Parting words: The history of the Ognoas estate dates back to the viscounts of Marsan in the Central (aka High) Middle Ages but the estate as it exists now traces its history to the 18th & 19th century Lormand family. Etienne Lormand, born around 1701 to a bourgeois family in Bayonne, purchased the estate in 1770 and added a neighboring one in 1775. The last of the Lormands, Jacques-Taurin (b. 1762), died without heirs in 1842 and left the estate to the church. Armagnac was first made at the estate by the Lormands.
In 1905 the property (along with many others) was nationalized and it has remained in the hands of the French government since then. The over 1600 acre estate includes hiking trails, vineyards, forests (which supply the wood for the barrels), other agriculture, a fortified 13th century house, an 18th century mill, renovated tenant cottages available for rent, and more.
The wood-fired continuous still at Ognoas is said by the domaine to be the oldest working still in Gascony. It dates from 1804 with additions and improvements made to it throughout the 19th century.
The d’Ognoas line includes the usual suspects: VS, VSOP, XO, hors d’age, XO premium, and Millésime. Quality XO Armagnac can be hard to find around here, and harder to find at a reasonable price. When Liz had to be in NYC for work a few months ago, I asked her to pick up a bottle of this for me. At $60 (plus NYC taxes) d’Ognoas XO is an excellent value. It’s the sort of thing that’s right up my alley: affordable and easy-drinking but not boring. Domaine d’Orgnoas XO is highly recommended.
Palate: Medium bodied. Corn whiskey with a bit of rye spice with creamy malt on the back-end. Green cardamom, milk chocolate, oak.
Finish: Drying, chocolate covered pretzels.
Mixed: Stalk & Barrel Red did very well in all cocktails I tried: Old Fashioned, high ball with ginger ale, Manhattan, Trois Rivières, and a couple of others I don’t remember.
Parting words: Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein (actual names of two different people) founded Stillwaters Distillery, makers of Stalk & Barrel, in 2009. Their first blend was 11+1. It was entirely sourced. It has since been replaced by the Stalk & Barrel Blue (40% ABV) and Red blends which contain a combination of sourced and Stillwaters distillate. Stillwaters may be best known for their highly regarded Stalk & Barrel 100% Malt whisky which sells for $70 at the LCBO ($54 US). They also have a new (I think) 100% Rye whisky which sells for about the same price. Both are entirely made from spirit distilled by Stillwaters.
Red blend’s price is a great one in Canada. Not so much in the US. This is a good weeknight or mixing blend, but it’s not $42 US good. If you can get a bottle at LCBO prices, Stalk & Barrel Red Blend is recommended.
Mixed: OK in a Martini and Negroni. Very nice with tonic and in a Tom Collins.
Parting words: The Petoskey stone is the state stone of Michigan. It’s common around lakeshores in the northwestern Lower Peninsula, especially near Charlevoix and, you guessed it, Petoskey. Polished Petoskey stones are a popular souvenir from summer vacations in the area. They’re chunks of fossilized coral formed in the Devonian period roughly 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. Loads of Petoskey Stones were deposited in northern Michigan by glaciers at some period in the past, unknown to Wikipedia. As real midwestern heads remember from school, large, shallow inland seas covered much of the central US in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. As a result, fossils of sea life are common throughout the region.
High Five is a start-up micro-distillery in Petoskey with a tasting room. It’s owned by brothers Adam and Mike Kazanowski along with someone named Mike Kolkmeyer. As far as I can tell, their only products so far are Gypsy Vodka and this. They say that a rum (unaged one assumes) is on the way next.
Petoskey Gin is a drinkable, juniper-forward gin that excels with tonic and in a Tom Collins. It’s a summertime-at-the-lake gin. Not too weird, not too demanding, not too expensive. Well, two outta three. $30 is too much for this, but with the standard micro-distillery mark up, it’s not too far out to sea, or out to lake, as it were. Petoskey Stone Gin is mildly recommended.
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.
Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)
Retailer: Holiday Market, Royal Oak, Michigan, USA
Age: NAS (true age unknown, but at least 4 y/o by law)
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan state minimum: $27
Appearance: New penny.
Nose: Tabasco sauce, copper penny, allspice.
Palate: Full-bodied and round. Marshmallow, caramel, alcohol.
Finish: Caramel, burn.
Parting words: It’s been a while since I reviewed BT selections, but I really should do more. BT, even the standard remains a good value for sipping and mixing from a distillery best known for Pappy, Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg and other overhyped, often overpriced bourbons.
This selection reminds me a little of the Binny’s selection I reviewed in the link above. Marshmallow is the dominant flavor, although here its less roasted. The flavor is not assertive enough to make itself known in cocktails with strong mixers, but it does well enough. Buffalo Trace, Holiday Market Selection is recommended.
Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Sweet sherry, old oak, toffee.
Finish: Rubber, oak, alcohol
Parting words: Copper & Kings is one of the few microdistillers that is taking brandy seriously. In fact, they do more than take it seriously, it’s the heart of their business. They have six brandies on Michigan shelves, including an unaged apple brandy and the aged Floodwall.
Floodwall has a lot of things going for it. It’s 100 proof, a rarity for brandy (although Laird’s does make a bonded apple brandy), is under $50 (a rarity for aged craft spirits), mixes well and tastes a little like an old Calvados.
That last item is also its greatest weakness, though. My favorite apple brandies are ones that are mature but still retain some apple character to balance out the cask characteristics. Old Calvados is usually all cask and Floodwall is too. In Floodwall’s case, the cause is not age, but heavy handed use of sherry cask. There are some interesting things in the nose and on the front end of the palate but it all quickly turns one dimensional. If you like big sherry finishes, you’ll probably like Floodwall, but I wasn’t very keen on it. Floodwall is not recommended.
Mixed: Gives a nice, clean Pine-sol® aroma to classic gin cocktails.
Parting words: This gin is wildly unbalanced. Its sibling, Old Cockney, teeters on the edge of enjoyability, but the barrel-aged version falls right off the cliff. Most barrel-aged gins bring a creamy sweetness to cocktails, but that’s entirely absent here. No mixer can really stand up to the agressive piney-ness of this gin. It leaves all cocktails in ruins, no matter how good or potent the mixers. For $2 less, you can get Valentine’s barrel rested Liberator gin which is superior in every way. Barrel Reserve Old Cockney Gin is not recommended.
Maker: Unnamed “third generation distiller” who grows barley on her or his farm in Cognac.
Owner: Allison Parc (formerly Patel)
Style: French single malt finished in Cognac barrels.
Age: NAS (marketing materials claim that the average age of a cask is 7 y/o)
Michigan state minimum: $60
Appearance: Light caramel.
Nose: Very fruity. Bubblegum, table grapes, leather.
Palate: Medium-bodied and soft. Grape bubblegum, toasted oak, orange marmalade.
Finish: Grape bubblegum again. A little alcohol.
Mixed: I stuck to bourbon or brandy-based cocktails when mixing Brenne. Its fruity, sweet profile seemed to fit better in those drinks than in traditional Scotch or Irish ones. It added a pleasant, fruity aroma to an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, B(renne?) & B, and to my coffee.
Parting words: European whiskies made outside of Scotland and Ireland are a growing segment of the “world whisky” category. France is one of the leaders in this segment with three brands with wide distribution in the US: Bastille (reviewed here), Amorisk (made in Brittany), and Brenne.
I’ve been reluctant to review Brenne for my blog because the way the whisky was promoted when it was first released made me feel a little icky. It all goes back to those heady days of 2012 when whiskey bloggers still read each others’ posts and #WhiskyFabric (note the extremely important absence of an e) was a thing. One of those active bloggers was a woman named Allison Patel who blogged under the name Whiskey Woman. In the early 2010s, she began blogging and connecting with other bloggers as an enthusiast. In 2012 something remarkable occured. She discovered a whisky, and, lo and behold, she already had an import/export company set up to bring it to the US! She would also appreciate it if her fellow bloggers would review it and talk about it! That whisky was Brenne.
There’s nothing illegal about that as far as I know and as Melle Mel would say “you gotta have a con in this land of milk and honey” but the whole thing made me feel crummy. Parc and I were never close, but it gave me that same feeling you get when old friends invite you over for dinner but all they want to do is sell you Amway. It seemed like the connections made to the enthusiast community were for the purpose of promoting her product not for the sake of being a part of the community itself.
Producers and retailers do this all the time but what made the Whisky Woman case different was the appearance of independence. She has stated a few times that Whisky Woman is a labor of love and not intended to promote any of her companies or products but I have never been able to find any explicit statement on the blog of what Parc’s companies are or what brands they handle besides Brenne. In interviews, Parc has mentioned some of the distillers her company has worked with, like Kings County and Balcones. She has posted about both those distilleries but never (that I could find) explicitly disclosed her relationship with them. There are vague statements at the end of a few posts like “I’m lucky to be able to work with such great people as X”. but nothing like “My company exports this brand to Europe.” Whisky Woman is still semi-active. The current About page for it is here.
I asked my followers on Twitter what their views on industry folks posing as bloggers or enthusiasts were and the response was pretty clear.
As for the whisky itself, it’s fine. It has a fresh, fruity flavor that mixes very well and it’s refreshing on the rocks. Parc has talked about how Brenne is meant to reflect the terroir of Cognac. It may be refelected in the distillate, but it’s hard to taste anything other than the Cognac barrel finish.
