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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mint Juleps Make Life Better

It’s Kentucky Derby time! Next Saturday marks the 138th run for the roses at Churchill Down in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll be fortunate enough to be there for my first Derby. Hopefully it will be the first of many.

Derby week is always right about the time spring hits its stride.  That means it’s time to usher in warmer weather cocktails to cool those hot afternoons. I love that bartenders and mixologists are pushing the noble craft forward, but I’m also a purist. I don’t believe you can top a properly prepared classic cocktail made with great whiskey.  As I’ve stated numerous times, the mint julep is my favorite of them all.

Scan the internet and you’ll find countless articles and blog posts on the mint julep. Doing some research of my own I ran across articles claiming that Louisville, KY locals rarely drink mint juleps except for Derby week.  I sure as hell hope that isn’t true!  Last week a highly regarded whiskey writer called the Mint Julep a “special occasion drink”.   I certainly don’t believe that’s true, but if it is, then it’s a personal mission of mine to change that perception.

See, in my opinion, mint juleps are for drinking whenever the mood strikes you. Much like a great bottle of wine can turn a humble dinner into a great meal, a mint julep does the same for any hot afternoon. Mint juleps really do make life better. That’s not too dramatic I promise.  If you have never brought a frosted julep cup to your nose, inhaled its sweet, intoxicating mint and spirit aroma, and then felt your whole body cool as the elixer slid down the back of your throat, then you don’t know what you are missing.  And we need to fix that pronto!

So what do you need to know about the Mint Julep’s history? Well for starters it’s like anything else.  We always want to trace something back to a single origin, but history is messier than that. What seems most consistent is the term “julep” likely comes from the Persian word “julab”, which is literally a mixture of rose infused water. A broader definition might be simply that of botanicals and water.

At some point, the julep reference began to refer to medicinal concoctions of herbs and spirits.   I am sure someone along the way pulled a Mary Poppins, adding some sugar or syrup to “make the medicine go down” in a much more delightful way. These juleps, or at least the idea of them, made their way to the Southern United States.  Once here we applied our own bit of ingenuity to the cocktail (like we do with most things!).

Cognac or rum were the original spirits used to make a mint julep, but eventually Southerners substituted what they had – Bourbon and/or Rye Whiskey.  We owe the cocktails solidification into the bar keep’s arsenal to Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay.  Clay introduced the mint julep to bars in Washington D.C. some time in the early 1800′s. The rest is history.

I like history, but I like talking whiskey and cocktails more.   That’s why this week I’ll be breaking down each component in the classic Mint Julep, and telling you not only what I recommend using to make one properly, but also why each ingredient and technique is so important.  By Wednesday or Thursday you’ll be primed and ready for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, but most importantly for those ordinary hot afternoons.

Let’s make some juleps!

-Jason

Review: 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select Bourbon

Barton Brands Distillery, owned by Sazerac (the same folks that own Buffalo Trace), has produced 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon for almost a decade or so now. This bourbon is called “barrel select”, which essentially means it is a small batch bourbon. The master distiller selects barrels that he deems “ready” for batching together with other barrels and then bottles these “batches” separately. The minimum age of each barrel in 1792 (the year KY became the 15th state) is 8 years. That’s a fair bit of age, and what some believe to be a real sweet spot for most bourbons. Of course that’s extremely subjective.

With so many fantastic American Whiskeys under the Sazerac umbrella, I am interested in seeing how this one stacks up. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and had a pour of 1792.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon, 46.85% abv (93.7 Proof), $25

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose: Firm rye spice really elbows its way through at first with undercurrents of ripe fruit (Red Apple, Banana, Orange rind) and soft caramel eventually revealing themselves. There’s a ton of dried oak throughout. This is rye forward bourbon for sure and really shines after a good bit of air time. I find this common with many high rye mashbills (Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond comes to mind).

Palate: Much like the nose, the rye asserts itself immediately. It’s prickly, peppery, and very dry with mint, licorice, cinnamon and again loads of dried wood flavors. It’s certainly a bit of an oak monster with some astringency and a thin quality on the palate. Some maple sugars and faint fruit flavors (apple, dried apricot, golden raisin) take time to come through.

