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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Review: Parker’s Heritage Collection (Cognac Finished) Bourbon

Parker Beam is American Whiskey royalty. Few men in the industry have accomplished more. Today he and his son Craig, decendents of THAT Beam, are the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill Distillery, makers of Evan William, Elijiah Craig, and many others.

Five years ago Parker introduced a limited annual release under the label Parker’s Heritage Collection (PHC). He’s continued to release a PHC whiskey each year since. While many of you are quite familiar, these PHC products stand up with the best in whiskey almost every year. Last year’s release was a 10 year old wheated bourbon. I thought it was wonderful, but not quite different enough to stand out.

A month or two ago word got out that the latest PHC release would be a 10 year old bourbon (with rye as the small flavoring grain, not wheat) that had been finished in massive Grande Champagne Cognac barrels from Frapin Cellars in France. The bourbon used is the same recipe as Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon. This bourbon is aged high in the upper levels of the rickhouse where temperature exchange is greatest. Once the barrels are dumped, the bourbon was placed in the cognac barrels for another four months (the label says six but Parker confirms it was actually four) high up in the aging racks.

Folks, I wasn’t exactly moved upon hearing about this cognac finish. While we haven’t seen such a finishing process in many many years, I was somewhat concerned this was a bit of a gimmick of sorts. I was foolish for thinking that…………..

Parker’s Heritage Collection (Cognac Finished) Bourbon, 50% abv (100 Proof), $80

Color: Deep, rich amber with glints of copper

Nose: Rum soaked fruits, toffee candy, banana, bright floral fragrance, and vanilla bean at the fore. Crushed rock and barrel in the background along with well toasted oak.

Palate: Structured and well rounded. The layers of flavor peel back like an onion. First, syrupy toffee sauce is brightened with candy apple, and dates over an undercurrent of warm spices (clove, nutmeg, and a gentle hum of chili). There’s a welcomed bitterness from the barrel as well.

Finish: Long, sweet, and well spiced. Rum raisin, chewy caramel, and spicy warmth remain.

Overall: Easy to sip even at 100 proof. I don’t recommend cutting it with any water – it drinks too well right from the bottle. However, don’t be fooled either. There is still loads going on here, but it’s just so well integrated. The 2011, 5th Edition Parker’s Heritage Collection is a whiskey masterpiece and also a clear whiskey of the year candidate for me.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: (9.6 Epic/Whiskey Classic!)

Public Service Announcement

We interupt your regularly scheduled whiskey drinking to inform you that Van Winkle bourbons are close to shelves. According to Chuck Cowdery, The Van Winkles have informed him that their highly anticipated line of whiskeys will hit stores after Turkey Day, but just before the end of the year. Chuck’s a more than reliable source.

My recommendations, like earlier this year, are to to call your local liquor stores and get your name on a list. Make nice with your merchants and they’ll be kind to you. If you want to know which ones to get, I’d suggest the 15 year old Pappy Van Winkle, and the 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve. The 13 year old Rye is solid stuff, but there’s better out there for the dollar. The 20 and 23 year old Pappy are expensive. If your budget allows purchasing those, great, but they can’t come close to touching the 15 year old.

Cheers!

Spirit Merchants and The Knowledge Gap

When I’m in a Wine and Spirits store, perusing the whiskey section, more times than not I’m approached by a store clerk that really doesn’t know what they are talking about. I don’t mean that to sound ugly because most times that’s perfectly fine (I know what I want or I’m just checking things out). However a recent encounter had me thinking about a customer scanning a shop’s inventory reliant upon a store clerk’s advice or guidance to make a purchasing decision.

Let me give you an example of what I mean and the reason I decided to write this post……

Last Saturday I was in a new section of town here in Franklin, TN, and I strolled into a beautiful wine and spirits store. I make this a habit wherever I go. I’m not always in need of something, but I don’t like to pass by a liquor store without popping in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ran across some real gems that many higher traffic shops have don’t stock any longer. This store in fact had every bottle of the Buffalo Trace Antique collection from 2010. Anyone that was upset they never got their hands on a bottle of George T. Stagg or William Larue Weller (from 2010) would be very pleased walking into this establishment. They haven’t been on the shelves at many of the better stores in town in more than 10 months and the 2011 releases are coming out as we speak.

