Review: Jefferson’s Reserve Old Rum Cask Finish Bourbon

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Jefferson’s latest release is this special edition, which takes standard, fully-matured Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon and finishes it in Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum barrels.

The barrels themselves have a compelling history — they held bourbon for four years, then held Gosling’s for 16 years, then were sent back to Jefferson’s for this experiment, in which he dumped the eight-year old, straight Kentucky whiskey. The bourbon aged for 15 additional months in these barrels before bottling.

So, fun stuff from the get-go, and sure enough it’s a knockout of a whiskey.

The nose is loaded with molasses notes, brown sugar, tons of baking spice, some coconut husk, and only a smattering of wood. If I didn’t know any better, from the nose I’d probably have guessed this was a well-aged rum instead of a whiskey.

The palate belies the bourbonness of the spirit, melding caramel corn with a big injection of sweet caramel, dark brown sugar, cinnamon, and layers of chocolate sauce — both sweet milk and bittersweet dark. The rush of sweetness isn’t overpowering, but rather fades easily into its lightly wooded, vanilla-focused finish.

This is one whiskey that’s hard to put down. I’d snap it up on sight before it’s all gone.

90.2 proof.

A / $80 / jeffersonsbourbon.com

Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

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: Whiskeys of Cedar Ridge – Iowa Bourbon, Wheat, Rye, Malted Rye, Single Malt

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As the first distillery in the state since Prohibition, Iowa’s Cedar Ridge makes everything from gin to rum to apple brandy. Today we look at five of the company’s whiskeys (it makes at least eight), which are all distilled on site (not sourced) but which are bottled without age statements. Cedar Ridge makes heavy use of Iowa-grown corn in its products, but not all are corn-based, and less is said about the sourcing of its other grains. (Though notably the company also makes wine, from estate-grown grapes.)

Without further ado, let’s dive into this selection of whiskeys.

Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – A bourbon made with 75% corn, 14% rye, and 12% malted barley. Youthful on the nose, with a sharp granary and fresh corn character, it features notes of tobacco, barrel char, green pepper, and black pepper. The finish offers some caramel corn sweetness, smoky notes, and a vaguely vegetal encore. 80 proof. B- / $39

Cedar Ridge Wheat Whiskey – Made from 100% malted wheat — technically making this a single malt whiskey. Light in color and fragrant on the nose, this is a delightful spirit, gossamer thin but loaded with intense floral aromas. On the palate the grain is quite clear, but a moderate sweetness keeps things moving, leading to more notes of white flowers, honey, graham crackers, and just a hint of cinnamon. The finish is soothing and sweet enough to balance out the aromatics that come before. 80 proof. B+ / $40

Cedar Ridge Rye Whiskey – This is a “traditional” rye made with a 70% “toasted rye” mash and bottled overproof. Racy but also quite woody, its big clove and raw ginger notes lead to a rather sweet finish, with notes of cinnamon-heavy apple pie and ripe banana. The spicy notes are lingering as the finish fades, along with a rather pungent Madeira character. Interesting, flavor-forward stuff. 115.2 proof. B / $43

Cedar Ridge Malted Rye Whiskey – An unusual whiskey made of 51% malted rye, 34% rye, 12% corn, and 3% malted barley. The result is a gentler spin on rye (though this is just 43% abv if you’re comparing to the regular rye above), which takes that apple pie note and filters it through more supple notes of graham crackers, toasted marshmallow, coconut, and dried banana. Of all the whiskeys in this roundup, this one is the most refined and the most complex, a spirit that is clearly youthful and which still offers fresh granary notes up front, but which manages to round out its sharp and rough edges in style. 86 proof. A- / $40

Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey – This is a classic American single malt (malted barley) release, but with few of the expected fixins. The nose is moderately woody, studded with grain, and lightly spiced. On the palate, caramel makes a surprising impact, with overtones of evergreen and a heavy chocolate note. This cocoa character lingers on the finish, giving it a dessert-like character you rarely find in domestic single malts. Well done. 80 proof. B+ / $50

crwine.com

Review: Rebel Yell Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old

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Once a largely ignored bottom-shelf bottling, Rebel Yell continues its march up-market with this latest release, a 10 year old single barrel bottling crafted from its wheated bourbon recipe. 2000 cases will be made available this year. In 2017, production will expand to 4000 cases.

