Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-

Review: Barrell Bourbon

barrell bourbon

Barrell Bourbon is bottled in the heart of Bourbon Country, in Bardstown, Kentucky… but it’s made somewhere else. That’s what makes this stuff a real rarity: Tennessee Bourbon that’s bottled in Kentucky.

What is known is this: The whiskey is a mash of 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, aged for five years. It’s a single barrel release (hence the name), and each bottle is individually numbered and bottled at cask strength — 60.8% abv for batch #1, which is still on the market.

So, how about the whiskey?

There’s corn on the nose, along with notes of cherry, toffee, very ripe banana, and wood char. The body follows suit, with popcorn rising surprisingly high for a five-year-old spirit. It’s heavily wooded with a hefty amount of char, prominently featuring sawdust notes that build as it opens up over time in the glass. Otherwise this is a pretty straightforward and young-drinking whiskey. The fruitier notes you can pick up on the nose remain buried beneath a mountain of lumber and those vegetal, corn-heavy flavors, making my wonder if this whiskey wasn’t bottled too soon… or, perhaps, too late.

Interesting stuff, though, with points for uniqueness.

121.6 proof.

Reviewed: Batch #1, bottled #2313.

B / $70 / barrellbourbon.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Jack Daniel’s Rested Rye

Jack Daniel's Rested Rye - bottle shot

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: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire Bottle

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: Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon

belle meade bourbonA craft distillery is reborn in Nashville, Tennessee… and they’re putting “the B word” on the label!

Belle Meade is, as the story goes, a relaunch of a pre-Prohibition bourbon brand that was owned by one Charles Nelson. Today, two of his great-great-great grandsons are bringing the brand back, with the goal of producing small batch whiskey that approximates their ancestor’s recipe.

That’s the idea, anyway. At present, this is high-rye, slightly overproof bourbon (no age statement) sourced from Indiana’s MGP, in advance of the Nelsons finishing up their own on-site distillery, hopefully sometime this year. Instead, Belle Meade is something of a first volley to get investors’ — and drinkers’ — palates wet.

As for the juice, it’s got a quite mild nose, offering notes of applesauce, cinnamon, and grapefruit skins alongside straightforward wood barrel character. On the palate, the body is moderate with that rye giving off a lot of baking spice, mint chocolate, and cedar wood planks. On the whole it’s pleasant and balanced but a little on the thin side, coming up just a little short in the power department.

90.4 proof.

B+ / $39 / greenbrierdistillery.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s White Rabbit Saloon Whiskey

jack daniel's white rabbit saloon

A seasonally-available, limited edition version of JD, White Rabbit Saloon is bottled and named in honor of the 120th anniversary of the White Rabbit Saloon, a Lynchburg bar owned by Jack Daniel himself. There’s no specific information on how this blend differs from Old No. 7, but it is bottled at 86 proof instead of the standard 80.

A softer expression of Jack Daniel’s, White Rabbit has a distinct cookie-like character to it. Think chocolate wafer cookies and milk, with a healthy slug of vanilla to back it up. The higher proof gives the body a little more grip in the mouth, while pushing the sometimes scratchy coal notes of black label JD out of the picture. The finish is lingering and sultry-sweet, offering a marshmallow character in both sweetness and chewiness — with just the barest hint of popcorn on the back end. I like it better than standard Jack quite a bit.

A- / $25 / jackdaniels.com

Review: George Dickel White Whisky Foundation No. 1

Dickel No. 1 (2)

Just when it seems that everyone who’s anyone in American distilling has launched a white whiskey, well, you realize there’s room for one more.

The latest coming out the gate is Dickel, which is bringing its Tennessee Whiskey — bourbon-style mash of 84% corn, 8% rye, and 8% malted barley, but charcoal-filtered before bottling — to the unaged universe. Appropriately known as George Dickel Foundation No. 1, it’s the base spirit that’s used for all of Dickel’s aged bottlings.

No. 1 doesn’t launch until January 2014, but we got a sneak peek. Thoughts follow.