Finish: Bright and sharp with ample cinnamon warmth (big red chewing gum). The rye and oaky dryness again dominate. Moderate in length

Overall: There are some things to really like with this whiskey, but unfortunately some misses as well. Firstly it is not cloyingly sweet in the least, and might appeal to folks that don’t have a big sweet tooth. It also has a bracing nose backed with fruit and subtle sweetness that I felt was quite good. However, I enjoyed sniffing this one more than sipping it. That mentioned dryness overpowers and dominates the richer, sweeter undertones. Those flavors simply can’t get enough traction on the sip. With a bit of air time and a splash of water, things open up considerably, but it’s still unbalanced.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.9 (Good)

Perspective: The large vs. small barrel debate

Some of you may have seen the news from Buffalo Trace on their experiments with smaller vs. larger barrels. Long story short – they concluded that small barrels were not optimal for aging whiskey “to maturity”. In order to get these findings, Buffalo Trace aged their standard bourbon (Mashbill #1) for 5 years in 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels.

Many, including me, were glad to see the results of this experiment come through. Noted whiskey writers like Chuck Cowdery, and (I believe) Lew Bryson, were able to actually taste the whiskeys from Buffalo Trace late last summer/early Fall. Cowdery wrote a post on his site as well as an article (available on Kindle or Nook) on the topic.

I have stated my feelings about small barrels over the last couple of years. I don’t believe they are a secret to anyone that reads this site regularly. Smaller barrels (of the 5, 10, and 15 gallon variety) have become the barrel size of choice for most of the micro distilleries popping up all over the place. Proponents claim they “age the whiskey quicker” than the standard 53 gallon barrel used by larger distilleries. I’m no chemist. I’m pretty sure I never got better than a “C” average in the subject. I do know this – age is age. You cannot age something faster, especially not whiskey.

My personal experiences with younger whiskeys aged in smaller barrels aren’t scientific in the least, but they ARE based on smell and taste. At the end of the day isn’t that what matters? In nearly all examples of small barrel-aged American Whiskeys that I’ve tried, a somewhat funky, green wood, and resiny bitterness asserts itself on the nose and palate. Fortunately some I’ve tried have had less of this quality, making them quite enjoyable, but elements of these flavors are still present.

Basically I agree with Buffalo Trace’s end conclusion – smaller barrels do not age whiskey more optimally than larger barrels, especially long term. But do larger barrels produce a better young whiskey than small barrels? Example: to my knowledge nobody has tasted a large barrel and a small barrel side by side at say 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. etc and reported the results. Last week I was able to gain a lot more perspective on this debate……..

Thursday afternoon I received a call from Mike Williams, proprietor of Tennessee Distilling Company, makers of Collier & McKeel Tennessee Whiskey. Since April 2011 Mike’s been distilling (not sourcing), bottling, and selling one of the first whiskeys in Tennessee (since Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel) to follow the Lincoln County Process (charcoal “mellowing”). Mike didn’t call me to come review his whiskey. Instead he had a different proposition for me – - “Jason I’m moving some barrels to our new distillery location. We happen to have a 53 gallon barrel that has been aging for the same period of time as our 15 gallon barrels.” I was intrigued. He then asked me, “Would you like to come try them both side by side?” It took me about a half second to say “yes”. We made arrangements to meet last Friday afternoon.

For some quick background – Collier and McKeel has been experimenting with barrel sizes since the distillery opened. The whiskey was initially aged in 5 gallon barrels with a goal to move to 15 gallon barrels as soon as possible. That goal was met quickly. Within a few months Collier and McKeel whiskey was being aged in 15s.

By the time last Fall rolled around, the distillery had begun producing consistently enough to warrant a look at 53 gallon barrels. Mike sourced some of the standard 53s, and filled one in October of last year. It was this very barrel that Mike Williams referenced on the phone with me. When I met him that day he also confirmed that both barrels were filled the same day in October and aged the same length of time at just over 6 months.

Mike does know my thoughts on small barrels. In some respects he shares the same viewpoint – we’ve discussed it before. In an effort to make the tasting as unbiased as possible I suggested tasting them blind. I turned my back for 4-5 minutes while he pulled off a good pour from each barrel into a couple of glasses. After giving me the signal, I turned around and moved in quickly so as not to study the color too intently from afar. I cannot tell a lie, my eyes did examine the contents a bit longer than I’d like. The variances were not that dramatic, but enough to clue me in. Color can be a dead giveaway because the larger surface area interaction in the smaller barrels deepens the color in a shorter period of time.

