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

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

Review: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades

About a year ago, Wild Turkey announced the release of Decades, a rare blend of whiskies blended from Turkey stock up to 20 years old. And then… it disappeared. The whiskey was pulled right before it was supposed to hit the market, postponed to 2017.

Well folks, 2017 is here, and so is Master’s Keep Decades, the follow up to Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, a 17 year old straight bourbon. Decades is a blend of bourbons aged 10 to 20 years old, drawn from some of Wild Turkey’s oldest stock and bottled in honor of Eddie (the younger) Russell’s 35th anniversary at the distillery.

Decades is a mature whiskey to be sure, but it’s surprisingly demure considering its age. The nose is fresh and loaded with lots of aromas familiar to Wild Turkey veterans, including toffee, orange peel, clove-heavy baking spices, and ginger. The palate is initially lightly sweet with immediate and heavier overtones of ample barrel time, but as the wood settles down more of those sweeter elements manage to come through — milk chocolate, lemon oil, and more of those gingerbread and baking spice notes. It doesn’t come across as over-oaked or overbearing in any way. If I was tasting it blind, I wouldn’t have pegged this as a whiskey of advanced age.

If you like Wild Turkey or Russell’s Reserve, Decades is an expression that doesn’t disappoint, though — as with the original Master’s Keep — you’ll certainly pay for the privilege.

104 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1.

A- / $150 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard Kentucky Straight Bourbons

Hey, said Campari, Diageo and Buffalo Trace shouldn’t have all the fun with the “orphan barrel” mystique! We’ve got history too that we can exploit and turn into rare, collectable whiskey!

Enter the Whiskey Barons collection, a series of spirits that are now hitting the market, both loaded up to the hilt with backstory. Here’s some of it.

To bring back to life the Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard blends for the Whiskey Barons collection, Campari America conferred with T.B. Ripy IV and Tom Ripy, great-grandson and great-great-grandson of T.B. Ripy, and employed the talents of Norm Matella, Ph. D. and Campari America North American Technical Center Manager, and Robin Coupar, Campari America Global Whiskies Brand Ambassador. Together they analyzed historical documents, dipped into family archives and experimented with different blends to achieve a final product as close to the original whiskies as possible. The liquid was distilled at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY, which sits upon the same spot where the Ripy distillery once stood. Wild Turkey Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell were not involved with the creation of Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard, as they were fully committed with projects for Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve. However, moving forward, Eddie Russell will be pouring his passion and expertise into the development of future Whiskey Barons products while continuing in his award-winning role as Master Distiller and key product innovator for Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve.

So now we have Bond & Lillard and Old Ripy. A portion of the profits from each bottle sold will be donated towards the restoration of the historic Ripy Home in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky — which is being turned into a tourist destination.

Want more backstory on these whiskeys? You got it!

Born in Bourbon’s heartland in 1868, Old Ripy was created by Irish immigrant James Ripy and continued to be made in Lawrenceburg, KY, on the site of where the current Wild Turkey Distillery stands today, up until 1950. Back then, the Ripy family was ubiquitous in Anderson County’s bustling distilling community. They had opened several distilleries in the area, which remained in the family for generations. T.B. Ripy IV and Tom Ripy, the great grandson and great great grandson of T.B. Ripy, advised throughout the project on packaging and liquid development – calling upon original bottlings, brochures, and family stories to help us recreate what we can honestly say is the closest representation of the original Old Ripy brand possible.

Bond & Lillard was a trusted name in the pre-Prohibition whiskey industry. It was first distilled by John Bond in what was then called, Cedar Run, KY (now known as Anderson County), in 1820. A veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Bond moved his distilling operation closer to Lawrenceburg, KY after the war. In 1842, he left the company to his son and grandson, David and William. William would go on to form a partnership with his brother-in-law, C.C. Lillard in 1869, and they began labelling the product Bond & Lillard. The business stayed in their families until 1899 and was so revered that it won the Grand Prize at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Using the same tasting notes the judges wrote down during the World’s Fair in 1904, we recreated this winning recipe.

We tasted both of these novelty acts. Thoughts follow. Both are denoted as batch #1, though it’s hard to tell if all the bottles released will be from batch #1.

