Category Archives: Whiskey

Review: Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur and Maple Bourbon

sapling 525x350 Review: Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur and Maple Bourbon

Maple syrup continues to grow as a cocktail trend, and enterprising Vermonters are using it directly to make their own spirits.

Enter Sapling, aka Saxtons River Distillery in Brattleboro, Vermont, which produces a maple syrup liqueur and a maple-infused Bourbon. (There’s also a maple-infused Rye, not reviewed here.) All are made from Grade A Vermont maple syrup from the state’s Green Mountains.

Thoughts follow.

Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur Whiskey – Three year old Bourbon is blended with maple syrup, then matured a second time in oak. The results are, well, maply. The nose is curious — a combination of Madeira, tawny Port, cinnamon, and rum raisin notes. On the body, the sugar level is nothing short of massive. Intense with brown/almost burnt sugar notes and plenty more of that madeirized wine character, the thick syrup character that makes up the body feels like it was just tapped from the tree. Whiskey is just a wispy hint in this spirit, a touch of vanilla that feels added into the mix an eyedrop at a time. 70 proof. B / $36 (375ml)

Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur - Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely similar to the version blended with whiskey. Most of the same notes of the above — Madeira, port, cinnamon — are all in play here again, only on a more muted basis. If anything, this liqueur is a less overwhelming spirit, though it’s also a somewhat less intriguing one, as some of those more subtle vanilla and spice notes present in the former spirit come up short here. 70 proof. B / $36 (375ml)

saplingliqueur.com

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

Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Chocasmoke Whiskey

chocasmoke 211x300 Review: Seven Stills of San Francisco Chocasmoke WhiskeyThe future of craft distilling may be in beer: So believes Clint Potter of The Seven Stills of San Francisco, a new craft distillery located, well, you know.

Seven Stills makes this unique whiskey — the first in its “Seven Hills” series — from actual beer (much like Charbay and a few others): a chocolate oatmeal stout to which they’ve added 20% peat-smoked malt. Hence the choca, and hence the smoke. The finished product is aged for 6 months before bottling. The driving idea: Make a whiskey that still contains the essence of the beer from which it was made.

This is really interesting, exotic stuff. The nose is youthful and grain-forward, typical of young craft whiskey, but the peat is unmistakable. I was immediately reminded of some of Lost Spirits’ whiskeys, namely the youngish Seascape. The hints of chocolate on the nose are immediately present on the tongue. Here the very essence of the chocolate oatmeal stout is vividly on display, offering notes of cocoa powder, salted caramel, gingerbread, and well roasted grains. The seaweed/sea salt notes come on strong in the mid-palate, leading to a finish that nods both to Islay and its American home. There’s so much going on, it’s almost too much to explore in one go-round. The clearly young nose aside, it’s tough to believe this whiskey is just six months old.

Can’t wait to see what these guys come up with next.

90 proof. 400 half-bottles produced (most are gone).

A- / $55 (375ml) / sevenstillsofsf.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Rested Rye

Jack Daniels Rested Rye bottle shot 525x589 Review: Jack Daniels Rested Rye

Hey, remember a couple of years ago when Jack Daniel’s decided it was going to make a rye whiskey? Give Jack credit: Rather than simply buy someone else’s rye and put their label on it, Jack decided to make its rye itself, legit.

The catch: Making whiskey takes time, so in 2012, when the rye trend was hitting its stride, all JD had was unaged whiskey on its hands, which it sold. For $50 a bottle.

Fast forward to today, roughly a year and a half later, and Jack… still doesn’t have a finished product. What it does have is a very young rye whiskey, which they’re calling “Rested Rye.” (This is the same mashbill of 70% rye, 18% corn, 12% malted barley.)

That’s probably a good enough descriptor of a noble whiskey that, like the Unaged Rye, no one is going to buy. Here’s why.

The nose offers wet, over-ripe, nearly rotten banana, plus some coconut husk notes. There’s an undercurrent of cereal notes, but little wood as of yet. The body is quite sweet — those bananas don’t pull any punches — with a lengthy finish that wanders into orange juice, clover honey, and cream of wheat territory. Unsatisfying and flabby, I get little spice, no pepper, nothing really approaching classic rye characteristics at all, or the promise of them to come. Believe it or not, I’d much rather drink the white dog than this whiskey as it stands today.

