Review: Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon is a standby of most bars — its metal-ringed paper label (excuse me: parchment bib) an eye-catcher (and the whiskey inside not bad in its own right).

Now the brand is making a natural line extension: Rye. Brand owner Beam assures us this is different from the other ryes that have been flooding the market of late. Here’s how:

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon has long been known for its trademark spicy finish, resulting from the use of twice as much rye as traditional bourbons. Taking inspiration from this beloved rye spiciness, Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey is a natural progression for the brand.

A Kentucky straight rye whiskey, Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey achieves its deepened and distinctive taste with the addition of a unique, re-barreled rye. The re-barreled rye begins as a four-year-old traditional rye whiskey, which is then dumped out and further aged an additional seven years in newly charred quarter cask oak barrels. Just a touch of this re-barreled rye expertly blended with traditional Kentucky straight rye whiskey amplifies the warm aroma of baking spices and adds differentiating depth to Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey.

As rye goes, it’s something of an odd duck. The nose is classically aromatic with baking spices, lots of cloves, lots of ginger, but also plenty of maple syrup and menthol notes, too. Sweet but a little dull, it feels a bit underdeveloped, perhaps too youthful despite those drops of re-barreled rye.

The palate is quite gummy, lower in alcohol than perhaps it should be, with tougher, sharper barrel char notes muddled together with brown sugar and caramel, topped with a splash of mint syrup. Cereal notes push through all of this and claw at the back of the throat — it almost feels like that gummy sweetness is an attempt to cover that cereal up, with a finish that hints at chocolate milk. It sort of works, but drinking it on its own the experience is muddy and imperfect. Best reserved for mixing.

80 proof.

B- / $45 / basilhaydens.com

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

Review: The Spirits of Sugarlands Shine

Don’t look now, but one of the busiest distilleries in the country — based on tourism visits — is Sugarlands Distilling, in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. A connection with the popular show Moonshiners doesn’t hurt, nor does the vast product lineup, which includes 21 varieties of moonshine, rum, and liqueurs, which range from a straight white rye to a peanut butter and jelly moonshine, all bottled in (incredibly messy) mason jars. Candy- and dessert-flavored ‘shines are a particularly specialty of the operation.

It’s impossible to keep on top of all of these flavors — there will be more by the time you read this — so consider this a representative sampling of what Sugarlands is up to. Thoughts follow.

Sugarlands Shine Silver Cloud Moonshine – This corn and cane sugar moonshine is the starting point for much of what Sugarlands makes, and it’s a fair enough ‘shine to get you going. Plenty popcorny at the start, particularly on the nose, the spirit offers hints of vanilla and cinnamon but otherwise drinks relatively flatly but cleanly, with a jet fuel-soaked finish — that classic moonshine pungency. 100 proof. B / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Unaged Rye – Billed as a rye, though no mashbill information is available. This is a more classic white whiskey, loaded with popcorn and roasted grains, with a subtle undercoat of baking spice. Lacking the sugar of the moonshine, the finish is rougher and more rustic, with a mushroom and tobacco note, plus some hints of baked bread. 100 proof. B- / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Appalachian Apple Pie Moonshine – Less sweet than many an apple pie moonshine, the raw cereal character of the spirit comes through more clearly. The fruit takes on an apple cider character, somewhat oxidized with a kind of butterscotch note that isn’t completely on the pie spectrum. The finish is reminscent not of apples but of cherries, particularly the cough syrup variety. 50 proof. C / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Hazelnut Rum – Nicely nutty on the nose, those hazelnuts roll over anything that’s particularly rummy in the mix. Some brown sugar notes and cloves at least offer a nod toward a spiced rum, with a touch of that funky petrol layering itself in underneath. The finish is a sustained nuttiness, with notes of toasted marshmallow. Hazelnuts are a smart choice to give this spirit a strong and unique flavor, but it drinks almost like a liqueur rather than a rum. 80 proof. B+ / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Shine Root Beer Moonshine – Spot-on root beer aromas kick the nose off on this heavily flavored (and nearly opaque) ‘shine, which is heavy on the sassafras and baking spices. Alongside a healthy slug of sweet vanilla, the body sees more peppermint coming to the fore than I would like or expect, with surprisingly heavy clove character. These cloves endure for quite some time, eventually mellowing as the finish fades into a sort of charred wood character, which erases some of the excitement and nostalgia of what’s come before. 70 proof. B / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Appalachian Sippin’ Cream Butter Pecan Cream Liqueur – Not dark brown as the bottle would indicate, but rather a gentle, creamy tan. Extremely sweet on the nose, with light brown sugar the clearest component. The buttery, nutty pecan notes are a bit slightly clearer on the palate, but there’s so much sugar that it overwhelms just about all of it, leading to a milky finish akin to melted vanilla ice cream. 40 proof. B- / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Sugarlands Appalachian Sippin’ Cream Dark Chocolate Coffee Cream Liqueur – The color of milk chocolate, with a nose that is a heavier blend of coffee with some chocolate syrup swirled in. Ample vanilla kicks off the palate, along with some butterscotch sweetness, before the relatively gentle coffee character arrives. There’s nothing really “dark” about the chocolate in this liqueur. As far as the cocoa goes, it’s about as milky as it gets. Nevertheless, it works fairly well. 40 proof. B+ / $25  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

