Review: Seventeen Twelve Spirits North Carolina Bourbon

The craft whiskey business is a brutal waiting game. While large distilleries continue to churn out quality product, often at a lower cost to the consumer, craft whiskey makers are forced to simply watch barrels full of money age in their warehouses, hoping their gin or vodka (or someone else’s whiskey in their bottles) will keep the lights on in the meantime. Some craft distillers are even bottling a less-than-perfect product too early and hoping the marketing makes up for it in the long run. This doesn’t exactly help the craft business overall. There are, however, those craft distillers who have found a way to produce a young whiskey well worth the asking price. One of those is Seventeen Twelve Spirits in Conover, North Carolina.

Named for the year North Carolina became a distinct entity from the Carolina colony, Seventeen Twelve Spirits uses only grains grown by local farmers in North Carolina. Their roots are as traditional as any, born out of the moonshining legendary in the western part of the state, but their maturation technique is one of the newest in the industry. None of the whiskey in their Seventeen Twelve North Carolina Bourbon is much more than a year old, but it looks and drinks like something significantly older due to the use of yellow birch finishing staves which they toast and suspend inside standard 53 gallon barrels. Taking a play from an industry heavy hitter like Maker’s Mark (Maker’s 46 uses French oak finishing staves in a smilar manner), they are attempting to crack the code on very young bourbon that actually tastes good.

At only 10 months old, the color on my sample of Seventeen Twelve Spirits North Carolina Bourbon is already a light caramel; the first sign of the benefits from the finishing staves. The nose is at first sweet corn, which is probably where a whiskey this young should end, but it develops into notes of fresh ground cinnamon and vanilla custard. The body is understandably light, but the palate is surprisingly complex and flavorful. More cinnamon sugar and vanilla bean emerge with layers of sweet oak, baking spice, toasted marshmallow, and a floral hint of honeysuckle. There’s a slight heat on the very back end, a little black pepper from the rye spice, and a rich oiliness, all of which makes for a generous and enjoyable finish. The toasted yellow birch is clearly a secret ingredient here, imparting a lot of older bourbon flavors into what is one of the best young bourbons I’ve ever tasted.

86 proof.

A- / $33 / seventeentwelvespirits.com

A Visit to Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, located in the heart of Nashville, is a young distillery but it has an incredibly old story. When we visited, brothers Charles and Andy Nelson took us back to their great, great, great grandfather, (also named) Charles Nelson, who was making whiskey in this part of Tennessee back in the 1860s. He built his distillery up to become one of the largest in the country, but when Prohibition hit — and it hit in Tennessee some ten years before the rest of the U.S. — the distillery was shuttered for good.

In 1909, Green Brier Distillery faded away, and even the history of the distillery fell into obscurity in the Nelson’s family. Tales of an ancestor making whiskey became apocrypha, and by the early 2000s, Andy and Charles — both philosophy graduates working outside the booze biz — had largely forgotten it.

Things changed in 2006 when the original Green Brier facility was discovered, added to a historical landmark registry by a local who’d uncovered the still-standing but overgrown warehouse. The Nelson brothers actually saw the landmark sign on the side of the road, and inspiration struck on the spot: The stories were true, and maybe they should launch Green Brier once again.

And so they did.

Like many distilleries, Green Brier started with contract whiskey from MGP, but the Nelson brothers go to great pains to finish much of it in wine and other spirit barrels to distinguish it from any number of other MGP-sourced bottlings. Naturally, they’re getting their own distillery off the ground here, too, and white dog distilled using the same recipe the original Green Brier used (turns out it was published in a newspaper at the time), has been coming out of the small pot/column combo still here for 2 1/2 years now. With some 1000 barrels of whiskey they’ve produced now aging on site, the company is aiming for a limited release of a two year old Tennessee whiskey by the end of this year, with a full release of a four year old whiskey in 2019.

After the informative tour (the distillery is open to the public), the Nelsons walked us through the full lineup of products (and hinted at some upcoming ones, like a whiskey that is now aging in 75 year old Spanish brandy casks), some of which are only sold on site. Thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Nelson’s White Whiskey – The white dog, produced on site, is sold only at the distillery. Notes of popcorn, lots of banana, and bubble gum complement chewy grains. Surprisingly pleasant and easygoing. 91 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon – The “classic” bottling. This is straight MGP bourbon, unfinished. Lightly oaky, with classic butterscotch and toffee notes and some caramel corn on the back end, with a touch of red fruit. Hard not to like. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Sherry Cask Finished – Finished in oloroso sherry casks. Some hospital notes emerge here, but also cherry, tea leaf, and cola notes. Fruit is stronger on the body, with chocolate and gentle oak notes emerging on the finish. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Single Barrel – A cask strength version of the classic bottling, this one features bold nougat and toffee notes, and flavors of vanilla cookies. Lingering Mexican chocolate notes hang on the finish. A gem. 122.3 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Cognac Cask Finished – Lush and sweet, with notes of strawberry, chocolate, caramel, and nougat notes galore. Quite fruity on the finish. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Belle Meade Bourbon Madeira Cask Finished – Slightly winey as expected, though there’s ample fresh fruit here. A little corny, but the rye notes are heavier as the finish emerges. 90.4 proof.