Of course all of that really means very little. This is a work in progress, and as any amateur taster of white dogs can tell you, the white spirit rarely has much resemblance to the finished product, and this “rested” version probably won’t have much in common with the final release either. We’ll see, I suppose, either way, come 2018 or so.

80 proof. Available in limited quantities.

C / $50 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 48.29 and 93.47

It’s been well over a year since we’ve encountered the Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s always-interesting independent bottlings. These two recently outturned expressions showed up almost as a surprise. Thoughts follow.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 48.29 – 12 year old Balmenach from Speyside. Big, malty nose, but also quite sweet, with hints of orange and sugar cane. The body starts off amazingly sweet, with marshmallow and vanilla, before evolving more fruity notes, almost jam-like, in the mid-palate. Cereal notes come along in the finish, quite mild, but also complementary to what comes before, lending the affair a pastry-like experience. 122 proof. A-

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 93.47 – 9 year old Glen Scotia from Campbeltown. Immediately intriguing and unusual on the nose: some smoke, cocoa powder, coal fires, and roasted nuts. The body brings even more complexity: seaweed and salt mix with sweet pound cake, vanilla frosting, marzipan, and a dusting of spice. The finish is a little short considering all that’s going on, but the overall experience is marvelously fun to explore on the whole. 119.4 proof. A-

prices $NA / smwsa.com

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy 525x323 Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.

santafespirits.com

Review: Widow Jane “Heirloom Varietal” Bourbon Whiskeys

widow jane heirloom bourbons Review: Widow Jane Heirloom Varietal Bourbon Whiskeys

The Scots have messed around with single-varietal barley expressions of Scotch for years — so why not Bourbon? Does the type of corn used to make Bourbon make a difference, too?

You’d think this kind of experiment would be performed by the brain trust at Buffalo Trace, which never stops experimenting and releasing the results of those experiments for you and I to tipple on. But this experiment is being done, oddly enough, in the state of New York, by the good folks who make the impressive Widow Jane craft Bourbon.

This is not sourced whiskey, like Widow Jane’s 7 Year Old expression, but rather whiskey distilled right in Widow Jane’s Brooklyn-based stills. Three expressions are offered, one using Wapsie Valley corn, a hybrid of American Indian corn that was farmed in Iowa. The other varietal is Bloody Butcher corn, “bred by crossing Native American seeds with settlers’ white seeds around 1800, in the Appalachian mountains.” One of the Bloody Butcher varieties is a “high rye” expression, using the same corn. (More appropriately: the other variety is a “no rye” expression.)

All three of these are young spirits. No age statements are offered, but the mashbills are detailed exactly. All three are bottled at 91.8 proof. Thoughts, as always, follow.

Prices reflect 375ml bottles (gulp).

Widow Jane Wapsie Valley Single Expression Bourbon - 60% organic Wapsie Valley corn (mixed yellow and red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley, 25% rye. Nutty, almost smoky, with exuberant corn notes. The body starts off a bit brash and overpowering with popcorn notes, but these settle down a bit to reveal some notes of maple syrup and honey. That intense, smoky corn character lingers. B / $115

Widow Jane Bloody Butcher Single Expression Bourbon - 85% organic Bloody Butcher corn (dark red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley. How to put this? Even cornier, and smokier — with a touch of that maple syrup character. While the nose is a bit rougher (85% corn will do that), the body brings on ample sweetness, like a cola syrup, up front. Racy with spice, big cinnamon notes that do a good job at massaging some of the cornier notes and the rougher edges. A- / $125

Widow Jane Bloody Butcher High Rye Bourbon - 58% organic Bloody Butcher corn (dark red endosperm corn), 15% heirloom barley, 27% rye. Similar nose as the above, perhaps a bit gentler, with graham cracker and Bit-O-Honey notes. Cleaner on the body, too, which turns toward mint in the mid-palate, but finishes on the hot and indistinct side. B+ / $135

widowjane.com/heirloom/

Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private Reserve

millbrook distillery bourbon 240x300 Review: Millbrook Distillery Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dutchess Private ReserveThat’s a mouthful of a name for this Dutchess County (Poughkeepsie area), New York-based spirit, a sourced whiskey made from a corn/rye/barley mashbill. Little else is disclosed, including age.

