Review: Speakeasy Bourbon

speakeasySo this is an interesting one. Quietly released in a limited batch in September, the label reads that this was made by the Bardstown Club Distilling Company. However, a quick Google search reveals that this is indeed the handywork of none other than Willett, under another one of its noms de plume. This made Speakeasy all the more intriguing, given its recent string of quality offerings. And at a price tag of $30 what did I have to lose?

Not a lot, and thankfully there was plenty to gain. This is one of the most easygoing bourbons I’ve had in quite some time. It’s light and simple, with a nose of butterscotch and gratuitous amounts of vanilla, with a touch of crisp apples on the palate. Really ideal sipping for the transition from summer to autumn — and it’s a decent value. Not exactly sure how many bottles were made in this batch (or much more about it), but if you see one it may be worth picking up — especially if you’re not one who likes to pay top dollar for bourbon this time of year.

94 proof.

B+ / $30 / kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 Edition

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Old Forester’s annual release of Birthday Bourbon — a celebration of the birthday of George Garvin Brown, founder of Brown-Forman — may not have the level of breathless anticipation surrounding it that, say, the year’s Antique Collection or Parker’s Heritage whiskey does. But I’ll say one thing for it: It’s always a well-crafted, worthwhile spirit.

This year’s Birthday Bourbon provides the usual minimal about its composition. No mashbill information is offered, but one can deduce from the vintage label that it’s been aged for 12 years. Some have expressed concern that Birthday Bourbon 2014 is coming out a bit later than usual — never a good sign in the whiskey world — but I’m happy to report that any such fears are unfounded.

2014’s Birthday Bourbon starts off fairly typical of this whiskey’s usual profile. Very woody on the nose, it offers an immediate attack of dark chocolate cocoa powder before you take your first sip. The body is racy and spicy with notes of more wood, licorice, and gunpowder. The finish warms up with gingerbread, custard, and vanilla, tamping down some of that early, and close to overwhelming, wood character. The result is a nice balance between sweet and savory with plenty to recommend it, and one of Old Forester’s more elegant special releases.

97 proof.

A- / $60 / oldforester.com

Review: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon – Limited Edition (2014)

angels envy cask strengh 2014

Angel’s Envy remains a top bourbon pick — and cheap, too — but true fans know that something special awaits if they just hang in there. Last year the company released its first Cask Strength Edition of its Port-finished bourbon. Available in an an edition of a whopping 600 bottles, you would probably have had better luck finding bottles of Pappy on closeout. (Whoops: I forgot about the 4,000-bottle 2013 2nd edition release that came out last year as an addendum…)

Well, 2014 is here and Angel’s Envy Cask Strength is back — with 6,500 bottles being released, more than 10 1.4 times last year’s figure. (It’s also $20 more expensive, but who’s counting?)

As I noted last year, this is a very different bourbon from standard-edition Angel’s Envy. Hot and charcoaly with lots of burnt sugar, toffee, and chimney ash, it reveals interesting notes of plum and banana only well into the finish. Water is big help here, bringing down those burnt/blackened sugar and molasses characteristics and revealing more of the essence of wood, cloves, and (very) dark chocolate notes to back it up. Fans of old, heavily wooded whiskeys will naturally eat this up, but those who enjoy a more fruity spirit will probably find something to enjoy here, too. Even more water (don’t be shy) helps to coax out more gentle vanilla, caramel, raisin, and cherry notes — some of the hallmarks of the standard AE bottlings — while still hinting at its burlier underpinnings.

119.3 proof.

A- / $169 / angelsenvy.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Celebrating 60 Years with Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell

Hey, look who dropped into San Francisco on the eve of WhiskyFest! It’s Jimmy and Eddie Russell, the co-master distillers at Wild Turkey. Over toasts and samples of a variety of WT expressions — including the Diamond Anniversary edition, which is now making its way to the west coast — the duo talked Old Time Kentucky, ponies, houseboats, and, of course, Bourbon-makin’. (Did you know: Eddie Russell claims Wild Turkey is the only major distillery not using GMO grains? That the inventor of Bourbon, Elijah Craig, was a Southern Baptist minister? That Wild Turkey has used the same yeast strain since 1954?)

