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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Shades of Gray

Earlier this week I read a post from David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits, an excellent California based retail store. I’ve frequently mentioned K&L and David because they are an example to what I feel wine and spirits stores need to aspire towards. They educate buyers regardless of the price or producer, bring unique products to attention, and really just make sure K&L is a resource for it’s loyal customers.

The premise of David’s post was the fact that the spirit and whiskey industry is complicated. We get caught up in this notion of “small batch” and “craft” and really – what is that? I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with David over various topics. He’s taught me a great deal about a number of artisan producers – their passion for just simply producing great stuff regardless of volume (or perhaps even profit), and also their relentless pursuit of the best raw materials. We’ve also had some interesting disagreements on a number of subjects. However his post last week titled “It’s Complicated” encompasses a lot of my thoughts about the world of whiskey today.

I urge you to read this if you are in any way “black or white” on craft/micro producers vs. the big boys. David discusses his recent visit from a passionate Grand Marnier representative. Apparently dreading the session, David was immediately engulfed by the guys passion upon hearing him speak (watch the video K&L’s blog a few posts down). I got to thinking about that and I believe the same is true for many of the big boys of bourbon and American whiskey.

The world is shades of gray folks. It’s so common for people to approach both with preconceived notions and opinions that can many times be changed if you are open to it.

Last Spring at WhiskyFest 2011 in Chicago I talked to Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Lobby. I think we all may share a feeling that Buffalo Trace is a “big boy”. It was so interesting to hear Kris talk about his desire to finally get BT’s flagship bourbon into all 50 states, and just how small their production really is. It’s clear the passion and care Kris takes in BT’s products. Ask Jim Rutledge of Four Roses where he gets the distillery’s corn and rye. But be prepared to spend 10-15 minutes learning just how critical Jim feels his relationships with the absolute best farmers in the country (or internationally for Rye) are to his finished product. To make assumptions that these guys are using lesser ingredients because they are bigger is very uninformed. To make assumptions they care less simply because they produce tens of thousands of barrels per year is an even bigger mistake.

On the flip side, you have micro distillers like Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox distillery going to the time and expense of floor malting barley at the distillery’s Sperryville, VA location. My numbers may not be exact but I believe there’s less than a half dozen distilleries in Scotland that are floor malting today. Rick knows it costs more, but he doesn’t care – he does it because it makes his product better. Head out to High West in Park City, Utah and talk to David Perkins about the lengths he went through to perfect his new OMG Rye. Having tasted a number of iterations, I know the care and time and energy High West put in to making sure it was EXACTLY the way they wanted. Spend a day with St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and if you aren’t excited about the state of their whiskey program then you are deader than a door nail.

The point is exactly as David Driscoll eloquently stated – It’s Complicated. We screw it all up when we make ourselves choose between the little guys and the big guys. Why in the hell do we do that? Why let romantic notions of the little guy sway our opinions of the bigger companies without facts. Why stay with the “old brand” just because we *think* those little guys can’t possibly be as good because they are not as established.

My suggestion is simple. If you find yourself in only one camp, do some research and try a few products across the aisle and see what you think. At worse you expand your whiskey palate. At best you may just find something you’ll love.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

Review: Willett Family Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon – 8 Year (Barrel 305)

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) is an Independent Bottler based in Bardstown, Kentucky. While KBD has been in the process of renovating the old Willett Distillery, until recently it had not been doing any distillation. The company‚Äôs model has centered on sourcing choice barrels from other distilleries for bottling under their many labels. After the first of the year KBD was able to crank up the still at the distillery, and I sure hope to see some of their own distillate coming out soon. Until then…….

One of their more popular products is the Willett Family Reserve line of longer aged bourbons. The subject of this review is the 8 year old version. The source distillery is unknown and the folks from KBD would probably have to take out all of my taste buds one by one (a fate worse than death) if they told me. Here are my thoughts….

