Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – French Oak Bourbons

French Oak Experiment 2015

In Bourbon country, American oak reigns. It’s long been tradition that America’s greatest whiskey is aged in American wood. Anything else and you’re lookin’ for trouble.

In keeping with its long history of experimentation, Buffalo Trace kicked tradition out of the rickhouse for this latest round of its experimental whiskeys. As the names imply, these Bourbons are aged not in American oak but in French oak. More specifically, one whiskey was aged in a full barrel made entirely of French oak. A second whiskey was aged in a hybrid barrel made with American oak staves and French oak heads.

Both are ten years old, made with BT’s low-rye recipe. Here’s some additional production information:

Ten years ago, Buffalo Trace embarked on another French oak experiment, but this time endeavoring one step further – creating two different barrel types, one made entirely of French oak, and another using French oak heads, but American white oak staves. The barrels were both constructed with Buffalo Trace’s exact specifications as far as size, stave drying, and charring. The barrel staves were air-dried for six months and the barrels were charred for 55 seconds. Both of these experimental barrels were filled with the same bourbon recipe, known as Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1. After 10 years of aging, these two bourbons have been bottled as part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Collection, and referred to as 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon and French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon.

Both are 90 proof. Here’s what you can expect if you try them…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon – Soft and very fruity on the nose, with notes of peaches, apricot, and citrus. Rather buttery on the body, with plenty of fruit — namely apple and apricot — to back it up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gentler bourbon anywhere; this expression is all kid gloves and a quiet stroll through the orchard. Punchy lumberyard is wholly absent; there’s really just a bare hint of oak’s telltale vanilla here to remind you of its wood regimen at all. B+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon – Clearly punchier and more traditional in structure — and actually a quite good whiskey all around. A nice level of baking spice hits the nose, which melds well with its sweet apple pie aromas. On the body, the fruit is still there, but it’s well tempered by more traditional notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, and a little raisin character. This all works wonderfully (and unsurprisingly) well together, making for a bourbon that has grip and presence alongside uniqueness and restraint. A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Black Dirt Bourbon 3 Years Old

BD Bourbon w fire

Black Dirt is made in New York State’s first microdistillery, where an applejack and this bourbon are produced. Made from a mash of 80% local “black dirt” corn (hence the name), 12% malted barley, and 8% rye, it’s aged for three years in #3 char new American oak barrels. Let’s take a look under the hood.

The nose is appealing, showing light popcorn and breakfast cereal, then lumberyard notes, plus gentle vanilla and caramel notes. It’s youthful, but not too young, just a peeling back of the layers of the spirit to reveal its grainy underpinnings. The body largely follows suit, offering a touch of chocolate up front, then a modest dip back into the grain pool for another helping. Some baking spice and a bit of citrus come along before you reach a finish that returns to chocolate for a reprise.

Cereal-heavy whiskeys are often a bummer, but Black Dirt (the name notwithstanding) is surprisingly easygoing and balanced between its granary notes and its sweeter components. The finished product may still drink like it’s in short pants, but it’s nonetheless quite enjoyable on its merits. It’s rare to find a microdistilled bourbon that has balance and a unique character all its own, but Black Dirt is one of them.

90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6.

A- / $38 / blackdirtdistillery.com

Review: Jim Beam Black XA Extra Aged Kentucky Straight Bourbon

jim beam black extra agedWhile I wasn’t paying attention, Jim Beam quietly updated its venerable Black Label bottling. What was once bottled with an 8 Year Old (“Double Aged”) age statement now carries none. Beam assures me the product in the new bottle is the same as the old Jim Beam Black Label even if the exterior isn’t quite the same. Either way, we got a fresh bottle of XA to offer some 2015 perspective. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam XA is, as the name implies, a seemingly well aged spirit. A bit of sawdust on the nose leads into notes of fruity apple, cloves, and vanilla ice cream. The palate offers a rich and creamy body, loaded with caramel, vanilla, and some charcoal notes. That lumberyard character sustains here, and some popcorn notes come along as a reprise. The finish is lasting and warming and a bit dusty, for the most part offering a tour of some of bourbondom’s most classic flavors without piling on a whole lot of distracting nuance. In other words: There’s nothing you won’t enjoy here, but it’s short of a standout, too.

86 proof.

B+ / $20 / jimbeam.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Brown Rice

brown rice

Four our fourth review in Jim Beam’s 6-whiskey Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection we’re finally checking out the Brown Rice release. This was actually released last year, so we’re late to the game, but our completionist streak compels a review regardless.