Pure popcorn, straight from the movie theater holding bin. Some peanut notes add intrigue to the nose, but otherwise this is the essence of corn whiskey. The body is surprisingly easygoing — that charcoal filtering is surprisingly effective at washing away those often overbearing raw alcohol notes — though No. 1 makes few bones about its grainy makeup. Whether you’re thinking about fresh popping corn or chawing on Corn Nuts, the analogy is about the same. Wait, did I mention the corn?

You can really taste the family resemblance between Dickel No. 1 with Dickel No. 8, which makes sense because it’s the youngest and simplest of the aged whiskeys Dickel offers. As the Dickel family gets older in No. 12 and Barrel Select, the vanilla notes driven by the barrel begin to crowd the corniness out.

As for No. 1, it’s a totally worthwhile white dog, and the charcoal filtering is a distinct advantage here. Better yet, it’s  not wildly overpriced like Jack Daniel’s clear offering is. (That said, Dickel rarely costs more than 20 bucks a bottle.) All in all: It isn’t as tasty as the aged stuff — white dog rarely is — but it’s a solid white lightning.

91 proof.

B / $22 / dickel.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select

sinatra bottle and giftbox 003

 

Many contemporary drinkers are surprised to hear that Frank Sinatra was a Jack Daniel’s man — through and through, that’s really all the legendary singer drank. But in the revised Sinatra mythos, many now think of Ol’ Blue Eyes as holding a martini, with Jack Daniel’s seen as a commoners’ drink. Back then, that wasn’t the case, of course. Sinatra even kept a stash of JD on his plane and was buried with a bottle when he died.

If you’re forgotten about the Sinatra-JD connection, this special release will remind you of how it all went down. In honor of the legendary crooner, Jack has released a special bottling of Old No. 7. Previously for sale only at travel retail, Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select is now hitting eight major U.S. metro areas in general release. (They are: Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, San Francisco, New Jersey and Tennessee.)

The whiskey is different from standard Jack Daniel’s in a key way: A portion of the spirit is aged in special “Sinatra barrels,” which feature staves that are cut with a sort of “speed bump” pattern of peaks and valleys on the inside. This exposes more of the whiskey to wood than a standard stave, ostensibly giving it a richer, woodier profile. These Sinatra-barreled whiskeys are mingled with standard JD to produce the final blend.

So, how is it? JD Sinatra Select offers a honey/butterscotch nose that’s immediately appealing, just touched with popcorn notes. The body is classic Jack, dense with vanilla caramel character, light orange zest, and malted milk. That corny character rolls along after a while, building on the finish. All in all, an excellent example of Jack at its finest, rich without being overly wooded, young without tasting brash.

The price is a bit hard to swallow, mind you. At $165 for a liter bottle, it’s a good 6 times the price of a regular liter bottle of JD. You do get a fancier label and box, an orange stopper with a fedora on it, and a neat little booklet about Sinatra (and it’s 90 proof instead of the usual 80 proof of Old No. 7). Does that add up to $165? Even Sinatra may have balked at that one.

90 proof.

A- / $165 (one liter) / jackdaniels.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Jack Daniel’s Winter Jack Tennessee Cider

jack daniel's winter jackI first encountered Winter Jack several years ago on a trip to Germany. There it was, this curious bottle set on the back bar in an outdoor Christmas market, where it was subtitled an “Apple Whiskey Punch.” Turns out the holiday-themed spirit has been popular in that country for a few years, and now, Winter Jack is finally making its way from Deutschland to America, rebranded as a “Tennessee Cider.” Same difference, I suppose, and in fact it’s the same product, just rebranded for its American release.

Winter Jack is a mix of apple cider liqueur and classic Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Emphasis, as you’ll see below, is on the cider liqueur.

The spirit pours a very pale, Chardonnay-like color. The nose offers cinnamon, applesauce, and honey, but it isn’t overpowering… a lot like sticking your nose into a glass of your kids’ juice. On the body, initially it’s quite mild as the nose would indicate, offering a simple apple juice/cider character that slowly builds to a more tart, fresh apple-driven finish. The spirit leaves you with quite a bit of sweetness, which is where the barest touches of caramel and vanilla show up, the thumbprint of JD turning out to be quite a latent one on this spirit. The overall effect is appealing, though it doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. In the end, Winter Jack clearly prefers to let the cider liqueur do more of the talking, which is fine, I guess. You can always add more whiskey to suit your tastes, after all.

