Review: Four Roses 2016 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon “Elliott’s Select”

2009Limited Edition- 173

Astute readers might recall that in January 2015, Four Roses discontinued its annual Limited Edition Single Barrel releases, citing a shortage of available stock to produce it. Then beloved distiller Jim Rutledge retired and Brent Elliott got promoted to the job. Somewhere, Elliott found enough 14 year old, lower-rye OESK-recipe bourbon to revive the bottling — which this year runs 8,000 (hand-numbered) bottles in size. (That’s about double the typical size of a Four Roses LE Single Barrel release.)

The yearly Single Barrel releases only use one of the famed 10 Four Roses recipes. The last time OESK was used was in 2012, which was bottled at a somewhat younger 12 years old and at about 109 proof.

Tasting the 2016 — Elliott’s first solo release as master distiller — reveals plenty to like. It’s a much different whiskey than the 2012, which is today showcasing butterscotch, gingerbread, and loads of baking spices before heading toward a winey, very sweet chocolaty finish. In contrast, the 2016 offers aromas of marzipan, green olive, barrel char, and a little toasted coconut. The palate deftly blends sweet and spicy, notes of black pepper folding in nicely to those of a crusty fruit pie, more almonds, vanilla, and some curious notes of fig and — again — green olive. The interfplay is fun. The finish woody but easily approachable.

Altogether a very solid whiskey for Mr. Elliott. Let’s see what’s next.

As a single barrel release, proof varies; figure around 116.8 proof.

A- / $125 / fourrosesbourbon.com

Review: 1792 Full Proof Bourbon

1792 Full Proof Bottle

The latest (and fourth) limited edition release in the recently emergent 1792 Bourbon line is this one: “Full Proof,” a kind of weird way to denote that the bottling proof was the same as the entry proof into the barrel.

Note, this isn’t quite the same thing as cask strength. Says 1792’s creator, Sazerac:

Bottled at the same proof it was originally entered into the barrel, the bourbon was distilled, aged, and bottled at the historic Barton 1792 Distillery. New oak barrels were filled with 125 proof distillate in the fall of 2007 and left to age in Warehouses E, N, and I for eight and a half years. Warehouse I is one of the oldest warehouses at Barton 1792 Distillery. All of these warehouses are seven stories high, metal clad, with concrete bottom floors, and windows all the way around the outside, allowing some direct sunlight inside. After the barrels were emptied, the bourbon underwent a distinct filtering process, forgoing the typical chill filtration, and instead was only passed through a plate and frame filter.  This allowed the bourbon to maintain a robust 125 proof for bottling.

I’m not 100% sure what that last part means — 1792 surely rises above 125 proof during aging and has to be cut down a bit to reach 125 proof again —  but the point is that 1792 Full Proof is an overproof expression of the standard bottling. Here’s how it acquits itself.

On the nose, notes of cocoa powder and cocoa nibs engage with rather dense, toasty sawdust. Some notes of ripe banana — perhaps banana bread — emerge in time as undercurrents. On the palate, it’s quite a racy whiskey, fiery and a bit harsh at times. There’s sweetness underneath, but it is masked by a ton of wood, charcoal, and licorice notes, which endure on the finish with a sultry ashiness. Water helps, tempering the wood notes and letting some baking spice show through, but it dulls the experience. In the end, it remains a little muddy, finishing a bit like a damp cinnamon roll — nothing offensive, but just a bit off structurally.

125 proof.

B / $45 / 1792bourbon.com

How to Build a Better Bourbon: The Science Behind Buffalo Trace and the Lessons of the Single Oak Project

What better industry could you hope to work in today than the bourbon business? America’s official spirit has never been in better shape. U.S. bourbon sales have risen from 118 million liters in 2000 to 174 million liters last year, and bourbon is increasingly beloved on the global stage. Plus: Free bourbon.

Across Kentucky, quite a few distilleries are taking full advantage of the boom times, doing away with “age statements” on bottles that promise the whiskey inside is, say, “8 years old.” This lets them squeeze out a little more hooch by releasing a younger and younger spirit. As long as the customers don’t revolt, anyway.

So far they haven’t. Prices are going up. Sales show no signs of stopping.