Woody on the nose, there’s depth here that recalls brandied cherries and Christmas cake. The body, however, is surprisingly sweet, with a distinct honey tone to it. Sultry, slightly earthy notes add body, with a fruity character (apples and plums, perhaps) providing some nuance. The finish veers a bit into wood oil territory, but on the whole it’s a well-balanced bourbon with lots to recommend it.

90 proof.

A- / $37 / millbrookdistillery.com

Review: Tincup American Whiskey

tin cup 525x679 Review: Tincup American Whiskey

Tincup (or TINCUP, as I refuse to write it) is the brainchild of Jess Graber, who launched Stranahan’s Whiskey in Colorado, where Tincup also hails from.

These are different animals, though. Stranahan’s is 100% malted barley distilled and aged on site. Tincup is rather simply sourced bourbon (from where the company doesn’t say), watered down with Colorado water and bottled here.

Nothing wrong with that, and it sure keeps the cost down. Tincup is half the price of Stranahan’s — though just as with Stranahan’s, you also get a metal cup on top of Tincup, an homage I presume to the whiskey’s moniker.

The specifics of Tincup are scant, but it’s a blend of corn, rye, and malted barley, no age statement offered. Curiously, the company doesn’t use the term “bourbon” on the label (it does on its website), but the maker does make a claim to a “high rye content.” Instead, the company just goes with the style name of “American Whiskey.”

All of this is surprising, actually. As whiskey goes, Tincup is one of the gentlest I’ve ever had, which is the antithesis of how we usually consider high-rye spirits. The nose offers vanilla and butterscotch, and as it opens up in the glass, dusty wood notes develop. This all leads into a quiet and surprisingly understated body: apple cinnamon, vanilla caramels and ice cream, and chocolate covered raisins. Curious strawberry notes, something you don’t typically find in bourbon, come along on the finish, which is otherwise silky, moderately sweet (solid caramel notes returning here), and hard not to like.

All in all, this is a simple little bourbon — “American whiskey” all the way — that could easily become the “house bottle” at many a home bar, Colorado-based or not.

84 proof.

A- / $28 / tincupwhiskey.com

Review: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Fall 2013)

Garrison Brothers TxSBW Image 1 525x1167 Review: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Fall 2013)

Hye is one of those tiny towns that everyone from Texas (including myself) has heard of, but no one actually knows where it is. There it lies, on the road from Austin to Fredericksburg, and it’s here where Garrison Brothers is making some fine “micro” whiskey.

The brothers Garrison don’t disclose their exact mashbill on this, their flagship product, but it’s about 3/4 local corn (#1 Panhandle White, in case you’re curious), along with estate-grown wheat and malted barley (not local) making up the rest. At present, the whiskey is aged for two years in American oak barrels before bottling. But intriguingly, Garrison doesn’t just say that its product could change over time, rather the distillery insists that it will.

Garrison Brothers takes a vintage-based approach to whiskeymaking, insisting that each year’s product should be better than the last. That began with its first batch in 2008. Reviewed below is a bottle distilled in 2010 and released in Fall 2013 (bottle number 453). Garrison insists it should be better than the whiskey in 2009, just as the whiskey from 2011 should be an improvement over this. (As of late 2013, six different “vintages” had been released — more than one vintage is produced each year.) The only question is whether it can really deliver on that promise, which we hope to put to the test over the next decade or so. The company says it is now warehousing some 5000 barrels of product.

As for the whiskey we have here, it’s burly, frontier stuff with plenty of kick. The nose is strong with wood, lumberyard notes intermingled with hints of vanilla and caramel. The body reveals far more — eventually. That wood character is powerful up front, to the point where you wonder if that’s the whole show. It isn’t until the finish gets going where Garrison Brothers’ other characteristics begin to shine. As it’s but two years old, there’s plenty of youthful roasted corn here, but unlike many other young whiskeys, those notes are balanced with some more exciting, and more mature, flavors. There’s deep, almost burnt, caramel here, as well as brown butter, cloves, and some chili powder. This all develops more seamlessly and interestingly than you’d think — and all at the end. Give this whiskey ample time in the glass — Garrison recommends a cube of ice — and you’ll see the popcorn settle down and the other components really begin to build up.