Old Ripy Kentucky Straight Bourbon – “Old Ripy is a combination of 8-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon with 12-year-old and younger whiskies for added complexity and oak. It is distilled at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Anderson County, aged in timber warehouses and non-chill filtered.” This is a big whiskey, one that comes across immediately like Wild Turkey, probably in part because it’s bottled at 52% abv. Bold and spicy, the nose is full of notes of baking spice, heavy barrel char, and super-sweet dying flowers. On the palate, it’s got plenty of fruit — golden raisins, baked apples, plus ample notes of vanilla ice cream and toffee. The finish plays up the wood — this isn’t a youthful whiskey by any means — going out with a modest amount of tannin that ends up in the realm of dark chocolate, cloves, and cinnamon. Altogether it’s an impressive (albeit expensive) bourbon that’s been patiently aged and has plenty of charm to showcase as a result. 104 proof. A- / $50 (375ml)

Bond & Lillard Kentucky Straight Bourbon – “Distilled and bottled and at the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY, this Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is aged a minimum of seven years in timber warehouses and is charcoal filtered.” There’s more of a butterscotch note on the nose here, candylike at time with vanilla syrup and hints of lemon oil. On the palate, it’s again quite fruity, though clearly younger than Old Ripy, with a clearer bloodline to its corn-heavy roots. Secondary notes run toward mint, orange peel, brown sugar, and a finish that echoes barrel char. While it’s a less well-realized whiskey than Old Ripy, it’s got ample character to hold its own and merit sampling by bourbon enthusiasts. 100 proof. B+ / $50 (375ml)

no website

Pappy Van Winkle Gets Older, Releases 25 Year Old Expression

Almost three years ago to the day, we were reporting on a Van Winkle 28 year old blend lurking in the cellars of Sazerac. Sadly, this expression was never to see a full release, leaving us no choice but to remain content with thousands of articles about the 23 and 20 year old varieties and nationwide frenzy of lotteries and raffles in an effort to obtain the precious gold.

Fast forward to yesterday, when the announcement broke regarding a 25 year old Pappy coming out of the woodwork. From the press release:

Each decanter is packaged in a handmade wooden box crafted in North Carolina by James Broyhill II of Heritage Handcrafted. The lid is constructed using the oak staves from the 11 barrels that held this bourbon. The outside of the box bears a metal plaque with the Old Rip Van Winkle logo and states “asleep 25 years in the wood.”

This batch came from 11 barrels, resulting in 710 bottles overall. Buffalo Trace has put a suggested retail pricing of $1,800 per 750ml bottle, a well-intentioned recommendation which will no doubt be adhered to by non profit-minded shopkeepers lucky enough to get their anti-capitalist hands on one. It’s looking like the new Pappy has a shipping date of April, so start camping out at your local store now before it’s too late!

Review: High West Bourye (2017)

The latest batch of High West’s Bourye blend of bourbon and rye whiskeys comes with a new label to boot. Now the jackalope is much larger and in full focus, better to connote the “limited sighting” that Bourye always represents.

High West normally tells you more about the individual whiskeys in each bottling, but this year it plays things a little closer to the vest (namely the ages of each individual whiskey in the blend). Here’s what we know about the 2017 release:

• A blend of straight Bourbon and Rye whiskeys aged from 10 to 14 years
• Straight Rye Whiskey: 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP & 53% rye, 37% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery
• Straight Bourbon Whiskey: 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt from MGP

And here’s what it tastes like.

This is a sweeter expression of Bourye (particular vs. last year’s release), which makes it dangerously easy to sip on. The nose is heavily aromatic with gingerbread, baking spices, marzipan, and candied nuts, giving it a real Christmas cake character that makes one wish it had come out two months ago. No matter, we can drink it today just as well.

On the palate, notes of apricot and orange give way to brown sugar, chocolate, molasses, and more of that spicy gingerbread character. Out of all of that, it’s lingering cloves on the finish and some smoldering burnt sugar notes, giving it just a hint of savoriness. All in all, say what you want about sourced whiskey — this just goes to show that High West knows how to find true honey barrels and blend them together with sustained and impressive skill.

92 proof. Reviewed: Batch 17A17.

A / $80 / highwest.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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