Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Triticale and Six Row Barley

JB_SC_Harvest_TriticaleIt’s been over a year since Jim Beam announced the Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection (see here, here, and here), a series of six bourbons that include an unusual grain — or a standard grain in an unusual proportion — in the creation of the whiskey. Now, the last two whiskeys are here, which include triticale and six row barley in the mash, respectively.

Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye that is starting to show up in distillery products of late. Beam must have gotten a big jump on this trend considering, as with the other Harvest Bourbon Collection bottlings, the whiskey is bottled at 11 years old.

Six-row barley is a type of barley, of course. Unlike two-row barley, which is used primarily in malted barley components, six-row is said to produce a grainier note to the mash, particularly when used in beer.

Let’s dig into these last two releases and see how they turn out. As usual, both are 90 proof.

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Triticale – Racy on the nose, very rye-like, with cloves, nutmeg, and some red pepper, plus ample vanilla underneath. On the palate, it’s surprisingly easygoing — perhaps this is the wheat component of the hybrid showing through — offering gentle notes of baked dessert pastries, apple pie, and a little mint chocolate on the finish. A simpler style up front, it reveals more charms as it opens up over time. Give it that time and see for yourself. B+

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Six Row Barley – The big question: Does more grain character come through with this experiment? I think it does, but so much time in barrel means it plenty tempered by wood. On the nose, it’s surprisingly heavy with alcoholic burn, then menthol and some fennel/licorice notes. The body is almost brutish — which is surprising, considering barley has the opposite reputation — tight and holding back, eventually giving up butterscotch, buttered popcorn, and some of those promised grainy notes, showing here in the form of buttered, toasted wheat bread. Despite all of this, the whole thing feels a bit undercooked, which is strange considering its age. Of all the HBC releases, this is the one whiskey that could probably stand another few years in the barrel. B-

each $50 (375ml) /

Review: A. Smith Bowman Abraham Bowman High Rye Bourbon

ABW Hi Rye BourbonThe Sazerac-adjunct A. Smith Bowman Distillery is out with its 12th release in the Abraham Bowman line — a high rye expression distilled in September 2007 and bottled in July 2015. That makes it seven years and nine months old (technically speaking). Don’t try calling your local liquor store for a handle of it: This limited edition will largely be available only in its home state of Virginia.

The nose is very heavily woody — going into this blind I would have guessed this was a significantly older bourbon. Undernotes of greenery and some fruit are present, but all are outweighed by the wood.

The body tells another story, and here some fruit finds its footing. Orange and plum mingle with milk chocolate notes, ample caramel, and burnt marshmallow. There’s not as much spice as you might expect, but it kicks in later in the game. The wood notes are present but it isn’t nearly as domineering as on the nose. Here it makes for a well-integrated companion to a nicely crafted spirit.

Abraham Bowman High Rye doesn’t gel quite as well as I’d like, but it’s easy to enjoy and makes for interesting conversation. Give it a spin should you find yourself in Old Dominion!

100 proof.

B+ / $70 /

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015 Edition

OF BB 2015

At this time of year we celebrate two big birthdays: Brown-Forman founder Garvin Brown, and yours truly.

Only one of us gets a “birthday bourbon” in his honor, though. Today we tuck into the 2015 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, a 12 year old bottling, in keeping with past expressions. Old Fo notes that this batch was all matured in the same warehouse instead of at multiple sites, and near a heat cycling duct, where it was exposed to very high temperatures.

The 2015 edition has a sharp nose, almost astringent as it reveals menthol, burnt sugar, and some hospital character. On the palate, things settle more into traditional bourbon character, but it’s still a bit of a bruiser in comparison to previous years’ releases. On the palate, Bit-O-Honey, more dark brown sugar, and big barrel char notes hit up front. As the finish builds, it takes on a sharp citrus character — flamed orange peel — along with some vanilla-chocolate character. An echo of menthol emerges on the back end, along with a not insignificant level of heat.

All in all, it’s a whiskey that’s missing a sense of balance. Though water helps to bring things together, it has the side effect of turning things a bit boring. There’s nothing offensive in the 2015 Birthday Bourbon, but it isn’t nearly as well structured as some of the past releases. (I re-sampled them back to 2010 and this was my least favorite; 2014 is drinking the best today, with 2010 faded quite a bit.)

Hey, not every birthday is going to be your favorite.

100 proof. 13,200 bottles produced.

B- / $70 /

Book Review: Speed Brewing

61vuoKZSeNL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Homebrew is a neat idea, but who has the time to make it?

