Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – French Oak Bourbons

French Oak Experiment 2015

In Bourbon country, American oak reigns. It’s long been tradition that America’s greatest whiskey is aged in American wood. Anything else and you’re lookin’ for trouble.

In keeping with its long history of experimentation, Buffalo Trace kicked tradition out of the rickhouse for this latest round of its experimental whiskeys. As the names imply, these Bourbons are aged not in American oak but in French oak. More specifically, one whiskey was aged in a full barrel made entirely of French oak. A second whiskey was aged in a hybrid barrel made with American oak staves and French oak heads.

Both are ten years old, made with BT’s low-rye recipe. Here’s some additional production information:

Ten years ago, Buffalo Trace embarked on another French oak experiment, but this time endeavoring one step further – creating two different barrel types, one made entirely of French oak, and another using French oak heads, but American white oak staves. The barrels were both constructed with Buffalo Trace’s exact specifications as far as size, stave drying, and charring. The barrel staves were air-dried for six months and the barrels were charred for 55 seconds. Both of these experimental barrels were filled with the same bourbon recipe, known as Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1. After 10 years of aging, these two bourbons have been bottled as part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Collection, and referred to as 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon and French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon.

Both are 90 proof. Here’s what you can expect if you try them…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old 100% French Oak Barrel Aged Bourbon – Soft and very fruity on the nose, with notes of peaches, apricot, and citrus. Rather buttery on the body, with plenty of fruit — namely apple and apricot — to back it up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gentler bourbon anywhere; this expression is all kid gloves and a quiet stroll through the orchard. Punchy lumberyard is wholly absent; there’s really just a bare hint of oak’s telltale vanilla here to remind you of its wood regimen at all. B+

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 10 Year Old French Oak Barrel Head Aged Bourbon – Clearly punchier and more traditional in structure — and actually a quite good whiskey all around. A nice level of baking spice hits the nose, which melds well with its sweet apple pie aromas. On the body, the fruit is still there, but it’s well tempered by more traditional notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, and a little raisin character. This all works wonderfully (and unsurprisingly) well together, making for a bourbon that has grip and presence alongside uniqueness and restraint. A

each $46 (375ml) / buffalotracedistillery.com

Review: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye

RR_Single Barrel Rye_Bottle Shot

Wild Turkey is expanding the Russell’s Reserve line this year with a Single Barrel Rye expression. There’s already a Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye (much more expensive these days than the $25 it cost in 2007), but as with the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, this is a higher-end expression that plays some of its details close to the vest. There’s no age statement and no mashbill information, but it’s drawn from a single barrel and bottled at a higher proof.

This rye features a quite fruity nose, offering notes of banana, almonds, mint, and vanilla. Racy and heady from the hefty alcohol level, it doesn’t let up at all. On the palate the flavor profile is also quite fruity, mixing some apple and rhubarb in with notes of banana cream and vanilla custard. The spirit comes across as surprisingly young, with some grain notes making it through to the finish, but I also get touches of coconut and chocolate late in the game as well, keeping things fairly sweet. It isn’t a particularly peppery rye, but it does have some astringency to it — pronounced on the nose but just as detectable on the finish — that might be mistaken for some kind of “spice” character.

All told this is a credible rye, but as with Crown Royal’s latest, the fruit is pushed too far. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye has a better balance to it, but frankly I think the standard Russell’s Reserve Rye is more representative of what a solid rye should taste like.

104 proof. Available September 2015.

B+ / $60 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

crown royal rye

A Crown Royal Rye? Wait, isn’t all Canadian whisky “rye”? Hang on a sec.

There’s a lot of confusion about rye and Canadian whisky, and rightly so: By law in Canada, a whisky only has to have some rye in it to be called a rye, part of an outgrowth of hundreds of years of shorthand and tradition there. Today, most Canadian whiskies have quite a small amount of rye in the mash — like Bourbon, they tend to mostly be made from corn — yet the myth that Canadian whisky is largely rye remains.

