Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

jim beam harvest

Discontent to let Buffalo Trace have all the fun with experimental whiskeys, Jim Beam has been hard at work with its annual Signature Craft releases to show how little changes can have a big impact on a finished spirit.

Now it’s pushing boundaries even further, with a series of six Bourbons called the Harvest Bourbon Collection (technically a sub-group of Signature Craft). The spin on this project is that these six whiskeys each incorporate one unusual grain into the mashbill. They’re all still Bourbon — made with at least 51% corn and some amount of malted barley — but in each whiskey that extra grain is used in a significant amount in the mash (though in undisclosed and variable proportions). All six expressions were aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

The six expressions include: Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice, Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye, and Six Row Barley. The first two on that list arrive in September 2014. The other four will ship through 2015.

Some of these are more unusual than others on that list, of course. Wheat, rye, and barley are all common whiskey components, though here Beam is using different strains or proportions. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye, which leaves two big oddities on the list: Rolled Oat and, especially, Brown Rice. Both are common supermarket grains that are nonetheless bizarre to find in a whiskey. Color me curious on how these things turn out.

For now, we’ve got our hands on two of the six: Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat. Without further ado, here’s how they turned out.

JB_SC_Harvest_WheatJim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Soft Red Wheat – Made with Kentucky and Indiana wheat, a common ingredient in Bourbons like Maker’s Mark. This initially struck me with a slightly funky, sweaty nose, but I let it settle down and things started to clarify, revealing a more straightforward wood character, with hints of earthiness. This is well-aged whiskey and it shows from the start. On the palate, hints of cherry (not unusual for Beam products) and ample, almost overpowering oak character. Even with a healthy amount of water you can’t push that wood character down, a fact which I chalk up more to the aging regimen than to wheat being in the mashbill. Surprisingly tough to muddle through. B-

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Rolled Oat – I’ve had a few whiskeys that incorporate oats and I always find them fascinating, at least for a diversion. Here Beam has produced a whiskey with a distinct sweetness on the nose, almost like baking spices with cinnamon and cloves, with rich wood notes and heavy notes of almonds underneath. On the palate, again it is quite hot on the tongue, and water helps to bring out the unique charms of the spirit. This is a far different whiskey than the Red Wheat expression, a much softer, gentler, and more engaging spirit on the whole. Cinnamon sugar notes play well with a caramel/dulce de leche base, with that woody nose melting into a pulpier, piney character on the palate. All of this plays well together, giving the Rolled Oat expression a balance that the Red Wheat doesn’t have. Perhaps it was simply better able to stand up to the aging regimen? Either way, it’s a winner. A-

This is a fun start to an interesting lineup. Hopefully we’ll have reviews of the other four expressions for you in the Harvest Collection soon!

each $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

JB_SC_Quarter Cask

For the third installment (and second annual release) of Jim Beam’s Signature Craft series (find reviews of the first limited annual release and the permanent member of the series here), the company is offering a curious concoction. While it’s called “Quarter Cask Finished,” that’s a little misleading. The whiskey is actually a blend of standard five-to-six year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon that is married with a separate Bourbon that has spent from four-to-six years in quarter casks. (Craft whiskey and Laphroaig fans know that quarter casks are exactly what they sound like: Barrels that are 1/4 the size of regular ones, and which tend to mature much more quickly.)

Semantics aside, this is an intriguing new, limited edition whiskey from Beam, and the use of small barrels (at least in part) makes it a considerable departure from the norm. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon starts off sweet and doesn’t let up. The nose offers notes of caramelized fruit — Bananas Foster, I would argue — along with sugared orange peel and vanilla-scented sugar cookies. The body brings that home, with heavy doses of vanilla caramels, milk chocolate, and hints of cherry. Wood notes start to develop, particularly on the finish, as the whiskey settles down in the glass. It’s not particularly hot, at 86 proof, but it does benefit from a little air time, which allows the various flavor and aroma components to meld.

I like this whiskey a lot, though it’s not at all what I was expecting (a bruiser heavy on wood and tannin) and ultimately doesn’t venture all that far from the winning Beam formula. Bottom line: With ample fruit and sweeter elements in abundance, there’s a little something here for Bourbon fans of every stripe.