While Eddie vowed that after his storied father finally retires, “I promise I will never change Wild Turkey 101,” he did speak about some new products coming down the pipe. Among them are Sting, a (likely) limited edition version of Wild Turkey American Honey infused with ghost pepper. As well, Russell Jr. notes that they didn’t use up all the 16-year-old casks to make the Diamond Anniversary bottlings — so watch for a possible 17-year-old expression of Turkey come 2015.

Congrats, Jimmy!

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Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Fourteen

We’re near the end of Buffalo Trace’s exhaustive (and exhausting) Single Oak Project, a series of 192 bourbons all made in a slightly different style — an attempt to find the whole grail of whiskeydom. With this round, we’ve got 168 down, 24 to go. Home stretch!

Need a primer on the Project? Here’s our past coverage to date:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve
Round Thirteen

Round 14 features whiskeys all aged in barrels made from the bottom half of the tree, put in barrel at 125 proof, and aged in a wooden-floor warehouse. Variables include char level, stave seasoning, wood grain, and of course recipe (rye vs. wheat). We’ve seen iterations on these variables in the past; at this point, the project is mainly about cleaning up what’s left in the lineup.

Two whiskeys — the classically structured Barrel #2 and the Stagg-like Barrel #34 stood out in an otherwise fair but unremarkable field. Nothing in this round was particularly unlikable, except perhaps the unbalanced Barrel #172. The overall winners so far (based on popular vote) are Barrel #82 and #83. I graded them both at a B+.

Complete thoughts on round 14 follow.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #2 – Classic, with lots of depth of flavor. Touches of sandalwood, honey, and walnuts all meld together into a well-integrated, creamy, and lightly spiced (yet lengthy) finish. It goes down almost too easy, offering all the classic bourbon notes with every sip. Easily the best of this round. A (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #12 – Foresty — with eucalyptus and solid oak notes. The hearty body melds chewy wood with some modest fruit notes. A bit ashy on the finish. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #34 – Bold up front, with a rich, chocolaty nose. It all follows through to the body, with a rounded, almost malty character that pushes through to a racy, brown sugar-infused finish studded with cloves, cinnamon, and cayenne. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #44 – Dessert time! Marshmallows and light nuts on the nose. The body is all silky caramel and nougat, until some wood-driven astringency arrives on the finish. Slow start, but it builds to a delightful middle and an agreeable, balanced end. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #66 – Blazing with heat and big wood character, it’s hard to catch much nuance on the nose. The body however reveals some surprises: Spicy rye character at its core, with touches of baking spices blended with red pepper. Big and bold, it’s loaded with lumberyard notes that really hang on. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #76 – Racy with both baking spices and more savory ones — think red pepper, thyme, sage, and pine needles. Lots going on here that’s unusual for bourbon, but it’s not a whiskey without some charms — so Old World in its austerity, herbaciousness, and restraint. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #98 – Indistinct, alcohol-redolent nose, but the body is bursting with fruit. Orange and cherry notes play with dark brown sugar tones, and some cinnamon red hots on the finish. A fine whiskey; too bad the nose isn’t there to finish the job. B+ (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #108 – Intriguing on the nose, this whiskey strongly exudes cherry cola notes, with underpinnings of oak. The body is moderate and a bit more scattered. The cherry’s not here, but the cola notes are big, along with some tea leaf, heavy charred wood, licorice, cardamom, and a touch of cloves. B+ (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #130 – Unusual notes of lemon and wood here — think Pledge, but in a way you might drink — at least on the nose. The body is more indistinct in its citrus focus, drinking hot while offering ample notes of wood oil and cloves on the back end. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #140 – Traditional: vanilla, caramel, wood. This could be any rack bourbon, but it’s classy and refined — a darker, woodier, coal-fired, more cigars-in-the-back-room bourbon than most of the comparably fruity expressions you get in the SOP. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #162 – Mild menthol on the nose leads in to a very easygoing palate. The body on this one is liquid caramel from front to back, spiked with cloves. Strangely, a bit of barnyard character emerges on the nose after some time in the glass, dulling what is otherwise a pleasant, anywhiskey experience. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #172 – Not an incredible level of character here. The nose is filled more with raw alcohol than anything else, the body is a fiery experience that finishes with smoke and brimstone. Not the Project’s best. B- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2014 Edition

