Category Archives: Bourbon

Review: Cabin Still Bourbon Whiskey

CabinStill 200x300 Review: Cabin Still Bourbon WhiskeyAfter my initial voyages to the bottom of the shelf with JW Dant and Kentucky Gentleman, I reasoned my exploratory adventure should further continue with another value bourbon.

Cabin Still was originally part of a line at the now legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery, along with W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell. The brand name was purchased in 1993 by the Heaven Hill distillery at the same time as JW Dant and has remained in the company’s portfolio for the past two decades. It doesn’t really get the respect it deserves — not even a mention of it on Heaven Hill’s brands page.  That’s a shame because at 36 months in age, this is not a bad bottle, especially when considering it has a purchase point of around $10.

The initial nose has faint hints of oak and butterscotch, and the taste keeps the oak resonating throughout with a wee bit of alcohol burn at the end. There isn’t much of a finish to it, and the whole experience is restrained at best. There’s little to no lingering to be had on the finish whatsoever, whether tried neat or on the rocks.

Unlike the beautifully detailed artwork on the outside, Cabin Still isn’t elaborate or complex but serves its purpose well when mixed with cola, and I’m sure it could serve as a fine mixer for any other drink in which bourbon is required. I’m told by elder sages of the Kentucky Bourbonati that pre-Heaven Hill versions of this brand taste far superior to today’s edition, almost akin to a 12 year old WL Weller.

$9 / B / no website (c’mon Heaven Hill, where is the love?)

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2013

WhiskyFest 2013 is now in the books, and my what an embarrassment of riches this show was. While I heard grousing about the show not having as many hits as usual (most of the independent Scotch bottlers like Samaroli were absent), I managed to find a ton of them. Driven this year perhaps by a ruthless attempt to avoid lesser products (one industry bigwig, with all seriousness, suggested I give Johnnie Walker Red Label a try), it didn’t take much doing to suss out some really great whiskeys being poured. Who can complain when Julian Van Winkle is pouring his best stuff, after all?

It was quite the global event this year, with numerous whiskeys from Japan, Canada, and Ireland on tap that you don’t normally see at shows. And more and more craft distillers, like Masterson’s and Smooth Ambler, are taking to shows to give people a taste of something new.

Anyway, as usual it was a great evening with old friends and new ones – both of the whiskey and the human variety. Thoughts follow.

American Whiskey / Bourbon
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Ten / A- / some menthol, caramel with a dusty finish
Masterson’s 12 Year Wheat / A- / big wood, cherries, a fun whisky
Masterson’s 10 Year Barley / C- / funky mint and rubber notes, unripe banana, not at all to my liking tonight
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit / A- / lovely sweetness without being saccharine, tried just to say hi to Jimmy and Eddie Russell, both pouring
Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select / A- / a new limited edition from JD, the same spirit but aged in barrels that have been “grooved” with extra cuts to expose more wood surface; as expected, this is like JD, but woodier; not bad at all
Pappy Van Winkle 15 Years Old / A / still maturing, with a little burn
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Years Old / A+ / Pappy at its best, raisins, wood, big body… just perfect
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A / you can finally see the age on this spirit at 23, where the balance is just starting to turn toward too much wood

Scotch Whisky
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve / B / chewy barley and rubber bands
The Balvenie Single Barrel 12 Years Old / A- / cake, nuts, smoke, malt
Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice / A+ / best spirit at the show, aged in American oak for 21 years, then finished in Chateau Yquem barrels; liquid gold, sweet and savory in perfect balance
Bruichladdich Black Art 3 22 Years Old / B+ / always a funky expression, bristly and huge this year, with a smoky, old-world character
Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1 / A- / is Octomore losing its ability to shock me? This struck me as plenty peaty but not overdone, with evergreen and charcoal notes
Buchanan’s Red Seal / A- / Buchanan’s first WhiskyFest; a peaty blend with some citrus and sweetness, good balance
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition / B+ / a new release from Cutty; very mild, surprisingly malty, with fresh grain and wood notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1973 / A / hearty sherry character, drinking beautifully
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1983 / B / dusty with lots of wood; couldn’t be more different than the ‘73
Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend / B / overcooked, unthrilling
Compass Box Delilah’s 20th Anniversary Limited Edition / B+ / bottled as a tribute to a famed Chicago area bar, matured partly in new oak barrels (rare for Scotch); bourbon-like character, peppery with lots of wood, caramel notes

Irish Whiskey
Jameson’s Rarest Vintage Reserve / A / always a standout, this beautiful bottling (~26 years old) features lovely spicy notes beneath a sweet core
Midleton Barry Crockett Edition / A- / a vatting of 7 to 22 year old spirits; more rustic than the Jameson, chewy grain notes, still fun

Canadian Whisky
Wiser’s 18 Years Old / A- / mellow, well developed, sultry finish
Lot No. 40 / B- / a 100% rye bottling, a powerhouse of rubber, pungent basil and cherry notes

