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Micro Monday: A look at Koval Lion’s Pride Whiskey

The “craft” whiskey movement, while littered with a lot of sub-par products, is also one of the biggest reasons why the United States is the most exciting whiskey industry in the country. It’s amazing what some of these distilleries are doing.

Recently I’ve reviewed products and received samples from about 25 micro/craft distillers. I have to be honest – some of them are simply not good at all. But on the other hand, the stuff that is good really stands out. I’ll be talking about some of those in the coming weeks and months.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of the distilleries doing some great work – Koval, based in Chicago, Illinois. Koval is owned and operated by husband and wife team, Sonat and Robert Birnecker. Robert, master distiller, is from Austria, and has built a reputation on utilizing some interesting grains for Koval’s whiskey. After turning some heads with the distillery’s un-aged and light whiskeys, Koval set out to create some aged products named after the couple’s son, Lion. The result is Lion’s Pride Whiskey, with both a Dark and Light version of each grain.

Below I have reviewed 4 of the 5 “dark” whiskeys. They are all aged under 2 years in new oak and distilled from single grains. Koval uses enzymes rather than barley for fermentation. The result is a very grain forward character to the whiskey.

To me, these whiskeys almost fit into their own category. They are lighter in style and body, really clean and bright, and less oak-forward. While they do taste young, all of the usual “funk” and rough edges that younger whiskeys typically have are not present here. Koval credits that fact to focusing on capturing only the heart cuts of the distillate, preferring to remove as much of the heavy flavors (which can bring that funk) with them. There’s more waste, but it results in a flavor profile that Koval prefers over the heavier bodied American Whiskeys.

Lion’s Pride Dark Millet Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: The nose consists of fresh, ripe fruit (green apple, plum, and peach), bright spices (ginger and anise), and caramelized nuts. The palate begins sweetly (brown sugar and canned fruit) before barrel, wood spices, and licorice dry things up on through to a moderately spicy finish. Millet is a grain I dare say few distillers, if any, work with today. It’s an eye opener and very distinctive.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.4 (Very Good/Excellent)

Lion’s Pride Dark Oat Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: I have been accused of having a sweet tooth before. Guilty as charged! This Dark Oat Whiskey is a confectionary wonder. The distillate has a distinctive banana aroma. It comes across as banana cream, vanilla fudge, and brown sugar syrup on the nose. The flavors on the palate are sweet as well with banana bread, oatmeal, and taffy balanced by cracker dryness, and black pepper. The finish is clean, sweet, and light. Superb stuff and my favorite in the lineup.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Superb/Outstanding)

Lion’s Pride Dark Wheat Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: The other grains seemingly have so much more depth and character. The wheat without a supporting cast struggles to keep up. The nose has notes of toffee, juicy fruit gum, and graham cracker. The flavors are soft and sweet with vanilla custard, sticky caramel, and a welcomed hot ginger bite as it leads to the finish, which is mildly peppered with cinnamon. A solid effort, but certainly the weakest of the four by a good margin.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.6 (Good/Solid)

Lion’s Pride Dark Rye Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: This one is perhaps the most grain forward of the lineup. This is rye in all it’s glory: evergreen, eucalyptus, and peppery rye grain dominate a nose that comes across quite fresh and lively. There’s a sweet, fruity underbelly at play on the nose as well. Vanilla infused honey makes an appearance early on the palate before being overcome by a rush of spices in the form of cinnamon, anise, and peppermint.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.2 (Very Good/Excellent)

24 Comments

  1. Very interesting, that dark oat sounds like a nice sip, as does the millet.

  2. Brad, they are very well done and well made. The Oat is awesome stuff. They are crisp, clean, and light whiskeys and devoid of any of that crude funk you get from the very young stuff. Thanks for the comment – Cheers!

    Looking forward to hearing your report on your site for your trip to Tennessee Distilleries.

  3. sku says:

    I’ve definitely heard good things about Koval. Do you know what the mashbills are on these? Are they 100% made of the primary grain or do they have other grains as well?

    I thought all distilleries focused on only getting the hearts.

  4. Sku, the mashbills are 100% oat, millet, wheat, etc. etc. They use enzymes instead of barley for sugar conversion.

    All distilleries focus on the hearts but some still bring some congener heavy late heads. Any harsh flavors along with those will be removed by oak (or massaged out) by longer aging. Koval makes a cleaner heart cut, according to them. I suppose you could consider it leaving some fat around the steak vs. sacrificing more meat by removing all the fat. They also reintroduce no tails in following distillations, which other distillers do from time to time.

    Their approach, as I understand it, is to get as much clean flavor from the grain as possible with that tighter heart cut.

  5. AaronWF says:

    Nice to see you dissecting some Koval whiskeys, Jason. I have only tasted the Dark Rye and the Dark Oat, but I liked the Dark Oat over the Rye as well. These are subtle, somewhat elusive whiskeys to me. It took me awhile to really find that pepper spice in the Dark Oat, but when I finally found it I was blown away by its focus and intensity; that pepper really sits in the middle of the whiskey like a kernel or a seed. It’s a single barrel expression (all of them are), so it may well be that my bottle wrapped up its flavors uniquely, but it just sings of quality.