The nose offers oak first, then layers of anise and tobacco leaf. The iconic vanilla caramel character is here, but it is burnt and crispy, with mild eucalyptus notes — though all in all, fairly steady hallmarks of well-aged bourbon. The palate is where things start to get more interesting. The anise character is distinct and heavy, before notes of peppermint, cloves, and cinnamon red hots come along. The finish is burly with wood, but not overpowering — more barrel char than sawdust — though there’s a bit of lingering gumminess that mars things a bit.

All told, this is a bourbon for fans who like things on the distinctly — even heavily — savory side, and even though it’s not exactly an everyday sipper, it marks a nice change of pace from some of the sugar bombs that tend to be more popular.

Reviewed: Barrel #4744359, distilled September 2005.

100 proof.

A- / $50 / rebelyellbourbon.com

Review: 1792 High Rye Bourbon

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Sazerac/Buffalo Trace’s 1792 Distillery is on a tear, now hitting the market with its 5th special edition in a little over a year, High Rye Bourbon. Some details:

Barton 1792 Distillery releases another expression in its line-up of 1792 whiskeys, 1792 High Rye Bourbon. The flagship product of the collection, 1792 Small Batch, is well known for using a higher percentage of rye than most bourbons, but this special edition High Rye Bourbon brings an even more intense amount of rye to the mash bill. Although very limited, expect to see annual releases of this robust bourbon after its initial release this fall. 1792 High Rye Bourbon was distilled in May of 2008, and aged for a little more than eight years on the second floor of Warehouse K at the historic Barton 1792 Distillery before it was bottled at 94.3 proof.

You can smell the rye influence foremost here, which hits the nostrils with a racy punch of cloves, allspice, and red pepper. The impression of spice is a bit misleading, though, for the palate balances this out with a gentler body that pumps up the vanilla- and caramel-led sweetness, at least on the initial attack. With a bit of time, the rye spices make a triumphant return, muscling their way back to the fore and layering on a bit of heat. The finish is lengthy and offers some drying licorice notes, plus ginger and tea leaf. All told, it comes together with remarkable balance and finds a unique place in bourbondom, riding the line between a traditional bourbon and a straight rye.

A lovely addition to the 1792 lineup. Get it while you can!

94.3 proof.

A / $36 / 1792bourbon.com

Review Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Straight Bourbon

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Officially it’s called: Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Selected Straight Bourbon Whiskey Selected Expressly for Connoisseurs of Small Batch Fine Spirits. There are other honorifics on the bottle, but too much for me to type.

That’s a lot of verbiage for an MGP-sourced whiskey, though it is bottled at at least seven years old, per the back label. It’s a blend of two bourbon mashes, one with 21% rye, one with 35% rye, averaging out at about 26% rye.

For the uninitiated, first a history lesson on the Hirsch name. Adolph Hirsch started distilling small batch whiskey in Pennsylvania in the 1970s under the eye of Dick Stoll, a well known master distiller who came up through the Beam system. By 1989, Hirsch was bankrupt, probably because he never sold any of the whiskey he was making. Eventually it was bottled by the van Winkles (yes, those van Winkles) and sold as A.H. Hirsch Reserve. Several editions were released until it was all gone. Today, some of those dusty old Hirsch 16 year old bottles now sell for up to $3,000.

Somewhere along the way, Anchor Distilling acquired the name and started sourcing whiskey from Indiana to bottle anew as “Hirsch.” Nothing wrong with that, but drinkers should know that the Hirsch of today has literally nothing to do with the Hirsch of yesteryear, though it is “inspired by the quality of A.H. Hirsch.” OK!

So anyway, let’s get to tasting this entry-level expression.

On the nose there’s ample vanilla, caramel sauce, and some hints of pepper. A bit strong with eucalyptus notes and a bit of lumberyard character, eventually it settles down, opening up to reveal some butterscotch and red cherry notes. The palate largely follows suit with the nose, though with time in glass it really starts to exude heavy salted caramel notes, plus notes of peanut brittle, cinnamon, and spicy gingerbread. Again, this is a whiskey that really benefits from some settle-down time, and it drinks with more complexity and depth than I had initially given it credit for.

Definitely worth a look.

92 proof.

A- / $40 / anchordistilling.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish

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The 11th installment in Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection release is here. For 2016, standard, “fully mature” Woodford is finished in American brandy casks for nearly two years. Which brandy isn’t stated (but since Woodford’s parent company Brown-Forman owns Korbel, I have a strong hunch where the casks came from).

