Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

It was another unforgettable year at 2015’s WhiskyFest, with some of whiskydom’s most cherished icons on tap for tasting, and plenty of old friends to mingle and catch up with.

Of course, many of those old friends come in liquid form, and I had ample opportunity to revisit plenty of classic whiskies while spending time with a number of newer drams. Here’s a brief look at everything I tasted at the San Francisco installment of this essential spirits show.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015


Tullibardine 20 Years Old / A- / showing beautifully, a nice balance of vanilla and cereal notes (bourbon barrel aged)
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / A / a much different experience, with gorgeous nougat and honey notes (sherry barrel aged)
Balvenie 50 Years Old Cask 4567 / A+ / snuck out from behind a curtain, this is Balvenie shining at its brightest; not old and hoary but light on its feet and ready to dance; explosive, with dried berries, dense toffee, baking spices, and florals on the finish; 2 casks produced, the other cask is said to be very different
Balvenie 15 Years Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask / A- / very caramel heavy, racy but dense, with lots of brown sugar notes
William Grant Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old / A- / blended whiskey from three silent stills; restrained with toffee, nuts, and some kippered notes; comes out next year
Glengoyne 18 Years Old / A- / big body, notes of grain and fruitcake
Glengoyne 21 Years Old / B+ / traditional malt, with cocoa hints
Aberlour Scapa Skiren / B / lots of sweetness, with a malty backbone – plus melon, sweet mandarins
Highland Park Odin / B+ / dense and handsome, sherry with some smoky charcoal notes; not in love with this today
Dewar’s Scratched Cask / B+ / Dewar’s White with a little “scratched cask” aging; not readily distinguishable from the entry level blend, though quite powerful
Aultmore 12 Years Old / B+ / heavy vanilla and chocolate, dense with shortbread notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1964 / A- / heavy wood notes play with raisins and spice; this has seen wood for too long, though
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1984 / A / right where it’s at; vibrant and exotic, with tropical notes, plum pudding, and hints of grain; absolutely gorgeous
Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend / B+ / well-balanced, malty with some smoky notes
Compass Box Hedonism 15 Years Old Anniversary Bottling / A- / a blend of single grains, all 20 years old or more; fun toffee and fruit trifle notes
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A- / rich, smoky, with a gentler fruit core
Compass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky / B / a blend of single malts and grain whisky, 19 to 40 years of age; Compass Box got into trouble over this one (more on that later); I got a little mustiness and mushroom notes here, with creosote bubbling up; not feeling it tonight


McKenzie Pure Potstill Whiskey / B- / American pure pot still? wacky! this one is very young, but that hint of classic Irish sweetness hits hard on the finish
Sonoma County Distilling Company Truffle Whiskey / B+ / 100% rye, with shaved truffles added to the barrel; not what you’re expecting, but with forest floor notes a-plenty
Stranahan’s Snowflake (Dec. 2014) / A- / easily my favorite Snowflake bottling to date, beautiful balance of sweet and spice, very pretty
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak / A- / lush and big with dried fruits, spices, and gentle granary notes; another winner from Colorado
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Years Old / A- / a classically structured bourbon, dense and stylish, with a spicy finish
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A+ / there’s a reason this whiskey is the most expensive bourbon made in America — it’s the best thing anyone is making in the country; dense raisin, cinnamon, vanilla, toffee… it just goes on and on with layer after layer of goodness
High West A Midwinter’s Night Dram Act 3 / A / my favorite AMND yet; cherry and herbs in balance (not blown out), with a licorice kick
High West Bourye Batch 15B03 / A / still gorgous; syrupy and fruity, unctuous at times
High West Single Malt 1 Month Old / NR / a work in progress, surprisingly gentle for single malt but a fun look at something coming down the pipeline… give it another 5 years at least


Forty Creek Confederation Oak / A / beautiful vanilla and maple notes, but dense and balanced
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve / A- / very enjoyable, candy corn and chocolate raisins at play
Forty Creek Evolution / A- / again, quite candylike and very sweet; 9000 bottles made
WhistlePig Straight Rye Old World Sauternes Finish 12 Years Old / A- / a very strong and sweet whisky (just one of the components of the new Old World bottling), with lemon curd notes


Diplomatico Blanco Rum 6 Years Old / B / solid, uninspired as a sipper though
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Vintage 2000 / A / vintage Diplomatico; gorgeous, sherry-finished rum, balanced perfectly

Review: Sons of Liberty True Born Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” and Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015)

sons of liberty 2015 Pumpkin Whiskey_8

Sons of Liberty distillery is doing some exciting work in the tiny state of Rhode Island. Today we look at two new offerings — an innovative gin and an update to its pumpkin-flavored whiskey. Thoughts follow.

