Review: Booker’s Bourbon “Off Your Rocker” 2016-05 and “Noe Hard Times” 2016-06

In December of 2016, Beam Suntory informed the public that enjoying a bottle of Booker’s batches in 2017 will come affixed with a price increase of an additional $40 over suggested retail, resulting in a $99 price tag. The explanation included the customary press release rhetoric of supply/demand and a reduction in release schedule from six to four times per year. The news was not met well with everyone, from consumers and critics all the way up to distributors and store buyers. Beam Suntory’s not so subtle attempt to elevate Booker’s unto the ranks of Pappy van Winkle backfired and flopped, and the company backed off weeks later. Given the recent fanfare surrounding the brand, it seemed an appropriate time as any to test drive the final two batches of 2016.

Booker’s Batch 2016-05 “Off Your Rocker” – A most appropriate nickname for this expression. This is very much a “Noe holds barred” bottle, deceptively powerful for only being 6 1/2 years old. The near-65% abv is quite evident right from the nose with a nice blend of charred oak and the signature combination of vanilla and tobacco that was customarily present in the pre-nickname Booker’s era. The alcohol refuses to sit back unless you add a bit of water to the mix, which brings out dark chocolate, pepper, and a little bit of cherry. The finish is long and strong, with more black cherry and vanilla that eventually eases up over time to provide a mild relief. A big and boisterous affair, much like the bourbon’s namesake himself, if legend is to be believed. 129.7 proof. $60 / A-

Booker’s Batch 2016-06 “Noe Hard Times” – Taking the volume down from Off Your Rocker’s 11 to about 8 1/2, “Noe Hard Times” (a tribute to Noe’s highschool football nickname) has plenty of vanilla dancing about on the nose, but it’s a tad lighter on the oak and alcohol notes when contrasted against other releases in the class of 2016. A bit of toffee, burnt brown sugar and a lovely medium length finish of dark cherry and vanilla. 127.8 proof. $60 / B+

This is not the last we will see of Beam Suntory’s strategic moves regarding Booker’s. Price increases are still slated to happen gradually and will reach the higher tier price points by late 2017/early 2018. If Booker’s is your brand, it may be best to stock up now. These two would be suitable places to start.

Bookersbourbon.com

Review: Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Alabama-based Clyde May’s recently added two new straight bourbons to its lineup. Unlike its prior whiskey releases, these are unfinished and unflavored with apple (or other seasonings) and thus represent a more traditional bourbon style. Which is, I suppose, what they really are.

Both of the new whiskeys are sourced from an unknown supplier in Kentucky (not Indiana). The Straight Bourbon is 5 years old. A cask strength offering, not reviewed here, is 8 years old. There’s not a ton of information on its production, except that “this non-chill filtered straight bourbon is a classic 5-year-old, easy drinking spirit. Using simple and traditional ingredients, the bourbon mash is patiently aged in heavily “alligator” charred new American oak barrels.”

And it is indeed a perfectly serviceable rendition of a five year old American bourbon. The nose is lightly spicy (a moderate rye mash, I’d guess) and heavy with barrel char notes, vanilla, and cocoa powder. On the palate, the sweet vanilla notes roll into light touches of orange peel, some nutmeg, and a hint of bitter licorice on the back end. A lingering finish evokes popcorn and more rustic barrel char — perhaps indicative of this being bottled a year too soon? — with a drying, savory fade-out.

92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #CM-079. (Though it’s hard to tell if this is a legit batch number or just flavor text on every label.)

B+ / $40 / clydemays.com

Review: Wyoming Whiskey Barrel Strength Bourbon

Wyoming’s first legal distillery, Wyoming Whiskey, only began production in 2009, but despite its youth the distillery already has an impressive portfolio of its own aged whiskeys. These include a Small Batch, Single Barrel, and Bonded Straight American Whiskey. Of course the rarest of them all has received the most excitement in the whiskey world of late. Released in the fall of 2015, the extremely limited Barrel Strength Bourbon was a run of only 111 bottles from two leaking “honey” barrels filled in the distillery’s first year. Only 96 of those bottles actually made it to retail, with slightly more than half bottled at 120 proof (the rest at 116 proof).