86 proof. Available beginning in September 2014.

A- / $40 / jimbeam.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon Warehouse Floor Experiments

Buffalo Trace Warehouse Floor Experiment

More tinkering in the form of experimental whiskeys from the mad scientists at Buffalo Trace. This is one of the company’s most interesting and telling ones to date: Three 12-year-old, rye-heavy bourbons each aged on a different floor of Buffalo Trace’s massive Warehouse K (floors 1, 5, and 9). Warehouse K is built of brick, with wooden floors (because that seems to matter, too).

The same Bourbon, in the same building, just aged on a different floor. Why on earth would the aging floor matter? Simple, as any middle school science student can tell you: Heat rises. The lower floors are relatively cool. The top floors are scorching hot. This impacts aging in a direct and profound way — in part, because water and alcohol evaporate at different temperatures. (That said, all three of these whiskeys are bottled at 90 proof to make comparisons considerably easier.)

And so, how do these compare side by side by side? Let’s take a look…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Rye Bourbon – Floor #1 – Aged on the bottom floor. Some funky notes of olives and green pepper hit the nose at first, with plenty of sweet stuff riding on its coattails. The palate is sharp and fiery, with elements of burnt butter, cayenne, and ample sawdust in contrast to its toffee notes. Balance is a mess, flavors hitting you from every which way. C

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Rye Bourbon – Floor #5 – Aged right in the middle, but is it the Goldilocks of the group? It’s not as different as you might expect, those olive notes still hanging on, but to a much less powerful degree. Floor #5 settles down much more fully and quickly, revealing more of a rounded butter toffee note that’s fused with a melange of cloves, candied pineapple, and lumberyard notes. It’s still a bit rough around the edges, but overall more palatable and approachable than Floor #1. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 Year Old Rye Bourbon – Floor #9 – From the hot top floor, where some of BT’s blue chip Bourbons, like George T. Stagg, are sourced. This is clearly the best of the bunch, featuring toasted marshmallows and more gentle wood notes on the nose, followed by a body that is lush with brown sugar sweetness, cinnamon and cloves, vanilla caramels, and cake frosting. Gorgeous in structure, and radically different than the other two installments in this series. Grab it if you find it! A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Town Branch Bourbon

Town_Branch_Bourbon__65405_zoomFull confession: the first batch of this stuff was so bereft of quality, it was not uncommon to passive-aggressively serve generous pours to irritating house guests in hopes of expediting its stay on the shelf to the recycling bin. A few years since its initial release, reconsideration is warranted; with the hopes of quality control finally living up to its purpose.

As usual, a bit of context: Town Branch is made by AllTech, not a small family operation as you might expect by that folksy company name but rather a large conglomerate specializing in animal feed and nutrition. The company also makes a reasonably tasty bourbon-barreled stout and ale. Town Branch takes it namesake from the body of water on which the city of Lexington was founded, and boasts to be the first (legally) produced bourbon within the city limits in quite some time. It also has a rather limited distribution chain, so availability no doubt plays into its cachet. The mashbill is also somewhat peculiar in that it meets the 51% corn standard, but it uses only malted barley as the secondary ingredient, eschewing the traditional wheat or rye.

The color is a wonderful amber hue behind rather pleasant packaging: the bottle is gorgeous, the label not so much (typography and text is a bit tough to translate at points). But as the saying tells us not to judge books by their cover, let’s go deeper. The nose offers up much sweetness: traces of fruit and butterscotch immediately followed by mild oak and sawdust. The sweetness stays throughout and really doesn’t let up through the entire experience, and the finish is like a 4th of July firecracker: short and… sweet. A bit of a bang mixed with caramel, bananas, bread, and a mild burn. Those liking drinking matters smooth and easy may find the experience enjoyable, but for those who want to know they’re drinking bourbon and not a bourbon-inspired liqueur, this may not be the best bottle to bring to the table.