As a reminder, these are all bourbons, each made with one unusual grain in the mashbill. As with the others, Brown Rice is at least 51% corn and includes some amount of malted barley in the mix. All Harvest Collection bourbons are aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

With the Brown Rice bottling, interesting tropical notes hit the nose immediately upon pouring, mingling nicely with well-rounded grain, burnt sugar, aged wine, and oak notes on the nose. The overall impression is one of significant age, with a lumberyard character eventually taking over duties on the nose. The body starts with sweetness — brown sugar, molasses, and crushed red berries — before handing some of the work off to the wood again. The finish takes things to a place of slight astringency, with the bourbon seeing a bit of sawdust and a lightly medicinal edge on the back end. I also get notes of brewed, sweet tea and some roasted meats as the finish eventually fades. Overall though, it’s got a light touch, and in the final analysis it comes across as a very pleasant — though oftentimes plain — bourbon.

For what it’s worth, Beam suggests looking out for notes of sweet potato on the nose.

90 proof.

B+ / $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: J.R. Revelry Bourbon Whiskey

jr revelryBased in Georgia, distilled in Indiana, bottled in Tennessee, and launched in New York, J.R. Revelry is a funky new whiskey with quite a tale behind it. It’s the brainchild of Rick Tapia, a Peruvian native laying claim to the title of the only Hispanic American making whiskey in the States — instead of tequila or pisco.

J.R. Revelry is distilled by Indiana’s MGP (nee LDI) — though J.R. calls this “the old Seagram Distillery” as a bit of light subterfuge and an attempt to sound a bit more austere. Fact is, they’re getting some pretty young stock — less than four years old according to the bottle — and pricing it awfully high. (No mashbill information is provided.)

I’m not overly concerned with provenance, though. Let’s see how it tastes.

J.R. Revelry is young and it shows. The nose is dense with lumberyard notes, burnt popcorn, and heavily charred malt, with just a hint of fruit underneath it all. Has this seen some extra-charred barrels, I wonder? The body follows the nose in lockstep, offering a surfeit of wood plus notes of leather saddle, cloves, and some mushroom. Fruitier notes make a welcome appearance late in the game, with a touch of apple pie spice, raisins, and cherry (more pits than fruit, though). The finish is very drying, leaving behind just a bit of that lingering fruit, but it remains quite tannic and a bit too rough-and-tumble for a bottle priced at 35 bucks.

90 proof.

B- / $35 / jrrevelry.com

Review: Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

blade and bow

Diageo’s latest Bourbon project arrives with, as usual, plenty of confusion surrounding its provenance. The basic story is that Blade and Bow is launching in two versions, but both are a “tribute” to the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery.

I won’t try to digest how these two expressions are made myself, so here’s the relevant PR on the matter, first the NAS expression, then the 22 year old:

Born from some of the oldest remaining whiskey stocks distilled at Stitzel-Weller before it ceased production in 1992, Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey … is made using a unique solera aging system to preserve the original stocks. This solera liquid is then mingled with other fine whiskeys, aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. The 91-proof bourbon is priced at $49.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is comprised of whiskeys distilled at both the distillery historically located at 17th and Breckinridge in Louisville, Ky. and the distillery historically located in at 1001 Wilkinson Blvd. in Frankfort, Ky. The limited release offering was most recently aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. At 92-proof, you can purchase a 750ml bottle for $149.99.

Only the “base,” NAS version was made available for review at press time, but it sounds like a markedly different product than the 22 year old — and thanks to its solera process, is a departure for bourbon in general. How’s this new whiskey come across? Bend an ear and draw near.

The nose is restrained for bourbon, with hints of citrus, some mint, and mild wood notes. Initially quite alcoholic, these harsher aromas blow off with time — so let it air out before diving in in force. On the palate, it’s racy with heat, then punchy with fruity notes — orange, apricot, cut apples, and a touch of lemon. There’s more mint here too, plus a nice lacing of wood-driven vanilla and chocolate notes as expected. The finish keeps the fruit rolling right along, fading out with a touch of caramel apple that makes for a pleasant way to wrap things up. It starts off as a bit of an odd duck, with its strangely heavy fruitiness setting it apart from the typical bourbon profile — but I found this ultimately grew on me as an evening of tasting wore on.

Give it a whirl.

91 proof.

A- / $50 / diageo.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hooker’s House Sour Mash Whiskey 7 Years Old

hookers houseIt’s been a couple of years since I first encountered Hooker’s House, and I’ve remained a fan since then. Now the company is back with its first new release in two years, Hooker’s House Sour Mash. This is a single barrel release made from 100% corn that spends 7 years in new, charred white American oak barrels before being finished in used premium French oak barrels at the Hooker’s House Sonoma distillery. The French oak barrels were formerly used for aging Carneros Pinot Noir.

