Review: Booker’s Bourbon “Oven Buster Batch” 2015-04

BookersBatch04We’re just now catching up with Booker’s, which is spending 2015 and beyond releasing some different, limited-release versions of this beloved bourbon brand. Booker’s may not be my go-to bourbon brand, but I have an immense respect for the craftmanship that Fred Noe puts into it and the depth of flavor it provides whenever I sample its charms.

Today we’re looking at the fourth monthly release, “Oven Buster Batch,” which is an uncut, unfiltered bourbon bottled after 6 years, 5 months, and 20 days. (What, no hours?)

Why “Oven Buster”?

“I’ve always been fond of cooking with bourbon,” said Annis Wickham Noe, wife of Booker and mother of Fred. “Years ago, as I was preparing a pork roast, I mistakenly reached for a bottle of my husband’s namesake bourbon to pour over the roast. The oven sparked from the bourbon’s high proof and the door flew open — that’s how the Oven Buster nickname was born!”

As with any Booker’s release, this is a racy one, the nose laden with alcohol and ample (but not overdone) wood. Maybe some mesquite? There’s ample vanilla of course, plus some mint that wafts up with some milk chocolate, too. On the palate, it’s rich with winey notes — think Port and chocolate — plus dense wood. More mint here on the tongue, particularly on the finish, which also offers a bit of fresh berry fruit. There’s plenty of youth in this whiskey, with some popcorn and more raw elements, but the frontier style gives this a bit more character than cigar-room character that off-the-rack Booker’s tends to have.

You might think water is a plus here, and while it certainly helps to dull the alcohol, it really does a number to the sweeter and fruitier components of the whiskey. If you must (and I understand if you must), add water by the drop, not by the splash.

127 proof.

A- / $60 /

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project: Every Barrel Reviewed on One Page

Looks like there’s still plenty of interest in the recently-completed Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Want to look up a barrel but can’t stand dealing with the search system (I don’t blame you) — then here ya go, every single barrel reviewed on one page, in numerical order. As a reminder, barrel #80 was named the winner when a dozen spirits writers (including both myself and Paul Pacult, the only two people to review every bottle in the series) visited with Buffalo Trace earlier this year.

I’ll be writing more about the SOP, including some in-depth analysis based on my own reviews and public ratings in the near future… stay tuned!

How about a spreadsheet with the whole series, including all the details of each bourbon, plus all the ratings? YOU GOT IT! (corrected 9/2/2015)

Continue reading

Review: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Kentucky Straight Bourbon 17 Years Old

Master's Keep Bottle Box Hi-Res

Following up on last year’s Diamond Anniversary bourbon, Wild Turkey is releasing Master’s Keep, a 17 year old whiskey that is the oldest bourbon Wild Turkey has ever released in the U.S.

The spirit is the product of Eddie Russell, the son of the famed Jimmy Russell, who was recently appointed to the job of co-Master Distiller alongside his dad. (Jimmy famously doesn’t care for old bourbon, hence releases that rarely topped 10 or 12 years of age.) This is Eddie’s first official release, though he’s had a hand in a number of prior Wild Turkey special editions.

If you read the Master’s Keep box copy, you might be confused of the talk of “distance: 200 miles” and “No.1: Wood, No. 2: Stone, No. 3: Wood.” What does all that mean? Let’s let the Russells explain:

The story of Master’s Keep begins in 1997. Wild Turkey had a surplus of Bourbon and no warehouse space left, so Eddie needed a place to store and age the extra barrels. A friend at another distillery offered his empty stone warehouses, but Eddie knew these would age the Bourbon differently than the wooden warehouses at Wild Turkey. He decided to take a chance and experiment a little, and so the barrels spent several years in stone warehouses before eventually coming back to Wild Turkey’s wooden ones.  After 17 years and 200 miles, Eddie felt these traveling barrels had reached their peak flavor. It is fair to say that this Bourbon is a welcome innovation in long-aged whiskey. And, much to his surprise, when the barrels were dumped they were at a much lower proof than anticipated. Barreled at 107 proof, the whiskey was 89 proof when dumped and 86.8 proof (43.4% alc./vol.) when bottled – a result of the time these particular barrels spent aging in stone warehouses.