    I also got a strong lavender scent/taste from both the Rye and the Oat. More so with the Rye, but it was something consistent between the two, and I think of that flowery note as a bit of a Lion’s Pride calling card, though I guess I should try the other bottlings before I conclude as much.

    All of Koval’s whiskeys are organic, kosher and unfiltered as well.

  6. sku says:

    Yeah, I was being somewhat facetious. You never seem to hear a distiller saying, yes I try to get some heads or tails. They all seem to be claiming to cut out the hearts and all seem to think that no one else does that. It’s sort of like saying we use only the finest ingredients – fairly generic and not too informative unless they actually bring you into the process so you can see the cuts they are making, and that’s pretty labor intensive.

    By the way, 7.6, while still good/strong on your scale is the lowest score I recall you giving anything.

  7. This was a great review! One thing you didn’t mention, is that these guys are one of the few kosher-certified whiskeys out there, which for folks like myself is a great plus. It’s a pity their whiskey is so expensive though!

  8. Ian, thanks for noting that!

    Sku, my facetious detector was malfunctioning. Sorry for that. The wheat product to me was just too flat. Well made, light, and clean, and enjoyable, but just lacking character.

    Aaron, thanks for also noting the organic and kosher facts about these whiskeys. I enjoy what these guys are doing – clearly great distilling going on up there.

  9. Texas says:

    Jason you really outdid yourself with these reviews. Really, really fascinating. I am sure we will never see these in the Lone Star State, but good reading nonetheless.

  10. MW says:

    Texas: Binny’s has them.

  11. Texas says:

    MW..you can’t ship liquor into Texas. Binnys refuses to do it, there were a few retailers that would do it on the sly but I don’t think they do anymore.

  12. MW says:

    Texas: That’s bad! Jeez – is this left over from prohibition?

  13. Texas says:

    MW, I am not sure of the origin. It’s a funny state..with many Texas counties being “dry”. It’s funny you will have a “wet” county right next to a “dry” county, and just on the other side of the county line in the “wet” counties you will have a town that is nothing mainly but a collection of liquor stores.

    You have to be a distributor (and obtain a permit) to import liquor. Oddly enough, wine is OK to import.

  14. sam k says:

    Same here in PA, another control state. Even if it’s unavailable here, it’s illegal to bring it in by any outside means.

    Welcome to the People’s Republic of Pennsylvania, comrade!

    Privatize them all..NOW!

  15. sam k says:

    What do you make of Koval’s 40% obsession, Jason, and do you think their products would benefit from higher proofs?

    (Yes, I know they’re releasing an expensive one-off that’s higher!)

  16. Sam, on the proof front, I think the drinker has to take into account the style of whiskey. Koval has purposely gone away from the thick, syrupy, rich, and bold flavored whiskeys. They are shooting for a lighter, fresher, brighter distillate. In this case, raising the proof would counteract what they are trying to achieve with the finished product. And you know my penchant for the higher proof stuff, but I just can’t ignore what they are going after. And I think they are executing well in that also.

    In short, no I don’t think it would necessarily improve the product OR be in line with their mission, which is also important.

  17. Bob says:

    Texas: You’ve got record-breaking heat and drought, and you can’t even have good liquor shipped in? Now that’s just adding insult to injury!!

  18. Very interesting, that dark oat sounds like a nice sip, as does the millet.

  19. Adam, both are very good.

  20. Sherman Owen says:

    I am a professional which teaches the brewing and distilling arts to new distilleries. One of the distilleries I helped open this year, 2012, won Gold and best of class in the 2012 ADI corn whiskey competition. I have opened 6 distilleries in the past years. I do recipe development as well as general consulting. Koval’s stuff is thin bodied and lacking in flavor. It is TOO clean. Boring and uninteresting is the description I hear often. Someone needs to educate Koval on how to get some body in his products.

  21. Sherman, thanks for the post. Glad to hear your thoughts. I will say that Koval’s approach is more committed to a house style that is light, clean, and sharp. Body, as you mention, would not quite work with the style they are going for. I like that they’ve put their flag in the ground and went a different way. That said, they are making a bourbon, so we shall see.

  22. Alan Plotzker says:

    I remember trying the Dark Oat at WhiskyFest 2010 in New York and it was one of my favorites I had that night, maybe because I have a soft spot for new ideas (I don’t know of anyone else making an aged oat whiskey).

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember if the one I had was the Lion’s Pride Oat or the Lion’s Pride Dark Oat. They were the exact same price, and I got the non-Dark one because I seemed to remember it having more of a golden color (in retrospect, this is probably because a small amount of liquid looks lighter than a full bottle – Beer’s Law). Sadly, the light-colored version is awful to the point of being almost undrinkable.

  23. Alan, the Dark is so much better than the standard (lighter one). I agree.

  24. Cob says:

    Just a note in case you are looking for any of the above. Koval has dropped the Lion’s Pride label. The dark oat is now labeled simply Koval Oat.
    I toured the distillery a few months ago. They use two degrees of char in the new Minnesota oak barrels. According to my tour guide they are matching the char to the grain for their various whiskeys. My guess is that going forward all aged Oat will be dark while the Millet may be light.

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