Japanese Whiskey
Hakushu Heavily Peated / B+ / not at all “heavy” in my mind, good balance with citrus notes
Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years Old / B+ / ample cereal notes
Nikka Taketsuru 12 Years Old / A / great balance of grain and honey, a standout

Brandy
Gran Duque De Alba XO 18 Years Old / A- / Spanish brandy; big coffee and licorice notes; intriguing and powerful
Gran Duque De Alba Oro 25 Years Old / B+ / a little overblown, same character as the XO, but just too much, too hoary

Review: Colorado Gold Bourbon and Corn Whiskey

colorados own corn whiskey 525x445 Review: Colorado Gold Bourbon and Corn Whiskey

Colorado continues to rise as a key craft distilling region. One of the vanguards is Colorado Gold, a company out of Cedaredge, which was established in 2007. The company makes a full range of spirits, and today we’re looking at two of its most popular ones, both whiskeys, and very different ones at that. Thoughts follow.

Colorado Gold Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Young stuff, but quite engaging. Made from a mash of 65% corn, 15% rye, 10% wheat, and 10% malted barley, and aged for three years in a new char #3 American oak barrel. There’s ample wood on the nose, balanced with a touch of citrus, a bit of menthol. The body takes things to a similar place — a good slug of wood, mild caramel, with some dusty, coal-fire notes on the finish. Pleasant but not overly nuanced, this is a surprisingly simple bourbon, but with the often abrasive corn/grain notes you find in so many craft bourbons mercifully stripped out. There’s ample wood, but it’s balanced with clever touches of marshmallow, vanilla, and orange oil, turning slightly bitter as the finish fades. I’m both impressed and intrigued. 80 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #8, bottle #79, distilled 1/19/13. B+ / $43

Colorado’s Own Corn Whiskey – Colorado Gold’s top selling product. Made from a mash of 85% corn, 10% wheat, and 5% malted barley and aged for 6 months in a fresh-dumped Colorado Gold (see above) bourbon barrel. This is lightly aged corn whiskey, emphasis on light — it’s got the barest shade of yellow tinting it. This is surprisingly easy to drink. It’s not at all harsh or overloaded with corn, rather a light and pleasant spirit that features simple vanilla caramel notes backed with touches of corn chips. A fruity character comes on in the finish — peaches, perhaps — before some dusty wood notes bring up the rear. Surprisingly fun stuff. 80 proof. B+ / $27

coloradogolddistillers.com

Review: Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon

Knob Creek Smoked Maple 525x794 Review: Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon

Finally, someone’s doing the maple-flavored whiskey thing right.

Let me step back. In general I’m ambivalent toward flavored whiskeys. I don’t much see the point, as if I wanted flavor with my whiskey I’d just mix up a cocktail. Still, shortcuts are shortcuts, and there’s something to be said for having your favorite mix pre-bottled and ready to go.

The reason for the success isn’t hard to see. This is overproof Knob Creek (normally 100 proof) with a fairly light touch of maple syrup flavor, instead of the all-too-common other way around: Syrup that’s had a dash of whiskey added to it. Even with the additions, Knob Creek Smoked Maple comes through at 90 proof, still well above the typical 70 to 80 proof you find in this category.

The results are impressive. While pancake syrup fills the room when you crack open the bottle (sealed with the traditional Knob Creek black wax), but that’s where the maple effect is its strongest. Nosing an aerated glass brings out Bourbon first, maple syrup considerably further down the list. On the palate, the mouthfeel is solid — a bit more gummy than straight whiskey, but plenty pleasant. The maple character is there, all right, making it tough to pick out specific notes in the Bourbon, but in the end, after the pancake party is over, I find myself left with citrus peel, marshmallow, ice cream cone, and toffee characters on the finish. The one thing I don’t get here: Smoked anything.

Now I’m the kind of guy who prefers pancakes with butter only, so for me to say Knob Creek’s Smoked Maple is a worthwhile product, even a rather good one, is like the Pope saying he isn’t going to judge gay priests. Er, wait a sec.

B+ / $31 / knobcreek.com

Review: Kentucky Gentleman Bourbon

ProductImages Kentucky Gentleman KSBW 80prf 1000ml Glass 1 525x786 Review: Kentucky Gentleman BourbonInitially I was apprehensive to even approach this long-standing brand, as the gentleman who stumbles down my street during his early morning commute usually has a pint of the stuff firmly fastened in hand. However, Kentucky Gentleman has recently earned the dubious cachet of being the “PBR of Bourbons” by the youth of today — meaning it is cheap yet still worth drinking as long as you do so ironically.

So it was with a “can do” spirit and a healthy surplus of denial that I’m no longer “with it” that I forked over $10 and bought myself 750ml of this Barton brand.

