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: 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

A Visit to Jack Daniel’s Distillery

With sales of nearly 12 million cases per year, Jack Daniel’s is far and away the biggest whiskey brand in the world. No one else even comes remotely close. And if you spend any amount of time at the home of Old No. 7 in Lynchburg, Tennessee, you’ll be told in no uncertain terms who you can thank for that: Frank Sinatra, who discovered the brand in the 1960s and singlehandedly rescued it from obscurity.

It’s easy to dismiss JD as a factory whiskey, a boring brand well past its prime that may as well be made by robots. But take a tour of Jack Daniel’s mammoth operation and you’ll see that Old Blue Eyes might have been on to something. While the distillery is huge and complex – with over 500 people working here – every facet of production remains under the control of the distillery or parent company Brown-Forman.

In a private tour given by Assistant Master Distiller Chris Fletcher, son of JD’s fifth Master Distiller Frank Bobo, we walked through every step of the process. The front end of that looks a lot like you’d see in any bourbon house: JD trucks in corn, rye, and barley (the proportions are 80/8/12, respectively), then puts it through one of 64 fermenters before it heads through the 40-foot-tall copper column stills for distillation.

Before it hits the barrel, of course, the whiskey must be filtered through maple charcoal – part of the law that separates Tennessee whiskey from bourbon – in what is known as the Lincoln County Process. It’s important to note that this filtration happens before aging. Whiskey goes into the charcoal as white dog and it comes out as white dog, though it tastes completely different. (More on that later.)

Out back, stacks of maple staves, dried on site, are burnt to charcoal by trained firefighters. JD is proud of its charcoal filtering and boasts that bourbon is only used in one place: As a fire-starter to get those maple staves blazing. The coals go into one of 72 vats packed 10 feet high, into which the white whiskey is slowly dripped. It takes three days to make its way to the bottom, at a rate of less than 2 gallons per minute. When it does make it through, it is finally put into barrels and stored on site in one of Jack’s 88 warehouses. (All barrels come from Brown-Forman’s own cooperage, which also supplies Woodford Reserve and Old Forester; in a unique twist, these are well toasted before charring to an equivalent of a #4 char.)

Old No. 7 has no age statement, but is typically 4 to 5 years old, as is Gentleman Jack. The Single Barrel releases tend to run toward 7 to 8 years of age. Also worth noting: All the water used for the mash and for proofing comes from the distillery’s on-site spring, which is why JD is located here, out in the middle of nowhere, about a 90-minute drive from Nashville. Jack doesn’t even leave its yeast or bacteria strains to chance. They are all cultured on site and delivered to each fermentation run as they’re needed.

Of course, every good distillery tour must end with a tasting, though up until a few years ago it was illegal to taste the whiskey they make here, until Tennessee changed the law regarding tastings in a dry county like Moore County. JD now has a swanky tasting area built into one of its small warehouses; we moved on to a private tasting in one of the offices to sample the bourbon line (leaving the flavored whiskeys to sample on another day).

A lot of these whiskies will surely be familiar to many of you, but it was nice to taste them comparatively and in the backyard in which they were made. Some thoughts follow (in the order tasted).

Jack Daniel’s Unmatured – Before Charcoal Mellowing – Here’s the white dog, straight off the still. Corn-heavy, slightly bitter… it could be any old white lightning. (Tasted at 80 proof.)

Jack Daniel’s Unmatured – After Charcoal Mellowing – Quite a different experience, as the grain notes are stripped down and replaced with floral elements and lots of fruit – banana and apple, especially. Eye-opening, and perhaps the clearest argument of why Tennessee whiskey ought to be classified separately from bourbon. (Tasted at 80 proof.)

Gentleman Jack – Invented in 1988 to compete with the white spirits craze, Gentleman Jack is basically Old No. 7 that goes through 3 extra feet of charcoal filtration after it is aged. This results in a lighter (literally, it’s a much paler color) whiskey that shows more fruit while finishing clean. On that front, it succeeds, and the whiskey is an easy sipper that also mixes nicely. 80 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – The Single Barrel program began in 1997 to give connoisseurs a more fully-aged, higher proof version of JD. Old No. 7 dropped from 90 to 86 proof in the 1980s, and again to today’s 80 proof in 2002. (Imagine the outcry if that happened today!) If that didn’t get you there, well, JD could tell you to try Single Barrel. These are honey barrels from upper floors of the JD warehouses, and you can feel the lushness that comes with a few extra years of age. Bold and butterscotch-heavy, with big dessert-like sweetness, caramel, cloves, and ample barrel char, this is the way JD really ought to be consumed. 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 – It is tough to go from Single Barrel back to the mainline product, as it pales in comparison to the Single Barrel. Here it comes across as a bit thin, green with vegetal notes, and more barrel forward, though cloves do hit the nostrils, and are evident on the finish. 80 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Rye Single Barrel – JD’s rye program has been years in the making, and its single barrel offering is now for sale in limited quantities. A batched, standard-edition release is likely to finally hit the market later this year. It’s got a bit of a medicinal note, with black pepper and dill following, while the finish picks up the pace with toffee and spice character. This is drinking quite well today and merits sampling. 94 proof.

