Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric Bourbon 23 Years Old

Diageo’s Rhetoric brand, part of the Orphan Barrel Project, is now on its fourth of six total expressions. The 20 year old arrived in 2014, followed by annual updates in the form of the 21 year old and 22 year old versions. Today we look at #4, Rhetoric 23 Years Old.

As a refresher, as the story goes, Rhetoric stocks were found in the old Stitzel-Weller warehouses in Louisville. It was distilled between 1990 and 1993 at the Bernheim Distillery while owned and operated by United Distillers., from a mash of 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye. Bottling is done in Tennessee.

All told, the 23 is showing similar characteristics to the 22 year old, perhaps with a slightly more woody edge to it. That aside, on the nose it still carries ample fruit — oranges, cherries, and a solid slug of chocolate. The palate carries a heavy wood and barrel char profile, but it’s tempered with butterscotch, bergamot, and some tropical notes, particularly coconut. The finish is quite tannic, almost bitter at time and showing lots of grip, slightly smoky and with hints of black pepper.

All told, Rhetoric is still holding its own, though at this point the wood is beginning to dominate the other elements. We’ll see how the next two expressions fare on that regard.

90.6 proof.

A- / $120 / diageo.com

Review: Blood Oath Bourbon Whiskey Pact No. 3 2017

The third installment of Luxco’s annual Blood Oath series, Pact No. 3, was released in March of this year, and as with previous releases it’s a product of significant creativity. Like Pact No. 1 and Pact No. 2 before it, this release is a blend of three different rye-heavy bourbons ranging in age from seven to twelve years old.

Pact No. 3 is nothing if not rye-forward, with all of the component bourbons in the latest release having a high rye mashbill, although the exact rye content is not specified. Building on the success of last year’s blend, which included a Port-finished whiskey, one of the bourbons in Pact No. 3 is finished in cabernet sauvignon barrels. Wine cask finishing is still not common in the bourbon world, and the use of cabernet sauvignon casks is even rarer (only Jefferson’s Reserve Groth Reserve comes to mind). Luxco partnered with Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley to procure the wine barrels for this release, and according to the creator of Blood Oath, John Rempe, the use of this particular type of wine cask allowed for the creation of “more character and depth” in the resulting bourbon.

I have to agree with Rempe. This whiskey packs character and depth aplenty. On the nose, Pact No. 3 shows notes of brown sugar, caramel, and stewed red fruit with just a slight mint quality underneath it all. The palate is rich and oily with oak, vanilla, tons of chewy caramel, and subtle dark chocolate. The rye spice only really arrives on the back end, but it adds a wonderful richness to the finish, which is long and warming with lingering black cherry and cinnamon notes.

Although Blood Oath remains a sourced product, Luxco’s new distillery in Bardstown, Lux Row Distillers, will soon begin producing and aging future releases for the line. If they make whiskey as well as they source and blend it, we all have a lot to look forward to.

98.6 proof. 30,000 bottles produced.

A / $100 / bloodoathbourbon.com

Review: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch B517 (May 2017)

As we reported in January, Heaven Hill recently revamped the way Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was being presented, and that bottles would now carry a batch ID on each label, the first being A117 in January.

Now the second release of the 12 year old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for 2017 is here: B517, signifying May 2017. Here’s a look at this offering, compared side by side with the 127-proof A117 release and the original 2013 release of this whiskey.

Though lighter in proof than even the comparatively quiet A117, this is an Elijah Craig release that’s bold and full of flavor. On the nose, the whiskey is immediately redolent of buttered popcorn, tempered with lots of baking spice, dried ginger, barrel char, and butterscotch. The palate follows along in lockstep — though it ultimately shows itself to be a bit more bittersweet than expected, with quite strong and tannic notes of scorched wood on the back of the palate. Water’s a huge friend here, bringing out notes of brown sugar, orange peel, and sweet licorice candy — and going a long way toward taming that bitter, barrel-driven element in the bourbon.

As with earlier expressions of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, this is a cask strength release that benefits from a careful hand, exposure to air, and a healthy amount of water at the ready. Give it a try, no question.

124.2 proof. (Updated photo unfortunately not available.)

A- / $90 / heavenhill.com

Review: Finger Lakes Distilling McKenzie Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey

When we last spent time with New York-based Finger Lakes Distilling and its McKenzie whiskey brand, we found some young craft spirits that showed promise but which surely would benefit from time in barrel. Well, four years later, that time has passed, and McKenzie is out with a Single Barrel Bourbon release which has spent 4 1/2 years in oak. This release is crafted from a mash of 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley and is bottled at cask strength.

This is a much more mature and intriguing spirit than I’ve ever seen from McKenzie. That starts off with a nose that features notes of butterscotch, vanilla, cloves, and hefty barrel char. There are hints of mushroom and forest floor underneath the sweeter elements, along with notes of burnt toast. As the alcohol burns off, you catch some scorched motor oil notes.

On the palate, there’s an instant rush of sweetness, followed by clove and cinnamon notes and more of that slightly smoky barrel char. Again the savory mushroom and forest floor character bubbles up, becoming a bit weedy at times. The finish takes the whiskey on a strange little trip, offering notes of matchheads, dried banana chips, chewing tobacco (I say tabacky in this case), and burning leaves. Quite dry on the back end, it finishes with just a hint of Maraska cherries and aged sherry. Exotic and a bit strange, but worth sampling to see the general direction in which McKenzie is headed.

106.9 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #847.

