Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private Reserve

millbrook distillery bourbonThat’s a mouthful of a name for this Dutchess County (Poughkeepsie area), New York-based spirit, a sourced whiskey made from a corn/rye/barley mashbill. Little else is disclosed, including age.

Woody on the nose, there’s depth here that recalls brandied cherries and Christmas cake. The body, however, is surprisingly sweet, with a distinct honey tone to it. Sultry, slightly earthy notes add body, with a fruity character (apples and plums, perhaps) providing some nuance. The finish veers a bit into wood oil territory, but on the whole it’s a well-balanced bourbon with lots to recommend it.

90 proof.

A- / $37 / millbrookdistillery.com

Review: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Fall 2013)

Garrison Brothers TxSBW Image 1

Hye is one of those tiny towns that everyone from Texas (including myself) has heard of, but no one actually knows where it is. There it lies, on the road from Austin to Fredericksburg, and it’s here where Garrison Brothers is making some fine “micro” whiskey.

The brothers Garrison don’t disclose their exact mashbill on this, their flagship product, but it’s about 3/4 local corn (#1 Panhandle White, in case you’re curious), along with estate-grown wheat and malted barley (not local) making up the rest. At present, the whiskey is aged for two years in American oak barrels before bottling. But intriguingly, Garrison doesn’t just say that its product could change over time, rather the distillery insists that it will.

Garrison Brothers takes a vintage-based approach to whiskeymaking, insisting that each year’s product should be better than the last. That began with its first batch in 2008. Reviewed below is a bottle distilled in 2010 and released in Fall 2013 (bottle number 453). Garrison insists it should be better than the whiskey in 2009, just as the whiskey from 2011 should be an improvement over this. (As of late 2013, six different “vintages” had been released — more than one vintage is produced each year.) The only question is whether it can really deliver on that promise, which we hope to put to the test over the next decade or so. The company says it is now warehousing some 5000 barrels of product.

As for the whiskey we have here, it’s burly, frontier stuff with plenty of kick. The nose is strong with wood, lumberyard notes intermingled with hints of vanilla and caramel. The body reveals far more — eventually. That wood character is powerful up front, to the point where you wonder if that’s the whole show. It isn’t until the finish gets going where Garrison Brothers’ other characteristics begin to shine. As it’s but two years old, there’s plenty of youthful roasted corn here, but unlike many other young whiskeys, those notes are balanced with some more exciting, and more mature, flavors. There’s deep, almost burnt, caramel here, as well as brown butter, cloves, and some chili powder. This all develops more seamlessly and interestingly than you’d think — and all at the end. Give this whiskey ample time in the glass — Garrison recommends a cube of ice — and you’ll see the popcorn settle down and the other components really begin to build up.

Fun, fun stuff, although quite expensive for the drinker used to $25 bottlings from Kentucky. No matter: I’m looking forward to seeing the Garrison Brothers’ next act!

94 proof. Reviewed: Fall 2013 release.

A- / $75 / garrisonbros.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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

Buffalo Trace Rye Mash Entry Proof FamilyLast year, Buffalo Trace released a line of Experimental Collection bourbons put into barrel at various entry proofs.

As I explained back then: Entry proof describes the alcohol level of a whiskey when it goes into the barrel for the first time. Generally whiskey is watered down a bit before barreling, often to between 105 and 125 proof, before it’s wheeled into the warehouse.

This release differs from the last one in two ways. First, the white dog came off the still at 140 proof, not 130. Second, this recipe is BT’s rye bourbon mashbill (aka mash #1), not the wheated one from last year. Same as last time, though, this white dog was split into four batches, one barreled at 90 proof, one at 105, one at 115, and finally one at 125 proof. All four spent 11 years, 9 months in barrel, and when bottled, they were all brought down to 90 proof. (These barrels were distilled, barreled, and bottled all around the same time as the wheated ones.)

