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Review: Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel Bourbon

What’s in a name? Apparently Wild Turkey thinks you need to know that not only is the new Russell’s Reserve Bourbon release a single barrel, but it’s also small batch. That’s kind of a given as a single barrel, but whatever (those damn marketing guys).

Unnecessary words aside, I’m a Wild Turkey fan and also a fan of Russell’s Reserve. I enjoy the interplay and balance between fruit, spice, and sweetness that is a hallmark of WT products. The subject of this review does not have an age statement so we really don’t know what we’re looking at there. However, I’d guess something in the 5-7 year range (note: a faithful reader caught my lazy research to note this is 8-9 years according to Wild Turkey). What we do know is that RRSBSB is non-chill filtered, retaining all of the fatty acids and flavor carriers for the drinker to enjoy. To me – that’s a great thing! In addition we know that Wild Turkey puts their distillate in the barrel at a lower proof point than most all over bourbon distillers (55% abv or 110 proof). That’s neither good nor bad, but rather a philosophy that a distillery can deploy to their desired profile factoring in time and where the barrels will age in the warehouse.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with it why don’t we?

Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel Bourbon, 55% abv (110 Proof), $50/bottle
Color: Deep Amber (richly hued and dark)
Nose: Rich caramel, toffee, creamy vanilla, dried apricots, and honey are backed with a healthy dose of wood spices (cinnamon and clove), crushed rock, and barrel. The nose is closed at first but opens beautifully with some air time and a splash of water.
Palate: Bold and bracing character with a bit of a sweet streak to round things out. Creamy on the palate with caramel and vanilla. The spices erupt (cinnamon and clove) with charred barrel notes leading to the finish.
Finish: Lots of warmth, spice, and a moderate lingering sweetness.
Overall: Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel is an outstanding whiskey – especially if bold, spicy bourbons with a heavy punch of barrel/wood notes are your thing. Not as balanced as some of the other offerings from Wild Turkey, and not quite as fruity, but that didn’t deter from my enjoyment. At 110 proof it takes a couple splashes very well, which helps to calm the storm a bit. Bottom line, this is bourbon worth buying if the flavor profile suits your tastes.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

Thanks Bob!

What a crazy couple of months it has been. Between running a growing staffing firm and trying to corral three beautiful, active girls, I’m learning just how tough managing it all can be. But who isn’t busy right?

I just have to say thanks to Robert Parker, noted wine expert and writer, for digging me out of my hole a little sooner than I anticipated this week. Frequent readers know I’m a fan K&L Wine’s blog, Spirit Journal, written predominantly by David Driscoll. David’ post from yesterday has more than a few bourbon writers/bloggers puzzled. You can check it out here.

I’ll summarize by simply saying that Robert Parker felt compelled to go on a bourbon “conquest” for us all. That is correct. One of the foremost experts on wine decided to lock down bourbon and rye whiskey in a nice, tidy list.

Tim Read over at Scotch and Ice Cream had a strong take on Parker’s efforts. Chuck Cowdery did as well. I can’t wait to read Sku’s that is surely coming down the pipe (no pressure Steve!).

Obviously, Robert Parker is well known and clearly accomplished, but I am more than a bit surprised at his audacity. You might say, “Jason this man clearly has a great palate and a rolodex of descriptors to boot.” I’d agree…..when it comes to wine. Ask yourself if a man, regardless of his resume, knows the brown stuff if he is compelled to state this “shocker”:

“To tell you the truth, I have never been a big fan of liquor, but I was blown away by the quality of the top bourbons. They are every bit as good as a great cognac or Armagnac … and I’m not kidding!

For another laugh, check out his notes on Blanton’s, where he remarks that its either “a masterful blend or a bourbon of serious age.” You all of course know that it’s neither. In addition, The curious arrangement of whiskeys he chose to talk about also made me scratch my head a little. Experimentals mixed with some middle shelf stuff, a dash of the highly lauded releases, and a sprinkle of micro for good measure. To me it ended up an odd collection.

Of course there’s no law against Parker’s foray into “liquor”. It also doesn’t upset me in the least. In fact he’s shown a lot of balls tackling something he clearly knows only a wee bit about. Hmmm – Grapevine Manifesto has a ring to it.

