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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Review: High West Campfire

One late April evening I was in a peated scotch whiskey mood. That’s somewhat rare. I’m not overly fond of peaty whiskies. I tend to feel the phenols overpower the subtle sweetness and fruitiness of the malt. There are a few that I do enjoy however. On this particular evening I was sipping the last of my Compass Box Flaming Heart, and moving my way into a pour of Compass Box Peat Monster. What I enjoy about these two whiskies is the peat presence is absolutely felt, but not at the expense of the malt, the fruit, and the toffee. In short they are balanced.

As I continued sipping, pondering Compass Box’s ways with the art of blending whiskey, I thought, “Geez, why doesn’t a distiller or independent bottler in the U.S. get a hold of some peated malt whiskey to add to a bourbon blend?” To me it just made sense – the rich, sweet, and sometimes spicy qualities of the bourbon seems like a perfect compliment to the smoky quality of a well made peated malt. I quickly dismissed the thought, “that would be way too costly.”

About a week later I received an email from David Perkins, proprietor of High West Saloon and Distillery. After a relatively tame 2011 (by High West standards) Perkins and co. were working on a new whiskey release called Campfire Whiskey. David explained that High West had finished the blending of 3 different batches of Campfire Whiskey and wondered if I would be interested in trying them along with some fellow enthusiasts.

A sample tasting ensued and I was able to try each of the blends. My favorite, oddly enough, happened to be the one (Sample C) with the highest percentage of peated whiskey in the blend. High West however was going after a much more subtle peat influence, and selected Sample A for public release. In hindsight – probably the smarter move, but more on that later.

Here’s the gist of Campfire Whiskey. Its a blend of a six year old bourbon distilled and aged at Midwest Grain Products (Formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana or LDI), a 5.5 year old rye whiskey also distilled at the former LDI and aged in the upper floors of the famed Stitzel Weller Warehouses in Kentucky, and finally an 8 year old peated Scotch whiskey from the Scottish mainland. Global blending anyone???

David Perkins is not at liberty to divulge the origins of the peated whiskey based on agreements (understandings rather) with the source distillery. And honestly, I’m sure some will complain about that, but I can live with not knowing. What I do know is High West is the first American Distillery (that I can recall) to produce a blended whiskey of this type.

It’s a wildly unconventional blend, and has a name that pays homage to the peat contained within. How does it taste?

High West Campfire Whiskey, 46% abv (92 Proof), $49.99/bottle

Color: Deep Golden/Amber

Nose: Bright and fruity up front with a tang of honey, golden dried fruits (apricot, apple, peach), hints of cinnamon, toffee, and only a lingering peat smoke note. The peat is faint as a whisper on the nose, but very much threaded throughout.

Palate: The bourbon and rye influence is felt first, balancing honey, dried golden fruits, and vanilla with a spark of the rye spices. There’s a bit more “zip” in the spice quotient on the palate. As these flavors fade, the smoke and peat adds a great deal of interest and needed complexity.

Finish: Quite fruity with lingering peat and a smoky quality.

Overall: Leave it to a bunch of whiskey outlaws in Utah to spit in the eye of conventional whiskey blending. The result is without question one of the most groundbreaking whiskeys of recent years. Overly dramatic? I don’t think so. High West has managed to “mingle” (Jim Rutledge term) global whiskeys into something that stands on it’s own. It’s not overly complex, but it works well together. I know what you may be thinking. This is a gimmick right? No, it’s not. Rather than be heavy handed with the peat, High West has shown a great deal of restraint with Campfire. The result is a whiskey that is livened up and made far more interesting with a kiss of peat. Unlike the name implies – there’s no fire here, just great whiskey.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: Noah’s Mill Bourbon

Steve Ury (Sku) of Sku’s Recent Eats, Tim Read of Scotch and Ice Cream, and I have done a couple of collaboration reviews already. Please take a peek at the Rebel Yell Bourbon and Wild Turkey 101 Rye reviews we did together to understand a little background on how this whole thing got started. Suffice it to say it’s just a fun way for us to mix it up every now and again.

The ground rules for our “group” reviews are pretty simple. We each sample a specific whiskey, then post our thoughts on the same day and time. The goal is really just to give different perspectives so readers can gain some insight into what each of us thinks about the same whiskey.

The subject of this review is Noah’s Mill Bourbon. It is a small batch bourbon bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), which operates out of the old Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY. This past January, KBD completed renovations on the distillery in order to start distillation again. The first new make distillate in decades made it off the still the same month renovations completed. In a number of years we’ll hopefully see the aged product on store shelves.

To this point however, KBD has been an independent bottler. The operation’s business model involves sourcing whiskey from established (and well known) distilleries, then bottling it under the myriad of labels they own (Willett, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, Vintage, Johnny Drum, and others). Rumors abound as to where much of KBD’s whiskey comes from. Many say Heaven Hill, but I have reason to believe it’s a bit more diverse than that. In a conversation last fall, KBD’s Drew Kulsveen was not able to divulge specific sources, but he was gracious enough to give some background on Noah’s Mill.

