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

Review: Coopers’ Craft Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Coopers Craft bottle

Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, and Old Forester, has released its first new bourbon brand in 20 years: Coopers’ Craft.

There’s a lot of confusing information out there about Coopers’ Craft, so let’s try to clear it all up.

First, note that the whiskey’s name is Coopers’ Craft, not Cooper’s Craft. The whiskey is designed to “celebrate barrel-making and recognize the importance of wood” — coopers being barrel-makers. It was not crafted by a guy named Cooper. That apostrophe makes all the difference, and it’s going to be wrong every time you see it on a whiskey menu.

As Brown-Forman notes, “In addition to being matured in barrels raised by master coopers at the Brown-Forman Cooperage, Coopers’ Craft is crafted using a special beech and birch charcoal filter finishing process, creating a smooth and flavorful bourbon.” There’s some mention of a special wood toasting process with this whiskey, though it isn’t elaborated upon. As well, charcoal filtration is famously a big part of Tennessee Whiskey (though sugar maple is the preferred wood), but I don’t have statistics on how many non-Tennessee whiskeymakers are using it. I’ve read charcoal isn’t uncommon in Kentucky, even though few distilleries brag about it for fear of being compared to Jack. The use of beech and birch wood likely don’t add any significant flavor on their own.

It’s also been written that Coopers’ Craft is “lower proof.” Lower than Woodford Reserve, yes, but higher than JD, it turns out. At 82.2 proof, Coopers’ is largely in line with standard-grade bourbon.

What do we not know about Coopers’ Craft? Not the mash — which is said to be unique to this whiskey in the Brown-Forman stable — and nothing about the aging time (though I’ve read it’s a 4- to 6-year-old bourbon).

Well, how about the big question: How does it taste? Let me tell you.

The nose is quite sweet, distinctly fruity, with a strong but not overpowering wood component. Aromas of apricot and orange peel are evident, along with a touch of peach.

On the tongue, the whiskey is gentle, again showcasing bright fruit notes loaded with citrus and stone fruits. The barrel char creeps up as the initial attack fades, giving the spirit a chewy, though not overwhelmingly woody, character. Rather, the bourbon pumps up its vanilla notes and even offers a bit of licorice candy before finishing with notes of light baking spice, particularly a lingering cinnamon-sugar character.

Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris knows what he’s doing, and Coopers’ Craft is a solid product at an attractive price. It’s considerably different than the other mainstream brands in the Brown-Forman stable, and while it lacks in the complexity you might want for a sipper, it’s an easy choice to mix cocktails and for the occasional shot-on-a-budget.

82.2 proof.

B+ / $29 / brown-forman.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2016

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The 17th annual Whiskies of the World event wrapped this March in San Francisco, and it was as fun and chaotic as ever to wander three stories of the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, moored in the San Francisco Bay.

This year I focused my attention primarily on independent bottlers of Scotch whiskies, with Alexander Murray and Gordon & MacPhail both in attendance, along with veterans like the Exclusive Malts and Chieftain’s collections. Also highly worthwhile: A new distillery, Mosswood, which ages light whiskey in a variety of oddball barrels to produce the most exotic and interesting “flavored” whiskey you’ve ever tried. As for my favorite spirit of the night? Arran’s delightful “Smugglers’ Illicit Stills” offering, which comes complete in a fake book (see photo).

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Alexander Murray Bladnoch 25 Years Old – Notes of roasted nuts, grains, a touch of lychee / B
Alexander Murray Monumental Blended Scotch 30 Years Old – Very grainy — a surprise — notes of hay / B
Alexander Murray Speyside 40 Years Old – Quite gentle, malty, quiet citrus; surprising that this is 40 years old / A
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso – A bit overblown, with big toffee notes / B+
Aberlour Scapa Skiren – Simple; easygoing, with gentle grain structure / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old – Big molasses notes, scorched caramel, nice stuff / A-
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old – Ginger is fun, but granary notes surprise / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Old Pulteney 21 Years Old – Quite maritime, gentle peat and salt spray / A-
Lagavulin 12 Years Old – The classic; nothing new to report / B+
Lagavulin Distillers Edition Double Matured – Gorgeous, big mouthfeel and better balanced than the standard Lag 12 / A-
Glenmorangie Signet – Sweet chocolate notes, coffee, almost overblown with dessert notes / A-
The Balvenie 17 Years Old DoubleWood – Classic; light sherry, nougat, well balanced / A-
Macallan Rare Cask / Rounded and well sherried; still drinking lovely / A-
Chieftain’s Glen Grant 20 Years Old – Slightly racy, with heavy cereal notes / B
Chieftain’s Linkwood 17 Years Old – Chewy, with cherry notes, gentle finish / A-
Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 2002 – A big crowd pleaser, but it didn’t resonate with me; big cereal notes, yeasty, slightly astringent / B
Exclusive Malts Girvan 1988 Single Grain – Butterfinger candies, buttery body, surprising for a single grain / B+
Arran Amarone Finish – Starts off hot; leads to raisin and chocolate notes, a bit scattered / B+
Arran Smugglers’ Illicit Stills – Quietly spicy, with tons of malt, honey, and a touch of smoke; really compelling / A

