Review: Piehole Flavored Whiskeys

PieHole

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

Review: Manhattan Moonshine

manhattan moonshineMoonshine connotes hillbillies cooking up corn in a crude oil drum still tucked away in the woods, high-test hooch bottled in a ceramic jug.

And then there’s Manhattan Moonshine, made “using a unique blend of four premium New York grains [including rye, spelt, and oats — but not corn] and innovative, modern production methods,” bottled in an art deco decanter, and on the shelves for 45 bucks. Decried already in a piece entitled “End times: Hipsters drinking craft moonshine,” this is white whiskey at its terminus, a product that offers an unaged spirit at four times the price of a bottle of Jim Beam. How does it stand up?

On the nose, Manhattan Moonshine offers some classic cereal character and plenty of raw alcohol, backed with notes of lemongrass and some oily sandalwood. On the palate, it’s surprisingly sweet — and gentle, considering the higher alcohol level. It doesn’t take long for the hallmarks of moonshine to come to the fore — intense cereal notes, some petrol character, and a pungent pepperiness. Some pet-like overtones — think about the smell when you walk into a veterinarian’s office, and I don’t mean that negatively — emerge with time. (Now, as I wrap up this tasting, it’s all I can think of.)

Overall, this is not a bad expression of moonshine (and a credible cocktail ingredient) in a market that is rife with overpriced rotgut. That said, at nearly $50 a bottle, it remains a tough sell no matter how fancy it looks.

95 proof.

B+ / $45 / manhattan-moonshine.com

Review: Highland Park Valhalla Collection – Odin

odin

The final expression of Highland Park’s four Valhalla Collection whiskies is here — Odin, “the Allfather” of the Norse pantheon. Odin follows Thor, Loki, and Freya (the lattermost was not readily available in the U.S. and we never reviewed it in depth), rounding out the collectible series.

16 years old and higher in proof than any of the quartet that preceded it, Odin, to my palate, hews closer to the Highland Park house style than its predecessors — although it’s truly an animal all its own. Odin spends its entire lifetime in first-fill and refill sherry casks, which give it a bracing winey, citrus character from the get-go. The nose is packed with juicy oranges, cinnamon, cloves, some honey/nougat notes, and just a hint of smoke, layers of complexity that engage the senses in full.

The body is rich to the point of being almost daunting, a silky and well-rounded spirit that goes down like a thick ice cream sundae. Flamed orange peel on vanilla custard, spiced nuts, fruitcake and gingerbread… it’s almost like a holiday in a glass. The powerful but nuanced malt goes on and on, but it’s that lightly smoky element that ultimately seals the deal and adds some balance to the dram. Imagine the embers of a dying fire and the aroma it kicks into the room at the end of the night… that’s what Odin drives into the mind and senses as it fades on the palate.

Yeah, too bad it’s April.

111.6 proof.

A / $350 / highlandpark.co.uk

Review: Balcones 1 Texas Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition Batch 15-3

balcones 1

Distiller Chip Tate may now be gone from Balcones, but they’re still turning out whiskey (er, “whisky,” here) at the Waco-based operation.

Balcones 1 — one of the distillery’s best-known spirits and a product that’s widely considered the best American-made single malt — is still being produced, and we got our hands on a post-Tate bottling which saw its way into glass only a month ago. Yes, Tate certainly had a heavy hand in the distillation and other facets of the creation of the spirit, but here’s a peek at the direction things are headed from here, a few months after Tate’s departure.

And that direction is… well, pretty much the same as it was during Tate’s reign, it seems.

I’ve had Balcones 1 on several occasions and this 2015 bottling doesn’t stray far from the course the spirit has been on for the last few years. Balcones 1 is officially released without an age statement, but it starts off in smallish 5-gallon new oak barrels before finding its way into larger tuns for marrying and blending. Finishing woods and ex-bourbon casks are sometimes used, I’ve read, but batches have evolved over the years and have varied widely in production methods, proof, and other details.

