Ask SKU Anything

SKU of SKU’s Recent Eats recently had a fun post in which he answered any questions from any readers of his who wanted to ask. I thought this might be a fun thing to do for my blog too. On the other hand, I have fewer readers than he does, and when I’ve tried things like that in the past the response has been almost nonexistent. So to avoid embarrassment, I’m going to answer the questions that SKU’s readers asked him.

As I was writing this, I learned that SKU is unfortunately ending his long running blog, so I figured what better way to pay tribute to him than to rip him off? After all, I’ve been doing that for a very long time.

So without further ado,

Years ago, you wrote an article for one of the whiskey magazines titled “Craft Whiskey Sucks.” Now, many years later, would you write the same thing? Do you still think it mostly sucks? 

I didn’t write that article, SKU did, but I will answer the question. Yes, they still suck, almost all of them. The best ones have reached the level of “not bad” but they’re still almost entirely awful, overpriced garbage. Ones that have reached “not bad” include Union Horse Reunion Rye, most of Journeyman’s output, Grand Traverse Distillery’s bourbon and ryes and a handful of others whose names escape me right now.

Sku – at what point does a whisky that you own become too expensive that you don’t open the bottle? For instance, I have a 2012 FR Small Batch that I’m told now sells for over $700 – that seems a ludicrous amount to spend on a bottle, and I wouldn’t spend that amount on it and I’m happy I got it at retail back then. But now I find that decision to open is harder and harder, and I might not ever.

I understand the desire to cash out while one can, but the only whiskey I own that comes close to that is Four Roses 2009 Mariage (what I still think is the best bourbon ever made), but I will eventually open and drink it. It might be twenty or thirty years from now, but I am drinking it.

Do Armagnac houses/domaines have recognizable profiles? For example are there specific differences in notes between Chateau de Gaube and Domaine de Busquet that you could expect to find despite the vintage?

Sure, why not.

How many spirits bottles do you tend to have in your personal collection at any given time (more or less)? of that group, what percentage consists of whiskey v. brandy v. other spirits at this point? do you have any favorite spirits categories other than whiskey or brandy (e.g. mezcal or Jamaican rum)?

-JCR 

I don’t know. I’m guessing between 50-100. That’s a big range, I know. The total number is smaller than most people I know who have been in the hobby for as long as I have. I’m not really a hoarder when it comes to spirits. I like to always have certain things on hand and I like variety, but I’m not the guy buying a case of every BTAC every year for fifteen years or whatever.

I like every spirit, pretty much. Most (by a long shot) of my collection is bourbon but I have a growing stash of brandy and always make sure I have multiple bottles of rye, Canadian whisky, Tequila/Mezcal, rum, and Single Malt on hand.

  1. in your opinion are micro-distillers pricing their bourbons too high?
  2. is the bourbon renaissance a bubble? 2a. if it is a bubble how bad will the pop be
  3. are “tech” whiskies like cleveland viable? that is, in the long run, can a “whisky” that’s aged for an hour really compete on price/quality with a bourbon that’s aged for 10 years? in fact, i have seen cleveland priced higher than eagle rare and laughed all the way home.
    regards,
    -dan

1. Yes. 2. No, but there is a bubble on the high end being driven by the secondary market. 2a. I could see a 20-50% drop in price for top shelf tater bait. 3. No. No, that will never happen. If the bubble bursts these operations will be among the first to go under. They’re all examples of the idiocy of the cult of #innovation in late capitalism. “Tastes like shit” becomes “Disruption!” Need to make a better whiskey? No, we just need to “educate” consumers that they should believe our marketing and not their own lying tastebuds. The angels don’t like being cheated.

Simple: 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?

WTF

How does it feel to be the dean of American whiskey bloggers? How much longer do you think you’ll keep going? Do you think blogging about whiskey is still relevant?

I’m not going to lie, it feels really good. I’ll keep posting until they pull the laptop out of my cold dead hands. Whiskey Blogging is only relevant when Dave Driscoll does it.

