Review: Hillrock Solera Bourbon, Single Malt, Double Cask Rye, and White Rye

HED Family Slate

When famous distiller Dave Pickerell (ex of Maker’s Mark) opened Hillrock Estate Distillery in upstate New York, he had but one product, a high-rye Bourbon aged in the solera style and finished in oloroso sherry casks. Since then, Hillrock has added three more craft distilled products, all super-local and carefully handmade, to its stable: a single malt, a rye, and a white rye (made in limited quantities). We tasted all three new products and took a fresh look at the originl Bourbon to see if things were holding up.

Thoughts follow.

Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon – This is an update on Hillrock’s crazy solera-aged, oloroso sherry-finished Bourbon. Today I’m finding the sweetness almost overpowering up front: Bit-o-Honey, ripe banana, mandarin oranges, and chewy nougat comprise a complex nose. The body pumps that up further, with notes of pungent coconut, cherry juice, and orange oil. There’s so much going on in this whiskey — and so many flavors outside the norm of Bourbon, sometimes bordering on rum-like — that it can sometimes come across as overwhelming. It’s a mighty curious experience, though, and one that still bears repeating. 92.6 proof. A- / $80

Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey – A New York single malt whiskey, no age statement. Very malty/cereal-focused on the nose, with hints of smoke. There seems to be some fruit in there, but it’s buried under an avalanche of toasted Cheerios. The body offers racy and savory spices, pepper and some cloves, with a growing wood influence racing up behind it. The grain character remains the strongest, however, with lots of well-fired barley rounding out a very youthful but expressive spirit. 86 proof. B / $100

Hillrock Double Cask Rye – Made from estate-grown organic rye, which is aged in traditional oak casks and then finished in secondary casks composed of American oak with a #4 char and 24 months of seasoning. (No actual age statement, though.) The huge level of wood on the nose makes me wonder about the point of that secondary cask finishing. It’s all sawdust and furniture store, dulling the fruit and spice considerably. The palate opens things up a bit, with some butterscotch, caramel apple, and banana bread. It’s actually quite charming in the end, and after the wood wears away a bit (time in glass is good for this, as is water) a more typical essence of rye is revealed. You’ll need to fight for it, though. 90 proof. A- / $90

Hillrock George Washington Rye Whiskey (not pictured) – This is  a white rye, and it’s something pretty unique: “Pot distilled at Hillrock Estate following the General’s original recipe by Mount Vernon Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, each bottle contains an aliquot of whiskey made at the Washingtons’ reconstructed distillery at historic Mount Vernon. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this whiskey supports the educational programs at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” So, in other words, pot-distilled Hillrock rye mixed with a little bit of Mount Vernon rye, bottled unaged. It’s a classic white whiskey, with the focus squarely on the grain, lightly musty, with overtones of new leather, birch bark, tobacco leaf, and freshly turned earth. Sweetness is elusive on this one, but the punchy, roasted grain character — and the touch of history here — make it worth a brief encounter. 86 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

hillrockdistillery.com

Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog: Spirit of Mortimer” Rye Whiskey Single Barrel 2014

WhistlePig-Spirit-of-Mortimer

Clearly, Vermont-based WhistlePig has a stash of barrels of rye aging away in a warehouse, so each year the company can bottle a bit of it and see what happens, while the rest continues to mellow outtakes a little bit of its well-aged rye and bottles it just to see what’s going on. The rest lingers for another year.

This year WhistlePig’s special edition is a “nearly 14 year old” rye — 100% rye, as always — named in honor of the company’s deceased Kune Kune pig and mascot. “The Spirit of Mortimer” is marked not by a name on the label but by a large “M” and a pewter stopper that sits atop the bottle, a winged piglet that honors the deceased Mortimer. (To confuse matters further, the black label, similar in hue to 2012’s WhistlePig 111, merely indicates it’s “The Boss Hog,” akin to last year’s bottling.)

