Review: Vinn Distillery Vodka, Baijiu, Whiskey, and Blackberry Liqueur

Vinn Distillery is a family-owned distiller based in Wilsonville, Oregon, where it makes all of its products from non-GMO rice. That includes vodka, whiskey, baijiu, and a blackberry liqueur. How far can a little rice go in today’s distillery universe? Let’s dig in to the full lineup.

Vinn Distillery Vodka – Reportedly the first rice vodka produced and bottled in the USA. The nose is heavy with musty grain notes, a surprise given the base of rice, but the palate shows more promise. Here, a bracing astringency finds balance in just the right amount of marshmallow sweetness and a little lemon. The finish is bright and fairly clean, with only a hint of that grainy note that mars the nose. 80 proof. B / $38

Vinn Distillery Baijiu – Punch up the cereal-meets-mushroom note in the vodka by a factor of 10 and you’ve got this baijiu, which is always a funk-fest in the making. The nose of a tire fire and musty attic don’t do many favors from the start, but the palate is mercifully lighter than that. Here it comes across more like a white whiskey, with a more lightly toasted cereal note that lingers for minutes. Notes of soy sauce and canned green beans give the finish, well, something unique. 80 proof. C- / $54

Vinn Distillery Whiskey – The first rice whiskey produced and bottled in the USA, aged in #4 charred miniature barrels (the first batch was held in mere one liter barrels; no telling about the current one). It’s on the young side, for sure, but surprising throughout, with a nose of spiced nuts and butterscotch, at play amidst notes of solvent, the whiskey showing its youth here the most stridently. The palate is a bit of a surprise, spicy and quite nutty, with a bold butterscotch sweetness that makes the spirit feel more mature than it otherwise might. In time, some of the more astringent notes burn off, leaving behind a surprisingly rounded and sophisticated finish. An impressive craft whiskey, particularly considering it’s made entirely from rice. 80 proof. B+ / $30 (375ml)

Vinn Distillery Blackberry Liqueur – Finally, this liqueur is made from Vinn vodka, plus Oregon blackberries and cane sugar. It’s also brought down to a more typical abv for liqueurs. Sweet and fruity, there’s no real essence of whiskey here, as the blackberries and sugar do all the talking. The fruit isn’t particularly distinct as blackberry, as the syrupy sugar character really does most of the heavy lifting. That said, as a creme de mure cocktail ingredient goes, it’s a perfectly acceptable expression. 56 proof. B / $NA

Tasting Report: WhiskyLIVE Washington DC 2018

Whiskey festivals come in all shapes and sizes, but WhiskyLIVE consistently produces a very approachable event for a fan at any stage in their whiskey obsession. There’s a good balance of offerings from industry heavy hitters and smaller craft outfits, as well as the occasional downright weird bottling. This year, I got to taste whiskey the way George Washington made it, but I somehow missed the 28-year-old Czech single malt (which I’m not sure I regret). There were no real standouts from our side of the pond this year (no duds really, either), but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed some of the line-up from Australian distiller Limeburners, as well as one or two other international whiskeys. Abbreviated thoughts on (most) everything tasted follow.


Elijah Craig 18 Years Old / B+ / familiar oak and cinnamon notes; not as balanced as previous releases

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch A118) / B+ / another fine barrel proof release from Heaven Hill; drinking a little hot

Wathen’s Barrel Proof Bourbon (Jack Rose Private Selection) / A- / extremely approachable at cask strength; full of clove and orange peel

Kentucky Peerless Rye Whiskey / A- / complex and rich for its age with a great balance between the rye spice and sweeter elements

Maker’s Mark Bourbon Private Select (Whisky Magazine & Schneider’s of Capitol Hill) / B+ / bold and complex but a little too sweet

Journeyman Last Feather Rye Whiskey / B / light and grainy with good clove and caramel notes

Journeyman Silver Cross Whiskey / A- / cereal-forward with a minty sweetness and chocolate and cola notes

Widow Jane 10 Year Single Barrel Bourbon / A- / baking spice and a little dark chocolate; surprisingly good, if straightforward, (sourced) bourbon

Widow Jane Rye Mash, Oak and Apple Wood Aged / B- / medicinal nose saved by notes of overripe apple and pear, thin and unbalanced

Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye “Maple Finished” Cask Proof / A- / syrupy but not too sweet to overpower a complex

Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select / A- / tastes like Jack Daniel’s but better

George Washington’s Rye Whiskey (unaged) / B / baked cereal and creamy with a heavy corn sweetness

George Washington’s Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old / B- / chewy vanilla notes but unbalanced and astringent

George Washington’s Rye Whiskey 4 Years Old / B+ / age has clearly brought balance along with toffee and caramel notes; could be something special in a few more years


Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso / B / jam toast on the nose; light-bodied with a little too much sherry influence

The Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A- / stewed fruit; sweet and earthy with an interesting chocolate covered cherry note

Aberlour 18 Years Old / B+ / a little hot with a good balance of raisin and creamy cola notes

Tamdhu Cask Strength / A- / rich, honeyed body with dried dark fruit and a little lemon zest, easy drinking at this proof (58.5%)

Glenglassaugh Revival / B / sweet, citrusy, meaty, and earthy; a bit all over the place

Benriach 10 Years Old / A- / complex and bold for its youth with great pear and citrus notes

Glendronach 12 Years Old / A / great balance of wood and honeyed dark fruit notes; a gateway single malt if there ever was one

Glendronach 18 Years Old / A- / more of a raisin quality than its younger sibling with a slightly thicker body and just as enjoyable

Bruichladdich Black Art 5.1 / B / a bit flat and woody underneath all the smoke and meat

Deanston 20 Years Old / A- / a great sherry-aged whisky old enough to provide a solid baking spice punch


Limeburners Single Malt Whisky Port Cask / A- / creamy nose, dark fruits on the palate with a great caramelized sugar note

Limeburners Tiger Snake Whiskey / A / big cherry sweetness and mounds of brown sugar; one of my favorites of the evening

Amrut Port Pipe Single Cask Whisky / B+ / honeyed palate with a good balance of smoke and raisin notes

Glendalough 13 Year Old Irish Whiskey Mizunara Finish / A / pecan praline ice cream with a dusting of raw coconut; an already great Irish whiskey elevated

Crown Royal XO Canadian Whisky / B+ / silky body with rich oak and subtle nuttiness; the cognac influence is pronounced on this one

Brenne 10 Year Old French Single Malt Whisky / B / herbal and floral, but almost too much so

Lot 40 Cask Strength Canadian Whisky / A+ / massive palate full of bold, fruity rye spice and rich caramel; one of the better Canadian whiskies I’ve ever tasted

Review: Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye (2018)

Last encountered in 2015, Craft Distillers’ Low Gap Rye was at the time a two-year old whiskey that didn’t seem to be getting any older. As a matter of fact, distiller Crispin Cain is out with a new version of Low Gap Rye and, again, it’s a mere babe at just two years of age.

This expression doesn’t change a whole lot, at least on paper. As with prior batches, this is a malted rye with the addition of some corn and barley, aged in new and used bourbon and Germain-Robin brandy barrels. The proof is just a tick lower, and it’s a bit more expensive, but otherwise this is basically made with the same process.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not a different product… so let’s dig into the 2018 rendition of Low Gap Rye.

For a two year old whiskey, Low Gap Rye really has a surprising level of nuance. It’s not without a rocky start, though the initial aromatics are heavy on the cereal grain, with some pet food notes, a bit of hemp rope, and a briny smoke element.

The good news is that the palate finds a lot more going on, a rich honey character that initially rushes the mouth before sliding into some notes of raisins, coconut, and a little milk chocolate. Some work seems to have been done to round out the finish, which is much more approachable than the 2015 and is actually quite clean. As that finish fades, I get some hints of mint and butterscotch, making this a more complex and interesting spirit than that older version. Definitely worth a dram or two.

87.4 proof. 3900 bottles produced (this batch).

