Category Archives: Whiskey

Review: Hudson Baby Bourbon and Four Grain Bourbon

4grain-bourbon

Tuthilltown Spirits, based in Gardiner, New York, has been on the forefront of craft distilling since its launch in 2005. Its Hudson line of craft whiskeys remains one of the most iconic exemplars of what can be done with a careful hand and a lot of ambition, and I’ve interviewed distiller and all-around nice guy Gable Erenzo on several occasions over the years  to talk about his approach to production and, particularly, aging. (Erenzo is a pioneer in the use of small barrels in craft whiskey aging; Hudson whiskeys are aged in a variety of casks ranging from 2 to 14 gallons in size — and Erenzo will often play loud music in the warehouse to get the bass shaking the whiskey in and out of the pores of the wood.)

Today, Tuthilltown markets four whiskeys in its permanent lineup, plus a variety of seasonal releases. Here we look at two of them, including Hudson Four Grain Bourbon and Hudson Baby Bourbon, the first bourbon distilled in New York.

Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey – 100% New York corn, double distilled and aged less than four years in small oak barrels. Unfiltered. This is a whiskey that has always worn its grain on its sleeve, and this bottling is no different. Pure popcorn up front — particularly on the bristly, rustic nose — finally gives way to something sweet after you give this whiskey some air, and some time. With ample patience, you’ll find notes of sweet cherry juice, butterscotch, menthol, and some baking spices. The back end is tough and astringent, bringing back that gritty popcorn character and proving it’s made in a frontier style in every sense of the word. All in all it is not without its charms, but it does require a certain mindset to really get into. Reviewed Year 14, Batch 4. 92 proof. B / $40 (375ml)

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a mash of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley, double distilled and aged under four years. This is a gentler whiskey than the Baby Bourbon — as it should be, due to the addition of those other grains beyond straight corn. The nose is lightly minty, and adds notes of chocolate to a slightly corny base. The body is quite pretty, with a buttery and mouth-filling richness to it, offering notes of creme brulee, intense vanilla, some dried tobacco, and fresh-cut timber. On the finish, touches of popcorn re-emerge to remind you that, four grains or no, you’re still drinking bourbon, and a good one at that. Reviewed Year 11, Batch 24. 92 proof. A- / $42 (375ml)

tuthilltown.com

Review: Craigellachie 13 Years Old, 17 Years Old, 19 Years Old, and 23 Years Old

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These expressions from Speyside’s Craigellachie (pronounced CRAY-guh-lackey) Distillery have the same provenance as the three Aultmore whiskies we recently reviewed. Now part of the Dewar’s portfolio — which makes heavy use of Craigellachie in its blends — single malts from these stills are finally coming, and in quite a range of ages. Today we look at a quartet of whiskies: 13, 17, 19, and 23 years old. All are bottled at 92 proof.

Craigellachie 13 Years Old – Youthful on the nose, with strong granary notes backed by a bit of spice. The body pushes past the cereal character and offers lively citrus and vanilla, cloves, pungent honeysuckle, and melon notes. It may be loaded with flavor, but the overall presentation is still quite rustic, particularly on the somewhat astringent finish. B / $45

Craigellachie 17 Years Old – Settling down nicely, and at 17 years old, Craigellachie takes on a huge nutty character, both on the grain-scented nose and particularly on the deep and rounded palate. There’s more of that honeysuckle, plus well-oiled leather, maple syrup, and wisps of salty sea spray. A definitive fireside dram. B+ / $NA

Craigellachie 19 Years Old – Here we see Craigellachie building some austerity, with a nose that recalls Madeira. The body still holds on to its malty cereal core before delving into butterscotch and honey, and just a touch of the seaweed/iodine you find in the 17. B+ / $NA

Craigellachie 23 Years Old – For its final performance, this 23 year old bottling sees those seaside notes, just hinted at in the 17 and 19, taking more of a starring role. Big iodine notes hit the palate right from the start, giving this whisky a bit of an Islay feel. Ultimately, the fruit elements — gentle citrus and pear — are hidden behind this seawall, making for some interesting, but somewhat frustrating, exploration. B+ / $300

lastgreatmalts.com

Review: Virgil Kaine Ginger Infused Bourbon

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Ginger and bourbon go together so well that bourbon and ginger ale is a classic, standard, two-ingredient cocktail. Why not put them together in one bottle, then? Named after a supposed bootlegger from South Carolina, where this spirit also hails form, Virgil Kaine is made from a (sourced) “young” bourbon composed from a mash of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. It is infused with Yellow Hawaiian ginger, then bottled without chill-filtering.