With that, we’re on to the tasting…

There’s ample wood and some campfire smoke on the nose of WhistlePig: Spirit of Mortimer, with hints of apple cider and cinnamon. The body is hefty and chewy, but with a fruitiness that shines through the haze of sawdust and lumber. Cinnamon and clove notes emerge on the racy finish, and while it’s all well-integrated with caramel characteristics at its core, it’s not altogether quite as intriguing as last year’s expression. Fine effort on the whole, however.

118 to 124 proof, depending on batch (our sample was not disclosed). 50 barrels bottled, less than 2,000 cases produced.

A- / $189 / whistlepigwhiskey.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock and Rye

Slow & Low Bottle Shot

Rock & Rye is coming back into vogue as a cocktail, and that’s probably just fine with the folks at Hochstadter’s, who are bottling a premade version of the cocktail called Slow & Low Rock and Rye. (The producer is the same company behind St. Germain, among other recent classics.)

Hochstadter’s takes rye whiskey and flavors it — strongly — with orange and honey (plus a bit of lemon, grapefruit, and horeshound), then bottles the concoction along with plenty of rock candy syrup, which knocks the sweetness into the stratosphere. We sampled a bottle to see what the fuss was all about a century or so ago…

The nose starts off surprisingly perfumed, then that orange peel character starts to push its way to the front. Sharp and sweet, it is punctuated by the earthier honey notes beneath the fruit. The palate is heavy, very heavy, on fruit. Tasted blind (literally blind) I doubt I would be able to peg this as based on whiskey at all, much less rye. Ignore the bottle and you could be drinking a special bottling of Grand Marnier, or perhaps a flavored rum. That’s a long way of saying that the characteristic sweet-and-spice of rye whiskey is largely absent here. What you do get are some vanilla overtones, but these aren’t distinctly whiskeylike. That honeyed orange element is just too powerful to mess with.

Mind you, that’s not a slight. Slow & Low is a flavored whiskey-slash-cocktail in a bottle, and as such the flavor component of that really should shine. That said, Slow & Low is quite the powerhouse, and it’s a bit overwhelming on its own — much more so than any Old Fashioned you’d encounter in a bar or mix up at home. Try it with plenty of ice and maybe a splash of water (or soda) to mellow things out a bit and make it . Also: Mind the extremely wide-mouth bottle. It pours fast!

84 proof.

B / $24 / drinkslowandlow.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Thistle Finch Small Batch White Rye Whiskey

Thistlefinch_039B

This white rye is made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. What about that name? “Pennsylvania Dutch folk art frequently features a bird in it, that, in German, is called a “Distelfink” or Thistle Finch. The bird is a symbol of happiness and good fortune.”

Thistle Finch is made from a mash of 60% rye, 30% wheat, and 10% malted barley — 90% of which is locally sourced. The company notes specifically that it mills its grains to a flour-like consistency (unusual if you’ve ever seen or tasted a typical, chunky whiskey mash), which it claims offers better conversion from starch to sugar and, thus, a more flavorful product. Distilled in a hybrid copper pot still and bottled unaged, all bottles are individually labeled and numbered.

This is an interesting and unusual white whiskey, and there might be something to the distillery’s claims that it extracts more flavor out of a flour-based mash. The nose offers classic white whiskey flavors — brisk cereal, fresh-cut hay, and slight vegetal, bean sprout notes. The body offers all of these, but it’s layered with more complexity than expected. As the grain fades out, in come waves of citrus peel, nougat, lemongrass, and butterscotch — the latter building particularly on the finish. Yes, it’s still young whiskey, but there are complex flavors here that go well beyond the harsh and funky bruising that you tend to get with the typical new make spirit. I’d try it first in a white whiskey sour.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #06.

B+ / $32 / thistlefinch.com

Review: Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon, Rye, and Unblended American Whiskey

To clarify my earlier commentary on the company: Michter’s is an old name that’s reviving its distillery operations — but while that’s getting going, the company is bottling contract-produced spirits under its own label. Label copy on this series of US-1 — aka US*1 — whiskeys is decidedly vague. The bourbon reviewed below, for example, is “made from the highest quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection in a hand-selected charred white oak barrel… it is then further mellowed by our signature filtration.”

