Blanton’s Single Barrel, Holiday Market selection

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Age International)20170320_113501.jpg

Style: High corn straight bourbon

Age: NAS

Barrel 66, Rick 15

Proof: 93 (46.5% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $60

Appearance: Light orange with long, thick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, potpourri, burnt caramel, lavender, tarragon, dried orange peel.

Palate: Medium dry and full bodied. Creamy caramel, alcohol, bitter oak, orange push pop.

Finish: Raspberry chews, alcohol, roasted corn on the cob.

Parting words: Holiday Market in downtown Royal Oak Michigan (two miles or so north of the Detroit city limits) is a relative newcomer to the barrel selection business.  This is the first one I’ve reviewed. It’s a part of my new project of reviewing retailer selections to build up a list of who does it well and who doesn’t.

I have really enjoyed this one. The last Blanton’s I reviewed, way back in the halcyon days of 2011, was very leathery. There’s not nearly as much leather here (the Khloe legs are still present), just simple oak. This bottle has fruit that that Kahn’s bottle lacked, though. The result is a more balanced bourbon that is a pleasure to drink after dinner with some dark chocolate. At $60, Blanton’s is at the top of the AI/BT single barrel line. This barrel is worth the money, though. Blanton’s Single Barrel, Holiday Market selection is recommended.

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Hancock’s President’s Reserve

Maker: Buffalo Trace. Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)wp-1472261717513.jpg

Style: High corn bourbon.

Age: NAS

Proof: 88.9 (44.45% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $55

Appearance: Light auburn.

Nose: Alcohol, leather, corn syrup.

Palate: Full bodied. Alcohol, vanilla, creamed corn from the can.

Finish: Canned corn, alcohol. Fairly short.

Parting words: Hancock’s President’s Reserve was released in 1991 as a part of Ancient Age  (now known as Buffalo Trace) distillery’s series of single barrel bourbons introduced by master distiller Gary Gayheart. That series also includes Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms and Blanton’s. All of them are made from what is now Buffalo Trace’s mashbill #2, also used for the lower shelf Ancient Age line. As far as I can tell, Hancock’s was created at that time, although Hancock and Hancock Club bourbons were produced in Cincinnati before prohibition.

I’ve never been able to figure out what Hancock’s Reserve was supposed to bring to the table. Blanton’s has big leathery oak, Rock Hill Farms is elegant and high proof and Elmer T. Lee has the best QPR of the four, or at least did until it started being hoarded by stooges. Hancock’s is more expensive than Elmer, rougher and lower proof than RHF and sappier than Blanton’s. At one time, it was often a good example of BT’s earthiness, but that time has passed. It tastes like it’s barely 5-6 years old now. I tasted it next to the current 36 m/o Ancient Age 10 star ($19), and it tasted better but not by much. It reminds me of what AA 10 star tasted like seven years ago. Best thing I can say for it is that the bottle is one of the best looking on the shelf.

Hancock’s is a sad illustration of how some brands have had to fall by the wayside as Buffalo Trace has struggled to keep up with high demand for its bourbon. Maybe it would be best just to kill this one all together. Hancock’s President’s Reserve 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 Charter: The Classic 90

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)wpid-20140801_130826-1.jpg

Age: 12 y/o

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Note: No longer in production.

Thanks to @Primo55 for the suggestion of the final three words below

Appearance: Auburn with

Nose: Oak, black walnut, alcohol, caramel.

Palate: More walnuts, old oak, and a hint of butterscotch and brown sugar.

Finish: A little hot, but then a long, sumptuous oakiness that never falls into bitterness.