While scanning the inventory a young store clerk approached me and asked me if I needed any help. I told him I was doing fine and complimented him on the selection (which was pretty solid). That started a conversation about some of the new whiskeys they got in recently. He was doing just fine, until he said the following……

Store Clerk: (Pointing to a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel) “See that bottle of Four Roses right there?”
Me: “Yep”
Store Clerk: “That is what they start with for Pappy Van Winkle?”
Me: “What?”
Store Clerk: “The whiskey in that bottle is the same whiskey that’s in Pappy Van Winkle. It’s just aged longer for Pappy Van Winkle. It’s great whiskey.” (I am NOT joking!)
Me: “Actually you are correct it is great whiskey, but it’s not Pappy Van Winkle…..” I went on to explain that Four Roses has 2 mashbills, and that Single Barrel happens to be their highest percentage of Rye. I also explained that it is one of, if not THE highest percentage rye of any bourbon on the market. The lesson concluded with explaining the Pappy, Van Winkle, and Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon line is all wheated bourbon with no rye at all. They are on two opposite ends of the bourbon spectrum.
Store Clerk: “Oh! That’s just what the owner told me.”

This is not unusual. I’d venture to guess similar exchanges happen all of the time at liquor stores across the country. I’m sure many of you have had these types of discussions. It’s not necessarily the store clerk’s fault that he didn’t know this information. It is however the owners fault for not either brushing up on his/her own knowledge in an effort to help the store’s customers, as well as for not working with the store clerk to improve his knowledge.

We live in the information age where a clerk can look up a quick reference to the products on their shelves in an instant. Spending a little time doing this builds a stronger connection to the store and to that particular clerk when a customer has a great experience. Even if the clerk did not know an answer to a question, stopping for a moment, excusing himself and returning with more information (using the internet) would be a great way to go above and beyond.

There are shining examples across the country where effort and care has been taken by good spirit merchants, but they are the exception to the rule. As a liquor store owner or manager, think how big a differentiator that kind of product knowledge can be for your shop in a sea of sameness. Now go do something about it.

My Suggestions:
Most obviously, if you own or manage a liquor store, be sure to educate and train your staff if you indeed have the knowledge and resources. If you do not then you must first educate yourself. Here are some suggestions.

1) Use your distributors that may have intimate knowledge about the products they distribute. I’ve talked to a few that do a very good job in knowing their products in and out and what separates them. In many cases they carry enough whiskey products they can do some comparisons so you have an idea of the ranges.
2) Subscribe to publications like The Whisky Advocate (formerly Malt Advocate) and Whisky Magazine.
3) Spend time on the internet reading blogs and sites focused on whiskey that your shop specializes in or that appeal to your customers. There are lots of resources out there.
4) Invite master distillers, brand managers, and distributors to come speak to your staff and customers. All of these people want their products sold. This is a great way for them to educate your team so they are more informed while also educating your customers.
5) Attend events like WhiskyFest and WhiskyLive to experience many of these products in one single, efficient location. Perhaps not very practical in light of the other suggestions, but if this is an option for you, there are few places where you’ll be able to try so many products at once.

While you are doing all of this, bring your staff in on the act. Give them the opportunity to learn along with you whenever possible. There are probably an infinite number of suggestions that can be made here to help improve a store’s product knowledge. The above is a good start.

As customers, what suggestions do you all have that could help stores serve you better?

Gentleman Jack Whiskey Review

This, interestingly, may be one of the top five requests for review that I get. What can you say about the good Gentleman Jack? Why don’t we start with a little background.

First, despite what many think, it is not a requirement that all Tennessee Whiskey undergo a charcoal filtration process (known as the Lincoln County Process) in order to be called Tennessee Whiskey. Unlike bourbon, regulations and standards for calling something “Tennessee Whiskey” are very loose at best. However, most associate Tennessee Whiskey with the charcoal filtering largely because the two biggest producers of “brown water” in my home state, Jack Daniels and George Dickel, follow this process. In previous reviews I’ve discussed the differences in the way Jack and Dickel do this. Let’s run through this one more time.

