Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric Bourbon 21 Years Old

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle Shot

Last year, Rhetoric 20 Years Old launched and found a foothold as one of the best releases of its Orphan Barrel project to date. But Rhetoric 20 was just the beginning. That was the first volley in a series of Rhetorics that will launch every year, each a year old, culminating with Rhetoric 25 in 2019.

All the whiskeys are made from the same mashbill, at the same distillery (Bernheim), and are likely to be bottled around the same 90 proof. The only difference here is age: Each year, one year older. Just like you, actually.

Comparing Rhetoric 21 Year Old side by side with the Rhetoric 20 Year Old, it is immediately less sharp and less citrusy on the nose. Rhetoric 20 offers some pungent alcohol notes at the start, while Rhetoric 21 is remarkably smoother around the edges and more “ready to go” out of the gate.

On the palate, Rhetoric 21 offers a bit more dusky spice, and offers a more leathery palate with a woody edge, featuring clear black and red pepper notes on the tongue. That woody element is clear, but it’s not overwhelming in the least, giving the whiskey a bolder vanilla profile with some banana and coconut notes thrown in for good measure.

I enjoyed Rhetoric 20 but have to say that Rhetoric 21 is an incremental and quite delightful improvement — and a considerably different experience. Now in very limited release.


Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof

Here’s what’s hard to believe: Jack Daniel’s has never released a barrel strength whiskey. That’s changing, with the release of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof, the company’s first-ever cask strength offering.

The whiskey isn’t a terribly complicated idea: Take the JD Single Barrel Select (which we only just reviewed a few weeks ago) and don’t water it down. Single Barrel is a consistent 94 proof, but these are bottled at whatever the cask gives you, ranging from 125 to 140 proof, depending on the bottle you get.

Naturally, we can only review the sample we received, and individual bottles are going to vary widely. As for this bottling, it’s an easy winner. The nose offers maple syrup, caramel sauce, and a little barrel char. On the body, it doesn’t drink like something that is 2/3rds alcohol. In fact, it really needs no water at all to be approachable, though less seasoned whiskey drinkers may want to add a splash. The palate is rich with more of that caramel, butterscotch, a touch of cloves and a lengthy, vanilla-fueled finish. Big, bold body — but it’s not overpowering in the slightest. The char isn’t overly evident here, which lets the sweetness really shine. All told, it’s a fantastic whiskey that stands as arguably the best thing ever to come out of the JD empire.

Reviewed: Warehouse 2-45, 4th floor. 133.7 proof.

A / $65 /

Review: Journeyman Kissing Cousins and Three Oaks Single Malt

journeyman kissing cousinsMichigan’s Journeyman Distillery continues to crank out the whiskey, and recently we received two new offerings for review. Thoughts follow.

Journeyman Distillery Kissing Cousins Whiskey – This is a selection of Featherbone bourbon that is finished in a Wyncroft Winery 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel. An annual release, this is the third edition of Kissing Cousins. The finished product is a blend of sweet, bourbon-driven vanilla notes, mushroomy earth, and a bit of popcorn on the finish. The wine barrel finishing tempers the rustic character of Featherbone quite a bit, but still leaves behind plenty of chewy grains and coal-dust notes, ensuring you don’t mistake this for the mass produced stuff. 90 proof. B+ / $33 (375ml)

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt – This one’s a real surprise. This is the second batch of Three Oaks (the first was in 2013), a 100% organic malted barley whiskey with an exotic aging regimen. As the distillery writes, “The spirit spends its first year and a half in used Featherbone Bourbon barrels. From there it is moved into used Road’s End Rum barrels for nearly a year and then is finished for two months in used port casks imported from northern Portugal. The whiskey spends a total of 32 months in the barrels.” The resulting spirit is mahogany brown, with an aroma of coffee, dark chocolate, coconut, and cloves. On the palate, it’s intensely rich, with clear port wine notes, a sweet backbone of caramel and Bananas Foster, and some roasted grain notes on the finish. There’s plenty of complexity here, with echoes of toasted coconut, rum raisin, and hints of amari. Hard to put down and engaging through and through, I have no trouble stating that this is one of the best single malts being produced in America today. 90 proof. A / $47

Review: Laphroaig 15 Years Old Scotch Whisky

Laphroaig_15YO_BottleImageThough it was introduced 30 years ago, Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a bottling that has come and gone over the years. For a short while, however, it’s back, with this expression being re-released in honor of the company’s 200th anniversary. That said, nothing has technically changed with the production of the spirit vs. older bottlings, but this one does at least come with bonus sentimental value.

Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a quieter expression of the spirit, where it’s just finding its balance between the peat blast it offers at 10 years old and the more fruity notes that emerge at 18 and 25 years old.