Fun, fun stuff, although quite expensive for the drinker used to $25 bottlings from Kentucky. No matter: I’m looking forward to seeing the Garrison Brothers’ next act!

94 proof. Reviewed: Fall 2013 release.

A- / $75 / garrisonbros.com

Review: Lombard Jewels of Scotland Springbank 21 Years Old

Springbank 21 Year Old Lombard Jewels of Scotland Bottling Single Malt Scotch 525x750 Review: Lombard Jewels of Scotland Springbank 21 Years Old

This independent bottling of Campbeltown favorite Springbank is a D&M Liquors exclusive (link below), so don’t go shopping all over creation for it. Only 263 bottles were produced. 21 years old and fully matured in a bourbon hogshead, this is Springbank at its finest.

The nose is mysterious and mild, with hints of greenery and a kind of petrol note. The body, however, opens up in just phenomenal ways. Fruit hits you first — apples and tangerines, banana and a bit of coconut. From there, make way for some smoky campfire and vanilla marshmallow notes, cedar box, and a touch of seaweed. The finish calls to the barley and heather, both malty and chewy.

Gorgeous stuff. Get it while you can.

99.4 proof.

A / $350 / dandm.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon Entry Proof Experiments

Buffalo Trace Rye Mash Entry Proof Family 300x159 Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection   Rye Bourbon Entry Proof ExperimentsLast year, Buffalo Trace released a line of Experimental Collection bourbons put into barrel at various entry proofs.

As I explained back then: Entry proof describes the alcohol level of a whiskey when it goes into the barrel for the first time. Generally whiskey is watered down a bit before barreling, often to between 105 and 125 proof, before it’s wheeled into the warehouse.

This release differs from the last one in two ways. First, the white dog came off the still at 140 proof, not 130. Second, this recipe is BT’s rye bourbon mashbill (aka mash #1), not the wheated one from last year. Same as last time, though, this white dog was split into four batches, one barreled at 90 proof, one at 105, one at 115, and finally one at 125 proof. All four spent 11 years, 9 months in barrel, and when bottled, they were all brought down to 90 proof. (These barrels were distilled, barreled, and bottled all around the same time as the wheated ones.)

Thoughts follow…

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 90 Entry Proof – Light and airy, a candy bar of a whiskey with notes of cherry, nougat, and caramel. Finishes smoothly sweet and easy. Not a lot of complexity, but it makes up for it in delightful simplicity. This is one you could drink all day. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 105 Entry Proof - Much different on the nose, with wood-forward aromas and hints of baking spice and menthol. The body is generous and considerably more balanced than the nose would indicate. Caramel and orange are the major notes, with the burly woodiness coming on stronger on the end. A straightforward if unremarkable rendition of an older bourbon. B

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 115 Entry Proof - Racy on the nose, with Madeira and Port-like notes. Bold on the palate, with notes of sherry, clove-studded orange, and vanilla caramel on the finish. Great balance here, with a rich, well-rounded body. A-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Rye Bourbon 125 Entry Proof - This is BT’s standard entry proof, so should be closest to a typical Buffalo Trace mash #1 whiskey at this age. It’s a blazer on the nose, masking leather and wood notes with somewhat raw heat. It settles down with time, however, revealing a fairly traditional profile of vanilla, caramel, and milk chocolate, with some sawdust edges licking up on the back end. A fine effort but one that doesn’t really distinguish itself especially. B+

As with the rye experiments, this is again a fun exercise — and curiously I liked both the 90 proof and 115 proof expressions the best the last time out. Still, my hunch is that barrel variability probably has a bigger ultimate impact than entry proof does.

each $46 per 375ml bottle / buffalotrace.com

Review: GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old and Cask Strength Batch 2

GlenDronach 15yo Tawny Port 191x300 Review: GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old and Cask Strength Batch 2GlenDronach, “the sleeping giant,” is a storied Highlands distillery that dates back to 1826. As is often the case with these companies, the distillery changed hands a few time and was shut down in 1996. Five years later it was acquired by BenRiach and is now producing again. It’s also releasing aged, old stock, including a core range — all sherry-finished — and a number of special, limited releases, including the two reviewed below, which are both new to the U.S. market.

