Review: Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout and Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017)

The beer-loving world breathed a sigh of relief with the quality of the 2016 Goose Island Bourbon County series after the lactic souring issues that plagued some of the 2015 releases. To make things even better, in 2017, the series officially expanded to six offerings: Original, Barleywine, Coffee, Proprietor’s, Northwoods, and Knob Creek Reserve. There were apparently plans for a seventh, Reserve Barleywine, but it was pulled at the last minute for quality issues. Goose Island is clearly playing it very safe with the quality of this series, as it should. It’s still a highly sought after release even as the number of barrel-aged beers on the shelves continues to increase.

We got our hands on two of the more readily available beers in the series: Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout and Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Barleywine. Thoughts follow.

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout (2017) – The “Original” bourbon-barrel-aged stout in the Bourbon County series, this year’s release continues the tradition of infusing the brew with big, bourbon flavor. Just putting your nose to the glass, you’re hit with boozy vanilla and cream soda notes. While the body is rich and silky, there’s a little left to be desired in the flavor department. There’s more vanilla and a subtle dark chocolate note, but other than that it seems pretty one-dimensional. It’s still a delicious barrel-aged stout, but not as complex or interesting as previous years. 14.1% abv. B+ / $10 per 500ml bottle

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – While previous releases were reportedly aged in third-use barrels that had already held another stout, the 2017 Bourbon County Brand Barleywine release was aged in all second-use barrels from Heaven Hill. It’s no surprise then that there’s a stronger bourbon quality to this beer than in years’ past. Thankfully, the barrel notes don’t dominate and actually create some welcome complexity. The nose has much less alcohol than anticipated but still offers the expected vanilla and oak notes, complemented by a very subtle fruitiness. The palate is slightly bitter, offsetting some of the richness, with notes of cola, toffee, and a little brandied cherry on the finish. 14.4% abv. A- / $12 per 500ml bottle

Review: Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Straight Rye Whiskey

The number of craft whiskey distilleries in America continues to rise, but only a fraction of them can bottle their own distillate as a “straight whiskey,” meaning it’s at least two years old. Even fewer can claim to be bottling at 5-plus years, which is comparable in age to the core products from industry big boys like Jim Beam and Heaven Hill.

Woodinville Whiskey Company is one of these very few craft distilleries. They opened their doors in Woodinville, Washington in 2010 and began distilling with the assistance of industry legend and former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell. While they distill just outside of Seattle, Washington, that climate doesn’t exactly lend itself to efficient barrel aging, so they ship their filled barrels to Quincy on the other side of the Cascades, where they are warehoused at the same farm from which they source most of their grain.

We recently had the opportunity to sample Woodinville’s two flagship products: one a straight bourbon and the other a straight rye. Thoughts follow.

Woodinville Whiskey Company Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Even though a Maker’s Mark Master Distiller assisted in its creation, Woodinville’s bourbon uses rye, not wheat, for the flavoring grain. That rye spice is immediately present on the nose with pepper and cherry notes, along with heavy, bordering on astringent, oak aromas. Oak tannins similarly dominate the palate initially but give way to notes of vanilla, caramel, and baking chocolate. It’s a bold whiskey that drinks a little bigger than its 90 proof but with a syrupy mouthfeel and generous, cinnamon-filled finish that isn’t nearly as drying as I would expect. Water is an all-around friend to this one, subduing the wood and enhancing the underlying flavors and aromas. I’d be curious to see what a year or two more in the barrel does for this bourbon. 90 proof. A- / $55

Woodinville Whiskey Company Straight Rye Whiskey – For a 100% rye whiskey, the nose is softer than I would expect, with raw honey, spearmint, and subtle fruit aromas. The mouthfeel is a touch thin, and as with Woodinville’s bourbon, oak immediately takes hold on the palate. Unlike the bourbon, however, it never really lets up. Cream soda, mint, and cracked black pepper notes struggle against the barrel and dry up rather quickly. A splash of water seems to tame the wood influence and add some complexity to the finish, but the mid-palate flavors get diluted. 90 proof. B / $55

Review: Kentucky Owl Straight Rye 11 Years Old

Kentucky Owl was once known only to a truly dedicated set of whiskey drinkers who paid exorbitant retail prices (and worse on the secondary market) for the brand’s extremely limited bourbon releases sourced from an undisclosed distillery or distilleries in Kentucky. You may still have never heard of Kentucky Owl, but after its sale to Stoli Group (I know you’ve heard of their vodka) and plans to invest $150 million in a distillery and visitor center for the brand, chances are good you’ll be hearing and seeing more from them soon. Early evidence to that fact is the first batch of Kentucky Owl Straight Rye, which was recently released in 25 states plus the District of Columbia.

