Maker: Tommyrotter Distillery, Buffalo, New York, USA
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Maker: Jack Daniels, Lynchburg, Tennessee, USA
Style: Tennesee Whiskey
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, but I’ve never been impressed with the SB Select 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.
Maker: George Dickel, Tullahoma, Tennessee, USA (Diageo)
Style: Tennessee whiskey
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.
Style: Straight Wheat Whiskey (made with at least 51% wheat)
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan state minimum: $30
Appearance: Caramel with necklacing and thin legs.
Nose: Alcohol, walnut, whole wheat biscuits.
Palate: Surprisingly hot. Cinnamon, crackers, caramel, pinch of tarragon.
Finish: Butterscotch, amaretto, alcohol, oak.
Mixed: Very good in a Manhattan and an old fashioned. Didn’t try it in anything else.
Parting words: Bernheim Original is a rare thing in two ways. First, it’s the only straight wheat whiskey on store shelves made by a major American whiskey distiller. Second, after years of being NAS, it was reintroduced with an age statement this year! This is unheard of these days when tightening supplies are causing age statements to drop like passes in the hands of rookie wide receivers.
I reviewed the NAS back in 2012. Judging by my old tasting notes, this age stated version is richer and beefier than the old version. It’s no longer a lightweight and has a solid caramel backbone to support the unusual baked goods and cinnamon flavors. This isn’t a novelty anymore, this is seriously good whiskey. With micro-distilled wheat whiskeys popping up all over the place, Bernheim Original has taken its rightful place as the benchmark of the category. The price hasn’t changed much, if it all, since 2012. Even more than three years ago, Bernheim Original is recommended.
Distillers (probable): Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky & MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA
Style: Blend of straight bourbon and straight rye
Age: 2 y/o
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan State Minimum: $25
Appearance: Light orange.
Nose: Alcohol, caramel, asparagus, orange zest.
Palate: Light bodied and hot. Caramel, cotton candy, alcohol,
Finish: Menthol, alcohol, cotton candy again. Lingers for a while.
Mixed: Rebel Yell American Whiskey mixes very well across the board. Makes for an excellent boulevardier and Manhattan. Old Fashioned is not quite as good but still decent. Does ok with club soda or on the rocks too.
Parting words: While I would say that my least favorite bottom shelf bourbon is Benchmark, many people would give that dubious honor to Rebel Yell. Once upon a time it was a mid-lower shelf offering from the Stizel-Weller distillery, more famous for the Old Fitzgerald and Weller brands of wheated bourbon (that is, bourbon made with corn, malted barley and wheat rather than corn, malted barley and rye). When Diageo was formed, they sold off all of the old S-W brands except for Rebel Yell, which they intended to make their worldwide flagship bourbon. That didn’t work out so they sold the brand to Luxco, one of the biggest non-distiller producers of bourbon.
Luxco already owned the Ezra Brooks line of rye recipe bourbons but no wheaters so it was a good fit for their portfolio. They released the slightly older Rebel Reserve (no longer made but still languishing on shelves) a few years ago and in 2015 expanded the line again and redesigned the bottle (now Confederate soldier free!). The new products are Small Batch Reserve, Honey and Cherry flavored bourbons, this product and a rye for some reason.
I was pleasantly surprised by this. The high-rye rye balances the caramel and vegetable notes in the bourbon and brings a light citrus flavor to the party. It lacks complexity and depth, but one could do a lot worse for $25. For mixing and casual sipping, Rebel Yell American Whiskey is recommended.
Age: 13 y/o
Proof: 127.4 (63.7% ABV)
Michigan State Minimum: $100
Purchased for $85
Appearance: Dark auburn with long thin legs.
Nose: Alcohol, old oak, caramel, wheat bread in the oven.
Palate: Full bodied and sweet on entry. Butterscotch, toffee hard candy, chewy taffy, cocoa powder. Water brings out more of that trademark Bernheim “biscuity” flavor, but still plenty of candy.