The price is the killer. $60 is too high. Bastille 1789 is only $27 in Michigan, and Angel’s Envy, which has a similar, fruity profile, is $10 less (at a slightly higher ABV) in all US markets. Brenne tastes good but it’s not something I’m going to buy again. Brenne is a only a mild recommendation.
If you don’t care about the price, you should check out Brenne 10, a 10 y/o small batch iteration that goes for around $90.
Palate: Sweet. Strawberry hard candy, chew oak. With water: Creamy, Heath bar.
Finish: Hot. Jalapeno. With water: Cooler, but still spicy. Chipotle, oak.
Parting words: Red Wagon is one of the Detroit Metro Area’s best wine and liquor stores. They have two locations, one in Troy (barely) and one in Rochester Hills. The Rochester Hills location is larger but the Troy one is closer and has a well curated selection of wine, spirits, and beer. They’ve been selecting bourbon barrels for a few years now and doing it well for the most part. They had two Four Roses barrels when I purchased this one. I picked the OESQ because of my fond memories of the super-sexy 2009 Four Roses limited edition single barrel (reviewed here).
This is not that. This selection isn’t bad by any stretch but it lacks the sexual chocolate of the 2009 Ltd ed SB. The blisteringly high proof and relative youth factor into this. I would have liked to see how this would have tasted at ten or eleven years old, but maybe Brett and company at Four Roses thought that this barrel had reached its peak or that the proof would continue to rise (or both) and it needed to be bottled right away. It also lacks the distrinctive floral aromas I associate with the Q yeast strain. It tastes just like any other high proof Four Roses bourbon. That’s not a bad thing, though. This Four Roses Single Barrel, Red Wagon Selection is recommended.
Palate: Jalapeño, caramel. Gets a little fruity with water. Blueberry, blackberry, watermelon.
Finish: Grape soda, alcohol. Caramel comes out with water.
Mixed: I tried it in an old-fashioned, Manhattan, boulevardier, with Benedictine and with amaretto. Worked well in all of them, even though it didn’t really stand out. That’s not necessarily bad, though. Sometimes the base spirit is best as a, uh, base.
Parting words: Early Times is one of the oldest American whiskey brands still in existence. It was founded in 1860 by Jack Beam (uncle to Jim). Despite the name (an early example of marketing by nostalgia), Jack’s distillery was a throughly modern operation strategically located next to a rail line (the Louisville & Nashville railroad) near Bardstown. After Jack’s death in 1915, his nephew John Shaunty took over. After John’s death in 1922, a man named S.L. Guthrie bought the distillery and sold the Early Times brand to Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman has owned it since then. They even built a new distillery dedicated to the brand (their best seller at the time) in 1955. It’s still in operation today and is home to ET, Old Forester and Cooper’s Craft.
Jack had a colorful family. His final wife, Anna Figg Brown, was much younger than he and lived into the 1960s. After John Shaunty’s death, his widow took up with a con man who robbed her and left her stranded in Atlantic City. S.L. Guthrie had to drive there to pick her up and take her home. All this according to Sam Cecil’s The Evolution of the Bourbon Industry in Kentucky (1999).
At any rate, Early Times spent several years as America’s best-selling bourbon in the mid twentieth century and hung around at number two even after it was overaken tby Jim Beam. Early Times’ slide began when in 1983, as a cost cutting measure, B-F changed ET from a bourbon to “Kentucky Whisky”, a mix of bourbon with whiskey aged in used barrels, in the US. It remained a straight bourbon overseas. The brand still sells with “price sensitive” consumers, but has not regained its former widespread popularity. Back in 2011 Brown-Forman tried to jumpstart Early Times by releasing a new straight bourbon version called Early Times 354. It was not good. My video (!) review of it is here.
Luckily, B-F decided to give ET another chance and released this new bonded version with a beautiful retro label earlier this year. It’s a hit, with me, anyway. It’s sweet, as it and other high corn bourbons tend to be (e.g. Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee) but it has enough oak and spice to keep it from becoming boring. It mixes well, but I think it is at its best with one or two ice cubes and maybe a dash or two of bitters.
Price-wise, ET BiB is in a great place. If it were a standard 750 ml bottle, it would be $15.75. That would make it the cheapest bonded bourbon available in Michigan, less than Old Grand Dad ($28), sibling Old Forester Signature ($25, not technically a BiB, but close), Jim Beam ($22), and Evan Williams White Label ($18). All are fine products but Early Times Bottled-in-Bond is as good as any of those and none of them can deliver the same value. Brown-Forman has hit it out of the park again. Early Times Bottled-in-Bond is highly recommended.
What’s next for B-F? I’m hoping an ET with a double digit age statement. Get on it, George.