Madam, this is no gentleman. In fact, there were moments while forcing sips down my throat where I wasn’t fully certain how this concoction connected to the greater context of the bourbons I adore. A cursory glance at the back of the bottle revealed the answer: it’s actually 51% straight whiskey and 49% grain neutral spirits, so it leans closer to a blend than actual bourbon. That’s not to say there aren’t traces of bourbon lingering in the glass, because they’re here. Sort of. Hints of caramel and corn are present but only to announce that they’re drowning in a sea of alcohol and thick iced-tea colored silt.

There’s a certain practical joke quality in the misnomer of calling this Kentucky Gentleman — no gentleman from Kentucky with whom I’ve made acquaintance would actively procure and participate in drinking this spirit. And who knows? Maybe that’s the point of it all: to deflect folks from trying the good stuff. If true, that’s one of the few points where “KG” succeeds: to protect against newcomers hell-bent on upping market prices and hoarding limited editions for online trading and selling. In fact, I might just keep this on the shelf and serve it to the next annoying houseguest who asks me if they can try a sip of Pappy Van Winkle.

D / $10 / greatbourbon.com (…)

Review: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon – 2nd Edition, 2013

Angels Envy Cask Strength 2nd edition 525x787 Review: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon – 2nd Edition, 2013

Last year, cult favorite whiskey Angel’s Envy was released in a super-rare cask strength edition. The catch: a whopping 600 bottles were made and released only in Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee.

Now the company is back with another cask strength released, and this time it won’t be quite so scarce, with about 4,000 bottles released in California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, and Texas. That said, considering this is the final project completed by recently deceased Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson and that Paul Pacult just named the 2012 Cask Strength bottling his #1 spirit of the last year, I’d expect this bottling to vanish just as quickly.

For those unfamiliar, Angel’s Envy is a bourbon made from 4- to 6-year old stock, finished for 3 to 6 months in Port barrels. Normally an 86.6 proof whiskey, this cask strength release hits 123 proof (1% hotter than the 2012 version, which is pictured above).

I think this is a touch better than the 2012 bottling. There’s so much depth of flavor here and so much to explore. First comes a very deep sweetness, driven by burnt sugar and deep raisin notes. (Of course, there’s plenty of alcohol to work your way through, too.)

On the palate, the whiskey takes on deeper, more nefarious notes. Heavy wood char, prune, roasted nuts, and a lasting, wood-driven finish. It really spins the AE formula on its head. In the standard bottling the wood comes first, the raisiny sweetness after. Here it’s sugar, then wood. How does that happen? Ah, what a country.

A- / $149 / angelsenvy.com

Review: Jim Beam American Stillhouse 2013 Clermont Limited Edition Bourbon

JB Stillhouse 2013 Sm 525x784 Review: Jim Beam American Stillhouse 2013 Clermont Limited Edition Bourbon

Jim Beam’s new American Stillhouse is a new visitor’s center and production facility is getting a new whiskey to call its own. Specially bottled with a custom, vintage-dated label, Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe has put out this 2013 Clermont Limited Edition bourbon in an edition of just 7500 bottles, each numbered and signed by Noe. (No age statement or mashbill information is available.) We were lucky enough to nab one.

The nose is unexpected and intriguing, with characteristics of maple syrup, bacon, and deeper level baking spices — allspice and nutmeg. The body is even more unusual. Here you’ll find not the traditional vanilla sweetness of bourbon but something much different. Huge wood notes are evident, with secondary notes of incense, raisins, and leather. Lots of tannin throughout, with a very drying finish. In the end the fruit components take on more of a prune-like character, with plenty of wood notes to round out the finale. I can’t say it’s overwhelmingly pleasant. It’s got a certain frontier curiosity around it, but the fruit and sweeter elements are so muted that it comes across as decidedly flat.

80 proof. Reviewed: Bottle 1542/7500.

B / $40 / americanstillhouse.com

Review: Wild Turkey Forgiven Whiskey

wild turkey forgiven 133x300 Review: Wild Turkey Forgiven WhiskeyIs it possible that a distillery like Wild Turkey made a new whiskey by mistake… and that it turned out so well they decided to commercialize it? Well, I don’t want to get in the way of a self-described “wild tale” or this new whiskey, the first-ever widely produced whiskey that’s a blend of bourbon and rye.

Made from 78 percent 6-year-old bourbon and 22 percent 4-year-old rye, Forgiven is immediately a curiosity, though well in line with the Wild Turkey repertoire. The nose is well installed in bourbonland: Big, lumberyard sawdust notes which immediately come across as something much older than a mere 6 years of age. Mild vanilla notes come across alongside them, but the dominant aroma is purely, simply wood.

On the body there’s fortunately more to discover. Creamy marshmallow backed up with milk chocolate, some apple, and a touch of spice are well evident on the palate. Of course, there’s plenty of wood to go along with it, and here it’s almost overpowering. As for that rye, it’s not much more evident than in a high-rye bourbon. There is a slight kick on the back end as a little red pepper shows itself, but otherwise, you’d be fully forgiven (get it?) for thinking this was just a big, woody bourbon.

