Review: Blanton’s Gold Edition and Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel Bourbon

If you’re a bourbon drinker like me, you’ve gotten used to Buffalo Trace never making enough of the whiskeys you love like their namesake brand or the absurdly rare Pappy Van Winkle and Antique Collection offerings that tease us each fall. Blanton’s Single Barrel, another quality Buffalo Trace product, is also increasingly harder to find these days.

You may not have even known that there are higher proof versions of this bourbon that are distributed only in international markets. That’s not entirely Buffalo Trace’s fault because Age International (former owner of Buffalo Trace Distillery) still owns the Blanton’s brand. Buffalo Trace just does all the work distilling the delicious juice, aging it exclusively in Warehouse H, and bottling it in the iconic dimpled bottle.

Here’s a look at two of those expressions.

Blanton’s Gold Edition – This bourbon is unexpectedly gentle on the nose with aromas of cinnamon and ripe peach. The palate is wonderfully rich and honeyed with layers of vanilla and toffee. The heat builds gradually; it’s almost nonexistent at first and then cascades into a long and slightly drying finish with hints of black tea. For only 5% higher alcohol, the results are surprising. This is far better than Blanton’s Original in almost every way. This bottling was dumped July 16, 2016 from Barrel #1265, Rick #6. 103 proof. A / $65

Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel – On the nose, you know right away this is a barrel strength bourbon. Out from under the alcohol emerge brown sugar and sweet orange marmalade notes. The palate is bold and chewy. It’s full of butterscotch and hints of oak, more of which are coaxed from the glass with a little water. The finish is drying but complemented by subtle flavors of black pepper and dried apricot. This one also edges Blanton’s Original and probably even competes with some of the higher proof Antique Collection offerings. Still, the heat never really lets up, suffocating a few flavors and spoiling some of the complexity. This bottling was dumped January 10, 2014 from Barrel #194, Rick #51. 130.9 proof. A- / $85

blantonsbourbon.com

Review: Old Ezra Kentucky Straight Bourbon 7 Years Old

Luxco has been behind several popular bourbon releases recently, including Blood Oath (Pact No. 1 and Pact No. 2) and Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10 Years Old. Luxco’s lesser-known Ezra Brooks line, of which Old Ezra is a part, is also quality bourbon for the price point, but before I get into what’s inside the bottle a note about some interesting things on the outside.

Old Ezra has no shortage of graffiti on its label, from “Rare Old Sippin’ Whiskey” to the unnecessary “Genuine Sour Mash” (almost all bourbons are sour mash). The presence of those statements, along with the square bottle and the number seven (denoting its age), are enduring reminders of attempts by the brand’s founders to cut into Jack Daniel’s market share in the 1960s. However, the statement “Charcoal Mellowed” tucked onto the side of the label deserves some clarification.

The kind of “charcoal mellowing” in Old Ezra is actually just a component of chill filtration which involves the use of a small amount of activated charcoal to filter the aged whiskey before bottling. It’s a process typical of most bourbon. In fact, the former Old Ezra label (only recently replaced) advertised “Charcoal Filtered” instead. This is not the same as the famous Lincoln County Process of charcoal filtering used by Jack Daniel’s (or George Dickel, for that matter), which involves filtering new make whiskey through large amounts of sugar maple charcoal before aging.

Even more interesting, the newest packaging for Old Ezra includes the statement: “Distilled and Aged in Kentucky by Ezra Brooks Distilling.” Luxco, however, only began building its first distillery last year in Bardstown, Kentucky. So how are they producing seven-year-old bourbon? With help from renowned whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery, I discovered that, like Ezra Brooks Black Label, Old Ezra is produced by a Kentucky distiller (most likely Heaven Hill Distilleries) which has registered a “doing business as” (DBA) with Ezra Brooks, making the statement technically true, if somewhat misleading.

The bourbon inside the Old Ezra bottle is actually quite good and pleasantly straightforward. The nose is soft for 101 proof, full of sweet vanilla and oak with faint notes of cloves and black pepper. Light on the palate, it’s dominated by vanilla with layers of turbinado sugar and butterscotch. The finish is a medium length with notes of cinnamon red hots and a nice residual heat, which is the only real evidence of its higher proof.

For only a slight price increase, Old Ezra provides more complexity and depth of flavor than the other lower proof, lower shelf Ezra Brooks expression. It’s a very enjoyable, if still simple, sipping whiskey with the bonus of offering plenty of reading material on the label!

101 proof.

B+ / $22 / ezrabrooks.com

Review: J.T.S. Brown Bottled in Bond Bourbon

It’s no secret that we now live in a world where a whiskey like Booker’s can almost double in price overnight. Thankfully, there are still some very good bourbons out there that don’t cost a whole lot of money. Referred to as “table bourbon,” these bottles are priced for frequent drinking (never more than $20 a bottle), are good enough to spare the mixer, and come from the same quality distilleries that turn out the increasingly more expensive bourbons we love. J.T.S. Brown Bottled in Bond is one such “table bourbon” worth seeking out.