Parting words: Old Charter is an old brand dying a quiet death. It was founded in the nineteenth century by the Chapeze brothers (there is still a Chapeze house in Bardstown available for events), and was acquired by Sazerac in the 1990s when the newly spawned Diageo was selling off Kentucky bourbon brands. In recent memory, there have been 7 y/o, 8 y/o, 10 y/o, The Classic 90 (12 y/o) and Proprietor’s Reserve (13 y/o) Old Charters and Charter 101 (NAS). The only two left are the 8 y/o* and Charter 101. In the good old days of the glut, the 10 y/o and The Classic were two of the best bargains in bourbondom and the Proprietor’s Reserve (OCPR to bourbon nerds) was one of the finest bourbons of its era.

The Classic is a classic after dinner sipping bourbon. Even though they were a mere year apart in age, it  and OCPR taste very different from each other. OCPR was subtly sweet butterscotch while The Classic is defined by oak. There’s a resemblance to Barterhouse bourbon from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series, but the oak in The Classic is balanced by sweet caramel and nuts so it doesn’t taste tired like Barterhouse. A better point of comparison might be Elijah Craig 12 y/o. The role of oak is similar but in both cases there’s enough sweetness to keep it from going into “beaver bourbon” territory.

For many years Old Charter The Classic 90 was fairly easy to find but with the growing popularity of “dusty” out of production bourbons, it’s not so easy to find these days. It’s highly recommended if the price is right. I won’t be looking for any in the near future since I have two bottles in the bunker. Neener, neener, neener.

*Thanks to John B for reminding me via Facebook that even the 8 y/o is NAS now. They’re now calling it “#8” in true Sazerac style.

Head to Head: Weller 12 vs. Van Winkle Lot “B”

W12= W.L. Weller 12 y/o (purchased 2013)W12 vs LotB

VWB= Van Winkle Special Reserve, Lot “B” (purchased 2014)

Maker

W12; Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

VWB: Van Winkle, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (A joint venture between Sazerac and the Van Winkle family).

Age: 12 y/o (both)

Proof

W12: 90 (45% ABV)

VWB: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Price

W12: $24 (Spec’s)

VWB: $55 (Michigan State Minimum)

Appearance: Dark Copper with thin prolific legs (both)

Nose

W12: Alcohol, homemade bread, leather, vanilla extract, cut grass.

VWB: Alcohol, leather, vanilla extract, grilled sweet corn, basil.

Palate

W12: Full bodied and round. Vanilla butter cream icing, oak, alcohol.

VWB: Medium bodied and soft. Oak, a hint of vanilla, sweet cornbread.

Finish

W12: Cherry walnut bread, oak, alcohol. Lingers for a long time.

VWB: Fairly hot, but very well balanced and more subtle than the Weller. Oak, vanilla icing, alcohol. Also linger long, getting sweeter and fruitier as time goes on.

Parting words: This head to head was inspired by a forum thread inspired by a long running discussion in bourbon circles regarding the Van Winkle line of wheated bourbons and the Weller line. Are they the same whiskey in different bottles? Is Weller just a dumping ground for Van Winkle rejects? Is Weller 12 “basically Pappy” as one store owner told a bourbon lover recently?

These two expressions are the best two to compare the differences because they’re the same age and virtually the same proof. Both are made using the same mashbill, same yeast, same distillery and aged in the same warehouses. They are also most likely put into barrels with the same char level at the same proof. So all the pre-aging variables are the same.

The difference is in barrel selection and it does make a difference. Not a huge one but it’s there. Both have the same mix of aromas and flavors, but in different proportions. Weller 12 has a little bit of an unrefined grassy bite to it but it is only noticeable to me when doing the head to head with Lot “B”. Lot “B” is more elegant and seems to have more depth. The herbal note is there but it takes the form of a subtle Basil aroma. Perhaps the areas of the warehouses in Frankfort reserved for Van Winkle are less prone to developing the earthy, grassy aromas in bourbons aged there or perhaps there’s a higher proportion of older bourbon in the mix.

So, what’s the verdict? Lot “B” is the superior bourbon, but only by a little. Weller 12 is a much better bargain than its Van Winkle cousin. Lot “B” is not more than twice as good as Weller 12 but Weller 12 is probably underpriced, so it evens out in my mind. Both Weller 12 and Van Winkle Lot “B” are recommended.