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Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection needs no introduction, I’m sure — this is one of the most well-respected and sought-after annual whiskey collections on the market. Closely allocated and tough to find, you’re best off starting your hunt now. These releases formally hit the market in late September/early October.

Thoughts on the 2014 lineup follow.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – It’s an open secret that Sazerac 18 has been sitting around in a stainless steel vat for years and doesn’t really change (effects of oxidation notwithstanding), making this less of a special release and more of a limited allocation of a very special spirit. Sazzy 18 rarely fails to disappoint. This year is no exception, with the whiskey showing a woody — yet fresh — nose, cherries jubilee up front on the body, and a finish that takes you to places of marzipan, apple pie, and streudel. Watch for apple cider notes to come along after you think the finish has faded away. 90 proof. A

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – This edition of Eagle Rare 17 is a vatting of whiskeys from the second, third, and sixth floors of Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse I and K. Aged “nearly two decades,” according to the company — so as with last year, it may be a bit older than 17 years. This one’s a smooth operator, not quite the burly old guard that it can sometimes present as. Instead, it’s all silky caramels, bittersweet chocolate, Bing cherry, and graham crackers. Some spicier notes of cloves and allspice develop in the finish. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – The one you’ve been waiting for. The bruiser of the bunch. The hottest bourbon that isn’t named Pappy. It’s telling that the Stagg is set apart from the rest of the batch in the photo above, I think. This is a monster of a whiskey. Just look at the depth of color compared to the other whiskeys in that lineup — and remember, there are some 18+ year old whiskeys in there! As always, this is the kind of whiskey that, as grandma used to say, would put herr on yer chest, and at 138.1 proof it’s nearly a return to the heady days of 2012 and prior, when the whiskey regularly hit 70% alcohol. Fear not the water on this one — a selection of barrels from warehouses C, H, I, K, L, P, and Q distilled in 1998 (making it 16 years old). You can douse it 1:1, water to whiskey, and still get plenty of its character. And that would include tobacco, (very) dark chocolate, fresh roasted coffee bean, slate, and pencil lead. A smattering of spices arrive in time for the finish — cinnamon and cloves, the usual stuff — which help to season what is, as always, a dark, mammoth, brooding whiskey. This year, Buffalo Trace has just about nailed it. Stagg is always a tough nut to crack — and my palate tends to prefer more nuanced spirits — but the sheer depth of its flavor has me finding myself drawn more to this release than it has in recent years. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – A massive blazer, this is the hottest release of Weller in history. This is a 12 year old bourbon from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th floors of warehouses D, K, and L — basically a mutt from all over the place. An initial rush of smoke starts things off with thoughts of log cabins and a touch of mothball. The palate settles down after adding significant amounts of water, ultimately revealing some plum, chocolate, and coconut — but in the end the wood and smoky qualities take hold, pushing everything else out of mind. 140.2 proof. B

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Last year Jim Murray named the 2013 Handy Rye his #1 whiskey in the world. This created a massive run on Handy, despite the fact that no sane person would ever name this cask strength rye — typically 6 years old, as it is again this year — the best whiskey in the world. 2014’s Handy was aged on the fifth floor of warehouse M and arrives at a fairly typical strength for this spirit. This year’s expression exudes classic rye notes — lots of roasted grain character, chewy scorched cereal notes, some caramel, some baking spice, and a lengthy, campfire finish. Over time, some curious notes come forth — I can describe them only as fresh upholstery. Ample water is a must. I like it fine, but it frankly doesn’t hold a candle to the Sazerac 18 — which will probably be a hell of a lot easier to find thanks to Mr. Murray. 129.2 proof. B+