B+ / $65 / fingerlakesdistilling.com

Review: Rabbit Hole Distilling Bourbon and Rye

Rabbit Hole Distilling is a new producer of whiskey, based in bourbon’s heartland, Kentucky. The company recently broke ground on its own distillery in downtown Louisville; for now it is producing whiskey at another Kentucky distillery using its own mashbills and recipes.

Rabbit Hole hit the ground with three whiskies. The standbys — a bourbon and a rye — are reviewed here. We missed out on the third, a sourced bourbon that Rabbit Hole finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. (A gin arrived later.)

Thoughts on these two — none of which is bottled with a formal age statement — follow.

Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Bourbon – A four-grain bourbon, but not what you think: The mash is 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley, and 10% honey malted barley (a beer-centric barley with honey overtones; it’s not flavored with honey). “Over two years old.” The nose is closed off somewhat, offering restrained menthol notes, and lots of popcorn character. The palate is heavy with grain, but also rustic and loaded up with popcorn character. I do catch a whiff of honey on the back end — an earthy sweetness that provides a bit of balance to a whiskey that would clearly benefit from some extra maturity. A touch of dark chocolate lingers on the finish. 95 proof. B- / $46

Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Rye – 95% rye, 5% malted barley, also over two years old. Clearly youthful and a bit brash on the nose, where the whiskey melds barrel char with ample, toasty grains and some brown sugar notes. The palate finds more balance, a sweeter profile than the nose would indicate, with enough baking spice character to showcase the rye grain quite handily. Apple pie and bananas foster notes give the mid-palate a fun, fruity, chewy character that leads to a finish loaded with notes of honey and gingerbread. Impressive for a rye this young. 95 proof. A- / $59

rabbitholedistilling.com

Review: Whiskeys of Reservoir Distillery – Bourbon, Rye, Wheat Whiskey, and Gray Ghost

When deciding how to formulate their mashbills, Reservoir Distillery took one of the more unique approaches among craft whiskey-makers. They decided to not use a mashbill. Well, at least not a complicated one. Defying tradition, they concentrated on 100% grain expressions in their line up, all bottled at 100 proof. Their bourbon, for example, is 100% corn. Their rye is 100% rye. You get the idea.

Usually a flavoring grain is an important component, particularly in bourbon, but surprisingly Reservoir has managed to create a flavorful spirit out of just high quality, locally sourced grains and small, heavily charred barrels (no larger than 10 gallons and all with a #5 char). For those that would argue Reservoir’s approach to whiskey-making limits the potential complexity of their whiskey, distillery co-founder Dave Cuttino counters that their technique actually allows them to cater to the entire spectrum of whiskey drinkers by giving them the ingredients to make whatever “mashbill” they prefer (high rye, low rye, wheated, or even a wheated rye).

The potential for in-home blending aside, Reservoir Distillery’s whiskeys stand up just fine on their own. Thoughts follow. (Again, note all are 100 proof.)

Reservoir Bourbon Whiskey – Corn-sweet on the nose with notes of toasted cinnamon, pepper, and gingerbread. It’s bright on the palate and hot; caramel apple and candy corn notes evolve into sweet butter, maraschino cherry, and vanilla on the finish. Underneath the heat, there’s a lot to admire. A- / $45 (375ml)

Reservoir Rye Whiskey – Clearly 100% rye on the nose here with citrus fruit notes all over it. The palate is spicy but not overpowering with layers of bubblegum, cracked black pepper, and some licorice. The finish is warming but a little short. B+ / $45 (375ml)

Reservoir Wheat Whiskey – This may be the most “wheaty” of wheaters. There’s oak, fresh mint, and cinnamon red hots on the nose. The palate is soft despite the proof, with notes of honey, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla. The finish is syrupy with some slightly grassy notes. B+ / $45 (375ml)

Gray Ghost Whiskey – The Gray Ghost line is a limited release showcasing Reservoir Distillery’s own experiments with different blends. My sample had an effective mashbill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% wheat. It was aged in eight 3-gallon barrels for 3 to 3.5 years, which is exceptionally long for such a small barrel. There’s a slight, but not unpleasant, warehouse funk on the nose, followed by honey and orange marmalade notes. The palate is initially hot and full of cloves, but it develops into a generous finish with cinnamon and toffee notes reminiscent of a much older whiskey. Reviewed: Year 17, Batch 2. A- / $90 (375ml)

reservoirdistillery.com

Review: Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old 2017

A new release of Michter’s top-shelf 10 year old single barrel bourbon is here, approved for release by new Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann, who has taken over for Willie Pratt. Same story as always: This is sourced bourbon (from whom, Michter’s doesn’t say), but it is bottled at a full 10 years old, which isn’t something you see too much of these days.

Michter’s 10 year old single barrel is always a whiskey with a lot going on (and plenty to recommend it), and Heilmann has not missed any strides en route to this release. The nose is relatively restrained, offering modest notes of cinnamon red hots and ripe banana, atop a somewhat gentle vanilla/caramel core. The palate is spicier — is there more rye in the bill or is it just me? — with fresh ginger and mint, more of those red hots, and some smoldering, burnt sugar notes that linger for a while. The finish is a bit crunchy with barrel char and a hint of flamed orange peel, but also a touch gummy on the fade-out, sticking a bit uncomfortably to the cheeks.

While the 2015 release is marginally better, this 2017 expression is plenty enjoyable on its own terms.

94.4 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #17B302.

A- / $170 / michters.com

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