B+ / $75 /

Review: Southern Grace Distilleries Conviction Small Batch Bourbon

Southern Grace Distilleries is a relatively new craft distillery housed in a former North Carolina prison. That’s right. A prison. In late 2016 the distillery released its first small batch bourbon, appropriately named Conviction. The whiskey is made from a mash of 88% corn and 12% malted barley. It’s bottled at cask strength after aging for less than a year in former jail cells at what has come to be known as “Whiskey Prison.” According to the website, Conviction is the first bourbon to ever be (legally) aged behind bars, and while that doesn’t exactly conjure images of quality or fine flavor, we were actually surprised with the final product.

On the nose, Conviction shows the expected dose of cereal notes, but they’re baked and caramelized, not raw or grassy as can often be the case in a young spirit. There’s a pleasant caramel corn sweetness, as well, along with lighter aromas of apple and molasses. The body is sizable given its youth, and it offers a surprising richness of flavor. Again, there are initial grain notes that suggest this whiskey may have escaped from prison too soon, but they evolve quickly into toffee, caramel, baking chocolate, and cola with vanilla frosting and a sprinkling of spice cabinet on a medium-length finish. One of the secrets here, I suspect, is Conviction’s low proof at barrel entry (100 proof) which gives this whiskey a good concentration of flavors for its youth and a very approachable heat, even at cask strength.

In the increasingly crowded world of craft whiskey, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out even with a quality product like Conviction Small Batch Bourbon. I wish I could say that whiskey distilled in a former prison is the pinnacle of gimmick in the world of craft distilling. But I’m sure it’s just the beginning.

97.72 proof.

B+ / $36 /

Revisiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, 2018

Back in 2011, I took my first trip to Kentucky, endeavoring to visit every distillery that was open to visitors at the time. Since then, a lot has changed, as bourbon mania has led in turn to bourbon tourism mania. In the last seven years, the region, and the Bourbon Trail itself, has exploded with new distilleries, bigger visitor centers, and enhanced touring experiences.

On a recent visit to Kentucky, I re-toured a few old faces plus one of the new guard, to see how the picture of Kentucky had changed in the intervening years. Fresh thoughts on each of the four distilleries we visited follow — though note, there is plenty more going on in Kentucky beyond this!

Jim Beam

Beam built a new visitor’s center in 2012, tripling the size of its old space (the old center is now the tasting room). It’s also wildly revamped its tour, thanks to the construction of a miniature version of the Beam fermentation tanks and column still. In this mini-distillery, visitors can get the full distilling experience on a more manageable scale — though the setup is fully operational and actually making whiskey. As the lengthy tour continues, visitors get to physically turn out (some of) a barrel of Knob Creek, sanitize a bottle of KC Single Barrel on the bottling line, and put their own thumbprint into its wax seal (presuming you want to actually buy said bottle). Afterwards, well over a dozen of Beam’s products are available for tasting via tricked-out wine bar dispensers: Insert your key card and the dispenser ejects a bit of Baker’s, Knob Creek, or even, god help you, Jim Beam Vanilla — everything but Booker’s, really — into your tasting glass. Three samples max! (That’s the law!)

Wild Turkey

Like Beam, Wild Turkey recently upgraded its visitor’s center, dramatically increasing its size and installing a tasting room that overlooks the Kentucky River from several hundred feet up. It’s a breathtaking space, though you might miss it if you spend too much time chatting with legendary distillers Jimmy and/or Eddie Russell, who are seemingly fixtures here, happy to chit-chat with just about anyone who happens inside. Wild Turkey’s tour is quick and informative, ending with a tasting of four of Turkey’s products — none of which, oddly, is its flagship 101.

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace never seems to stop moving, and though this was my third visit to the distillery, I saw nothing but new features on a private tour. The first stop was BT’s gargantuan new warehouses, which are still being painted as they’re being filled with whiskey. Barrels were being rolled into the ricks right in front of us, trucked up from the distillery just downhill. (Check our Instagram for some video.) The distillery will build a new warehouse every five months for the next ten years, clearly a sign that it thinks bourbon mania isn’t about to let up. The other attraction — and one which regular visitors can actually experience — is the distillery’s “Bourbon Pompeii,” an excavation of the original OFC Distillery, on top of which Buffalo Trace was (much later) built. The ruins of the original fermentation tanks and bits of stills have been unearthed and preserved in a full museum-like experience on the BT grounds. It’s a fascinating journey back to nearly 150 years ago that any whiskey (or history) fan should experience should they find themselves at the distillery.