George Dickel chills their distillate down before passing it through large vats of charcoal sandwiched between giant wool blankets. Jack Daniels does not chill their distillate down, instead allowing the distillate to be filtered right off the still. Both of these processes take a hell of a long time (trickle by trickle), and one is not right or wrong. They are both just different approaches that yield two very different flavor profiles. Jack Daniels, from Old No. 7 on up through Single Barrel has a much smoother, cleaner front entry (front of the palate) on the sip than George Dickel. Sip them side by side and the differences will jump out at you.

How does this process of filtration affect flavor? When a distillate comes off the still it contains substances called congeners that do a number of things. They CAN add off flavors to the spirit if the spirit contains certain types of congeners. They can also add stronger, more pronounced desired flavors to a whiskey. Over time, the barrel the whiskey is aged in does a number on these congeners, softening and rounding them out through the expansion and contraction of the wood. The barrel can also filter some of them out as well.

The charcoal filtration process gives the distillate a bit of a head start. Charcoal is a natural filtering agent, absorbing stronger congeners to help ensure the finished product is as smooth as possible. However, charcoal doesn’t have a dial on it allowing you to, “only filter out the bad stuff”. Because of this – you do lose some of the body and impactful flavors from the distillate. This is one of the knocks on this process.

What if you charcoal filtered a whiskey twice you might wonder. Well, you’d have Gentleman Jack. That’s exactly what the Jack Daniels Distillery does to make this very smooth, clean whiskey. Let’s give it a test drive……..

Gentleman Jack Whiskey, 40%abv/80 proof, $29
Color: Deep Golden Amber
Nose: The nose is the absolute highlight of this whiskey. Cinnamon red apple, vanilla, honeysuckle, floral fragrance, toasted oak, and dry corn husk.
Palate: Vanilla, corn, mildly spiced honey, golden raisin, and prickle of pepper. It comes off extremely thin and watery on the palate.
Finish: Light, and clean as a whisper. There’s a tinny note on the finish along with corn and moderate oak.
Overall: As noted, the nose is incredible, but it’s a bit of a letdown from there. The palate is diluted and lacks concentration of flavor. Let’s understand however that this whiskey has been filtered twice. It’s designed to be a clean, smooth whiskey. Execution was extremely well done in that regard. And while this is definitely good whiskey, for flavor hounds there is so so much better out there for the money.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.5 (Good/Solid)

Breaking & Entering Bourbon Review

Breaking & Entering is a new bourbon from the folks at St. George Spirits. While St. George makes all of their own distillates, whiskeys, vodka, gins, etc. – Breaking & Entering is the distilleries foray into the sourcing and blending model. It’s something we’ve seen from companies like High West in Utah, and Compass Box in the UK.

For B&E Bourbon, St. George hand selected and procured 80 barrels of 5-7 year old Kentucky Bourbon from some of the big distilleries in the Bluegrass State. They brought it all back to their Alameda, CA Hanger (and I mean an actual hangar on a former Naval Base right on the San Francisco Bay) and tweaked the blend until they had something unique and quite different from other bourbons on the market.

As an aside: St. George is doing some incredible things, and are one of the more exciting distilleries in this country. Be sure to keep an eye on these guys.

Breaking and Entering Bourbon, $33.00, 43% abv/86 Proof
Color: Deep Golden
Nose: Vanilla infused banana cream, flint, dried golden fruits, nutty, well integrated oak. A tang of sour corn mash.
Palate: Balanced and not overly sweet. Honey and toffee on the entry, white pepper, a healthy dose of wood spices, slightly bitter burned caramel, and tea. Core of fruitiness as well throughout the sip.
Finish: Lively and bright. A good prickle on the tongue as well. Here is where the corn arrives, along with a hint of honey and orange peel.
Overall: Very well made, nice complexity and diverse flavors. This is clearly bourbon, but the flavors are presented in a different way than what you may be used to. For those that feel bourbon can be a tad too sweet for them, B&E is a great middle ground sweetness. Superb stuff.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.9 (Superb/Outstanding)

Templeton Rye Whiskey Review

Many noted whiskey writers and historians (Chuck Cowdery for example) have been “out in front” taking on certain claims from various distilleries and craft whiskey operations across the country. And in some cases, even the industry giants aren’t left out as targets.

