Review: The Exceptional Grain Whisky

the exceptional grainGrain whisky fans can get excited. Here’s a new blended grain whisky that’s whipped up from some really old stock — by some industry pros. Details are a bit scarce about the inaugural product from this new label — “Sutcliffe & Son” — but here’s what we do know.

[The Exceptional is a] … small batch Scotch Whisky created by Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers and 35-year veteran of distilled spirits marketing, in collaboration with Willie Phillips, for 23 years managing director of The Macallan. A blend of remarkable aged grain whiskies, including a barrel of 30-year-old from the Carsebridge Distillery, long since closed. Finished in first-fill sherry casks.

Big cereal notes attack the nose, with an undercurrent of sherry and citrus. As can often be the case with grain whiskies, it’s a bit tough to sink your teeth into at first, those toffee- and caramel-scented cereal notes really muscling everything else out of the way. There’s some essence of mint, jasmine, and coal dust that phases in and out while sipping this spirit, but the finish remains stuck with the granary. Drying and a touch dusty, it’s almost stark in its austerity and simplicity, until finally The Exceptional Grain lets go of its grip and releases just a hint of sweetness at the very end to soften things up. It’s an intriguing whisky, but one that takes some warming up to.

86 proof. 1500 bottles produced.

Also of note: An Exceptional Malt and Exceptional Blend are currently in the works for release this year.

B / $90 / craftdistillers.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Get Your Irish on with Flaviar’s Irish Whiskey Sample Pack

flaviarSt. Patrick’s Day is just a few weeks away, and that means the Jameson and Bushmills will be flowing freely. But there’s no need to stop there. There are dozens of high-quality Irish whiskey brands available, and St. Patty’s is the perfect excuse to try them all.

Enter Flaviar, a company that specializes in sampler packs of whiskeys, often aligned with a them. Here’s one worth checking out today: an all Irish bundle of ten different spirits from the Emerald Isle, including Redbreast 15, Uisce Beatha, Knappogue Castle 1995, and our much-beloved Green Spot. Each comes in a sampler vial — and when you’re done with the ten, you still have a whole bottle of Jameson to work your way through for the rest of the week. (Or night, we don’t judge you.)

$98 gets you the setup. Sure beats shelling out for green beer!

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

majeste xo cognac

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: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye Whiskey (2015)

JB750_82Good old “yellow label” Jim Beam Rye was, for many drinkers, their first exposure to rye whiskey. What was it? Aside from something mentioned in a Don McLean song? Beam’s Rye was good enough — cheap, too — like a racier bourbon, but maybe not as sweet. Or you could go for Old Overholt if you wanted something fancier in your Sazerac.

Fast forward a decade and the world of rye has been completely upended. Tons of great ryes are available now, many costing up to 70 bucks a bottle or more. Who buys Yellow Label in the face of all kinds of rye goodness out there?

Beam got the hint, and Yellow Label (more recently repackaged with a sort of Beige Label) is going off the market. Reformulated and upgraded, Jim Beam Rye has been reimagined for the premium rye era, crafted from a “pre-Prohibition recipe” and bottled at 90 proof instead of 80. Mashbill composition is not available. The new, official name: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. Just don’t let the green label confuse you, as Jim Beam Choice is still hanging around out there. (To clarify, this is now Beam’s only mainstream rye.)

And we tried it:

Deep butterscotch notes hit the nose first, ringed with hints of dark chocolate. It’s common to describe the body rye as “spicy,” but that’s often misconstrued to mean spicy with hot red pepper. What spicy often means, as it does here on Beam, is more akin to baking spice: Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, all wrapped up with some smoky bacon and just a touch of licorice. It’s lightly sweet with a vanilla custard note to it, but not as powerful as the punch of bourbon. Initially quite light on the body, it grows on you with its gentle notes of apple pie, caramel, and that slightly savory, almost smoky lacing. The finish is modest, almost short, but engaging and more than pleasant as it fades away.

I was ready to dismiss this as a gimmicky attempt to grab some share in a rapidly growing market, but whaddaya know? The stuff’s legit.

90 proof.

A- / $23 / jimbeam.com

Review: Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

Data Sheet Original Cask Strength copy

It’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the flood of whiskies that flow from Islay’s Kilchoman, but this one really is unique: It’s the first official distillery bottling to be released at cask strength. (An ImpEx exclusive was also cask strength, but that was a just a single barrel. This release comprises 9,200 bottles.)

Production is simple for this release. All ex-bourbon-barreled whisky here, no sherry finishing, and all five years old. Non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

This is a big, briny, classically Islay whisky that sticks closely to the iodine-driven Kilchoman house style (at least its sans-sherry style). There’s a nice sweetness in the middle of this, some marshmallow, banana, and just a bit of pear on the back end. The finish offers up notes of smoked meats and peppery bacon — with ample fire driven by the high alcohol level. Good balance, and plenty of oomph thanks to the cask strength, but ultimately this doesn’t much change the overall picture that Kilchoman has painted to date.

118.4 proof.

B+ / $115 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey Lot 3

charbay R5_Lot3Three years back, Charbay released its first edition of Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey, a unique whiskey made from Racer 5 IPA. Last year, it struck again with Charbay R5 Lot 511A. Now there’s another version of R5 coming out. Lot 511B? No: This one is called Lot 3.