Stagg Jr.

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USAIMG_20130913_120455

Age: NAS (8-9 y/o?)

Style: High corn bourbon

Proof: 134.4 (67.2% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum (rounded to the nearest dollar): $50

Appearance: Dark copper, necklacing and thin quick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, hay, wood, pralines. Water turns down the alcohol but turns the grassiness up to 11. Some caramel still comes out but the grass dominates.

On the palate: Wood, amaretto, caramel, alcohol. With water, the nutty flavors come out and make themselves known, but the grass does to. It’s kept in check by the nuts and caramel and a creamy background. The oak is not really discernible with water added.

Finish: Quick and hot with lingering amaretto flavors. The finish has a bit more oak and candy when water is added but the two clash and leave an unpleasantness in the finish.

Parting words: Stagg Jr. is a brand, spankin’ new product from Buffalo Trace. It is a younger (about half the age) version of George T. Stagg, the barrel proof centerpiece of the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). The plan is for it to be easier to find and cheaper than its father (the latter is certainly true already). It is about 10 proof points lower in alcohol than its papa too, but still very much in the “bruiser” range at over 134°.

When I was tasting Sagg Jr., I poured myself an ounce of a recent edition of Stagg Sr. (I guess we’ll have to call it that now) for the same of comparison. The contrasts were striking. Jr. lacked the complexity and powerful elegance of Sr. Frankly, Jr. drinks more like a barrel proof edition of Buffalo Trace than the bourbon with which it shares a name. I don’t mind Buffalo Trace. I’ve had some very tasty retailer selections of it and I think it does very well in cocktails, but sometimes the grassiness is just too much for me. Stagg Jr. is all the things I dislike about Buffalo Trace amplified: the grass, and way the other flavors clash with it. Stagg Jr.’s saving graces are the lack of a strong barrel char influence (one of the clashing elements in Buffalo Trace) and the mitigating role played by the nutty, liqueur-like flavors in the nose and on the palate.

If we’re comparing Stagg Jr. to Buffalo Trace ($25), it’s not much of a bargain even when one factors in the proof. When one compares it to other products of the same distillery in that price range (none of which are bottled at anywhere close to this proof or are unfiltered), it starts to look a lot better, at least on paper. This is another one I’m on the fence about, but I’m going to err on the side of generosity this time and give Stagg Jr. a recommendation.

Video Review: Eagle Rare Head to Head

Our Walloon Lake tasting panel returns with a head to head, or tête-à-tête as it were, tasting of Eagle Rare 101 and Eagle Rare Single Barrel (Kahn’s Fine Wine selection). I was going to edit this video down a little but I decided to go with the extended director’s cut. We had a lot of fun making these review, and I hope you enjoy it! Cheers!

 

RIP Elmer T. Lee, 1919-2013

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention the passing of Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee on July 16, 2013. He was the MD there through some of the darkest days of the American whiskey industry when consumption was plummeting and the structure of industry was changing rapidly. What’s now called Buffalo Trace was right in the middle of all of that but the distillery emerged from that era as a leader and an innovator. Elmer T. Lee was one of the people responsible for that. Up until his death he was still picking barrels that would go into the single barrel bourbon that bares his name (and is one of the best values in the single barrel bourbon category).

While the early  death of Truman Cox was shocking and tragic, the death of Elmer T. Lee at 93 years of age is an occasion for celebrating a full life well-lived. Here are a few links pertaining to Elmer, his life and work:

A copy of the letter sent from Sazerac president Mark Brown announcing Elmer’s death (Posted on Lew Bryson’s Seen Through a Glass blog): http://lewbryson.blogspot.com/2013/07/rip-elmer-t-lee.html

An old interview with Elmer in which he talks a bit about himself and the runs through the entire bourbon making process (38 minutes).