Nelson’s Green Brier Schatzi Vodka – Andy Nelson made this on site for his wedding; it’s only sold here at the distillery. It’s a surprisingly good vodka, made from the same mash as the white whiskey, easygoing with sweet and light corn notes and a buttery finish. 80 proof.

greenbrierdistillery.com

Review: Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2016) and Gala Apple Flavored Whiskey

We’re late on catching up with Sons of Liberty’s annual release of its award-winning pumpkin spice flavored whiskey, but we’re making up for that with a look at a new product flavored with Gala apples, which was released for the first time in the fall. With many apologies for our delay, let’s dig in!

Both whiskeys are bottled at 80 proof.

Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey (2016) – This is our third go-round with this seasonal release (see also 2015 and 2014), and my notes fall somewhere in between the two previous versions. Lots of cinnamon and cloves and a clear pumpkin character give this whiskey ample spiciness, and a gentle brown sugar backbone manages to toe the line between the sugar and the spice. The finish sees the emergence of more chewy pumpkin-ness and some lightly sour notes. The finish recalls overripe apples, dusted with cloves. B / $43

Sons of Liberty Gala Apple Flavored Whiskey – “Sons of Liberty utilized more than 9,000 fresh Gala Apples from two Connecticut orchards, Blue Hills Orchard and Drazen Orchards, for its inaugural release of Gala Apple. The apples were brought to New England Cider Company where the apples were shredded into a sauce-like mash called pumice. This mash of apples was then pressed to extract as much juice as possible from the fresh fruit. The Sons of Liberty crew brought the delicious juice back to the distillery where they blended it with a barrel-aged whiskey they made specifically for this release.” The nose isn’t particularly heavy on fresh apples but rather sees a focus on cloves, barrel char, and something that initially comes across as a sort of dried apple character. The palate is a somewhat different animal, initially sweet with a cinnamon-laden applesauce character, and, oddly enough, lots of overripe banana notes. The finish finds light caramel and vanilla, with a weird dusting of cornmeal, toasted marshmallow, and some kind of strange Asian candy character that I can’t quite express in words. For better or worse. B- / $43

solspirits.com

Review: Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak 10 Years Old

Johnnie Walker is the latest distillery to get into the experimental whisky game, with master blender Jim Beveridge launching a new series called Blenders’ Batch. Said to number in the hundreds, these experiments have long been “a crucial part of their work, focusing on developing and understanding a vast variety of unconventional flavors that can add depth and complexity to Scotch.” Now some of these experiments are being released to the public, and the first is arriving in the U.S. imminently. Some details from JW:

In the U.S., the first blend that will be available is Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak, which is the result of experiments focusing on the influence of bourbon and rye whiskey flavors on Scotch.  This whisky is inspired by the time Beveridge spent working in Kentucky blending bourbon and rye. Aged for at least 10 years in American oak, including bourbon casks, Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak is crafted using five whiskies including grain from the now closed Port Dundas distillery and malt from Mortlach on Speyside. This combination creates a whisky that is uniquely smooth, with notes of sweet fresh fruit and gentle spice. This style of whisky is excellent as the foundation for classic and signature cocktails.

Technically this is the third blend in the Blenders’ Batch series, following Red Rye Finish and a Bourbon Cask and Rye Finish, neither of which were released in the U.S.

So let’s give Blenders’ Batch #3 a try!

The nose is quite grainy, typical of a younger blend, with the light vanilla notes and the lumberyard character of new American oak. Some banana and red apple notes provide the fruit, alongside some more savory, vegetal green bean aromas. The palate is sweeter than the nose would indicate, offering a banana bread character with hints of allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, plus elements of roasted nuts. Soon a sharpness takes hold and puts out some heat as the finish approaches, where we find a melding of sweeter elements — gingerbread, sticky bun, and vanilla custard — at play with a reprise of lighter lumberyard elements.

It’s a bit of a departure for the House of Walker, with no smokiness to speak of and now citrus-focused sherry casking either, but one that works out better than expected. Great value, too!

82.6 proof. Bottles are individually numbered.