At 40% abv, it’s pretty tame when compared to other bourbons at the $30 price point. There’s also talk of a rye expression arriving on shelves in short order, which shall hopefully add the much-needed punch and unveil greater potential than what’s showcased here. I’ll most likely revisit this again in another two years, when this trial is far from fresh in my memory.

80 proof.

C / $27 / kentuckyale.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric Bourbon 20 Years Old

rhetoric bottle

For the third whiskey from its controversial Orphan Barrel Project, Diageo has chosen another odd name (though perhaps not as odd as Old Blowhard): Rhetoric. Rhetoric has a number of meanings, but the most notable is “language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.”

Probably not what I’d call my new whiskey, but anyway.

This release is a 20 year old spirit sourced from Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, where Barterhouse was also sourced. Differences in aging are said to give this release a different character. How different? Let’s find out.

Interesting nose here, with lots going on: oak resin, mint leaves, cherries, apple cider, and a sherried character. Well-aged but not past its prime, Rhetoric hangs on to its fruit without giving everything up to the tannins of the wood. The body is silky and full of fruit — caramel apples, milk chocolate-covered cherries — and features a finish that brings its cinnamon and nutmeg elements alive. Exuberant and fun, it’s not a dusty, hoary old beatdown like so many well-aged bourbons. It’s hanging on to its youth, and doing a damn fine job of it by melding well with the wood in its barrel. Easily my favorite of the three Orphans to date.

90 proof.

A- / $85 / diageo.com

Review: Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon

FOUR ROSES yellow label

Officially known only as “Four Roses Bourbon,” Yellow Label — called thusly for reasons you can surely fit together on your own — is the company’s entry level product. It’s also one of its most venerable. “Yellow Label” bottlings have been on the market since probably the 1930s and 1940s. (The distillery has seen massive ups and down since then… and Yellow Label perseveres.)

We’ve reviewed I-don’t-know-how-many single barrel and small batch expressions of Four Roses, but never the stalwart (and super-cheap) Yellow, bottled with no age statement and blended from up to all 10 of the company’s mashbill combinations (depending on supply and the season). Finally we’re getting around to it. Without further ado…

It’s initially a bit brash on the nose, with plenty of youthful exuberance. Strong vanilla (think extract, not wafers), knotty lumberyard, and hints of dark chocolate emerge, once the booziness blows off. On the palate, it’s quite sweet, which works hard to counterbalance the woodier notes that emerge. Think cinnamon sugar, chocolate-covered caramels, and just the lightest touch of honey-doused cornbread. As big blends go, it’s hard to find a lot of fault here aside from a bit of roughness up front.

Overall, it’s nowhere near as nuanced as many single barrel offerings, but for barely over $1 a shot (based on the bottle price), it’ll do the trick. Also makes a supreme base for cocktails.

80 proof.

B+ / $18 / fourrosesbourbon.com

Review: Abraham Bowman Double Barrel Bourbon

Abraham Bowman Double Barrel Bourbon March 2014

This new whiskey from Sazerac-owned A. Smith Bowman is a semi-experimental offering from the Virginia-based distillery. It involves putting the spirit into two separate barrels… both of them newly-charred oak.

From the company: “Originally put into barrels on December 12, 2006, this bourbon was transferred to new barrels on April 17, 2013.  After aging an additional six months in Bowman’s standard Warehouse (A1), the barrels were then moved to the mezzanine of Warehouse K, and aged for an additional 5 months where they experienced increased air-flow and scrutiny.” Total time in barrel is 7 years, 2 months.

Barrel finishes are common in the whiskey world and are increasingly part of the bourbon landscape, but usually the second barrel is a former wine, rum, or cognac barrel — something to add a little special something to an otherwise standard whiskey. What’s the point then of aging a second time in a new oak barrel? To point out the obvious: It pumps up the “wood” character. Put simply, the longer an oak barrel is in use, the more whiskey it soaks up, and the less of the wood components it gives back. An oak barrel probably does most of its work in the first few years. After that, you’re dealing with diminishing returns. By moving the aged bourbon into a brand new barrel, Bowman is essentially doubling down on the aging process.

