Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2016 Edition

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It’s the 15th edition of Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon, and I’m happy to report this year’s installment is one of the best in recent memory.

But first, a little detail from OldFo on this, a 12 year old bourbon, which is fully in keeping with the distillery’s history:

Each barrel in the Birthday Bourbon selections annually are drawn from the same day of production, this year’s on June 4, 2004, leading to the ‘vintage-dated’ reference. The 2016 release of 93 barrels uniquely matured together on the 5th floor of Warehouse K at the Brown-Forman Distillery in Louisville, KY. The lot was positioned near a window facing west allowing them to be sun kissed, yielding a deeper oak mouthfeel. This warm location provides this year’s release with a deep, rich, oak forward personality.

That “official” description seems awfully backwards to me, and critically it misses what’s best about this whiskey. The 2016 Birthday Bourbon is fresh and fruity, definitively not woody, particularly on the nose, which exudes notes of cloves, spiced gingerbread, and muddled cherries. These engaging aromas come alongside a more gentle, encompassing lacing of barrel notes, which feels a bit winey at times. The palate is quite luscious, offering bright cherry fruit (I was immediately reminded of Baker’s Bourbon), dark chocolate, more cloves, and a hint of licorice. The finish is drying and bittersweet, but not especially influenced by traditional, classic barrel flavors.

All told this is a gem of a whiskey — getting more expensive every year, to be sure, but worth it at least for 2016. Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon releases are rarely my favorites, but Chris Morris and Co. have come up with a surprising delight that goes against the distillery’s often hoary style and manages to really engage with a fresh and enlightened style.

97 proof. 14,400 bottles produced.

A / $80 / oldforester.com

Review: Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old (2016), High-Rye 9 Years Old, and Bourbon 9 Years Old

redemption bourbon aged barrel proof 9 years old

In late 2015/early 2016, Redemption Rye took the unexpected move of releasing three well-aged straight rye whiskies, all “honey barrels” representing the brand at 7, 8, and 10 years of age.

Now Redemption is back again with three more entries into its Aged Barrel Proof line. The twist: Only one is a straight rye; the other two are bourbons, one from a high-rye mashbill and one from a lower-rye mash.

We got the entire trio to review, and without further ado, let’s hop right into it. Technical specs on each whiskey can be found in its respective writeup.

Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old (2016) – Note: This is a newly batched rye with a slightly higher proof than the 2015 version of the 8 Year Old Straight Rye. It is still however made from a mash of 95% rye, 5% barley. Bigger butterscotch notes lead things off on the nose, with aromas of black and cayenne pepper. Considering the age, there’s a surprising level of granary character on the palate here, with an almost pungent level of savory, dried herbs bringing up the rear. The finish is spicy and heavy with notes of leather and fresh asphalt. A serious letdown over last year’s rendition. 122.2 proof. B-

Redemption Aged Barrel Proof High-Rye Bourbon 9 Years Old – This whiskey is made from a mash of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% barley. Nice color here, a pretty, heavy amber. On the nose, the rye is evident, with clear granary notes, red pepper, and licorice. The palate is a bit more subtle, still laden with brooding spices but less pushy with its heavy grain notes, offering a fruitiness that the straight rye doesn’t feature. The finish takes things back in the direction of tar and grain, though it’s tempered by some interesting notes of baking spice and gingerbread. 109.2 proof. B+

Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Bourbon 9 Years Old – And now, to contrast, this is a bourbon made from a mash of 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% barley. Though the proof level isn’t much different than the High-Rye, it initially comes across as a much hotter spirit, scorching the palate while pushing aromas of well-roasted grains, baking spice, and coffee bean. Ample wood leads the way on the palate, again showcasing crackling grain, caramel corn, and some savory herbal character. While it’s burly with lumberyard overtones, the wood isn’t overdone, and the various elements gel into a fairly cohesive whole. The finish is warming but not as hot as the initial attack, ultimately making for a fine, though fairly orthodox bourbon. 110.6 proof. B+  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

each $100 / redemptionrye.com

Review: George Dickel Distillery Reserve Collection 17 Years Old

 

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Who doesn’t love a good backstory on a whiskey? Here’s how Tennessee’s George Dickel positions this new 17 year old limited edition release, which is available only at Dickel’s visitor’s center and at a few Tennessee retailers.

