Review: Booker’s Bourbon “Toogie’s Invitation” 2016-03

 

bookers 2016-03 toogies invitationBooker’s special editions keep rolling out — this one the third limited edition to hit in 2016.

Here’s some production information to chew on.

This batch is named in honor of Marilyn “Toogie” Dick, a lifelong friend of founding distiller Booker Noe. Toogie was part of the “original roundtable,” gathering at Booker’s kitchen table with family and friends to help select some of the first Booker’s batches. She had a standing invitation from the Noe family and even traveled around the world with Booker and his wife, Annis, on behalf of Booker’s Bourbon. Aged 6 years, 4 months and 4 days, “Toogie’s Invitation” is culled from barrels located in six different rack houses.

This is a rather young expression of Booker’s, and it’s evident from the start. The nose is hot — hotter than usual — showcasing notes of popcorn, cracked grains, and burnt hazelnuts — at least if you can muddle through the heavy alcohol aromas.

On the palate, the bourbon feels slightly thin and a bit underdone. Notes of caramel and butterscotch are easy to pick up, as is more of that (thankfully unscorched) hazelnut character. But this is all folded into a body that is redolent of rubber and motor oil and wood that’s been left out in the rain. Booker’s has always been a brash whiskey, but here it never gets beyond its most basic characteristics. Where’s the chocolate and fruit? The baking spice? The finish instead offers has its focus on rougher notes of gravel and tar, with just a light sprinkle of brown sugar crystals to give it some life.

This clearly isn’t my favorite expression of Booker’s, but at least it’s instructive in showcasing how wildly different these different batches of this bourbon can be. (Compare to three other recent Booker’s releases, 2016-01, 2015-06, and 2015-04.)

129 proof.

B / $60 / bookersbourbon.com

Tasting and Testing: MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

mashbox

Like Flaviar and the Whisky Explorers Club, MashBox aims to expose you to spirits you wouldn’t normally get to try. The main difference with this booze-of-the-month club is that with MashBox you get a lot more than just whiskey (as we’ll see below). It’s a veritable tour of the entire spirits universe.

The deal is simple: $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples. which works out to about $8 per dram. That’s about what a shot of Jack will cost you around these parts, so it’s not a bad deal.

MashBox’s focus is squarely on craft and unusual spirits (with a heavy focus on New York-based operations) — and some of the products included in the sample kits I’ve received I’m never encountered in the wild, or even heard of before this. There’s no need to scour the web for data, though. Each shipment comes with a set of cards offering some basic production information and tasting notes on each product you receive. And if you like something, you can buy a full bottle at a discounted price.

Here’s a look at nine of the samples from three recent MashBox shipments. These mini-reviews are in no particular order as the products of the various sample boxes we received got mixed up, but they should give you an idea of what to expect each quarter. While not every product is a home run, I’m a big fan of trying something off the beaten path once in a while. Give MashBox a try and see what you think!

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Young bourbon from Brooklyn, NY. Heavily grainy, with chocolate malt overtones and tons of wood. It’s initially undercooked, as craft whiskey can often be, with a surplus of ginger and baking spice on the back end to help temper the heavy barrel influence. 90 proof. C

Barrell Whiskey Batch 2 – We’ve covered Barrell a few times, but batch 2 of its sherry-cask treated whiskey is a new one for us. Interesting butterscotch notes and red berries meld well with caramel and vanilla notes. A bit astringent, but that happens at 123.8 proof. B

Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye – Spicy, with rather intense mulled wine notes. Tastes like Christmas. See full review here. 65 proof. B+

Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey – Van Brunt’s 9 month old rye is youthful and brash (see other Van Brunt reviews here), but its pungent nose finds a curious companion in a body that offers up notes of cloves, petrol, burnt bread, and a bit of burnt rubber, too. Intriguing, but extremely young. 84 proof. C+

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Grain-distilled spirit (corn- and rye-based whiskey) flavored with wormwood. In other words, it’s a unique spin on absinthe by way of a flavored whiskey. The nose is so hard to place — forest fires, rubber, and scorched herbs — but the palate is gentler, with a smoky sweetness that finds a strange complement in the form of lingering anise notes. One of the more bizarre spirits I’ve seen lately. 90 proof. B-

Maid of the Meadow – Vodka with herbs and honey from Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, New York. Quite good, and it delivers on exactly what the description promises. The honey is restrained and gentle, the herbs a dusting of cinnamon, sesame, and lemon. Tastes like it’s made for a toddy. 80 proof. A-

Glorious Gin – Breukelen Distilling offers this heavily floral gin, which includes rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit in the mix. It tops a somewhat earth-toned core with a good amount of fruit character and only a modest juniper slug. Interesting stuff and unexpected from the normally bombastic craft gin market. Try with a craft tonic. 90 proof. B+

Kas Krupnikas – A traditional Lithuanian honey spiced liqueur made in Mahopac, New York. Richer and much more honey-focused than Maid of the Meadow, but just as compelling in its own, special way. While Maid of the Meadow feels like an ingredient, Kas Krupnikas is a soothing sipper that works beautifully on its own. Very heavy honey — equal parts fruit and earth — dominates, with some hints of orange peel, cloves, and fresh gingerbread. A beautiful little surprise. 92 proof. A