“Master’s Keep is the result of a lot of experimentation, patience and faith,” said Eddie Russell. “The sweet spot for Bourbon aging is usually between 8 – 12 years because older Bourbons tend to become too woody or spicy from sitting too long in the barrel. What I was able to do with Master’s Keep was retain the Bourbon’s rich caramel and vanilla flavors by aging the barrels in both stone and wood warehouses, sampling from them every few months to decide their next move.”

Well, all that preamble aside, Master’s Keep cuts a curious figure. The color is exotic with a deep orange/amber hue — it looks old, to be sure. The nose says something else: Rich vanilla and caramel notes, but with ample fruit, and not a ton of wood. The body is fat with butterscotch, brown butter, tons of baking spices, and a surprisingly mild dusting of sawdust. Perhaps Russell is right that significant aging in cooler stone warehouses has tempered Master’s Keep, enough to keep it going for 17 long years and still come out the other side as a youthful and exuberant spirit. The finish is sweet and mild, quite fruity and fresh.

This is a fun whiskey that you’d never guess had 17 years of barrel age on it, but which you’ll really enjoy from start to finish. Price becomes a bit of a concern at this level — at $150 I want my head to spin — but I don’t think anyone could sample Master’s Keep and not ask for a second glass.

86.8 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1.


Review: High West Bourye (2015) and American Prairie Whiskey (2015)


Utah-based High West is a fun distillery to try to keep up with. Blink and they’ve got a new product. Blink again and it’s gone, replaced with something else.

It’s been a year since we last visited with High West and already things are evolving. Bourye — the bourbon and rye blend — was off the market and now is back, with an older collection of whiskeys comprising it. American Prairie Reserve — a blend of bourbons — is gone, replaced by American Prairie, which has some younger MGP bourbon in it.

Today we look at both of these newer releases. Thoughts follow.

High West Whiskey Bourye (2015) – Sourced from multiple distilleries, all whiskeys are at least 9 years old. These include a 9 year old bourbon (21% rye, 4% barley) from Indiana; a 10 year old rye (5% barley) from MGP; a 16 year old rye (5% barley) from MGP; and another 16 year old rye (10% corn, 10% barley) from Barton Distillery. Proportions are not disclosed. It’s got a gorgeous nose right out of the gate as the bottle is opened — almost like a heavily spiced apple pie is baking in the next room. Nosing the glass brings out notes of scorched caramel, cloves, and some toasted cereal — though alcohol is a bit heavy on the nostrils. The body is gorgeous and so easy to fall in love with. Nice notes of cinnamon toast, mixed dried fruits, some orange peel, and lots of added baking spice (especially cloves) come rushing at you all at once. The balance between spice and sweetness is just perfect here, with just a touch of wood on the back end to provide a nod at the not unsubstantial age this whiskey has seen. While hot on the nose, the body drinks just perfectly — silky with just the right amount of power to back things up. Reviewed: Batch 15B04. 92 proof. A / $63  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

High West Whiskey American Prairie (2015) – A blend of bourbons: 2 year old MGP (20% rye, 5% barley), 6 year old Kentucky mystery bourbon, and 13 year old Kentucky mystery bourbon. Again, the proportions are not disclosed. Significant barrel char, lumberyard, and granary notes on the nose. Butterscotch builds on the body, with some astringency quickly taking over. The finish is rustic and pushy, echoing a strong cereal (though not quite corny) character. That 2 year old bourbon makes an impact here, one which the older stock can’t quite undo. Tough to follow up the amazing Bourye with this one. Reviewed: Batch 9. 92 proof. B / $33

Review: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon (2015)

wild turkey 101It’s been five years since I last reviewed Wild Turkey’s iconic bottling, Wild Turkey 101, and seven years since my first (early) review of the stuff.

Here in 2015, it’s time to look at one of the mainstays of the bourbon world with fresh eyes and palates, no? (And to see if the whiskey has evolved in that time. The bottle has changed, but what about what’s inside?)

Wild Turkey 101 — in its 2015 incarnation — remains restrained on the nose. Alcoholic vapor obscures a bit of what’s underneath, which is redolent of barrel char, bacon, and vanilla custard, but give this one some time if you can, as a little air helps the nose develop more fully. Wild Turkey 101’s palate is rich though boozy, loaded with butterscotch, vanilla caramel, and ample baking spice.

