Review: Rebel Yell Bourbon, Rye, and American Whiskey

rebel yell

St. Louis-based Luxco (which also makes Ezra Brooks and Admiral Nelson’s Rum) is behind Rebel Yell, a line of value whiskeys which has recently begun to show up more and more in bars and on store shelves. What’s the haps about “The Yell?”

The Rebel Yell line begins with its core product — old-school Kentucky Bourbon, in the form of a brand dating back to 1849. But recently Rebel Yell has been expanding, both into flavored whiskeys (not reviewed here) as well as a rye and a blended whiskey, both of which we taste below.

Let’s put this trio to the test!

Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a corn/barley/wheat mashbill. No age statement, but this wheater is clearly quite young. Heavy roasted corn notes dominate the nose, with just a touch of baking spice underneath. On the palate, there’s plenty more of that corn character, plus some sweet chocolate notes that emerge only after the corniness begins to fade. This sustains for much longer than you’d think, taking the initially quite rustic whiskey out on a nicely seductive note. A very basic whiskey, there’s just not much more to report. 80 proof. C+ / $15

Rebel Yell Small Batch Rye Whiskey – Made from a mash of rye, corn, and barley. Distilled in Indiana by MGP, aged two years. Much spicier on the nose than the bourbon, with gentler, grain-fueled notes coming up underneath. The palate is surprisingly full of life, with a rounded body that showcases both the spice and the cereal notes, including a bit of cherry fruit on the back end. All in all, the whiskey features a relatively well-balanced structure that belies its youth but showcases an overall better construction. Rebel Yell Rye is a capable mixer at the least, a surprisingly acceptable sipper at the best. 90 proof. B / $21

Rebel Yell American Whiskey – A 50-50 blend of the bourbon and rye above, all in one bottle, but raised up to 90 proof rather than the expected 85. Aged 2 years. This comes across like, well, a pretty even mix of the two spirits — featuring both the baking spices of the rye plus the ample corn notes of the bourbon. It’s not a bad combination in the abstract, but the two whiskeys don’t entirely complement each other in a meaningful way. The playfulness of the rye is ultimately dulled by the more brash corn character of the bourbon, though the flipside — the spicier rye giving the corn a boost — could also be said to be true. In the end, the whiskey lands right where it should — somewhere in between the two spirits that go into it. 90 proof. B- / $21

rebelyellbourbon.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

It was another unforgettable year at 2015’s WhiskyFest, with some of whiskydom’s most cherished icons on tap for tasting, and plenty of old friends to mingle and catch up with.

Of course, many of those old friends come in liquid form, and I had ample opportunity to revisit plenty of classic whiskies while spending time with a number of newer drams. Here’s a brief look at everything I tasted at the San Francisco installment of this essential spirits show.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

Scotch

Tullibardine 20 Years Old / A- / showing beautifully, a nice balance of vanilla and cereal notes (bourbon barrel aged)
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / A / a much different experience, with gorgeous nougat and honey notes (sherry barrel aged)
Balvenie 50 Years Old Cask 4567 / A+ / snuck out from behind a curtain, this is Balvenie shining at its brightest; not old and hoary but light on its feet and ready to dance; explosive, with dried berries, dense toffee, baking spices, and florals on the finish; 2 casks produced, the other cask is said to be very different
Balvenie 15 Years Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask / A- / very caramel heavy, racy but dense, with lots of brown sugar notes
William Grant Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old / A- / blended whiskey from three silent stills; restrained with toffee, nuts, and some kippered notes; comes out next year
Glengoyne 18 Years Old / A- / big body, notes of grain and fruitcake
Glengoyne 21 Years Old / B+ / traditional malt, with cocoa hints
Aberlour Scapa Skiren / B / lots of sweetness, with a malty backbone – plus melon, sweet mandarins
Highland Park Odin / B+ / dense and handsome, sherry with some smoky charcoal notes; not in love with this today
Dewar’s Scratched Cask / B+ / Dewar’s White with a little “scratched cask” aging; not readily distinguishable from the entry level blend, though quite powerful
Aultmore 12 Years Old / B+ / heavy vanilla and chocolate, dense with shortbread notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1964 / A- / heavy wood notes play with raisins and spice; this has seen wood for too long, though
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1984 / A / right where it’s at; vibrant and exotic, with tropical notes, plum pudding, and hints of grain; absolutely gorgeous
Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend / B+ / well-balanced, malty with some smoky notes
Compass Box Hedonism 15 Years Old Anniversary Bottling / A- / a blend of single grains, all 20 years old or more; fun toffee and fruit trifle notes
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A- / rich, smoky, with a gentler fruit core
Compass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky / B / a blend of single malts and grain whisky, 19 to 40 years of age; Compass Box got into trouble over this one (more on that later); I got a little mustiness and mushroom notes here, with creosote bubbling up; not feeling it tonight