Like the bourbon, Kentucky Owl Rye is a sourced whiskey of unknown provenance, but it clocks in at 11 years old (a ripe age for any rye out there), and it’s bottled at almost 111 proof. The nose is a little restrained for the proof, but it’s complex nevertheless with mint, toasted oak, and honeyed floral notes. The proof is more evident on the palate with a bold, peppery entry, but the initial heat subsides rather quickly for a rye. It’s perhaps a little thin but still wonderfully oily and rich. The palate is full of clove, cinnamon, and a little ginger all balanced perfectly with the oak. Most enjoyable is how the rye spice lingers across the whole experience, never overpowering any of the other flavors as so many ryes often do. The finish is long with a slight heat and fading notes of honey, vanilla, and baking spice.

All told, this first batch of Kentucky Owl Rye is an exceptional sipping whiskey, and as an introduction for what will likely be a big brand expansion, it sets the bar high.

110.6 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1.

A / $130 /

Bar Review: The Silver Dollar, Louisville

While you’ll find The Silver Dollar on many lists of the best whiskey bars in the country, the impressive brown water offerings at this funky and casual spot are not even mentioned in the “About” section of their website. The bar is a take on a 1950s Bakersfield, California honky-tonk, complete with rustic décor (exposed brick, metal chairs and barstools), quirky touches like multicolored Christmas lights behind the bar, and, of course, plenty of “Bakersfield sound” playing in the background. Even with such a unique setting, their whiskey list remains the primary reason many tourists and locals alike seek out this bar in the Clifton Heights neighborhood outside of downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

The first thing I received when I saddled up to the bar at The Silver Dollar was, unsurprisingly, a whiskey list. While many whiskey bars provide something akin to a road atlas, the menu here was thankfully much smaller – in size but not in contents. There were hundreds of whiskeys to choose from, all organized by distillery and including most of the coveted and rare bourbons made across the state. While priced not quite as stratospherically as other whiskey bars in cities like New York and San Francisco, there’s clearly a tourist mark-up on familiar names like Van Winkle and Weller.

The smart money, however, is on one of The Silver Dollar’s many amazing personally selected barrels, which, at the end of the day, are actually more rare than almost anything else behind the bar (yet are priced considerably lower). There were at least 15 on my menu, including multiple barrels of the same brands like Four Roses, Old Weller Antique, and Henry McKenna, all at different ages and proofs. I dutifully digested the options but asked for mercy from the bartender who told me, without any hesitation, to try the second of their three barrels of Old Weller Antique 107 proof. I ordered it neat, and it arrived in what looked like a tall shot glass (since no respectable honky tonk would serve whiskey in a Glencairn, I guess). The choice of glassware aside, my pour of Weller 107 was simply fantastic, full of baking spice and wonderfully balanced. I’d easily have put it up against a bottle of the William Larue Weller at four times the price.

The cocktail list takes up only one page (the first) of the 20 or so page drink menu, but that doesn’t mean cocktails get less attention behind the bar. Again, I put myself at the mercy of the bartender, and he produced in short order an excellent Old Fashioned made with standard Old Weller Antique 107. It was served without any fruit (not even a cherry!), but the flavors were all there and in perfect proportion.

After a surprisingly good dinner of grilled chicken thighs and fried okra, I decided to round out my evening with one last pour. Again, I resisted the temptation to empty my wallet on a 20 year Pappy or rare Wild Turkey, and instead perused the menu for less familiar names. I settled on Old Charter 10 year, a bourbon that is well into the “dusty” category in most places now but can still be found and purchased in Kentucky at a reasonable price. My drink cost $11, but I would have easily paid three times that in DC or New York. It was a mellow bourbon, light on the palate with subtle rye spice and a little bottom-shelf, grassy funk to it. It was the perfect end to my whiskey-focused evening.

This was my third visit to The Silver Dollar, and it was just as enjoyable as every time before. While whiskey bars have exploded in popularity across the country in recent years, most are overstuffed, uncomfortably highbrow, or painfully inauthentic. And all have plenty of whiskeys on their oversized, leather-bound menus not worth drinking, especially for the asking price. I guess the world needs more honky-tonks like The Silver Dollar.

A /

Review: Casamigos Tequila Anejo

You may have heard over the summer that George Clooney sold his start-up tequila company, Casamigos, to spirits industry titan Diageo for an amount approaching a billion dollars. That’s right. A cool billion. While that price seems high, it’s reportedly the fastest growing super-premium tequila brand in America. We’ve already reviewed Casamigos Blanco and Reposado, and we liked those tequilas well enough — but we wanted to evaluate all of what Diageo is getting for its money, so we finally cracked our bottle of Casamigos Anejo.

This tequila is the same seven-year-old highland agave found in the other two expressions, with the only difference being that it was aged in used American whiskey barrels for over a year. It has a great pinkish, gold color. The nose is full of buttery vanilla, confectioner’s sugar, citrus, and sandalwood. On the palate, notes of cinnamon sugar, pineapple, and sweet corn cakes are balanced nicely with subtle oak, mild pepper, and a lingering smokiness. The finish is decently long, with fading sugary cinnamon and tobacco notes. It’s not as creamy as the nose suggests, and it’s a bit sweet for my taste, but overall, Casamigos Anejo is a great sipping tequila and probably the best of the range.

