Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2017

This year’s Whiskies of the World was shaping up beautifully, but a tragic tumble down the stairs (PSA: Don’t text and navigate staircases!) cut my evening very short. I had time to taste only a handful of spirits before leaving for treatment — shout-out to the crack ER team at Kaiser San Rafael! — but I did make it out with my tasting notes, at least.

I promise to make it up to you at WotW 2018. Until then, thoughts…

Scotch

Highland Park Fire Edition / A / drinking beautifully, light and supple, with lively floral overtones
Deanston 18 Years Old / A / a big surprise; bold and heavy with caramel, with shocking depth
Glengoyne Cask Strength / B+ / ample youth and cereal notes, with a light, sweet lemon finish
Compass Box Three Year Old Deluxe / B / nothing fancy, young and mushroomy; what’s the fuss about?
Glencadam 25 Years Old / B+ / quiet, with light vanilla and fruit notes; subtle
anCnoc 24 Years Old / A / chewy, loaded with raisins and cherry notes, plums on the back end

America

Low Gap Bavarian Wheat Whiskey Sauternes Finish / B+ / exotic, tropical fruit, dark toasted bread, and golden raisins
Low Gap 2013 Port Barrel Rye (barrel sample) / A- / chewy Port notes, with lots of heavy raisin and toasty oak notes; 4 years old now — no bottling decision made yet
Low Cap 2012 Cognac Barrel Rye (barrel sample) / B+ / hotter on the nose, with less barrel influence; needs more time; 5 years old now — to be bottled at age 8
High West Rendezvous Rye / A / always a standout; old rye with lots of apple and spice, classically structured
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 4.6 / A / mint and cherry notes, with some chocolate — a lovely rendition of the modern classic AMND

Japan

Fukano Whisky / B / single-distilled rice whisky; big cereal character surprises, slightly vegetal
Fukano Whisky Single Cask / B+ / a step up, with bolder apple and raisin, citrus oil notes
Ohishi Whisky Single Sherry Cask / A- / bold sherry  character with the lightness of a rice base; lovely combination

Re-Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (2017)

crown royal rye

In 2015, I reviewed Crown Royal Northern Rye. I thought it was OK. I graded it a B.

Later that year Jim Murray named it his whisky of the year, and all hell broke loose. A $30 Canadian whisky is the best whisky of the year? Sales went through the roof. The price shot up. Everyone asked me about the little whisky that could.

That’s bothered me for the last two years. Was I wrong? Was I missing the plot on this one? I reached out to Crown Royal to see if I could get a fresh sample, in order to see if I could suss out what I missed.

To refresh your memory, this is a 90% rye, bottled with no age statement. Let’s give a brand new bottle a fresh look.

Well, much as I said previously, the nose is loaded with dried apple notes, cinnamon, and caramel. It’s apple pie in a glass at least aromatically. I can see how someone would like it, but the fruit is so blown out that it strikes one as a a flavored spirit.

The palate offers few surprises, though the caramel is stronger and notes of barrel char, and, now that I explore it more deeply, a character closer to baked pear than apple. Slightly gummy and fragrant with cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, it’s got sweetness pushed almost to the breaking point, with a lasting finish that is fragrant but gummy.

In the end: I still don’t understand the fuss. In fact, I like it even less now than I used to. And no, I’m not trying to be contrarian, mom.

90 proof.

B- / $45 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hochstadter’s Family Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey 16 Years Old

Your best bet for old rye whiskey these days seems to be good old Albert Distillers Limited, which has been pumping the stuff out for decades.

Cooper Spirits bottled up some of this under its Hochstadter’s line (known for its Slow & Low and Vatted Rye bottlings) and calls it Hochstadter’s Family Reserve. Imbued with a 16 year old age statement, it’s made from a 100% rye recipe and bottled at cask strength.

This is a very sweet whiskey, heavy on the nose with notes of mint, tangerine, and lemon oil. Quite sharp and hot, the whiskey offers a palate of toasty oak impregnated with plenty of sweet fruit, including strawberries and oranges, and a thick layer of brown sugar. Water’s a big help here, and though it tempers the heat, it isn’t as effective with the sweetness, which endures for the long haul. The finish keeps everything on a familiar path, all torched sugar and fresh fruit — though tamed with water it does allow more of that classic rye baking spice to make it to the fore.