Forgiven is fine for a sipping whiskey, but I’m unconvinced that it adds anything new to the Wild Turkey pantheon. I’m happy to drink it — it’s completely harmless — but it just doesn’t have a lot of nuance that you’ll find either in straight bourbon or standard rye.

Was this truly an accidental discovery? It seems absurd to suggest that no one has blended two whiskeys together in the past — Wild Turkey makes plenty of both of these spirits — but having experienced the final product of putting them together, it’s easy to see why a mixture like this has never been commercialized until now. There just wasn’t any point.

91 proof.

B / $50 / wildturkeybourbon.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Ten

We’re into double digits on Buffalo Trace’s “Single Oak Project” experiment. With 10 rounds down and 6 to go, the end of this extravaganza is finally in sight… all designed to find the Holy Grail of just what is responsible for the perfect glass of whiskey.

Previous rounds can be found here:

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

This round looks primarily at entry proof and wood grain size, testing 105 and 125 entry proof along with tight/average/coarse wood grains, plus the effect of recipe (rye vs. wheat, which so far has been tested in every round). The other variables in this round remain the same, including char level (#3), tree cut (tops), stave seasoning (all level 12), and aging warehouse (warehouse K, with wood floors in this case).

All told I really enjoyed this round. I think it was one of the most successful in the SOP to date, with barrel #41 a standout in my mind — perhaps the best Single Oak Project bourbon released so far.

Per the company, when aggregating customer reviews, barrel number 59 is currently in the lead, with barrels number 92 and number 188 close behind.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #9 – Very woody and overcooked. Dusty, with notes of bittersweet chocolate and coffee grounds. Shows its charms after a while in glass, but it’s a long time coming. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #25 – Heavy menthol on the nose, hot body. After the mint character fades, it’s all burnt wood and chimney fires on the palate, but the finish just sort of lies there. (rye, 105 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #41 – Much better balance here, both with a seductive nose and a well-built body. Lots going on throughout, with notes of butterscotch, rum raisin ice cream, and cherries on the finish. Altogether it’s got a great balance of flavors that come together swimmingly, though the body is slightly thin. One of the best bottlings in this whole series. (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #57 – Heavy with sawdust and lumberyard notes on the nose, with a slight orange tinge. Feels undeveloped on the tongue, lacking any real definition or direction. Fades quickly. B- (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #73 – Nose of tobacco leaf and barrel staves, unusual and intriguing. The body offers a surprising mix of wood, butterscotch, mushroom, and vegetal character — which is altogether more interesting than it may sound in that description. The finish grows quite sweet. This one grew on me quite a bit. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #89 – Strong apple notes on the nose, with some pleasant cinnamon undertones. This is a unique whiskey for the Single Oak Project, light and fruity but also balanced by ample oak. This is another winner, but a wholly different spirit than the others in this round. A-  (rye, 105 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #105 – Absent on the nose, a surprise given the relative depth of flavor in the palate — lots of caramel and vanilla, quite the sugar bomb on the tongue. Some honey and candied ginger flavors add complexity, but still can’t manage to coax anything into the aroma. B+ (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #121 – Another one with a mild nose, this one with hints of banana and apples, followed by touches of sawdust. The body is also very restrained, coming forward with more orange and sherry notes, vanilla ice cream. Another for the sweet tooths, but I like it. A-  (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #137 – Classic Bourbon nose, quite woody. Huge spiciness on this one, with baking spices balanced by a pepperiness I haven’t much seen in this round. Drinks hotter than its 90 proof, which is perhaps a good thing in this case. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #153 – Ample wood on the nose, backed up with menthol. Slightly tight on the palate, a little closed off, the wood becoming a touch astringent in the end. Lacking in any real secondary character. B- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #169 – Hot on the nose, mild on the tongue. This whiskey makes no sense! Banana nut bread notes come along, with some basic caramel character and touches of mint. Fine, in the end, but not entirely in balance. (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #185 – Woody, lots of citrus, overall a fun, frontier-style whiskey with plenty to enjoy. The lumberyard notes are what stick with you, but they’re light enough to leave you more with a sense of well-being than one of kicking up sawdust. B+ (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, wooden ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

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

Review: Jim Beam Red Stag Hardcore Cider

red stag hardcore cider 109x300 Review: Jim Beam Red Stag Hardcore CiderThe latest addition to the ever-expanding line of Red Stag by Jim Beam is this, called Hardcore Cider. You don’t need a lot of imagination to figure out this is infused with apple cider “and other natural flavors.” Apple is a natural complement for bourbon (and plenty of cocktails mix whiskey and cider), so this combination makes sense.

On the nose, the spirit is full of deep apple character — baked apples in a touch of cinnamon syrup, like grandma used to make. The body follows suit: This is a whiskey where the flavoring takes the reins and runs with it. The bourbon element of this Red Stag is elusive to the point of absence. If the fruit were a bit brighter, you could be excused for thinking you were drinking Calvados. A touch of vanilla at the very end reminds you it’s been in a barrel, but vanilla is such a natural counterpoint for apples that it doesn’t immediately come across as a bourbon element.

