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
  • 008

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

Review: 2bar Spirits Bourbon

2bar_bourbon

Seattle-based 2bar Spirits has extended its line of craft hooch with a new, “100% local” bourbon. Regarding its creation, distiller Nathan Kaiser says, “I can’t disclose exact percentages, but it has significantly more malt, and much less wheat than a typical wheated bourbon mashbill.  Barrel entry proof is significantly lower than normal, between 113 and 116 proof.  Our barrels are currently all 15 gallons with a #3 char.  This batch was aged for just over 9 months.” The mash is 95% Washington grain and 5% Oregon grain.

That’s a lot of unusual characteristics for a bourbon, so how does it come across in the finished product?

Pretty darn good for a young craft spirit. The nose is young and a bit grainy, which is to be expected from a spirit of this age (or lack thereof). Along with the cereal, there are ample notes of brown butter, vanilla, and cherries, plus a healthy slug of wood. The body isn’t too far off base: A healthy amount of cereal and popcorn finds balance in toffee notes, butterscotch, and a dusting of Asian spices. The finish is heavy with lumberyard notes, but not overwhelming with sawdust like many small barrel spirits can be. On the whole: Solid craft Bourbon, and much better than most entries into this burgeoning field.

Reviewed: Batch #4. 100 proof.

B+ / $50 / 2barspirits.com

Review: Barrell Bourbon

barrell bourbon

Barrell Bourbon is bottled in the heart of Bourbon Country, in Bardstown, Kentucky… but it’s made somewhere else. That’s what makes this stuff a real rarity: Tennessee Bourbon that’s bottled in Kentucky.

What is known is this: The whiskey is a mash of 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, aged for five years. It’s a single barrel release (hence the name), and each bottle is individually numbered and bottled at cask strength — 60.8% abv for batch #1, which is still on the market.

So, how about the whiskey?

There’s corn on the nose, along with notes of cherry, toffee, very ripe banana, and wood char. The body follows suit, with popcorn rising surprisingly high for a five-year-old spirit. It’s heavily wooded with a hefty amount of char, prominently featuring sawdust notes that build as it opens up over time in the glass. Otherwise this is a pretty straightforward and young-drinking whiskey. The fruitier notes you can pick up on the nose remain buried beneath a mountain of lumber and those vegetal, corn-heavy flavors, making my wonder if this whiskey wasn’t bottled too soon… or, perhaps, too late.

Interesting stuff, though, with points for uniqueness.

121.6 proof.

Reviewed: Batch #1, bottled #2313.

B / $70 / barrellbourbon.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Twelve

Round 12 of Buffalo Trace’s “Single Oak Project” experiment has arrived, meaning there are just four more iterations of the grandest experiment in whiskeydom to go before it’s all over.

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
Round Ten
Round Eleven

This round focuses on tree cut (two barrels are made from each tree — one from the top, and one from the bottom). This round looks at wood grain as well, as grain will vary from one tree to the next. As always, recipe (rye vs. wheat) is also varied through this batch. Barrels are paired, so barrels 15 and 16 have the same recipe and aging regimen — but are made from the top and bottom of the same tree.

Does tree cut matter? Here’s what Buffalo Trace says:

Many bourbon fans have asked why, or if, tree cut matters. Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley has this to say on the topic, “From top to bottom, the tree chemistry is quite different.  The chemicals most affected by the tree structure are oak lignins and tannins.  Oak lignins are composed of two building blocks, vanillin and syringaldehyde.  Generally there is a higher composition of oak lignins in the bottom part of the tree which in turn delivers more vanilla.  Tannins are generally higher in concentration in the top section of the tree versus the bottom; however, they also vary from inside out.  The outer heartwood is generally higher in tannin concentration.”

Variables remaining the same are char level (#4), warehouse type (concrete ricks), stave seasoning (12 months), and entry proof (125).

Overall, this was a mixed-to-good batch of whiskeys, with #80 standing as my (slight) favorite of the bunch. Looking back at the SOP so far: #82 has the lead among all the whiskeys released to date, based on online reviews. (I gave it a B+ and called it “fun.”) As for the top vs. bottom question, the whiskeys aged in barrels made from the bottom half of the tree got higher marks in 3 of 6 pairs here. The top barrel scored higher once. Two rounds were ties. But in most cases, my scores were similar between the two barrels. Interpret as you’d like.

Thoughts on round 12 follow.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #15 – The nose is spicy with hints of cherries, offering promise. Surprisingly there’s lots of marshmallow on the palate, spiced fruits, and a silky, caramel candy bar finish. A lovely and surprisingly little whiskey. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #16 – A big, alcohol-heavy nose disguises mint, lumberyard, and black pepper notes. The body is rich with spice, but a silky caramel character comes across to smooth out the finish. This one drinks like a much bigger, older whiskey than it is. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #47 – Ample wood on the nose, muscling out some of the sweeter notes you get on the palate: milk chocolate, caramel, some spice on the finish. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #48 – A big, woody bourbon, almost overpowering on the nose. The body is gentler, offering soothing lemon tea and applesauce notes. Kind of a weird combination of experiences. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #79 – Racy, with notes of fresh mint on the nose. Apple-focused on the front of the palate, with smooth caramel coming along on the finish. Lots to like, but still finding its balance. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #80 – Mellow, salted caramels on the nose. Really lush and dessert-like, it’s got a bittersweet chocolate edge to the finish that makes it a lovely after-dinner sipper. A (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #111 – Moderate nose, with a cocoa powder and charred wood character. On the body, fairly plain, with heavy wood notes and a lingering, almost bitter lumberyard finish. B- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #112 – Restrained nose, with a focus on wood. The body’s got classic Bourbon character: vanilla, caramel, some restrained lumberyard character. Lingering mint notes on the finish. Fine, but fairly par for a whiskey of this age. B+ (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #143 – The nose gives off few clues about this one, a barnburner on the tongue that exudes flaming orange peel, old sherry, and more brutish, raw alcohol character. Not my favorite. C+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #144 – Restrained nose, with a focus on wood. The body’s got classic Bourbon character: vanilla, caramel, some restrained lumberyard character. Lingering mint notes on the finish. Fine, but fairly par for a whiskey of this age. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #175 – A solid effort, but a little indistinct. The nose and flavors are both muted, with mild vanilla, oaky wood, and applesauce notes, but all dialed way back. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #176 – Funky, almost medicinal on the nose. The body’s quite different, a mix of vanilla up front and brewed tea on the back end. Lots going on, but the nose is ultimately a bit off-putting. B- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, concrete ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

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