Thoughts follow…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 90 Entry Proof – Light and airy, a candy bar of a whiskey with notes of cherry, nougat, and caramel. Finishes smoothly sweet and easy. Not a lot of complexity, but it makes up for it in delightful simplicity. This is one you could drink all day. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 105 Entry Proof – Much different on the nose, with wood-forward aromas and hints of baking spice and menthol. The body is generous and considerably more balanced than the nose would indicate. Caramel and orange are the major notes, with the burly woodiness coming on stronger on the end. A straightforward if unremarkable rendition of an older bourbon. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 115 Entry Proof – Racy on the nose, with Madeira and Port-like notes. Bold on the palate, with notes of sherry, clove-studded orange, and vanilla caramel on the finish. Great balance here, with a rich, well-rounded body. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 125 Entry Proof – This is BT’s standard entry proof, so should be closest to a typical Buffalo Trace mash #1 whiskey at this age. It’s a blazer on the nose, masking leather and wood notes with somewhat raw heat. It settles down with time, however, revealing a fairly traditional profile of vanilla, caramel, and milk chocolate, with some sawdust edges licking up on the back end. A fine effort but one that doesn’t really distinguish itself especially. B+

As with the rye experiments, this is again a fun exercise — and curiously I liked both the 90 proof and 115 proof expressions the best the last time out. Still, my hunch is that barrel variability probably has a bigger ultimate impact than entry proof does.

each $46 per 375ml bottle / buffalotrace.com

Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B / hardwaterbar.com

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Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

DIAGEO FIRST TWO VARIANTS

Everyone loves a good story, and to spin a good yarn around an original tale is becoming a talent synonymous with spirits industry. A brand simply can’t stand on its merits alone anymore. A successful product launch now requires no less than a multi-million dollar yacht, international release parties, the courtship of the tastemaker kings and queens, and a celebrity endorsement or five. However, nothing shines quite like a good lacquered coating of embellishment to make a product beam in the eyes of the unsuspecting and trustworthy. It is human nature and a constitutional right to amplify facts with the intent of impressing people. Once in high school, a certain writer once stretched a passing conversation with punk rock legend Ian MacKaye into a lunch of vegan tacos, Coca-Cola and a two-hour conversation about the future of his band Fugazi.

So it comes as no surprise that Diageo, dream weavers of the potentially-fictitious dream history of Bulleit, present the Orphan Barrel project: a new chapter in the company’s incredible alternate history of whiskey. If Diageo’s tale is true — some of a challenge in these dangerously murky marketing waters — these barrels were found aging in the mythological temple/warehouse known to Bourbon enthusiasts as the Stitzel-Weller distillery. According to the company, a very select and limited number of these barrels were picked to launch this new whiskey series, with more planning on being “discovered” throughout the forthcoming seasons.

Now it appears this long-lost S-W juice was actually made at the Bernheim distillery. The barrels also weren’t “lost,” they just never got used for their original intent. What was the original home intended for these barrels? Either Diageo doesn’t know (unlikely) or simply isn’t saying, which seems more likely. Why let those traveling down the yellow brick road get a peek at how the Wizard makes the sausage?

Either way, the barrels were shipped from S-W and bottled at the Dickel distillery in Tennessee, a state enjoying the attention and courtship of Diageo as of late. How many barrels? Good question. No one knows the answer to that either, but the edition numbers on the back of the bottles posted on the internet have now reached the 40,000 mark. Given how little would be left in each orphaned barrel at 20+ years of age, the number of barrels involved would have to be in the thousands, hard to “lose” and hardly qualifying as “limited edition” — unless you’re comparing it to the voluminous output of something like… say… Jack Daniel’s?

This lack of confidence on provenance combined with a balance inquiry at a local ATM were big sticking points as to whether or not we should purchase samples for review. Neither eager nor willing to shell out the $225 required for both bottles, a local establishment was pouring small samples for ladies and gentlemen who would otherwise shop the aisles for Kentucky Gentleman. $10.50 was the safer investment of the two options, it made sense to minimize risk and see what the buzz was about. As Chris is wont to say: “Thoughts follow.”