This bourbon even comes with a little Kentucky history. It takes its name was a famed liquor wholesaler who, along with his half-brother George Garvin Brown, started in the later 1800s what would become Brown-Forman, makers of Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, and Jack Daniel’s. The last distillery to carry the J.T.S. Brown name is now Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The brand is owned and distilled today by Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown.

J.T.S Brown Bottled in Bond is a no age statement (NAS) whiskey, but it’s at least four years old by law. The youth is evident in its light gold color, but even more so on the nose where candy corn dominates all other aromas. The corn is there too on the palate, but thankfully not as much as the first whiff would suggest. The body is somewhat thin, but it carries cinnamon and a little toffee, plenty of gentle spice, and just the right amount of heat. On the finish, the cinnamon gives way to fading dark cherry notes.

A non-bonded version of J.T.S. Brown is also available (at 80 proof) for even less money, but a few extra dollars buys an exponentially better product with more flavor than whiskeys twice the price. It’s not widely distributed, unfortunately, but put this one on your shopping list if you’re ever in Kentucky.

100 proof.

A- / $15 / heavenhill.com

Review: Rums of Beach Time Distilling

Beach Time Distilling, based in the small, coastal town of Lewes, Delaware, is one of a growing number of American craft distilleries producing our nation’s first favorite spirit, rum. Distiller and co-founder Greg Christmas worked for seven years with Delaware-based craft brewing powerhouse Dogfish Head before setting off on his own to focus on craft spirits. Since opening Beach Time in late 2015, he has created an impressive list of offerings in addition to rum that include vodka, gin, and plans for a young malt whiskey. All of his small batch spirits are crafted on a meticulously maintained 66-gallon Polish-made still. In keeping with the tradition of “lower, slower Delaware,” Greg emphasizes that the yeast in his spirits is not rushed or stressed in the natural fermentation process, creating what he calls “Leisurely Refined Spirits.”

Beach Time Distilling Silver Rum – Beach Time Silver Rum is made with raw cane sugar and molasses, fermented with two yeast strains, double-distilled, and bottled at 80 proof. It has a light, buttery nose, a slight heat on the palate, and great ripe banana and pineapple notes. These flavors are created through the use of a tropical yeast strain and dunder during fermentation, which is common with Jamaican rums. Similar to sour mash in bourbon, dunder is essentially stillage from the previous distillation used in subsequent fermentation. 80 proof. A- / $25

Beach Distilling Gold Rum – Beach Gold is the same Beach Time Silver aged for a short period of time in new charred American white oak barrels. Unsurprisingly, the nose has subtle vanilla notes. The tropical fruit flavors found in the Silver are barely present, with dominant caramel and cinnamon notes becoming banana bread on the palate. The finish is abrupt, making it a better mixer than sipper. 80 proof. B+ / $30

Beach Time Distilling Navy Strength Rum – The Navy Strength version of Beach Time Silver has a big buttercream nose. It’s rich on the palate and hot with a velvety sweetness. The heat, unfortunately, dampens some of the tropical fruit notes on the mid-palate, and they only show up again briefly on the finish. Still, this one could be a real bartender’s friend, standing up well in any rum-based cocktail. 114 proof. B+ / $21 (375ml)

Beach Gold Distilling Barrel Strength Rum – For nearly 130 proof, the nose on the cask strength version of Beach Gold is subdued. The vanilla aromas have to almost be pulled out of the glass, but on the palate this one is surprisingly good. There’s noticeable heat right from the start, but it never overpowers the bold and creamy flavors of Madagascar vanilla, raw honey, and nutmeg. The finish is short with sweet oak notes that become slightly drying. That aside, it’s a worthy sipping rum. 129.2 proof. A- / $28 (375ml)

Beach Fire Distilling Spiced Rum – Beach Fire is Beach Silver infused with a blend of cinnamon, orange peel, whole vanilla bean, and six additional spices. It’s all fresh cinnamon stick and orange marmalade on the nose. There’s a nice heat on the palate and a good balance of fresh ground cinnamon, orange zest, and clove. The spice in this rum is somewhat subdued compared to other spiced rums on the market, and I imagine it might get lost in a mixer. 80 proof. B+ / $35

beachtimedistilling.com

Review: Wyoming Whiskey Barrel Strength Bourbon

Wyoming’s first legal distillery, Wyoming Whiskey, only began production in 2009, but despite its youth the distillery already has an impressive portfolio of its own aged whiskeys. These include a Small Batch, Single Barrel, and Bonded Straight American Whiskey. Of course the rarest of them all has received the most excitement in the whiskey world of late. Released in the fall of 2015, the extremely limited Barrel Strength Bourbon was a run of only 111 bottles from two leaking “honey” barrels filled in the distillery’s first year. Only 96 of those bottles actually made it to retail, with slightly more than half bottled at 120 proof (the rest at 116 proof).

