Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Brown Rice

brown rice

Four our fourth review in Jim Beam’s 6-whiskey Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection we’re finally checking out the Brown Rice release. This was actually released last year, so we’re late to the game, but our completionist streak compels a review regardless.

As a reminder, these are all bourbons, each made with one unusual grain in the mashbill. As with the others, Brown Rice is at least 51% corn and includes some amount of malted barley in the mix. All Harvest Collection bourbons are aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

With the Brown Rice bottling, interesting tropical notes hit the nose immediately upon pouring, mingling nicely with well-rounded grain, burnt sugar, aged wine, and oak notes on the nose. The overall impression is one of significant age, with a lumberyard character eventually taking over duties on the nose. The body starts with sweetness — brown sugar, molasses, and crushed red berries — before handing some of the work off to the wood again. The finish takes things to a place of slight astringency, with the bourbon seeing a bit of sawdust and a lightly medicinal edge on the back end. I also get notes of brewed, sweet tea and some roasted meats as the finish eventually fades. Overall though, it’s got a light touch, and in the final analysis it comes across as a very pleasant — though oftentimes plain — bourbon.

For what it’s worth, Beam suggests looking out for notes of sweet potato on the nose.

90 proof.

B+ / $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Tomatin 12 Years Old French Oak

Tomatin French Oak

This Highland whisky is a limited edition available only in North America. It is aged for 9 years in bourbon hogsheads, then spends 3 years in French oak casks. “The casks were specially sourced from various European cooperages, including Lafite, Vicard and Seguin Moreau, and originally contained red wine from the Bacalhoa winery which was formerly owned by Rothschild,” says Tomatin. But don’t expect a lot of red wine influence. The casks were de-charred and re-charred before being used.

And what a delightful little whisky this is. The nose is gentle, slightly salty, with notes of fresh grain, and baking spices. The body is impossibly light, some fruitcake notes giving it the impression of a sherried whisky at first, then notes of caramel, nougat, and apple pie. The finish is deft, simple, and refreshing. This isn’t a whisky that complicates things with a lot of showiness — or a lot of layers — but damn if it isn’t enjoyable from start to finish.

Uncomplicated, but so well-crafted — and a great bargain for the quality in the bottle.

92 proof. 12,000 bottles produced.

A / $46 / tomatin.com

Review: Balblair Vintage 2003, 1999, 1990, and 1983 Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

BB 1983 Pack Shot

I encounter Balblair regularly at whiskey events, but I was surprised to see that in all these years we’ve only ever done a formal review of Balblair one time — of the Vintage 2000 release.

Today we’re fixing that with reviews of four more expressions from this Highland distillery. On with the show!

Balblair Vintage 2003 – 10 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. Pale in color, and a bit fiery on the nose. Roasted grains, with a touch of honey, are aromatically intense — with some coal fire and a bit of industrial character. The body offers a bit of almond, some citrus, and a touch of cloves. The whisky hasn’t quite settled down yet, though, to bring out this whisky’s true charms. 92 proof. B / $70

Balblair Vintage 1999 – 15 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (My sample doesn’t indicate, but I’m presuming this is the Second Edition bottling.) Surprisingly racy, there’s red pepper and turmeric on the nose, with a backing of dried barley notes. The body is malty at its core, with winey-citrus sherry notes to add some complexity. Vanilla milkshake notes on the finish are nice, but they can’t temper this whisky’s ample heat, which lingers on the modestly scorching finish. 92 proof. B / $90

Balblair Vintage 1990 – 21 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (Again, I presume this is Second Edition.) Much different nose here, with notes of toffee and caramel, along with walnuts and cloves. The body is dense, slightly smoky and heavy on the wood component, giving this malt a bit of a fireside character — with some lumberyard, more nuts, and slight vegetal notes on the back end. The finish is a bit short, with some late-arriving notes of raisins and spice. 92 proof. B / $140

