Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Sixteen

This is it! The end! The last 12 bottles in the unfathomably ambitious Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project have arrived. I’ll be offering some in-depth coverage of the lessons learned from the project in the months to come — more on this later — but for now it’s time to consider this last dozen whiskeys on their own merits. Meanwhile, hats off and glasses raised to Buffalo Trace for putting on such an impressive and — likely — industry-shaping experiment.

Need a primer on the Project? Here’s the entire Single Oak Project:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve
Round Thirteen
Round Fourteen
Round Fifteen

This final round is a mixed bag of basically the leftovers in the project. The only constants are stave seasoning (6 months) and barrel char level (#4). Everything else — recipe, entry proof, wood grain, warehouse type, and tree cut varies. As always, all expressions are bottled at 90 proof.

There are no major standouts in this round, but there’s plenty of intrigue in the mix. As for the field as a whole, barrel #82 remains the fan favorite among all the bourbons released to date, with #109 and #111 close behind.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #7 – A melange of aromas here, but heavy on the mint. The body has more of a chocolate mint character to it, but some racy heat and a slightly odd oatmeal character underpins the finish. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 15 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #20 – Well-rounded, with touches of cinnamon atop some traditional, lumber-heavy notes. The body heads strongly into sawdust territory, with some citrus notes on the back end. Fine, but undistinguished. B (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #39 – Gentle nose, heavier on lumberyard notes than anything else. There’s some cola amidst the vanilla caramel notes and a touch of citrus oil on the very back end, but otherwise this bourbon comes off with a bit of a thud. B- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #52 – A racier expression on the nose, with peppery notes and some cereal character behind that, but it settles into a creamy caramel character as the body takes hold. Quite a pleasure, with two faces to consider. A- (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #71 – A little raw on the nose, this whiskey seems like it will be a fire bomb on the palate, but that’s not the case for the most part. Caramel, cinnamon, and red hots candies are all in the mix, and working well together. The finish is a bit hot, with some rougher granary notes dominating. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #84 – Engaging from the start, a little minty, with a little butterscotch character to it. Lovely and dessert-like on the palate, with an echo of that mint on the finish. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #103 – A fireside whiskey, almost smoky at times. The palate’s a little thin, but it does offer some red fruit and curious berry notes to spice up the vanilla and lumberyard notes on the body. Particularly fruity on the finish. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #116 – Chewy with cereal, but layered with menthol notes. Rounded on the palate, it’s got fruitcake and nutty elements that fade with the arrival of a more grain alcohol character on the back end. B (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 12 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #135 – More citrus here than most of the other expressions in this round, with a bit of butterscotch to back it up. The finish is warming, and quite drying at times. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #148 – Oaky, and a bit racy. Plenty of red pepper here but the dusty, vanilla-tinged caramel that makes up the core makes it both balanced enough and worthwhile on its merits. B+ (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #168 – Plenty of lumber at first, but a unique element of hazelnuts emerges if you give this whiskey some time, a bit of Nutella character that lingers for quite awhile before some cayenne pepper notes kick back up on the back end. A little weird, but worth sampling for its uniqueness alone. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 8 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #180 – A simpler whiskey, without a lot of classic bourbon character to it. Here I get more simple lumberyard notes, some cereal, and mixed fruit, but it’s missing that vanilla slug, particularly on the rustic back end. B (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 10 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Adelbert’s Brewery The Traveler, Tripel B, and Philsophizer

adelbert's philosophizer

Austin, Texas-based Adelbert’s Brewery specializes in Belgian-style, bottle-conditioned ales in Big Boy, 25.4 oz. bottles. To a T, these are all big, burly beers that you should probably have a beard to drink properly, but I did my clean-shaven best nonetheless. Thoughts on three of the brewery’s current lineup follow.

Adelbert’s Brewery The Traveler Belgian-Style India Pale Ale – Bready and full of malt, this is not your father’s IPA. Bitter up front but subtly sweet with notes of canned peaches and applesauce. The finish returns to that chewy malt, adding in some mushroomy, forest floor notes for good measure. It’s a very different IPA than you’re probably used to. 7% abv. B+ / $10

Adelbert’s Brewery Tripel B Belgian-Style Tripel – As the name suggests, this is a Belgian tripel, hugely malty from the start and punched up with notes of applesauce, apple cider, and orange peel. Honeyed in both flavor and body, this almost-syrupy brew bubbles up some notes of baking spices as it evolves in the glass before finishing on a chewy note that recalls banana and bubble gum. 9.3% abv. Reviewed: Batch #25. B+ / $14

Adelbert’s Brewery Philosophizer Belgian-Style Saison – This beautiful, farmhouse-style ale really surprised me. The malty aroma is punchy and full of fresh-cut grain notes, backed with touches of citrus peel, white pepper, and cloves. As the beer warms, a gentle earthiness develops in the glass. There’s plenty of all of the above on the palate, with even more fruit and a chewy, body rich with malt. That spice lives a lingering impression on the finish, with just enough juicy orange and backing spice to beg for another sip. 7.8% abv. Reviewed: Batch #16. A / $11

adelbertsbeer.com

Review: Founders Brewing Dirty Bastard, Porter, and Imperial Stout

founders porterGrand Rapids, Michigan is home to Founders Brewing, the company behind these three chilly-weather brews, all excellent choices for knocking back while you’re sucking out the last of the heat from those fireplace embers.