Both bourbon-driven vanilla/oak character and fresh ginger character are evident on the nose, right from the start. Don’t go expecting either a flood of spicy ginger or a big bourbon character. Mild all around, it’s almost inconsequentially simple from an aromatic standpoint. The body follows suit. Very clean and pleasant, it’s a refreshing and easygoing whiskey that’s touched with a light smacking of ginger root and some chocolate notes that develop later in the game. Nothing fancy — the bourbon is light bodied and mildly sweet. The ginger is restrained and pleasant, not pungent or sharp. The finish is more akin to a good ginger ale than anything else.

If the idea of ginger and bourbon (sans a watery mixer) sounds appealing to you, you can pull off this trick by putting a few drops of Barrow’s Ginger Liqueur into a glass of Jim Beam. But if that sounds like too much work for you, this handy shortcut is just fine.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / virgilkaine.com

Review: Glenfiddich “The Original” Single Malt Whisky

2014_Glenfiddich_Tin_Bottle

In 1963 Glenfiddich launched a single malt whisky and sold it outside of Scotland, a highly unusual move considering that the whisky world at the time really only knew of blended Scotch, not single malts. While many may very well debate the claim (considering single malt whisky dates back to at least the 1400s), the distillery has put a stake in the ground as the inventor of the modern single malt category as we now know it.

So, what Glenfiddich has done is recreate the 1963 “Original,” as it was called back then, for a modern audience. Assuming this is an accurate representation of the past, they were drinking pretty impressively back in ’63. Much like the Shackleton recreations, Glenfiddich Original — created in keeping with an authentic recipe from the era and aged in sherry butts — offers a gentler experience with the focus more squarely on the grain.

The Original starts with aromas of nicely roasted malt, rounded out by modest, restrained sherry notes. The nose goes on to offer almond and dried apple plus gentle coal fire notes driven by the wood.  The body is rounded but relaxed and easy, offering notes of coconut, dried banana, light citrus, and fresh hay on the finish. It’s not overwhelmingly complex, but it doesn’t try to be. Instead it’s a lightly sweet, delightfully drinkable whisky that is just as welcome today as it must have been 50 years ago.

80 proof.

A- / $100 / glenfiddich.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Update: Clyde May’s Whiskey Makes Some Changes

clyde may

It hasn’t quite been two years since we reviewed Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge Whiskey, but big things are afoot at this operation, which is rapidly picking up steam and notoriety.

A rebranding and radically updated design is the major news. “Conecuh Ridge” has been shrunken down on the label and in fact is no longer part of the official name (probably because the region could be anywhere in the minds of most drinkers). The label has also been completely redesigned, wisely jettisoning the black-and-gold silhouette landscape motif which was straight out of the 1970s for a more post-modern typographic design that etches tasting notes (legible, this time) right on the glass.

The recipe hasn’t changed — the company new notes that it is a blend of 5 and 6 year old bourbon mash finished in the Alabama Style, which is the natural infusion of apple and spice such as cinnamon (which is why it isn’t called a “Bourbon”) — and a side by side tasting of old and new bottles confirms that nothing is different. Lots of apples and butterscotch, with toasted coconut on the finish — but a much cleaner look.

Still 85 proof.

B+ / $30 / clydemays.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt Scotch Whisky

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This latest expression from Islay’s Bowmore is simply called Small Batch, a No Age Statement expression matured in first fill and second fill bourbon casks. No finishing barrel. It now joins the Bowmore family as a full-time member of the lineup.