MarkBrownIt’s in this comfortable position that one curious man is finding himself increasingly in the spotlight. Mark Brown is the CEO of the Sazerac Company, a mammoth distilling operation that owns 250-some brands, all the way down to bottom-shelf rotgut like Kentucky Tavern and Crown Russe (slogan: “Finest Vodka Made”). It’s junk that pays the bills for Brown’s passion: Buffalo Trace, a beloved, high-end whiskey operation that produces some of the most noteworthy brands in the bourbon business, including the now feverishly demanded Pappy van Winkle.

Unlike most distillery bosses, Brown isn’t a seventh-generation southerner with a century of bourbon in his blood. He’s not even from America at all. Brown was born in 1957 in a tiny town south of London. After a stint behind the bar at his parents’ pub, he moved here in the ‘70s and worked his way up to the top of the 165-year-old Sazerac. He became Sazerac’s CEO in 1997 and a U.S. citizen in 2006.

The lanky, bespectacled, and wildly energetic CEO now oversees an empire of filled whiskey barrels patiently aging in Buffalo Trace’s many rickhouses in Frankfort, Kentucky (and wherever else it has been able to grab some land). Only four years ago, the company had an aging capacity of 350,000 barrels. Now it has space for nearly twice that – and growing – which has Buffalo Trace buying up land and building new, 50,000-barrel warehouses at a rate of one every five months.

harlan_wheatleyBrown should be coasting, but he’s using Buffalo Trace’s growing coffers not to pad his pockets but to launch one of the industry’s most ambitious scientific investigations into how whiskey should be made. About two years ago, Buffalo Trace formally opened Warehouse X, a tiny brick building with four climate-controlled chambers that the company is using to age whiskey in an environment where every imaginable variable is under the company’s control. Temperature, air flow, humidity, air pressure… everything is monitored by computer and controlled by Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, Harlan Wheatley, the man who convinced Brown to invest over a million dollars into what amounts to an insulated brick shack housing a grand science experiment. Even Brown seems like he’s still talking himself into it, invariably wringing his hands and visibly clenching his teeth when the cost of all this work mentioned (which is often). But he clearly has the bug, confessing to “a nagging doubt that if you aren’t continually improving, you risk someone catching up to you. You can’t rest on your laurels.”

The first experiment being undertaken here is an inquiry into whether light impacts the way whiskey ages in the barrel. Two of the Warehouse X chambers are in 24-hour darkness. One offers full sunlight. One is shaded to 50 percent brightness. (Control barrels sit in the “breezeway” and essentially mimic sitting outside.) It sounds silly. Can a little light shining on an opaque barrel seriously have an impact on the whiskey inside? Just eight months in, Wheatley says that differences between the chambers have already begun show up in the whiskeys – both the changing alcohol level inside and how the spirits taste. The light experiment will run for a total of two years. The results will impact the size of the windows Buffalo Trace builds into its future warehouses.

And that’s just step one. Brown and Wheatley have 20 years’ worth of experiments lined up for the space so far, designed to answer questions like whether a longer fermentation makes for better whiskey years down the road. Or whether staves cut from very old trees make for better barrels (and better bourbon). “I believe the perfect bourbon has not yet been made,” Brown says flatly.

One Bourbon to Rule Them All?

Scientific inquiry isn’t a new idea at Buffalo Trace. An even bigger experiment got its start over a decade ago in the form of the company’s Single Oak Project. At the time, the duo identified seven major variables that might impact how finished bourbon turns out. These range from whether the whiskey uses wheat or rye as a flavoring grain, whether newly-distilled white dog goes into the barrel at 105 or 125 proof, and even whether the wood used to make the barrel was crafted from the bottom half of a tree or the top half of a tree. Buffalo Trace laid down 192 barrels, each one unique, and it has been releasing the finished product to the public over the last four years.

Consumers were invited to weigh in on each bottle’s quality via a website. Over the years, Buffalo Trace amassed more than 5,000 consumer reviews, along with professional critics’ ratings. Last June, the company crunched the numbers – the most delightful big data project ever – and took the five highest-rated whiskeys (excluding bottles that didn’t get enough votes to be statistically valid) through a competitive tasting. A panel of 11 whiskey pros (including this writer) were almost unanimous on the winner. Barrel #80 will be recreated precisely to that barrel’s unique production specifications, then branded as it becomes part of Buffalo Trace’s permanent lineup. It will be ready for release in 2023.