  1. What is the next big thing in spirits and why is it Armagnac?
  2. Do you believe that dusty bourbon/rye has a familiar profile that you don’t find in today’s products, i.e. “dusty notes”? If so, do you believe that’s due to bottle conditioning or some other factor(s)?
  3. Given the current boom and scarcity of anything allocated or limited edition, are there bottles you regret passing on years ago that you wish you would have bought more of? -signde 

1. Rum is the next big thing in spirits and it always will be. Rum’s problem is also part of what makes it interesting. It isn’t a distinctive product of any one country. Despite what our libertarian friends often say (assuming libertarians have friends for the moment), good state regulation can be beneficial to a spirit. It ensures consistent quality and structures an industry in such a way that makes it easy for enthusiasts to explore and understand. The French wine and brandy regulations are good examples of this as are bourbon and Scotch regulations in the US and UK respectively. No regulatory regime is perfect, but those are mostly good. Example of bad or mediocre regulation are Canadian Whisky, which is governed by a patchwork of regulations on the provincial and national levels and American wine, which has at once too many and not enough appellations, among other problems. Ironically the Canadian VQA system is better than the American system for wine and much better than the Canadian system for whisky!

Rum’s diversity makes it hard to explore. The rewards are great for those with the patience to do so, but it requires time and focus that few people have. There are dozens of countries regulating the manufacture of Rum. Some are good and some are bad, but they’re all different. There’s little consistency from country to country or label to label, even with things as seemingly straightforward as age statements. It’s hard for a newbie to know what she or he is getting when grabbing an unfamiliar brand from the shelf.

Can this be overcome? Maybe. One way to address these problems would be for all the rum producing countries (or at least the big ones) to come together with reps from the countries that are big markets for rum (US, EU, etc) in some kind of rum summit and come to an agreement on consistent labeling and marketing of rum worldwide. In the meantime, writers like Fred Minnick and Josh Miller are doing a great job of educating consumers to help us get over the many obstacles to rum connoisseurship. So will rum ever arrive? I don’t know but I hope so!

I think brandy might be the next thing after rum or at least concurrent with it. Cognac is already ubiquitous and well positioned for a boom as are lower shelf American brandies like Christian Brothers or E & J. Where the biggest expansion may come is in Armagnac and craft American brandy. Too many craft distillers in the US are trying to ride the bourbon and rye wave right now just to stay afloat instead of looking to the future. Brandy is going to be a part of that future. Instead of seeing a crowded market and saying “me too!” distillers in places like Michigan, New York and Southern Ontario should be seizing the opportunities presented by the abundance of fruit in their areas and distilling brandy now so that when the brandy wave hits they will be ready with aged product. As it is, producers in Indiana and Kentucky are getting the better of the Northern fruit belt distillers, often with northern fruit! Brandy should be a part of the distilling identity of Northeastern North America.

Now what was I saying?

2. I do believe that bottle conditioning is a part of it, but never forget that most of these “dusties” were glut era whiskey that was much older than what the label said and older than what is being bottled today.

3. I once had the opportunity to buy half a case of Russell’s Reserve 101 for $35 a bottle. It seemed expensive to me at the time, so I just got two bottles. That was a mistake. I also feel like I had opportunities to stock up on Weller 12 and Pappy 15 that I should have taken but didn’t because, hey that’s really expensive and there’s always next year!

Why “Sku”?

SKU likes to pretend that his initials are S-K-U but he was actually nicknamed SKU after something that happened that happened when he was a toddler. His parents were shopping at a Target store when he wandered off and they couldn’t find him. They searched the store until they heard a squeaky voiced teen stocktaker shout out, “What’s the SKU for THIS?!” They ran over to the aisle, and there was baby SKU sitting on a shelf. Everyone laughed and laughed.

We often talk about the downsides of the bourbon boom? From your perspective, what are some of the positive aspects?