When Distiller Allisa Henley first discovered George Dickel Tennessee Whisky’s newest 17-Year Old addition to the portfolio, she wasn’t really even looking for it.  At the time, she was searching George Dickel’s single story barrel warehouses for 9-Year Old whisky to use in the Hand Selected Barrel Program she’d launched in 2014.  However, after pulling a sample from a row of 17-Year Old barrels near the back of one of the warehouses, she knew it was too good not to share as the extra time in the barrel had resulted in a perfectly balanced, flavorful sipping whisky.

The whiskey is made from Dickel’s standard mash — 84 percent corn, 8 percent rye and 8 percent malted barley. Its only real difference it sees vs. No. 8 and No. 12 is its time in barrel.

Let’s sample what’s in the bottle.

The nose offers some curious aromas: Old wood, scorched mint, and clove-studded oranges. There’s vanilla sweetness deep down in there, but it’s underneath a thick layer of austerity. On the palate, sweet butterscotch and maple syrup quickly emerge; exposure to air dulls things fast, leaving behind heavy notes of leather, peppercorns, and burnt newspaper. The wood is intense from the start, and this gets stronger as the palate and the finish develop, to the point where it becomes nearly overwhelming.

Old bourbon can be dicey, either soulful and supple or overblown with too much wood. Dickel 17 isn’t quite a bust in the latter category, but it’s definitely getting there. On the plus side: At least Dickel pulled it out of barrel when it did. A few more months and one feels this would have been too far gone to drink.

87 proof.

B / $75 (375ml) / georgedickel.com

Review: Jim Beam Double Oak Twice Barreled Bourbon

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Take a four year old Jim Beam and put it into a newly charred barrel (for indeterminate time) and what do you get? Jim Beam Double Oak, a twice-barreled bourbon that attempts to up the ante on the aging process through another spin through the rinse cycle. This of course isn’t a new idea. Maker’s 46 hit in 2010, and Woodford Reserve launched its Double Oaked Bourbon in 2012. Those of course are positioned as ultra-premium whiskeys, while Beam is, well, Beam is Beam — a fine spirit in its price band but not something you’re going to give to your dad for Christmas.

Jim Beam Double Oak is joining Beam’s permanent lineup in September, and we got a preview of the new juice to give it a full review, so let’s get started.

First a bit of surprise: The nose is relatively restrained but eventually gives up notes of dense wood, baking spice, and some licorice. With air, some leathery notes evolve, ultimately giving it a fairly straightforward, but generally wood-centric focus. The palate offers some added surprises, mainly how low-key it tends to be. I was expecting a big blast of wood but instead got notes of sweet tea, gingerbread, and a quite restrained and gentle wash of lumber on the back end. The finish does have a bit of gritty sawdust character to it, but even that is dialed back and in line with pretty much any mainstream bourbon.

Compared to both Maker’s 46 and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, it’s a night and day experience. Maker’s blends up a complex melange of chocolate, toffee, fruit, and bananas, while Woodford presents a burly frontier style bourbon with winey notes, and a lengthy cocoa-and-coconut finish. Neither of these are particularly overbearing when it comes to wood, but neither are they anything I’d describe as a understated… which is really the first thing that comes to mind with Beam’s Double Oak expression.

86 proof.

B / $22 / jimbeam.com

Review: Booker’s Bourbon “Toogie’s Invitation” 2016-03

 

bookers 2016-03 toogies invitationBooker’s special editions keep rolling out — this one the third limited edition to hit in 2016.

Here’s some production information to chew on.