The results are interesting, and not really what I expected. On the nose, there’s ample wood, but it’s not overwhelming. Notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves are all readily available. There’s lots of alcoholic heat here, too, so it might be wise to come prepared with water.

The body is quite sweet. You would be forgiven for assuming there’s a sherry influence here, with orange notes strong up front. (The color is even more orange than you’d expect.) Caramel and marshmallow follow on that, with just hints at cinnamon-sugar spice after that. Expecting heavy wood notes on the palate? I was shocked to find them quite muted. Aside from the vanilla components that are laced throughout the body, the expected sawdust and lumberyard notes are surprisingly restrained. Heavy on the nose, sure, but almost absent on the body. That’s not a slight, but a sign of how surprisingly well-balanced this spirit is. Bowman has hit on something here that works well, drinking like a mature bourbon, but not one that’s so old it’s growing hair out of its ears.

100 proof.

A- / $70 / asmithbowman.com

Review: Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon

wild turkey diamond anniversary

Celebrating sixty motherfreakin’ years in the business — Eisenhower was president, people! — Jimmy Russell is a distiller with no equal in the business. He’s the man who has singlehandedly defined Wild Turkey for decades, with son Eddie waiting in the wings for the day his dad, now 79 years old, retires.

To mark the occasion, probably the last multiple-of-five anniversary we’ll see from Jimmy at Wild Turkey, the company is putting out what could be its most thoughtful, rare, and special bourbon release in decades. How special? It’s all part of Wild Turkey’s “Year of Jimmy Russell,” the new name for 2014, so update your calendar.

Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary is a blend of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys, the barrels hand-selected by Eddie Russell. Immediately off the bat, it’s one of the gentlest whiskeys I’ve ever had from WT. The nose is fruity, with caramel apples, chocolate-covered orange slices, and hints of spearmint. Over time, the wood of the barrel starts to come through on the nose, but it’s never overbearing, and much less punchy than you’d expect from a Bourbon of this age.

The body is creamy, its proof level adjusted to just the right place where you could sip on it all night without reaching for the water but still never get bored. Lots going on here, but not too much. What arises here is more dessert-like, including notes of salted caramel, chocolate chip ice cream, and apple pie. Lightly woody on the finish, it is incredibly hard to put down. Sip after sip found me uncorking the bottle and sampling it again, just to see what I might have missed.

91 proof. 36,000 bottles for sale in the U.S. On sale August 2014.

A / $125 / wildturkeybourbon.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

  • Jimmy and Eddie with Diamond Anniversary
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Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2014

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Wet weather didn’t stop the masses from crowding onto the San Francisco Belle this year, a rite of passage for Bay Area whisky lovers attending the annual Whiskies of the World Expo. Lots of great stuff on tap this year, particularly from independent Scotch bottlers. Without further ado…

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World San Francisco 2014

Bourbon and American Whiskey

Balcones Brimstone / B+ / made from smoked corn; intriguing but a lot like sitting porchside in Santa Fe
Balcones Texas Single Malt / B / rough and tumble, fiery, with big grain character
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / B+ / long black and blueberry notes; unusually fruity
Calumet Farm Bourbon / B / straightforward; tough to get into
Corsair Old Punk Whiskey / B+ / a pumpkin spice-flavored whiskey; curious; tastes like Thanksgiving, of course
High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram / B+ / Rendezvous Rye finished in Port barrels; a bit heave with the fruity, Port-laden finish
High West The Barreled Boulevardier  / B / a barrel-aged cocktail from HW; a little heavy on the Gran Classico for my tastes
High West “mystery whiskey” 12 Years Old / A / a hush-hush grain whiskey, aged 12; surprisingly good stuff, watch this space…
Lexington Finest Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey / B+ / heavy with sweetness, but drinkable
Lost Spirits Seascape II / B+ / second round with this peated whiskey finished in white wine barrels; brooding but restrained
Lost Spirits Umami / A- / a crazy concoction made with 100ppm peat and salty seawater; difficult to describe in just a few sips… review hopefully forthcoming