It’s at first a classically styled, if not entirely remarkable, Islay bottling, offering smoky peat on the nose, plus a sweeter-than-usual edge that takes it to the realm of barbecued meats. That sweetness carries over to the body, where a sugary rush of vanilla pudding hits the palate first. I get touches of sweetened coconut and some orange juice as the finish builds, at which point a quite modest smoky peat character starts to take hold again. That smoke-meets-salt air character is just barely evident as the finish fades, the Islay core bookending the experience as gently as possible.

Bowmore Small Batch is a nice beginner’s introduction to Islay and a capable budget dram, but it’s nothing that fans of the island’s particular style are likely to feel the need to seek out.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / bowmore.com

Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

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Rest assured, Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon was not made in 1870. Rather, this is a whiskey that is the first release in what Old Forester is calling its new Whiskey Row Series. “This unique series highlights our bourbon’s significant milestones and production innovations with each release.  From the first batched bourbon to a post-prohibition era style bourbon, the series will allow consumers to sip Old Forester as it was enjoyed in the late 1800s through the mid-1920s,” says the company.

And so we start here, an attempt to recreate the tone of 1870, when OldFo became, they say, the first “batched bourbon” — made at three different distilleries and blended together later. Attempts have been made to keep things legit:

To emulate Brown’s pioneering 1870 batching process, the 1870 Original Batch bourbon is comprised of barrels selected from three different warehouses with a different day of production as well as a different entry proof and maturation period. The expressions will be batched together to create this 90-proof product which represents the innovative technique developed by Brown which has become an integral part of the bourbon industry.

And so, let’s see how this first batch pans out…

Big notes of caramel apple attack the nose right from the start. Fruity notes carry well into the body, until some leathery, tobacco notes finally emerge as the palate starts to round out. The finish offers tons of grip and tannin, but it’s complemented by a slug of baking spices — cinnamon and ginger, mainly — giving it an almost candylike character on the back end. It’s an almost simple whiskey, though it’s so loaded with that candy apple character that it’s hard not to like.

90 proof.

A- / $45 / oldforester.com

Review: McMenamins Billy Whiskey and Aval Pota Apple Whiskey

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In the Portland area (and elsewhere in Oregon and Washington), McMenamins is a bit of an institution. Operating dozens of restaurants and some two dozen breweries, the bar/pub/dining destination is also home to two different microdistilleries, which have been running since 1998: Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery in Hillsboro and Edgefield Distillery in Troutdale.

At these locations, the company uses copper pot and column stills to manufacture spirits for sale exclusively at a handful of McMenamins locations. (These include numerous whiskeys, two gins, two rums, three herbal liqueurs (coffee, hazelnut and herbal), and several brandies.) Thoughts on two of the company’s whiskeys follow.

McMenamins Billy Whiskey – Made primarily from a wheat-based mash (malt barley makes up the rest), Billy Whiskey is pot distilled then aged for two years in new oak barrels before bottling. The nose is youthful but not brash, with ample cereal notes touched with popcorn, vanilla, and the heavy, young wood elements that are wholly characteristic of young whiskeys like this. The palate has more to chew on, if you will. Notes of caramel apple, mixed nuts, Cracker Jack, and banana bread come on strong here. While the finish is lightly cerealed and a bit racy, it’s just mature enough for easy sipping, and just complex enough for lasting enjoyment. 87 proof. B / $35 / mcmenamins.com

aval potaMcMenamins Edgefield Distillery Aval Pota – Made in a column still, this is apple flavored whiskey inspired by Irish poitin. Made from malted barley then infused with fresh apples and a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon, it is bottled with no aging information. The nose is very heavy on the apples, though its closer to applesauce than apple pie. Appealing, it invites exploration on the palate, but here things start to break down. The initial apple rush is sweeter than expected, but that doesn’t last long, as a sizable alcoholic burn quickly takes over. A bit raw and punchy, it quickly washes away the apple and leaves behind an indistinct medicinal character. 66 proof. C / $26 / mcmenamins.com

Review: Aultmore 12 Years Old, 21 Years Old, and 25 Years Old

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Aultmore, a Speyside distillery, has changed hands many times, but again became part of the Dewar’s portfolio in 1998. Normally used in the company’s blends — including Dewar’s — only now is Dewar’s releasing these three expressions of Aultmore as a single malt — known locally as “a nip of the Buckie Road.”