Noah’s Mill is a barrel strength bourbon, bottled at 57.15% abv or 114.30 proof. For many years it was bottled as a 15 years old, meaning the youngest bourbon whiskey in the bottle must be at least 15 years old. According to Kulsveen, difficulty locating older stocks of whiskey required KBD to reformulate Noah’s Mill in recent years to ensure a more consistent product. Today the finished bourbon consists of whiskey that is between four to twenty year of age.

In my opinion, the most interesting tidbit about Noah’s Mill has more to do with mash bill (grain recipe). KBD makes use of a varied mix of barrels that include rye-based bourbons of low, moderate, and high percentages of rye grain, along with wheated bourbon (wheat replacing rye grain). I learned a long time ago not to speak in absolutes about whiskey, but I certainly cannot think of another bourbon whiskey that utilizes such an array of grain recipes. It does have me wondering what the target is for Noah’s Mill in terms of flavor profile with so many mash bills involved. That is for another discussion.

And what of that term, “small batch”? “Small Batch” is typically used to describe the blending/mingling of a certain number of barrels. It has few guidelines surrounding it, giving a distillery tremendous leeway to define what “small batch” whiskey means to their product line. For some it could be a couple hundred barrels. For larger distilleries it might be thousands. In the case of Noah’s Mill, it’s no more than 20 barrels of bourbon. That’s quite small indeed.

Here’s my specific tasting notes and overall impression of this barrel strength small batch bourbon. Don’t forget to take a look at Tim’s and Sku’s posts as well and check out their thoughts.

Noah’s Mill Small Batch Bourbon, 57.15% abv (114.30 Proof), $49.99/bottle

Color: Medium/Dark Amber

Nose: Toffee, dark roasted coffee, vanilla taffy, banana, raisins, and the rustic tang of corn mash. Strong wood spice notes and toasted wood are also ever present. Benefits from, and softens, with the addition of a splash of clean, room temperature water.

Palate: Dark dried fruits (fig and raisin), cocoa, marmalade, berry syrup, toffee, vanilla and roasted nuts make for a varied (and at times cluttered) flavor profile. There’s some spry youth as well. With a bit of water the spicier, earthier, and floral wood flavors are more pronounced.

Finish: Lengthy as you would expect from such a high proofed whiskey. Well spiced, big warmth, and littered with charred oak bitterness.

Overall: There’s a lot going on with Noah’s Mill. The explosion of aromas and flavors come at you with gusto. A bit of water and a little airtime helped to soften the tannins on the palate and round some of the sharper edges (and cool down the alcohol punch of course). Earlier in 2011 I reviewed a sample, which I wrote about in “1001 Whiskies You Must Taste Before You Die”. It’s been a while, and I’m working off memory, but this batch (11-121) has a bit more of a brash attitude than my previous experience. Does that have anything to do with the variances batch to batch? Probably so. With a small batch of this size, some differences should probably be expected, but also embraced in my opinion. Noah’s Mill is a bourbon for those looking for bold monsters. Not for the faint of heart, or anyone in search of one of my least favorite whiskey descriptors…..”smooth”.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)

Review: Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year Bourbon

The Ancient Age (AA) brand has been around for more than 60+ years. Today Buffalo Trace distillery distills, ages, and bottles AA in a couple of different bourbon offerings. The standard entry Ancient Age is around 3 years old, the Ancient Age 10 Star is a 6 year old, and their oldest is the 10 year old Ancient Ancient Age (AAA). The subject of this review is the later.

First off this is distilled from the Buffalo Trace’s Mash Bill #2, which is a higher rye version of the standard entry #1 Mash Bill, used to make the flagship bourbon, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, etc. Mash #2 does share such company as Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farm, Elmer T. Lee, and others. Not bad for a bourbon that costs well under $20.00. The price is right but does it taste “budget”?

Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year Bourbon, 43% abv (86 Proof), $18/bottle

Color: Medium Amber/Copper

Nose: Well ripened peach, caramel apple, and bright orange are backed by gentle baking spices, graham cracker, vanilla, flint, a whisper of fragrant oak and wood perfume. Gorgeous!

Palate: Orchard fruit mingles with caramel, vanilla and toffee only briefly before the spice takes hold (cinnamon and clove, anise, bitter orange rind, and a very healthy punch of rye). For an 86 proof bourbon this is also quite concentrated in flavor with outstanding balance of spice and sweetness.

Finish: Elegant yet definitely in the moderately long category. Toffee, citrus rind bitterness, and lingering (but gentle) rye “bite”.

Overall: To put it succinctly, this is a real “find”. The nose hints at something quite sweet and fruity, but the palate reaffirms the spicier side of the higher rye mash bill. There is little not to love with Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year Bourbon. For under $20 this is a whiskey that stands up well to its higher priced “cousin’s” (mentioned above) without trade off. This one will absolutely be in consideration for my “Value Pick of the Year”. If you can find it – grab it! Quick note – don’t be fooled by the “10 Star” version. This one says “Full Ten (10) Years Old” on the label.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.1 (Superb/Outstanding)