The distillery says that Sam Mead, Wyoming Whiskey’s head distiller, identified the two barrels as being of high quality even before they started to leak significantly. The accelerated oxidation elevated the whiskey into another class entirely, and a new addition to the Wyoming Whiskey lineup was born. So how good is it?

The first thing to jump out on this whiskey is its deep copper color. On the nose, the unusual oxidation comes through immediately with wet oak and mustiness at first, but that quickly fades to freshly baked oatmeal cookies, buttery cinnamon, and a little mint. On the palate, there’s a gentle heat up front and big flavors of molasses and oily, Madagascar vanilla that give way to black tea, cardamom, and spearmint. The finish has fading notes of allspice and anise. It seems a tad short, but maybe only because I really want that next sip.

Even though it’s on the younger side (under six years), Wyoming Whiskey’s Barrel Strength Bourbon drinks with the balance and refinement of a whiskey twice its age. If not for the initial “rickhouse quality” in this whiskey, it would rival some of the best barrel strength bourbons of the last few years. Unfortunately, this bottle is beyond rare and not exactly cheap, but if you find it, by all means buy a pour. And take the whole bottle home if you can.

120 proof.

A / $199 / wyomingwhiskey.com

Review: Joseph Magnus Straight Bourbon Whiskey

The Jos. A. Magnus Distillery can be found in Washington, DC, and its home in the capital is only fitting, considering the company is making some of the most interesting whiskey in America. Joseph Magnus & Co. was a distillery founded in 1892 — and reestablished by Magnus’s great grandson over 100 years later. Inspired by some dusty old bottles of original Magnus bourbon, the new distilling team — which is full of American whiskey luminaries — attempted to recreate the original spirit. The secret sauce: finishing in a variety of different types of barrels. Nine-year old bourbon distillate (sourced from MGP) goes into three finishing barrels — Pedro Ximinez sherry, Oloroso sherry, and Cognac — before bottling.

On the nose, the ochre-hued Joseph Magnus offers a rich array of aromas, focusing on roasted nuts, coffee, dried fruits, and incense. Subtle notes of furniture polish give it quite a bit of depth and many layers of intrigue. The palate doesn’t let you down, offering a relatively racy attack that speaks first of citrus, chocolate, and cloves. As it develops in the glass, the bourbon takes on more wine-forward notes, which meld interestingly with the darker coffee notes and the sweeter vanilla and caramel characteristics that bubble up after some air time. The finish echoes barrel char from the original time in cask, giving the rich and somewhat oily whiskey a relatively traditional bourbonesque exit.

Really fun stuff. Worth seeking out.

100 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3.

A- / $80 / josephmagnus.com

Review: Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel 11 Years Old

Over the last few years, the craft whiskey world has seen several distilleries criticized for a lack of transparency about the exact origin of the liquid in their bottles. Some of these producers have perhaps been unfairly judged while others deserved their fate (ahem, Templeton), but Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton, West Virginia has never had to worry about any of that. They’ve proudly worn the label of “artisan merchant bottler” and gladly advertised their careful selection of sourced whiskeys (mostly from MGP of Indiana) instead of treating it like a dirty little secret. These whiskeys carry the label Old Scout, as in “scouted” whiskey, and they complement a diverse portfolio that also includes Yearling Bourbon Whiskey and a forthcoming mature, wheated bourbon, both distilled in-house.

Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a 7 year bourbon bottled at 99 proof, has been a staple of Smooth Ambler’s whiskey offerings since they opened their doors in 2009. Only recently has the distillery made available a single barrel version, bottled at various ages (none younger than 7 years) and cask strength (typically between 109 and 118 proof). Like the standard offerings, these single barrels are all high rye bourbons with a mashbill of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. According to Smooth Ambler’s Master Distiller, John Little, the sourced barrels are aged for some period of time in the West Virginia climate and minimally filtered (without chill filtration) to retain the original, “straight-from-the-barrel” quality of the whiskey.