One thing Parker and I do agree on: “Drink your bourbon!”

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel 2003 Vintage

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage bourbons have a subtlety and balance that resonate with me. It seems that with each year, Heaven Hill manages to release an EWSB whiskey with flavors that are well integrated and harmonious. Nothing stands too far out in front. The last four vintages have been excellent, but will the 2003 measure up?

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Vintage 2003, 43.3% abv (86.6Proof), $29/bottle
Barrel 78, aged 9 years 8 months
Color: Deep golden
Nose: Caramel apple, honey, vanilla taffy, with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Palate: As with the 2000 and 2002 especially, this 2003 is a well balanced blend of sweetness, fruit, and oak. Honey and vanilla up front, burnt sugar, dried apricot, golden raisin, and a solid backbone of oak and wood spices (cinnamon, nutmeg).
Finish: Candy corn sweetness, oak, crushed rock, and warm wood spices.
Overall: Heaven Hill is in a groove with the distillery’s Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage dated bourbons. The 2003 is just a shade less exciting than the previous three years, but sill marked with the usual grace and easy drinking personality. This is whiskey you can buy at a great price and knock them back without sacrificing quality. I will say that Heaven Hill would have a stunner with a bit more stickiness and mouth feel at a higher proof. The distillery is releasing a barrel strength Elijah Craig 12 Year at around $40-45, so I hope they add a similar version of EWSB soon as well.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.9 (Outstanding)

Hoarding Whiskey Part 2

Apparently the whiskey hoarding debate from my post in late January struck a chord. Some response was positive, some negative, but regardless a fun discussion where over 50 comments can be read here. A nasty cold and cough have derailed my tasting and review plans for the week. But that’s okay – it allows me a chance to revisit this topic if you will allow me.

First, I wanted to further clarify my position. Like most things, it’s never black and white. I consider the hoarding mentality one of collecting whiskey for the sake of the collection. Who am I to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do with your whiskey? It’s your money. If you can build your stash while not sacrificing your personal enjoyment of good whiskey, then I say go for it.

There were a number of great points made about being a smart consumer. Something I am not. I can only speak for myself but for me, my title as whiskey blogger runs opposite of the title, “smart consumer”. I buy 90+% of the whiskey I review, and taste a whiskey no less than 2-3 times (sometimes more) before writing about it. That requires plenty of sipping and not a ton of saving. If a smart consumer knows he loves XYZ whiskey, shouldn’t he take advantage of good pricing and stock up? Absolutely. If that smart consumer enjoys that whiskey and drinks it regularly that is not a hoarders pursuit in my opinion.

The biggest point I wanted to make is don’t let a hoarding mentality keep you from enjoying the great stuff you have in your cabinet. Don’t rush to finish all those open bottles, don’t crack your Pappy just because you think I said so (but if you already did – save me some), but do find the time to enjoy these whiskeys that you’ve purchased. Don’t always wait for the perfect moment – a great whiskey MAKES the perfect moment perfect.

And finally, for some background, I’m not one that lives in the past. I don’t believe that everything made back in the day was better. Doesn’t mean some wasn’t better, but nobody can convince me that the juice put out by some of these distilleries today is not as good or better today as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. Buffalo Trace makes better whiskey than Stitzel-Weller did from top to bottom. Is that subjective? No. ; )

A number of comments also saw an underlying optimism in my post. Those folks are absolutely correct. I don’t believe the whiskey bubble is close to popping. I don’t have facts or figures to discredit what others feel to be an absolute certainty, citing rising prices, rising gimmicks, and depleting supply as chief reasons. Sure, it saddens me to see stuff aged on boats, but constraints (lack of supply) also lead to wonderfully creative products we’d never have otherwise.

Distilleries are making more whiskey today than ever before. Yes it’s getting more expensive – that happens. But we will soon have even more viable choices with natural selection doing its thing on a number of the micro distilleries. I tasted a Balcones whiskey that is very good and will only get better. The better micro distilleries are forcing other micros to make ever better products. It’s also forcing established distilleries to be more creative.

You could argue that 2012 would be a chief knock against my theory for the most part. I consider it an average year for whiskey, perhaps one of the worst for me in the last 5 years. Still, I tasted enough great stuff from the likes of Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, High West, Heaven Hill, and St. George Spirits, among others, to keep me optimistic. Therefore I still encourage you to drink your good stuff.