The positive aspecst are more knowledgeable consumers, Four Roses available stateside (I’ve been in it long enough to remember when it wasn’t!), more single barrel selections, more barrel proof iterations, less gas money spent traveling to Kentucky to buy my favorite bottles because Michigan carries almost everything I want, improvements and expansions at the Kentucky distilleries, the possibility of new, good medium sized distilleries coming online, Stitzel-Weller reopening to visitors, the restoration of the Old Taylor Castle, the list goes on. As annoying as things like dropped age statements and the secondary market are, this is a pretty good time to be a bourbon drinker, on the whole.

Does MAO still make you swoon? -Jealous in Jersey

More of a Trotsky guy myself.

 

SKU’s Recent Eats was one of the first independent bourbon blogs by an enthusiast who wasn’t also a whiskey writer or some guy pretending to be a journalist (we all know who I’m talking about). He’s always been a pretty laid back, honest and forthright guy whose work was a big inspiration to me. Cheers Steve!

Free Run Cellars Grappa

Maker: Round Barn, Baroda, Michigan, USA20170504_170405

Grapes: Gewürztraminer, Muscat.

Style: Pomace brandy.

ABV: 40%

Note: I received a 25% media discount on purchases and a free lunch when I purchased this brandy.

Appearance: Clear.

Nose: Alcohol, lavender, antique rose, boxwood, woodruff, mango, pink peppercorns.

Palate: Sweet. Candied orange peel, alcohol.

Finish: Pungent and perfumed. Clears out sinuses and lingers.

Parting words: Free Run is a line of estate spirits and wines from Round Barn in southwestern Michigan. My wife and I (and our baby!) visited there last summer. An account of that, with details on Free Run is here. I reviewed Black Star Farms’ white grappa in 2013 and I loved it. This one is more rose pedals and musk than BSF’s fruity grappa. Some fruit, other than the faint mango note, would have been welcome for balance but this is good all the same. I forgot to write the price down but Free Run brandies are produced in limited runs and are priced accordingly (for a 375 ml bottle). Free Run Cellars Grappa Pomace Brandy is recommended.

Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged Gin

Maker: Smooth Ambler, Maxwelton, West Virginia, USA20170301_170705.jpg

Style: Barrel aged (3 months in ex-Old Scout bourbon barrels) dry gin.

Batch 4, bottled 12/13/2012

ABV: 49.5%

Price: $41 (The Party Source, Newport, Kentucky)

Appearance: Very pale gold, like a young white wine.

Nose: Juniper, cedar, bitter lemon, sweet cinnamon, wet earth.

Palate: Full bodied and medium dry. Candy orange slices, five spice powder, mace.

Finish: Sweet and citrusy.

Mixed: Did well in literally everything I put it into. Great in the cocktails in which barrel aged gin usually excels like perfect martinis, negronis and Princetons. Surprisingly, it’s every bit as good with tonic, juice and in a dry martini. Did very well in a McClary Bros. Ginger & Lemon shrub.

Parting words: Smooth Ambler is best known for their wonderful and popular Old Scout line of MGP-sourced bourbon and rye. They’re not just independent bottlers, though. They also distill spirits themselves. One of those spirits is their well-made Greenbriar Gin. It’s a juniper-heavy, but still full bodied gin good for just about anything. Unlike many gin producers, they use a mixed grain recipe that is similar but not identical to the mashbill used for their Yearling wheated bourbon. That gives it complexity and heft that many craft gins lack.

That heft serves it well when they put it into barrels. The result is a gin with the bitterness and spice one expects from a barrel aged, but with an added edge that allows it to work just as well with tonic and dry vermouth as it does with sweet vermouth and amaro. This is a one-stop gin. No need to keep a bottle of Seagram’s in the fridge  for G & T’s when you have this gin on your bar. That versatility goes a long way towards making it worth a purchase even at $41. It’s like that friend you have who is just as much fun to be around at a rock concert as she is at a house party or an art museum. Smooth Ambler Barrel Aged Gin can go anywhere with flavor. Highly recommended.

 

Sipsmith London Dry Gin

Maker: Sipsmith, Hounslow (Chiswick), Greater London, England, UK. (Beam Suntory)20161220_085558.jpg

ABV: 41.6%

Michigan state minimum: $40

Appearance: Crystal clear.