Balblair Vintage 1983 – 30 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. The best Balblair I’ve ever had is the 1975 edition. ’75 is no longer on the market, and this just happens to be the whisky that is replacing it. It’s also a knockout. The nose is rich with butterscotch, menthol, spiced nuts, and fudge. The palate kicks things off with well-aged malt, chocolate sauce, and nougat before fading into notes of rich honey, chocolate malt balls, and almond candies. The finish is long and lasting, making this a delight from start to finish. 92 proof. A / $330

balblair.com

Review: anCnoc Cutter, 12 Years Old, 18 Years Old, 24 Years Old, and 1975 Vintage

Ancnoc1975-

Knockdhu’s anCnoc recently flooded our mailbox with a collection of single malts, including three members of the age-statemented line, one new one from the NAS “Peaty Range,” and a very special offering from anCnoc’s vintage-dated collection of whiskies. We gathered them all up and put them through the Drinkhacker gauntlet. Thoughts follow.

anCnoc Cutter Highland Single Malt – Part of the anCnoc Peaty Range, Cutter is peated to 20.8 ppm, which gives it a hefty smokiness that you don’t find much in the anCnoc lineup. The nose is well peated and gentle with cereal notes. The body wears its smoke up front, folding in iodine notes, some saltiness, and a biscuit character. The finish is more purely smoky — more wood fire than smoldering peat — which leaves things in relatively uncomplicated territory. 92 proof. B / $85

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 12 Years OldRevisiting this young malt reveals many similar notes — though it feels like an evolution of the expression I reviewed a few years ago. As before, there are plenty of cereal notes here, to be sure, but things soon evolve with notes of sweet breakfast cereal, citrus syrup, and some maple notes. It drinks young — and comes across a bit hot on the finish — but it’s charming in its own way. I’d give this slightly different spirit a bit better rating than I did back in 2011. 86 proof. B / $40

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 18 Years Old – This whisky is a bit medicinal on the nose, but the body is all malty grains. The cereal lingers for ages alongside modest honeycomb, nougat, and some gentle citrus character, driven by the sherry cask aging that some of anCnoc 18 undergoes. (The 18 year a blend of whiskies aged in either sherry or bourbon casks.) The finish takes things into slightly vegetal territory, folding almond nougat into some mushroom character. Yeah, that sounds weird and it is, a little. 6000 bottles made. 92 proof. B- / $105

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 24 Years Old – Sherry-forward, with some smoky elements, particularly on the nose. The body offers tons of orange and grapefruit, balanced out with fresh cut grains, hay, popcorn, and a bit of petrol. I get hints of fresh, fried fish — perhaps this expression’s nod to the sea — before it returns to notes of golden syrup, honey, and a bit of lumberyard. Lots going on here, but it all comes together in the end with a sunny, pastoral disposition. Very limited production. 92 proof. B+ / $170

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 1975 Vintage – 30 years old (so this has been kicking around in tanks or bottles for quite some time). A single-vintage vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry-casked whiskies. Gentle cereal notes backed by classic sherry sweetness lead the way on the nose, along with a touch of coal smoke. The body is well developed and features nicely integrated layers of fresh citrus, orange marmalade, ginger cake, and dried fruits. Hints of graham cracker, almonds, and milk chocolate emerge on a somewhat racy (and winey) finish. Very hard to find. 92 proof. A- / $530

ancnoc.com

Review: Ardbeg Perpetuum

Ardbeg Perpetuum bottle & carton (NXPowerLite)

Ardbeg Day (May 30) is almost upon us, and as usual that means a new Limited Edition whisky from this classic islay distillery.

2015 marks Ardbeg’s 200th birthday, and for this momentous occasion the distillery has produced a special bottling: Ardbeg Perpetuum, an expression “inspired by the man styles, ideas and quirks of fate which have influenced Ardbeg recipes over time. It combines different styles, different flavours, different dreams and different trials, all skilfully married together in a melange of the very best Ardbeg has to offer.”

That means Perpetuum is a recipe that includes some very old and very young stock, aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, “and some surprises which hint at the future.” What that means, we can’t say for sure, but here’s what the whisky tastes like.

