Old Forester 1920

Maker: Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky, USA20170106_195909.jpg

Age: NAS

Proof: 115 (57.5% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $60

Appearance: Bright chestnut with a clingy robe.

Nose: Crushed walnut, bubblegum, caramel, allspice, dried Cayenne. With water the Cayenne turns to sweet cinnamon.

Palate: Medium bodied. Caramel on entry, then burn. Turns chewy and spicy with water.

Finish: Grape  bubblegum, alcohol. Water brings out the oak, but doesn’t turn down the heat.

Parting words: Old Forester 1920 is the third installment in the Old Forester Whiskey Row Series. The first, Old Forester 1870 (in honor of the founding of the company), was released in 2014, 1897 (in honor of the Bottled-in-Bond act) was released in 2015. This one, released in 2016, was named in honor of the fact that Brown-Forman was one of the handful of Kentucky distillers that received a license from the US government to distill spirits for medicinal purposes. So it was actually possible to get Old Forester during Prohibition, with a prescription. It is 115 proof, not because that was the proof at which OF was sold in those days but because that was a common proof at which Old Forester came out of the barrel at the time.

All three Old Forester Whiskey Row bourbons have been good. This one is the best. It is what we OF fans have been waiting for. It does an excellent job of balancing the spice and oak of older OF with the fruity roundness of younger OF. It does this without falling into the weird plastic aromas and unbalanced oak that can come into some of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon vintages. 1920 is both elegantly balanced and powerful, like a JS Bach organ composition or a Brahms symphony. This is the Old Forester I had hoped B-F was capable of producing all these years but thought I would never see. Now all I can think about is the next installment. Single barrel? True barrel proof? Distillate of DSP KY 414, the old Old Forester plant? I can hardly wait. Old Forester 1920 is highly recommended.

Gordon & Macphail Vine & Table Selection- Coal Ila 8 y/o, cask strength.

Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail, Elgin, Moray, Scotland.2015-12-23-15.16.36.jpg.jpeg

Distiller: Caol Ila, Port Askaig, Argyll, Scotland, UK

Region: Islay

Age: 8 y/o (distilled July 2006, bottled August 2014)

ABV: 58.8%

Price: $65 Exclusive to Vine & Table, Carmel (CAR-muhl), Indiana, USA

Notes: Single cask, natural color, not chill filtered. Aged in a refill sherry hogshead, cask #306213. One of 260 bottles. At cask strength, this whisky was all peat and smoke to me, so I diluted it to around 50% ABV for this review.

Appearance: Medium copper with thin, irregular legs.

Nose: Peat, smoke, black tea, drop of sherry.

Palate: Full bodied and hot. Some tropical fruit and vanilla in the beginning then the burn grows as does smoke, but without a lot of peat.

Finish: Ashy. Fireplace, old ashtray at grandma’s house back in the 1980s when people smoked inside. A belch after drinking this is the closest we humans will come to knowing what it’s like to be a dragon.

Parting words: Diageo’s Caol Ila is best known as a supplier of smoky malt for a myriad of independent bottlers and makers of blended malts. There’s also a 12 y/o distillery bottling that I reviewed here and friend of the blog My Annoying Opinions reviewed here. There was at one time a Distiller’s Edition, but I’m not sure how available that was in the US. In recent years there have also been a number of young, cask strength, independent bottlings like this one making the rounds. Most single malt Scotch doesn’t get bottled at anything less than ten years of age, but smoky malts often do because the smoke is more prominent at a younger age.

If fire is what you crave, this is the malt for you. A belch after drinking this is the closest we humans will come to knowing what it’s like to be a dragon. There’s not much else going on, though. There’s a hint of sweet malt and sherry, but it is hard to find behind the inferno. This Caol Ila is one dimensional, but it is only $65 and at cask strength which makes it more attractive than it might be at a standard proof. A volcano like this is especially good if you enjoy making your own blends at home. I mixed a little bit in with some Craigellachie 13 and some 16 y/o grain whisky and it added a nice extra bit of smoke to both of those.

If you enjoy smoky whisky like I do or if you’re looking for some smoke in your personal blending lab, Vine & Table’s 8 y/o, cask strength Caol Ila from V & T is a good choice. Recommended.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Maker: Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)wpid-20150529_191023.jpg

Age: NAS

Proof: 111.3 (55.65%)

Michigan State Minimum: $60 (also available in 375 ml bottles for $35)

Appearance: Reddish copper with thin, frequent legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, vanilla. Toned down a little with water.