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits Green Absinthe – A South African madman makes absinthe in Brooklyn, people. What he’s come up with is a classic rendition of the spirit, with a sweet licorice and fennel focus that comes alive with sugar and water. It doesn’t need much doctoring, mind you, just a little kick to bring out its inner beauty. Lovely mint and cocoa powder notes emerge on the finish. 134 proof. B+

mashandgrape.com

Review: Jim Beam Bourbon (White Label) and Black Extra-Aged Bourbon (2016)

JBW_OLD_NEW

It’s hard to believe but we’ve never formally reviewed good old “White Label,” the bottom shelf of Jim Beam but, to be sure, one of the great values in the world of Kentucky whiskeymaking.

Beam recently revamped its bottle and label design — and in some cases the names of its products have been tweaked — which makes 2016 the perfect opportunity to give Beam a fresh review. Also on tap in this review is another look at Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged. Only last year Beam tweaked this bottling, which had previously been an age-stated 8 year old known as “Double Aged,” changing it up to call it XA Extra Aged. With the new bottle refresh, the name has been tweaked again — now it’s just Extra-Aged, losing the “XA” but gaining a hyphen. Let’s call that an even trade. Normally I wouldn’t re-review something we covered so recently, but given the pace of change in the bourbon business, a fresh taste couldn’t hurt. Who knows where it stands now.

Oddly enough, you’ll notice that different bottlings in the line have somewhat different designs. The squared-off shoulders of the Extra-Aged evoke the new Jack Daniel’s bottle (though there’s no risk of confusing the two), while White Label’s bottle sticks much more closely to the original Beam design (the new bottle is on the right in the above photo). Why not consolidate the design across the line? Eh, just drink your bourbon and ponder it quietly.

Thoughts for 2016 follow, as always.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label) – No sleight of hand here; the fine print still has the same age statement as ever: 4 years old. Made with a low-rye mashbill — the standard Beam mash. It’s distinctly corny on the nose, its youth worn on its sleeve, but that’s not an altogether bad thing. That caramel corn nose heads into a body that isn’t exactly rich, but which shows off modest vanilla and moderate barrel char. The finish finds some minor secondary tones — nuts and even a hint of coffee — nothing outrageously complex, but enough to give the whiskey a bit of nuance until the corn chip notes make their inevitable return. To be sure, this is a bourbon that’s all about the price point, but, hey, what a price point. 80 proof. B / $13

Jim_Beam_CorePlus_Dynamic_Black_int_F39_0Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged Bourbon – Same mashbill as White Label but, you know, “extra aged.” Extra-aged, got it. This is a clear step up from White Label, with a woody nose that’s intense with vanilla, gingerbread, and cocoa powder. The slightly higher-proof body is rounder and more intense, less complex than the nose might suggest due to a surfeit of popcorn notes, but balanced by caramel, charcoal, and some apple notes. The finish is clean and longer than White Label’s, with more of a warming influence. All told my notes are much in line with last year’s review. While spirits are always evolving in production, I don’t believe anything has changed significantly here in the last year. 86 proof. B+ / $21

jimbeam.com

Review: Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition

knob-creek-2001

Booker’s Rye isn’t the only special edition whiskey hitting from Beam this summer. Slightly under the radar is another limited edition, a 2001 vintage edition of Knob Creek.

Says Beam: “Started by Booker Noe and now finished by his son, Beam Family Master Distiller Fred Noe, Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition Bourbon commemorates a significant year for the brand, when the tradition and responsibility of stewarding Knob Creek Bourbon was passed from father to son. This is the first limited release from Knob Creek Bourbon, as well as the oldest expression to-date from the brand.”

This is a 14 year old bourbon — pretty hefty for a brand that is only 24 years old altogether. There are three batches available, each said to be slightly different — batch 1 sweeter, batch 2 woodier, batch 3 somewhere in between. It’s unclear how this is denoted on the bottles, as well as what batch this review sample was drawn from. (As with many limited editions we cover, this is being reviewed from a small press sample, not a full bottle.)

As for this sample, it’s a very lush and lovely whiskey that evokes Knob Creek at its best. As a refresher, rack Knob Creek is 9 years old, but also 50% alcohol — like this 2001 edition. Comparing the two side by side, the 2001 offers a woody nose with hints of cloves, but on the palate it is notably sweeter, with prominent notes of butterscotch, vanilla ice cream, gingerbread, and Christmas cake. More cloves emerge on the finish, which is lightly bittersweet and flecked with cocoa notes.

In comparison, standard Knob is considerably heavier on the wood, with ample winey/Madeira notes. Here those more biting characteristics have mellowed out to let some intense vanilla character really shine through. It’s definitely a whiskey for someone with a sweet tooth (perhaps this is drawn from batch 1?) — but underneath the surface there’s a true depth of flavor to be discovered.

100 proof.

A / $130 / knobcreek.com

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

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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?

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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.