Old 100% rye is more common than it used to be, and you’ll still pay a pretty penny for it. At $200 for what amounts to a fairly simple whiskey though, that remains a tough trigger to pull.

123.8 proof.

B / $200 / hochstadtersfamilyreserve.com

Review: Yellowstone Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon 2016

Limestone Branch Distillery, based in Lebanon, Kentucky, is one of those craft distillers that is making whiskey (and moonshine) while also marketing sourced spirits, at least for the time being. Yellowstone is the company’s sourced brand, and in addition to some regular bottlings, it produces an annually released bourbon, which differs from year to year. (There’s no information on the sourcing location, but this is a Kentucky bourbon.)

For (late) 2016, Yellowstone LE, as it’s known, is a blend of two rye-recipe bourbons, a 12 year old and a 7 year old. The whiskeys were finished for several months in new, toasted wine barrels. Why? “We used 28 new wine barrels with varying levels of toast – I was interested in how toasting versus charring would contribute to the bourbon,” says Steve Beam, president and distiller of Limestone Branch Distillery.

The 2016 Limited Edition is a pretty little bourbon, reminiscent of any number of rye-heavy bourbons. Soft on the nose despite the 50.5% abv, it offers aromas of light caramel and butterscotch, with a healthy but not overdone dusting of baking spices. The palate is a bit hotter, with a more present woodiness, and a hint of mushroom, green pepper, and pine needles. At center stage is classic vanilla and caramel, some chocolate, and a red berry note that endures well into the finish — maybe a hint of the wine barrel treatment at last.

In the end, this is a perfectly credible and drinkable bourbon, though nothing about it is so remarkable as to make me leap up and throw hundred dollar bills at it. Because, you know, that’s what it costs.

101 proof. 7000 bottles produced.

B+ / $100 / limestonebranch.com

Review: Lost Spirits Distillery Abomination “The Crying of the Puma”

Recently we gave you an accounting of a strange little whiskey called Abomination, in which newly-Los Angeles-based Lost Spirits Distillery takes Islay white dog, puts it through its patented reactor, and a week later comes out with a heavily-peated, rapidly-aged “Scotch” unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

You may not recall that Abomination was being released in two renditions: The Crying of the Puma (aka red label) uses toasted wood from a “late harvest riesling barrel” and The Sayers of the Law (aka black label) uses charred wood from the same barrels. (As a reminder, since there is no such thing as a late harvest riesling barrel, because late harvest riesling is not aged in a barrel, Lost Spirits gets these casks made special.)

Lost Spirits was out of the Puma bottling at the time of our initial coverage, but the red label is finally back in stock and ready for our analysis. Thoughts follow.

I’ll be right up front and say that Sayers/black label is by far the better whiskey. It has a complexity that Puma/red label is largely missing. I did considerable side-by-side work to compare the two, and the differences are stark. Sayers is loaded up with all manner of flavors — lots of fruit, coffee bean, peppery roasted meats, and more — all filtered through classic, briny Islay. But Puma has a much different bent, with a much heavier focus on coffee beans, beef jerky, and salted pork — all evident on the nose and carrying over to the body. Nothing wrong with those flavors, but the underlying fruit components — which are there if you go spelunking — have a hard time finding their way through some seriously beastly smoke and meaty notes to make any impact on the palate. Water is a huge help at softening up a somewhat overbearing whiskey and helping coax out some floral elements, and a finish that recalls honey.

Completists and peat freaks may want to pick up a bottle of each of these to compare and contrast the duo, but if you’ve only got 50 bucks to spend, The Sayers of the Law sayeth the truth.

108 proof.

B / $50 / lostspirits.net

What Is Bottled-in-Bond Whiskey?

Occasionally, a new whiskey drinker will notice something unusual with select bottles of bourbon or American rye: There are occasional bottles that seem to share a long thin sticker over the cap of a bottle, that states that the whiskey is “bottled-in-bond.” What does the phrase mean, and what does it mean in practice for the whiskey itself? There’s a lot of history in those words, so sit back and enjoy a dive into the strange world of American alcohol production pre-Prohibition, where a Wild-West mentality prevailed and regulations were a whole lot looser than they are today.