Palate: Hot. Alcohol, leather, vanilla. A little tamer than at full strength. Starts sweet but dries into a bitter char note.

Finish: All alcohol. Pretty tasty with water. Drying with oak and vanilla. Lingers a while.

Parting words: Beam Suntory has been experimenting a lot lately. Most of that has been with Jim Beam, but some of it has spilled over into Maker’s. First Maker’s 46 and now this, Maker’s Mark Cask Stength. Maker’s had a 101 proof expression at one time (although I think it was only available overseas) but other than that, high proof has never been something that Maker’s has really done.

I like standard Maker’s, especially in the summertime. It has a nice, easy drinking sweetness that can refreshing, but is never particularly interesting. This expression tasted drier than I expected (similar to Pappy 15 in that way) but otherwise it is pretty standard Maker’s. The higher ABV brings out more of the bitter char flavors with is not necessarily tasty. I almost wanted to water it down even further but

what’s the point of watering a cask strength bourbon down to standard strength? There’s certainly no price savings here.

Tasting makers at cask strength was interesting but not interesting enough to make me want to buy a second bottle. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is mildly recommended.

Tequila Ocho, Single Barrel (Binny’s Selection)

Maker: La Alteña distillery, Jalisco, Mexicowpid-2015-05-05-19.52.46.jpg.jpeg

Age category: 1 year, 19 days (Añejo)

Rancho: El Refugio

Harvest: 2012

Barrel: 2/3

ABV: 54.57% (cask strength)

Price: $60 (Exclusive to Binny’s Beverage

Note: I received an informal tequila tasting from a Binny’s staff member before purchasing this bottle.

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: White asparagus with hollandaise sauce, alcohol, lime peel, cane sugar, whiff of smoke.

Palate: Full bodied and rich. Agave syrup, tangerine, orange slice candy, burn.

Finish: Lime pulp, white pepper, burn.

Parting words: La Alteña is best known as the home of El Tesoro tequila, although it makes a few other brands including our friend Tequila Ocho here. Tequila Ocho was developed by Carlos Camarena of the Camarena tequila dynasty in partnership with Tomas Estes as a single-estate (rancho) tequila made using traditional methods.

Binny’s has a tradition of excellent whiskey selections that has now extended into tequila, a spirit that their whiskey staff is also passionate about. As a tequila novice, I found this to be accessible with lots of typical character, but not boring. In spite of being cask strength, it’s subtle and sophisticated with seamlessly integrated vegetal, citrus and sweet notes and aromas. The price is almost impossible to beat, too. Binny’s Single Barrel Tequila Ocho is highly recommended.

English Whiskey Company Cask Strength Binny’s Handpicked Dual Cask Peated Single Malt

Maker: English Whisky Co., Roundham, Norfolk, England, UKwpid-2015-01-16-16.11.11.jpg.jpeg

Age: NAS

ABV: 60.9%

Price: $70

Notes: Natural color, unfiltered. Limited edition: Casks 108 & 166.

Appearance: Pale gold with thick legs.

Nose: Lemon pepper, peat, vanilla.

Palate: Full bodied. Lemon Meringue, peat, then burn and a touch of gravel.

Finish: Lots of heat and smoke. Hot but enjoyable.

Parting words: OK, so the name of this one doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it is delicious. I’ve had English Whisky Co.’s Classic Malt in years past and it struck me as whisky with lots of potential, but nothing impressive. This is impressive. It easily goes toe to toe with entry level peated Scotches without being an imitation of peated Scotch. The sweet citrus notes in the nose and on the palate set it apart from Islay and other attempts at peated spirits from outside of Scotland.

$70 for a cask-strength peated whisky this delicious is a steal. There are only a few bottles left (mine is #405 out of 426) so run to Binny’s immediately and grab yourself a couple. English Whiskey Company Cask Strength Binny’s Handpicked Dual Cask Peated Single Malt is highly recommended.

Four Roses triple header: OESO vs. OESO vs. OESO single barrel selections

Maker: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USAwpid-2014-11-12-17.24.33.jpg.jpeg

BBD= Binny’s

TPS= The Party Source

GBS= Georgia Bourbon Society

Warehouse: BN

Barrel

BBD: 31-1D

TPS: 30-3E

GBS: 30-3G

Age

BBD: 10 yrs, 11 mos.