Town Branch

The young gun of this mix, Town Branch’s brewery/distillery opened only in 2012, and it’s unique because a) it’s in the city of Lexington, not out in the boonies, and b) it started off as a beermaking operation. On a tour here you can see both sides of the street (literally), seeing the (very small) brewery and tasting a number of its products (including its whiskey barrel-aged beers). Next you can visit the distillery, where two copper pot stills are used to create not just bourbon, but single malt whiskey, gin, and, now, rum, which was fermenting on site during our visit. Town Branch’s spirits tasting is impressive, running through all of the above (including an imported rum and Irish whiskey). While the distillery has not won many plaudits for its lackluster rack bourbon, its single barrel bourbon expression is a delight, as are both of its single malts (particularly the reserve expression), which are aged not in new oak but in its twice-used bourbon/beer barrels, proof that new oak makes a tragic mess out of single malt. Best of all, it’s all about a mile from downtown Lexington, making it easy to get in and out of.

Review: Old Fitzgerald Bourbon and Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

Old Fitzgerald is one of the more storied brands in bourbon history. First produced in 1870, it became a wheated bourbon only after being acquired by Pappy Van Winkle after Prohibition. The brand was one of the flagship offerings from Van Winkle’s infamous Stitzel-Weller Distillery until it shut its doors in 1992. The name is emblazoned on a smokestack at the distillery (now Diageo’s Bulleit Frontier Experiece) to this day.

In 1999, Heaven Hill Distillery acquired the brand and adjusted the mashbill while still keeping the wheat component at 20%. Since that time, Old Fitzgerald has resided on the middle shelf in both an 80 proof and 100 proof, bottled-in-bond offering. With the increased popularity of Larceny, Heaven Hill’s older wheated bourbon made from the same mashbill, Old Fitzgerald has become harder to find. Recently, Heaven Hill announced a new addition to the line that will almost certainly reside on the top shelf: an 11-year-old, bottled-in-bond expression of Old Fitzgerald.

While we wait for that one, we thought we’d sample the brand’s current value-oriented offerings. Thoughts follow.

Old Fitzgerald Straight Bourbon Whiskey – The nose on this whiskey is light, corn sweet, and a bit grassy with honey and a slight floor polish note. It’s thin on the palate and mild with traces of  caramel, burnt sugar, and wood. This screams young bourbon. Or rather it whispers it. Nothing about this whiskey jumps out at you. There’s minimal heat on the palate, making for a very soft mouthfeel and easy sipping, but it’s so one-dimensional that it’s hard to recommend. This is bourbon for drinking fast or mixing with something else. 80 proof. C+ / $14

Old Fitzgerald Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-in-Bond – The nose on the 100 proof version of Old Fitzgerald is similarly light, with less of the corn sweetness, more caramel, and that same floor polish note, albeit more subdued. On the palate, it’s a little thicker than the standard offering with oak and subtle cinnamon, butterscotch, and mint notes. It’s also clearly a young bourbon (though at least four years old), but with more heat, spice, and complexity than the standard offering. This is still a bourbon best mixed, but it’s my favorite of the two by far. B / $18

Review: Barrell Whiskey Batch 5

The folks at Louisville-based Barrell continue to crank out spirits — having moved on from solely bottling bourbon to now making blended whiskey, rye, and rum.

Batch #5 carries a 9 year old age statement and is a blend of four whiskeys, finished separately in bourbon, American brandy, Cognac, and amaro barrels.

It’s a capable and somewhat unusual whiskey, but not Barrell’s best, lacking a bit on the balance front.

The nose features a honey/spice character, with notes of clove oil, some mint, and a gentle but clear popcorn character. The palate, at full strength, is bruisingly hot, so don’t be shy with the water. This batch can manage a healthy amount of it, and I watered it down considerably to make the spirit approachable. Once tempered, a mixed bag of cereal notes leads the way to a certain sweetness that features notes of tea leaf, cinnamon, and some cardamom. It all leads toward a finish the showcases that popcorn character again, but tempered with spices. Though it’s rather dry, it does hint at butterscotch, giving it a bit of life on the back end.

118.4 proof.

B / $60 /