Woodford notes, “Brandy, a spirit distilled from wine or fruit, is often aged in oak barrels. Unlike bourbon, brandy does not have the new, charred barrel requirement allowing their barrels to be used multiple times. Therefore, this release is technically not a bourbon but rather a finished whiskey.” That’s really splitting hairs, though. Finishing barrels have become quite popular in bourbon country in recent years (see also Angel’s Envy), and the use of one does not, in my mind, disqualify this from being called a bourbon.

And in fact, there is nothing at all not to like in the 2016 Master’s Collection bourbon. Fresh from the start, the nose is moderately woody, tempered by light chocolate, cinnamon (a Morris classic), and plenty of lightly scorched caramel. Some raisin and dried fig notes come forward with time. On the tongue, the whiskey quickly settles into a beautifully balanced groove. Notes of raisin, ripe banana, and gingerbread wash over a spicy, vanilla- and caramel-heavy core. As a reprise, some gentle wood notes bring up the rear, a nice callback to the way things started.

The two years in old brandy casks have worked nicely at mellowing out a bourbon that can sometimes be overblown with wood. The brandy cask adds something in the form of those gently sweet raisin notes, but more importantly is what it takes away, which is some of the heavier tannin and lumberyard notes that standard Woodford can express. As with the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir release, this expression is a whiskey that takes a solid spirit and elevates it even further.

Morris has stumbled upon a really magical combination here. It may be the best Master’s Collection release to date.

90.4 proof.

A / $100 / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon Barrel #3402 NHLC Collection

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Remember that time that the New Hampshire Liquor Commission bought 15 barrels of Jack Daniel’s, the largest single purchase of JD single barrels ever? Well, they did it again, this time with Knob Creek, purchasing 8 barrels and bottling them as New Hampshire exclusives, all 120 proof, 9 years old.

We got a sample from Barrel #3402, complete with an embossed metal plaque on the bottle.

Let’s give this special edition, available only in New Hampshire, naturally, a spin.

The nose is classic Knob Creek, maple syrup-sweet with moderate to heavy wood overtones, backed up by burnt caramel notes. On the tongue, it’s sweeter and more rounded than the 60% abv would make you expect, but the brown sugar and syrup notes quickly burn off, replaced by notes of cinnamon red hots and cloves. The finish brings out the wood again, here more clearly oak than the spicy cedar you can get in standard Knob Creek, with simpler vanilla and caramel notes rounding out the finish. Don’t be afraid of a little water to smooth out the edges.

The Granite State has done a bang-up job with its single barrel selections of late, and this Knob Creek special bottling stands at perhaps the top of that list.

120 proof.

A / $47 / liquorandwineoutlets.com

Review: Trail’s End Bourbon

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In my daily life, Trail’s End refers to the popcorn that my son’s Cub Scout pack has to sell every year. Turns out it is also the name, completely unaffiliated of course, of a bourbon brand, produced by Hood River Distillers (which makes Pendleton) in Oregon.

Trail’s End is sourced bourbon from Kentucky, where it is aged for eight years. The barrels then go to Oregon, where they are “steeped with Oregon oak” for a few months before being brought down to proof and bottled. This is a new wood infusion, designed to give the whiskey a stronger wood profile.

The whiskey starts things off with a nose of classic bourbon — woody, lightly corny, studded with vanilla and, here, some almond character. The palate takes a slightly different direction, however. It starts off surprisingly hot — considerably racier than its 45% abv would indicate — then after a bit of time settles into a curious and somewhat exotic groove. I get (in time) notes of fresh mint, eucalyptus, coconut brown butter, and ample (but not overwhelming) wood. The finish is somewhat Port-like, infused with a distinct and initially jarring coffee character. This coffee note is a real rarity in the bourbon world that you don’t see much, and which has little explanation in this whisky. But that finish — both fruity and distinctly mocha-like — isn’t just a rare combination, it’s one that works surprisingly well.

Thumbs up from me.

90 proof. Reviewed: Batch No. 0002.

A- / $50 / hrdspirits.com

Review: Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon (2016)

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Earlier this year, Elijah Craig became the latest Kentucky bourbon to lose its age statement. Formerly a 12 year old release, it is now NAS, though Heaven Hill says the product will be composed of stock aged from 8 to 12 years old (200 barrels at a time) and, of course, assures us that quality will remain exactly the same. A new bottle design was recently released, which is taller, sleeker, and more modern than the old — some might say dated — design.