As you may know, American whiskey production is heavily regulated, and if you put certain things — such as, say, the word “bourbon” — on the bottle’s label, that means that the contents of the bottle are adhering to said regulations; in the case of bourbon, that it’s made from a mash of at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred-oak barrels, among other things. Whiskey aficionados might be surprised to know that this wasn’t always the case. Especially before the turn of the 20th century, alcohol fraud was rampant. Bottlers could — and occasionally did — add water to paint thinner, pour in some coloring to turn it brown, and sell it as a bottle of bourbon to unsuspecting consumers. Less-sinister bottlers might merely add flavoring or coloring to their product, or water it down to stretch their alcohol supply a little longer.

In the 1890s the makers of legitimate bourbon had had enough of cheap imitations cutting into their profit margins and they took the matter to the courts, led by a name that those who appreciate fine American whiskey might recognize: Colonel E. H. Taylor, founder of what is now Buffalo Trace. The fight was bitter, with the defendants claiming that Taylor and his friends were just out to create a monopoly, but President Grover Cleveland took Taylor’s side when, on March 3, 1897, he signed the Bottled-in-Bond Act into law.

So that’s the history, but what does bottled-in-bond actually mean? Basically, it creates an avenue for government oversight on spirits distilled in America. We’ve been talking exclusively about whiskey, and for the most part you’ll only see bottled-in-bond whiskey, but there’s no hard and fast rule about that, and there are other types of American spirits that are bonded: Christian Brothers now makes a bonded brandy, for example.

In order to be able to call itself “bottled-in-bond,” a spirit has to follow the strict guidelines contained in the Bottled-in-Bond Act: It needs to be labelled with the same class of spirits that it actually contains within, the label has to contain the name of the actual distillery or the trade name the distillery uses for the spirits, it has to have been stored for at least four years in wood barrels, it can’t have anything added to or subtracted from it, and it has to be bottled at at least 100 proof. If a bottle meets what’s expected of them under the Act, it’s adorned with a sticker over the mouth of the bottle that states the season of production, the date of bottling, the proof of the spirit, and the district the distiller resides in. While it is aging, bonded whiskey is actually stored in locked, bonded warehouses which are routinely inspected by the government to ensure the rules are being followed.

So what’s the big deal about bottled-in-bond? Well these days, not much. In the age of bourbon fanatics who can learn everything there is to know about their favorite spirit online, not much is hidden from the consumer anymore (except perhaps for the actual distillery a sourced whiskey came from). To be honest, the Bottled-in-Bond Act, as well as the subsequent Pure Food and Drug Act, may have been so successful as to drive most illegitimate bottlers out of business. These days, the bottled-in-bond sticker is more of a marketing tool, a nostalgic throwback to pre-Prohibition spirits production.

That’s not to say that bottled-in-bond is meaningless, of course; because a bonded whiskey has to be aged for 4 years and bottled at 100 proof, when picking one up you can be reasonably sure you’re getting a solid bottle, and bonded whiskey tends to be fairly inexpensive. Old Grand-Dad Bonded and J.T.S. Brown are hidden gems for those in the know, both great 100 proof bourbons for under $30. Rittenhouse Rye is a wonderful and inexpensive bonded rye that makes a great manhattan, and even Jim Beam has a worthwhile bonded offering. Next time you find yourself deciding on a bottle of whiskey, don’t be afraid of the lower shelves, and if you see that bonded sticker on any of them, pick one up and savor a taste of whiskey history. It might become your new favorite bottle.

Review: Cadee Distillery Complete Lineup – Vodka, Gin, Bourbon, Rye, Deceptivus, and Cascadia

Based on the Isle of Whidbey, north of Seattle, Cadee (Gaelic for “pure”) is operated by a family of Scottish ex-pats with a passion for distilling. The distillery offers a wide range of spirits, from vodka to gin to a selection of whiskeys — clearly the focus here, considering the pride it takes in its oak barrel program.