022Bourbon

PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Eagle Rare – The first of five single barrel releases on tap from SF’s PlumpJack; big butterscotch notes, but quite woody / B
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV 8 years, 8 months – Lovely, with some pepper to it / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO 10 years, 6 months – Lots of heat; a bit astringent; peppermint notes / B+
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF 11 years, 7 months – Honeyed with baking spices and cinnamon / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OESQ 10 years, 5 months – Popcorn and malt, rather plain / B
Healthy Spirits Old Scout 9 Years Old – Another private bottling; big caramel, chocolate, cinnamon… but a touch grainy / B+

Other

Brenne 10 Years Old – The 10 year old expression of this French malt; enduring grain, notes of gingersnaps / B+
J. Seeds Apple Cider Whiskey – Unpalatable, incredible bite / C-
Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof – Lovely apple and caramel, with a drying finish / A-
Mosswood Apple Brandy Barrel Aged – Mosswood makes light whiskey and ages it in different barrels, giving it a really unique structure; this one has beautiful fruit, with gentle, cider-like character / A-
Mosswood Espresso Barrel Aged – Slightly smoky, earthy, and nutty – not the heavy coffee bomb you might expect / A-
Mosswood Umeshu Single Barrel Aged – An Asian plum wine barrel gives this a curious notes; on the palate the fruit really emerges alongside spice and a sweet backbone; quite a revelation in “flavored” whiskey / A
Germain-Robin Old Havana Brandy – A touch of tobacco, lingering raisin, very soft / A-
Germain-Robin Single Barrel Brandy – Bigger body, heavy raisin and spice elements / B+
Low Gap Wheat Whiskey 4 Years Old – Heavy pear notes, very fruity / B+
Roundstone Rye – 100% rye; youthful, earthy, mouth-filling / B-
Roundstone Rye 92 Proof – More rounded; heavy cloves / B+
Roundstone Rye Cask Proof – Aged in maple syrup casks and it shows; a bit cloying / B
Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose – 7 Stills makes whiskey from different styles of beer; this one’s an IPA base. Classic IPA notes add density and ample hops / B+
Seven Stills of San Francisco Fluxuate – Coffee porter base with a touch of espresso added on the back end; clear coffee notes, slight caramel; lingering coffee finish / A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Dogpatch – Sour beer based, finished in a sour beer barrel. Some funk, a little cherry and raisin character; a bit crazy as whiskey goes. Need to spend more time with this one / B+

Review: Barrell Bourbon Batch 6 and 7

barrell 6

Two new releases from our friends at Kentucky’s Barrell Bourbon, which take a variety of sourced whiskeys and release them at cask strength, one (often wildly different) batch at a time.

Batch 6 and 7 are here, as are our thoughts.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 006 – A close sibling to Batch 5, this is 70% corn, 26% rye, 4% malted barley, distilled in Tennessee, aged 8 years, 6 months — “low in the rickhouse.” Big and blazing up front, it’s got an overload of baking spices, and plenty of barrel char influence. Big rye notes attack the body, which is heavily herbal but also showcases scorched caramel notes. As with its predecessor, water helps a lot, which helps to coax out fruit while taking all that wood in the direction of buttered popcorn. Racy and spicy through and through, it’s a classic rye-forward bourbon that fans of big whiskeys will enjoy, though it never quite cuts all the way through the hefty wood character. Compare to the more well-rounded Batch 5 if you can. Reviewed: Bottle #1864. 122.9 proof. B+ / $80