Since the bulk of Aultmore ends up in blends,  you might presume these whiskies are dull and boring. You would be wrong. These are indeed simple whiskies, but they are also incredibly well-crafted, flavorful, and amazingly approachable. I greatly enjoyed this lineup from the 12 year to the 25 — and would be hard-pressed to select a favorite. Thoughts follow on all three: 12, 21, and 25.

All expressions are bottled at 92 proof.

Aultmore 12 Years Old – Wonderfully alive. Lovely and just plain ready-to-go right out of the gate. Notes of fresh apple, pear, and banana attack the nose alongside gentle grains and notes of heather. That fruit is quite powerful on the palate, brisk applesauce, vanilla caramels, a touch of citrus and a clean, gently sweet finish that recalls once again the grain at its core. This is a simple, young whisky, but one which proves that age is far from everything. Snap it up. Now in general release. A / $53

Aultmore 21 Years Old – That gentle, fruity DNA from Aultmore 12 follows over to the 21, where it takes on a more austere, rounder, more full-bodied character. Malty and chewy, it takes the apple/banana fruit core of the 12 and bakes it in the oven for an hour, giving it a crusty, warm, and almost doughy character that dulls the bright, acidic fruit notes and replaces them with oomph. There’s a touch of citrus edge here, but just barely. All told, it’s a really interesting study in contrasts compared to the 12. Try them side by side if you can. Travel retail only. A / $NA

Aultmore 25 Years Old – This slightly older expression cuts a similar character as the 21, with just a touch more chocolate and a bit more malt — something like a chocolate milkshake. Subtle floral notes emerge over time, alongside notes of butterscotch, persimmon, and a growing smokiness on the back end. Not at all the departure from the 21 that those notes might seem to indicate, but rather a fitting finale to an amazing trilogy of malt whiskies. In limited release. A / $NA

lastgreatmalts.com

Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog: Spirit of Mortimer” Rye Whiskey Single Barrel 2014

WhistlePig-Spirit-of-Mortimer

Clearly, Vermont-based WhistlePig has a stash of barrels of rye aging away in a warehouse, so each year the company can bottle a bit of it and see what happens, while the rest continues to mellow outtakes a little bit of its well-aged rye and bottles it just to see what’s going on. The rest lingers for another year.

This year WhistlePig’s special edition is a “nearly 14 year old” rye — 100% rye, as always — named in honor of the company’s deceased Kune Kune pig and mascot. “The Spirit of Mortimer” is marked not by a name on the label but by a large “M” and a pewter stopper that sits atop the bottle, a winged piglet that honors the deceased Mortimer. (To confuse matters further, the black label, similar in hue to 2012’s WhistlePig 111, merely indicates it’s “The Boss Hog,” akin to last year’s bottling.)

With that, we’re on to the tasting…

There’s ample wood and some campfire smoke on the nose of WhistlePig: Spirit of Mortimer, with hints of apple cider and cinnamon. The body is hefty and chewy, but with a fruitiness that shines through the haze of sawdust and lumber. Cinnamon and clove notes emerge on the racy finish, and while it’s all well-integrated with caramel characteristics at its core, it’s not altogether quite as intriguing as last year’s expression. Fine effort on the whole, however.

118 to 124 proof, depending on batch (our sample was not disclosed). 50 barrels bottled, less than 2,000 cases produced.

A- / $189 / whistlepigwhiskey.com 

Review: Platte Valley Moonshine

Platte Valley Moonshine Family

The Platte Valley can be found in Missouri (and thereabouts), far away from the moonshinin’ capital of the world, Appalachia.

Don’t tell that to McCormick distilling — makers of the well-known, eco-friendly 360 Vodka. Among other spirits, McCormick also makes Platte Valley Moonshine (“a true expression of the south… since 1856″), too. This is a 100% corn whiskey bottled in a classically-styledd ceramic jug. And while most moonshine is traditionally bottle unaged, Platte Valley spends 3 years in barrel before bottling. (What type of barrel isn’t disclosed, but I’m guessing refill bourbon barrels based on the pale yellow color.)