In the meantime, Brown will have to occupy himself with his distillery’s continued, breakneck expansion, plus the mountain of data he’s collected about the SOP. I’ve done some of the work for him in the sections that follow, but Brown is already looking ahead at multivariable analysis of the data, how significant randomness is in an experiment like this, and the daunting concern over whether barrel #80 was a fluke. “I have to forecast eight years’ worth of sales of a new whiskey brand before one bottle is released. How much should I make in year one? 10,000 cases? 20,000 cases?” he asks, and not quite rhetorically.

Such questions don’t have easy answers, but Brown at least has plenty of lubricant to help grease the wheels of inquiry. 25 million gallons of it, actually, all sleeping quietly in his backyard.

What Difference Can (Half) a Tree Make?

Ready to dig into the data of how various production factors impacted consumer opinions about the finished whiskey eight years later? Get ready for some serious number-crunching…

1

Average ratings weren’t much impacted by tree cut – whether a barrel was made from the top of a tree or the bottom of the tree — but its impact can be seen at the edges of the chart. Good whiskeys were improved by being aged in barrels made from the bottom of the tree, while otherwise lesser whiskeys got worse. Brown hypothesizes that nutrients are more concentrated in the lower parts of trunks and thus have a bigger impact on the whiskey, for better or worse.

2

On the whole, the grain of the barrel wood had no real impact on the average score, but the trendline shows some interesting results for tight-grained barrels. Lower-scoring whiskeys saw a significant improvement from the tight wood grain, while higher-scoring whiskeys saw their ratings dampened.

The Best Little Warehouse in Kentucky

3

Warehouse design is a hotly debated topic. Newer designs favor buildings largely made of concrete, which have better fire and spill containment features, but older wooden rickhouses – breezier and more susceptible to temperature swings – are still commonly used. While a few top barrels were aged in concrete warehouses (including the winner), by and large, the wooden rickhouses turned out better whiskeys – with an average 1.7% improvement in tasters’ scores. This was the largest single factor affecting average ratings in the entire experiment.

4

But it turns out even identical warehouses can turn out different spirits. Warehouses M and N are constructed identically, face the same direction, and are situated about 50 feet from each other. But whiskey ages differently in these two environments. After four years, barrels in Warehouse N average 127.9 proof, while those in Warehouse M hit just 124.8 proof. And this spread gets wider with each passing year. The company has yet to explain why this is happening. (This wasn’t a factor in the Single Oak Project, as all the barrels were aged in the same warehouse, but it remains a key issue when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of barrels that, by necessity, have to age in somewhat different places.)

5

It’s commonly said that higher floors of any warehouse – no matter the design – age whiskey faster than lower floors, thanks to those blazing hot Kentucky summers and the fact that heat rises. Most cult whiskeys, like George T. Stagg, are high-alcohol beasts that can spend over a decade at the tops of these warehouses. But it turns out this isn’t always a linear function. In its nine-floor Warehouse I, Buffalo Trace found that the highest rate of proof increase took place on the 6th floor, followed by the 4th. The company posits that increased air flow on those floors is the reason for the discrepancy. Floor number was not varied in the Single Oak Project. (The prior two graphics are courtesy of Buffalo Trace.)

What’s in a Grain?

6

Bourbon is made primarily from corn, but rye and wheat are the two most common “flavoring grains,” used to give bourbon a unique personality. Rye is increasingly popular in the market, but some of the most popular bourbons, including Pappy van Winkle, are wheated. While the top whiskey in the Single Oak Project was made with rye, the trendline shows a surprising, general preference for wheat among consumers.