Barrell Bourbon Batch 007 – This bourbon is made in Tennessee from 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, and is aged just 5 years in #4 char oak barrels — putting this batch alongside the almost identical Bourbon Batch 1. I was promised ahead of time that this bourbon was “wise beyond its years,” and the nose comes across as a bold, relatively well-aged expression, with notes of butterscotch and heavy wood char. The body is more youthful than that would indicate, fairly heavy with popcorn and mushroom notes on the body. Water offers some improvements by coaxing out ample sweetness and balancing the affair, but it’s ultimately a bit short on nuance. Reviewed: Bottle #5446. 122.4 proof. B / $80  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

barrellbourbon.com

Review: Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength

bulleit barrel strength

It’s probably long overdue, but one of the biggest success stories in bourbon is finally coming out with a barrel strength release.

Bulleit Barrel Strength is made from the same high-rye mashbill as its primary expression (roughly 1/3 rye), with no age statement provided. Batches will vary in alcohol content, but will hover around 60% abv.

We got a first look at the new edition. Thoughts follow.

As with any cask strength offering, this is initially a bit of a blazer on the nose and tongue. When the alcohol blows off, notes of butterscotch, honey, and cinnamon emerge — all classic components showcased here with impressive balance. On the tongue, give it time to settle down a bit to reveal red pepper, some barrel char notes, more cinnamon, and a sweet but spicy finish. This is a big bourbon, full of fire to be sure but approachable enough for anyone with any level of experience with cask strength bourbons.

Tempering with water brings more of the wood components to the forefront — which takes it closer to the classic, somewhat rustic Bulleit “frontier” character. At full strength, the whiskey is a bit sweeter and more dessert-like than the standard bottling, which is a bit of a surprise. That aside, I like the new release quite a bit — both at the full force of cask strength and in its tempered form with some water added.

119.2 proof as reviewed.

A- / $50 / bulleit.com

Review: High West Bourye (2016)

bourye_bottle_2015One of the icons of new wave distilling is back: High West Bourye, which is returning to limited release right about now.

The 2016 Bourye is, as always, a touch different from its forebears. This version of the now-classic bourbon and rye blend features a mashup of 9-year-old straight bourbon (75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt), 13-year-old straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% barley malt), and 17-year-old straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% barley malt) — all from MGP. As always, the proportions of these three whiskeys are not disclosed — but the overall focus looks a lot like the 2015 rendition of this spirit, which also featured a nine-year-old-minimum. The major difference is really that everything in the bottle is from MGP this year.

Bourye is a whiskey I have always admired, and this year’s release is no exception, though it presents much differently than the fruity 2015. The nose is exotic and a bit unusual — heavy on the cloves, along with dark brown sugar, dark toast, barrel char, and some freshly burnt rubber — all meant in a good way.

On the palate, it’s sweet but restrained, a host of bittering elements — more cloves (classic Bourye), licorice, toasty wood, and a touch of roasted vegetable character. The caramel and vanilla notes endure above all of this, though, the bitterness catching in the back of the throat as the whiskey finds a balance slightly on the savory side of the wheel.

This is a significantly different whiskey than last year’s release — and frankly I prefer the sweeter 2015 edition to a slight extent. That said, this return to a more frontier style will likely resonate with more of the hardcore American whiskey fans.

Reviewed: Batch 15X20. 92 proof.

A / $80 / highwest.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: 1792 Single Barrel Bourbon

1792 Single Barrel Bottle

Barton’s 1792 bourbon is on a line expansion tear lately, and it’s newest release is here: 1792 Single Barrel. Like Sweet Wheat and Port Finish, it’s a limited edition so grab it while you can.

Nothing tough to understand about this one: These are standard-production, single barrel offerings, with no other specific information provided. Naturally, only top barrels from Barton are selected for inclusion in this collection.

1792 Single Barrel is surprisingly racy on the nose, with notes of caramel apples, cinnamon, and some barrel char hitting the nose first. On the tongue, the whiskey explodes with sweetness, tempering the fruit with ample baking spice, brown sugar, and some tobacco character. The finish continues the theme of sweetness, tempered with just a touch of bitter cloves to add balance, along with a warming conclusion.

Nothing doing here: This is just good bourbon, plain and simple.

98.6 proof. (No lot/barrel information provided.)

A- / $40 / 1792bourbon.com