Hooker’s House, like Angel’s Envy, sources its older whiskeys, then finishes them to give them their own unique spin. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a choice that takes HH’s whiskeys in a unique direction.

Case in point is this “Sour Mash,” a curious name for an aged and finished corn whiskey, but what’s in a name?

This is quite a spirit, lush but powerful from the get-go. The nose is sweet and offers lots of bakery notes — fresh doughnuts, Nutella, and raisins. On the palate, this silky-smooth spirit goes down easy, with gentle notes of vanilla and caramel starting things off. The corn underpinnings are notable, melding to give this spirit something of a caramel corn character, which is surprisingly enjoyable in liquid form. But you can’t fight off that Pinot Noir finishing for long. In time as the finish develops, there’s a burst of raisin, dark cherry fruit, dried figs, and chocolate notes. These are flavors that are rare in straight-outta-Kentucky bourbons, but which are minor wonders in Hooker’s House Sour Mash. Really great stuff that’s worth seeking out.

90 proof.

A / $40 / prohibition-spirits.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015

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This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail from Jefferson’s and Esquire

ESQ-BAM-Front

I don’t necessarily think bottled, fully-made cocktails are lazy. I use them a lot when entertaining or when I’m short on fresh ingredients. Some of them are really well made, too.

The jury is out on whether The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail is taking things a bit too far afield. This collaboration between Jefferson’s Bourbon and Esquire magazine — complete with silkscreened signatures from Trey Zoeller and David Granger on the back along with a ton of other, hard-to-read, typographically messy text — couldn’t be more pandering in its upscale aspirations. From the dark glass bottle to the wood stopper to the metal band around the neck, this is a drink that’s designed to look really, really expensive. Which it is.

So what’s inside? Jefferson’s Bourbon, of course, plus dry and sweet vermouth (making it a Perfect Manhattan) and barrel-aged bitters. The resulting concoction is barrel aged for 90 days before bottling. (This reportedly took two years of experimentation to get right.) There’s also the not-so-small matter of this, which is printed in all caps at the bottom of the back label copy: COLORED WITH CARROT EXTRACT.

Now that statement gives me some pause. This is a 68 proof cocktail made with basically just bourbon and vermouth, so why would extra coloring be needed? (And why the carrot, by God?) A typical Manhattan recipe would hit around 65 proof or lower, so this isn’t a case where the drink is watered down and Jefferson’s/Esquire is trying to pull one over on us. This is a fairly high-proof cocktail that’s mostly bourbon… so why with the carrots, guys?

I’ll leave that question for the commenters to wrestle over and simply get on to the tasting, which I sampled both straight and on the rocks. (It’s better shaken with ice and strained, served very cold.) The nose is heavy on winey notes, almost a madeirized character that overpowers the whiskey surprisingly handily. On the palate the dry vermouth is surprisingly clear, with bitter herbs muscling past the bourbon’s gentler vanilla notes. That classic whiskey sweetness is quite fleeting here, replaced with pungent notes of licorice, overripe citrus, and a touch of lumberyard character. I liked this well enough at first, but over time the vermouth became so dominant that I found myself left with a vegetal, slightly medicinal aftertaste that got considerably less appealing over time.

And yeah, it is pretty orange.

68 proof.

B- / $40 / esquire.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Editions Six and Seven

ECBPThe barrel proof expressions of Elijah Craig have certainly cultivated a cult following in its own rite over the past few years. With proofs varying in all sorts of dimensions throughout the series, we figured it was time to take the most recent pair for a test drive.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Edition Six – Each release in the series is 12 years of age, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by the heat of this monster. At 140.2 proof, we’re entering Stagg territories of alcohol content, and boy does it show. Mike Tyson-like punches of wood on the nose with a bit of mint, and the body is all oak, toffee, and pepper. Perfect winter snowstorm drinking, even taking it down a notch with a splash of water. A- / $65

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Edition Seven – A sharp contrast to round six, this weighs in at 128 proof and is by far the runt of the proof litter (most have been firmly in the middle 130s). However, this cut in proof shows just how beautiful and versatile ECBP can get when the heat gets turned down a bit. Lots of vanilla sweetness balanced with some dark fruit and oak on the taste. A little bit of burnt char on the body and it finishes with a fruit and spice after taste and a nice lingering burn. Definitely not the best of the bunch, but far from the worst either. B+ / $65

heavenhill.com