Willett Single Barrel Bourbon (8 Year) , Barrel #305, 64.15% abv (128.30 Proof), $50

Color: Deep Mahogany

Nose: Baked banana, smoky caramel, sorghum syrup, vanilla, cocoa, flint and roasted nuts.

Palate: This is brooding whiskey – molasses, toffee, dark chocolate caramels, bitter espresso, and heavily toasted bread. There is a good bit of waxiness as well. In spite of the deep dark flavors, this whiskey does not drink it’s proof. I would have guessed something around 100-105 – it hides it very well.

Finish: Huge finish with cocoa, coffee, toffee and more of the wood spices than were present on the palate (clove and cinnamon in spades). There’s a nice interplay between bitter and sweet.

Overall: What a fantastic whiskey! This is “end of a great meal” whiskey that could easily substitute for a well balanced dessert. Intense, sweet, bitter, solidly spiced, and interestingly smoky. I loved it from start to finish. At $50 it’s certainly not inexpensive, but considering the proof it is a tremendous value. Without hesitation, this can go toe to toe with the big boys from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. One note of caution – as mentioned in the opener, KBD sources these barrels. I can only imagine their program focuses in some way on consistency and flavor profile, but it’s still a single barrel product. As a result I would expect some variation. Please note that I’ll continue tasting some additional barrels and will post my thoughts and updates as I try them. Even considering the potential for variance, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: Eagle Rare 17 Year Bourbon

I am making my way through the last of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For this review we are taking a look at Eagle Rare 17 Year Bourbon. This 17 year old whiskey is made using the same mashbill as Buffalo Trace’s namesake whiskey. The 2011 release is one of the better Eagle Rare 17′s I’ve had in the last 3-4 releases.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $75

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Vanilla, baked banana and apple, sorghum syrup, old rum, a touch of corn, and sweet baking spices.

Palate: Viscous and creamy mouth feel. Vanilla fudge, spiced (cinnamon and clove) caramel, corn cakes, maple syrup, apple cider, and well toasted oak. There is a bit of resinous grip as well, but it drinks so easily.

Finish: Lingering fruitiness, tea, and juicy old oak – moderate length.

Overall: Eagle Rare 17 Year is not quite as interesting as it’s 4 other brothers in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). For starters it has a rather pedestrian proof point in comparison. However, let’s remember that the BTAC is made up of some of the best whiskeys in the world. The pluses for Eagle Rare 17 are still many. It’s absolutely the easiest drinking of the bunch, and has an oily “texture” on the palate with tremendous aroma and flavor – no doubt aided by 17 years in oak. If you are new to the world of bourbon or perhaps don’t like the challenge of 125+ proof whiskey, then this is absolutely where I would point you within the collection. For the initiated willing to water their own, I would probably steer you to one of the others. Regardless this is beautiful stuff worthy of a Superb/Outstanding rating.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

2011 Sour Mash Manifesto American Whiskey Awards

The world doesn’t need any more whiskey awards. This is probably a fact we can all agree on, but I felt compelled to acknowledge some great work in 2011. I hope you’ll allow me to add my contribution to what I believe to be the best of American Whiskey for the year.

Sour Mash Manifesto America Whiskey Awards – 2011

Distillery Of The Year: Buffalo Trace
This was actually the easiest pick of all. When it comes to whiskey, few distilleries in the world can touch Buffalo Trace’s monstrous portfolio of rye whiskeys and bourbon. If you favor value focused products, then Buffalo Trace’s namesake bourbon delivers in spades. If you are looking for high end whiskey offering more distinctive flavors, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bring 5 whiskeys to the table with three or four vying for best American Whiskey of the year. This year also saw the first (from what we’re told) Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon made entirely from Buffalo Trace wheated bourbon stock (they supply the Old Rip Van Winkle line as well). On top of all of that, Buffalo Trace undertook perhaps the most educational whiskey endeavor ever with the unveiling of the Single Oak Project. In spite of what I think of Single Oak as a whole, there is no doubt that it will serve to provide Buffalo Trace with invaluable information to help them continue to craft great whiskey. There are many great distilleries in America, but in my opinion none can match Buffalo Trace in 2011.