Intended to be served warm.

30 proof. Check the website below for availability in your state.

B / $18 / jackdaniels.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2013

WhiskyFest 2013 is now in the books, and my what an embarrassment of riches this show was. While I heard grousing about the show not having as many hits as usual (most of the independent Scotch bottlers like Samaroli were absent), I managed to find a ton of them. Driven this year perhaps by a ruthless attempt to avoid lesser products (one industry bigwig, with all seriousness, suggested I give Johnnie Walker Red Label a try), it didn’t take much doing to suss out some really great whiskeys being poured. Who can complain when Julian Van Winkle is pouring his best stuff, after all?

It was quite the global event this year, with numerous whiskeys from Japan, Canada, and Ireland on tap that you don’t normally see at shows. And more and more craft distillers, like Masterson’s and Smooth Ambler, are taking to shows to give people a taste of something new.

Anyway, as usual it was a great evening with old friends and new ones – both of the whiskey and the human variety. Thoughts follow.

American Whiskey / Bourbon
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Ten / A- / some menthol, caramel with a dusty finish
Masterson’s 12 Year Wheat / A- / big wood, cherries, a fun whisky
Masterson’s 10 Year Barley / C- / funky mint and rubber notes, unripe banana, not at all to my liking tonight
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit / A- / lovely sweetness without being saccharine, tried just to say hi to Jimmy and Eddie Russell, both pouring
Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select / A- / a new limited edition from JD, the same spirit but aged in barrels that have been “grooved” with extra cuts to expose more wood surface; as expected, this is like JD, but woodier; not bad at all
Pappy Van Winkle 15 Years Old / A / still maturing, with a little burn
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Years Old / A+ / Pappy at its best, raisins, wood, big body… just perfect
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A / you can finally see the age on this spirit at 23, where the balance is just starting to turn toward too much wood

Scotch Whisky
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve / B / chewy barley and rubber bands
The Balvenie Single Barrel 12 Years Old / A- / cake, nuts, smoke, malt
Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice / A+ / best spirit at the show, aged in American oak for 21 years, then finished in Chateau Yquem barrels; liquid gold, sweet and savory in perfect balance
Bruichladdich Black Art 3 22 Years Old / B+ / always a funky expression, bristly and huge this year, with a smoky, old-world character
Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1 / A- / is Octomore losing its ability to shock me? This struck me as plenty peaty but not overdone, with evergreen and charcoal notes
Buchanan’s Red Seal / A- / Buchanan’s first WhiskyFest; a peaty blend with some citrus and sweetness, good balance
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition / B+ / a new release from Cutty; very mild, surprisingly malty, with fresh grain and wood notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1973 / A / hearty sherry character, drinking beautifully
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1983 / B / dusty with lots of wood; couldn’t be more different than the ‘73
Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend / B / overcooked, unthrilling
Compass Box Delilah’s 20th Anniversary Limited Edition / B+ / bottled as a tribute to a famed Chicago area bar, matured partly in new oak barrels (rare for Scotch); bourbon-like character, peppery with lots of wood, caramel notes

Irish Whiskey
Jameson’s Rarest Vintage Reserve / A / always a standout, this beautiful bottling (~26 years old) features lovely spicy notes beneath a sweet core
Midleton Barry Crockett Edition / A- / a vatting of 7 to 22 year old spirits; more rustic than the Jameson, chewy grain notes, still fun

Canadian Whisky
Wiser’s 18 Years Old / A- / mellow, well developed, sultry finish
Lot No. 40 / B- / a 100% rye bottling, a powerhouse of rubber, pungent basil and cherry notes

Japanese Whiskey
Hakushu Heavily Peated / B+ / not at all “heavy” in my mind, good balance with citrus notes
Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years Old / B+ / ample cereal notes
Nikka Taketsuru 12 Years Old / A / great balance of grain and honey, a standout

Brandy
Gran Duque De Alba XO 18 Years Old / A- / Spanish brandy; big coffee and licorice notes; intriguing and powerful
Gran Duque De Alba Oro 25 Years Old / B+ / a little overblown, same character as the XO, but just too much, too hoary