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof – This is a selection from the private barrel selection program (of which we’ve reviewed a few), which is effectively a Single Barrel selection bottled at full strength. This one showcases menthol, more visible caramel corn notes, dense and dark spices. Let it linger in the glass and more of that butterscotch makes it to the fore. 132.5 proof (bottles vary widely).

Of course, no visit to Lynchburg would be complete without a proper southern lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, which is just up the road and which has served this community since 1913. Served family style and hosted by one of Lynchburg’s locals, it’s the only way to complete a long day of touring and tasting.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest Washington DC 2017

WhiskyFest remains one of the best ways to meet other spirits enthusiasts, hear from some of the industry’s biggest names, and of course try a wide variety of whisk(e)y, including many hard-to-find and expensive offerings. The VIP ticket, which provides an additional hour of sampling, is particularly useful for discovering the true rarities, as most exhibitors showcase a special bottle (sometimes literally just one) only for that hour. Although celebrating its 20th year in 2017, this was only the second time the event has been held in my backyard of Washington, DC. As with years past, I discovered some real gems, sampled heavily, and stopped being able to really taste anything after about 8 o’clock. Notes on everything before that are below.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest Washington DC 2017

Scotch

AnCnoc Highland Single Malt Vintage 2001 / B / a golden, creamy whiskey with some pleasant stone fruit notes
Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 3 / A / a real standout this year; sugar cookie nose with layers of dried fruit and baking spice notes; honeyed with a long finish
Deanston 20 Years Old / A- / the Oloroso finish shines at cask strength along with hints of gingerbread and a syrupy sweetness
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A / incredibly balanced and sultry; sweet smoke nose and a palate full of iodine and sugary oak
Compass Box Spice Tree Extravaganza / B / sweet and floral with coconut on the palate; a bit thin
Compass Box This is Not a Luxury Whisky / B+ / bolder than expected and almost too sweet, but wonderfully smoky with faint dark fruit notes on the finish
Ardbeg Kelpie Committee Release / A / matured in virgin oak from the Black Sea region; the palate is chocked full of sweet, oriental spices in addition to the honeyed brine and peat smoke of traditional Ardbeg
Ardbeg Kildalton / A- / a mix of sherry and bourbon casks; soft on the nose and gentle on the palate with a good balance of vanilla sweetness and raisin notes
Craigellachie 23 Years Old / B+ / the oldest Craigellachie in the range described as “meaty,” but I was getting more fruit and herbal notes on the palate
Alexander Murray & Co. The Glenrothes 22 Years Old / B- / honey sweet with minimal complexity; some anise and spice on the finish
Balblair 1983 / A / tons of caramel on the nose with a rich bourbon-inspired palate, cinnamon biscuit and semi-sweet chocolate developing into a slightly smoky, brown sugar finish

American

William Larue Weller / A- / cinnamon sugar nose with a syrupy palate that leaves a fantastic menthol and cinnamon RedHot flavor in the roof of the mouth
George T. Stagg / A- / hot brown sugar under loads of alcohol (72%!) but developing into chocolate and pipe tobacco
Blood Oath Pact No. 3 / A / rich caramel and dark fruit nose with a vanilla custard and berry palate, slightly drying on a long finish
Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey / B+ / sweet with subtle rye spice on the nose, dark fruit and a little dill on the palate; good balance of the sherry and rye
Yellowstone Limited Edition 101 Proof / A- / great oak nose and subtle red fruit notes layered with toffee and rye spice
Elijah Craig 23 Year / B+ / caramel and oak nose with a palate dominated by cinnamon and drying tannins
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition / B / more fruit on the palate than the standard small batch but lacking the complexity and body of previous editions
Hillrock Sauternes Finished Rye / B- / black tea and caramel nose but the palate seems unbalanced; clove and rye spice overpower the dark fruit in the wine cask
Hillrock Sauternes Finished Bourbon / B+ / floral nose with vanilla; baking spice notes integrate well with the wine cask, leaving a lingering raisin quality on the finish
Sagamore Spirit Cask Strength / A- / a great craft, cask strength rye; rich honey and vanilla on the nose with a creamy texture showcasing more of the same on the palate along with a warming rye spice
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades / B+ / a complex nose, chewy body, but the palate falls flat with too much menthol and candy corn
FEW Spirits Bourbon (Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary Bottling) / B / a touch of grain and shoe polish on the nose, tart cherry notes on the palate fading to cinnamon; interesting but not exactly an easy sipper

Irish

The Quiet Man Traditional / B+ / light on the nose with a buttery palate showcasing simple but enjoyable vanilla and faint citrus notes
The Quiet Man Single Malt 8 Years Old / A- / toasted cereal nose with honeysuckle; a luscious palate that is also soft and light with vanilla, fresh ground cinnamon, and nutmeg

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