The bourbon has a great caramel sauce color. The nose is big, with cinnamon, cocoa powder, and ripe peach. On the palate, a minty spice and gentle tannins accompany flavors of toasted vanilla bean and Werther’s Original candies. The body is a little thin, but that’s not entirely disappointing as it makes this bourbon that much more drinkable. The finish is medium in length with more vanilla and a little orange zest.

John Little and his team at Smooth Ambler are right to be proud. They sure do pick em’ good in West Virginia.

109.6 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #2064.

A / $60 / smoothambler.com

How to Make a Flawless Manhattan Cocktail

Prohibition-era cocktails are absolutely booming in popularity right now, so it should come as no surprise that curious drinkers are looking for easy-to-craft period-style cocktails to try and learn. The manhattan has a lot going for it to the novice mixologist: it’s delicious, it looks lovely, and it’s very easy to make. If you’ve ever had a manhattan in a bar or a restaurant and want to try your hand at making your own, follow along!

To start, let’s gather our equipment together. A typical manhattan is served in a cocktail glass (same thing as a martini glass), though there are plenty of establishments that serve theirs in a more simple highball or even rocks glass. The stem of the cocktail glass will keep your fingers from warming your drink; this is important because the best manhattan is served ice-cold. Other than the glass you’re going to serve your drink in, you need a mixing glass and a strainer.

In the glass, a manhattan is a mix of bourbon or rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry. This is the real meat of the manhattan experience; with so many different styles of whiskey and vermouth, you can suit the drink to your own taste, or the taste of whoever you’re serving to. Let’s go through each of these in turn.

First up, you have to answer the age-old mixologist question: bourbon or rye? With the popularity of the ‘authentic’ manhattan, there are those who would scoff at anything other than rye whiskey, which was how the drink was made in the 1870s when it was first invented. Bourbon will make your drink sweeter, since the corn used to make bourbon is sweeter than the rye used to make rye whiskey. Considering you’re adding sweet vermouth and a cherry, the addition of a sweeter bourbon like Maker’s Mark might be overkill, but on the other hand if you’re just getting into mixology, you might be looking for a sweeter drink. If you decide to go with bourbon, the vanilla candy of the aforementioned Maker’s is a popular choice, as are the more balanced tastes of Four Roses or Eagle Rare. If you want a more rugged, traditional rye manhattan, Bulleit is a popular, inexpensive choice, and if High West has made a bad whiskey, we haven’t yet tried it. Of course, if you want a truly flawless manhattan, WhistlePig is a pricey but excellent choice: 100% rye, dry and spicy, which will imbue your drink with pepper and subtle cinnamon.

So you have your whiskey, now what about vermouth? Vermouth is Italian wine, fortified and imbued with all manner of bitter herbs and roots, like a cross between a port and an aperitif liqueur. You use dry vermouth in martinis, and sweet vermouth in manhattans (with the exception of variants like the dry manhattan and perfect manhattan, which we won’t delve into in this post). If you’ve already picked up the WhistlePig, do yourself a favor and complement it with a bottle of Carpano Antica vermouth, which is complex, cola- and chocolate-sweet while at the same time herbal and bitter. It’s perfect for a manhattan, and not bad on its own before a meal. Other choices, depending on the whiskey used, could be Punt e Mes, which is darker and richer and bolder than most other sweet vermouths, and the lightly sweet, anise-tinged Maurin Red. And when you’re done with mixing for the night, don’t forget that vermouth is a wine and can spoil, so keep it refrigerated to make it last longer.

What about bitters and a cherry? For bitters, the traditional Angostura bitters work perfectly, just a couple dashes to bring out the bitterness of the whiskey and the vermouth and give your drink a few more layers to contemplate. Woodford Reserve has made a series of bitters designed just for manhattans, as well. Its cherry bitters could be perfect for a bourbon-based cocktail. For a cherry, Luxardo’s claim as one of the innovators of the maraschino cherry is something to consider; if you don’t mind spending a lot on a bottle of cherries they really are delicious. Otherwise, simple Bing cherries aren’t so overwhelmingly sweet as others, and of course Woodford has you covered for specialty cocktail cherries, as well.

