In December of 2016, Beam Suntory informed the public that enjoying a bottle of Booker’s batches in 2017 will come affixed with a price increase of an additional $40 over suggested retail, resulting in a $99 price tag. The explanation included the customary press release rhetoric of supply/demand and a reduction in release schedule from six to four times per year. The news was not met well with everyone, from consumers and critics all the way up to distributors and store buyers. Beam Suntory’s not so subtle attempt to elevate Booker’s unto the ranks of Pappy van Winkle backfired and flopped, and the company backed off weeks later. Given the recent fanfare surrounding the brand, it seemed an appropriate time as any to test drive the final two batches of 2016.
Booker’s Batch 2016-05 “Off Your Rocker” – A most appropriate nickname for this expression. This is very much a “Noe holds barred” bottle, deceptively powerful for only being 6 1/2 years old. The near-65% abv is quite evident right from the nose with a nice blend of charred oak and the signature combination of vanilla and tobacco that was customarily present in the pre-nickname Booker’s era. The alcohol refuses to sit back unless you add a bit of water to the mix, which brings out dark chocolate, pepper, and a little bit of cherry. The finish is long and strong, with more black cherry and vanilla that eventually eases up over time to provide a mild relief. A big and boisterous affair, much like the bourbon’s namesake himself, if legend is to be believed. 129.7 proof. $60 / A-
Booker’s Batch 2016-06 “Noe Hard Times” – Taking the volume down from Off Your Rocker’s 11 to about 8 1/2, “Noe Hard Times” (a tribute to Noe’s highschool football nickname) has plenty of vanilla dancing about on the nose, but it’s a tad lighter on the oak and alcohol notes when contrasted against other releases in the class of 2016. A bit of toffee, burnt brown sugar and a lovely medium length finish of dark cherry and vanilla. 127.8 proof. $60 / B+
This is not the last we will see of Beam Suntory’s strategic moves regarding Booker’s. Price increases are still slated to happen gradually and will reach the higher tier price points by late 2017/early 2018. If Booker’s is your brand, it may be best to stock up now. These two would be suitable places to start.
We all drink whisky on Robert Burns’ birthday (January 25), but if you really want to wow folks, get your hands on a box of L.A. Burdicks’ Robert Burns Chocolate collection, which is available only during this time of the year.
Each box of about 36 bonbons (1/2 a pound) includes multiples of seven different items, each made with a different whisky. Those include Lagavulin, Macallan, Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, and Glenfarclas. A final chocolate is a whisky honey truffle made with an unspecified whisky.
These are some amazing chocolates and, even though mine got a little freezer burned during shipping thanks to some unseasonably cold weather, they are absolutely delightful and totally worth getting. Order now in time for Burns Night!
More specific reviews and ratings of the individual chocolates can be found here.
$42 / burdickchocolate.com
Alabama-based Clyde May’s recently added two new straight bourbons to its lineup. Unlike its prior whiskey releases, these are unfinished and unflavored with apple (or other seasonings) and thus represent a more traditional bourbon style. Which is, I suppose, what they really are.
Both of the new whiskeys are sourced from an unknown supplier in Kentucky (not Indiana). The Straight Bourbon is 5 years old. A cask strength offering, not reviewed here, is 8 years old. There’s not a ton of information on its production, except that “this non-chill filtered straight bourbon is a classic 5-year-old, easy drinking spirit. Using simple and traditional ingredients, the bourbon mash is patiently aged in heavily “alligator” charred new American oak barrels.”
And it is indeed a perfectly serviceable rendition of a five year old American bourbon. The nose is lightly spicy (a moderate rye mash, I’d guess) and heavy with barrel char notes, vanilla, and cocoa powder. On the palate, the sweet vanilla notes roll into light touches of orange peel, some nutmeg, and a hint of bitter licorice on the back end. A lingering finish evokes popcorn and more rustic barrel char — perhaps indicative of this being bottled a year too soon? — with a drying, savory fade-out.
92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #CM-079. (Though it’s hard to tell if this is a legit batch number or just flavor text on every label.)
B+ / $40 / clydemays.com
Wyoming’s first legal distillery, Wyoming Whiskey, only began production in 2009, but despite its youth the distillery already has an impressive portfolio of its own aged whiskeys. These include a Small Batch, Single Barrel, and Bonded Straight American Whiskey. Of course the rarest of them all has received the most excitement in the whiskey world of late. Released in the fall of 2015, the extremely limited Barrel Strength Bourbon was a run of only 111 bottles from two leaking “honey” barrels filled in the distillery’s first year. Only 96 of those bottles actually made it to retail, with slightly more than half bottled at 120 proof (the rest at 116 proof).
The distillery says that Sam Mead, Wyoming Whiskey’s head distiller, identified the two barrels as being of high quality even before they started to leak significantly. The accelerated oxidation elevated the whiskey into another class entirely, and a new addition to the Wyoming Whiskey lineup was born. So how good is it?