That’s the thesis of Mary Izett’s Speed Brewing, a book which provides exactly the type of instruction that you think it’s going to offer.

While the back cover promises you can make a “session IPA” in just a few hours, Izett’s how-to has a lot more to it than just beer. In fact, beer is a relatively minor focus of the book, which also covers speedy techniques for brewing cider, mead, boozy sodas, and even kombucha.

How well these techniques really work vs. traditional ones I can’t exactly say without making a whole bunch of homebrew, but the ideas here are really just shortcuts, not radical rethinks of the way everything works. The book is well written, breezy, and full of helpful, full-color photography to get you where you need to go. So homebrewers, give Izett’s ideas a shot and see if you can’t whip up a new batch of gose in time for dinner!


Review: Flaviar “Eau de Vie! Oui!” Cognac Sampler & the Flaviar App

flaviar packs

We’ve been friends with Flaviar for quite a while, and we’re going to start looking more deeply into their sampler packs. These are available on a one-off basis or as a monthly subscription, featuring rum, whiskey, brandy, or just about anything else.

Today we’re looking at Flaviar’s Cognac sampler, a set of spirits packaged under the label of “Eau de Vie! Oui!” If you’re expecting a bunch of Remy Martin and Courvoisier, think again. With the exception of Hennessy and Martell, none of these are major-name Cogancs, and even the Hennessy is a Europe-only bottling. In other words, you’re getting stuff here you won’t likely find at your local watering hole.

Let’s take a look at the five Cognacs — each in 50ml quantities — in this pack.

Hennessy Fine de Cognac – Positioned between a VS and VSOP, not available in the U.S. (originally made for King George IV before he was crowned). It’s a junior Cognac, a little weedy and short, with some rough, wood-driven notes, but not without some charms. B-

Martell VSOP – Pretty nose, but a bit thin on the body. Solid caramel, vanilla, raisin, and baking spice notes. Well-integrated but not overwhelmingly complicated. An easy “house brandy” selection. A-

Baron Otard VSOP – Very mild nose, evoking cinnamon buns. Quite sweet on the tongue, more than the previous brandies, which really pushes the (raisin-studded) cinnamon roll character. Gentle, brown sugar finish… a well-made, mid-level brandy. B+

Dobbe Cognac XO – Lovely to see this XO taking on some rancio notes — fortified wine, coffee, dark chocolate. Lots of coffee on the nose, and a little tobacco and roasted nuts. A dense, almost pruny Cognac, but I liked its intensity quite a bit. Brooding and contemplative. A-

Gautier XO Gold & Blue – Nice, old Cognac here — well-developed golden raisins, baking spice, and lots of vanilla. While it doesn’t stray far from the path, it’s firing on all cylinders and drinking beautifully. A

Get a Flaviar Welcome Pack (including this one)

Flaviar’s also got a new app for iOS and Android, which lets you purchase bottles and tasting packs and see a “flavour spiral” for everything you’ve sampled. Kind of a neat spin on the flavor wheel, and fun to check out while you’re sampling spirits. Check it out on your relevant app store.

Review: Cocktail & Sons Cocktail Syrups


Cocktail & Sons is a brand new operation (we tasted the first draft of their four artisan syrups late last year) that is going national as we speak.

Here’s a look at the complete lineup from the fledgling company — all four of which are wholly worthwhile and clearly made with cocktailing knowhow. (Not into drinking? Drop a tablespoon into a glass with ice and soda and you’ve got a stellar non-alcoholic beverage.)

Thoughts follow.

Cocktail & Sons Spiced Demerara – Demerara syrup spiced with peppercorns and baking spices. A beautiful brown sugar syrup at its heart, it’s got a distinct gingerbread flavor to it, with a just the lightest touch of pepper on the back. I think it could use a little more of that peppery kick, but the baking spice character is spot on and really elevates standard sugar syrup. A-

Cocktail & Sons Oleo Saccharum – An unsexy name for a classic citrus-based syrup that got its start 150 or so years ago. C&S’s version adds lemongrass and ginger to the citrus. Brisk lemon/lime notes attack the palate right at the start, then that aggressive sweetness hits you. The citrus doesn’t quite hang in there for the long haul, letting the saccharum pick up the slack. I get hints of anise on the back end. A-

Cocktail & Sons Honeysuckle & Peppercorn – Floral and spice elements intermingle in this exotic concoction. That dusty honey character that always rides along with honeysuckle is unmistakable here, with a kind of nutmeg character that comes along after. Again, very light pepper notes on the finish, but it’s just a bit more than a nod in that direction than anything palate-busting. B+

Cocktail & Sons Mint & Lemon Verbena – Get your instant mint julep or mojito, right here. Nothing complicated about this one, just a slight touch of herbal character that nudges things closer to menthol than mint. Don’t worry, your Bourbon won’t mind. A

each $15 per 8 oz. bottle /

Review: Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky

hibiki harmonyA little of this and a little of that, Hibiki’s latest is a blended whisky, something we don’t see often represented from Japan on American shores. If you can’t find something to like in this dram, well, you shouldn’t be drinking whisky at all.