Well, Crown Royal is going to confuse things even further with the release of Northern Harvest Rye, its first-ever legitimate rye in 75 years of operation. The mash for this whisky is a whopping 90% rye. By Canadian law, the other 10% is poutine. (Just kidding! Crown doesn’t specify.)

On first nosing, I thought perhaps Crown mistakenly filled this with its Regal Apple flavored whisky. Very strong apple notes on the nose are backed by a little caramel, giving it a distinct apple pie character. The body is again distinctly apple-fueled, but here more of the spice shows itself. Cloves and allspice are strongest, with some molasses-like sweetness sugaring things up a bit. The finish is slightly drying, and a bit of roasted grain character comes to the fore before fading out.

This is a truly strange whisky, unlike any other rye I’ve encountered in recent memory. The intense fruit character isn’t unpleasant, but it’s not what I’m looking for a quality rye. This whisky will likely resonate with many fans — but may well turn off just as many drinkers.

90 proof.

B / $30 / crownroyal.com

Review: Black Dirt Bourbon 3 Years Old

BD Bourbon w fire

Black Dirt is made in New York State’s first microdistillery, where an applejack and this bourbon are produced. Made from a mash of 80% local “black dirt” corn (hence the name), 12% malted barley, and 8% rye, it’s aged for three years in #3 char new American oak barrels. Let’s take a look under the hood.

The nose is appealing, showing light popcorn and breakfast cereal, then lumberyard notes, plus gentle vanilla and caramel notes. It’s youthful, but not too young, just a peeling back of the layers of the spirit to reveal its grainy underpinnings. The body largely follows suit, offering a touch of chocolate up front, then a modest dip back into the grain pool for another helping. Some baking spice and a bit of citrus come along before you reach a finish that returns to chocolate for a reprise.

Cereal-heavy whiskeys are often a bummer, but Black Dirt (the name notwithstanding) is surprisingly easygoing and balanced between its granary notes and its sweeter components. The finished product may still drink like it’s in short pants, but it’s nonetheless quite enjoyable on its merits. It’s rare to find a microdistilled bourbon that has balance and a unique character all its own, but Black Dirt is one of them.

90 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6.

A- / $38 / blackdirtdistillery.com

Review: Jim Beam Black XA Extra Aged Kentucky Straight Bourbon

jim beam black extra agedWhile I wasn’t paying attention, Jim Beam quietly updated its venerable Black Label bottling. What was once bottled with an 8 Year Old (“Double Aged”) age statement now carries none. Beam assures me the product in the new bottle is the same as the old Jim Beam Black Label even if the exterior isn’t quite the same. Either way, we got a fresh bottle of XA to offer some 2015 perspective. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam XA is, as the name implies, a seemingly well aged spirit. A bit of sawdust on the nose leads into notes of fruity apple, cloves, and vanilla ice cream. The palate offers a rich and creamy body, loaded with caramel, vanilla, and some charcoal notes. That lumberyard character sustains here, and some popcorn notes come along as a reprise. The finish is lasting and warming and a bit dusty, for the most part offering a tour of some of bourbondom’s most classic flavors without piling on a whole lot of distracting nuance. In other words: There’s nothing you won’t enjoy here, but it’s short of a standout, too.

86 proof.

B+ / $20 / jimbeam.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Brown Rice

brown rice

Four our fourth review in Jim Beam’s 6-whiskey Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection we’re finally checking out the Brown Rice release. This was actually released last year, so we’re late to the game, but our completionist streak compels a review regardless.

As a reminder, these are all bourbons, each made with one unusual grain in the mashbill. As with the others, Brown Rice is at least 51% corn and includes some amount of malted barley in the mix. All Harvest Collection bourbons are aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

With the Brown Rice bottling, interesting tropical notes hit the nose immediately upon pouring, mingling nicely with well-rounded grain, burnt sugar, aged wine, and oak notes on the nose. The overall impression is one of significant age, with a lumberyard character eventually taking over duties on the nose. The body starts with sweetness — brown sugar, molasses, and crushed red berries — before handing some of the work off to the wood again. The finish takes things to a place of slight astringency, with the bourbon seeing a bit of sawdust and a lightly medicinal edge on the back end. I also get notes of brewed, sweet tea and some roasted meats as the finish eventually fades. Overall though, it’s got a light touch, and in the final analysis it comes across as a very pleasant — though oftentimes plain — bourbon.