The nose is all sweet cream and corn — think creamed corn — with notes of toasted marshmallow and malted milk powder. On the palate, the sweetness hinted at on the nose becomes almost overbearing, a spun sugar web that locks up notes of caramel corn, almonds, and a touch of Fig Newton. The finish is lengthy and more than a bit cloying, making it tough to believe this hasn’t been doctored with more than a few sugar cubes before bottling.

Neat jug, though.

80 proof.

B- / $20 / plattevalleymoonshine.com

Review: Anchor Distilling Christmas Spirit White Whiskey 2014

Christmas Spirit High Res

Last year San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling released a limited-edition, Christmas-focused white whiskey called White Christmas. This year it’s back, (cleverly) renamed Christmas Spirit.

As with White Christmas, this year Anchor has double distilled last year’s 2013 Christmas Ale and turned into into an unaged whiskey. The ale is different every year, so the whiskey should follow suit, no?

The 2014 Christmas Spirit is more clearly a white whiskey than the almost gin-like 2013 White Christmas. The nose offers popcorn notes, cream of wheat cereal, and cedar tree bark. On the palate, a few piney notes emerge — hints of gin, like last year — but these are overwhelmed by a more indistinct wood character, notes of raisins, cinnamon bark, and touches of leather and tobacco leaf. The finish is racy, hot and spicy, with more cinnamon and evergreen notes counterbalancing the malty roasted grain character.

All in all this is a different expression of white dog than 2013’s rendition, but a slightly more cohesive bottling, one which showcases more of the whiskey/beer underpinnings as well as the seasonal character of the spirit. Ho ho ho.

90 proof. Available in California only.

B+ / $50 / anchordistilling.com

Review: Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock and Rye

Slow & Low Bottle Shot

Rock & Rye is coming back into vogue as a cocktail, and that’s probably just fine with the folks at Hochstadter’s, who are bottling a premade version of the cocktail called Slow & Low Rock and Rye. (The producer is the same company behind St. Germain, among other recent classics.)

Hochstadter’s takes rye whiskey and flavors it — strongly — with orange and honey (plus a bit of lemon, grapefruit, and horeshound), then bottles the concoction along with plenty of rock candy syrup, which knocks the sweetness into the stratosphere. We sampled a bottle to see what the fuss was all about a century or so ago…

The nose starts off surprisingly perfumed, then that orange peel character starts to push its way to the front. Sharp and sweet, it is punctuated by the earthier honey notes beneath the fruit. The palate is heavy, very heavy, on fruit. Tasted blind (literally blind) I doubt I would be able to peg this as based on whiskey at all, much less rye. Ignore the bottle and you could be drinking a special bottling of Grand Marnier, or perhaps a flavored rum. That’s a long way of saying that the characteristic sweet-and-spice of rye whiskey is largely absent here. What you do get are some vanilla overtones, but these aren’t distinctly whiskeylike. That honeyed orange element is just too powerful to mess with.

Mind you, that’s not a slight. Slow & Low is a flavored whiskey-slash-cocktail in a bottle, and as such the flavor component of that really should shine. That said, Slow & Low is quite the powerhouse, and it’s a bit overwhelming on its own — much more so than any Old Fashioned you’d encounter in a bar or mix up at home. Try it with plenty of ice and maybe a splash of water (or soda) to mellow things out a bit and make it . Also: Mind the extremely wide-mouth bottle. It pours fast!

84 proof.

B / $24 / drinkslowandlow.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect give for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Lost Prophet Bourbon 22 Years Old

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These orphans are working harder than Oliver Twist for Diageo, and a fourth expression of the Orphan Barrel Project is now hitting the market: Lost Prophet.

The Lost Prophet stock was distilled in 1991 in Frankfort, Kentucky at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery and, per the company, was found in the old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville. The whiskey is bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The mashbill for Lost Prophet Whiskey is 75-78% corn, 7-10% barley, and 15% rye.