Barterhouse 20 Years Old – With more text on the bottle than a Russian novel, Diageo seems hellbent on cramming as many typographical flourishes as possible per label to remind the consumer of the epic saga they’ve purchased for their mantle, possibly to distract you from what’s inside. (It’s worth noting that Barterhouse’s mascot is a rather sly looking fox.) It’s incredibly sweet, with vanilla and butter on the nose, and soft on the palate, making it hard to even believe this is 20 years of age (with very little oak or sulfur on the taste). The finish is even weaker. Very easygoing and inoffensive, it would be a great starter bourbon for the uninitiated and those with ample money to spend. 90.2 proof. B- / $75

Chris says: I get more of a burnt toffee and considerable heat on the nose, with cinnamon and brown butter on the body. Kind of a weird balance of flavors, but a lot going on. I found this fun to explore, but difficult enough on the finish to make things a bit strange. My rating: B+

Old Blowhard 26 Years Old – A 26-year-old bourbon bearing the name of a cantankerous old man. I might be reading too much into the glass with the brand names here, but if I’m right Diageo isn’t being very subtle. It has a very strong presence right from the moment it lands in the glass. A nose of spices, cinnamon, and a touch of campfire smoke blend with a strong taste of toffee, vanilla, cloves, and a plentiful punch of oak. By comparison to Barterhouse (below), it has a much stronger and present finish with a nice burn of oak and alcohol. At $150, though, it’s hard to get excited on the cost versus quality scale of things. There are way better bourbons at this price point worth considering. That said, this is definitely the better of the two “orphan barrels.” 90.7 proof.  B / $150

Chris says: Quite a different animal. Cloves and peppermint on the nose. The body shows off big vanilla and toffee notes, but the finish turns a bit brutish, with a kind of heavily-flamed orange peel character. Becomes increasingly woody as it opens up in the glass. Intriguing. B+

With this new armada of orphan barrels, Diageo is placing bets on the casual consumer who enjoys higher end premium stuff and places as much stock on the envelope, paper, and penmanship as they do the contents of the letter. The kind of person who would purchase a $150 bottle of bourbon in order to subtly out-compete at the court of the well-heeled Keeneland’s clubhouse on opening day, or a tailgating affair at Churchill Downs in May. Much to the company’s credit, it sort of works. They’ve managed to put the fox in some very nice sheep’s clothing for the flock. However, in the end, the best consumer is one that is as well-informed as possible. Or as the song goes: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying.*”

Limited Edition of Ten Frillion, or whatever number Diageo wants.

diageo.com

*The author is well aware of the thick glaze of irony created by enlisting references to the traditionally sober, straight-edged and highly anti-corporate Fugazi in a whiskey review.

 [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Spring44 Straight Bourbon and Single Barrel Bourbon

spring 44 bourbonArguably known best for its honey-flavored vodka, Colorado-based Spring44 is jumping onto the whiskey bandwagon, with two new expressions of straight bourbon whiskey. As you might expect by their sudden appearance on the market, both are sourced whiskey from Kentucky (not Indiana), brought down to proof with Colorado water, and bottled in individually numbered bottles. The whiskey inside has aged for six-plus years, but mashbill information is not offered. Based on the cloudiness readily visible in the bottles, they are not chill-filtered, either. Thoughts follow.

Spring44 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Maybe it’s my mind playing tricks on me since I know Spring44’s prior products, but I swear I get notes of honey on the nose just from cracking open the bottle. The nose offers classic bourbon notes — vanilla infused with deep wood character — but playing the game otherwise close to the vest. The body explodes with a melange of flavors: honey (I swear), butterscotch, cinnamon, and a sweet-tinged apple and pear character that builds on the finish. The finale is a bit too drying, but otherwise Spring44 has done a great job of finding some solid barrels to showcase. 90 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #3933. B+/ $40

Spring44 Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Presumably the same whiskey as the above, but drawn from a single cask and bottled at a higher alcohol level. Curiously different from the standard bottling right from the start, with a fruitier nose that keeps the wood components in check. Here you’ll find touches of tea leaf, cinnamon, mint, and even incense. The body is something else — a silky sweet delight, full of lush apple pie notes, deep honey, lots of vanilla, hot buttered rum, and even some unexpected red berry notes. Well balanced and drinking perfectly despite its high alcohol content, this is a bourbon that can stand up to about anything on the market in this age category. A real standout. 100 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #208. A / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

spring44.com

Review: Booker’s 25th Anniversary Edition Bourbon

Bookers-25th

If Colonel Blanton is the Louis Armstrong of the bourbon world, there is no question that that bellowing, boisterous Booker Noe is its John Coltrane. His larger-than-life presence dominated the bourbon world during a time when personalities were less idolized than today. So it is most appropriate that on the silver anniversary of creating the small batch bearing his name, an amplified version of the original Booker’s arrives for consideration.