We tasted, well, everything that Cadee makes. Thoughts on the complete lineup follow.

All bottles are individually numbered.

Cadee Distillery No. 4 Vodka – Distilled four times (hence the name) from unspecified grain. This is a prototypical modern vodka, a little mushroomy on the nose but balanced out with marshmallow-like sweetness that is particularly present on the creamy, versatile body. Hints of lemon and milk chocolate give the vodka some nuance, but otherwise it’s a straightforward and simply sweet vodka with mixing on its mind. 80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2. B+ / $29

Cadee Distillery Gin – Juniper-focused, but botanicals are not disclosed. Reportedly made from an 18th century recipe. This London dry style gin is indeed heavily perfumed with evergreen notes and a touch of forest floor funkiness, but the body offers more interest, with those juniper notes slowly fading to reveal a complex array of flavors that include marzipan, lemongrass, and mandarin oranges. It’s those distinct mandarins that linger on the finish for the long haul, giving this gin a particular uniqueness that merits exploration. 88 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6. A- / $36

Cadee Distillery Intrigue Gin – This is a distinct and separate gin expression, “full of character and botanicals, with a subtle citrus focus.” The mandarin notes from the standard gin are stronger here, particularly on the nose, which ride along with grapefruit and banana notes, plus some lime. That lime paints the way to the palate, which continues the heavily citrus (not at all “subtle”) theme, with more grapefruit and lemon notes, along with a healthy grind of black pepper and a touch of mint. For fans of fruit-forward vodka, this is a pretty and aromatic gin worth picking up. 88 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6. A / $36

Cadee Distillery Bourbon Whiskey – Aged in new, charred American oak barrels for a minimum of just eight months, but you could’ve fooled me. This is young whiskey, but it has a depth and maturity that I never see in craft bourbons. While the up-front speaks of buttered popcorn and salted caramel, what follows is a character that would indicate much more seriousness: ample vanilla, chocolate malt, some match-head barrel char, and hints of roasted meats, cloves, and a soothing, rye-like baking spice character on the finish. The up-front, grain-heavy character makes a subtle showing on said finish, alongside some notes of hemp rope and, at the very end, hints of sweet Sauternes wine. Kooky fun. 84 proof. Reviewed: Batch #4. B+ / $43

Cadee Distillery Rye Whiskey – Same aging regimen as the bourbon, but with a rye mash. This one’s not as successful as the bourbon, with much less maturity — which is understandable given that, well, it’s not terribly mature. Sugary cereal plays with some weedy and mushroomy notes on the nose, with a slight undercurrent of lemon peel. On the palate, it’s quite sweet but otherwise similar, with a continued focus on grain and earthier elements. The finish is on the tough side, though a lot of brown sugar sweetness hangs on well after the granary notes fade. 84 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3. C+ / $39

Cadee Distillery Deceptivus – This is essentially Cadee’s bourbon, finished (for an unstated amount of time) in first-fill Port barrels. (Real Port from Portugal, not some weird Washington “Port.”) The nose has that telltale winey fruitiness, all plums, prunes, and raisins, with a smattering of Christmas spices behind it, plus a hint of caramel corn. The palate is sweetish without being overblown, fruity without tasting like jam. It’s hard to go wrong with Port finishing, and here the wine and whiskey notes come together to create a dessert-like spirit that balance one another with notes of brown sugar, rum raisin ice cream, cinnamon sticks, roasted almonds, cocoa nibs, and lingering dark chocolate notes. One to pick up, for sure. 85 proof. Reviewed: Batch #6. A- / $49

Cadee Distillery Cascadia – The Port-finished version of the standard rye. The whiskey has a lovely, pinkish hue to it. Even the Port can’t tamp down the grain here, which is just as cereal-focused as the unfinished version, a bit leaden with notes of hemp and wet earth, plus overtones of menthol. The palate is more of a success, layering in fruit atop the cereal, here showcasing lighter notes of strawberry and grape jelly, some orange oil, and a slightly sour rhubarb edge. Again, the finish is boldly sweet, though not so overpowering as to make one grimace. 87 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3. B / $50

cadeedistillery.com

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