For what it’s worth, Beam suggests looking out for notes of sweet potato on the nose.

90 proof.

B+ / $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Tomatin 12 Years Old French Oak

Tomatin French Oak

This Highland whisky is a limited edition available only in North America. It is aged for 9 years in bourbon hogsheads, then spends 3 years in French oak casks. “The casks were specially sourced from various European cooperages, including Lafite, Vicard and Seguin Moreau, and originally contained red wine from the Bacalhoa winery which was formerly owned by Rothschild,” says Tomatin. But don’t expect a lot of red wine influence. The casks were de-charred and re-charred before being used.

And what a delightful little whisky this is. The nose is gentle, slightly salty, with notes of fresh grain, and baking spices. The body is impossibly light, some fruitcake notes giving it the impression of a sherried whisky at first, then notes of caramel, nougat, and apple pie. The finish is deft, simple, and refreshing. This isn’t a whisky that complicates things with a lot of showiness — or a lot of layers — but damn if it isn’t enjoyable from start to finish.

Uncomplicated, but so well-crafted — and a great bargain for the quality in the bottle.

92 proof. 12,000 bottles produced.

A / $46 / tomatin.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Balblair Vintage 2003, 1999, 1990, and 1983 Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

BB 1983 Pack Shot

I encounter Balblair regularly at whiskey events, but I was surprised to see that in all these years we’ve only ever done a formal review of Balblair one time — of the Vintage 2000 release.

Today we’re fixing that with reviews of four more expressions from this Highland distillery. On with the show!

Balblair Vintage 2003 – 10 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. Pale in color, and a bit fiery on the nose. Roasted grains, with a touch of honey, are aromatically intense — with some coal fire and a bit of industrial character. The body offers a bit of almond, some citrus, and a touch of cloves. The whisky hasn’t quite settled down yet, though, to bring out this whisky’s true charms. 92 proof. B / $70

Balblair Vintage 1999 – 15 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (My sample doesn’t indicate, but I’m presuming this is the Second Edition bottling.) Surprisingly racy, there’s red pepper and turmeric on the nose, with a backing of dried barley notes. The body is malty at its core, with winey-citrus sherry notes to add some complexity. Vanilla milkshake notes on the finish are nice, but they can’t temper this whisky’s ample heat, which lingers on the modestly scorching finish. 92 proof. B / $90

Balblair Vintage 1990 – 21 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (Again, I presume this is Second Edition.) Much different nose here, with notes of toffee and caramel, along with walnuts and cloves. The body is dense, slightly smoky and heavy on the wood component, giving this malt a bit of a fireside character — with some lumberyard, more nuts, and slight vegetal notes on the back end. The finish is a bit short, with some late-arriving notes of raisins and spice. 92 proof. B / $140

Balblair Vintage 1983 – 30 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. The best Balblair I’ve ever had is the 1975 edition. ’75 is no longer on the market, and this just happens to be the whisky that is replacing it. It’s also a knockout. The nose is rich with butterscotch, menthol, spiced nuts, and fudge. The palate kicks things off with well-aged malt, chocolate sauce, and nougat before fading into notes of rich honey, chocolate malt balls, and almond candies. The finish is long and lasting, making this a delight from start to finish. 92 proof. A / $330

balblair.com

Review: anCnoc Cutter, 12 Years Old, 18 Years Old, 24 Years Old, and 1975 Vintage

Ancnoc1975-

Knockdhu’s anCnoc recently flooded our mailbox with a collection of single malts, including three members of the age-statemented line, one new one from the NAS “Peaty Range,” and a very special offering from anCnoc’s vintage-dated collection of whiskies. We gathered them all up and put them through the Drinkhacker gauntlet. Thoughts follow.