The most dominant part of Balcones 1 — this batch or any other — involves the influence of wood. The nose starts off with some butterscotch, raisin, and mint, but sniff on it for more than a few seconds and huge sawdust and lumberyard notes come to the fore. On the palate, Balcones 1 takes some time to settle down as the woody notes blow off a bit, ultimately revealing a toffee and treacle core, very dark chocolate notes, a touch of campfire ashes, and dried figs. The back end of the whisky is a big return to the lumberyard, where a monstrous, tannic, and brooding finish adds a touch of coffee grounds to the mix.

As far as American malt whiskeys — which have to be aged in new oak to be called straight malt or single malt due to TTB rules — go, Balcones 1 is near the top of the heap. But that’s a small heap and one that is stacked largely with whiskeys that aren’t terribly drinkable. New oak and malted barley simply aren’t easy companions, and it’s amazing that Balcones is able to do so much with two odd bedfellows like these. Consider me a fan — but a cautious one.

Reviewed: Batch 15-3; bottled 3-10-15. 106 proof.

B+ / $80 / balconesdistilling.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey 8 Years Old

greenore

This single-grain whiskey is distilled at Cooley from a mash of 95% corn and 5% malted barley. Sound familiar? It’s the same whiskey as Teeling Single Grain, only Teeling is aged in wine barrels, while Greenore spends its eight years in bourbon casks.

The difference is striking. The richness and sweet vanilla of Teeling is harder to peg in the Greenore, which lets the grain do more of the talking here. Ripe banana starts things off, then more intense oatmeal/cereal notes rise to the top. The nose is especially redolent of corn meal and tortillas, with a dusting of marshmallow sweetness. Frosted Flakes? The finish is warm but soothing, with some peppery notes to balance out an echo of grain character.

Bottom line: This is the starting point for Irish single grain… or probably any single grain for that matter. Compare and contrast.

80 proof.

B+ / $45 / greenorewhiskey.com

Review: West Cork Irish Whiskey Classic Blend and Single Malt 10 Years Old

WestCork_10Yr_Whiskey_bt

West Cork is an Irish whiskey brand that’s now making its way to the U.S.. It’s actually made in West Cork (by West Cork Distillers), where Kennedy and a variety of other products are also produced. Unlike Kennedy, these are legit whiskeys, one blended and one a single malt. We tried them both. Thoughts follow.

West Cork Original Irish Whiskey Classic Blend – A standard blend of grain and malt whiskeys, aged in Bourbon barrels. It’s a light and breezy blend, largely in keeping with the gentle “house style” of Irish whiskey. There’s a citrus edge on the nose, but the body features plenty of malt, with solid nougat, vanilla, and a mild echo of citrus — lemon meringue, perhaps — as the finish takes hold. It’s a whiskey that initially comes across as simple but which grows on you quite a bit as you work through that first glass. Irish fans, give it a spin. 80 proof. B+ / $27

West Cork Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years Old – Big (and surprising) green apple notes on the nose, drowning out everything else. The body is very malty, rich with notes of sweetened breakfast cereal, with lingering notes of toffee and molasses — and perhaps some coconut on the back end. The palate cuts a traditional Irish malt character, but it’s ultimately hard to reconcile with the fruity nose — those apple characteristics growing in strength as the whiskey gets some air in the glass. 80 proof. B / $40

westcorkdistillers.com

Review: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Editions Six and Seven

ECBPThe barrel proof expressions of Elijah Craig have certainly cultivated a cult following in its own rite over the past few years. With proofs varying in all sorts of dimensions throughout the series, we figured it was time to take the most recent pair for a test drive.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Edition Six – Each release in the series is 12 years of age, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by the heat of this monster. At 140.2 proof, we’re entering Stagg territories of alcohol content, and boy does it show. Mike Tyson-like punches of wood on the nose with a bit of mint, and the body is all oak, toffee, and pepper. Perfect winter snowstorm drinking, even taking it down a notch with a splash of water. A- / $65

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Edition Seven – A sharp contrast to round six, this weighs in at 128 proof and is by far the runt of the proof litter (most have been firmly in the middle 130s). However, this cut in proof shows just how beautiful and versatile ECBP can get when the heat gets turned down a bit. Lots of vanilla sweetness balanced with some dark fruit and oak on the taste. A little bit of burnt char on the body and it finishes with a fruit and spice after taste and a nice lingering burn. Definitely not the best of the bunch, but far from the worst either. B+ / $65

heavenhill.com

Review: Chivas Regal Extra

Chivas Extra

Chivas? Yes, Chivas! And the brand is back with its first new blend in the U.S. in eight years: Chivas Extra.