Sons of Liberty True Born Genever Style Gin “The Belgian Wheat Act” – How’s this for obsessive. With this genever-style gin, Sons of Liberty started by taking the botanicals that are traditional in gin — coriander, lemongrass, orange peel, and vanilla (well, some of those are traditional in gin, but anyway) — and using them to brew their own beer. SoL then distilled the Belgian Wheat beer (hence the name) and turned it into gin. Instead of taking neutral spirit and flavoring it, they’re flavoring the liquid that goes into the distillate to begin with.

Now, that’s been done before, but the end product has always been whiskey, not gin. SoL actually sent us the beer they started with — it’s not being sold, so it’s just for reference — and it’s really intriguing to put this side by side with the gin that was made out of it. While it’s got a malty backbone — enough to make you think much more of white whiskey than of gin — the spices that are so readily apparent in the beer are definitively present in the gin. Orange peel is the strongest, with vanilla a close second. The gin also has a nutty/almond character which adds some creaminess, plus a racy finish that brings out cinnamon and black pepper notes. The hops on the beer are just about the only element that doesn’t shine through clearly — though they likely contribute to what is a sort of muddy character on the finish. That said, all in all, it’s a really fun experiment. 90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B / $33

Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2015) – I first encountered this whiskey last year with its inaugural release. Now Sons of Liberty is back with its second annual pumpkin-flavored whiskey, single malt flavored with 32,000 pounds of roasted pumpkin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, sweet orange peel, and vanilla. Unlike last year’s version, the 2015 rendition is markedly sweeter, with good reason — pumpkin for pumpkin’s sake is never a winning game. Pumpkin with sugar and spice? Well, there’s an idea. In this whiskey — still young and heavy with malty notes — those spices are really punched up to the right level. Beautiful allspice notes make for a welcome entree to lightly-sweetened pumpkin, definitively roasted and slightly smoky on the back end. Unlike my experience with last year’s version, the 2014 SoL Pumpkin Spice Whiskey is not just a novelty but a smooth operator in its own regard, smoothing out the harshly bitter notes that stuck with me in last year’s release. Give it a go. 80 proof. B+ / $48


Review: Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye

mister katzNew York Distilling produces a number of craft spirits, including this Rock & Rye, which takes the company’s own young rye whiskey and blends it with rock candy sugar, sour cherries, cinnamon, and citrus.

It’s both a balanced and flavorful spirit, with those cherries and cinnamon notes both strong on the nose and the palate. The body is slightly sweetened but far from overpowering, and it offers gentle whiskey notes up front — simple grains, vanilla, and some barrel char. It’s a fun combination of flavors, as the baking spice notes in the rye are pumped up by the added sugar and the cinnamon in the blend. As the initial rush of whiskey-fueled notes fade, the cherries hit hard, then retreat into the background as the cinnamon makes a surprisingly strong return appearance. The spice lingers for quite awhile, pleasant and soothing as the finish fades away.

Rock & Rye is a classic flavored whiskey that’s on the rise — and Mister Katz’s is probably the best you’re going to find on the market today.

65 proof.

B+ / $28 / nydistilling.com

Review: Sons of Liberty Hop Flavored Whiskey

sons of liberty hop flavored

Remember last year’s Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey from Rhode Island’s Sons of Liberty? Well, here’s another seasonal, the more straightforward Hop Flavored Whiskey.

Here’s how it’s produced:

This whiskey started its life as an IPA. After retaining the IPA flavors through distillation we aged the whiskey in American oak barrels. Once the aging process was complete, we finished the whiskey by dry hopping with Citra and Sorachi Ace hops for bright and complementary floral notes.

That all comes through quite clearly in the finished product, and this Sons of Liberty release cuts a profile similar to many other hop-flavored craft whiskeys I’ve had, pushy with hops up front and roasted cereal and a touch of popcorn notes emerging after. There’s a bit of hospital character and furniture polish up front on the nose, but the body sticks with the hops and cereal combo pretty closely. As the finish emerges, some orange peel and some tobacco notes emerge. Curious stuff, but its youth speaks even louder than the hop flavoring. Beer nuts should particularly seek it out.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3 (2015 release).