80 proof.

A- / $55 /

Drinkhacker Asks: Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell

Like most discerning drinkers, we here at Drinkhacker have many questions we’d like to ask the people behind our favorite wine, beer, or spirit. Every now and then, we get the opportunity to actually do so. For the first in our series of short interviews, we talked to the “the Buddha of Bourbon” himself and the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the spirits world, Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell.

We interviewed Jimmy at the Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky where you’ll often find him (when he’s not traveling the world) sitting on his stool, happy to talk to any of the thousands of visitors that come through Wild Turkey’s doors every year.

Drinkhacker: Thanks for taking the time, Jimmy. We know you’re a pretty busy man for 82 years young. Let’s get right to it. Any fun whiskeys you’ve been working on lately?

Jimmy Russell: In October, I went out to Virginia to help make a special rye whiskey for the 10th anniversary of the reconstruction of George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon. A whole bunch of us form Kentucky and other places got together on it.

I know you prefer bourbon over rye. How’s it taste?

JR: It was pretty good. It’s got a good amount of corn in it like our Russell’s Reserve Rye, so I like it.

So you were in Virginia not that long ago, and you leave for WhiskyFest in New York City tomorrow. You travel a lot. I hope you’re flying First Class or at least getting some Wild Turkey on the plane!

JR: You know the only airline that carries Wild Turkey is Southwest, and they don’t fly out of Lexington. I’m good friends with the founder, Herb Kelleher, and I keep trying to get him to come out here. He’s a great guy. You know, for Herb’s 65th birthday we printed his face on 65 bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon. He got a kick out of it.

If he’s a Wild Turkey fan, you must be a great friend to have. I’m surprised he didn’t build you a personal runway next to the Visitor’s Center! With all that travel, what’s the furthest you’ve flown for an event?

JR: We go all the way to Japan. The Japanese love bourbon. And their whiskey festivals last two days and start at 10 AM!

Sounds like we’re doing it all wrong in the states! You used to do a lot of festivals with Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller, Parker Beam, who passed away earlier this year. I know you two were very close. Any stories or memories you’d like to share about Parker?

JR: Yeah. Parker and I were close. You know he didn’t know he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) until he was about 70. And even when he got diagnosed he didn’t want to slow down. He especially loved driving, and he’d get somebody to ride with him and shift gears for him when he couldn’t do it anymore!

Sounds like he was quite a character. And definitely a legend in the bourbon world.

JR: Yeah. It used to be me, and Parker, and Booker Noe, and Elmer T. Lee, and now I’m the only one left.

And it doesn’t look like you’re slowing down any time soon! But the business has really become a family affair for many distilleries. You’ve got your son Eddie sharing Master Distiller responsibilities with you. How about your grandchildren? Are they planning to get into the business?

JR: Oh yeah. My grandson has been getting experience with all the different parts of the distillery. He’ll be with me and Eddie at WhiskyFest in New York, and my granddaughter who works here in the Visitor’s Center will be with us, too.

Well, it sounds like the future of Wild Turkey is in good hands. Now we just need to get 101 on more airline drink menus!

JR: Ha. Yeah, that’d be nice.

Review: Glenfarclas The Family Casks 1989 from Astor Wines & Spirits

In the whisky world, single casks are great because they offer the opportunity to try a unique and rare version of an otherwise familiar spirit. Glenfarclas’ Family Casks go one step further and lets you pick across vintages spanning five decades. Since 2007, this Speyside distillery owned by the Grant family has produced more than 380 bottlings of vintage single malts from the early 1950s to the early 2000s. Of course no one bottle year is like the next, and cask finishing varies from year to year and release to release, so you never quite know what you’re going to get. There’s also a lot of history in these bottles, as each year’s complete release showcases multiple generations of the Grant family’s approach to whisky-making. Pricing varies accordingly from a few hundred dollars a bottle to thousands for those from the 1950s.

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a bottle of The Family Casks 1989 bottling selected exclusively for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City. This cask was bottled at the end of 2013, putting it at almost 25 years old. That’s somewhat on the younger side for that year’s releases but still a healthy, old age. Glenfarclas is typically associated with sherry-finished whiskies, but this bottling is all ex-bourbon cask, making it all the more unique.

The nose on this whisky is full of buttered pastry and orange blossom honey with a little clove, melon, and black pepper. On the palate, an initial burst of heat gives way to a malty, biscuity quality. As a fan of this distillery’s core range, I’m always looking for the dark fruit notes from the traditional Oloroso sherry finish, but I find in their place vibrant flavors of vanilla bean, oak, ginger, and an almost caramel apple quality. The finish is spicy with more honey and ginger root. Adding water creates a musty, leathery note on the nose, restrains some of the spice on the palate, and really amplifies the honeyed sweetness overall. I’m honestly not sure which way I prefer to drink this one, but I can confidently say I’m looking forward to the opportunity to try my next Glenfarclas Family Cask.

114.8 proof. Reviewed: Cask #7299.

A / $250 /