Curious.

We’ve reviewed Michter’s before, and no matter how secretive it may be about its sourcing, the company makes a pretty solid product. (More to the point: It tells someone else to make a solid product, and they do.) The three spirits reviewed below comprise three of the four entry-level spirits from Michter’s (the Sour Mash fourth is covered in the review linked above), so we’re finally rounding out the company’s basic offerings. As for the older stock, we’ll just have to bide our time for it.

Thoughts follow.

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon – Aged in new oak for an indeterminate time. A bold and aggressive whiskey. Intensity from the get-go on the nose: Butterscotch, over-ripe banana, creme brulee, and cinnamon. The body takes all that and runs with it, adding brisk oak elements, apple pie notes, dried figs, and a touch of red hot candies. That bit of heat doesn’t last. The finish is seductive and supple, offering a wonderful balance between dusty wood and brown sugar sweetness. An excellent buy, the dearth of data on the spirit notwithstanding. Reviewed: Batch #14C123. 91.4 proof. A / $40

Michter’s US-1 Single Barrel Straight Rye – Aged 36 months-plus in new oak; otherwise no mashbill information is offered. Clear, spicy rye notes on the nose, with a dusting of sawdust. As the body develops, you get lots of caramel apple, more intense wood, and some bitter chocolate notes. While the nose offers tons of promise, frankly I was hoping for more on the palate. What comes across is a rather straightforward whiskey that masks its more interesting elements in lumber. Drinkable and mixable, but short on character. Reviews: Batch #14C118. 84.8 proof. B / $40

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey – This one’s the most mysterious of the bunch — a mystery grain whiskey that is aged (for a mysterious amount of time) not in new oak but in used bourbon barrels. The nose is immediately curious — gingerbread, molasses, and some lumber, but also tinned apples and cinnamon. The body is sweet with milk chocolate and maple notes, I’m thinking a distilled version of Sunday breakfast with some Nestle’s Quik on the menu. This isn’t a bad whiskey but it is a curious one, playing its identity cards close to the vest. Wheat whiskey, perhaps? Why not just say so? No batch information. 83.4 proof. B+ / $40

michters.com

Review: Coppersea New York Raw Rye

Coppersea Bottle Shot (photo by John McJunkin)Coppersea Distilling is a new upstate New York-based craft distiller that’s doing things the old-fashioned way. Based on a farm in the Hudson Valley, the grains are grown locally, floor malted and milled on the premises, distilled, then blended with on-site well water.

With this product, the end result is an unaged rye (75% unmalted rye, 25% malted barley) — a rustic yet surprisingly refined spirit, which master distiller Angus MacDonald describes thusly: “The Raw Rye is what you would have gotten if, around 1825 to 1880, you walked into a bar in upstate New York, and said: whisky.” Just imagine: Frontier drinking right in the backyard of bustling Manhattan!

Cereal notes attack the nostrils from the start, but it’s touched with just a hint of honeycomb and golden syrup. The body builds on that, adding layers of complexity that I hadn’t thought I’d find. Notes of flinty stonework, mustard seed, tahini, and some burnt caramel character follow. That’s a lot to swallow, but Coppersea turns a melange of flavors into a fairly cohesive whole — at least for a white whiskey. You won’t escape that brash youthfulness here, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

90 proof. Best with some water.

B+ / $70 / coppersea.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2014 Edition

buffalo trace 2014 BTAC

 

Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection needs no introduction, I’m sure — this is one of the most well-respected and sought-after annual whiskey collections on the market. Closely allocated and tough to find, you’re best off starting your hunt now. These releases formally hit the market in late September/early October.