Founders Brewing Dirty Bastard – A Scotch style ale, loaded with malt, dried figs, sawdust notes, and heavy chocolate overtones. Filling but wintry, soothing but with a bitter edge, almost like a very dark chocolate. Initially a bit overwhelming, Dirty Bastard manages to settle down eventually — particularly with food — to finish its tenure as a welcome, bittersweet companion. 8.5% abv. B+

Founders Brewing Porter – A silky, chocolate-heavy porter, this is a sexy little number with substantial length and depth. Roasted chocolate notes and just a hint of coffee help balance a chewy, malty body, but it’s the solid, well-curated hops selection that brings on the bitter finish, and turns this brew from a curious dessert concoction into a more thoughtful beer. 6.5% abv. A-

Founders Brewing Imperial Stout – Chewy, chocolatey and rich, this is a classic imperial stout, loaded with notes of dried fruit, prunes, and figs, lending some unctuous sweetness to a lightly bitter, heavily malty, unmistakably stouty brew. Very rich and filling, this heavy hitter is a bit like trudging through molasses in every sense of the word. In a good way. 10.5% abv. B+

each about $10 per six- or four-pack / foundersbrewing.com

Review: Wines of Frei Brothers, 2015 Releases

Frei Brothers Reserve 2013 R. River Valley-Sonoma County Pinot Noir 750mlThree new wines from Sonoma’s Frei Brothers, which seemingly only has a “Reserve” label. Thoughts follow…

2013 Frei Brothers Chardonnay Russian River Valley Sonoma County – A big, slap-your-mama California Chardonnay, but one that’s not without some charm. The big vanilla is kept in check by some lemon and orange notes, with a pervasive apple cider character. There’s enough acidity on the back end to give this wine a fair amount of life, but given the lingering sweetness, I’d still reserve it for the dessert course. B- / $20

2012 Frei Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma County – Initially very fruity, to the point of being jammy, this wine eventually settles down to reveal lots of black fruit, dark chocolate, and coffee bean notes. I get hints of cinnamon and allspice, but by and large it’s a chewy, Napa-style cabernet with gentle tannins, modest sweetness, and a lengthy, dense finish. B+ / $27

2012 Frei Brothers Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County – A workmanlike Pinot, drinkable but too thin, simply lacking in enough body. The fruit is there, but it’s restrained — cherries and some raspberry notes — dialed back and held in check for a short, but innocuous, finish. B / $27

freibrothers.com

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Lagavulin 12 Bottle & Box

A 12-year-old expression of Lagavulin is a perennial part of the Diageo Special Editions, and sure enough, this is the 13th Lagavulin 12 to be released in the series, again vatted from refill American Oak casks.

As usual, it’s a classic expression of Lagavulin, light on its feet (and a gentle yellow in color), radiant with coal fire smoke on the nose, some vegetal undertones, and a squeeze of bright lemon. The body is pushy with peat, hot and fiery, but tempered with a sweetness akin to confectioner’s sugar and gingerbread notes. The finish is as salty as the sea, just classic Islay through and through.

It’s easy to enjoy Lagavulin 12 every year if you’re a peat fan, but at this point the experience is becoming a little old hat for the whiskies in this line. I’m just having a hard time sustaining the excitement about younger Lagavulin (with a very consistent experience) at a higher price year after year. And with that said, if something’s released annually like clockwork, shouldn’t it really get a permanent home on the release calendar instead of being a “Special Edition?” Just askin’.

108.8 proof.

B+ / $130 / malts.com

Review: American Juice Company Mixers

532960_513174115413557_479694200_n

With their goofy names, one wouldn’t expect the fruit juice mixes from the American Juice Company to be upscale products designed for the back bar. These are all-natural products but, they’re designed to last for the long haul. Shelf-stable, they’re good for six months (before opening) without refrigeration.

AJC produces offerings on a rotating, seasonal basis, and you can get a (pricy) sampler of four of them through the company’s website. The company sent us its current offerings to tinker with. Here’s what we thought about them all.