Nose: Juniper, lime peel, navel orange, alcohol, horehound.

Palate: Full bodied, Orange peel, alcohol, juniper.

Finish: Licorice, alcohol, pepper jam.

Mixed: Out of balance in dry martinis and with tonic. Better with juice and in richer cocktails like Negronis or Princetons.

Parting words: Sipsmith is one of the few micro-distillers that has chosen to focus on gin specifically. Many make it (and make it well) but others are focused on whiskey and see gin and vodka as a way to bring in cash while their whiskey ages. I applaud how gin-focused Sipsmith is and how seriously they seem to take their craft. That care and focus has paid off in a big way for Sipsmith’s founder when they sold out to Beam Suntory for an undisclosed sum earlier this month (December 2016).

All that said, this gin is so unbalanced that I can’t recommend it. I enjoy dry, spicy gins, but Sipsmith London dry takes it too far. It’s all sharp juniper and citrus peel balanced with nothing but alcohol. It’s like a soprano singing a capella at the top of her range for ninety minutes. High notes are good, but absent a chorus with beefy altos and basses, they become noise.

At $40, this gin is on the top shelf, even for micros. That makes its lack of balance even less tolerable. There are dozens of other “craft” gins that manage to be dry without turning into the Mojave desert. Sipsmith London Dry Gin is not recommended.

Gin Head to Head: Kentucky Wild vs 269

KW= Kentucky Wildwp-1473976333900.jpg

269= 269

Makers

KW: New Riff, Newport, Kentucky, USA (The Party Source)

269: Round Barn, Baroda, Michigan, USA

Style

KW: Dry gin from rye spirit.

269: Dry gin from grape spirit.

ABV

KW: 47%

269: 40%

Price

KW: $16/375 ml ($30/750 ml)

269: $20/375 ml

Appearance: Clear (both).

Nose

KW: Varnish, roasted grain, then burn.

269: Plum eau de vie, varnish, alcohol.

Palate

KW: Identical to the nose.

269: Fruity gum, light burn, orange peel.

Finish

KW: Nail polish fumes, then burn.

269: Orange soda, then fades quickly.

Mixed

KW: Pretty good in all applications I tried: with tonic, dry Martini, Negroni, Princeton.

269: Pretty bad in all applications I tried except for the Negroni and Princeton in which it virtually disappeared. Fruity aroma clashed with the bitterness of the tonic and dry vermouth.

Parting words: New Riff is the distillery founded by The Party Source wine, beer, spirits, part supplies, etc superstore in the Cincinnati area. The distillery is a modern building located adjacent to the  TPS parking lot. They make Kentucky Wild, a barrel aged version of it, a rye and a bourbon, as well as bottling an MGPI sourced bourbon called OKI (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana).

I wrote about Round Barn’s distilling program here. 269 uses the same base as their successful DiVine grape vodka. This gin tasted fine at the distillery, but when I had the chance to spend more time with it at home, I liked it less and less. It is little more than a lightly infused version of their vodka. The distillate is firmly in the drivers seat with the only other passenger being an orange peel.

I didn’t care much for either of these, frankly. KW was virtually undrinkable neat but was adequate in cocktails. 269 was better neat, but was a cocktail killer at a wimpy proof and high price. Kentucky Wild is mildly recommended for cocktails and 269 is not recommended for anything.

 

 

Freshwater Superior Single Barrel Rum

Maker: New Holland, Holland, Michigan, USAwp-1472334213166.jpg

Age: NAS (at least 1 y/o)

ABV: 52.5%

Michigan state minimum: $40

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Light molasses, vanilla cream, leather, alcohol.

Palate: Full bodied. Oak, then brown sugar, cassia, alcohol, vanilla bean.

Finish: Turbinado sugar, cognac, alcohol. Long lasting.