anCnoc Cutter Highland Single Malt – Part of the anCnoc Peaty Range, Cutter is peated to 20.8 ppm, which gives it a hefty smokiness that you don’t find much in the anCnoc lineup. The nose is well peated and gentle with cereal notes. The body wears its smoke up front, folding in iodine notes, some saltiness, and a biscuit character. The finish is more purely smoky — more wood fire than smoldering peat — which leaves things in relatively uncomplicated territory. 92 proof. B / $85

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 12 Years OldRevisiting this young malt reveals many similar notes — though it feels like an evolution of the expression I reviewed a few years ago. As before, there are plenty of cereal notes here, to be sure, but things soon evolve with notes of sweet breakfast cereal, citrus syrup, and some maple notes. It drinks young — and comes across a bit hot on the finish — but it’s charming in its own way. I’d give this slightly different spirit a bit better rating than I did back in 2011. 86 proof. B / $40

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 18 Years Old – This whisky is a bit medicinal on the nose, but the body is all malty grains. The cereal lingers for ages alongside modest honeycomb, nougat, and some gentle citrus character, driven by the sherry cask aging that some of anCnoc 18 undergoes. (The 18 year a blend of whiskies aged in either sherry or bourbon casks.) The finish takes things into slightly vegetal territory, folding almond nougat into some mushroom character. Yeah, that sounds weird and it is, a little. 6000 bottles made. 92 proof. B- / $105

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 24 Years Old – Sherry-forward, with some smoky elements, particularly on the nose. The body offers tons of orange and grapefruit, balanced out with fresh cut grains, hay, popcorn, and a bit of petrol. I get hints of fresh, fried fish — perhaps this expression’s nod to the sea — before it returns to notes of golden syrup, honey, and a bit of lumberyard. Lots going on here, but it all comes together in the end with a sunny, pastoral disposition. Very limited production. 92 proof. B+ / $170

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 1975 Vintage – 39 years old (and not to be confused with the former 1975 release, a 30 year old expression). A single-vintage vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry-casked whiskies. Gentle cereal notes backed by classic sherry sweetness lead the way on the nose, along with a touch of coal smoke. The body is well developed and features nicely integrated layers of fresh citrus, orange marmalade, ginger cake, and dried fruits. Hints of graham cracker, almonds, and milk chocolate emerge on a somewhat racy (and winey) finish. Very hard to find. About 1500 bottles made. 92 proof. A- / $530

ancnoc.com

Review: Ardbeg Perpetuum

Ardbeg Perpetuum bottle & carton (NXPowerLite)

Ardbeg Day (May 30) is almost upon us, and as usual that means a new Limited Edition whisky from this classic islay distillery.

2015 marks Ardbeg’s 200th birthday, and for this momentous occasion the distillery has produced a special bottling: Ardbeg Perpetuum, an expression “inspired by the man styles, ideas and quirks of fate which have influenced Ardbeg recipes over time. It combines different styles, different flavours, different dreams and different trials, all skilfully married together in a melange of the very best Ardbeg has to offer.”

That means Perpetuum is a recipe that includes some very old and very young stock, aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, “and some surprises which hint at the future.” What that means, we can’t say for sure, but here’s what the whisky tastes like.

The color is moderate straw/light gold, hinting at youth. The nose cuts a familiar Ardbeg profile — sweetly smoky, like barbecue smoke, with a salty backbone. Don’t make any judgments yet, though. The body is something else entirely. Brine and seaweed hit the palate first, with less smoke than you’d think. Then comes a rich sweetness — honey, apricot jam, vanilla sugar, and some dark molasses on the back end. The finish has a sulfury edge to it, showcasing charred wood and dark chocolate, completing the tour of duty that takes this whisky from salt to sweet to bitter, all in one quick gulp. It’s incredible stuff that deserves a lot of time and even more introspection — and which stands as one of Ardbeg’s best releases to date.

94.8 proof.

A / $100 / ardbeg.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]