Thoughts on the 2014 lineup follow.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – It’s an open secret that Sazerac 18 has been sitting around in a stainless steel vat for years and doesn’t really change (effects of oxidation notwithstanding), making this less of a special release and more of a limited allocation of a very special spirit. Sazzy 18 rarely fails to disappoint. This year is no exception, with the whiskey showing a woody — yet fresh — nose, cherries jubilee up front on the body, and a finish that takes you to places of marzipan, apple pie, and streudel. Watch for apple cider notes to come along after you think the finish has faded away. 90 proof. A

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – This edition of Eagle Rare 17 is a vatting of whiskeys from the second, third, and sixth floors of Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse I and K. Aged “nearly two decades,” according to the company — so as with last year, it may be a bit older than 17 years. This one’s a smooth operator, not quite the burly old guard that it can sometimes present as. Instead, it’s all silky caramels, bittersweet chocolate, Bing cherry, and graham crackers. Some spicier notes of cloves and allspice develop in the finish. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – The one you’ve been waiting for. The bruiser of the bunch. The hottest bourbon that isn’t named Pappy. It’s telling that the Stagg is set apart from the rest of the batch in the photo above, I think. This is a monster of a whiskey. Just look at the depth of color compared to the other whiskeys in that lineup — and remember, there are some 18+ year old whiskeys in there! As always, this is the kind of whiskey that, as grandma used to say, would put herr on yer chest, and at 138.1 proof it’s nearly a return to the heady days of 2012 and prior, when the whiskey regularly hit 70% alcohol. Fear not the water on this one — a selection of barrels from warehouses C, H, I, K, L, P, and Q distilled in 1998 (making it 16 years old). You can douse it 1:1, water to whiskey, and still get plenty of its character. And that would include tobacco, (very) dark chocolate, fresh roasted coffee bean, slate, and pencil lead. A smattering of spices arrive in time for the finish — cinnamon and cloves, the usual stuff — which help to season what is, as always, a dark, mammoth, brooding whiskey. This year, Buffalo Trace has just about nailed it. Stagg is always a tough nut to crack — and my palate tends to prefer more nuanced spirits — but the sheer depth of its flavor has me finding myself drawn more to this release than it has in recent years. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – A massive blazer, this is the hottest release of Weller in history. This is a 12 year old bourbon from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th floors of warehouses D, K, and L — basically a mutt from all over the place. An initial rush of smoke starts things off with thoughts of log cabins and a touch of mothball. The palate settles down after adding significant amounts of water, ultimately revealing some plum, chocolate, and coconut — but in the end the wood and smoky qualities take hold, pushing everything else out of mind. 140.2 proof. B

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Last year Jim Murray named the 2013 Handy Rye his #1 whiskey in the world. This created a massive run on Handy, despite the fact that no sane person would ever name this cask strength rye — typically 6 years old, as it is again this year — the best whiskey in the world. 2014’s Handy was aged on the fifth floor of warehouse M and arrives at a fairly typical strength for this spirit. This year’s expression exudes classic rye notes — lots of roasted grain character, chewy scorched cereal notes, some caramel, some baking spice, and a lengthy, campfire finish. Over time, some curious notes come forth — I can describe them only as fresh upholstery. Ample water is a must. I like it fine, but it frankly doesn’t hold a candle to the Sazerac 18 — which will probably be a hell of a lot easier to find thanks to Mr. Murray. 129.2 proof. B+

$80 each / greatbourbon.com

Review: Tap Rye Port Finished Canadian Rye Whisky

Tap-rye-White

Astute readers might recall Tap 357 Maple Rye Whisky — made with maple syrup, natch — which we reviewed a few years ago. Now Tap is back, ditching the 357 for its second product, a Canadian rye that’s been intriguingly finished in Port wine barrels.

Limited production information is available. This is a blend of pot-distilled Canadian ryes aged up to 8 years in barrel. A limited edition, the company says it will not be produced again after this production run is sold out. No mashbill information is available, but the whisky is finished in Port barrels and then gets a touch of actual Port wine added to the final product before cold filtration.