This is a fun and intriguing spirit that’s hard not to like. The nose is immediately unique, almost startling, with notes of intense menthol, tanned leather, cloves, and citrus oils. The body punches hard — hotter at first than its proof level would indicate — with notes of molasses, dark cherry, big vanilla, some gingerbread lat in the game, and a moderate amount of wood.

Not at all hoary or tough the way many very old whiskeys can be, Lost Prophet Bourbon still manages to feel fresh and exciting, offering a rich and engaging experience that is both plenty complex while also being easy-drinking and refreshingly enjoyable. So many old whiskeys leave you with a bitter, astringent aftertaste, but Lost Prophet’s denouement is lightly sweet, lasting, and memorable.

For a bourbon over 20 years old, Lost Prophet is actually quite cheap. Doubt it will stay that way, of course…

90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch Tul-Tr-1.

A / $120 / orphanbarrel.com

Review: Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice 21 Years Old

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When people ask me what my favorite whiskey is — and they do that a lot — after I hem and haw about it for a while, I usually tell them it’s one they’ve never heard of: Bruichladdich 16 Years Old First Growth Series: Cuvee E Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes Finish, a limited edition that Laddie put out in 2010 and which is down to its last drops in my bar. (My “A” rating at the time is too low.)

Cuvee E is long gone from the market, but Bruichladdich recently put out a spiritual successor of sorts, Cuvee 382 La Berenice. It’s a different animal — five years older and finished in both Barsac and Sauternes casks, but with my beloved Cuvee E nearly spent, I sprang for a bottle of 382 to keep the party going.

Cuvee 382 is a study of contrasts, starting out much, much darker in color than Cuvee E, offering the appearance of what looks like a well-sherried whiskey. The nose is serious, more intense than Cuvee E, and less sweet from the start. Biscuits, gingerbread, and leather oil pervade the racy, punchy nose. The body brings lots of dried fruits into the equation, folding these into notes of roasted grains, more leather, and some citrus peel. It doesn’t offer the bright and sweet honey character of Cuvee E, however, rather it takes things in a more austere direction. Watch for a surprising rush of sea salt on the finish to polish it all off.

Altogether, this is a surprisingly different whisky than the distillery’s prior Sauternes-oriented bottling, though it has plenty to recommend it in its own right. While it sticks closer to a more traditional malt whisky formula than Laddie’s previous experiment with a sweet white wine finish, it remains a remarkable and remarkably drinkable dram.

92 proof.

A / $170 / bruichladdich.com

Review: The Balvenie 25 Years Old Single Barrel and Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt

The-Balvenie-Tun-1509 batch 1

Lucky day: Not one, but two new bottlings from a perennial favorite: The Balvenie. Actually, the distillery has recently released three different whiskies, the third being The Balvenie Fifty, Cask 4567, a 50 year old expression that runs $38,000 a bottle.

We did not manage to nab a bottle of this lattermost one, but no matter: We did sample the other two, a new 25 year old single barrel release and a new sibling in the Balvenie Tun series, Tun 1509, Batch 1.

Let’s discuss each in turn.

First, The Balvenie is adding a new single barrel edition to its regular release range, a 25 year old single barrel expression that joins the 12 year and 15 year single barrel expressions that have launched in recent years. This new 25 year old expression spends its life entirely in traditional American ex-bourbon casks, a departure from the sherry cask barrels used for the 15 year single barrel bottling. Again, this is an ongoing release, and while stocks will be limited, it will remain available for the foreseeable future.

Second, The Balvenie Tun 1509 is the sequel and successor to the impressive Tun 1401 series, which composed a set of nine different batches of whiskies that were blended up in small quantities, about 2000 liters per batch, and released in very limited amounts over the last few years. We reviewed several of the Tun 1401 series (see Batches 3, 6, and 9) — only a few of the nine ever made it to the U.S. — but all were gone much too soon. Now, Tun 1401 has been retired, and Tun 1509 is in. This mixing vessel can hold 8000 liters, which means the whisky blended up in it may be less “rare,” but it will at least be easier to find.

Thoughts on both of these whiskies follow.

