdoodle cookies. It was a very good barrel of bourbon.

The winning barrel was then rolled on to a truck and driven over to the distillery for dumping. Some of our members had the privilege of aiding in the dumping process. We then all watched and waited to see how much bourbon was going to come out of that barrel. About 33 gallons is the answer (that’s about 20 gallons lost to evaporation over the ten years of the bourbon’s life).

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Drilling out the bung
Drilling out the bung
Dumping
Dumping

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The bucket of bung parts

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After a delicious complimentary bbq lunch, we got a full tour and then the unheard of (at least unheard of by me) experience of actually watching our barrel get bottled and packed. We were able to follow the bottles all the way down the line to the end, where we got to pack them into cases ourselves.

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Filling the bottles.
Capping
Capping
Labeling
Labeling
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Packing

We then had the opportunity to buy a bottle then and there through the gift shop, at a higher price, of course. There were five bottles left over after all the cases were filled, so five of us stepped up to buy one. My friend Amy, also a GBS member, had requested a bottle so the one I purchased was on her behalf. Those of us buying bottles then had the opportunity to apply the wax seal to the bottles ourselves! Waxing is a multi-step process. The following four pictures were taken by S. Ivancic.

Dip
Dip
KBF2015-231
Twist
Stick the neck into the mold and push the button to seal
Stick the neck into the mold and push the button to seal.
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Finally, stick your thumb into the soft wax at the top just for fun.

The whole experience was wonderful and far exceeded my expectations. Some of the participants thought it was all a little too long but I loved every minute of it. We picked a damned good barrel too. I can’t wait until I get my bottles!

If you have an opportunity to select a barrel from Beam, I highly recommend it.

I.W. Harper Bourbon Whiskey

Maker: Diageo, Louisville, Kentucky/Norwalk, Connecticut, USAwpid-2015-07-12-19.19.19.jpg.jpeg

Distiller(s): Unknown

Age: NAS

Proof: 82 (41% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $30

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Alcohol, cayenne pepper, leather.

Palate: Sweet and mild. Brach’s caramels, chocolate covered toffee, a little bit of alcohol bite.

Finish: Sweet but a little spicy. Caramel, cocoa, alcohol.

Mixed: Excellent in all cockltails- Manhattan, Perfect Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier. OK on the rocks and with soda.

Parting words: I.W. Harper was reintroduced to the U.S. this year after being gone for a couple decades. I.W. Harper begin life as the flagship bourbon of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s (d. 1945) distillery. After prohibition, the distillery and brand were sold to Schenley. Through a series of mergers I.W. Harper came to be owned by Diageo, even though the Bernheim distilley was sold to Heaven Hill in 1997. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey is a tribute to I.W. Berneim and his brother Bernard.

One of the first ever “dusties” I found was a bottle of I.W. Harper. It was also the first dusty I was ever disappointed with. It was bland and watery. The 15 y/o (a part of the Bourbon Heritage Collection) was bland and watery but with a little oak thrown in. This is a big improvement on those two. It’s not extremely complex, but it’s got a great mouthfeel and enough spice to keep things interesting. It also plays very well with mixers. There are better choices at $30, but I.W. Harper isn’t a bad one.

I.W. Harper is recommended.