Parting words: New Holland’s Freshwater line is named in honor of three of the four great lakes that border Michigan. The line includes Huron White (hard to find, possibly discontinued), Michigan Amber and Superior Single Barrel. Superior is best and the most expensive of the line. It drinks dangerously easy for 52.5% ABV. I purchased it for a Michigan themed party and it went very fast. I even had guests come up to be and tell me how great it was and how could they get themselves a bottle!

I didn’t do much mixing with it because at $40 it falls into the sipping rum category for me.It does very well neat, on the rocks and/or with a squeeze of lime. It’s complex and balanced, sweet, spicy and vanilla-y. It’s everything you want in a micro-distilled sipping rum. Freshwater Superior Rum is highly recommended.

A Visit to Round Barn

Once a summer, our family has what we call Grandparent Camp. We send our daughter to Indianapolis for a week to spend time with the grandparents, all four of them. When we were thinking about what to do that week, returning to Lake Michigan Shore wine country was on the top of the list. The wrinkle was that we would have the baby with us, since he’s still too little for Grandparent Camp. As most parents can tell you, taking a baby along on trips is actually much easier than taking a toddler or an older child, though. The baby doesn’t complain about getting bored or knock over shelves or have temper tantrums. If the baby cries changing the diaper or feeding will usually do the trick.

Anyway, we wanted to visit some new places but also hit some old favorites in our limited two-night stay. On the way over, we stopped at Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo for a tasty crepe supper and some wine tasting. The whites were good as was the service. Friendly, homey, neighborhood type place. The next day (Thursday) was our busy day. We started off with a visit to Fenn Valley in Fennville (north of the cluster of wineries around Baroda but worth the trip), got lunch at Crane’s Pie Pantry (good pie and cider but mediocre food otherwise) and then headed back south stopping at old favorites Domaine Berrien (great as always), neighboring Lemon Creek (cozy tasting room) and newbies Dablon with their beautiful hilltop tasting room.

I had wanted to do a “A Visit To…” profile on one of the LMS wineries and I thought Round

wp-1470317645093.jpg
The round barn

Barn would be the perfect choice. I had a nice conversation with winemaker Matt and then Brand Ambassador Bethany of Round Barn/Free Run Cellars at the Michigan Wine Showcase so I thought I’d send Bethany and email and ask if she’d be available to give us a tour for blogging purposes. A man named RJ replied that Bethany was no longer brand ambassador, but he was now and he’d be able to give us a tour. Unfortunately, he ended up having a conflict himself, and we got our tour from veteran tour guide Jessica.

Round Barn opened as a winery in 1992. It was founded by Rick Moersch, who was winemaker at nearby Tabor Hill at the time. He had owned vineyards since 1981, so he used them as the basis for his own winery which he named Heart of the Vineyard. In 1997 the round barn was purchased and moved from Rochester, Indiana to the property where it was reassembled by Amish builders. Rick intended it to serve as a home for a brandy distillery. In 2004 the winery was renamed after the remarkable building. The spirits and brewing program began then as well.

wp-1470882804092.jpg
Tasting bar

We arrived at Round Barn shortly after opening. The place has changed quite a bit since our first visit several years ago. When we last visited, the eponymous round barn was used for production and the tasting room was in the other barn. The round one has been beautifully remodeled and now serves as the tasting room. The bar runs in a circle around the interior with bottles on the wall opposite. The second level has another bar

wp-1470317794305.jpg
Bottles

and six compartments for small group tastings. The group tastings are a popular bachelorette party activity according to Jessica.

Our tasting was on ground level and went through the usual tasting procedure with a few add ons. The system has been in use since mid May. You can see the tasting menu and the format they use in the photo. The menu changes wp-1470317891964.jpgmonthly. Nothing we tasted was bad, but the standouts were Vineyard Tears (dry Riesling/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend), Albariño (American, but estate grown grapes are in the mix), estate Merlot (we had a lot of  Merlot on this trip!), Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (also estate). Farm Market Blueberry and the wine-based Black Walnut Crème were standouts in the dessert arena (also the name of my new gameshow). When I mentioned that I wanted to try the Farm Market Blueberry, Jessica and had a short discussion about fruit wines. We agreed that fruit wines are really their own category that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of wine grape wines.* As I put it, it would be silly to say that a Chardonnay was bad because it lacked hop character. It’s just as silly to dismiss fruit wines for tasting too much like fruit. That’s entirely the point.