At this point in my career, sipping on WT 101 without water is painless and enjoyable, but a bit of H2O may not hurt in bringing out the spicy and fruity elements, which meld pepper and cloves and cinnamon with a bit of applesauce — a note I continue to pick out on the 101 — with plenty of barrel char notes that add a rustic intensity to the proceedings.

Still a fan.

101 proof.

A- / $19 /

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric Bourbon 21 Years Old

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle Shot

Last year, Rhetoric 20 Years Old launched and found a foothold as one of the best releases of its Orphan Barrel project to date. But Rhetoric 20 was just the beginning. That was the first volley in a series of Rhetorics that will launch every year, each a year old, culminating with Rhetoric 25 in 2019.

All the whiskeys are made from the same mashbill, at the same distillery (Bernheim), and are likely to be bottled around the same 90 proof. The only difference here is age: Each year, one year older. Just like you, actually.

Comparing Rhetoric 21 Year Old side by side with the Rhetoric 20 Year Old, it is immediately less sharp and less citrusy on the nose. Rhetoric 20 offers some pungent alcohol notes at the start, while Rhetoric 21 is remarkably smoother around the edges and more “ready to go” out of the gate.

On the palate, Rhetoric 21 offers a bit more dusky spice, and offers a more leathery palate with a woody edge, featuring clear black and red pepper notes on the tongue. That woody element is clear, but it’s not overwhelming in the least, giving the whiskey a bolder vanilla profile with some banana and coconut notes thrown in for good measure.

I enjoyed Rhetoric 20 but have to say that Rhetoric 21 is an incremental and quite delightful improvement — and a considerably different experience. Now in very limited release.


Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof

Here’s what’s hard to believe: Jack Daniel’s has never released a barrel strength whiskey. That’s changing, with the release of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof, the company’s first-ever cask strength offering.

The whiskey isn’t a terribly complicated idea: Take the JD Single Barrel Select (which we only just reviewed a few weeks ago) and don’t water it down. Single Barrel is a consistent 94 proof, but these are bottled at whatever the cask gives you, ranging from 125 to 140 proof, depending on the bottle you get.

Naturally, we can only review the sample we received, and individual bottles are going to vary widely. As for this bottling, it’s an easy winner. The nose offers maple syrup, caramel sauce, and a little barrel char. On the body, it doesn’t drink like something that is 2/3rds alcohol. In fact, it really needs no water at all to be approachable, though less seasoned whiskey drinkers may want to add a splash. The palate is rich with more of that caramel, butterscotch, a touch of cloves and a lengthy, vanilla-fueled finish. Big, bold body — but it’s not overpowering in the slightest. The char isn’t overly evident here, which lets the sweetness really shine. All told, it’s a fantastic whiskey that stands as arguably the best thing ever to come out of the JD empire.

Reviewed: Warehouse 2-45, 4th floor. 133.7 proof.

A / $65 /

Review: Journeyman Kissing Cousins and Three Oaks Single Malt

journeyman kissing cousinsMichigan’s Journeyman Distillery continues to crank out the whiskey, and recently we received two new offerings for review. Thoughts follow.

Journeyman Distillery Kissing Cousins Whiskey – This is a selection of Featherbone bourbon that is finished in a Wyncroft Winery 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel. An annual release, this is the third edition of Kissing Cousins. The finished product is a blend of sweet, bourbon-driven vanilla notes, mushroomy earth, and a bit of popcorn on the finish. The wine barrel finishing tempers the rustic character of Featherbone quite a bit, but still leaves behind plenty of chewy grains and coal-dust notes, ensuring you don’t mistake this for the mass produced stuff. 90 proof. B+ / $33 (375ml)