Extra is made from Chivas’s collection of traditional malts and grain whiskies — including Strathisla single malt — that is finished in Oloroso sherry casks. The resulting spirit, positioned as a step up from the $25 Chivas 12 Year Old, is a surprisingly fun expression of Chivas Regal, distancing itself from the brand’s austere image through the use of the wine barrel finishing. (That said, Extra is bottled with no age statement.)

On the nose, it’s a bit hard to parse at first: It’s woody, with notes of brown butter, baked apples, tangerines, graham crackers, a little Mexican chocolate, and ample malt. The nose ultimately congeals all of this into a bit more cohesive experience, starting with huge cereal notes then layering on notes of sugary tinned fruit, (very) ripe banana, sandalwood, and a bit of cinnamon. The body isn’t heavy or oily, but it does have a chewiness that gives it an interesting grip on the palate. All told, it’s a solid blend, and something worth sipping on at least once if for no other reason than to remind yourself that Chivas is still hard at work.

Available now in major U.S. metros. Expanding to the rest of the U.S. later this year.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / chivas.com

Review: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey

old overholtOld Overholt’s been making rye since well before rye was cool. Part of the Beam Suntory empire, the brand claims heritage back to 1810 and was reputedly the whiskey of choice of Doc Holliday himself.

Old Overholt is commonly used as a mixer — and is a frequent denizen of the Sazerac cocktail — but let’s take a look at how well it stands on its own two feet. While there is no official production information available (including the mashbill), some say Overholt’s trimmed its barrel time down to 4 years while simultaneously raising prices.

True or not, as of 2015 Old Overholt drinks a lot like a young, rye-heavy, mainstream bourbon. On the nose, menthol notes and some hints of leather and cloves. The body is lightly sweet, heavy on notes of cinnamon and clove, bitter roots, and some simple, sawdusty wood character. Sampled neat, Old Overholt drinks as a simple spirit, light on the tongue, a bit bitter, and with a touch of red pepper on the finish. Pleasant and cordial enough, but best as a mixer, where, true to form, it proves quite versatile.

80 proof.

B / $17 / beamsuntory.com

Review: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Batch #121

Stranahan's Bottle ShotIt has been many years since we visited Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey in a formal capacity. Batch #33, in fact, back in 2009.

Since then, Stranahan’s has become a bona-fide phenomenon, one of the stalwarts of craft whiskeymaking and the recipient of a cult following. Today we look at the 121st batch of Stranahan’s — still 100% Rocky Mountain barley and local water, aged two-plus years in new barrels, and bottled in batches made from 10 to 20 barrels a pop, which makes it more different with each bottling than the typical whiskey.

Stranahan’s has always had a certain soul and its own raison d’etre, and that is one that resonates with intense oak, old prunes, lumberyard notes, and an almost funky, mushroomy cereal character. Stranahan’s is a gut punch, and depending on your mood that day it can be a welcome friend or an angry enemy. Re-tasting Batch #33 reveals a brooding spirit that still rests on its grainy base but which is tempered by some citrus notes, a little baking spice, and some gingerbread.

In contrast, Batch #121 comes across as more youthful in the selected barrels — the grain overpowering the secondary elements singlehandedly. Here the whiskey is enveloped in that mushroom funk, featuring some austere, winey elements ultimately giving it some astringency. The notes of fermented bean curd are weird, but not out of bounds for a whiskey as generally as strange as Stranahan’s, but the lack of any real fruit or spice element in this batch makes it a tougher slog than it ought to be. I’ll say one thing: Stranahan’s is such a unique whiskey that none of this should come as a surprise. Batch #122 probably tastes nothing like it.

B / $60 / stranahans.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]