B / $48 / solspirits.com

Review: Wicked Spirits Wicked 87 American Light Whiskey, Wicked 84 1/2 Whiskey, and Wicked Lightning Moonshine

wicked tangoOh, how I’ve procrastinated on these reviews, a collection of light whiskeys and moonshines bottled by a Kansas company called Wicked Spirits, aka Wicked Tango. With their mascot, Dirty Darcy (ahem), Wicked wants to rule the college shot market with this collection of minimally aged spirits made from 100% corn. Before I lose my nerve, let’s dive in.

Wicked 87 American Light Whiskey – Light whiskey isn’t like light beer. Rather, it’s a type of whiskey that is distilled at higher proofs and aged in used barrels, rather than new ones. The impossibly dark in color Wicked 87 is an off-putting experience, starting things off with a gumball and cotton candy scented nose. On the tongue, an enormous butterscotch candy character overwhelms, lingering until it fades into something closer to a pink bubblegum character. Vanilla lingers on the finish — but it’s more like vanilla ice cream… melted, with lots of sprinkles. Clearly packaged as an alternative to Fireball and other “party whiskeys,” this one just goes too far into sugar land for more than a few sips. A shot would probably kill you from the sugar shock. 87 proof. C / $NA

Wicked 84 1/2 Premium Reserve American Light Whiskey – This tastes almost exactly the same as Wicked 87 though, surprisingly, the slight downtick in proof is noticeable. That slightly lower alcohol translates to slightly more sugar, though, so any “premium reserve” translates into “extra sweetness.” It’s hard to tell much of a difference vs. the 87 though, and this bottling doesn’t appear on the Wicked website, so it’s unclear if it’s even on the market any more. 84.5 proof. C / $NA

Wicked Lightning Moonshine – Slight popcorn on the nose. Buttered. Classic, lightly corny on the body, but quite mild thanks to it being watered down considerably. Who’s looking for underproof moonshine today? I’m unclear. Harmless, but a bit pointless. 60 proof. 60 proof. C+ / $24

Wicked Lightning Peach Pie Moonshine – Strong chemical flavoring notes on the nose, unlike any peach pie I’ve ever had. Imagine melted peach-flavored Jolly Ranchers, muddled with that popcorn character outlined above and you’ve got this oddity. 60 proof. C- / $24

Wicked Lightning Pumpkin Spice Moonshine – Pungent with cloves on the nose, and even more on the body. Earthy and spicy, it eventually evokes a character more akin to a a cinnamon roll than a pumpkin pie, but it’s close enough to merit at least some attention. 60 proof. C / $24


Review: Reilly’s Mother’s Milk and Reilly’s Ginger Whiskey

reillysWhat with the label featuring young ruffian sporting an eyepatch emblazoned with a shamrock — plus the squared off, Bushmills-like bottle — you can be forgiven for assuming Reilly’s is a new Irish whiskey brand. Not so. It’s a blended American whiskey, albeit one with “Irish roots.”

The avowed goal of Butte, Montana-based Reilly’s was to create an easy-sipping, no-burn spirit, and that has clearly been achieved here. There’s not a lot of production information to go around, though the back label claims the spirit has “Bourbon credentials.” The whiskey starts from a base made of 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malted barley, then unaged whiskey is blended into the mix. There’s no information on the type of grain spirit used here, or how much grain spirit has been added. Either way, you’ll soon find it doesn’t taste a lot like either bourbon or most Irish whiskeys.

Two expressions are available, starting with…

Reilly’s Mother’s Milk Blended American Whiskey – This is the straight whiskey, unflavored (not even with milk). The name is an homage to the milk bottle design, a common Prohibition gimmick to sneak whiskey around. They definitely got the “easy drinking” part right. Super sweet and supple, it goes down with no bite at all, which is precisely the idea. The nose offers maple syrup, sweet butter cookies, gooey ginger cake, and massive vanilla candy notes. On the palate, there’s a touch of popcorn but it’s mixed up in a melange of Cracker Jack, more vanilla candy and cookie character, and lots more of that maple syrup. The finish isn’t overwhelmingly sugary, but it still has plenty of residual sweetness. Blended whiskey is hardly my go-to beverage, but this is at least a step up from Seagram’s 7. 80 proof. B- / $25