$80 each / greatbourbon.com

Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2014 Edition

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September is here, which means the second of Four Roses’ annual limited releases have arrived. The 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch release from 4R is a vatting of four different bourbon recipes: 13 year old OBSV, 12 year old OESV, 11 year old OBSF, and 9 year old OBSK. Three of those four, the OB bottlings, are from Four Roses’ “high rye” recipe. While 13 years sounds old, this is actually fairly young stock for this release. Unlike most prior Small Batch releases, the stock here doesn’t reach into the upper teens, and the Small Batch series has never had a whiskey younger than 10 years old in it before now. (That youth may also explain why this cask strength release is so racy, at an estimated 120 proof.)

That said, 9 years is plenty old for a Kentucky Bourbon, and the 2014 Small Batch doesn’t disappoint. It is an exceedingly fruity expression of Four Roses, bursting with notes of cherry, strawberry, orange, and lemon. Compared to the 2013 (which is now drinking as surprisingly austere), the 2012 (burly but increasingly approachable), and the 2011 (balanced but full of spice), it’s positively doused with an almost candylike character to it. I think it’s the cherry notes that ultimately come across the strongest — almost presenting like a Starburst fruit chew. Over time, the nose develops more of a woodsy character that melds with the cherry notes in a fun and enjoyable way — after spending some hours with the whiskey, I found myself thinking of Baker’s. Fans of that Bourbon may find lots to like in the 2014 Small Batch as well.

This isn’t my favorite whiskey in the Small Batch series, but damn if I didn’t enjoy it as much as those that have preceded it. Four Roses and Jim Rutledge love to tout how those 10 vaunted recipes can generate all kinds of different Bourbons when blended with an expert hand. This 2014 release continues to show that they know what they’re talking about.

11,200 bottles made. That’s 40% more than last year, so hopefully there’s more to go around.

A- / $90 / fourroses.us

Review: Elijah Craig Single Barrel 23 Years Old Bourbon

Elijah Craig 23-Year-Old

Following on its Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21 Year Old expression, Heaven Hill is jumping straight to 23 years old for this increasingly improbable yet clearly popular series. I guess 22 was an unlucky number.

Old bourbon, living in the shadow of Pappy Van Winkle, remains a dominating force in the whiskey business. But with so many bourbons drinking beautifully at 7 or 8 years of age, how does one approach a whiskey that’s three times as old?

Very carefully.

The Elijah Craig Single Barrel offerings are really starting to show that Bourbon really does have a lifespan, and with this expression Elijah shows us what his golden years look like.

All that wood is really having its way with this whiskey, but there’s still a bit of life left in it. The nose now borders on hoary: lumberyard and old rowboat planks, dusted with cinnamon, vanilla, and notes of Madeira and Port wine. The body is more lively, a bit of applesauce and salted caramel, but hardly a fruit bomb. The woodier notes dig their fingers in deep well before the finish really gets going, the end result being almost astringently mouth-puckering in the way it completely dominates your palate.

Fans of “old bourbon” who prise those intense wood characteristics will thrill to Elijah Craig 23. Those looking for more refinement and nuance from a whiskey that dwells outside the lumberyard may find this round of Elijah more than a little overbearing.

Reviewed: Barrel #26. Barreled on 2/26/90. 90 proof.

B+ / $200 / heavenhill.com

Review: Few Spirits Standard Issue Gin, Barrel Aged Gin, and Bourbon

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We’ve covered a few of the spirits of Evanston, Ill.-based Few Spirits in the past. Today we turn our attention to some of Few’s more exotic offerings. As with the previously-reviewed offerings, these are true craft products made with local grains (all within 100 miles of the distillery) and no bulk or sourced alcohol in the mix.

Thoughts follow.

