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

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