At this point in its maturity, the whisky offers a smoky nose that also showcases gentle honey alongside notes of yellow flowers. The peat however is dialed back significantly, creating the essence of a branch of mesquite that’s been thrown atop a barbecue pit. Citrus notes are present on the palate but they’re understated — a squeeze of lemon and a shaving of grapefruit peel — with some simple syrup adding a layer of sweetness atop the delicate layer of smoke.

At just 86 proof the whisky is remarkably easy-drinking, almost overly so — it sips almost like a mezcal-based Paloma, mixing citrus and smoke into a beautiful, satisfying whole.

Really lovely. Snap it up if you see it.


Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Forged Oak Bourbon 15 Years Old

Orphan Barrel_Forged Oak Bottle Shot

The fifth release in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series is one of the best in the lineup. “Found by foraging the Stitzel-Weller warehouses,” it was produced at Bernheim in 1997-1998 from a mash of 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye. Barrel age is 15 years.

I’m not sure what “Forged Oak” is supposed to refer to, but the whiskey that bears its name doesn’t really evoke either of the words. On the nose, there’s lots going on: dense vanilla, gingerbread, and then some exotic stuff: namely distinct lemongrass and coconut notes (I start craving Thai food immediately). The body includes that vanilla punch plus some tropical notes, then a sweet butterscotch push as it builds on the palate. The finish takes the bourbon into darker territory — more lumber and a touch of Madeira. That may sound like a bummer after all the ephemeral fun that’s come before, but it’s actually a nice counterbalance to what’s come before — and what follows in the next sip.

90.5 proof.

A / $75 /

Review: Woodford Reserve Distillery Series – Sweet Mash Redux and Double Double Oaked

woodford double double oaked

This year, Woodford Reserve takes a page from the Buffalo Trace playbook and is launching a series of one-off, limited release whiskeys for our fun and enjoyment. They aren’t quite as “experimental” as the BT Experimental series, but they are also not as unique as Woodford’s annually-released Master’s Collection whiskeys (which remain a separate entity).

Per Woodford:

The Woodford Reserve Distillery will release up to three expressions of the Distillery Series concurrently at various times throughout the year. The inaugural two offerings, Double Double Oaked and Sweet Mash Redux, will be available for purchase at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY, with a suggested retail price of $49.99 for a 375ml bottle. These small-batch offerings range from finished whiskies to straight bourbons and other unique spirits. Master Distiller Chris Morris has spent the last several years developing and perfecting the individual expressions within the Distillery Series which, in true Woodford Reserve form, offer consumers a first-hand look into the brand’s creative dexterity. Made with the same approach as other Woodford Reserve products that focus on adjusting one or more of the five sources of flavor, Distillery Series expressions represent alterations across four of the five sources: grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.

In case you missed it: These are only available in half bottles, sold directly from the Woodford distillery in Kentucky.

So let’s taste these two inaugural releases, eh?

Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Sweet Mash Redux – Sweet Mash was an early Master’s Collection release (2008) and now it’s back as a Distillery Series release. It’s explained: “While traditional Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is a sour mash bourbon, modifying the fermentation process to include a non-soured mash creates a bourbon of higher pH effect and heightened fruit notes throughout.” I’ll leave that as it stands, and move on to the tasting. It’s a curious spirit, with a nose that doesn’t exactly scream fruit. Rather, it showcases notes of lumberyard, dense grains, and some toasted spices. The palate does run to fruit, but I find it more in the raisin/fruitcake arena. I catch prunes alongside some crystallized ginger and clementine oranges, but then the wood and cereal combo come back and come back strong. Curious, but not my favorite expression of Woodford. 90.4 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Double Double Oaked – Take Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, then finish it for an additional year in its second, heavily toasted lightly charred new oak barrel, that’s Double Double Oaked. Tasting Double Oaked today I find it quite a delight, sweet and surprisingly delicate for something with such a scary name. Double Double Oaked then, what might that be like? The nose is considerably more wood-focused, it turns out, and initially more reminiscent of rack Woodford than the original Double Oaked. Sip it and give it time however and it develops quite a sweet intensity on the palate, with strong notes of butterscotch and fresh cinnamon rolls. The finish offers some curious notes. Camphor? Cherry pits? Hard to peg, but I can say that while I like it quite a bit, the standard Double Oaked has a touch better integration and balance. 90.4 proof. A- / $50 (375ml)

Review: Four Kings Rye 2015 Craft Collaboration

four kings rye

Last year, four craft distillers got together and made a collaborative bourbon by vatting together their own craft spirits into one mega-craft bourbon called Four Kings. (Don’t go searching for a review, we didn’t sample it.) This year, the quartet is back at it but is producing a rye instead.