Let’s back up a bit, though, with some Suntory time background:

Hibiki Japanese Harmony pays tribute to the original Hibiki first launched in 1989 to commemorate the Suntory philosophy to live in Harmony with Nature and People. Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo challenged himself to design a quintessential Hibiki blend by meticulously refining it to capture the core of a true Hibiki as a no age statement blend. Hibiki Japanese Harmony leverages the exact same key malt and grain whiskies used in the first Hibiki blend. Here at least 10 malt and grain whiskies, aged up to approximately 20 years, blend together to create a luminous harmony of flavors and aromas.

This is an entry-level expression — the new “foundation of the Hibiki range” — and the nose is relatively youthful. There’s lots of grain influence here, with evident oak, smoke, and fruit mingling on the nose. On the palate, that grain is tempered quite a bit, with notes that offer a complex melange of toasted wood, tea leaf, crushed berries, orange/sherry character, and a finish that evokes tart green apple and a little sweetened tea. The denouement is fresh and clean — an enjoyable break from the rush of flavors that arrive when it first hits the tongue.

86 proof.

B+ / $65 /

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2015 Edition


As bourbon (and rye) mania continue to sweep the nation, this year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is setting up to be one of the hottest releases ever. (Surely you’re heard about Stagg? If not, read on for the spoiler…) As always, these are all highly capable, unique, and for the most part worthwhile whiskeys. But here’s the particulars on how each one breaks down for me this year.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – As it has for many years, this is 18 year old rye distilled way back in 1985 that has been sitting in a big metal tank since it hit its 18th birthday in 2003. Sazerac 18 changes a little each year, but not much. But now pay attention: This is the final release from the old tank. Next year’s release will feature whiskey distilled in 1998, and going forward, Sazerac 18 will be drawn from barrels filled 18 years prior. So — if you like what Sazzy 18 has been like in the past, get it now, as this is your last chance. In 2015, the nose offers exotic notes of brandied cherries, graham crackers, and whipped cream. This beautiful dessert character leads to ample wood on the initial rush of the palate — but this quickly segues to Christmas spices, more gingerbread, mulled wine, marzipan, and spiced, baked apples. The finish is long, soothing, and festive with its hefty spice character — perfect for holiday tippling. All in all, it’s a similar Sazerac 18 to the whiskey we’ve seen before, but like an old friend it’s one you still want to spend time with from time to time. 90 proof. A-

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – A 17 year old whiskey from the bottom three floors of Warehouses Q and I. Punchy with vanilla, caramel, and chocolate, this is a cocoa lover’s dream come true. A classic bourbon drinking at full maturity, it eventually reveals some allspice, barrel char, and a bit of menthol. This year’s whiskey is a fairly straightforward bourbon, one that even hints at its origins with some popcorn notes emerging on the finish — not something you often see in a whiskey of this age. Solid stuff on the whole, as it usually is. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – There’s quite a tale to go away with this one. Buffalo Trace says that it opened up 128 barrels of whiskey distilled in 2000 (making this 15 years old), but many of them only had 1 or 2 gallons of bourbon left in them. The shocking statistic: 84% of the original distillate evaporated! That’s quite an angel’s share… which means you are not going to find much Stagg on the market this year — one source I’ve seen estimates just 5000 bottles of this coveted whiskey will hit stores. 2015 is quite strong on the nose (this is 69% alcohol and dark as night, so prepare thy liver), but push through the alcohol to reveal intense vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves on the nose. The body is equally intense — lots of vanilla extract, cloves, and, surprisingly, licorice, plus a bit of barrel char on the back end. Give it water and it settles into a groove of burnt caramel and brown sugar with a little licorice kick. There’s not a lot of nuance this year — Stagg can often take on a dark coffee/chocolate tone — but it’s a very capable and highly enjoyable bourbon from start to finish. What else were you expecting? 138.2 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – 12 year old W.L. Weller, from the second and sixth floors of warehouses I, K, and L. Appealing nose, and approachable even at this hefty proof (just 2% abv less than Stagg). It’s got a distinctly lighter style, with a nose of distinct butterscotch notes, fruit salad, and vanilla. On the palate, the butterscotch comes on strong, along with some marzipan and orange oil. Add water and the whiskey takes on an evergreen edge, though it’s still tempered with that almond paste/butterscotch sweetness. Kind of an odd combination of flavors — each enjoyable enough on its own, but all together a little bit scattered. 134.6 proof. B+