GlenDronach Tawny Port Wood Finish 15 Years Old – Fiery, roasted grains dominate the nose, like hot bread fresh from the oven. Citrus and red pepper notes follow. On the palate, lots of flavors emerge, rapid-fire, lingering for awhile: Big malt, leather, coconut, and more of that mammoth cereal character are the most prominent. The body is big, the finish lasting. The overall effect: Interesting, but muddy and lacking focus. What’s really missing here? Any semblance of tawny port. If I didn’t know better, I’d have guessed this was a sherry-finished spirit. 92 proof. B / $80

GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 2 – No age statement on this, but it’s finished in both Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. Punchy on the nose, with notes of cigar box and tar. The body brings forward more of these notes, backed with stronger sherry character, gentle smokiness, and ample malt, the lattermost of which builds considerably on the finish. Hot, but not overpowering, the big, citrus-meets-malt finale recalls a simple breakfast on a sunny day. 110.4 proof. 16,500 bottles made. B+ / $150

glendronachdistillery.com

Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B / hardwaterbar.com

Review: The Glenrothes 2001 Single Malt Whisky

glenrothes 2001 525x756 Review: The Glenrothes 2001 Single Malt Whisky

It’s been three years since the last Glenrothes Vintage release (the 1998 vintage), and finally the Speyside distillery with the barrel-shaped bottle is out with a new one, 2001, another limited release that sticks closely to the Glenrothes house style. Bottled in mid-2012, it’s an 11 year old single malt whisky.

The nose is surprisingly malty on first blush, with a healthy slug of vanilla and some citrus underpinnings. The palate is at first quite bready, but this fades as the spirit opens up, and as the next wave of flavors start to develop. As the body grows, it shows notes of sherry, creme brulee, and even touches of red berry and chocolate in the finish. Over time, lemon rind and menthol notes develop, too, but the nose brings things back to the bready, malty character that started the whole thing off.

86 proof.

B+ / $70 / theglenrothes.com

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

 Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Bourbon

Everyone loves a good story, and to spin a good yarn around an original tale is becoming a talent synonymous with spirits industry. A brand simply can’t stand on its merits alone anymore. A successful product launch now requires no less than a multi-million dollar yacht, international release parties, the courtship of the tastemaker kings and queens, and a celebrity endorsement or five. However, nothing shines quite like a good lacquered coating of embellishment to make a product beam in the eyes of the unsuspecting and trustworthy. It is human nature and a constitutional right to amplify facts with the intent of impressing people. Once in high school, a certain writer once stretched a passing conversation with punk rock legend Ian MacKaye into a lunch of vegan tacos, Coca-Cola and a two-hour conversation about the future of his band Fugazi.

So it comes as no surprise that Diageo, dream weavers of the potentially-fictitious dream history of Bulleit, present the Orphan Barrel project: a new chapter in the company’s incredible alternate history of whiskey. If Diageo’s tale is true — some of a challenge in these dangerously murky marketing waters – these barrels were found aging in the mythological temple/warehouse known to Bourbon enthusiasts as the Stitzel-Weller distillery. According to the company, a very select and limited number of these barrels were picked to launch this new whiskey series, with more planning on being “discovered” throughout the forthcoming seasons.

Now it appears this long-lost S-W juice was actually made at the Bernheim distillery. The barrels also weren’t “lost,” they just never got used for their original intent. What was the original home intended for these barrels? Either Diageo doesn’t know (unlikely) or simply isn’t saying, which seems more likely. Why let those traveling down the yellow brick road get a peek at how the Wizard makes the sausage?

Either way, the barrels were shipped from S-W and bottled at the Dickel distillery in Tennessee, a state enjoying the attention and courtship of Diageo as of late. How many barrels? Good question. No one knows the answer to that either, but the edition numbers on the back of the bottles posted on the internet have now reached the 40,000 mark. Given how little would be left in each orphaned barrel at 20+ years of age, the number of barrels involved would have to be in the thousands, hard to “lose” and hardly qualifying as “limited edition” — unless you’re comparing it to the voluminous output of something like… say… Jack Daniel’s?

This lack of confidence on provenance combined with a balance inquiry at a local ATM were big sticking points as to whether or not we should purchase samples for review. Neither eager nor willing to shell out the $225 required for both bottles, a local establishment was pouring small samples for ladies and gentlemen who would otherwise shop the aisles for Kentucky Gentleman. $10.50 was the safer investment of the two options, it made sense to minimize risk and see what the buzz was about. As Chris is wont to say: “Thoughts follow.”