2008 interview of Elmer for the Buffalo Trace Oral History project (52 minutes)

http://www.nunncenter.org/buffalotrace/2010/08/31/elmer-t-lee/

He will be greatly missed but as long as the bourbon continues to flow his legacy will too.

Col. E.H. Taylor Rye

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USAtaylor_rye

Style: High Rye Rye (Bottled-in-Bond)

Age: NAS

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Appearance: Burnt orange.

Nose: Caramel, alcohol, potpourri, pine.

On the palate: Medium bodied and a little hot. Caramel, tarragon, Thai basil, cumin, coriander.

Finish: Oak, alcohol, leather, dried flowers.

Parting words: This is Buffalo Trace’s stab at a high rye rye whiskey. It is made using rye and a small amount of malted barley, but no corn. The result is something spicier and with more rye character than their Sazerac line of rye whiskeys, but not as far over the line as the 100% rye whiskeys being sourced from Canada like Whistlepig, Jefferson’s, etc. It’s more elegant than those or the MGPI ryes like Bulleit and Willett. The caramel flavors (a bit surprising given the absence of corn) and oak keep the rye from overrunning things.

As with the rest of the Col. Taylor line, price is a problem. Even accounting for the relative scarcity of straight rye, $70 is too much for this. At $10-$20 less Taylor rye would be a sure-fire recommendation, but as it is, it’s only mildly recommended.

RIP Truman Cox

Recently I, as a (part-time) whiskey blogger, have been urged to take up the banner and “give Maker’s Mark shit” for lowering the proof of their bourbon. I’m not going to do that. The decision to lower the proof of Maker’s is unfortunate and disappointing, but the level of internet outrage regarding the proof change is completely out of proportion, surpassing even the Ebay/Pappy hysteria of 2012. I have no desire to contribute to this silliness any more than I already have.

Instead, I’m going to call attention to something much  more worthy of getting upset about: The death of A. Smith Bowman Master Distiller Truman Cox.

I didn’t know Truman very well. We were Facebook friends and I only recall meeting him once in person. He was the kind of guy who would greet you with a hearty handshake and a smile. As a friend of mine said, he was above all a genuine guy. He loved his family and he seemed to enjoy life immensely.

He was also a whiskey man through and through.  His prior position was at Buffalo Trace as chief chemist. He became Master Distiller at Bowman at a crucial time, as Bowman had recently moved to a new location, had a relatively new owner, Sazerac (also owner of Buffalo Trace), and was in the midst of a profound transformation. 10 years ago, Bowman was little more than a curiosity. It was the only large-ish bourbon distillery still operating in the state of Virginia and had only one (fairly) widely distributed brand, Virginia Gentleman. It came in 80 and 90 proof expressions.

When Truman moved to Virginia, the transformation of Bowman was well underway. The 90 proof VG had been replaced by Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon at 90 proof  and a 100 proof single barrel bourbon, John J. Bowman, was also introduced (review coming soon). Also made are Abraham Bowman Rye (I review the TPS barrel-stength version here) and Sunset Hills Gin. Under the brief period of Truman’s leadership the transformation of Bowman was completed, and Bowman began putting out some of the most highly regarded and sought after private bottlings of bourbons and ryes among enthusiasts. They were able to have the best of both worlds. They operated like a micro-distillery in many ways, but they were also able to draw upon the resources of a large spirits company like Sazerac and a large distillery like Buffalo Trace.

Truman was one of the brightest rising stars in the world of American whiskey and his sudden death is a great loss for the industry and bourbon drinkers alike. Here are some links:

The Spirits Business Article on Truman’s death.

Lew Bryson on Truman’s passing.

Chuck Cowdery on Truman’s death

Truman’s famous barrel dance.

Truman tasting Pappy Van Winkle 20 y/o

Truman’s autobiographical bit on the Bowman website

Members of StraightBourbon.com congratulate Truman on becoming Master Distiller

Here’s hoping he gets that bottle named after him at last.