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Six year old rye, as per the norm, from the fourth and seventh floors of warehouses I, K, and M. Slightly light in alcohol for Handy vs. previous years’ releases. Restrained on the nose, far more so than anything else in the collection. It’s just not altogether there, aside from some nutty and grainy overtones. On the palate, at full bottle strength, it features hot, toasty grain, some citrus/orange marmalade notes, and more than a bit of astringency. Water helps, bringing out more sweetness and some baking spice, but also tons of grain and some antiseptic notes that make the whole affair seem undercooked. There’s nothing wrong with young whiskey, but I question whether a rye that’s drinking so youthfully has a proper place in this collection. 126.9 proof. B-

$80 each /

Bar Review: Bar Mia, San Francisco


There are whiskey bars. There are rum bars. There are even vodka bars. Bar Mia is the first amaro-focused bar that I can recall ever visiting.

Housed in San Francisco’s Mission District, Bar Mia only just opened, the libation side of Nostra Spaghetteria, the Italian-focused eatery which it shares space with. Under the direction of barmeister Adam Mardigras (his real name!) — that’s him with his back turned in the photo — Bar Mia has taken an Italian classic, amaro, and built a line of cocktails around them. If you’re not into the bittersweet stuff (what’s wrong with you?), there’s a number of delightful, non-amaro cocktails on the list too. (I highly recommend the Cable Car Sour, with bourbon, Benedictine, green Chartreuse, falernum, and kumquat juice.)

Mardigras recently took us on a trip through the amaro cocktails on the list, on the first Friday Bar Mia was open. His goal: Offer a little something for everyone, but spin cocktails in a slightly different direction.

Case in point: the Cold & Foggy, a distinctly San Francisco cocktail that spins the Dark & Stormy by mixing ginger beer, lemon juice, and IPA beer with an Averna float. The hoppy notes in the beer work a lot better with the ginger and bittersweet amaro than you’d think — but it’s the candied ginger garnish that really caps off a neat drink.

If you like your cocktails much more amaro focused, try the Fernet me Not, which blends Jameson, Fernet Angelico, Averna, ginger liqueur, egg white, and orange bitters to create a foamy, Fernet-driven, slightly gingery concoction that looks positively beach-like. Another solid beverage with a heavier amaro weighting is the Monkeys in Manhattan, a spin on the Manhattan that uses Monkey Shoulder scotch, nonino, and Fernet Branca to create a big, menthol-driven, slightly smoky concoction that will likely knock more than one patron on his ass in short order.

I save the best for last, and that’s Mardigras’ crowning cocktail achievement, The Night Cap. An avowed after-dinner drink, it blends spiced rum, amaretto, chocolate-chili syrup, and amaro with a Port-infused coffee, topped with whipped cream. Decadent and addictive, it isn’t overdone in any of its constituent elements, the coffee balanced by chocolate-covered cherries and a hint of bitter edge. It’s the best White Russian meets Hot Buttered Rum meets Irish Coffee you’ve ever had, I promise.

Review: Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey

Pikesville-RyeHeaven Hill loves to make rye, and based on the enormous success of Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond, people like to drink it, too.

The company is expanding its rye portfolio with Pikesville, a 6 year old straight rye bottled at a blazing 110 proof — clearly inspired by the success of Rittenhouse at 100 proof. (Pikesville has been an existing, lower-end brand for Heaven Hill, but the company says this is a new and updated expression.)

There’s no mashbill information other than that it’s made from “at least 51% rye,” with corn and barley making up the remainder, as expected. The whiskey is produced at the Bernheim distillery.

So, on to the tasting.

It’s buttery and honey-sweet on the nose at first — then a bit of bubble gum aroma, which isn’t exactly what I’m looking for in a rye. On the palate, there’s plenty of heat as you’d expect, followed by significant notes of dried hay, butterscotch, and vanilla cookie overtones.

Fairly straightforward and uncomplicated, I didn’t find a whole lot of that traditional baking spice that you expect to find in rye. Rather, the overall impression is more akin to one you’d find in a lighter style of bourbon (albeit one bottled at a significantly higher proof than usual).

Bottom line: It’s fine, but if you’re looking for a Rittenhouse replacement, keep moving along.

110 proof.

B / $50 /