Barterhouse 20 Years Old – With more text on the bottle than a Russian novel, Diageo seems hellbent on cramming as many typographical flourishes as possible per label to remind the consumer of the epic saga they’ve purchased for their mantle, possibly to distract you from what’s inside. (It’s worth noting that Barterhouse’s mascot is a rather sly looking fox.) It’s incredibly sweet, with vanilla and butter on the nose, and soft on the palate, making it hard to even believe this is 20 years of age (with very little oak or sulfur on the taste). The finish is even weaker. Very easygoing and inoffensive, it would be a great starter bourbon for the uninitiated and those with ample money to spend. 90.2 proof. B- / $75

Chris says: I get more of a burnt toffee and considerable heat on the nose, with cinnamon and brown butter on the body. Kind of a weird balance of flavors, but a lot going on. I found this fun to explore, but difficult enough on the finish to make things a bit strange. My rating: B+

Old Blowhard 26 Years Old – A 26-year-old bourbon bearing the name of a cantankerous old man. I might be reading too much into the glass with the brand names here, but if I’m right Diageo isn’t being very subtle. It has a very strong presence right from the moment it lands in the glass. A nose of spices, cinnamon, and a touch of campfire smoke blend with a strong taste of toffee, vanilla, cloves, and a plentiful punch of oak. By comparison to Barterhouse (below), it has a much stronger and present finish with a nice burn of oak and alcohol. At $150, though, it’s hard to get excited on the cost versus quality scale of things. There are way better bourbons at this price point worth considering. That said, this is definitely the better of the two “orphan barrels.” 90.7 proof.  B / $150

Chris says: Quite a different animal. Cloves and peppermint on the nose. The body shows off big vanilla and toffee notes, but the finish turns a bit brutish, with a kind of heavily-flamed orange peel character. Becomes increasingly woody as it opens up in the glass. Intriguing. B+

With this new armada of orphan barrels, Diageo is placing bets on the casual consumer who enjoys higher end premium stuff and places as much stock on the envelope, paper, and penmanship as they do the contents of the letter. The kind of person who would purchase a $150 bottle of bourbon in order to subtly out-compete at the court of the well-heeled Keeneland’s clubhouse on opening day, or a tailgating affair at Churchill Downs in May. Much to the company’s credit, it sort of works. They’ve managed to put the fox in some very nice sheep’s clothing for the flock. However, in the end, the best consumer is one that is as well-informed as possible. Or as the song goes: “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying.*”

Limited Edition of Ten Frillion, or whatever number Diageo wants.

diageo.com

*The author is well aware of the thick glaze of irony created by enlisting references to the traditionally sober, straight-edged and highly anti-corporate Fugazi in a whiskey review.

 [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Spring44 Straight Bourbon and Single Barrel Bourbon

SPRING44 WHISKEY TRANS 2 233x1200 Review: Spring44 Straight Bourbon and Single Barrel BourbonArguably known best for its honey-flavored vodka, Colorado-based Spring44 is jumping onto the whiskey bandwagon, with two new expressions of straight bourbon whiskey. As you might expect by their sudden appearance on the market, both are sourced whiskey from Kentucky (not Indiana), brought down to proof with Colorado water, and bottled in individually numbered bottles. The whiskey inside has aged for six-plus years, but mashbill information is not offered. Based on the cloudiness readily visible in the bottles, they are not chill-filtered, either. Thoughts follow.

Spring44 Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Maybe it’s my mind playing tricks on me since I know Spring44′s prior products, but I swear I get notes of honey on the nose just from cracking open the bottle. The nose offers classic bourbon notes — vanilla infused with deep wood character — but playing the game otherwise close to the vest. The body explodes with a melange of flavors: honey (I swear), butterscotch, cinnamon, and a sweet-tinged apple and pear character that builds on the finish. The finale is a bit too drying, but otherwise Spring44 has done a great job of finding some solid barrels to showcase. 90 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #3933. B+/ $40

Spring44 Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Presumably the same whiskey as the above, but drawn from a single cask and bottled at a higher alcohol level. Curiously different from the standard bottling right from the start, with a fruitier nose that keeps the wood components in check. Here you’ll find touches of tea leaf, cinnamon, mint, and even incense. The body is something else — a silky sweet delight, full of lush apple pie notes, deep honey, lots of vanilla, hot buttered rum, and even some unexpected red berry notes. Well balanced and drinking perfectly despite its high alcohol content, this is a bourbon that can stand up to about anything on the market in this age category. A real standout. 100 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #208. A / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

spring44.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire

Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire Bottle 408x1200 Review: Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire

JD jumped into the honey-flavored whiskey market and made massive waves. Why not try it again with cinnamon?