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt – This one’s a real surprise. This is the second batch of Three Oaks (the first was in 2013), a 100% organic malted barley whiskey with an exotic aging regimen. As the distillery writes, “The spirit spends its first year and a half in used Featherbone Bourbon barrels. From there it is moved into used Road’s End Rum barrels for nearly a year and then is finished for two months in used port casks imported from northern Portugal. The whiskey spends a total of 32 months in the barrels.” The resulting spirit is mahogany brown, with an aroma of coffee, dark chocolate, coconut, and cloves. On the palate, it’s intensely rich, with clear port wine notes, a sweet backbone of caramel and Bananas Foster, and some roasted grain notes on the finish. There’s plenty of complexity here, with echoes of toasted coconut, rum raisin, and hints of amari. Hard to put down and engaging through and through, I have no trouble stating that this is one of the best single malts being produced in America today. 90 proof. A / $47

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Forged Oak Bourbon 15 Years Old

Orphan Barrel_Forged Oak Bottle Shot

The fifth release in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series is one of the best in the lineup. “Found by foraging the Stitzel-Weller warehouses,” it was produced at Bernheim in 1997-1998 from a mash of 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye. Barrel age is 15 years.

I’m not sure what “Forged Oak” is supposed to refer to, but the whiskey that bears its name doesn’t really evoke either of the words. On the nose, there’s lots going on: dense vanilla, gingerbread, and then some exotic stuff: namely distinct lemongrass and coconut notes (I start craving Thai food immediately). The body includes that vanilla punch plus some tropical notes, then a sweet butterscotch push as it builds on the palate. The finish takes the bourbon into darker territory — more lumber and a touch of Madeira. That may sound like a bummer after all the ephemeral fun that’s come before, but it’s actually a nice counterbalance to what’s come before — and what follows in the next sip.

90.5 proof.

A / $75 /

Review: Woodford Reserve Distillery Series – Sweet Mash Redux and Double Double Oaked

woodford double double oaked

This year, Woodford Reserve takes a page from the Buffalo Trace playbook and is launching a series of one-off, limited release whiskeys for our fun and enjoyment. They aren’t quite as “experimental” as the BT Experimental series, but they are also not as unique as Woodford’s annually-released Master’s Collection whiskeys (which remain a separate entity).

Per Woodford:

The Woodford Reserve Distillery will release up to three expressions of the Distillery Series concurrently at various times throughout the year. The inaugural two offerings, Double Double Oaked and Sweet Mash Redux, will be available for purchase at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY, with a suggested retail price of $49.99 for a 375ml bottle. These small-batch offerings range from finished whiskies to straight bourbons and other unique spirits. Master Distiller Chris Morris has spent the last several years developing and perfecting the individual expressions within the Distillery Series which, in true Woodford Reserve form, offer consumers a first-hand look into the brand’s creative dexterity. Made with the same approach as other Woodford Reserve products that focus on adjusting one or more of the five sources of flavor, Distillery Series expressions represent alterations across four of the five sources: grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.

In case you missed it: These are only available in half bottles, sold directly from the Woodford distillery in Kentucky.

So let’s taste these two inaugural releases, eh?

Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Sweet Mash Redux – Sweet Mash was an early Master’s Collection release (2008) and now it’s back as a Distillery Series release. It’s explained: “While traditional Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is a sour mash bourbon, modifying the fermentation process to include a non-soured mash creates a bourbon of higher pH effect and heightened fruit notes throughout.” I’ll leave that as it stands, and move on to the tasting. It’s a curious spirit, with a nose that doesn’t exactly scream fruit. Rather, it showcases notes of lumberyard, dense grains, and some toasted spices. The palate does run to fruit, but I find it more in the raisin/fruitcake arena. I catch prunes alongside some crystallized ginger and clementine oranges, but then the wood and cereal combo come back and come back strong. Curious, but not my favorite expression of Woodford. 90.4 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Double Double Oaked – Take Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, then finish it for an additional year in its second, heavily toasted lightly charred new oak barrel, that’s Double Double Oaked. Tasting Double Oaked today I find it quite a delight, sweet and surprisingly delicate for something with such a scary name. Double Double Oaked then, what might that be like? The nose is considerably more wood-focused, it turns out, and initially more reminiscent of rack Woodford than the original Double Oaked. Sip it and give it time however and it develops quite a sweet intensity on the palate, with strong notes of butterscotch and fresh cinnamon rolls. The finish offers some curious notes. Camphor? Cherry pits? Hard to peg, but I can say that while I like it quite a bit, the standard Double Oaked has a touch better integration and balance. 90.4 proof. A- / $50 (375ml)