B+ / $25 / johnniewalker.com

Review: WhistlePig Farmstock Rye Whiskey Crop 001

Like many craft distilleries, WhistlePig has been selling other people’s whiskey while it gets its own operation up to snuff. In fact, WhistlePig isn’t just making its own spirit, it’s growing its own grain and even making its own barrels from trees grown on its own land. Even the water is from WhistlePig’s own well.

The company’s first rye harvest took place last year, and WhistlePig used that grain to distill whiskey that has been aging since then. About 100 barrels spent a year aging before WhistlePig took those casks and blended them with older stock to produce Farmstock Crop 001, a one-time-only release designed to showcase a little bit of the Vermont terroir.

The blend looks like this:

20% 1 year old rye (from WhistlePig’s Vermont operation)
49% 5 year old rye from Canada
31% 12 year old rye from Indiana

And here’s what it tastes like.

To start with, the color of the whisky is quite light — a pale gold that is a clear indicator of how much young whiskey is in the mix here. There’s youth on the nose as well — an overlay that filters notes of butterscotch and simple vanilla through a moderate but evident breakfast cereal character. On the palate, the whiskey is softer than the nose would indicate, though barrel notes pick up the slack of astringency and ensure a quite youthful-leaning experience. The body offers some barrel char, some bacon, some baking spices… plus hints on the back end of raisin, menthol, and heavier clove elements.

All of this mingles on a palate that shows off plenty of promise, but which still squarely lands in the “work in progress” category. Ultimately I’m intrigued by what I’m tasting so far, but given the composition of the whiskey it’s difficult to see exactly where this might end up. For now, it remains a curiosity that will largely be of interest to WhistlePig completionists.

86 proof.

B- / $90 / whistlepigwhiskey.com

Review: Lock Stock & Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey 16 Years Old

R. J. Cooper and Son is the company behind St. Germain, Creme Yvette, and Lock Stock & Barrel whiskey, a 16 year old whiskey sourced from Alberta Distillery and crafted from a mashbill of 100% rye that is pot-distilled. This is actually the second release of Lock Stock & Barrel, following a 13 year old release of the same mash that is no longer in production but which is still reasonably available.

While we haven’t ever covered the 13 year old, we received the new 16 year old for review. Thoughts follow.

On the nose, the rye is fragrant and rich, detectable from across the room with its telltale notes of baking spice, citrus peel, butterscotch, and well-mellowed barrel char. Some light menthol (perhaps lightly medicinal) notes emerge given a half hour or so in the glass. Immediately sweeter than many ryes, particularly 100% ryes, the palate keeps its focus on the cinnamon and allspice notes, offering a relatively traditional backbone that showcases some typical notes of burnt brown sugar, toasted marshmallow, and an oak-heavy finish. Add water and the citrus comes out a little more clearly on the palate, along with some muted tropical notes.

All told, there’s nothing particularly surprising here — the fruit notes are perhaps the most unusual aspect of this whiskey, and that’s hardly a rarity — though that may not be such a bad thing. Surely there’s a place in the world for a well-aged 100% rye that doesn’t break the mold, that goes down easy and that tastes, basically, just like it should.

107 proof.

B+ / $140 / lockstockandbarrelspirits.com

Review: Templeton Rye 10 Years Old

Templeton continues to build a name for itself with its 95% rye expression, sourced from Indiana’s MGP and bottled in Iowa, and to celebrate 10 years in business the company is introducing a limited edition 10 year old “special reserve” rye. 34 barrels were turned out to fill 6,080 bottles, each hand-numbered and boxed. (A full 10 years on, Templeton has finally announced it will build its own distillery, at a cost of $26 million, in the city of Templeton, Iowa.)

The whiskey has a few things in common with Templeton’s last special edition, 2016’s Templeton Rye 6 Years Old, although its much more savory, its sugariness dialed back. With this 10 year old, that means a nose heavy with burnt grains, fresh rubber, and some oxidized fruit character, like a vinegary compote. There’s an aroma that’s hard to place but ultimately it falls somewhere in the gingerbread/fruitcake realm… if it were cut with a hint of petrol.

The palate continues the intensely savory character, which takes on some of those traditionally spicy rye notes, mingled with a quite heavy granary character. One would expect that after 10 years in barrel, a whiskey like this would have lost some of that crispy-crunchy rye grain character, but Templeton 10 is really hanging on to it. The finish shows off more brown sugar and molasses than the palate proper would indicate, but it’s the lingering notes of barrel char and burnt matches that stick with you for the long haul — and which make the whiskey feel like a much hotter concoction than it is.

80 proof.

B / $150 / templetonrye.com

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