The main reason for this is that the “truth” on many whiskey brand labels is “bent” a little. And while some of the minutia that gets tossed around is a bit silly in my opinion, I think we all know how the “marketing guys” can quickly turn a mole hill into a mountain. That’s how some guy minimally associated with a particular distillery centuries ago suddenly “invented bourbon” or whatever the claim may be.

It is also worth noting with so many bourbon and American Whiskey brands on the market and only a handful of large production distilleries, much of the stuff you see on the shelves is made by only a few distilleries. This is not necessarily the case for some of the new upstart craft (or whatever you want to call them today) distilleries, but in the bourbon aisle alone most of the stuff is made by about 7-8 distilleries.

And why is that important? Well, the subject of this review has been the subject of much media drama around it’s story and the production of its product. Templeton Rye is a Templeton, Iowa based distillery. We can comfortably call it a distillery because the operation that exists in Templeton is now distilling, just not the the whiskey in their flagship Templeton Rye bottle. The distillery that is producing it is Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. LDI produces whiskey for a number of very popular brands like High West, Redemption, Bulleit, and many others. Earlier this year I wrote about LDI as a part of a post I did on Four Roses.

The Templeton Rye Story
Templeton President, Scott Bush, lives in Chicago, IL but has family ties in Iowa. Bush grew up hearing stories from family members about a rye whiskey his great-grandfather was associated with. The whiskey was allegedly produced in Templeton, Iowa during prohibition. The company’s website, and Bush himself, also claim that the whiskey, like a viral video, made its way all over the country during that period. It eventually found it’s way east where Templeton claims it became Al Capone’s whiskey of choice. Soon after it was nicknamed “The Good Stuff” by those that knew it well.

Bush decided he wanted to bring whiskey production back to Templeton, Iowa. He set out to find folks that had a connection with the prohibition-era product. Soon he partnered up with Meryl Kherkoff, whose father helped make the whiskey during that time. Bush claims that Kherkoff provided him with the recipe. Rather than create it on their own, Templeton decided to contract the whiskey making to LDI.

Templeton confirms that the whiskey is greater than 90% rye grain with the remainder being malted barley. Interestingly LDI has a stock rye whiskey mashbill that is 95% rye. This is the juice that Bulleit, Redemption, and many others use in their products. It’s likely to me that Templeton Rye Whiskey is 95% rye based on this but that is only an assumption on my part. For the record, other stories have emerged on this subject where claims were made the original prohibition-era whiskey had a higher percentage of corn. If true that would further dispute the claim that the recipe today is the same.

Whether or not the above history of the product is true I don’t think we’ll ever be able to confirm. The story is certainly fun though. I bring up the fact that it’s unconfirmed firstly because it isn’t conformed. Secondly, and most importantly not to slight Templeton, but rather to challenge you to not get roped into the branding and marketing of certain products. In most cases, provided it’s not illegal, whiskey marketers can claim whatever the hell they want to. And they do.

The good news for consumers is there are new distilleries starting up every day that are learning that it’s not okay to fool us. That’s no way to build brand loyalty. Many existing distilleries are learning this fact also, but maybe not as soon as some would like. We all have to understand that some of this stuff is hard to prove.

When that’s the case I let the juice in the bottle do the talking. This latest review is from a sample of Templeton’s most recent release.

Templeton Rye Whiskey, 40% abv (80 Proof), $40
Templeton Rye’s nose is a balance of sweet and spicy flavors with aromas of caramelized banana, vanilla, cinnamon candy (red hots), bracing rye, and wintergreen. Oak is subtle and not overly pronounced. On the palate, a honey-sweet entry moves quickly to dry rye grain, chili flake, and black pepper. The sweet core of this whiskey keeps it from ever getting too fiery on the tongue. In fact it’s quite mellow (more than likely due to the low proof). I would love to see this maybe closer to 90-95 proof because I feel it might give it a bit more spark. Regardless, there’s a lot of great flavor here. The finish is crisp mint, honey, cinnamon spice, and dries up quickly. Whatever you think about the story or the recipe or the fact they don’t distill it, Templeton is bottling a very good rye whiskey.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: (8.4 Very Good/Excellent)