sugarlandsdistilling.com

Book Review: Whisky Rising

Obsessive Japanese whisky fans are no doubt familiar with the writing of Stefan Van Eycken via his website, Nonjatta. It was one of the first and most comprehensive resources on Japanese whisky available on the internet, and Van Eycken and his intrepid staff diligently scour the island for the rarest of bottles. They have even curated a few highly coveted limited editions of their own.

The product of over a decade’s worth of intensive research and scholarship, Whisky Rising is an immersive, nearly intimidating 400 pages of reviews, recipes, history and infographics beautifully presented with considered layout and design choices. Van Eycken’s writing style makes it easy to get lost in the rich amount of information provided. Each chapter is informative without relying heavily on the stylings of academic prose.

The biggest obstacle of Whisky Rising is the relatability of its content. Not any fault of Van Eycken’s, but the collective availability of these rare and precious bottles stateside presents a massive degree of unintended difficulty to anyone actually hoping to taste these spirits. Many of these gems only pop up via auctions or private sales. Even basic entry-level expressions are scarce in public supply, especially when compared to the availability of single malt, bourbon, and other whiskies. Demand for Japanese whisky is currently at fever pitch, and there appears to be no remedy to meet market cravings anytime in the foreseeable future. Unless reading while overseas or the beneficiary of an amazing retail resource, Whisky Rising reads less as a reference guide and more like a holiday wish catalog, future vacation planner, or adventurous bucket list.

Probably the most in-depth almanac on Japanese whisky ever committed to the English language, it is everything you would ever possibly care to know about Japanese whisky, but didn’t know to ask. Between this and Dominic Roskrow’s excellent Whisky Japan, there are few stones left to overturn. Both would serve well on the bookshelf of any hobbyist, casual or serious.

A / $25 / BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON

Review: Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten (2017), Port Charlotte 10 Years Old (2017), Octomore 10 (2017), and Black Art 5.1

With Jim McEwan out and Adam Hannett in as master distiller, Bruichladdich hasn’t taken its foot off the gas even for a second. This summer the company hits the ground with three new ten year old whiskies — all revivals of earlier limited editions — plus a new release of Black Art, Hannett’s first stab at this mysterious (intentionally) vatting of very rare whiskies.

Thoughts on the quartet follow.

Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten Second Limited Edition 10 Years Old (2017) – The Laddie Ten is becoming a classic of younger single malts, and now a second limited edition is arriving. Distilled in 2006, this release is a 10 year old just like the first, and is made again from unpeated barley, and the whisky is aged in a mixture of bourbon, sherry, and French wine casks. Departures from the first edition are evident from the start. The second edition is quite a bit more cereal-focused on the nose than the original, with orange-scented barley and light mushroom notes wafting in and out. The palate is a bit sweeter than the nose would cue you off to, with a distinct chocolate character and notes of Honeycomb cereal. The finish is lively and sherry-heavy, with a nagging echo of dried mushrooms. It’s not as essential a whisky as the original Laddie Ten, but it remains worthwhile and is still not a bad value. 100 proof. B+ / $58

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Second Limited Edition 10 Years Old (2017) – Another round with the 10 year old Port Charlotte. Made from 100% Scottish barley, and aged in a mix of first-fill bourbon, sherry, tempranillo, and French wine casks. Peated to a moderately heavy 40ppm. Sweet orange and some strawberry interplay nicely with the smoky, salty nose. This leads to a palate of dried fruit, sultry smoked bacon notes, and hints of camphor. It’s a fine dram, but as Islay goes, it’s not overwhelmingly well balanced and not all that special. Not my favorite whisky in this batch, but nothing I’d spit out, of course. 100 proof. B / $62

Bruichladdich Octomore 10 Years Old (2017) – You’ll need to look at the fine print to determine that this is from the 2017 edition, but no matter. This release is a 100% Scottish barley edition, aged in full-term bourbon casks (60%) and full-term grenache blanc casks (40%). Peating level is 167ppm. Fans of the Octomores of yesteryear will find this a familiar old friend. The extra age (typical Octomore is about 5 or 6 years old) doesn’t really change this spirit much at all; though perhaps it does serve to better integrate the raw peat with more interesting aromatics, including roasted meats, camphor, and Asian spices. On the palate, the smokiness and sweet notes are integrated well, giving the whisky the impression of a smoky rendition of sweet Sauternes, studded with orange zest and the essence of honey-baked ham. As always, this is fun stuff, though I think some of the younger Octomores are more interesting. 114.6 proof. B+ / $200