(Before we begin, it should be mentioned that in 2012 our editor in chief recently placed kindred bourbon Baker’s above Booker’s in a blind taste test. That would not have happened with your faithful author. Booker’s is easily my favorite thing to originate from Team Beam, and one of my top go-to bourbons went introducing new folks to the spirit. Chris’s comments on Booker 25 are at the bottom of the review.)

What’s different? Whereas most Booker’s hovers around the 6-7 year mark at about 125-127 proof, this 25th anniversary edition clocks in at 10 years, 3 months and 130.8.  These were the last of the barrels Booker personally oversaw, and Beam master distiller/son-of-a-Booker Fred Noe wished for something special: an uncut, unfiltered no frills beast of bourbon with a deluxe upgrade in packaging and presentation. The dark colors, gold ornamentation, and wooden box are equally enjoyable to stare at while taking everything in. The presentation does the product justice.

However, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and this certainly delivers. The extra years of aging certainly make a difference, with a nose heavier on the oak and a bit of pepper to make its presence felt. The taste is straightforward and demanding, very hot with resonant notes of cinnamon, cayenne, leather and tobacco all mixed in leading up to a smoky finish which holds for quite some time. Actually, it really doesn’t hold. Much like a good Coltrane solo, it keeps the listener braced and gripped attentively, while waiting patiently for the eventual rest in the hope of starting the experience all over again.

The only real drawback is the cost of admission. I found my bottle at a local store for a whopping $100 plus tax. The price point is questionable. Four Roses 125th Anniversary edition and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection are priced lower. That bit of trivia aside, it stands head and shoulders above any new product Beam has introduced in recent years. Making a separate annual release at this age and proof would be another welcome addition to an already growing, soon-to-be Suntory stable. However, at an edition of around 1000 cases, this will be here, gone and on black market auction sites before too long, so if you’re hesitating: Don’t.

This is Booker’s masterpiece.  It’s a beautiful sun-setting encore — a time-released final farewell from one of the greatest titans to ever run a distillery, and a heartfelt love letter from a son to a father.

Chris says: As Rob alludes, this is remarkably different stuff than standard-grade Booker’s. While Booker’s pours on the heat and never lets up — even with water — Booker’s 25th Anniversary Edition is full of nuance — even without water. In lieu of the brash chocolate-covered-plum character (how I’m describing it today) of standard Booker’s, Booker’s 25 comes across as nuanced and layered. At proof I get notes of rich caramel, cinnamon toast, cafe au lait, and Fred Noe’s flop sweat (just kidding!). A little water amplifies the wood notes, particularly on the finish. I’m with Rob on his rating, and might even kick it up to a full A, even at $100. (GOOD LUCK!) And I still love Baker’s. -Ed.

130.8 proof. Edition of 1000 cases.

A- / $100 / smallbatch.com

Recipe: Booker’s Bourbon Cocktails

BookersWhen we approached Beam for a few ideas for mixing Booker’s Bourbon in a cocktail, they were caught off guard. Apparently, no one’s really requested them before. So Beam got together with resident mixologist Bobby G, who hit up a few friends to contribute some ideas. All of these recipes aside, we’re going to side with Fred Noe, who believes the best way to drink Booker’s is “any damn way you please.”

Clermont Smash
Courtesy of Tony Abou-Ganim
1.50 oz. Booker’s Bourbon
.75 oz. falernum syrup
10-12 spearmint leaves
3 dashes Fee Brother’s Peach Bitters
1.50 oz. fresh lemon sour

In a mixing glass muddle the spearmint leaves with falernum syrup, add remaining ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a double Old Fashioned glass filled with crushed ice and stir. Rub a wedge of pineapple around the rim of glass and garnish with pineapple wedge and a sprig of mint.