It’s Wednesday night – have a pour in good health!

-Jason

Review: Mellow Corn Corn Whiskey

What do you think of when you hear the words “corn whiskey”? Perhaps images of backwoods stills and mason jars come to mind. As my recent post of Balcones’ True Blue corn whiskey demonstrates, a lot of micro distilleries are taking on the humble grain and crafting some very interesting products. However, let’s not forget this category has been around for a long time.

Heaven Hill produces more corn whiskey than any other distillery today, including the subject of this review, Mellow Corn. I’ve noticed over the last couple years the distillery’s pushing this flagship corn whiskey over J.W. Corn and Dixie Dew, which are essentially the same products. To me that makes a lot of sense. How many corn whiskeys does a distillery need to sell?

By now you are probably aware that one of the components required for a whiskey to be called “bourbon” is a corn content of at least 51%. Corn whiskey in contrast must contain greater than 80% corn. In addition, and also unlike bourbon, corn whiskey may be aged in used barrels.

Mellow Corn Specs: Mellow Corn is 90% corn with a small percentage of rye and barley making up the remaining 10%. The whiskey’s golden chardonnay color indicates it has been aged in used barrels. We also know it’s been sitting in wood for at least four years. Even though Mellow Corn is bottled in bond at 100 proof, the resulting aging process produces a much lighter style of whiskey with some rustic edges.

Mellow Corn Corn Whiskey, 50% abv (100 Proof), $12/bottle
Color: Gold/Chardonnay
Nose: Bright and brisk – heaps of vanilla taffy, dried banana, sweet corn, and honey.
Palate: A bit of ginger spice and warm spice wrapped around a soft, sweet core of vanilla taffy and banana. Moderate warmth and rustic corn grain edges.
Finish: Longer finish than I expected. Vanilla and bit of white pepper.
Overall: Mellow Corn is not a complex whiskey to say the least, but it’s bright and easy sipping even at 100 proof. Where it gets it right is with balance. It’s not overly sweet, mildly spiced, and with great vanilla and banana fruitiness. I laugh when I read negative comments about Mellow Corn. Mostly because it’s well made, good whiskey. If you put this in the hands of someone like John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky Company overseas, he’d blend this into something marvelous that people would buy for $50. Would I recommend you absolutely go out and buy Mellow Corn? No, I can’t say that I would. However if you are interested in building on your whiskey education, an $11-13 purchase would go a long well to give you an appreciation of the style.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.7 (Good)

Review: Balcones True Blue

As “micro” or “craft” distilleries go, few are hotter right now than Balcones out of Waco, TX. The distillery’s portfolio of whiskeys and spirits is ever increasing. Not to mention they’ve snagged some pretty high honors in recent years. In 2012 they were named craft distillery of the year by “Whisky Advocate” magazine. Master Distiller, Chip Tate, has taken the road less traveled with the distillery’s use of interesting grains, such as blue corn, for Balcones’ signature whiskeys.

Today’s review is for Balcones True Blue, the distillery’s cask strength, 100% blue corn whiskey. At 125.6 proof, this one is a big one.

Balcones True Blue Corn Whiskey, Batch TBU-12, 62.8% abv (125.6 Proof), $57/bottle
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Brown sugar syrup, cinnamon spiced pecans, and creamy coffee liqueur overcome some of the funky, new make undertones. The oak stays very much in the background, with a rustic corn quality adding savory aromas to a very sweet nose. Overall there is a level of complexity here that belies its age
Palate: Brown sugar, HUGE cinnamon spice and chile heat, tamed a bit by dried fruits (dried apple and apricot) and honey.
Finish: Increasing warmth with a very long cinnamon and honey finish.
Overall: True Blue gained favor with me at every sip. With more air time, and a splash of water, the layers of aromas and flavors developed dramatically. It is young juice – there is no mistaking that. However there is also a level of complexity with True Blue that is astonishing. It’s clear that Chip Tate and Balcones are making very good whiskey. I’m now paying attention and looking forward to trying more of their products. If you are listening Balcones, keep a few of those barrels back for some older releases. If you do that I think you have a real stunner on your hands.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.1 (Very Good)