Bruichladdich Black Art 5.1 – 24 years old, unpeated. Hannett’s stab at Black Art, per Bruichladdich, plays down the wine barrel influence, which was always a big thing with McEwan and which was effective at keeping drinkers guessing about each whisky’s makeup. I’ve always felt Black Art was a mixed bag, and despite the change in leadership this expression is no different, though the distillery is right that the wine influence is played down. In its stead, the nose offers austerity in the form of wood oil, walnut shells, roasted game, and some dried cherry fruit. The palate offers a respite from some of the wood and meat with light notes of white flowers (I’d wager dry white wine casks play some role here), dried pineapple, plum, golden raisins, and some gentle baking spice notes. The finish is surprisingly malty, with some briny elements. It’s a departure for Black Art, to be sure, and yet it still manages to be weird and, at times, hard to embrace. 96.8 proof. B / $350 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

bruichladdich.com

Review: Bushmills Red Bush Irish Whiskey

For its latest trick, Bushmills is taking things as old-school as they get. Bushmills Red Bush is a NAS variant of the classic Irish whiskey, one that is aged exclusively in first-fill, medium-charred, ex-bourbon casks. Bushmills Original (aka Original Bush) is aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. If you’re familiar with Black Bush and are curious what the difference is, that whiskey is aged exclusively in sherry barrels.

Like all expressions of Bushmills, Red Bush is 100% malted barley and is triple distilled. The use of nothing but American bourbon casks, according to the distillery, is meant to position the whiskey as something that bourbon fans new to Irish will find approachable.

The results are pretty much in line with expectations. The nose finds lots of toasty grains, butterscotch, walnuts, and hints of buttered popcorn — many aromas similar to what you’d expect to see in a bourbon, but more mellowed by the softer barley mash. The palate largely follows suit, though there are some initial citrus notes here that come unexpectedly, leading the way to notes of well-browned toast and chewy blondies, along with some furniture polish. The finish is marred by a bit of rubbery band-aid character and a sharpness that is at odds with the soothing front half of the experience, but on the whole the whiskey is at least worthwhile as a departure from the usual.

80 proof.

B / $22 / bushmills.com

Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 2: Canadian Whisky – Ellington, Black Velvet, LTD

bottom shelf

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. This review continues our project of considering bargain bottles by looking at three inexpensive Canadian whiskies. (Cheap-ass American whiskey coverage can be found here.) Canadian whiskies are usually blends, as all three of these are.

Ellington Canadian Whisky

Note that the whisky reviewed here is the regular Ellington and not the Ellington Reserve, which lists itself as 8 years old. The age of this product is unstated, but to bear the label “Canadian Whisky,” all of the constituent whiskies must have been aged at least 3 years in oak barrels (usually used barrels). The whisky’s light-yellow color suggests that coloring has been added to achieve an enticing hue in a blend that spent very little time in the barrel. The nose is gentle and presents a mix of nail polish remover, peanuts, and a touch of rye spice. The palate however is surprisingly supple and reminds me of cheap vodka. But I think it is better than cheap vodka. Slight wood notes and a touch of sweetness serve to round out the alcohol’s bite. The finish includes a touch of pepper and a slight bitterness. Ellington could serve as a promising mixer, particularly for people who aren’t huge fans of whisky (or alcohol) but still want to drink.

80 proof.

C / $11

Black Velvet Blended Canadian Whisky 3 Years Old

Like Ellington, this young whisky has an older sibling, Black Velvet Reserve, which is also aged 8 years. This younger, less expensive expression is light-gold in color, suggesting, as with Ellington, that color was used to achieve a pleasant hue in a very young whisky. The nose is virtually  nonexistent. I’m not sure I have ever smelled a whiskey (or another 80 proof product) that exhibited so light a nose. A light medicinal scent can be discerned when swirled in a glass. The taste is more pronounced than the aroma suggests, opening with some bitterness, followed by notes of cheap vanilla extract. A touch of pepper follows, which is nice, and then an alcohol burn. The finish is rather short but surprisingly clean. No bitter aftertaste.

80 proof.

C / $9 / blackvelvetwhisky.com

Canadian LTD

On the bottle, Canadian LTD states that it is “Canadian Whisky with Natural Flavors,” which means that some of the product is made up of whiskies aged for at least 3 years and some of it is a mystery. Most of the remaining product is likely neutral grain spirits (aka vodka). On the nose, LTD is presents faint aromas of nail polish remover with a little vanilla and just a whiff of peanut. The palate is much more assertive, opening with some pepper and then presenting strong flavors of cheap vanilla extract, which leads me to wonder if it is made with some of the same whisky as Black Velvet. The finish is fairly short and is followed by an unpleasant, but not overpowering, medicinal bitterness.

80 proof.

C- / $9

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