All of that aside, I can readily report that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree here — or rather, the sap doesn’t drip far from it. The nose is immediately full of maple syrup and cinnamon-raisin oatmeal. I would have guessed it was a flavored whiskey if I didn’t know better. Exotic nose aside, the body is gentle and indistinct, much like Tap 357, offering a fairly simple blended whisky experience that features mild grains, gentle wood notes, and light touches of brown sugar and burnt caramel. Port? Maybe you catch a touch of raisins on the nose, but otherwise the dessert wine’s distinctive character, so amazing when done right as a whiskey finish, is all but absent in the finished product here.

84 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Willett Family Estate Straight Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old

willettrye

 

With Willett’s renaissance running high, people have been waiting with anticipation for the first 100% rye offering from master distiller Drew Kulsveen’s new operations at the distillery.  Thankfully, patience has paid off and the whiskey was worth the wait. This small batch rye is like a rookie baseball player stepping up to the plate and hitting a walk-off home run at his first major league at-bat. Don’t be deceived by the label’s youthful age statement: this bottle presents a maturity that belies a rye aged only two years. It’s immediately evident in the nose; where there’s a wild complexity of citrus and spice that proceeds to a dose of floral notes. Tasting is another matter altogether: there’s an immediate hot punch usually reserved for rye spirits 4 to 6 years older, with wood and cinnamon giving way to a finish generous with fruit and mint that lingers for a pleasantly long time.

This is just the opening volley for something potentially incredible happening down the road in Bardstown (an expression with a Grand Marnier finish is on tap for later this fall), and as a bonus we get to reap the benefits of time. As the stock gets older, it will be interesting to mark the contrast between younger and older siblings of the same stock. If this two-year rye is indicative of things to come in the future, get ready for the media myth-making maelstrom to catapult the Willett brand into the stratosphere.

109 Proof.

A- / $40 / kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherbone Bourbon

With over a dozen spirits on offer, Three Oaks, Michigan-based Journeyman Distillery has a specific focus on craft whiskeys, bottling six expressions of the stuff in its permanent lineup. Here we review three — all young and punchy, and all worth sampling at least once.

Thoughts follow.

Silver_sqJourneyman Distillery Silver Cross Whiskey – Made from a mash of equal parts rye, wheat, corn, and barley. No age statement. The nose is youthful and grain-focused, with citrus notes and some sea salt character along with touches of menthol. The body, as you might expect, has a ton going on. Alongside some surprisingly supple grains, I get notes of chocolate caramels, butterscotch, and Bit-O-Honey. It’s a rustic liquid dessert all the way — unusual for a young craft whiskey. A drop or two of water goes a long way toward smoothing out its rough edges and coaxing the sweetness forward. 1% of proceeds from the sale of this product go to a local golf-oriented charity. 90 proof. A- / $50

Journeyman Distillery Ravenswood Rye – An organic blend of Minnesota rye and Michigan wheat, aged in 15 gallon barrels. No age statement. Notes of licorice and phenol on the nose, settling into an intense herbal character. The body is racy and on par with craft expectations: Very young, punchy, and heavy on granary notes. Give it some time, though. As with Silver Cross, notes of chocolate and caramel emerge, along with touches of orange peel, quinine, and a touch of Bing cherries. Less enticing than the Silver Cross (though, againFeatherbone_750, water is of benefit here), but a solid effort. Reviewed: Batch #29, bottle #50. 90 proof. B / $50

Journeyman Distillery Featherbone Bourbon – Named for the Featherbone Factory, a Prohibition-era factory that made buggy whips and corsets and in which Journeyman is now based. Made of midwest organic corn, Michigan wheat, a little rye, and malted barley. Noage information offered. Credible craft bourbon here. It’s frontier style stuff, with a grainy, rustic attack, but the body settles down to reveal lots of vanilla, milk chocolate, and a touch of hazelnut. As with the Silver Cross, Featherbone eschews fruit in favor of dessert, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 90 proof. B+ / $45  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

journeymandistillery.com