To prove its claims, the distillery sent out bottles of the new Elijah Craig Small Batch to see how it fares. Sadly, I haven’t any of the old 12 year old stock to compare to, but I did put this 2016 release side by side with a recent Barrel Proof release (brought down to an equivalent proof with water) to at least give some semblance of comparison to the past.

First, let’s look at the new release. It’s a sugar bomb from the get-go, simple-sugar syrup heavy on the nose with some citrus undertones plus a baking spice kick. The palate pushes that agenda pretty hard; it’s loaded to the top with sweet butterscotch, light caramel, and vanilla ice cream notes before a more sultry note of orange peel and gentler baking spice character comes to the fore. Heaven Hill reportedly uses a 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley mashbill, and the spice level here comes across about as expected with that amount of rye in the mash. It isn’t until late in the game that gentle wood notes come around, making for a duskier finish to what initially seems like a fairly straight (and sweet) shooter.

While it’s an imperfect comparison, the watered-down Barrel Proof cuts a bit of a different profile, offering more wood, more spice, and a bolder body right from the start. There’s more nuance along the way in the form of cocoa, coffee, and raisiny Port wine, but this kind of enhanced depth isn’t uncommon with a cask strength release, even if you water it down in the glass. The new standard-grade Elijah Craig doesn’t have that kind of power, but it’s also a less expensive and more accessible bourbon. Taking all that into account, it’s definitely still worth a look. The grade is on the borderline with an A-.

94 proof.

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

Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon

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Like all bartenders and spirits producers, Old Forester is in love with Prohibition — even though this period of time is hardly associated with high-quality anything. At the same time, you can barely count the number of “Prohibition Edition” spirits that have hit the market in recent years. Are we as a society really that eager to recreate the era of bathtub gin?

Perhaps it’s not all that bad. Old Forester had a license to produce a limited quantity of medicinal whiskey during the 1920s, and this release is meant to recreate that experience, its defining characteristic being bottled at a hefty 115 proof.

As the abv suggests, this is a bold and in-your-face spirit, though not quite as punchy as many cask-strength whiskies. The nose offers aromas of dried fruit and wood, both in agreeable balance, notes of dried orange, grapefruit, and mixed florals evident even through the haze of 57.5% alcohol. On the palate, the richness impresses even more, providing a chewy core that’s loaded with fruit, well-integrated oak, baking spice, and some hints of licorice. Lush and rounded, it’s a whiskey with soul — and I’m not even going to start down some road of making “ghost of Dorothy Parker” analogies, because that would be totally crazy.

Old Forester 1920 finishes on point, improving on an already impressive start as it builds to a sweet and fulfilling conclusion. Warming but not overpowering, and lengthy on the finish with echoes of both sweet fruit and dusky spices, it’s at once unusual and a classic example of how great bourbon ought to taste. In addition, it’s the clear champion of the Whiskey Row collection to date (see also 1870 and 1897). If you see it, buy it.

115 proof.

A / $60 / oldforester.com 

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Whoop & Holler American Whiskey 28 Years Old

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For this ninth release in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Project, the company has turned to George Dickel, of all places, where it has unearthed a 28 year old expression of this Tennessee classic. Produced at Cascade Hollow in Tullahoma, it is made from Dickel’s standard mash of 84% corn, 8% rye, and 8% malted barley, and is put through the sugar maple charcoal mellowing process that is standard for Tennessee whiskeys.

At a whopping 28 years old, Whoop & Holler is the oldest whiskey in the Orphan Barrel Project releases to date. Considering Dickel just released its own 17 year old expression (which was already starting to feel a bit tired), this makes for a fine little comparison.

Things start off promising. The nose is sweet with notes of honey, orange peel, and a touch of brown sugar. The aroma is quite fresh on the whole, surprisingly youthful considering its age.

On the palate, more surprises await. This ought to be a wood bomb, but in reality the oak is dialed down, at least at first, as if the barrel gave up everything it had to the whiskey, then just decided to take a long break. Sweetness hits before any oak elements, a light butterscotch fading into notes of pencil shavings. Hints of eucalyptus and clove emerge, but these are fleeting.

And then, like that, it’s completely gone. Whoop & Holler fades away faster than Johnny Manziel, finally unleashing more of its charcoal-laden, wood-heavy side as the finish arrives. But this finish is short and unremarkable, drying up into nothing and proving itself a tragic dead end for an otherwise promising whiskey.

Bottom line: Needs less whoop, more holler.

84 proof.

B / $175 / orphanbarrel.com