The Balvenie 25 Years Old Traditional Oak Single Barrel – Shockingly light in color, this hardly looks like it’s been in barrel for a year, much less 25. The actual presentation on the tongue and nostrils, however, is quite the opposite. Seductive notes of caramel and some citrus notes are well-integrated on the nose, making it candylike without being cloying. The body takes this and runs with it, firing on all cylinders. The caramel notes turn toward dark chocolate sauce, the fruitiness toward essence of orange flowers, caramel apples, honey, and some spice — cinnamon, allspice, and a bit of brown sugar. Throughout, Balvenie 25 keeps things light and lively, a whisky that’s lithe and light on its feet, a treat that combines the pleasures of a well-aged senior statesman with the gentler body of a fresher, younger spirit. If it weren’t so gorgeous I’d call it a simple pleasure. 95.6 proof. A / $599

The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt – Batch #1 of Tun 1509 is made from whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels (35 casks) and sherry butts (7 casks), for a total of 42 casks worth of single malt commingling in Tun 1509. The results are powerful compared to the quieter 25 year old single barrel, evident from the start by looking at the deep amber color of the whisky. The nose is exotic and rich, offering punchy notes of well-burnt sugar, coffee, dried figs and raisins, and a touch of coal fire smoke. The body then takes all of these components and promptly kicks them right in the ass. Dried fruit takes a spicy, Christmas-like turn toward the baking pantry, with notes of cloves and cinnamon dominating. There’s more red fruit on the palate — think plums — along with notes of blood orange and tangerine. Some malt is here, but the cereal character is warm and inviting, like a well-doctored bowl of oatmeal on a cold day. This whisky drinks embarrassingly easy despite topping 94 proof, taking its burly, rounded body and just having its way with your palate from start to finish. Speaking of the finish — it’s long, warming, and, as it vanishes, it leaves you begging for more. One of Balvenie’s best whiskies ever. 94.2 proof. A+ / $350

thebalvenie.com

Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

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Mortlach, “The Beast of Dufftown,” is a storied Speyside distillery that has a long reputation as the maker of a connoisseur’s whisky. For years, single malt from Mortlach has been hard to come by; most of its production has been destined for inclusion in blends like Johnnie Walker. But demand for single malts continues to rise, so a couple of years ago, current owner Diageo announced it would be increasing production and launching some new Mortlach malts. The results are finally here, in the form of three general releases (plus one travel retail release). All of the prior bottlings of Mortlach are now being dropped.

georgie bellThe trilogy of malts was introduced to many of us via a web-based tasting by the enchantingly goofy Georgie Bell, aka “Miss Mortlach,” Mortlach’s Global Brand Ambassador. Bell led the group through the history of Mortlach, including its fabled yet confusing “2.81 distilling process,” which involves a carefully calibrated utilization of its three stills, each a different design, in the production of its whisky.

But the highlight was a tasting of these amazing whiskies, all hitting the market soon. All of the whiskies are bottled at 86.8 proof. (And here’s a pro tip: Real Scots pronounce the distillery MORT-leck. The R is nearly silent.)

Thoughts follow.

Mortlach Rare Old – Bottled with no age statement, but don’t let that deter you. Rare Old has a solid grain structure on the nose, plus hints of honeycomb, vanilla, and chocolate malt balls. Over time, some notes of dried herbs and barrel char emerge… give it some minutes in the glass before downing the sucker. The body is big, showcasing lots of honey from the start along with salted caramel, citrus, and some emerging floral notes later on. The finish is bold and satisfying, very lush, lovely, and warm with a touch of chocolate on the very end. Despite the lack of an age statement, this is not really an entry-level dram — but one which should really earn a top shelf spot on any bar. A / $110  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Mortlach 18 Years Old – Now we’re entering into age statement territory. Racier on the nose, the 18 Year Old features stronger sherry notes, some raisin, and stronger floral elements. Quite sharp on the nose, this is actually quite misleading. The body turns out to be a sweeter, more uplifting experience, offering notes of gingerbread, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, and some notes of almond, nougat, and cocoa nibs. Bolder on the body than the Rare Old but quite sharp again on the finish, it’s a fun companion to the Rare Old that proves itself to be a clear sibling — but one with its own DNA. A / $280