Bourbon Whiskey Of The Year: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
If you want to get hardcore bourbon enthusiasts riled up, start feeding them information about shortages of their much beloved Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon. Stitzel-Weller, closed since the early 90′s, has been the source of bourbon whiskey for the longer aged Pappy Van Winkle line. Last fall, Preston Van Winkle made it known that the Fall/Winter 2011 release of Pappy 15 was 100% Buffalo Trace wheated recipe bourbon. From that point the anticipation and frenzy reached new heights even by Pappy Van Winkle standards. Would it be as good? Did they ruin one of the most highly regarded bourbons on the planet? The short answer is “No!” The resulting bourbon lacked some of the softness and refinement of the Stizel-Weller whiskey, but made up for it with ramped up spice and bolder wood notes, which in some ways made the whiskey even more interesting. In spite of slight differences, the Pappy 15 DNA was still present, resulting in the highest rated whiskey of the year (9.7/10).

Rye Whiskey Of The Year: Sazerac 18 Year
2011 was a big year for rye. The craft and micro distillers have been on the rye bandwagon for a while now, but some of the big boys and independent bottlers got in on the act as well. A common trend for the year were sourced rye whiskeys from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). LDI’s 95% rye mashbill could be found in various ages, and bottled under names like Bulleit, Templeton, and Redemption to name a few. While quite good, many of these whiskeys tasted similar, leaving an opportunity for a new release rye whiskey to stand out from the crowd. Enter Buffalo Trace with their home run release of the 2011 Sazerac 18 Year Rye Whiskey. Each year this whiskey proves to be one of the better ryes, but the 2011 version had added depth and complexity. Few whiskeys can match the balance of dryness and sweetness as well as capturing both the vibrancy of rye with the stateliness of older whiskey. Not to mention that it’s one of the best noses in whiskey – period. Without a doubt one of the best Rye Whiskeys I had this year.

Craft Whiskey Of The Year: St. George Spirits Single Malt, Lot 10
Situated in a former Naval aircraft carrier along the San Francisco Bay sits one of the coolest distilleries in the country. St. George Spirits has been making whiskey longer than most craft or micro distilleries, but their approach and attitude is still fresh and vibrant. Well known for creating fantastic gins, absinthe, and liquers, the pride and joy of the distillery is the Single Malt Whiskey. Actually I just made that part up. They’d probably tell you their pride and joy is something else that they make, but to me it should be their pride and joy – it’s phenomenal. The Single Malt is made from a Sierra Nevada Beer, crafted especially for the distillery using a number of different barley malts (chocolate malt makes it’s presence felt). The resulting whiskey is unlike any other being made today – fruity and full of deep, rich, smoky notes from the beer. With more than 15 years of whiskey making under their belt, I can’t wait to see where St. George takes this delicious Single Malt Whiskey.

Value Whiskey Of The Year: Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Bottled In Bond
I consider whiskey a “for the people” product – something to be enjoyed by all. As a result, value is very important to me. Don’t get me wrong I love the high end stuff and can’t wait to try them each year. But I get really excited when I get my hands on a whiskey at a great price that sacrifices nothing in the way of flavor and character. Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey (Bottled in Bond), which is distilled by Brown Forman for Heaven Hill, is undoubtedly one such whiskey. At 100 proof, this rye whiskey packs a wallop with great depth and balance. Unlike some of the newer rye whiskey offerings consisting of 90+% rye grain, Rittenhouse is less rye-forward. I categorize it as a “bourbon drinker’s rye” – a bit richer and fuller bodied. At between $19-$24 depending on your area, Rittenhouse is a must find for the value seeker. I keep a bottle on hand at all times, and consider it a foundation whiskey for any great bar. NOTE: Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond is now being distilled at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery.

As we all know, taste is very subjective. The above represent whiskeys and a distillery that I believe to be worthy of distinction relative to their peers. What about you? What gets your vote for whiskey of the year?