According to another employee, Round Barn has eighteen acres of vines, plus an additional four used for Free Run cellars (see below). Another two acres are used for something else, but I forgot to write it down in my notes (fruit maybe?). The vineyards didn’t suffer much damage in the polar vortex, according to Jessica. The only losses were their black currants, which I thought were illegal in Michigan, but can be grown with a special license.

We also tasted their spirits. The rum and agave spirit (distilled from imported agave juice) are both unaged and of mixer quality (as you can see above, those spirits are offered in cocktail form in the tastings). The real standout was the bourbon which is a very pleasant surprise. It is of limited production and will be reviewed in the near future. They also produce an aged brandy and a “grappa” but those are under the Free Run label and not currently offered for sale at the Round Barn tasting room. They are available at the Public House (see below). According to Jessica, there are no plans to produce an aged rum or agave spirit. There is also a blended American Whiskey on the menu that is a blend of rye and bourbon, according to RJ. I did not taste it. An Applejack is in the works too, made using locally grown apples.

Round Barn’s best known spirit is DeVine Vodka, made from grapes. As I’ve ranted about on Twitter a few times, I don’t understand the desire to take perfectly good fruit like grapes or apples and turn them into a spirit that is by nature flavorless. It’s always seemed like a waste, but as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success and DeVine Vodka has been a success. They recently followed up the success of DeVine with 269 Gin, named after their area code. It’s a basket infused gin made using the grape spirit used for the vodka and will be reviewed in the future as well.

After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-

wp-1470343803649.jpg
Beer Menu

roundbarn (built in 1907 on the property), now christened the Round Barn. Upstairs is a smallish bar and gift shop with seven Round Barn beers on tap and all their spirits behind the bar. It’s a decent size space with a good sized deck attached. It seems like it would have a good flow of people between the two spaces when busy (and warm). We tried a sample of Vanilla ‘Stache, a vanilla porter, there. The vanilla comes through but in a subdued way. I liked it.

The next stop was the production facility. It’s a non-descript industrial building set several yards away from the barns. It houses the winemaking equipment, automated bottling line, still and oak barrels, (all French for the wine). Since 2014, all brewing has been located adjacent to the Round Barn Public House in downtown Baroda (such as it is). That was our next stop. RJ’s meeting was over so he was able to meet us there.

The Public House is a red building with a bar and a large seating area and a large covered patio. It once served as a tool and die shop, owned by RJ’s father, as a matter of fact. The food is limited but good. Sandwiches mostly. Our lunch (RJ comped us for this) was good. They exclusively serve their own beer and spirits. With my lunch (turkey Bahn Mi and a cup of chili) I ordered a pint of Escaped Goat, the Hef PA. It was good. I told RJ that I was a fan of wheats, so brought me a couple samples of their current wheats (Vacation wheat ale and Straw Beery Strawberry wheat ale, both good) plus a couple experiments. The first experiment was a Saison they had been working on. It was good, but was not as flavorful as I had hoped. The second was a dry, tannic cider with Balaton cherry juice added. It was really intriguing. The result was closer to a sour beer than a fruit cider. It was not ready for prime time, but it had a lot of potential that I hope is realized soon!

The one aspect of Round Barn’s business that we didn’t get to see was Free Run Cellars. Free Run is a multifaceted project. The name comes from the juice produced from the initial pressing of the wine, called free run juice, but also from the Rick’s sons (Matt and Christian) being given “free run” in the Round Barn Cellars. All the wines under the Free Run label are from free run juice (appropriately), and are single vineyard, estate wines. Free Run also has its own facility (opening later this month) that will host four wine, four appetizer pairing tastings with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.