TPS: 10 yrs, 3 mos.

GBS: 11 yrs, 5 mos.

Proof

BBD: 103.8 (51.9% ABV)

TPS: 115 (57.5% ABV)

GBS: 114 (57% ABV)

BBD: $55

TPS: $50 (current price for private selections)

GBS: Not disclosed (<$50)

Appearance

BBD: Medium dark copper.

TPS: A little lighter with more orange.

GBS: Somewhere between the two (which are pretty similar anyway).

Nose

BBD: Leather, peanut brittle, cumin.

TPS: Big oak, touch of caramel.

GBS: Oak is just as big, but with more spice. Chili powder, Tabasco sauce.

Palate

BBD: Sweet and creamy on the palate, like vanilla toffee chews.

TPS: Sweet and creamy too, but not quite as rich.

GBS: Similar mouthfeel to BBD and just as sweet but more complex with Mexican chocolate flavors.

Finish

BBD: Sweet but drying. Toasted marshmallows. Lingers for a long time,

TPS: The oak carries through in the finish but with enough caramel to round it off.

GBS: Best of the bunch. Smoky chocolate and toffee.

Parting words: OESO is one of the most popular of Four Roses’ ten recipes for retailer and private selections, as this tasting illustrates. The E indicates the lower rye mashbill and the final O indicates the O yeast was used in fermentation. The O yeast is known for contributing a “robust fruitiness” to its offspring. These bourbons are all quite robust but not much was there in the way of fruitiness.

They are all very similar, as one might expect, but some of the subtle differences surprised me. I arranged the tasting the way I did, because I assumed that the TPS and the GBS would be closest in flavor but they weren’t. They were rick neighbors and came out at similar proofs but they ended up being the least alike of the three. The closest in profile were the BBD and GBS barrels. There were subtle differences between them but I highly doubt I could win a Pepsi Challenge scenario with the two of them.  The TPS barrel was the outlier. It is the youngest, but it was the woodiest of the three.

All three were very good, but the edge here goes to the product of the GBS barrel (which I and some friends of the blog helped select). The GBS selection was not for sale to the general public, but any GBS member would be happy to pour you some if you ask nicely. All are highly recommended.

Booker’s

Maker: Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)wpid-20141031_173934.jpg

Age: 6 yrs, 2 mos

Proof: 128.5 (64.25% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $59

Appearance: Auburn with thin, evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Taffy, alcohol, lavender, leather, fresh basil, roasted corn.

Palate: Sweet and hot, but rounded. Rock candy and oak. Opens up but weakens with water. Butterscotch candy, tarragon, touch of char.

Finish: Table grapes, cut grass, alcohol, caramel corn.

Parting words: Booker’s was created by and named after Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam and father of Fred Noe, current Beam brand ambassador. According to marketing materials, this is how Booker drank his bourbon: uncut and at 6-8 y/o.

Booker’s was one of the first high-end bourbons I ever tasted and it was one of my favorites back then. I’ve had it a few other times over the years and it’s always been one I’ve enjoyed. This one doesn’t seem as good as ones I’ve had in the past. It has more of the less desirable aspects of the Beam character than  past bottles, especially with water added.

I’m not sure if it’s worth the price, especially considering that Knob Creek Single Barrel at 120 proof is only $46 and Baker’s is $47 at a lower proof and higher age. I’m not sure if a few more proof points and a pine box (perfect for Halloween) is worth the extra scratch. Still, it tastes good and that’s the most important thing, right? Booker’s is recommended.

Redbreast 12 y/o, Cask Strength

Maker: Irish Distillers, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland (Pernod-Ricard)Redbreast 12 CS

Style: Single Pot Still (distilled in a pot still using malted and unmalted barley)

ABV: 59.9%

Notes: Unchillfiltered.

Michigan State Minimum: $65

Appearance: Dark copper (color probably added) with long, thick legs.

Nose: Rich and powerful. Caramel, butterscotch, old fashioned bourbon, leather, alcohol. Water opens it up a little and dials down the alcohol burn.

On the palate: Full bodied and sweet. Vanilla nougat, homemade caramels, chocolate covered toffee bars and bourbon with a big hit of alcohol on the tail end. Again, a splash of water tones down the burn but here it also obliterates the chocolate notes.