This is not a bad product, but the relative absence of bourbon flavors — even with 80 proof whiskey as the base — make me wish for something that showcased the whiskey along with the cider. That said, I’d mix this with ginger ale or use it as a base for a punch and see what happens.

80 proof.

B / $18 / jimbeam.com

Review: J.W. Dant Bourbon

4605 6544jwdantoubnbox 199x300 Review: J.W. Dant BourbonFirst, for your consideration, a bit of history: Joseph Washington Dant was a well-known Kentucky distiller who in 1836 gained a reputation for making his whisky using a log still. For those not versed in the distillation arts, that’s essentially a hollowed out tree trunk with copper piping running through the center. The logs would then be filled with mash and steam would run through the copper pipe for the distilling process. Dant would go on to own a proper distillery some 40 years later, and generations of his family would continue to work in the industry. Eventually they would honor his legacy with a bottle bearing his name in the late ’50s. The brand would stay in the family name until Heaven Hill purchased it in 1993; the bottle has stayed in Heaven Hill’s core lineup since, though it is no longer made in a log. (No age statement is offered.)

And now the tasting: At first, Dant seems promising. A fresh, neat pour offers up traces of orange, spices, and a bit of smoke on the nose; ideal for cocktails for the forthcoming autumn season. The first sip and swish ease in with a bit of the usual suspects: vanilla, caramel, and oak, but then follow up with an absolute knockout punch of heat and alcohol which linger until the (somewhat) short, oaky finish. Nothing really changes much over the duration of a glass. It mellows with a bit of ice, but the song remains the same.

Overall it’s not an unpleasant experience, but definitely not a stand-up memorable tasting event either. It’s a bit like that very odd dating situation where things went fine and nothing went wrong, but considering the field is wide open and plenty of options remain available, a second date might happen only with a bit of reluctance. Heaven Hill would be well served in re-tooling the brand to compete on a pedigree with other big names like Stagg, Parker’s, and Booker’s. It’s the least it can do for a man who contributed much to the advancement of bourbon. He certainly deserves the consideration.

B / $18 / no website

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2013 Edition

Antique Collection 525x411 Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2013 Edition

It’s always a glorious day when Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection annual samples arrive, letting us stick our noses and tongues in these classics of the American whiskey world. 2013 offers the quintet at ages of up to 19 years old. Here’s how the five whiskeys of the 2013 Collection stack up. (Hint: It’s one of the strongest showings for the Antique Collection in years.)

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – Beautiful nose. Lovely rye spice meets caramel and spice aromas. The body has an easy sweetness to it, with gentle grain meeting burnt sugar, vanilla caramels, and light applesauce notes. Relatively simple, but wait for the dark molasses to come along in the finish as you let this rumble around in the glass for a while. This is a barrel (er, barrels) picked at just the right time — I don’t get the overly tannic, drying, and dusty character than 2012′s version. As it often is in the annals of the Antique Collection (because it’s essentially the same from year to year), this one’s just about perfect. 90 proof. A

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – Surprise, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old is this year actually 19 years old. They didn’t bother changing the bottle, though. This is always a fun, go-to bourbon, and this year it’s no exception. A bigger whiskey, it’s got ample leather and wood on the nose and the initial attack of the body, with a kind of plum/prune/raisin underpinning that arrives quickly. The sweeter, more dessert-like elements come out more clearly as the finish fades, leaving the drinker with a surprisingly complex overall experience. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – This year’s Stagg was aged on lower floors of the Buffalo Trace warehouses, and the proof comes in at 128.2 proof, one of the lowest (if not the lowest) I’ve seen since starting this website. (Higher warehouse locations are hotter, which causes more water to evaporate than alcohol, which leaves higher-proof whiskey in the barrel.) OK, with that resolved, what you’ll find is a classically structured barrel-proof bourbon, heavy with wood notes (and plenty of straight-up alcohol despite the lower proof level) up front but balanced by a surprising fruitiness underneath. Chewy with notes of figs, plums, and currants, it’s got a brooding character you don’t often see in bourbon and which is not the usual way Stagg presents itself. One worth exploring, as always. 16 years old. B+

William Larue Weller Bourbon – The blazing hot nose makes you think you’re in for nothing but burn, but this year’s Weller — never a highlight of the Antique Collection — has much more to show off. Lots of tobacco on the nose — both fresh and smoldering. A 136.2 proof bourbon at the (comparably) young age of 12 years old, it comes across as older than you initially expect. The tobacco and wood notes blow off after a time, bringing on restrained butterscotch sweetness, plus some banana and caramel notes. This is probably the most classically structured bourbon of the lot, with wood meeting ice cream toppings alongside a blistering overproof backbone. Plenty to enjoy for the traditionalists. B+