Many businesses that try to do a lot of different things end up letting their ambition getting the best of them. They are mediocre at everything instead of being good at one or two things. Round Barn does not fall into this trap. Some products are better than others, obviously, and wine is what they do best, but their beers and spirits were good too, some of them very good. If anything maybe they to be more ambitious with their beers and spirits. An aged rum could be very good. Ramping up their production of brandy might be a good idea as well. Bourbon is hot right now, but rum is also popular and getting more so. Brandy is on the way up as well. Copper & Kings in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention for bottling and selling Michigan-made brandy. Michigan producers need to be getting that attention.

Beautiful grounds, well run facilities and delicious products. Round Barn does it all and does it well. A visit to Round Barn is highly recommended.

Note: I received a free lunch at the Public House and a 25% media discount on purchases on this visit.

*”Wine grape wines” may seem redundant but the phrasing is intentional. In my opinion, wine made from grapes like Concord, Niagara or table grape varieties belongs in the “fruit wine” category. While they are grapes, they are not grown for the express purpose of winemaking. The line gets fuzzy when it comes to some native North American grapes like Muscadine that are eaten as fruit but also have a long history of being made into wine. Maybe this discussion would make a good My Two Ounces post.

Three way head to head micro-rye tasting: Journeyman vs Few vs Union Horse

J= Journeyman Last Feather Rye, batch 17wp-1468093192015.jpg

F= FEW Rye, batch 15

UH= Union Horse Reunion Straight Rye, batch 1

Maker

J: Journeyman, Three Oaks, Michigan, USA

F: FEW, Evanston, Illinois, USA

UH: Union Horse, Lenexa, Kansas, USA

Age

J: NAS

F: “At least one year”*

UH: “Over two years”*

*Age statements like these are not in line with regulatory standards

Proof

J: 90 (45% ABV)

F: 93 (46.5% ABV)

UH: 93 (46.5% ABV)

Price

J: $50 (Michigan State Minimum)

F: $60 (Michigan State Minimum)

UH: $39 (MSRP)

Note: Received a complimentary bottle of UH from FleischmanHillard PR for review purposes.

Appearance

J: Medium copper.

F: A little lighter but still copper.

UH: Quite a bit darker. Shiny auburn.

Nose

J: Bananas, cherry bubble gum, alcohol, oak.

F: Christmas tree scented candle, orange peel.

UH: Cut grass, toasted grain. Similar to Canandian Club.

Palate

J: Banana, black licorice, alcohol.

F: Mild. Peppermint.

UH: Full bodied and sweet. Brown sugar, oak, alcohol.

Finish

J: Big licorice that lingers.

F: Spearmint gum.

UH: Grassy and sweet, then Grape-Nuts cereal.

Mixed: With ginger ale, in a Manhattan and a Sazerac

J: Brought big licorice to all three. Excelled in the manhattan.

F: Did fine in everything. Nothing offensive.

UH: Same as F above.

Parting words: This is one of those head to head tastings that ends up making me mad. The overall winner was Last Feather Rye, but with a couple concerns. I loved the licorice and banana flavors but those are flavors I don’t expect out of rye whiskey. Nothing wrong with that on its own, but those flavors combined with the absence of the word “straight” on the front label makes me wonder if Journeyman is flavoring its rye, a la Templeton. This is legal, but should be disclosed to consumers. If I had my act together, I would have emailed or called them to ask, but I didn’t think of that possibility until now. I’ll try to get that information in the near future. To be fair, FEW isn’t straight either, but with FEW there’s nothing in the glass outside of the typical range of flavors for American ryes.

FEW Rye was ok, but nothing too extraordinary. It drank like a less refined version of Bulleit rye. The mintiness does fine in cocktails but it was overwhelming neat. Reunion was a horse of a different color. Its profile was closer to a Canadian blended rye than any American rye I’ve had recently. It’s better balanced than FEW, but not as flavorful as Last Feather.

The elephant in the room with all of these is the price. Journeyman is $50, which is too high for a whiskey that isn’t a straight. FEW is $60, which is just plain dumb. Reunion is priced better and is a straight, but is still pushing it when it comes to price.