Mortlach 25 Years Old – More brooding on the nose, with some smokiness and more of that barrel char. Think roast beef and old wood — a departure from the more elegant, grain-meets-fruit composition of the above two spirits. The nose’s composition carries over to the body, where you find a more burly, fireside-type whisky that offers gentle smoke alongside both citrus notes and some floral elements. All of this is well-balanced and integrated, but it does step away from the sweeter style of Mortlach showcased in the above. Today I find myself drawn to the less austere expressions, but this is a lovely and unique expression of Mortlach as well. A- / $944

mortlach.com

Review: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Makers Cask Strength Hi Res

Hey, remember when Maker’s Mark said it was going to lower its proof from 90 to 84? That didn’t work out, so the company figured why not go the other way, with a limited-availability cask strength expression of the classic Maker’s Mark.

Cask strength bourbon is a bit at odds with the company’s avowed mission to market a “soft” whiskey, but there’s no denying that customers are going to eat this stuff up. The demand for overproof, barrel strength whiskey is seemingly insatiable, so, mission or not, I expect Maker’s knew exactly what it was getting into here.

Let’s engage in a tasting, shall we?

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is classic Maker’s on the nose — vanilla, lightly almond-like notes, modest wood, and hints of ripe banana. Modest and sweet-smelling, the spirit at first indicates little to the nose about its overproof nature. The body starts off with only a few minor surprises. Cinnamon and red hot candies start things off, but then it’s on to an intense, alcohol-laden punch as that 113-plus proof core takes hold. Bigger, tannic oak notes arise here, along with more of that sweet vanilla core, some cocoa powder, and hints of grain. The finish is drying and a little bittersweet — another Maker’s Mark hallmark — with notes of butterscotch and a little menthol and black pepper as the finish fades. All told, it’s not unlike classic Maker’s Mark, just punched up a bit in both the flavor and the body departments to appeal to the overproof whiskey lover in the family. There’s definitely more intensity and fire here, but it’s easily drinkable at bottle strength. A touch of water brings out more nuances in all of the above.

On the whole, I like it just fine, though not necessarily better than the classic Maker’s Mark. Frankly I’m not sure I need to have Maker’s at this proof level, but I like the idea that if I decide I do, I know it’s there for me.

Reviewed at 113.3 proof (abv will vary). Reviewed: Batch 14-02.

A- / $35 (375ml) / makersmark.com

Review: Jim Beam Kentucky Fire

Kentucky Fire Bottle ShotJim Beam’s spin on the cinnamon-flavored whiskey fad — the Fireball phenomenon — crept up so quietly earlier this August that no one seems to have taken much notice. I guess being, like, eighth to market doesn’t get you much press. No matter, though. Let’s have a look at Beam’s Kentucky Fire — cinnamon whiskey’s gotta have “fire” in the name, that’s the law! — and see how it stacks up.

Jim Beam Kentucky Fire is “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey infused with cinnamon liqueur,” so at least no one’s claiming there are imported cinnamon sticks delicately flavoring Kentucky’s finest. Beam says its focus here is on the bourbon first, with the cinnamon a secondary concern.

I’d say Beam’s description is pretty spot on. While the nose offers clear cinnamon spice, but the vanilla sweetness of bourbon does manage to muscle through even that powerful baking cabinet standby. The body offers the flipside of this. It actually starts sweet, not spicy, a slippery vanilla-caramel that takes a few seconds before the cinnamon kicks in. It’s warming on the finish without being at all racy, and the cinnamon heat fades after just a few seconds.

Perhaps more than any other cinnamon whiskey on the market, Kentucky Fire is understated on the cinnamon side. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of Red Hots character here, it’s just not designed to scorch your palate. That’s fine by me, actually. There are cinnamon whiskey blazers out there, but a spirit that lets the whiskey shine as brightly as the cinnamon at least gives you something to savor rather than merely grimace at. Kentucky Fire may not exactly be nuanced, but it’s easy-drinking and more than serviceable as a shot or a cocktailing ingredient.

70 proof.

B+ / $16 / jimbeam.com