Few Spirits Standard Issue Gin – Not to be confused with Few’s American Gin, this is a high-test Navy strength spirit that’s intended to be more juniper forward, and features the addition of fennel to the infusion list. (The remainder of said list is not public.) The addition is immediately noticeable. After the initial rush of heat from all that alcohol fades, some intense licorice notes are left behind, alongside a smattering of very light herbal/almost root beer notes. Bone dry, the gin is almost completely lacking in citrus character, letting the one-two punch of juniper and fennel do the heavy lifting. If that relatively simple combination sounds like a winner to you, this overproof spirit will be right up your alley, otherwise it can come across as decidedly, well, “standard.” 114 proof. B / $40

Few Spirits Barrel Aged Gin – Aka Few Barrel Gin, this gin, a relatively standard infusion of juniper, coriander, and other botanicals, is aged in a mix of new oak barrels, ex-Bourbon barrels, and ex-rye barrels for an unstated amount of time. The results are pretty tasty. Here the racy herbal notes — juniper, citrus peel, coriander, and licorice — find an interesting balance with the woody notes of vanilla and dark chocolate. The finish is bitter and almost quinine-like, with hints of sweetness if you sip on it long enough — it’s altogether a solid example of a burlier style of aged gin — with the emphasis on “aged.” It’s pretty easy to enjoy alone, and it also mixes well with simple mixers. 93 proof. B+ / $50

Few Spirits Bourbon Whiskey – A high rye mash is used for this home-grown bourbon, fermented with a “special, peppery yeast.” No word on the aging regimen, but Few Bourbon drinks at a moderate age. The initial rush is sweet vanilla and racy red pepper mixed with ample baking spices, but corny cereal notes come to the forefront as the palate progresses. This pairs well with a nose that presents the best of both of those worlds — popcorn and vanilla syrup in a sort of Cracker Jack conflagration. It’s not a complex take on bourbon, but for a younger craft spirit, it’s drinking remarkably well. I’d love to try a version of this again after 2 more years of barrel time just to see how those popcorn notes settle down. 93 proof. B+ / $50

fewspirits.com

Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherbone Bourbon

With over a dozen spirits on offer, Three Oaks, Michigan-based Journeyman Distillery has a specific focus on craft whiskeys, bottling six expressions of the stuff in its permanent lineup. Here we review three — all young and punchy, and all worth sampling at least once.

Thoughts follow.

Silver_sqJourneyman Distillery Silver Cross Whiskey – Made from a mash of equal parts rye, wheat, corn, and barley. No age statement. The nose is youthful and grain-focused, with citrus notes and some sea salt character along with touches of menthol. The body, as you might expect, has a ton going on. Alongside some surprisingly supple grains, I get notes of chocolate caramels, butterscotch, and Bit-O-Honey. It’s a rustic liquid dessert all the way — unusual for a young craft whiskey. A drop or two of water goes a long way toward smoothing out its rough edges and coaxing the sweetness forward. 1% of proceeds from the sale of this product go to a local golf-oriented charity. 90 proof. A- / $50

Journeyman Distillery Ravenswood Rye – An organic blend of Minnesota rye and Michigan wheat, aged in 15 gallon barrels. No age statement. Notes of licorice and phenol on the nose, settling into an intense herbal character. The body is racy and on par with craft expectations: Very young, punchy, and heavy on granary notes. Give it some time, though. As with Silver Cross, notes of chocolate and caramel emerge, along with touches of orange peel, quinine, and a touch of Bing cherries. Less enticing than the Silver Cross (though, againFeatherbone_750, water is of benefit here), but a solid effort. Reviewed: Batch #29, bottle #50. 90 proof. B / $50

Journeyman Distillery Featherbone Bourbon – Named for the Featherbone Factory, a Prohibition-era factory that made buggy whips and corsets and in which Journeyman is now based. Made of midwest organic corn, Michigan wheat, a little rye, and malted barley. Noage information offered. Credible craft bourbon here. It’s frontier style stuff, with a grainy, rustic attack, but the body settles down to reveal lots of vanilla, milk chocolate, and a touch of hazelnut. As with the Silver Cross, Featherbone eschews fruit in favor of dessert, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 90 proof. B+ / $45  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

journeymandistillery.com