Tennessee Fire is a classic cinnamon-infused spirit, with a nose that’s immediately redolent of Red Hots, but not overpowering. The body is more quiet and candylike than, well, fiery. The palate starts off sweet, with vanilla caramel notes, essentially classic JD, with the attention of some apple cider character in the mid-palate. The cinnamon comes along later, well tempered with plenty of sugar to keep the cinnamon candy notes from searing the roof of your mouth. This is fine — no one is drinking these whiskeys because they enjoy pain — but Jack’s rendition ends up a little over-sweetened, the way too much Equal leaves a funky taste on your tongue.

The bottom line: JD may have mastered honey, and Tennessee Fire is mostly harmless, but I think other cinnamon whiskeys do this style better.

The test launch of “Jack Fire” (as you are invited to call it) begins in April in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

70 proof.

B+ / $22 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Green Spot Bottle 525x1067 Review: Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Heretofore seldom seen on our shores, one of the most beloved Irish whiskeys in-country is now making its way to the U.S. It is named after a blotch of color.

Green Spot, the kid brother of the even rarer Yellow Spot, is made at Midleton, where Jameson, Tullamore D.E.W., Powers, and Redbreast all hail from. It is a thrice-distilled single pot still whiskey, but unlike Redbreast it is bottled without an age statement. What’s inside is a blend of whiskeys aged seven to 10 years in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. 12,000 bottles are produced each year.

No bones about it, this whiskey is a delight. Loaded with flavor but balanced to a T, Green Spot hits all the classic Irish hallmarks while retaining its sense of balance.

The nose is spot on (get it?), rich with unripe banana, light honey, chimney soot, and cut grains. The body is more lovely, with toasted marshmallows, very light citrus, caramel, a touch of chocolate, and a big malty finish that comes across a lot like chocolate malt balls when it’s all said and done. Often thought of as “sweeter” than its compatriots, that’s not exactly the case here. Green Spot has sweetness, but it balances out the more savory components, bringing the body right where it ought to be. The spirit is drying as it fades, almost hinting at licorice, which only invites further exploration as that malt character dies like the sunset.

Buy it now.

80 proof.

A / $50 / singlepotstill.com [BUY IT FROM MASTER OF MALT]   [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast 21 Bottle 525x668 Review: Redbreast Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey 21 Years Old

Redbreast is one of the most beloved of high-end Irish whiskeys there is, a triple-pot distilled whiskey made of malted and unmalted barley that wins pretty much every “Best Irish Whiskey” award that comes around. That said, the 12 year old expression has always been a bit too chewy and pungent for my taste, a malty monster in a category prized for being gentle and easygoing.

On the other hand, I respect Redbreast. Different strokes and all. And now a sure-to-be much desired 21 Year Old version is about to hit the market. What can an extra 9 years do to a whiskey that’s already a beast?

Let’s put it this way: If you like Redbreast 12, you’ll love Redbreast 21. All of Redbreast’s classic notes are intact: ultra-ripe banana, coconut husks, and butterscotch, to name but a few. But there’s also burnt honey, coal fires, and a powerful caramel note on the finish. The citrus notes — driven by partial aging in first-fill sherry casks — are particularly present here. No matter what you think about Redbreast, there’s always something new to discover lurking somewhere in a dram of this whiskey.

Rest assured: Redbreast’s DNA runs through this expression like a river, but I’m honestly hard-pressed to find a lot of difference here vs. the 12 year old version. It’s a bit more pungent and funky, but it’s just not overwhelmingly different than the 12. The 12 is just such a massive whiskey already that the extra age simply doesn’t change things as much as it otherwise might. Either way, Redbreast fanatics should give it a try before deciding whether the extra age merits more than twice the price.

92 proof.

A- / $180 / irishdistillers.ie