The first thing to jump out on this whiskey is its deep copper color. On the nose, the unusual oxidation comes through immediately with wet oak and mustiness at first, but that quickly fades to freshly baked oatmeal cookies, buttery cinnamon, and a little mint. On the palate, there’s a gentle heat up front and big flavors of molasses and oily, Madagascar vanilla that give way to black tea, cardamom, and spearmint. The finish has fading notes of allspice and anise. It seems a tad short, but maybe only because I really want that next sip.
Even though it’s on the younger side (under six years), Wyoming Whiskey’s Barrel Strength Bourbon drinks with the balance and refinement of a whiskey twice its age. If not for the initial “rickhouse quality” in this whiskey, it would rival some of the best barrel strength bourbons of the last few years. Unfortunately, this bottle is beyond rare and not exactly cheap, but if you find it, by all means buy a pour. And take the whole bottle home if you can.
A / $199 / wyomingwhiskey.com
The Jos. A. Magnus Distillery can be found in Washington, DC, and its home in the capital is only fitting, considering the company is making some of the most interesting whiskey in America. Joseph Magnus & Co. was a distillery founded in 1892 — and reestablished by Magnus’s great grandson over 100 years later. Inspired by some dusty old bottles of original Magnus bourbon, the new distilling team — which is full of American whiskey luminaries — attempted to recreate the original spirit. The secret sauce: finishing in a variety of different types of barrels. Nine-year old bourbon distillate (sourced from MGP) goes into three finishing barrels — Pedro Ximinez sherry, Oloroso sherry, and Cognac — before bottling.
On the nose, the ochre-hued Joseph Magnus offers a rich array of aromas, focusing on roasted nuts, coffee, dried fruits, and incense. Subtle notes of furniture polish give it quite a bit of depth and many layers of intrigue. The palate doesn’t let you down, offering a relatively racy attack that speaks first of citrus, chocolate, and cloves. As it develops in the glass, the bourbon takes on more wine-forward notes, which meld interestingly with the darker coffee notes and the sweeter vanilla and caramel characteristics that bubble up after some air time. The finish echoes barrel char from the original time in cask, giving the rich and somewhat oily whiskey a relatively traditional bourbonesque exit.
Really fun stuff. Worth seeking out.
100 proof. Reviewed: Batch #3.
A- / $80 / josephmagnus.com
Vulson is a white whiskey. It is also a rye. It is also French. That’s three categories I’ve never ticked off at the same time in our database before, and Vulson, produced by the western Alps-based farm of Domaine des Hautes Glaces, has more in store for us. Vulson uses organic rye that is grown on site and malted there, too. It is then triple distilled in copper pot stills and rested for a year in stainless steel before being bottled.
This is straightforward on the nose, fragrant with toasty grain notes, some rubbery hospital character, and an undercurrent of earthy mushrooms. The palate offers some surprises, though, with ample fruit — apple, mainly — that pairs nicely with florals that grow in intensity over time. The finish offers a melange of spices, with varied notes of nutmeg, rosemary, and touches of butterscotch. Lots of complexity for a white whiskey here; it’s worth giving it a try.
B+ / $47 / vulson.fr
Over the last few years, the craft whiskey world has seen several distilleries criticized for a lack of transparency about the exact origin of the liquid in their bottles. Some of these producers have perhaps been unfairly judged while others deserved their fate (ahem, Templeton), but Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton, West Virginia has never had to worry about any of that. They’ve proudly worn the label of “artisan merchant bottler” and gladly advertised their careful selection of sourced whiskeys (mostly from MGP of Indiana) instead of treating it like a dirty little secret. These whiskeys carry the label Old Scout, as in “scouted” whiskey, and they complement a diverse portfolio that also includes Yearling Bourbon Whiskey and a forthcoming mature, wheated bourbon, both distilled in-house.
Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a 7 year bourbon bottled at 99 proof, has been a staple of Smooth Ambler’s whiskey offerings since they opened their doors in 2009. Only recently has the distillery made available a single barrel version, bottled at various ages (none younger than 7 years) and cask strength (typically between 109 and 118 proof). Like the standard offerings, these single barrels are all high rye bourbons with a mashbill of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. According to Smooth Ambler’s Master Distiller, John Little, the sourced barrels are aged for some period of time in the West Virginia climate and minimally filtered (without chill filtration) to retain the original, “straight-from-the-barrel” quality of the whiskey.
The bourbon has a great caramel sauce color. The nose is big, with cinnamon, cocoa powder, and ripe peach. On the palate, a minty spice and gentle tannins accompany flavors of toasted vanilla bean and Werther’s Original candies. The body is a little thin, but that’s not entirely disappointing as it makes this bourbon that much more drinkable. The finish is medium in length with more vanilla and a little orange zest.
John Little and his team at Smooth Ambler are right to be proud. They sure do pick em’ good in West Virginia.
109.6 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #2064.
A / $60 / smoothambler.com