Journeyman is mildly recommended, FEW is not recommended and Reunion is recommended (at or near MRSP)

Union Horse Reserve Straight Bourbon

Maker: Union Horse, Lenexa, Kansas, USA.wp-1466818295612.jpg

Age: “Over two years old” (includes bourbon up to 5 y/o, according to marketing materials)

Batch 2

Proof: 92 (46% ABV)

MSRP: $36-$38 ($50 at Drink Up NY!)

Note: Complementary 750 ml bottle for review received via FleishmanHillard PR in Kansas City, Missouri.

Appearance: Bright copper.

Nose: Cut lumber, varnish, cayenne powder, vanilla.

Palate: alcohol, vanilla custard, caramel apple, red pepper flakes.

Finish: Long and hot but with a strong underpinning of sweet vanilla.

Mixed: Did very well in an Old Fashioned, Holdfast, Boulevardier, with Benedictine, with Cola and with ginger ale. The sharp lumber aroma cut through the sweetness and other strong flavors nicely. Threw my Manhattan out of whack, though.

Parting words: Union Horse Distilling is a microdistillery in the greater Kansas City area that has been operating since 2010. It’s family owned, and the master distiller is co-founder Patrick Garcia. All spirits (bourbon, rye, white whiskey and vodka) are distilled and bottled in house. More information on their operation is here.

I had never heard of Union Horse before I received an email from a member of their PR firm asking if I was interested a bottle of this and their rye to review. As you know, dear readers, I don’t get a lot of samples and given my lukewarm review of the Old Hickory Blended Bourbon I wasn’t sure I would get any more. The first thing I did after opening it was mix myself a Manhattan.  Then I got scared. The sharp lumber aroma really overwhelmed everything else and I found myself wondering if I should email my contact back and tell her that I didn’t like it and wasn’t going to review it. I stuck it out though, and everything else I tried it in was better. Maybe the aroma settled down as the whiskey breathed or the brand of Vermouth I used clashed with it. I’m not sure what happened there.

When I tried it neat today, that lumber note was right up front and I got scared again. Thankfully, it’s counteracted by creamy vanilla and spice in the nose and it’s barely evident on the palate at all. The finish is hot but pleasant.

Union Horse is unrefined, but that’s to be expected from a distillery that’s less than a decade old. After six years in business they’re already making whiskey that is miles ahead of most distilleries their age. Unlike many of their peers, they seem to be committed to improving and holding back stock to produce good, mature whiskey. As a greater amount of older stock gets into the mix, hopefully the sharp wood will fade away and the delicious dessert flavors that lurk underneath will come into full view. As it is (at MSRP) Union Horse Straight Bourbon Whiskey is recommended.

Railroad Gin

Maker: Detroit City Distillery, Detroit, Michigan, USAwp-1466106559159.jpg

Style: London Dry

ABV: 44%

Michigan State Minimum: $35

Appearance: Crystal clear.

Nose: Juniper, iris root, citrus peel.

Palate: Full bodied. Alcohol and sweetness. Nothing else.

Finish: Juniper, orange, burn.

Mixed: Did fine in everything.

Parting words: There are two distilleries in the City of Detroit: Two James and Detroit City. The best way to describe the differences between the two (other than having different names, ownership and locations) is that Two James is a distillery with a bar and Detroit City is a bar with a distillery. The bar seems to be the driving force for DCD. All their spirits are meant to be mixed and are at their best when consumed that way. It’s a fun concept for a bar, but there’s little going on there to excite spirits enthusiasts.

There’s little going on in this gin to excite me either. There’s nothing wrong with it. It bears a resemblance to Beefeater and other big brand gins and performs as well as they do in cocktails. The problem is that this costs $35 and Beefeater costs $19. At $35 Railroad Gin is up against products like St. George’s gins or Hendrick’s. It can’t compete with either of those, even after adding a few extra bucks for the pleasure of supporting a local business. It’s not bad enough to slap with a “not recommended” so Railroad Gin is only mildly recommended.