More Than a Sum of Its Parts

Now here’s an interesting conundrum. We know, for each of the seven categories tested, what the average rating for the various bourbons made using that specific production method was. For each variable, one factor outscored the other(s). For example, we know that wheated bourbons outscored rye bourbons by 0.67%. We know that 105 entry proof bourbons outscored 125 entry proof bourbons by 0.46%. In theory, we can take all of those aggregated, winning attributes and make a theoretically perfect bourbon, which would look like this (the level of improvement over the alternative is in parenthesis for each favor):

  • from a wheated recipe (0.67% higher rating)
  • aged on wooden ricks (1.67% higher rating)
  • stored in a barrel from the bottom of the tree (0.13% higher rating)
  • the barrel staves should have 12 months of seasoning (1.04% higher rating)
  • the wood should have average grain (0.03% higher rating vs. both tight and coarse grain)
  • the barrel should be a #4 char (0.14% higher rating)
  • 105 entry proof (0.46% higher rating)

This exact whiskey was in fact produced in the Single Oak Project: Barrel #124. Winner it was not. Its composite score was a 6.45 out of 10, which was the fourth-worst-rated whiskey in the entire experiment. That’s a key lesson to be drawn from the data: These variables may interact in ways far more complex than a few spreadsheets can describe.

In contrast, here’s what the winning barrel, Barrel #80, looked like:

  • from a rye recipe
  • aged on concrete ricks
  • stored in a barrel from the bottom of the tree
  • the barrel staves had 12 months of seasoning
  • the wood had average grain
  • the barrel had a #4 char
  • 125 entry proof

Of the seven “ideal” variables, Barrel #80 complied with just four of them.

The ultimate lesson from the Single Oak Project may very well be, just like the old moonshiners used to tell us, that whiskeymaking is more art than science after all.

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric Bourbon 22 Years Old

rhetoric 22 years old

Diageo’s Orphan Barrel project has an ambitious goal with the Rhetoric brand. First released as a 20 year old in 2014, it was further aged and reissued as a 21 year old last year, and as a 22 year old this month. 23, 24, and 25 year olds will be forthcoming through the remainder of the decade.

We have had the good fortune to taste the new release alongside both the 20 and 21… a practice we hope to keep running over the course of the six whiskey releases (supplies in our stock permitting).

Here’s how Rhetoric 22 (still 86% corn, 8% barley, 6% rye, distilled at Bernheim in the early 1990s) shapes up against its forebears.

At age 22, Rhetoric is showing ample wood — one might say it’s become the primary focus of the bourbon at this point in its life — though the nose backs that up with some aromas of Port wine and a touch of orange peel. On the palate, barrel char and lumberyard hit first, followed by soothing vanilla and toffee notes. Secondary notes run to red fruits, namely raspberries, plus heavy notes of cloves and mint chocolate. This is a quite complex whiskey, with a lengthy finish. There’s ample heat here, which is surprising given that the whiskey is barely 45% abv, but a couple of drops of water help it open up.

Looking back, I like the 21 a bit less now than I did upon last year. It is now showing a bit heavy on winey notes up front, though the lovely brown sugar character that cascades on the lightly woody finish are still working well. The 20 year old is still showing well, with stronger menthol notes and sizable wood character on the finish.

90.4 proof.

A- / $110 / diageo.com

Review: Ol’ Major Bacon Flavored Bourbon

Ol' Major with Bacon

Another whiskey from Branded Spirits… this one with a major (and obvious) spin.

To start with the basics: This is real whiskey flavored with real bacon. The bourbon is an 88% corn mash made by Terressentia, the bacon if from an Oklahoma pork producer. The flavoring and bottling operation takes place in Nashville; this involves taking nitrous aerosolized bacon, injecting it into the bourbon, and then filtering it heavily to remove the solids.

Hands down this is the best bacon-flavored spirit I’ve encountered to date. Slightly meaty, slightly salty, the pure bacon essence grows stronger as it evolves in the glass. On the palate a maple syrup character is prominent, with those classic bacon notes building on the lingering, slightly smoky finish.

Consider me pleasantly surprised. While it sips surprisingly well, it’s definitely made for mixing — try it in an Old Fashioned or a Bloody Mary.

70 proof.

A- / $25 / brandedspiritsusa.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Infrared Light Wave Experiments

buffalo trace infrared

Never one to shy away from wacky experiments, Buffalo Trace’s latest bourbon has gone straight off the reservation. The trick this time? Exposing barrels to infrared light waves before giving them a light char. Eight barrels total were made, four irradiated for 15 minutes, four for 30 minutes.

The full details are wonky and intricate. Here’s the gist direct from BT:

Working with barrel cooper Independent Stave Company in 2009, eight special barrels were constructed. All eight first underwent the same process as standard Buffalo Trace barrels, staves were open air seasoned for six months before being made into barrels.