Reilly’s Ginger Rock & Rye – This is Mother’s Milk flavored with added sugar and ginger, and dropped down in alcohol. Significant ginger on the nose here, along with mint and brown sugar. On the palate, there’s surprising heat, though it comes across with more of the burn of cayenne than the zip of fresh ginger. As the heat fades, the caramel and maple emerge again, but not as stridently as in Mother’s Milk. Chalk that up to that burn, which can linger quite considerably. Consider as a racier, gingery alternative to Fireball. 66 proof. B- / $25


Review: Uncle Bob’s Root Beer Flavored Whiskey

uncle bobsThe name should tell you all you need to know about Uncle Bob’s Root Beer Flavored Whiskey, a sourced whiskey (from parts unknown) that is flavored with natural root beer flavors.

The nose is straight-up Barq’s, sarsaparilla and licorice and lots of vanilla overtones. On the palate, a heavy syrup character takes hold, imbuing the spirit with deep notes of molasses, cinnamon, and classic anise. The sugar is strong here — and it may get to be a bit much after a glass. Uncle Bob might be a little more engaging with a little less sweetness and a little more bite, but as it stands it’s a fun little diversion from the flood of the usual flavored vodkas and whiskeys. Definitely worth sampling, particularly at this price.

70 proof.

B / $18 / unclebobswhiskey.com

Review: Old Forester Mint Julep

old fo mint julep

No, there’s no substitute for the real thing, but one often finds the afternoon hot and the mint absent, so what’s a julep lover to do?

Old Forester has been bottling pre-made, ready-to-drink mint juleps for years, and should this summer find you wanting, it’s a fine way to get your minted bourbon on in a pinch.

This concoction — essentially Old Forester, mint flavoring, sugar syrup of some form, caramel color, and some water to knock it down in proof a bit — makes for an easy way to enjoy a horse race. The key ingredients are present: The mint reasonably authentic, particularly on the body vs. the nose. The bourbon has a distinctly peachy spin to it, really boosting up the fruitiness. That works fairly well with the mint, giving the beverage an almost tropicality to it. The finish is sweet but short of overbearing, which is pretty much how you want the julep to fade out.

Again, a quality julep with fresh mint will put this concoction to shame — but I’ve made worse mint juleps than what comes out of this bottle myself.

60 proof.

A- / $24 (1 liter) / oldforester.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015


This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.


Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: Piehole Flavored Whiskeys


Piehole is arguably the most maligned name in spirits today. Named in honor of a common insult, designed with labels that feature buxom farmer’s daughters, and a member of what is probably the most reviled category of spirits on the market — flavored whiskey — that’s three strikes before the bottle’s even open.

Piehole is Canadian whisky, flavored with one of three “pie flavored liqueurs.” No one’s trying to pass off artisan biodynamic infusions here, this is classic whisky-‘n’-chemicals, just like mom used to make. (Presuming mom worked down at the local food science lab.)

Well, without further ado, let’s have a taste of these three Pieholes, shall we?

All are 70 proof.

Piehole Apple Pie Flavored Whiskey – Lots of sweetness evident on the nose, though the apple notes don’t quite come through until the body takes hold. They nailed the crust flavor here — slightly well-done — but that combined with the heavy sweetness directs the finish toward a more generalized, super-gooey-sweet character that’s hard to peg as any specific fruit. The cinnamon flavors help establish it as apple pie more than anything else. Drinkable. B-

Piehole Cherry Pie Flavored Whiskey – This one’s quite medicinal on the nose, a common hazard among cherry-flavored spirits. Here things go off the rails, with an intense cough syrup character that simply doesn’t let up. It’s arguably not distinctly cherries and it’s definitely not pie, adhering closer to the melted Jolly Rancher motif one tends to find in this spirits category. The finish veers wildly into astringent elements that linger uninvited for quite awhile. D+

Piehole Pecan Pie Flavored Whiskey – Very sweet again up front, offering a fairly authentic glazed and heavily sugared pecan character on the nose. The aroma is almost like a praline, really, and that carries over to the body, though again, as with the apple pie expression, an almost burnt cookie character threatens to unravel things. While the nutty elements are fun enough (and conceivably cocktail-worthy in modest dosage), there’s so much sugar here that it’s tough to get through more than a few small sips of the stuff; a full shot would probably kill you. Not from the alcohol, but from the diabetes. C

each $15 / pieholewhiskey.com