Confusing matters further, Lot 3 is aged for 28 months in French oak barrels. (The first edition was 22 months, Lot 511A was 29 months.) Otherwise, it’s made with the same production techniques, double pot distilled and bottled at 99 proof. Same price, too.

Not a lot seems to have changed from Lot to Lot with this spirit. The nose is pure IPA — evergreen notes, dusky sherry, and some mushroomy/hoppy notes. The body builds on this with a smokier-than-expected core, chewy ginger candy notes, and plenty on plenty of hops. As with the prior bottlings of R5, this is an unusual whiskey with a unique profile that’s unlike most anything else on the market. Big IPA fans will likely love it, while drinkers of more traditional whiskeys may find it a bit overpowering and odd in comparison to what they’re used to.

That said, it’s such an oddball offering that I recommend any whiskey fan give it a try and see for themselves.

B+ / $79 / charbay.com

Review: Troy & Sons Platinum, Oak Reserve, and Blonde Whiskey

troy and sons oak reserve

Asheville Distilling Company in North Carolina is behind the Troy & Sons brand, but there really is a Troy: Troy Ball, who happens to be a woman. She indeed has three sons.

This craft distillery is heavily focused on corn whiskey/moonshine, and relies on heirloom grains for all its distillate. To date the company has three products, two all-corn whiskeys and one wheat/corn whiskey called Blonde. All are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Troy & Sons Platinum Whiskey Heirloom Moonshine – Made from Crooked Creek heirloom white corn, cut with Appalachian spring water. Classic corn on the nose, with strong petroleum overtones. The body is gentler than you’d think, heavy on the popcorn but tempered with easy sweetness, some mushroom notes, green pepper, and a bit of raw ginger on the finish. Fairly typical of today’s “craft” moonshines, but not without quite a bit of charm. B / $30

Troy & Sons Oak Reserve Whiskey Heirloom Moonshine – Per the company, this is not entirely whiskey but rather “aged moonshine,” rested in ex-bourbon barrels for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give it a classic whiskey coloration. There’s a strong pungency on the nose — raw wood, vanilla extract, and licorice — but as with Platinum, the body belies a simpler, more gentle construction. Easy cereal notes and some licorice ultimately lead to lots of tannic astringency as the more raw flavors from the wood barrel come forth on the finish. B- / $35

Blonde Whiskey – Not bottled under the Troy & Sons label, but rather, in the fine print, under the Asheville Distilling banner. Made from a blend of heirloom Turkey red wheat and its white corn, Asheville claims to take very precise cuts of its distillate so that only the purest whiskey goes into barrel. The whiskey is then aged in barrels made with “honeycomb-laced staves,” time unstated. The avowed goal of Blonde is to create a whiskey “without bite or burn,” but some might ask, “What’s the point of that?” Either way, what Asheville has done is craft a whiskey that is loaded with grain character but balanced by more traditional American whiskey notes — baking spices, vanilla, and gingerbread. The finish is much less oppressive than the Oak Reserve reviewed above, but it’s still a few solid years of barrel time away from true maturity. B / $40

ashevilledistilling.com

Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky - Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Rye

woodford reserve ryeRye has long been the Next Big Thing in whiskeydom, and now it’s Woodford Reserve’s turn to get into the game. (When Maker’s Mark Rye eventually comes out, we can finally be assured that we’ve hit Peak Rye.)

Woodford Reserve Straight Rye uses a mash of 53% rye, 14% malted barley, and 33% corn, and, like most American rye, it is bottled without an age statement in a package quite similar to the iconic Woodford Bourbon bottle.

And here’s what it tastes like.

A glorious aroma of cinnamon toast hits the nose as you crack open the bottle. In the glass, it presents a rich, bourbon-like character on the nose, all vanilla and baking spice, with an undercurrent of caramel-driven wood notes. The body is where the rye starts to shine, offering chewy notes of gingerbread, cherries, and lots of clove-cinnamon apple pie spices. Wait for the finish to start to settle and back down and you’ll find a delightful chocolate malt character bubbling up — a perfect fade-out to lead you into that vanilla rush that starts things off on your next sip. All in all, it’s a really enchanting rye that’s hard to put down.

90.4 proof.

A / $38 / woodfordreserve.com

Book Review: Tasting Whiskey

tasting whiskeyLew Bryson must be some kind of spirit whisperer. He knows seemingly everything about the whiskey world, and — more importantly — he has managed to distill (ha!) it down to fully readable, understandable essentials with this impressive tome, Tasting Whiskey.

As the title implies, Bryson is here to be your insider guide to this often confusing and contradictory world, but through jargon-free writing, intuitive organization, and — critically — a plethora of explanatory illustrations and infographics, he lays the business bare for you.

Bear in mind: This is not a “Dummies” class book. Tasting Whiskey literally has everything you need to know about how whiskey is produced in its 250 some pages. No, everything. Want to understand where your whiskey draws its flavors from — grain, barrel, or something else? Bryson explains. How about the locations of the key Japanese distilleries? The various names for the parts of a whiskey barrel? All here. All laid out in charts, maps, and diagrams.

I consider myself a whiskey expert, but devoured Bryson’s book like it was a new Four Roses Limited Edition release. Drink it up, folks.

A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]