Then, the barrels were divided into two groups and subjected to two different levels of infrared light waves.  The first group of four barrels underwent 15 minutes of both short wave and medium wave frequency at 70% power.  The second group of four barrels was subjected to 30 minutes of both short wave and medium wave frequency at 60% power. The barrels were then given a quick #1 (or 15 seconds) char, before finally being filled with Buffalo Trace’s Bourbon Mash #1.

All eight barrels were aged for 6 1/2 years (notably shorter than many of BT’s other experiments) before bottling at 90 proof.

Does “dry heat” improve barrel quality over traditional flame-charring? It’s time to taste these experiments and see if the Trace was on to anything.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Infrared Light Wave Experiment 15 Minutes – A quiet whiskey, with a nose of brown sugar, butterscotch, and honeysuckle flowers. The palate is a bit bolder than the nose would indicate, slightly nutty with some nougat-flavored sweetness. The wood influence is mild but not absent, making for a gentle and pleasant, if unremarkable, finish. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Infrared Light Wave Experiment 30 Minutes – Theoretically these barrels should have more of a wood influence, and that’s evident from the start. The nose has a stronger presence, with heavier spice notes — cloves, mainly — plus a distinct almond character. The body is bolder, the palate richer with more baking spice, solid nuttiness, and some brown butter notes. Hints of raisin and dried figs emerge with time, with the finish echoing those baking spices. The influence of wood is omnipresent here, but it never comes across with dusty lumberyard notes. Rather, there’s a gentle vanilla component that layers itself over the full experience. This is a better whiskey than the 15 minute version, with a better developed nose and body. B+

Did Buffalo Trace strike gold with this infrared treatment? The process doesn’t seem to hurt, but my rough analysis based on these limited samples is that it’s no replacement for good old flame-charred barrels and didn’t really seem to add anything to the finished product. As gimmicks though, it may not be a new killer treatment for whiskey barrels, but at least its impact seems to have been mostly harmless (which is better than can be said for some experimental processes).

each $46 per 375ml bottle / buffalotrace.com

Review: The Hilhaven Lodge Whiskey

Hilhaven Lodge whiskey bottle shot

The Hilhaven Lodge is a funny name for a whiskey. That’s because the name also belongs to a home in Beverly Hills. It’s been part of Hollywoodland since 1927 (Ingrid Bergman owned and James Caan rented it at one point) and is now owned by director Brett Ratner, best known as the director of Rush Hour. What does Ratner have to do with whiskey? Not much — except that, like most of us, he’s a big fan.

Ratner obviously had enough credibility to get a deal with Diageo, and together they blended up a wacky new whiskey. It’s a marriage of “three different styles of whiskey spanning three decades – bourbon from the 2000s, Tennessee whiskey from the 1990s, and rye whiskey from the 1980s.” If I’m reading that correctly, then there is some whiskey in here that’s at least 27 years old — all for 40 bucks.

That said, the producers don’t offer any more specifics than the above (including provenance, proportions, mashbills, or aging specifics). The whiskey however is bottled at Stitzel-Weller and is currently available in California and Florida. (Also of note, a 2015 trademark lawsuit between Ratner and Heaven Hill went in favor of Ratner, and a trademark for Hilhaven Lodge was granted.)

Rye-bourbon blends are becoming increasingly popular, but adding in some Tennessee whiskey, too? That’s definitely a new one. Anyway, let’s give this oddball blend a taste and see what the director of Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson, knows about whiskey, shall we?

On first blush, it doesn’t come across as particularly old, though the nose is loaded with dessert-like notes, including butterscotch, vanilla, and nougat. Some drying, rye-driven spice emerges with time in glass along with a curious and unusual, seaweed-like maritime note.

The palate is dominated by all of the above, but the body is quite light and feathery, a bit of char coming forward at times, with ample caramel notes throughout. Moderately fruity as the finish develops, it’s lively with apple, banana, and just a hint of tropical character — but in the end, it’s some leathery, wood-heavy notes that fade away last, leaving the palate a bit dry but, to be honest, ready for another round.

Despite the exotic blend, Hilhaven Lodge drinks primarily like a bourbon — a solid one, but a rather plain one, to be sure. That said, given its approachable price and solid construction, it’s hard not to recommend whiskey fans at least give it a go.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / diageo.com