The color is moderate straw/light gold, hinting at youth. The nose cuts a familiar Ardbeg profile — sweetly smoky, like barbecue smoke, with a salty backbone. Don’t make any judgments yet, though. The body is something else entirely. Brine and seaweed hit the palate first, with less smoke than you’d think. Then comes a rich sweetness — honey, apricot jam, vanilla sugar, and some dark molasses on the back end. The finish has a sulfury edge to it, showcasing charred wood and dark chocolate, completing the tour of duty that takes this whisky from salt to sweet to bitter, all in one quick gulp. It’s incredible stuff that deserves a lot of time and even more introspection — and which stands as one of Ardbeg’s best releases to date.

94.8 proof.

A / $100 / ardbeg.com

Review: J.R. Revelry Bourbon Whiskey

jr revelryBased in Georgia, distilled in Indiana, bottled in Tennessee, and launched in New York, J.R. Revelry is a funky new whiskey with quite a tale behind it. It’s the brainchild of Rick Tapia, a Peruvian native laying claim to the title of the only Hispanic American making whiskey in the States — instead of tequila or pisco.

J.R. Revelry is distilled by Indiana’s MGP (nee LDI) — though J.R. calls this “the old Seagram Distillery” as a bit of light subterfuge and an attempt to sound a bit more austere. Fact is, they’re getting some pretty young stock — less than four years old according to the bottle — and pricing it awfully high. (No mashbill information is provided.)

I’m not overly concerned with provenance, though. Let’s see how it tastes.

J.R. Revelry is young and it shows. The nose is dense with lumberyard notes, burnt popcorn, and heavily charred malt, with just a hint of fruit underneath it all. Has this seen some extra-charred barrels, I wonder? The body follows the nose in lockstep, offering a surfeit of wood plus notes of leather saddle, cloves, and some mushroom. Fruitier notes make a welcome appearance late in the game, with a touch of apple pie spice, raisins, and cherry (more pits than fruit, though). The finish is very drying, leaving behind just a bit of that lingering fruit, but it remains quite tannic and a bit too rough-and-tumble for a bottle priced at 35 bucks.

90 proof.

B- / $35 / jrrevelry.com

Review: Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

blade and bow

Diageo’s latest Bourbon project arrives with, as usual, plenty of confusion surrounding its provenance. The basic story is that Blade and Bow is launching in two versions, but both are a “tribute” to the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery.

I won’t try to digest how these two expressions are made myself, so here’s the relevant PR on the matter, first the NAS expression, then the 22 year old:

Born from some of the oldest remaining whiskey stocks distilled at Stitzel-Weller before it ceased production in 1992, Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey … is made using a unique solera aging system to preserve the original stocks. This solera liquid is then mingled with other fine whiskeys, aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. The 91-proof bourbon is priced at $49.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is comprised of whiskeys distilled at both the distillery historically located at 17th and Breckinridge in Louisville, Ky. and the distillery historically located in at 1001 Wilkinson Blvd. in Frankfort, Ky. The limited release offering was most recently aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. At 92-proof, you can purchase a 750ml bottle for $149.99.

Only the “base,” NAS version was made available for review at press time, but it sounds like a markedly different product than the 22 year old — and thanks to its solera process, is a departure for bourbon in general. How’s this new whiskey come across? Bend an ear and draw near.

The nose is restrained for bourbon, with hints of citrus, some mint, and mild wood notes. Initially quite alcoholic, these harsher aromas blow off with time — so let it air out before diving in in force. On the palate, it’s racy with heat, then punchy with fruity notes — orange, apricot, cut apples, and a touch of lemon. There’s more mint here too, plus a nice lacing of wood-driven vanilla and chocolate notes as expected. The finish keeps the fruit rolling right along, fading out with a touch of caramel apple that makes for a pleasant way to wrap things up. It starts off as a bit of an odd duck, with its strangely heavy fruitiness setting it apart from the typical bourbon profile — but I found this ultimately grew on me as an evening of tasting wore on.