This batch is named in honor of Marilyn “Toogie” Dick, a lifelong friend of founding distiller Booker Noe. Toogie was part of the “original roundtable,” gathering at Booker’s kitchen table with family and friends to help select some of the first Booker’s batches. She had a standing invitation from the Noe family and even traveled around the world with Booker and his wife, Annis, on behalf of Booker’s Bourbon. Aged 6 years, 4 months and 4 days, “Toogie’s Invitation” is culled from barrels located in six different rack houses.

This is a rather young expression of Booker’s, and it’s evident from the start. The nose is hot — hotter than usual — showcasing notes of popcorn, cracked grains, and burnt hazelnuts — at least if you can muddle through the heavy alcohol aromas.

On the palate, the bourbon feels slightly thin and a bit underdone. Notes of caramel and butterscotch are easy to pick up, as is more of that (thankfully unscorched) hazelnut character. But this is all folded into a body that is redolent of rubber and motor oil and wood that’s been left out in the rain. Booker’s has always been a brash whiskey, but here it never gets beyond its most basic characteristics. Where’s the chocolate and fruit? The baking spice? The finish instead offers has its focus on rougher notes of gravel and tar, with just a light sprinkle of brown sugar crystals to give it some life.

This clearly isn’t my favorite expression of Booker’s, but at least it’s instructive in showcasing how wildly different these different batches of this bourbon can be. (Compare to three other recent Booker’s releases, 2016-01, 2015-06, and 2015-04.)

129 proof.

B / $60 / bookersbourbon.com

Tasting and Testing: MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

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Like Flaviar and the Whisky Explorers Club, MashBox aims to expose you to spirits you wouldn’t normally get to try. The main difference with this booze-of-the-month club is that with MashBox you get a lot more than just whiskey (as we’ll see below). It’s a veritable tour of the entire spirits universe.

The deal is simple: $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples, which works out to about $8 per dram. That’s about what a shot of Jack will cost you around these parts, so it’s not a bad deal.

MashBox’s focus is squarely on craft and unusual spirits (with a heavy focus on New York-based operations) — and some of the products included in the sample kits I’ve received I’m never encountered in the wild, or even heard of before this. There’s no need to scour the web for data, though. Each shipment comes with a set of cards offering some basic production information and tasting notes on each product you receive. And if you like something, you can buy a full bottle at a discounted price.

Here’s a look at nine of the samples from three recent MashBox shipments. These mini-reviews are in no particular order as the products of the various sample boxes we received got mixed up, but they should give you an idea of what to expect each quarter. While not every product is a home run, I’m a big fan of trying something off the beaten path once in a while. Give MashBox a try and see what you think!

Kings County Distillery Bourbon – Young bourbon from Brooklyn, NY. Heavily grainy, with chocolate malt overtones and tons of wood. It’s initially undercooked, as craft whiskey can often be, with a surplus of ginger and baking spice on the back end to help temper the heavy barrel influence. 90 proof. C

Barrell Whiskey Batch 2 – We’ve covered Barrell a few times, but batch 2 of its sherry-cask treated whiskey is a new one for us. Interesting butterscotch notes and red berries meld well with caramel and vanilla notes. A bit astringent, but that happens at 123.8 proof. B

Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye – Spicy, with rather intense mulled wine notes. Tastes like Christmas. See full review here. 65 proof. B+

Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey – Van Brunt’s 9 month old rye is youthful and brash (see other Van Brunt reviews here), but its pungent nose finds a curious companion in a body that offers up notes of cloves, petrol, burnt bread, and a bit of burnt rubber, too. Intriguing, but extremely young. 84 proof. C+

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Grain-distilled spirit (corn- and rye-based whiskey) flavored with wormwood. In other words, it’s a unique spin on absinthe by way of a flavored whiskey. The nose is so hard to place — forest fires, rubber, and scorched herbs — but the palate is gentler, with a smoky sweetness that finds a strange complement in the form of lingering anise notes. One of the more bizarre spirits I’ve seen lately. 90 proof. B-

Maid of the Meadow – Vodka with herbs and honey from Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, New York. Quite good, and it delivers on exactly what the description promises. The honey is restrained and gentle, the herbs a dusting of cinnamon, sesame, and lemon. Tastes like it’s made for a toddy. 80 proof. A-