Scotch

Arran Bourbon Premium Single Cask 1996 / A- / lush and rounded, malty with good fruit
Balblair 1975 Vintage / A / a standout; big, silky, and malty; soothing finish
Blackadder Bruichladdich 21 Years Old Raw Cask / A / a top pick of the show; unfiltered Bruichladdich aged in a first-use charred cask, very unusual for Scotch (you can even see chunks of charred wood floating in the bottle); intense, chewy fruit and nuts; a marvel
Duncan Taylor Octave MacDuff 1998 14 Years Old / A- / great balance
Duncan Taylor Octave Miltonduff 2005 7 Years Old / A- / lots of sherry and nougat, with huge floral notes; another surprisingly good, young spirit
Duncan Taylor Black Bull Kyloe / B+ / not bad for a five year old blended whisky; nice mouthfeel, cherry fruit, plums on the back
Duncan Taylor Dimensions North British 1978 34 Years Old / A- / a single-grain whisky; still has its grainy funk showing a bit; caramel up front with a biting finish
Duncan Taylor Bunnahabhain 1991 21 Years Old / A / gorgeous honey and spice on this
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2001 12 Years Old / B+ / big peat, rush of Madeira notes
Exclusive Malts Glencadam 1991 21 Years Old / B+ / smoldering, hay and heather
Exclusive Malts North Highland 1996 17 Years Old / A- / chew and rich, with raisins and plums
Glenmorangie Companta / B / Glenmorangie’s latest, finished in Burgundy and fortified Cote du Rhone casks; sounds like a lot of work for a pretty boring spirit that doesn’t have much balance
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban / B- / finished in ruby port casks; snoozer, missing the port altogether this time around
Gordan & MacPhail Mortlach 16 Years Old / A- / chewy malt and cookies
Gordan & MacPhail Scapa 10 Years Old / A- / good balance of nougat and cereal
Highland Park 18 Years Old / A / for old time’s sake… still got it
Old Pulteney 30 Years Old / A – / solid, a sunny dram
Silver Seal 16 Years Old Speyside / B+ / straightforward, lots of nougat
Silver Seal 20 Years Old Speyside / A- / an improvement, sedate with a little cereal to balance things

World Whiskies 

Amrut Fusion / B+ / barley from Scotland and India; a little minty, smoky too; shortish finish
Amrut Intermediate Sherry / A- / lots of spice, some menthol; for those who like their whiskeys huge
Canadian Club Small Batch Classic 12 Years Old / B / why not? some spice, lots of wood
Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask Single Malt Whisky / A- / chewy, great balance
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky / A- / lovely but strong with citrus notes
Sullivan’s Cove Double Cask / A- / muted on the nose, lots of malt
Sulivan’s Cove French Cask / A / a top pick, worthy of the praise being heaped on it; quite fruity and sweet, but gorgeous

Review: Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

Four Roses/ 070

Four Roses’ 2014 Single Barrel bottling sneaked up on me, a sample appearing out of the blue for us to review.

This year’s whiskey is made from Four Rose’s OESF mashbill — the “lower,” 20% rye mashbill — which has spent 11 years in barrel. OESF is a rarity — In some seven years I’ve never reviewed any Bourbon from 4R that even had it as a component (aside from blends that don’t release their constituent makeups). Bottled at a range of 108.3 to 127.6 proof, depending on the barrel you get, it’s hotter than last year’s awesome release. (My sample was about 120 proof.)

Very fruity on the nose (as the low-rye mash is known for), this is one of the gentlest bottlings of Four Roses Single Barrel that I’ve encountered. Think caramel apples, with a dusting of apple pie spices — cinnamon and some cloves. On the body, that caramel is positively poured over the spirit, with gentle vanilla and chocolate-covered-cherries rounding things out. Give it time in glass and quiet sawdust notes emerge, but only ever so slightly — and to a far less extent than any Single Barrel bottling going back to 2009. This is liquid dessert that goes down far too easily than its hefty alcohol level would indicate. Another gorgeous, if wholly unexpected and unusual, winner from Jim Rutledge and Four Roses.

5000 bottles made. Available mid-June 2014.

A / $80 / fourrosesbourbon.com