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – As usual, this 6 year old rye is the odd man out in a collection populated by whiskeys two to three times its age. But last year Jim Murray made the untenably insane choice to name Handy his “Whisky of the Year,” cementing its place in the Collection pretty much eternally. This year’s expression is one of the better versions of the spirit. It’s a quite sweet rye, laden with plenty of baking spice and a particularly long gingerbread finish. The exceptional sweetness can become a bit overwhelming in the long haul, but that may be to some drinkers’ tastes. Not a lot of wood influence this year, a stark departure from 2012. I wonder what Murray will say. 128.4 proof. B+

$70 each / greatbourbon.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Wheated Bourbon Entry Proof Experiments

Wheat Mash Enrty Proof Family 2 300x159 Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection   Wheated Bourbon Entry Proof ExperimentsBuffalo Trace, no stranger to experimentation, recently released this intriguing series of bourbons as part of its Experimental Collection. The idea: Vary entry proof from very low (90) to fairly high (125), and keep the barrels otherwise exactly the same.

Entry proof, for those not familiar with the lingo, is the term that describes the alcohol level of a whiskey when it goes into the barrel for the first time. Generally whiskey is not barreled at the alcohol level that came off the still. It is rather watered down, often to between 105 and 125 proof, before it’s sealed up to rest for years.

With this series of whiskeys, the white dog came off the still at 130 proof. The recipe is a wheated mashbill, which was then split into four parts, one barreled at 90 proof, one at 105, one at 115, and finally one at 125 proof. All four spent 11 years, 7 months in barrel. When bottled, they were all brought down to 90 proof.

How are they different, and which is best? Here’s what I had to say…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Wheated 90 Entry Proof - Pleasant and mellow, it has a brisk level of heat on the nose, but not overwhelming. The body is moderately woody, with ample vanilla character. Applesauce and cinnamon build to an easy, lasting, and sweet conclusion, with just a lightly woody/sawdusty kicker. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Wheated 105 Entry Proof - Much less on the nose here, just wisps of lumber and alcoholic heat. The body: Completely dead, just nothing going on in this at all. Hints of coconut and milk chocolate, but otherwise this could be almost any kind of whiskey. A snooze. C+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Wheated 115 Entry Proof - Nose of butterscotch, some wood. Comes across as hotter as you take in the nose, but reveals banana notes, brown sugar, caramel, and more. On the body, quite unique, with a sweetness that’s spiked with lots of cloves and deep wood character. Still, it’s not overcooked, offering lots of depth in both its fruit and more savory characters. If I was buying one of these, I’d pick this one. A

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Wheated 125 Entry Proof - Racy and spicy, with notes of cinnamon and raisins, both on the nose and in the body. Opens up as you sip it, but wood-driven characteristics take hold over the fruit, leaving behind a slightly bitter, hoary finish. Not unenjoyable, but more difficult than it needs to be. B

Fun stuff, but it might say more about barrel variability than it does about the merits of different entry proofs.

each $46 per 375ml bottle / buffalotrace.com

Review: A. Smith Bowman Virginia Bourbons

bowman brothers small batch 143x300 Review: A. Smith Bowman Virginia BourbonsYes Virginia, they do make whiskey in, uh, Virginia.

A. Smith Bowman is a boutique bottling now owned by Buffalo Trace parent company Sazerac. It was previously sold with very limited regional availability, but now this unique whiskey, made in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is getting broader distribution that currently totals 17 states (sorry Mississippi!). We were fortunate enough to nab two of the three whiskey expressions it currently has on offer — though oddly, none of the three actually says “A. Smith Bowman” exactly in those words on the label, so bear that in mind if you go on the hunt for a bottle. (The company also makes rum, vodka, and gin.)

Don’t be afraid of Virginia, purists. These are Bourbons made in the accepted, proper way, with a traditional copper pot still, triple distilled. No fancy finishes or other trickery. No age statements are provided on the bottles.

Thoughts on both whiskeys tasted follow.

Bowman Brothers Small Batch Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Ample applesauce on the nose, with cinnamon notes. On the body, vanilla — slightly saccharine in its sweetness — pours forth, alongside some toasty wood notes that offer balance. Hints of mint throughout. The apple notes come back along on the finish. Overall: Nice body, very pleasant and easy to sip on, as long as you’re ready for a whole lot of fruit. 90 proof. A- / $30

John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – More wood, more vanilla on the nose. Almost chocolatey. The body offers classic, big Bourbon flavor, a well-crafted melange of wood, cocoa powder, rich vanilla, and somewhat less fruit. Here, it’s not apples but rather figs which make a curious — and wholly welcome — entrance, offering a neat twist on this spirit without being overly fruity or dessert like. Great balance, and easy drinking despite the triple-digit proof level. A slight splash of water doesn’t hurt. 100 proof. A / $50 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

asmithbowman.com

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013 Edition

2013 OF Birthday Bourbon 217x300 Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013 EditionAnother year older, another year deeper into your whiskey collection.

This 12th edition of Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon doesn’t offer much in the way of data, but it’s 12 years old and very limited in quantity.