So you have all of your ingredients? Then let’s put everything together! The typical manhattan uses a 2:1 ratio for whiskey and vermouth, though your mileage may vary if you want a little more of a kick from the whiskey, or a little more sweetness from the vermouth. In addition to the vermouth and whiskey, add 2 or 3 dashes of bitters, to taste. Before you start mixing, chill your cocktail glass and your mixing glass in the freezer for 15 minutes or so, then put the whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, along with plenty of ice, into the mixing glass. Stir, don’t shake, to mix; like gin, whiskey can bruise easily, which will leave your cocktail muddled and rough. Chilling your glassware should make sure that your drink stays cold without the need to shake. Strain the concoction from the mixing glass to the cocktail glass, garnish with a cherry, and you’re done! It’s a couple of brief minutes of work to create one of the tastiest, easiest cocktails there is.

Review: Hooker’s House Whiskey Experiments – Cohabitation 7/21, Epicenter, Wheat Whiskey, and Rye (2016)

Prohibition Spirits in Sonoma, California is the producer of Hooker’s House whiskey, a line which began with a bourbon and has exploded since then. Today we look at three new bottlings, plus take a fresh look at the company’s rye.

As always, Hooker’s House sources its product from MGP, but all expressions are finished in California, sometimes aggressively and for many years. Let’s dig in.

Hooker’s House Bourbon Cohabitation 7/21 – A solera-style blend of straight bourbon aged in American and French oak, with barrels ranging from 7 to 21 years old. Surprisingly, there’s lots of fruit here, both cherries and orange peel strong on a nose that otherwise offers a fair amount of toasty wood influence. Some mint emerges with a bit of time, as well. On the palate, things follow along as expected. The fruit remains impressive, particularly the cherry character that melds enticingly with notes of eucalyptus, more orange peel, and some cloves. The finish is fairly wood-heavy, a bit ashy at times, but nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it’s a reasonably gentle reminder of the hefty amount of time this bourbon (at least some of it) has spent in barrel, and a badge proving it has come through that ordeal for the better. 94 proof. A / $95

Hooker’s House Epicenter Magnitude 6.0 – This is bottled from high-rye bourbon barrels that were aging in Hooker’s House warehouses during a 6.0 earthquake that Sonoma experienced in 2014. The epicenter of the quake was just three miles away. “Micro-vibrated,” per the label, the whiskey experience 500 aftershocks in the months that followed. No age statement is offered, but the nose indicates mid-range maturity with lingering cereal notes and a significant wood profile. The palate surprises with a sugar bomb of a profile, taking your mind off of the lumberyard for a bit to showcase some tropical pineapple, peach, and brown sugar notes, though the finish is punchy with a resurgence of wood (which is enhanced by the whiskey’s racy 56% abv). I’m not sure what impact the earthquake and aftershocks truly had on this spirit, but I do know it could have stood a bit more time in barrel, tremors or no. 112 proof. B / $47

Hooker’s House Wheat Whiskey – A single barrel, 100% wheat whiskey, quite unusual in the market, but fitting for an avant garde producer like Prohibition. This bottling is youthful, offering loads of fresh cereal notes with a significant sweetness. There’s lumberyard here too, but it’s kept in check by a ton of grassy character, which comes across with the essence of fresh hay, with a touch of rosemary. The finish, much like the bulk of what’s come before it, is quite grainy and simplistic, but pleasant enough. 90 proof. / $33

Hooker’s House Rye (2016) – We’ve seen Hooker’s Rye before, on original release in 2013. As it was then, it remains a 95% rye that is finished in Zinfandel barrels, just like the older version. (The HH website mentions a 100% rye, but the bottle says otherwise.) As it did in 2013, this sounds like it’ll be a masterful mix of spice and sweet, but the balance between the two still isn’t quite right. The nose is lightly astringent and features heavy lumberyard notes with a strongly herbal, at times anise-like, influence. The body features a quick rush of raisiny sweetness before diving headlong back into heavy wood and dusky, earthy, herbal notes — think cloves, anise, and scorched grains. The back end offers a distant echo of raisiny sweetness, but it’s a long time coming. 94 proof. B / $45

prohibition-spirits.com

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