The four distilleries include Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa. Each contributed 30 gallons of rye whiskey into the final blend of Four Kings Rye.

There’s not a lot of information about what goes into each of the four ryes, but that probably wouldn’t be of much use, anyway. What we have here seems to be a craft spirit that is fully in keeping with the exuberant style of American craft whiskeys — at least at first, anyway.

On the nose, intense cereal notes start things off, then sharp citrus, menthol, and some hospital notes. The palate offers a lot more nuance once you push past that grainy introduction, with baking spices, gingerbread, baked apples, and well-integrated wood tannins. It’s a much more elevated experience than the brash and youthful nose would indicate, with a surprising depth of flavor to offer. Give it a try.

B / $50 / no formal website

Review: Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection from SF Wine Trading

four roses private sf

Wow, another Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection offering in the space of a month and our third to date. This one hails from the San Francisco Wine Trading Company, which I bet you can guess the location of.

SF Wine Trading’s Four Roses bottling is an OESK (20% rye with a lightly spicy yeast component) bottled at the age of 9 years, 10 months. The distillery’s 2012 Single Barrel release was also an OESK release (though a bit older at 12 years in barrel), which I’ll compare to this bottling in a bit.

The SF Wine Trading release is hot and restrained on the nose, but it’s just playing its cards close to the vest. Keep sniffing and notes of cola and coffee emerge, plus the telltale vanilla and lumberyard notes. On the tongue, the whiskey envelops the palate beautifully with lots of sweetness, butterscotch and toffee notes, gentle wood (and a touch of smoke). Layers of red berry fruit, raisin, and a touch of mint. (Juleps, anyone?)

Surprisingly, it’s a considerably different whiskey than the 2012 Single Barrel, which offers more wood, restrained sweetness, and some curious earth tones. A few extra years in a barrel really can change a man, they say. No doubt: The private bottling from SF Wine Trading wins this round!

113 proof.

A / $70 /

Review: Gordon & MacPhail Imperial 1995

imperial 1995This was my most prized purchase in Edinburgh, where I nabbed the last bottle from Royal Mile Whiskies. Imperial was a Speyside distillery, opened in 1897 and shuttered in 1998 (and demolished in 2013), making this one of a dwindling number of bottles still available.

Bottled in 2014, this is 19 year old Imperial, which has seen at least some time in sherry casks.

The nose is delicate, offering gentle cereal and mixed florals, all backed by easygoing, sherried, orange marmalade character. White peaches emerge on the nose with continued time in the glass. On the palate, it’s a quiet spirit that showcases roasted barley alongside nougat and marzipan, clove-studded oranges, and a soothing finish that keeps the sharp citrus notes dancing on the body. Hang on for a bit and a touch of smoky char makes an appearance as the whisky fades away.

Enjoyable and understated.

86 proof.

A- / $95 (70cl) /

Review: Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky

AlbertaRye_Bottle_HIRESAlberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is so complicated it is typically accompanied by a flowchart explaining the convoluted method by which it is made. I’m going to try to digest this oddball Canadian rye for you… but don’t feel bad if you get lost. Really it’s all about what’s in the glass in the end.

Alberta Dark Batch starts with two ryes. One is from a pot still, aged six years in new #4 char American oak barrels. One is from a column still, aged 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels.

These two ryes are blended 50-50. This rye blend now becomes 91% of what goes into the Dark Batch bottle. The other 9%? 8% is bourbon (provenance unknown which is Old Grand Dad). 1% is sherry (provenance also unknown). Yes, it’s really 1% sherry. No, not 1% whiskey finished in a sherry barrel. Yes, real sherry. Yes, like the wine. I know.

My first encounter with Dark Batch at a recent whiskey show wasn’t a hit, but I don’t think I was prepared for the assault on the senses that Dark Batch makes, particularly when compared to some more delicate and gentle alternatives. Now, Dark Batch has grown on me at least a bit — though it’s still certainly not my favorite whisky.

Let’s start with the name. Dark Batch is right: This whisky pours a dark tea color, almost a mahogany depending on the light. On the nose, it’s exotic and complex, with notes of coffee, tree bark, evergreen needles, burnt caramel, and blackened toast. All dark, dense, earthy overtones — made even pushier thanks to its somewhat higher 90 proof.

On the palate, even more oddities are in store for you, starting with distinct sherry notes — surprising, considering it’s just the 1 percent. I guess that was enough. There’s more coffee character, plus some red raspberry fruit — particularly evident as the finish approaches, taking the whiskey into sweeter and sweeter territory. This lingers for a considerable amount of time, growing in pungency to the point where it evokes notes of prune juice. As it fades, it coats the palate in an almost medicinal way — which isn’t such a great thing as you finish your glass, but hey, at least I haven’t had to cough all evening.

90 proof.