Even before trying Sample B (Large Barrel), a deep whiff of Sample A (Small Barrel) was all it took to determine that it was in fact aged in the smaller barrels. I nodded in the direction of Sample A and then continued with the comparison. Sample A (Small Barrel) demonstrated a far headier sweetness on the nose with much more caramel, vanilla, and wood spice influence. The big backbone of oak and wood resin bitterness helped give it away. Sample B (Large Barrel) in contrast was brighter, crisper, and with that new make whiskey funk (sour grain and cereals) often more prevalent on heavy corn mashbills (Collier and McKeel’s grain recipe is 75% Corn, 15% Rye, and 10% Barley Malt). Tasting each whiskey didn’t do anything to sway my initial thoughts on which was which. It was clear from the start.

Once Mike confirmed my thoughts were correct, he asked for my opinion on which I enjoyed most. Simply put, Sample A (the 15 gallon barrel) was by far the best of the two. It certainly tasted young (it is!) but there was no contest. I even blended a portion of each sample together and gave that a try. The result was the same. The smaller barrel produced the best whiskey at this age. And it was good whiskey. The 53 on the other hand was thin, and still tasted primarily of the new-make.

Mike let me know that Collier and McKeel intends to age more 53 gallon barrels to hold until they are ready. They will continue sampling these larger barrels alongside the 15s to determine at what point the big barrels begin to shine. Until then, they will sell whiskey from 15 gallon barrels. “I would love to go away from 15 gallon barrels”, added Mike. “From a cost standpoint alone, I can get the larger barrels in my hands for 2/3rds of the price of the 15 gallon barrels. Right now the 15′s just make better whiskey at this age range. It’s a balance for us.”

This experiment was a great one for me to see first hand. It also put things into better context for me. Buffalo Trace’s conclusion is still correct. Larger barrels do in fact age whiskey more optimally. They also can age whiskey for a longer period without the adverse affects of too much wood interaction. However, my Friday tasting with Mike was a great example of where the small barrels yielded a better product at 6 months. At what point that changes remains to be seen. I hope to have an opportunity to try the same large barrel in another 6 months to a year and see where things are at that point.

A few weeks ago I posted about the “shades of gray” that exist within the whiskey industry. Add the large vs. small barrel debate to the list. It’s very easy to be on one side or the other of this discussion. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you are a new distillery looking to make the best whiskey you can make, I would still urge you to go with large barrels. However if time is of the essence and you must make the best whiskey you can in the shortest amount of time – small barrels are still your best bet.

Thanks go to Mike Williams at Collier and McKeel for the chance to taste these side by side. It was an education and it was fun.

Review: High West Son of Bourye

High West Son of Bourye is the latest “blend” of straight whiskeys from the boys in Utah. Like its father Bourye, this whiskey is a blend of a bourbon (5 year old with a mashbill of 75% corn and 20% rye) mingled together with a rye whiskey (3 year old 95% mashbill). The remaining 5% in each is barley malt. Bourye utilized older whiskeys for the blend (10, 12, and 16 years old).

Let’s see how this SOB tastes………

High West Son of Bourye, 42% abv (92Proof), $40

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Sweet mint, vanilla, honey and golden fruits lifted by juniper, evergreen, fresh herbs, flint and wood/oak.

Palate: Soft and honeyed right at front entry, but builds swiftly to a spicy mid palate of mint, chili, and cinnamon red hot candy. Very bright and very drinkable!

Finish: Increasing warmth, wood notes, and big cinnamon flavors. Medium in length.

Overall: The folks at High West know how to bring together good whiskeys and make them so much better than the sum of their parts. Son of Bourye lacks the depth of Bourye, but is a more harmonious whiskey in my opinion. The rye plays lead, but the bourbon keeps it grounded as you would expect. I’m not sure what the ratio of the blend is but I’m guessing it pushes 75% rye to 25% bourbon. I’ll try to get David Perkins of High West to at least let me know if I am close. This is an excellent whiskey if you are looking for something extremely drinkable that is also lively, spicy, and fun.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 (Very Good/Excellent)

Review: Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C (Tornado Surviving) Bourbon

In the spring of 2006, a tornado rampaged the grounds of Buffalo Trace distillery, doing considerable damage to two barrel aging warehouses, Warehouses B and C. Warehouse B had no barrels aging at the time, but Warehouse C held 24,000 barrels of whiskey that were now exposed to the elements due to damage to the upper regions of it’s roof and walls.

The bourbon in the third release of the E.H. Taylor Jr. label comes from 93 barrels aged in the top two levels of Warehouse C. These barrels were exposed to the extreme temperatures and weather for at least a few months until the repairs concluded the summer of 2006. Gimmick? Eh, I would say it certainly has the marketing folks fingerprints all over it, but it’s a pretty cool story.