Lots of wood here; that’s evident from the get-go. The nose is classic, older Bourbon stock — wood-driven, but filled with lots of baking spice and vanilla notes. On the tongue, more where that came from, with an initially sweet rush, followed by cloves, baked apples, and more vanilla pastry character. The finish brings the wood back, plus a surprising amount of alcohol, although this has never been an incredibly hot spirit.

All in all, OldFo ’13 is in line with many of the previous bottlings, driven more by the barrel than the grain, and that’s something that will appeal to fans of older stock. Those seeking balance will find this a bit hoary (though I do have a soft spot for the butterscotch notes that come out after it’s had plenty of time to aerate in the glass).

Sample at 98 proof (OldFo says the final version will be bottled at 97 proof).

B+ / $55 / oldforester.com

Review: Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope Bourbon (2013)

Parkers ALS Promise of Hope Bottle Shot 103x300 Review: Parkers Heritage Collection Promise of Hope Bourbon (2013)The theme of this year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection limited edition Bourbon release should come as no surprise: It is bottled in honor of Parker Beam (the “Parker” in the name of the spirit) and in recognition of his recent diagnosis with ALS, which we’ve discussed in prior posts here.

The Promise of Hope bottling is a very special release: A full 20 dollars from the sale of each bottle will go to the ALS Association for ALS research. The total proceeds raised for the Association should total more than $250,000 when the whiskey sells out (which, as usual, it will).

As for the spirit, it is the first single barrel bottling in the Parker’s Heritage Collection series, which is now on its 7th annual release. This year, Parker is keeping things simple. Mr. Beam has selected 100 favorite barrels from Heaven Hills’ inventory in the company’s Deatsville warehouse, from the top tiers of Rickhouse EE (you know Rickhouse EE, right?). The whiskey is 10 years old, non-chill-filtered, and bottled at 96 proof, Parker’s preferred strength. Note that although this is single-barrel whiskey, the bottles are not being individually numbered with a barrel identifier.

The whiskey is good stuff, and surprisingly unique. On the nose you get some burnt sugar but plenty of alcoholic burn, which makes sussing out additional notes tricky. Charred wood and slight cocoa notes are also evident, if in passing.

On the palate, the Bourbon takes on a whole new life, exploding with flavor. The burnt sugar takes on a fruitier character — a la Bananas Foster — backed with ripe apples and a little lemon zest. As the initial fruit/sugar concoction starts to fade, cinnamon notes take the field, with notes of marshmallow and gingerbread coming up behind. The overall effect is quite Christmas-like, unusual for Bourbon but wholly welcome. It’s easy to see why this is Parker’s favorite Bourbon. It’s drinking beautifully and is considerably different from most of the mass-produced Bourbons you’ll find on the market, all of which tend to be variations on a theme.

A large segment of the population, I’m sure, will balk at paying $90 for a 10 year old Bourbon (single barrel or no), and I can understand that. But remember: This one’s for a good cause. And it happens to be a really good, wholly unique Bourbon.

A / $90 / bardstownwhiskeysociety.com

Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2013 Edition – 125th Anniversary

four roses 125th anniversary small batch 154x300 Review: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon 2013 Edition   125th AnniversaryThe annual release of Four Roses’ limited edition Small Batch Bourbon is always cause for excitement, but this year’s release is special, bottled in honor of the distillery’s 125th anniversary.

The 2013 Small Batch offers a blend of three Bourbons: an 18-year-old OBSV, a 13-year-old OBSK, and a 13-year-old OESK. The two “OB” whiskeys are from the high-rye mashbill Four Roses uses, the “OE” from the lower rye one.

It’s a good mix. An intriguing nose offers some mint, butterscotch, and solid vanilla notes — it’s almost like wandering into a Baskin Robbins. On the body, things gel quite nicely. Vanilla caramels, more butterscotch, and a touch of cinnamon on the finish keep this whiskey grounded squarely in the dessert world, though it isn’t overly sweet and it manages to keep itself balanced. It may be one of the simpler whiskeys to come out of 4R in recent years, but damn if it doesn’t grow on you. Overall it’s really enjoyable, but I’d keep this one for after dinner drinking.

Note: A scant dash of water is a help.

Proof will vary. Our sample was about 110 proof. 8000 bottles produced.

A- / $90 / fourroses.us

Review: Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21 Years Old Bourbon

Elijah Craig 21 Year Old 160x300 Review: Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21 Years Old BourbonMissed out on Elijah Craig’s much-loved 20 Year Old Single Barrel bottling? Good news: Now you can get nearly the same stuff at age 21. Production hasn’t been announced (the 20 year old was an 80-barrel release), but you can be sure there’s not going to be much of it to go around.

On the nose, it’s immediately a bit strange, almost off-putting. The nose offers tons of wood, plus applesauce and cinnamon. It comes across as overwhelmingly hot, though at only 90 proof it’s hardly a barn-burner. You get some other oddities in there, too: Butterscotch and sawdust mingling together in the strangest of ways.