Winter Blend (Louis Applestrong) – Golden delicious apples, citrus zests, and winter spices – Chunky, almost like a watery applesauce. Zesty with baking spices, and quite exotic in a beverage. The citrus peel on the back end adds some nice acidity, but ultimately this is more breakfasty than wintry. In a good way. B+

Chuck Blueberry – Blueberry and apple puree. A little overwhelming. The combo of blueberry and apple makes this come across a bit like cough syrup — which is surprising, because blueberry is never a flavor that medicine manufacturers are going for. It grows on you, but ultimately comes across as a bit artificial-tasting (though I know it’s not!), with a bit of a cloying finish. B

Lady Lychee – Lychee, rose infusion, and strawberries. Moderately thick, but not to the level of the Louis Applestrong. Don’t let the “rose infusion” scare you. Here, a light floral note is a lovely foil to the lychee and strawberry character that dominates, giving this a sweet yet lightly aromatic character. Probably my favorite of the bunch and something I’d definitely mix with. A

Ginger Gershwin – Spicy ginger, orange, and lemon. Spicy ginger, to be sure. This is extremely racy stuff, highlighting ginger, ginger, and more ginger. The citrus shines through for just a brief moment somewhere in the middle of the spice. Throw a little rum in this and you’re golden. A-

$55 for the sample box (four 4 oz samplers) / americanjuicecompany.com

Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 15 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Caol Ila 15YO Bottle & Box

Caol Ila is an active Islay distillery, and any Scotch nut knows that means peat and lots of it. But once each year Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky, just for kicks. This is one of those releases, a 15 year old “Highland style” spirit distilled in 1998. This expression, #3 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition series, was aged fully in first fill ex-Bourbon casks.

This is the cheapest whisky in this year’s series, and likely the most readily available. It’s also one of the least dazzling, though it’s certainly palatable.

The nose is a curious mix of oregano and fresh bread — together these give the spirit a bit of the essence of a pizza parlor. This doesn’t really prepare you for the palate, which is blazing with heat up front and rough on the throat on the back. In between there hints of golden raisins, bright heather, and, yes, wisps of smoke, but they’re hard to parse before the sheer booziness of the alcohol knocks you down a peg.

Water helps considerably. With tempering, the Caol Ila Unpeated reveals notes of fresh sweet cereal, marshmallow, almond, and a bit of rose petals. With water, the whisky becomes almost enchanting, transformed from its hardscrabble punchiness into something approaching delicate.

120.78 proof.

B+ / $120 / malts.com

Review: Bender’s Whiskey Small Batch Rye 7 Years Old Batch #2

bender's whiskey

What we’ve got here is Canadian rye, aged for seven years, then shipped off to San Francisco’s Treasure Island for bottling by a craft distilling operation, Treasure Island Distillery. The label says seven years, but actually for this second batch, the mashbill has been updated (now it’s 92% 9 year old rye, 8% 13 year old corn) and, as you can see, it’s technically a nine year old spirit, not merely seven. Distilled first in a column still, it goes through a second pot distillation before aging.

Bender’s a real guy — name’s Carl Bender — and we got to try his baby.

For a seven (er, nine-plus) year old whiskey, Bender’s has a lot of youth on it. The nose offers cereal notes, but it’s tempered with menthol while being punchy with earthy, leathery, hogo notes. The body kicks things off with baking spices and a bit of apple pie character before quickly chasing those earlier earthier elements down the rabbit hole. Look for cigar box, wet leather, some mushroom, and a bit of rhubarb. Over time these seemingly disparate elements begin to meld and merge together, ultimately creating a fairly compelling whole.

In a world of interesting ryes, Bender’s finds a unique home. Worth a spin.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2, bottle #3415.

B+ / $42 / bendersrye.com

Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

Majeste_XO_White Background

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian Blonde, Hermit Ale, and Boysenberry Sour

Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian-Style Blonde

Three limited release beers from our friends in San Jose at Hermitage Brewing Company. Thoughts follow.

Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian-Style Blonde – A chewy, malty brew, this Belgian blonde is drier than most beers of this style, offering restrained notes of fresh barley, just a touch of dried fruit, and gentle hops on the back end. The finish is leaner than I’d like — while it offers a crisp and mostly refreshing conclusion, it fades away too fast to leave much of an impression. 6% abv. B / $NA (22 oz. bottle)

Hermitage Brewing Barrel Aged Hermit Ale – An old-school pale ale inspired by a late 19th century style of beer (akin to a strong ale), aged in bourbon barrels for 6 months. Thick and brooding, this intensely bitter ale offers notes of tree bark, licorice, and burnt toast before turning to a slightly sweet, somewhat pruny body. The finish is lasting and mildly syrupy, offering light vanilla notes driven by the bourbon barrels mingled with a lasting bitter edge. It grows on you. 7% abv. B+ / $NA (500ml bottle)

Hermitage Brewing Boysenberry American Sour Ale – This sour, boysenberry-infused beer spends two years in California wine barrels before bottling. Indeed, it tastes like a lot like a young wine, huge with tart fruit, but tempered with a yeasty fizz and intense notes of sour fruit candies — think mouth-puckering raspberry and strawberry sours. More instantly drinkable than many sour beers — in an old-school soda fountain kind of way, with quite the punchy pop on the backside. 6.5% abv. B / $NA (750ml bottle)

hermitagebrewing.com