Glorious Gin – Breukelen Distilling offers this heavily floral gin, which includes rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit in the mix. It tops a somewhat earth-toned core with a good amount of fruit character and only a modest juniper slug. Interesting stuff and unexpected from the normally bombastic craft gin market. Try with a craft tonic. 90 proof. B+

Kas Krupnikas – A traditional Lithuanian honey spiced liqueur made in Mahopac, New York. Richer and much more honey-focused than Maid of the Meadow, but just as compelling in its own, special way. While Maid of the Meadow feels like an ingredient, Kas Krupnikas is a soothing sipper that works beautifully on its own. Very heavy honey — equal parts fruit and earth — dominates, with some hints of orange peel, cloves, and fresh gingerbread. A beautiful little surprise. 92 proof. A

Doc Herson’s Natural Spirits Green Absinthe – A South African madman makes absinthe in Brooklyn, people. What he’s come up with is a classic rendition of the spirit, with a sweet licorice and fennel focus that comes alive with sugar and water. It doesn’t need much doctoring, mind you, just a little kick to bring out its inner beauty. Lovely mint and cocoa powder notes emerge on the finish. 134 proof. B+

mashandgrape.com

Review: Jim Beam Bourbon (White Label) and Black Extra-Aged Bourbon (2016)

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It’s hard to believe but we’ve never formally reviewed good old “White Label,” the bottom shelf of Jim Beam but, to be sure, one of the great values in the world of Kentucky whiskeymaking.

Beam recently revamped its bottle and label design — and in some cases the names of its products have been tweaked — which makes 2016 the perfect opportunity to give Beam a fresh review. Also on tap in this review is another look at Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged. Only last year Beam tweaked this bottling, which had previously been an age-stated 8 year old known as “Double Aged,” changing it up to call it XA Extra Aged. With the new bottle refresh, the name has been tweaked again — now it’s just Extra-Aged, losing the “XA” but gaining a hyphen. Let’s call that an even trade. Normally I wouldn’t re-review something we covered so recently, but given the pace of change in the bourbon business, a fresh taste couldn’t hurt. Who knows where it stands now.

Oddly enough, you’ll notice that different bottlings in the line have somewhat different designs. The squared-off shoulders of the Extra-Aged evoke the new Jack Daniel’s bottle (though there’s no risk of confusing the two), while White Label’s bottle sticks much more closely to the original Beam design (the new bottle is on the right in the above photo). Why not consolidate the design across the line? Eh, just drink your bourbon and ponder it quietly.

Thoughts for 2016 follow, as always.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label) – No sleight of hand here; the fine print still has the same age statement as ever: 4 years old. Made with a low-rye mashbill — the standard Beam mash. It’s distinctly corny on the nose, its youth worn on its sleeve, but that’s not an altogether bad thing. That caramel corn nose heads into a body that isn’t exactly rich, but which shows off modest vanilla and moderate barrel char. The finish finds some minor secondary tones — nuts and even a hint of coffee — nothing outrageously complex, but enough to give the whiskey a bit of nuance until the corn chip notes make their inevitable return. To be sure, this is a bourbon that’s all about the price point, but, hey, what a price point. 80 proof. B / $13

Jim_Beam_CorePlus_Dynamic_Black_int_F39_0Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged Bourbon – Same mashbill as White Label but, you know, “extra aged.” Extra-aged, got it. This is a clear step up from White Label, with a woody nose that’s intense with vanilla, gingerbread, and cocoa powder. The slightly higher-proof body is rounder and more intense, less complex than the nose might suggest due to a surfeit of popcorn notes, but balanced by caramel, charcoal, and some apple notes. The finish is clean and longer than White Label’s, with more of a warming influence. All told my notes are much in line with last year’s review. While spirits are always evolving in production, I don’t believe anything has changed significantly here in the last year. 86 proof. B+ / $21

jimbeam.com

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