American

McKenzie Pure Potstill Whiskey / B- / American pure pot still? wacky! this one is very young, but that hint of classic Irish sweetness hits hard on the finish
Sonoma County Distilling Company Truffle Whiskey / B+ / 100% rye, with shaved truffles added to the barrel; not what you’re expecting, but with forest floor notes a-plenty
Stranahan’s Snowflake (Dec. 2014) / A- / easily my favorite Snowflake bottling to date, beautiful balance of sweet and spice, very pretty
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak / A- / lush and big with dried fruits, spices, and gentle granary notes; another winner from Colorado
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Years Old / A- / a classically structured bourbon, dense and stylish, with a spicy finish
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A+ / there’s a reason this whiskey is the most expensive bourbon made in America — it’s the best thing anyone is making in the country; dense raisin, cinnamon, vanilla, toffee… it just goes on and on with layer after layer of goodness
High West A Midwinter’s Night Dram Act 3 / A / my favorite AMND yet; cherry and herbs in balance (not blown out), with a licorice kick
High West Bourye Batch 15B03 / A / still gorgous; syrupy and fruity, unctuous at times
High West Single Malt 1 Month Old / NR / a work in progress, surprisingly gentle for single malt but a fun look at something coming down the pipeline… give it another 5 years at least

Canadian

Forty Creek Confederation Oak / A / beautiful vanilla and maple notes, but dense and balanced
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve / A- / very enjoyable, candy corn and chocolate raisins at play
Forty Creek Evolution / A- / again, quite candylike and very sweet; 9000 bottles made
WhistlePig Straight Rye Old World Sauternes Finish 12 Years Old / A- / a very strong and sweet whisky (just one of the components of the new Old World bottling), with lemon curd notes

Other

Diplomatico Blanco Rum 6 Years Old / B / solid, uninspired as a sipper though
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Vintage 2000 / A / vintage Diplomatico; gorgeous, sherry-finished rum, balanced perfectly

Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 1838 Style White Corn

woodford mastersIt’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the awesome Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish bourbon dropped, but the latest annual release — the tenth to come out — of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection is upon us.

This year’s expression is called 1838 Style White Corn. What happened in 1838? Well, that’s when Oscar Pepper and James Crow began distilling whiskey at the site where Woodford is located today. Did they use white corn back then? Historical records say they did, and Master Distiller Chris Morris adds that they did so for a reason — using white corn instead of the traditional yellow corn complements the other grains in the whiskey well, he says. (Otherwise the mash is the same as standard Woodford: 72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley.)

Per the company:

The Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 1838 Style White Corn was conceptualized and created by respected industry veteran and Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris. Drawing from original production records, Morris was able to develop and bring to life a recipe Pepper and Crow might have used. The 1838 Style White Corn release is both inspired by, and pays tribute to, the techniques developed by Pepper and Crow which today have become some of the most well-known and commonly used throughout the industry. In the mid-1800s, Oscar Pepper and James Crow engaged in early distilling at the present day site of the Woodford Reserve Distillery.

“Year after year, our Master’s Collection is always a favorite of mine to produce, as I enjoy seeing how even the slightest of variations can yield a dramatically different whiskey,” says Morris. “What’s truly exciting with 1838 Style White Corn is that by simply changing the corn used, we’ve created a spirit that is new for fans of Woodford Reserve yet still traditional and a perfect representation of our rich heritage.” By using white corn with the same barrels and yeast used to create Woodford Reserve bourbon, the result is a spirit that is lighter in body with a softer, sweeter, fruit-forward profile.

The results are a real step back into time. The nose exudes popcorn above all else, layered just a tad with notes of clover honey and caramel sauce. On the palate that popcorn character utterly dominates, though it also finds notes of leather, tobacco leaf, and white pepper. After that, unfortunately, there’s not much to report. The overall impact is one of considerable youth, the white corn really taking over from the get-go and never letting up. While the traces of caramel and even a dusting of Mexican chocolate that arise late in the game offer some enticing flavors and aromas, on the whole the release is just a bit too staid to get excited about.

90.4 proof. 30,000 bottles produced.

B / $100 / woodfordreserve.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Blood Oath Bourbon Whiskey Pact No. 1 2015

blood oath

There is a lot of flowery script on the label of the new Blood Oath Bourbon, but there is precious little information therein.

What do we know about this new bottling? It is sourced bourbon — and not only is the distillery unstated, the state in which it is produced is unstated. (The whiskey is ultimately bottled in Missouri and distributed by the company that makes Ezra Brooks.) Creator/scientist John E. Rempe isn’t the first guy to have this idea, but he says this bespoke bottling is a limited release that will “never be produced again.” Bload Oath Pact No. 2, if there is one, will be a different whiskey altogether.