What we do know is the “angels share”, a term commonly used to describe the amount of whiskey that evaporates or leaves the barrel over time, was nearly 64% for these barrels. That means the barrels had only about 35% (on average) of the whiskey still left in them. The bourbon was also between 9 years and 8 months to 11 years and 11 months old when it was batched together and bottled.

Here are my thoughts on this tornado dodging whiskey……..

Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C (Tornado Surviving) Bourbon, 50% abv (100 Proof), $75

Color: Deep Amber

Nose: A fruit and spice forward nose with ever present oak throughout. Rich dark dried fruits (raisins, plums, figs) soaked in old rum, candied orange, nutmeg, clove and tobacco make for a simply gorgeous nose. Phenomenal!

Palate: Cinnamon, rye spice, and chili right from the start of the sip – very concentrated warmth up front. Candied dark fruits, berry syrup, and brittle caramel lend sweetness. Most of the flavor and punch are in the front half of the mouth, dipping significantly at mid palate, and then building again with very strong wood resin grip and bitterness towards the finish.

Finish: Big baking spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), bitter orange, black tea, and dark caramel. Moderate length.

Overall: E.H. Taylor Tornado (we’ll call it) has a big flavor profile befitting its story. I love the nose, finding it to be damn near perfect. The palate let me down just a bit with much of the excitement happening up front, and then petering out rather swiftly. Nevertheless there’s fantastic flavor here of the rich, deep, fruity, and spicy variety. If very well spiced and fruity bourbons are your thing – this will be right up your alley. This is also the best of the 3 E.H. Taylor releases to date by a considerable margin in my opinion. The price however could use some review. I’d like to see this much closer to $50, and in return the value quotient would improve. Regardless it’s still a superb whiskey worthy of consideration if you don’t mind paying the price.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.9 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey

Two months ago I did a simultaneous review with two other bloggers, Steve Ury and Tim Read. Steve’s (or Sku as he goes by) website is Recent Eats and Tim’s is Scotch and Ice Cream. We had a little fun with the collaboration review of Rebel Yell and thought it might be time to do another. So here we are.

The subject of this review is Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey. Recently it surfaced that Wild Turkey was putting out Wild Turkey 81 Rye Whiskey. This lead some enthusiasts to conclude that the 101 Rye was being discontinued after certain control state product listings showed the 81 Rye hitting the shelves and the 101 leaving them. Chuck Cowdery posted a good bit of information on this subject. Apparently 101 Rye will not be discontinued, but like Rittenhouse and others before, it may be tough to find on store shelves for a while.

The Rye whiskey boom is well into it’s second year as far as I’m concerned. As folks learn to appreciate more flavorful whiskey, I believe rye will continue to grow as a category, and this is great for whiskey lovers. However, whiskey takes time to make properly. Predicting what will be in high demand 4+ years in the future is a difficult proposition. Focusing on 81 right now gives Wild Turkey a little breathing room. The fact that it’s 20 proof lower than the 101 will certainly help Wild Turkey meet demand while the company ramps up stock.

If Wild Turkey 101 Rye is a whiskey you love and keep on hand, then I’d recommend stocking up at least for the short term. If you are unsure or haven’t had it yet, then it’s perfect timing to read my thoughts.

Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey, 50.5% abv (101 Proof), $22-25

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: The nose is sharp and bracing. Honeyed with a crisp rye grain quality, mint, sour apple, sandalwood, menthol, flint, and sun dried oak. There is also some rustic corn mash in there as well.

Palate: Much like the nose – the sip is sharp with a crisp, dry quality to it. Rye and mint are present all throughout the sip with apple and honey anchoring things to a degree. It’s all about the spicy rye with increasing warmth leading to the finish.

Finish: The finish is long, warm, and spicy. We get a bit more of a cinnamon and wood spice quality along with some oak grip.

Overall: Wild Turkey’s lesser expensive products, like the 101 Bourbon and this Rye, are some of the best American Whiskeys available in their respective price ranges. WT 101 Rye is loaded with sharp rye grain character, spice, and warmth, without a lot of the “green” notes that I associate with the very high rye, former LDI-based ryes (Bulleit, Templeton, Redemption, etc.). For a well stocked bar I’d recommend this one be in your arsenal. The versatility for neat sipping and a fantastic Manhattan are pretty tough to beat at this price.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 (Very Good/Excellent)