On the palate, the sweetness and spiciness come together well, though this is a surprisingly sweet Bourbon in the end. There’s an almost rum-like sugariness to it, youthful, not old and burnt. That kind of character can be readily found in the wood elements — at 21 years of age there’s plenty to go around — though it’s never overwhelming.

As the whiskey develops you’ll find the cinnamon develops into cloves, giving a slightly bitter edge to the finish. I’m still torn on this, mainly because the body never quite balances the way I’d like, and because the finish is on the short side for a whiskey of this age.

Fortunately I have an ample supply of the 20 Year Old Barrel #1 on hand, and it’s surprisingly a much different animal (though this could of course have something to do with barrel variability). The caramel and vanilla on the 20 are so much more pronounced, with a luscious dessert character that’s impossible not to love. I dare say my A rating on the 20 is on the low side, and arguably my A- on this 21 year old is a bit generous.

Reviewed: Barrel #41.  Barreled on 11/26/1990. 90 proof.

A- / $140 / heavenhill.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Rough Rider Straight Bourbon Whisky

rough rider bourbon 219x300 Review: Rough Rider Straight Bourbon WhiskyWhen I first tasted Rough Rider, a straight Bourbon made by Long Island Spirits (which we’ve covered well in the past), I thought I was tasting one of Kentucky’s finest. It’s a common, well-accepted trick: Take a barrel of old Kentucky (or Indiana) whiskey, ship it to your home state, and bottle it there (maybe after a little finishing time in a Port or other wine barrel). Presto: You’ve got your own, very high-end Bourbon.

Nothing wrong with that. Happens all the time.

But Rough Rider isn’t that. It’s homegrown whiskey and it’s good. Mashed, distilled, and aged in Long Island, this is proof that good Bourbon can be made just about anywhere, provided the maker has the patience. (Well, not yet… See comments for correction.)

Inspired by Teddy Roosevelt (a native Long Islander), Rough Rider is made from a mash of 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley. It’s aged for four years in new oak barrels before a further, complex finishing. From LIS:

“After aging, the bourbon is double-barreled, or finished, in wine casks,” says Rich Stabile, Long Island Spirits founder. “The wine casks include merlot casks and chardonnay casks, and are chosen from among the finest wineries on Long Island.” Before the aged bourbon is poured into the wine casks, though, each wine barrel is washed with a local, Long Island brandy. “The cask finishing wash tempers each wine barrel, resulting in a more mellow, complex bourbon,” adds Stabile. After the bourbon is finished for a few months in the wine casks (the exact time depends on the flavor profile of the batch), each bottle is brought to proof and filled by hand.

That’s a remarkably complex way to finish a whiskey… but it works. Rough Rider is a fantastic Bourbon, and a surprisingly affordable one, too. The nose is punchy and tannic — full of both wood notes and winey ones. The body backs this up. Initially full of sawdust and pencil shavings, it soon settles down to reveal tons of fun. It starts with Bananas Foster, black cherries, and licorice. Chocolate and root beer notes evolve from there, alongside more traditional and expected vanilla and caramel character. A long, Port-like finish comes along after that, offering some of that brandy’s sweet fruitiness by way of a digestif.

Great stuff. Great price, too, especially in comparison to so many wildly overpriced and under-aged craft Bourbons on the market.

Reviewed: Batch #1. 90 proof.

A / $33 / lispirits.com

Review: Stagg Jr. Bourbon

STAGG JR Front 209x300 Review: Stagg Jr. BourbonPutting aside the Van Winkle phenomenon, the next-most-coveted name in the whiskey world is arguably George T. Stagg. Released in limited quantities as part of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection series, this Bourbon is old, ultra-high-proof, intense, and invariably beloved by both critics and consumers.

It’s also pretty much impossible to find.

In response to the high demand for the stuff, Buffalo Trace is doing a really smart thing: Releasing a version of Stagg that, while not nearly as old or as powerful as the real deal, is a credible little brother… just like the name suggests.

Stagg Jr. is made from eight- and nine-year-old whiskeys, bottled at cask strength, uncut and unfiltered. This first release is 134.4 proof. Future versions will vary, depending on what the barrel outturn looks like. The company says the whiskey will be limited, but probably considerably more available than the regular Staff releases.

Beautiful nose here: Cinnamon and raisins, very dark chocolate, burnt caramel notes. Overwhelmed by alcohol, to be sure, but the soul shines through. On the tongue, plenty more where that came from. Sweeter than I expected, but balanced by ample fruit notes — here some citrus comes along, with caramel apple, plums, and ample cinnamon on the finish. Quite a collection of flavors here, but it’s all in balance and not over-wooded. I find it drinkable straight, but a splash of water is a much better idea, cutting through the burn handily and making it easier to enjoy. (Plus, it lasts longer.)

People are already fussing that “it’s not like the real thing,” that Buffalo Trace is just trying to capitalize on another brand’s name, and those are fair complaints. But if it didn’t say “Stagg” on the label, there’d be lines around the block. Buy it.

A / $50 / buffalotracedistillery.com