Give it a whirl.

91 proof.

A- / $50 / diageo.com

Review: Hooker’s House Sour Mash Whiskey 7 Years Old

hookers houseIt’s been a couple of years since I first encountered Hooker’s House, and I’ve remained a fan since then. Now the company is back with its first new release in two years, Hooker’s House Sour Mash. This is a single barrel release made from 100% corn that spends 7 years in new, charred white American oak barrels before being finished in used premium French oak barrels at the Hooker’s House Sonoma distillery. The French oak barrels were formerly used for aging Carneros Pinot Noir.

Hooker’s House, like Angel’s Envy, sources its older whiskeys, then finishes them to give them their own unique spin. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a choice that takes HH’s whiskeys in a unique direction.

Case in point is this “Sour Mash,” a curious name for an aged and finished corn whiskey, but what’s in a name?

This is quite a spirit, lush but powerful from the get-go. The nose is sweet and offers lots of bakery notes — fresh doughnuts, Nutella, and raisins. On the palate, this silky-smooth spirit goes down easy, with gentle notes of vanilla and caramel starting things off. The corn underpinnings are notable, melding to give this spirit something of a caramel corn character, which is surprisingly enjoyable in liquid form. But you can’t fight off that Pinot Noir finishing for long. In time as the finish develops, there’s a burst of raisin, dark cherry fruit, dried figs, and chocolate notes. These are flavors that are rare in straight-outta-Kentucky bourbons, but which are minor wonders in Hooker’s House Sour Mash. Really great stuff that’s worth seeking out.

90 proof.

A / $40 / prohibition-spirits.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015

004

This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye, 2 Year Old Blended, and 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskeys

LG_100ProofThe mad microdistillers at Craft Distillers keep rolling with the Low Gap line. These whiskeys began as white dog releases in 2011, and the company has been putting out progressively older and more interesting expressions in the years since. Today we got to sample a trio of two year old whiskeys, including a rye, a blend, and an overproof (wheat) rarity. As with all of the Low Gap line (six bottlings are currently on the market), all of these spirits are made in Craft’s 16 hectoliter cognac still, fermented on site from scratch, and brought to proof using filtered rainwater(!).

Thoughts follow.

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye Whiskey – Malted rye with some corn and barley, aged in new and used bourbon and cognac barrels. The nose is quite grainy, but mellowing out as it settles down, with some smoky notes along with some interesting almond and graham cracker characteristics. The body is initially sweet with just a touch of cognac-driven raisin character that adds a lot more nuance than you might expect. The finish gets a bit hoary though, a clear showcase of this whiskey’s youth, with dried herbs and some baking spice finishing things off. 88.2 proof. B / $65

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Blended Whiskey – Malted corn and barley, aged in used Van Winkle bourbon barrels and new Missouri oak bourbon barrels. The nose exudes some notes of classic — but very young — bourbon. Corny and woody, but also racy with spices and sharp vanilla extract. The body is somewhat brash and still showing itself as a young gun, but one with lots of charm. Think caramel corn, vanilla cream soda, and some maple syrup. Still plenty of lumberyard notes here, but there’s enough character to get me excited, not just for today, but to see where this goes in the next couple of years. 92 proof. A- / $65  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey – This is Low Gap’s Bavarian wheat whiskey, aged two-plus years, bottled from a selection of just three barrels (comprising new and used oak) at 100 proof, of course. This whiskey starts off demure and restrained, but give it a little time and a wealth of fruit notes emerge on the nose: Apples and orange flowers, some banana, backed up with a bit of cereal. On the palate some coconut notes mingle with cinnamon, cloves, nougat, and milk chocolate. Wood makes a belated appearance on the back end, but in a gentle and approving way. The evolution on the palate is both fun and intriguing as an exploration. Arguably the best Low Gap expression Craft Distillers has put out to date. A / $75

craftdistillers.com