Dalton Cocktail
In honor of Jerry Dalton, Former Master Distiller Jim Beam
1.25 oz. Booker’s Bourbon
.50 oz. Laird’s Applejack
.25 oz Grand Marnier
1.50 oz. fresh sour
.25 oz. falernum syrup

Shake all ingredients with ice until well blended. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a burnt orange peel and drop a cherry into cocktail. Cut a small half dollar size piece of orange peel with as little pith as possible. Hold peel between thumb and forefinger about 4” above cocktail. Hold match between peel and cocktail squeeze peel sharply to release oils into flame.

The River Styx
1.50 oz Booker’s Bourbon
.50 oz Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth
4 1″ pieces of fresh pineapple
3” sprig of fresh rosemary (stripped of the bottom 2”)
.50 oz blood orange or pomegranate syrup

In a mixing glass muddle the pineapple and the rosemary. Add all remaining ingredients except the syrup and shake vigorously with ice. Double strain the cocktail over the ice in a double Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a half moon slice of orange and the remaining 1” of the rosemary sprig.

Tangerine Julep
1.50 oz. Booker’s Bourbon
½ fresh tangerine cut and muddled with peel
6-10 fresh mint leaves
.50 oz simple syrup

Muddle the mint and tangerine with the simple syrup in a double Old Fashioned glass. Fill glass with cracked ice and add Booker’s Bourbon. Stir to combine, garnish with a mint sprig.

Kentucky Lemon Drop
1.25 oz. Booker’s Bourbon
.50 oz. limoncello
2.0 oz. fresh lemon sour
5-6 fresh spearmint leaves

Shake all ingredients with ice until well blended. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass with an optional sugared rim. Garnish with a lemon wheel. The little pieces of mint that should be floating around in the cocktail are little bursts of flavor that is considered good luck if you get one.

Booker’s Apple
1.5 oz. Booker’s Bourbon
2.0 oz. fresh pressed apple juice
1.0 oz. fresh lemon sour

Build over ice in a tall glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Review: Whistling Andy Straight Bourbon Whiskey

whistling andyUp next, craft distilling comes to… Montana. The curiously-named Whistling Andy offers this new, all-local bourbon (the state’s first) made from 100% Montana-grown grains. A unique blend of corn, barley, wheat, and rye is used for the mashbill, which is triple-distilled in pot stills, then aged for three years in medium-char new oak barrels.

The nose is instantly exotic and more than a little weird, a combination of big cereal grains, burnt marshmallow, campfire ashes, and Listerine. The body features the hallmarks of young whiskey, lots of fresh-cut grain character, popcorn, and toasty — but not creamy — caramel notes. The finish hints at fresh-cut apples and hazelnuts, but these are just wisps of flavor that quickly get away from you. All told, Whistling Andy is a whiskey that’s still trying hard to integrate its grain and wood components but hasn’t yet found its sweet vanilla core. It sure does wear its promise on its sleeve, though. Look me up in 2017.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. Fun fact: The company’s mash tanks was formerly used in an Eskimo Pie factory.

B- / $42 / whistlingandy.com

Review: Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon

belle meade bourbonA craft distillery is reborn in Nashville, Tennessee… and they’re putting “the B word” on the label!

Belle Meade is, as the story goes, a relaunch of a pre-Prohibition bourbon brand that was owned by one Charles Nelson. Today, two of his great-great-great grandsons are bringing the brand back, with the goal of producing small batch whiskey that approximates their ancestor’s recipe.

That’s the idea, anyway. At present, this is high-rye, slightly overproof bourbon (no age statement) sourced from Indiana’s MGP, in advance of the Nelsons finishing up their own on-site distillery, hopefully sometime this year. Instead, Belle Meade is something of a first volley to get investors’ — and drinkers’ — palates wet.

As for the juice, it’s got a quite mild nose, offering notes of applesauce, cinnamon, and grapefruit skins alongside straightforward wood barrel character. On the palate, the body is moderate with that rye giving off a lot of baking spice, mint chocolate, and cedar wood planks. On the whole it’s pleasant and balanced but a little on the thin side, coming up just a little short in the power department.

90.4 proof.

B+ / $39 / greenbrierdistillery.com