Finish: Pretty hot with lots of oak and a touch of sweetness. Lingers for a very long time.
Parting words: Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Original is the world’s best selling straight wheat whiskey. I can say that with confidence because it’s also the only straight wheat whiskey produced by a major American distiller. To almost everyone’s surprise, they added an age statement recently and those bottles are now hitting the shelves.
An even bigger surprise was when it was announced that the 2014 edition of the PHC was going to be a wheat whiskey. Many mistakenly assumed that it was going to be another wheat bourbon, but that’s not what this is. It’s a wheat whiskey, meaning that it is made from a mashbill containing at least 51% wheat, the rest being corn and malted barley. It is required to meet all the legal requirements for straight ryes or bourbons, only with wheat in the place of rye or corn.
I came in expecting a very dry, subtle whiskey along the lines of Bernheim Original but oakier. I didn’t expect such a lush, sexy whiskey. It has a round voluptuousness that I associate more with Four Roses or older Van Winkle bottles than I do with Heaven Hill (as much as I love HH). Bottling at barrel proof and not chill filtering were the right choices to make for this one, but when aren’t they the right choices? It’s hard to compare this to anything else, but I think it’s the best in the Parker’s Heritage Series since 2010’s Wheat Bourbon edition. It also fits easily into my personal top twenty list.
I got a good deal on mine, but even at $100-$120 Parker’s Heritage Original Cask Strength Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey (full name) is highly recommended.
If you want a second opinion, consider this: I brought a full bottle of this to the table at a recent gathering of some of the most obsessive and discerning American whiskey enthusiasts in the country. It shared the table with dusties from Wild Turkey’s golden age, Four Roses limited editions, Stitzel-Weller products and dozens of bottles of that caliber. After an hour or so I had to hide it under a chair because it was already half empty. That says it all.
Maker: George Dickel, Tullhoma, Tennessee, USA (Diageo)
Style: Tennessee Whiskey
Spc= Selected by Spec’s, Houston, Texas, USA
RW= Selected by Red Wagon, Troy/Rochester Hills, Michigan, USA
Spc: Dark copper, long, well developed legs.
RW: Brighter copper, similar legginess.
Spc: Alcohol, leather, lavender, char.
RW: Less alcohol, oak, peanut butter candy.
Spc: Well balanced with peanut brittle, a bit of maple.
RW: Sweet and bold with lots of maple and wood. A bit of peanut butter in the background.
Spc: Fairly hot finish that tingles for a long time with the signature George Dickel vitamin finish.
RW: Huge Dickel finish. Chewable vitamins, maple sugar candy and alcohol.
Parting words: Dickel’s single barrel program got kicked off a few months ago with a series of 9 y/o and 14 y/o retailer selections. The early reports had the 9 y/o barrels being superior to the 14 so I decided to invest in two of the 9s. In fact, I had been inquiring at Red Wagon about whether or not they would be participating in the program for weeks when I decided to just acquire one from an out of state store. The day after my Spec’s bottle arrived, I happened to be in Red Wagon and, lo and behold, theirs was sitting right there on the shelf. So, of course, I bought one of theirs too.
I was pleasantly surprised at the differences between these two bottles/barrels. Both were good but I give Spec’s the edge. Red Wagon’s tasted like an amped up version of Dickel #12. Lots of sweet peanut butter and maple with a touch of that famous vitamin note. I enjoy the #12 so I didn’t mind that, although anymore of that vitamin taste would have been unpleasant.
Spec’s had those signature Dickel flavors and aromas but they were more subtle and had a sweet leathery quality that reminded me of Elmer T. Lee and similar Buffalo Trace bourbons. It was surprising and showed how subtle and elegant George Dickel has the potential to be. Let’s hope it’s a sign of good things to come from Tullahoma.
Red Wagon’s 9 y/o Dickel Single Barrel is recommended and Spec’s is highly recommended.