The distillery says that Sam Mead, Wyoming Whiskey’s head distiller, identified the two barrels as being of high quality even before they started to leak significantly. The accelerated oxidation elevated the whiskey into another class entirely, and a new addition to the Wyoming Whiskey lineup was born. So how good is it?

The first thing to jump out on this whiskey is its deep copper color. On the nose, the unusual oxidation comes through immediately with wet oak and mustiness at first, but that quickly fades to freshly baked oatmeal cookies, buttery cinnamon, and a little mint. On the palate, there’s a gentle heat up front and big flavors of molasses and oily, Madagascar vanilla that give way to black tea, cardamom, and spearmint. The finish has fading notes of allspice and anise. It seems a tad short, but maybe only because I really want that next sip.

Even though it’s on the younger side (under six years), Wyoming Whiskey’s Barrel Strength Bourbon drinks with the balance and refinement of a whiskey twice its age. If not for the initial “rickhouse quality” in this whiskey, it would rival some of the best barrel strength bourbons of the last few years. Unfortunately, this bottle is beyond rare and not exactly cheap, but if you find it, by all means buy a pour. And take the whole bottle home if you can.

120 proof.

A / $199 / wyomingwhiskey.com

Review: Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel 11 Years Old

Over the last few years, the craft whiskey world has seen several distilleries criticized for a lack of transparency about the exact origin of the liquid in their bottles. Some of these producers have perhaps been unfairly judged while others deserved their fate (ahem, Templeton), but Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton, West Virginia has never had to worry about any of that. They’ve proudly worn the label of “artisan merchant bottler” and gladly advertised their careful selection of sourced whiskeys (mostly from MGP of Indiana) instead of treating it like a dirty little secret. These whiskeys carry the label Old Scout, as in “scouted” whiskey, and they complement a diverse portfolio that also includes Yearling Bourbon Whiskey and a forthcoming mature, wheated bourbon, both distilled in-house.

Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a 7 year bourbon bottled at 99 proof, has been a staple of Smooth Ambler’s whiskey offerings since they opened their doors in 2009. Only recently has the distillery made available a single barrel version, bottled at various ages (none younger than 7 years) and cask strength (typically between 109 and 118 proof). Like the standard offerings, these single barrels are all high rye bourbons with a mashbill of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. According to Smooth Ambler’s Master Distiller, John Little, the sourced barrels are aged for some period of time in the West Virginia climate and minimally filtered (without chill filtration) to retain the original, “straight-from-the-barrel” quality of the whiskey.

The bourbon has a great caramel sauce color. The nose is big, with cinnamon, cocoa powder, and ripe peach. On the palate, a minty spice and gentle tannins accompany flavors of toasted vanilla bean and Werther’s Original candies. The body is a little thin, but that’s not entirely disappointing as it makes this bourbon that much more drinkable. The finish is medium in length with more vanilla and a little orange zest.

John Little and his team at Smooth Ambler are right to be proud. They sure do pick em’ good in West Virginia.

109.6 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #2064.

A / $60 / smoothambler.com

Review: Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Japanese whisky has not been spared from the trend among distilleries of coping with high demand by transitioning to No Age Statement (NAS) offerings. Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt now joins the likes of Miyagikyo, also in the Nikka portfolio, as well as Yamazaki, Hibiki, and Hakushu (from rival Suntory) to transition formerly 12-year-old offerings to NAS for those buying at the entry level.

Taketsuru Pure Malt is named in honor of Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky, and like the former age-stated version, it is made from a combination of whisky from both of Nikka’s distilleries: Yoichi and Miyagikyo. The whisky is matured in a combination of sherry butts, bourbon barrels, and new American oak. It is considered a blended malt, but unlike classic Scottish blends which mix different types of whisky, Taketsuru Pure Malt is technically a vatting of exclusively malted whisky. But enough about all of that.

The color on the Taketsuru Pure Malt is very light amber, bordering on gold. On the nose, initially bland cereal notes quickly give way to stronger aromas of green grape, freshly cut grass, and lemon peel. Although it’s not wholly apparent on the nose, the palate immediately shows evidence of the sherry cask maturation with a gentle spice and subtle, ripe plum, followed by layers of toffee and butterscotch imparted by the used bourbon and new American oak casks. Overall, the palate is light but the mouthfeel is surprisingly syrupy, with a medium-to-long finish that fades into notes of pear and orange blossom honey.

The NAS version of Taketsuru Pure Malt lacks some of the balance and complexity of the 12-year-old Pure Malt; particularly its subtle smokiness. Still, if this is the price the drinking public must pay to see more of this Japanese whisky on the shelves, we’re not giving up much.

86 proof.

B+ / $60 / nikka.com