Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey

Maker: Nelson’s, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Distiller: Undisclosed (Dickel? Prichard’s? Somewhere else?)

Style: Wheat recipe Tennesse whiskey.

Age: NAS (not labeled straight so no minimum age)

Proof: 91 (45.5% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $30

Thanks to Amy for giving me this bottle!

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Tarragon, grape soda.

Palate: Roasted corn, dried cherry, cayenne chilies.

Finish: A bit rough, then mellowing into more grape soda.

Mixed: It was fine mixed with Benedictine, but what character it had got lost. Other than that I didn’t have a chance to try it mixed.

Parting words: Nelson’s Greenbrier is the bottom shelf (ok more lower middle shelf) offering from Nelson’s distillery in Nashville Tennessee. They’re best known for their very good Belle Meade Bourbon line, one of which I thought I had reviewed at some point, but I guess I didn’t. No place to start like the bottom, though, right?

To be clear, this isn’t really the same stuff as the Belle Meade bourbons. Greenbrier is put through the famous Lincoln County Process (filtration through maple charcoal) and is made with wheat as the “flavor grain” unlike most TN whiskeys which use rye. None of the Belle Meade are made with wheat or given the LCP treatment.

Nevertheless it does sit at the lowest price point of the Nelsons’ offerings in Michigan, and it tastes like it, frankly. It’s not terrible, but it’s much closer to the level of quality of a $10 bourbon from a major distillery, than other bourbons or TN whiskeys priced in the $30s. Dickel #s 8 and 12 are both cheaper than this, as is Jack Daniels black label. Gentleman Jack is around the same price but it’s even more vile than the regular Jack Daniels, so I don’t think it’s a good comparison.

If you’re looking for a mixing Tennessee whiskey with a beautiful (it really is gorgeous) label, this is for you. Otherwise, you’re better off saving a few bucks and buying a Dickel. Nelson’s Greenbrier is mildly recommended.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof

Maker: Jack Daniel’s, Lynchburg, Tennessee, USA. (Brown-Forman)

Style: Tennessee Whiskey.

Age: NAS

Barrel information: 19-02550, rick L-27.

Proof: 127.9 (63.95% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $65

Appearance: Reddish copper.

Nose: Roasted corn, maple sugar, leather, anise.

Palate: Full bodied and hot. Some sweetness, then evaporates off the tongue. With water, less heat but more caramel and dry oak.

Finish: Big peppermint. Still hot with water, but more dry oak.

Parting words: Long time readers will know that I, generally, hate Jack Daniel’s whiskeys. Out of the three JDs I’ve reviewed over the years, I’ve only given one a positive review. That was the rye. The most disappointing was the Single Barrel Select, which was expensive trash. The standard JD was just regular trash.

So why did I buy this? I don’t know. Maybe optimism, maybe self-loathing, maybe both. Surprisingly, though, I don’t regret this purchase too much. It’s not too expensive for a big distillery single barrel barrel proof offering, and it doesn’t taste terrible. Its only real flaw is that it’s a little boring compared to its high proof single barrel competitors like those from Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.

It’s a low bar to be sure, but Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof is the best JD expression on the market right now. So I do in fact have to hand it to them in this instance. This whiskey is recommended.

Kirkland Signature Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey

Maker: Tennessee Distilling, ltd, Columbia, Tennessee, USA

Distiller: Undisclosed (almost certainly George Dickel)

Style: (Straight?) Tennessee Whiskey.

Age: 4 y/o.

Proof: 80 (40% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $37/1.75 l

Appearance: Light Copper.

Nose: Caramel, leather, walnuts, maple.

Palate: Medium bodied and medium dry. Oak, maple syrup.

Finish: Oak, alcohol.

Mixed: Good in Old Fashioneds, OK in Manhattans. Lacks the power needed to stand up to stronger mixers like Benedictine or cola.

Parting words: I bought this as a “well” whiskey for my home bar. I thought it would make a change of pace from the usual mid-range bourbons that I use for that purpose. I was pleasantly surprised at how dry it was, but disappointed at the low proof. I guess when a product is aimed at Jack Daniels drinkers in 2021, 80 proof makes sense, but mixing bourbons need either a higher proof or younger age to distinguish themselves in this drunk’s opinion.

As a weeknight sipper or in an Old Fashioned (or something similar) it does fine, though, and its hard to complain about something this cheap (it would work out to about $16 for a standard 750 ml bottle) that tastes this mature. So Kirkland Signature Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey is recommended.

A brief word about this whiskey’s label. The word “straight” does not appear anywhere, but unless something hinky is going on, a 4 y/o TN whiskey should qualify as straight. There is no indication that this whiskey was made at Diageo’s Cascade Hollow/George Dickel distillery either, but given the sheer amount of Dickel whiskey that Diageo has been selling to bottlers in the past few years, I would be truly shocked if this was from anywhere else. Jack Daniels sells everything makes, and I doubt any small distillery in Tennessee could make a whiskey of this quality at this price.

Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey

Maker: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky, USA with possible help from Brown-Forman distillery in Shively. (Brown-Forman)

Style: Kentucky straight wheat whiskey

Label: Batch 2

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $39

Appearance: Medium Copper.

Nose: Biscuits with cherry jam.

Palate: Medium bodied. Cherry wine, a little oak, then burn.

Finish: Drying with a little fruit, but mostly oak and alcohol.

Parting words: Since I reviewed Bernheim Wheat Whiskey back in 2012, wheat has become much more common than it was. It’s a staple of many micro-distillers and Heaven Hill even added an age statement to theirs! This Woodford edition is relatively new, a part of their series of non-bourbon line extensions, also including a rye and malt whiskey.

I was expecting a simple whiskey, like Bernheim, when I bought this bottle, but it’s actually pretty complex. Not Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch complex, but on par with bourbons in its price range. The cherry notes are really nice and make for a wonderful sipping experience. I’ve never been too hot on Woodford as a whole, but I could see myself making this one a regular in my cabinet. Woordford Reserve Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is recommended.

Tommyrotter Triple Barrel American Whiskey

Maker: Tommyrotter Distillery, Buffalo, New York, USA20190222_200053.jpg

Distilleries: Undisclosed distilleries in Indiana and Tennessee (hmm, which ones could they be?)

Style: Wine-barrel finished American whiskey. A mix of two Indiana bourbons and one Tennessee whiskey aged in new and used oak barrels and then the wine barrel, hence Triple Barrel.

Age: NAS

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Notes: No coloring or chill filtration added. Sample provided by Tommyrotter Distillery.

Price: $35 (Premier Group).

Appearance: Bright copper.

Nose: Complex. Young toasted oak, tarragon, bubblegum.

Palate: Medium and fruity. Mixed berry jam, French oak, burn.

Finish: Sweet. Corn syrup, raspberry, cocoa powder.

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.

 

 

 

No labels: The federal shutdown and selling booze.

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John J. Manfreda, TTB administrator since 2005

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:

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Sean O’Keefe

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.

lisa wicker
Lisa Wicker ascending a staircase

-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.
Lisa Wicker photo used with permission.

Lies, and The Lying Producers That Tell Them

liar
A liar

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.”

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The true view from Bel Lago, Charlie Edson’s winery. 

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.

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People questioning what they are told.

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.

Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select

Maker: Jack Daniels, Lynchburg, Tennessee, USA20160930_180620.jpg

Style: Tennesee Whiskey

Age: NAS

Proof: 94 (47% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $52

Parting words: Single Barrel select was the first premium line extension to Jack Daniels. It was introduced in 1997 and had a fairly good reputation whiskey enthusiasts as the most (or only) drinkable JD iteration, at least after the standard JD was lowered to 80 proof. JD Single Barrel has now turned into its own line. There is now also a 100 proof bottled in bond (originally a travel retail selection), barrel strength and a single barrel rye (the last two released this year).

I haven’t had any of the new ones, and I’ve never been impressed with the SB Select in the past, but this bottle was even worse than I remember. It strikes a balance between boring and unpleasant as only JD can. Other than the proof and the price, this is indistinguishable from the last glass of standard JD I had. The price is not as outlandish as the Frank Sinatra Editions ($170 and $450 respectively) but still dumb money. Individual barrels may vary, of course, but overall Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select is not recommended.

George Dickel No. 12

Maker: George Dickel, Tullahoma, Tennessee, USA (Diageo)wp-1465608740749.jpg

Style: Tennessee whiskey

Age: NAS

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $25

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Peanut brittle, tarragon, leather, alcohol

Palate: Light. Caramel, grape bubble gum, oak, alcohol.

Finish: Fruity finish, fades to basil and burn.

Mixed: Did well in all applications, especially Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and a Godfather. OK in cola, with Benedictine and on the rocks. Gets lost in a Boulevardier, but who doesn’t?

Parting words: I was shocked and appalled that I had not yet reviewed this whiskey. It was long one of my favorites and even a go-to. The peanutbuttery flavors are not for everyone, I realize, but I’ve always enjoyed them. Good in cocktails too, but it’s at its best when sipped need on a humid summer afternoon on a rocking chair on a wrap-around porch. Or in another sort of chair in another circumstance of your choice. Point is, it’s a good casual sipper.

If I had reviewed it back when I first started drinking it, it might have earned a highly recommended. I can’t go that far now. What happened? Well, Dickel was one of the last distilleries to get out of the great whiskey glut of the 1980s and 1990s. The distillery had so much stock that it actually shut down for a few years until it sold its old stock. It reopened in 2003 to a brief shortage of their lower shelf No. 8 whiskey. The first bottles I had were from the shutdown years and tasted like they had spent more time in the barrel than this version. It may not be the steal it once was but I still like it. George Dickel No. is recommended.