Pact No. 1 is said to be a blend of three whiskeys: a 6 year old wheated bourbon, a 7 year high rye bourbon, and a 12 year old mystery bourbon. This is aged (at least in part) in barrels with a lighter, #3 char. Otherwise there’s no production information included.

It’s a very gentle whiskey on the nose — as lighter char bourbons often are — with simple vanilla, caramel, and sweet corn on the nose, plus a touch of baking spice to add nuance. On the palate, it is again surprisingly gentle and easygoing considering its proof level. More of those sugar-forward dessert components come to the fore, along with some raisin notes and heavier baking spices, including distinct gingerbread notes. The body is light and floral at times, not at all heavy or over-wooded, making for an easy sipper. The finish is slightly peppery and a bit drying, though the sweetness is sustained until the end.

Ultimately there is plenty to like here, but the mysterious origins and rather high price — which would be steep even for a whiskey that was entirely 12 years old — might understandably be a bit of a turnoff.

98.6 proof. 15,000 barrels made.

A- / $90 / bloodoathbourbon.com

Review: Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 Years Old

elijah craig 18 2

Elijah Craig 18 Years Old was originally released in 1994 — but you probably haven’t noticed it on the shelves for the last three years, as the expression has been on “hiatus” due to a lack of available 18 year old bourbon barrels.

Now EC18 is finally back, and for my money, this is Elijah Craig drinking at just about the height of its charms. Get much older (see our 20, 21, and 23 year old EC reviews), and the wood begins to get in the way of what can be a delicate and effusive spirit.

Here we find Elijah sporting a lightly floral nose, honeysuckle mixed in with butterscotch and ample vanilla notes plus hints of barrel char. On the palate, things are firing on all cylinders. First a rush of sweetness, but there’s no sugar bomb here. Rather, that sugar takes a darker turn into molasses, dark cocoa powder, and a touch of bitter roots where that dark barrel char makes itself known. The finish is slight sweet relief, a torched, creamy creme brulee that offers a touch more of that floral note alongside an echo of chimney smoke — a balanced whiskey that melds fire and flowers into a cohesive whole.

90 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #4090, barreled on 6/16/97.

A- / $120 / heavenhill.com

Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2015 Edition

four roses 2015LESmallBatch_Front_White_FIN

With Jim Rutledge retiring from Four Roses and Brent Elliot succeeding him as master distiller, Rutledge has just overseen his last edition of the Four Roses Small Batch, his final release from the distillery.

The 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch is comprised of a 16-year-old Bourbon from Four Roses’ OBSK recipe, a 15-year-old OESK, a 14-year-old OESK, and an 11-year-old OBSV, making this a fairly old installment of the panoply of Small Batch releases.

The Four Roses 2015 Small Batch has a very exotic nose — sweeter than 4R usually comes across, with notes of cherry, floral honeysuckle, and eucalyptus. The body is heavily fruity, with ample vanilla-cherry character up front that leads to a big and syrupy vanilla, butterscotch, and chocolate character that washes over the palate as it heads to a lengthy and quite sweet finish that offers notes of apricot. For those who like their bourbon with plenty of sugar (but also plenty of heat), this Small Batch release will hit the spot perfectly.

I enjoy a sweet bourbon, but I have to say the 2015 goes a bit too far down that road, ultimately leaving little room for subtlety. It’s a fine sipper on its own, but in the pantheon of Four Roses’ Small Batch releases, it is need of some balance.

108.5 proof.

12,600 bottles produced (a further increase over 2014 — in 2011 they only made 3500 bottles).

B+ / $90 / fourroses.us

Review: Russell’s Reserve 1998 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

RR 1998 HiRes Email

Right on the heels of Master’s Keep comes Russell’s Reserve 1998, Wild Turkey’s rarest expression yet. Back in 1998, Jimmy and Eddie Russell laid down some “special occasion” casks — and only now are they getting around to actually bottling them, 17 years later.

These whiskies predate the Russell’s Reserve brand altogether, so it’s not really right to think of this as a line extension (though there is a natural familial resemblance between the 1998 and the Russell’s Reserve 10 Years Old bottling). What this is, really, is a very small batch expression of Wild Turkey bourbon from a single vintage distilled in the previous millennium.

From all angles, this is intense and powerful stuff. The nose is spicy and nutty — heavy vanilla-focused bourbon through and through — with some mentholated notes adding warmth. On the palate it’s an outright sugar bomb, loaded with baked apples, a double dose of vanilla-infused sugar cookies, some fresh ginger, and only on the back end, some barrel char influence. Hugely expressive and loaded with flavor from start to finish, I can understand if some actually find it to be too much of a good thing.

