Maker: Alexander Murray & Co, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
Age: NAS (at 3 y/o)
Michigan state minimum: $23/1.75 liter (~$10/750 ml; only available at Costco)
Appearance: Medium copper (caramel color likely added)
Nose: Vanilla custard, lemon zest, butterscotch.
Palate: Full-bodied, mild and dry. Toffee, oak, alcohol, touch of smoke.
Finish: Alcohol, butterscotch, oak.
Parting words: Costco sources its basic blended Scotch from Alexander Murray & Co, an independent bottler out of Aberdeen. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this blend. It has two things going for it: it’s pretty good and it’s very cheap. I like it best in hot toddies (great for sipping out of a travel mug while the kids trick-or-treat) but it does well in other cocktails, with soda or neat in a tumbler. Kirkland Blended Scotch is 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.
Finish: Fairly hot, fades into fruit and leather (not to be confused with fruit leather).
Mixed: Made great Manhattans and Boulevardiers.
Parting words: I thought I had reviewed the last Old Forester Single Barrel I purchased from The Party Source (TPS) but I haven’t been able to find that review so I’ll just have to go by memory. That bottle was the fruitiest bourbon I can remember having. It was jammy with a touch of oak, like a Michigan Pinot Noir. This bottle is much more balanced, and even more enjoyable. It’s fruit-forward, but backed up with power, spice and oak. It’s a good example of why one should never turn up one’s nose at a big store retailer pick, especially not a big store in Kentucky. Old Forester Single Barrel, TPS pick is highly recommended,
Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)
Style: High corn bourbon.
Age: Around 11 y/o (per store owner)
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan state minimum (for standard ERSB): $31
Thanks to Marshall for the gift of a 375 ml bottle!
Appearance: Dark copper.
Nose: Leather shop, charred corn on the cob, blackberry.
Palate: Medium-bodied. Fruitier with less tannin than the nose. Alcohol, cherry, blackberry, vanilla, oak.
Finish: Vanilla custard. Medium length.
Parting words: Rural Inn is a small liquor store and bar east of Downtown Indianapolis at the corner Rural and Michigan. It has been in operation since 1949, but it seems older than that. I was first brought there by friend-of-the-blog Marshall, even though I drove past it frequently in High School, usually en route from my parents’ home in Broad Ripple to the house of a southeast side girlfriend (there were a few).
Owner Ray has a revolving selection of store picks and every one I’ve had has been good. This Eagle Rare is one of the best and most surprising. Fruit is a rare set of notes to find in bourbon, but it does appear from time to time. The fruitiest bourbons I’ve had have been Old Forester and Four Roses single barrel selections. I have tasted cherry in Buffalo Trace products before but it was more cherry cough syrup than fresh fruit (looking at you Charter 101). I’ve never gotten anything fruity in Eagle Rare Single Barrel so this was a very pleasant surprise. I don’t think there is anymore of this selection left (it was purchased in 2016) but be sure to pick up an ER the next time Rural Inn picks one! Eagle Rare Single Barrel, Rural Inn selection is highly recommended.
For a fun head to head tasting featuring a selection from another Indianapolis store, check out this video review from the summer of 2013 filmed at Walloon Lake, Michigan with Liz, Amy, Jennifer and myself.
Maker: Crown Royal Distillery, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada (Diageo).
Style: Canadian rye.
Michigan state minimum: $55
Appearance: Light copper.
Nose: Alcohol, roast corn on the cob, bubble gum.
Palate: Grape bubble gum, alcohol, touch of oak.
Finish: Aniseed candy, burn.
Mixed: Adds a fruity undertone to Manhattans, perfect Manhattans, and Old Fashioneds. Was also able to stand up to Benedictine when I used it in a Monte Carlo. Be sure to account for high proof if mixing this. It can sneak up on you.
This whisky is closer to Northern Harvest Rye than the standard Crown Royal or the Reserve. The barrels used for these retailer/hand selected barrel CRs are flavoring whiskies. Like Scotch and Irish blends, Canadian blended whiskies are blends of relatively flavorless base whisky with bold flavoring whisky, often but not always made with rye.
Tippins is located on Saline road, on the outskirts of Ann Arbor Michigan. They’re known for good service, good whiskey selections and owner Dominic Aprea’s, uh, let’s say “eccentric” online persona. Aside from an irritating snub on FB, I haven’t had any negative experiences with him, although I have witnessed some strange online behavior from him. At any rate, the man knows how to pick a barrel. As with all CR offerings, the price is high, but $55 isn’t too bad for over 50% ABV. Crown Royal, Tippins Hand Selected Barrel is recommened.
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.
Maker: Barton 1792, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)
Michigan state minimum: $42
Ray= Selected by Ray (Rural Inn, Indianapolis, Indiana)
RW= Red Wagon (Troy, Michigan)
Ray: Light copper
RW: Darker, medium copper.
Ray: Alcohol, grape bubblegum, leather.
RW: Over-toasted walnuts, cut grass, caramel.
Ray: Sweet and fruity, then burn. With water it becomes sweeter with more vanilla and less fruit.
RW: Caramel apple, oak, burn. Oakier with vanilla and classic old bourbon flavors when water is added.
Ray: Brown sugar, then burn. Water brings the fruit back out.
RW: A little chewy, then lingering warmth.
Parting words: The Sazerac corporation purchased the Barton-1792 distillery from Constellation brands in 2009. Their primary motivator may have been Barton’s tall airy warehouses but they were surely after 1792 Ridgemont Reserve as well. The brand started out as something of a Woodford Reserve ripoff (see here) but soon settled into its own niche as a decent selling upper-middle shelfer. Sazerac capitalized on that success and added a series of line extensions and opened up the single barrel expression for selections by retailers and enthusiast groups.
These two barrels are good examples of how much variation there can be, even in those breezy rickhouses. Ray’s was fresh and fruity while the Red Wagon barrel was chewy and mature. The Red Wagon barrel might be older, but it’s more likely that the oakiness came from being on a hot upper floor. I was able to taste Ray’s before I bought it, at an informal tasting at the Rural Inn around Thanksgiving. I bought the Red Wagon bottle blind, but I’ve enjoyed their selections before. If I had to pick one that I enjoyed more, it would be Ray’s but both are tasty, worth the money and worth seeking out. Both these 1792 Single Barrel selections are recommended.
Palate: Medium bodied. Green apple on entry, buttercream, persimmon pudding.
Finish: Big and creamy. Oakm then pineapple upsidedown cake.
Parting words: Long time readers will remember that Knappogue Castle was one of the first Irish whiskeys I really fell in love with. The love affair continues with this beauty.
A & L did a great job selecting this barrel. It’s creamy, fruity and complex, with power rare for Irish Whiskeys. In 2013 I wrote the following about the standard Knappogue 12: “My only quibble is the low proof. I would love to be able to taste this at cask strength, or at least 46% ABV.” I’m glad they took my words to heart.
These Knappogue selections are rare, but if you find one, I highly recommend that you buy it!
Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail, Elgin, Moray, Scotland.
Distiller: Caol Ila, Port Askaig, Argyll, Scotland, UK
Age: 8 y/o (distilled July 2006, bottled August 2014)
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.