Finish: Classic Irish finish. Sweet cereal with a little bit of rubber and a lot of tingle all around the mouth as it fades slowly. Water opens it up and brings the cereal notes to the fore.

Parting words: Irish Distillers is the largest producer of whiskey in Ireland, producing two of the biggest brands of Irish whiskey worldwide, Jameson’s and Power’s. Redbreast is their high-end line of Single Pot Still (as opposed to blended) whiskey. The other expressions are the the standard Redbreast 12 y/o which I reviewed back in 2011, the 15 y/o and the new 21 y/o.

I loved the standard 12 y/o. This is even better, and at just $5 more it’s a fantastic bargain. The one off note I detected was the rubbery note, but it only shows up in the finish and dissipates quickly. Rubber or not, Cask Strength Redbreast is a truly great whiskey. It is exquisitely balanced but powerful and full of Irish character. It’s the best Irish whiskey I’ve ever had and one of my favorite spirits of any type. Redbreast Cask Strength is highly recommended.

Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch (2013)

Maker: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Kirin)4R Ltd Ed Small Batch 2013

Age: 13 y/o

Recipes: OBSV (18 y/o), OBSK & OESK (both 13 y/o)

Proof: 103.2 (51.6% ABV)

Appearance: Medium Copper with thick persistent legs.

Nose: Alcohol, leather, pomegranate juice, habanero chili. After a while in the glass it settles into a more conventional high-rye bourbon profile. Caramel, jalapeno, and leather continues.

On the palate: Surprisingly easy to drink at barrel/bottle proof, but then again it’s a surprisingly low proof out of a barrel. Cherry juice, oak, sweet corn, blackberry, white mulberry, burn. Water brings out sweetness and fruity notes.

Finish: Alcohol, caramel, leather. As on the palate, water brings out the fruity sweetness in the finish and tones down the alcohol.

Parting words: For the second year in a row, the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch has won Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year, and with very good reason. Last year’s was very very good, the best since 2009, but this one is even better. It’s a very similar mix of recipes, but with a higher (probably) proportion of bourbon made with the K yeast. It’s older too, which makes its balance of barrel and fruit even more remarkable. As bourbons get into the double digits, they usually get dry and oaky. This one has all the fruit of a young bourbon like Very Old Barton at close to three times the age. It’s a neat trick. It’s balanced, complex, sophisticated and bold all at the same time and it’s one of the best bourbons I’ve ever tasted.

These limited edition Four Roses releases are the 21st Century’s answer to Very Very Old Fitzgerald. Four Roses is the Stitzel-Weller of now. Unfortunately for those of us who have loved them for a long time, they are starting to be snatched up like S-W. I was able to get several bottles of last year’s release fairly easily, but this year the prices are much higher and the bottles are harder to find, even though they are more widely distributed. If you see one, buy one. If you can get more, get more. If you break your budget buying them, I’d be happy to take a few off your hands. I paid around $90 for mine which is a lot, but worth every penny. Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch is highly recommended.

Lagavulin 12, Limited Edition 2012

Maker: Lagavulin, Port Ellen, Islay, Scotland, UK.Lag 12

Region: Islay

ABV: 56.1% (cask strength)

Michigan State Minimum: $120 (I bought it when the price was $90)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Peat, smoke, dried flowers, alcohol. Softens up a bit with water, but the peat is still front and center.

On the palate: Full bodied and aggressive. Burn, smoke, peat. Sweeter and more balanced with water. Butterscotch candy, fireplace, peat, amaretto.

Finish: campfire smoke, vanilla custard, burn. With water I get hardwood ash, vanilla pudding, and burn.

Parting words: Lagavulin 16 y/o (reviewed here) is still my favorite single malt Scotch, but this one has come very close. It’s not nearly as refined as its older sister but it has a powerful smokiness that rivals Laphroaig or Ardbeg. I’m getting into Malt Imposter territory here, but if Lagavulin were the Clash, the 16 year old would be London Calling and the 12 year old cask strength would be The Clash. The former is more polished and complex, but the latter has an urgency and power that is compelling.

The state minimum price in Michigan unfortunately went up by $30 recently so it is much less of a value than it used to be. Still, it’s a wonderful, delicious whisky worth trying and buying if it fits into your budget. I love and recommend Lagavulin 12 y/o Limited Edition 2012, Cask Strength.