102.2 proof. 2,070 bottles produced.

A- / $250 / wildturkeybourbon.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Head-to-Head

JD NH Single Barrel 2Headlines were made earlier this year when the largest ever single barrel purchase of Jack Daniel’s — 15 barrels’ worth — was completed. Big liquor store? Weathly billionaire? Not exactly. The purchase was made by none other than the state of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is a “control” state, which means it operates its own liquor stores. As such, it has plenty of money to drop on wacky ideas like this — 15 whole barrels of JD Single Barrel Select.

The Granite State folks sent us samples from two of the 15 barrels so we could see what kind of goodies New Hampshirans (that’s what they’re called) now have in their backyard. Here’s a look at the duo.

Both are 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Rick R-6 Barrel 15-1778 – Very fruity, not a term I often associate with JD, featuring minimal wood influence, some cherry, and some cinnamon on the nose. On the palate, the fruit comes through the strongest, but ample vanilla and barrel char still shine through. The finish is all super-ripe bananas — almost tropical at times and not at all like any JD you’re likely accustomed to. A-

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Granite State Collection Rick R-8 Barrel 15-1933 – Much more intense with alcohol and stronger wood char notes, a touch of that banana, plus burnt marshmallow, and supple vanilla notes. All in all, it’s classic Jack Daniel’s, with more of an alcoholic kick. Very good, but awfully familiar. B+

each $45 / liquorandwineoutlets.com

Review: Michter’s US-1 Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon 2015

Michter's 2015 Toasted Bourbon

Michter’s has developed a bit of a cult following in the bourbon world, and its Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon is definitely its most famous major release. This limited edition annual release is always in short supply, and it’s made by taking Michter’s US-1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon and finishing it in barrels that are seasoned for 18 months, which are toasted, not charred. There’s no age information on either the original barreling time or the finishing, but given that there’s no information on where this whiskey came from to begin with, it’s unlikely anyone really cares.

This release is one of Michter’s most intensely woody and pungent expressions. Never mind the “toast”: This is barrel char front and center, with a heavy earthiness and ample tobacco/smoke on the nose. That’s a rough and brutish way to start things off, but the body is more refined than you would think. Notes of cherry pits, charred herbs, and licorice hit up front, then a soothing fruit component wallows up behind. There’s a lingering barrel char character that really sticks with you — and it’s probably why people go so gaga over this bourbon: It tastes super-old, with the kind of intense wood influence that you usually only see with extremely well-aged stuff.

But what Michter’s Toasted Barrel doesn’t have is the maturity and nuance that is supposed to come along with very old bourbons. Instead, it comes across like a bit of a shortcut, which is kind of a bummer.

91.4 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #154/667.

B / $53 / michters.com

Tasting Lost Spirits Whiskey Experiments

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Lost Spirits — the company that’s knee deep in ultra-accelerated spirits aging technology — has largely devoted its early experiments to one liquor category: Rum.

Why rum? It’s easier to age, with simpler ingredients and a more straightforward line from white spirit to old brown stuff.

Whiskey is a bit of a holy grail for Lost Spirits, as it’s a more lucrative market with larger appeal at the high end. (As you’ll recall, Lost Spirits’ reactor can age a product to the equivalent of 20 years of age — no more, and no less.) But it’s also been difficult to make, says CEO Bryan Davis, due to some incredibly geeky complications with the way certain bacteria interplay with the wood that makes up the barrel.

Well, Davis says that he’s on the path to figuring this out, and he sent me some whiskey samples from the reactor to see how things are progressing. On tap: Two bourbons (one 100 proof, one 118 proof) and a 100 proof rye. (To reiterate: These are not commercial products but just works-in-progress submitted for some early thoughts. All of them started off with new make spirit from a major Kentucky distillery, though Davis can’t say which.)

In short, Lost Spirits is well on the path, but there’s still work to be done. The overwhelming flavor of both of the bourbon experiments is smoke. Not barrel char, but campfire smoke, something that lands the experience closer to a peated Scotch than to any bourbon I’ve ever had. The body offers some floral elements and fruit underneath, with cherry notes enduring for a time — before the dense smoke elements take hold again. It still doesn’t quite compare to even very old bourbon — the near complete lack of sweetness is a key concern — indicating there’s still work to be done on the aging process.

Conversely, the rye is a much bigger success, showcasing classic rye baking spice notes, plenty of fruit, and a more restrained and gentle smoke character. Marshmallows, baked bread, and baked apples are blended together with just a bit of petrol and some of that forest fire smokiness to create a complex but balanced whole. Now 20 year old rye is hard to come by — I don’t know if I’ve ever had any at all — so comparisons with currently available products aren’t easy to make. But either way, this is a whiskey that I could drink right now, its various elements really firing together beautifully.