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Review: Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel came out in May of this year. Unfortunately I was unable to get a bottle here in the Nashville area until August. Four Roses has three standard products – the “Yellow” label, Small Batch, and Single Barrel bourbon. The later is a top value pour in my book, but I usually can’t wait to see what the distillery puts out in their Limited Edition releases each Spring. With 10 recipes for which to choose from, Four Roses has near limitless options at their disposal.

This years release is the OESK mashbill, the distillery’s lower rye recipe at 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley. The “K” in the designation stands for the yeast strain – which amplifies and enhances the spice aromas and flavors in the whiskey. For anyone suspect to Four Roses’ claims, trust me when I say, “yeast matters!”. Having spent some time with Jim Rutledge nosing and tasting every recipe, yeast is possibly the most under-appreciated “flavor factor” in whiskey making.

Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon, 55.6% abv (111.2Proof), $69/bottle
Barrel Info: Barrel 81-3E, aged 12 years
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Big plumes of maple and barrel sugars, peanut brittle, nougat, peach preserves, hints of cinnamon, and old wood. One of the best noses of the year – unreal.
Palate: Maple, brown sugar, caramel apple, and a swift uppercut of spice notes (cinnamon, nutmeg, and chili flake).
Finish: Long and lingering warmth, spices, and maple sweetness.
Overall: For me it’s a top 5 whiskey of the year at this stage. The “K” yeast strain’s spicy influence elevates a sweet and fruity pour. What impresses me most about Four Roses is their bourbons are unlike any other distillery, at their best achieving a great balance of sweetness, spice, and fruit. The 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel is superb with added depth. It doesn’t come cheap, but it’s well worth the price of admission. Here’s my suggestion: while most lament the fact that they missed a Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskey, just walk into your local shop, grab this and smile knowing you have something at least as good.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.5 (Superb)

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon (2002 Vintage)

If you are a repeat visitor to this website you may already know that I’m a big fan of the Evan Williams Single Barrel (EWSB) vintage releases. Heaven Hill was the first to really embrace this type of vintage dating program similar to the wine industry. At their best they are at once complex yet approachable, with a range of balanced and classic bourbon flavors. That’s not to say the releases are without some hiccups.

In 1996 Heaven Hill’s Bardstown, KY distillery burned to the ground. In response Heaven Hill had to source whiskey (from Beam & Brown-Forman) for a few years, which in my opinion (and many others) saw the product suffer a bit. In 1999, Heaven Hill purchased the Bernheim distillery, and since then, the EWSB vintage releases have hailed from that distillery. Since then, the releases have also been excellent. One of my favorites has been the 2000 release – an elegant, honeyed masterpiece that was super easy drinking.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to speak with Heaven Hill Master Distiller Craig Beam. I asked him a simple question, “which of the products that you produce is your favorite?” Without hesitation he said the EWSB vintage – citing the more aggressive aging process as well as (in his opinion) an optimal age for bourbon. It’s important to note that the EWSB vintage bourbon is aged in the upper levels of the warehouse, which can typically create a lot more interaction between the barrel and the spirit. That does not however always mean an overly aggressive bourbon. Please keep in mind – single barrel whiskeys can vary greatly even within the same year range. I’ve tasted EWSB’s from the same vintage that had quite different levels of oak and wood influence.

So with that said, let’s dive into some Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2002.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Vintage 2002, 43.3% abv (86.6Proof), $29/bottle
Barrel Info: Barrel 91, aged 9 years 10 months
Color: Deep gold/honey
Nose: Candy corn, vanilla taffy, candied orange rind, dates, hints of clove and nutmeg.
Palate: Caramel and vanilla with a candied fruit heart (golden raisin, orange and grapefruit rind). The oak influence is quite minimal compared to 2001. The personality is harmonious and composed from entry to the finish.
Finish: Subtle sweetness and ever increasing warmth. The finish adds a little pop.
Overall: While this barrel of EWSB Vintage 2002 was not quite as complex as the 2000, nor quite as bold as the 2001, it finds a middle ground between the two. Much of the base aromas, flavors, as well as the personality takes me to the 2011 Parker’s Heritage Collection (PHC) finished in cognac barrels, which I rated at 9.6. It wouldn’t surprise me if the same warehouse levels were used for the 2002 and the 2011 PHC. About the only suggestion I can make is I’d like to see the proof increased to 90-92. I think they could do that without sacrificing drinkability. But when a whiskey is this good, why bother screwing with it?
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.2 (Outstanding)

Review: Knob Creek Rye Whiskey

The news of Knob Creek releasing a Rye Whiskey has been out for at least a good year or more. Many have been licking their lips waiting for this one to hit the shelves. Distilled and bottled by Jim Beam, the Knob Creek Brand certainly has ample following. Rather than releasing the Rye Whiskey in a 9 year old small batch form, Knob Rye has no age statement. It tastes 4-5 years old to me, but that’s only a guess.

So, was it worth the wait? Here are my thoughts:

Knob Creek Rye Whiskey, 50% abv (100 Proof), $38/bottle
Color: Light Amber
Nose: Cola, candied ginger, and dusty oak prevail. The rye is fruity and clean (minty) on the nose.
Palate: Far drier than the nose suggests. Caramel and vanilla sweetness up front, then prickly rye spice asserts itself mid palate (mint, chili, cinnamon, and white pepper) on through the finish. Fairly bold and brash.
Finish: Warm and well spiced finish, no doubt boosted by the 100 proof. Caramel sweetness balances dusty oak with some bitter notes lingering as well.
Overall: Knob Creek Rye Whiskey is certainly well made, though missing the dimension and variety that some of the MGP (Formerly LDI) juice has delivered in releases over the last few years. The spice influence is big from nose to finish. I’d grab this for a great rye based cocktail – the 100 proof provides some dilution prevention. While good, the bottom line is there are more interesting Rye Whiskeys on the market for my tastes.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.8 (Good)

Review: Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof Bourbon

Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof Bourbon is the 4th release under the modern day E.H. Taylor name. Produced by Buffalo Trace, the namesake is a nod towards one of the bourbon industry’s major innovators and owner of the Old Fire Copper (OFC) distillery. OFC and an adjacent distillery, Carlisle, would eventually become Buffalo Trace.

My experience with these E.H. Taylor releases have been a gradual increase in overall quality. The first one was just a little weird. The Single Barrel was an improvement, and the 3rd, the Tornado Surviving Warehouse C release, was a big step in the right direction (rating out at 8.9). Does Buffalo Trace continue the improvement in this series? Here are my thoughts on this barrel proof monster.

Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof Bourbon, 67.25% abv (134.5 Proof), $75/bottle
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Sorghum syrup and molasses, dried figs, cherry licorice, and sour apple. Tons of punchy spices as well (clove, nutmeg, anise).
Palate: Molasses, cherry cough syrup, baked apple, and a good bit of resin and grip from the wood. The spices are again ablaze in this one – chili heat and clove taking the foreground.
Finish: Heat and warmth abound with wood spices. Molasses sweetness as well as some bitters.
Overall: Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof Bourbon is a monster pour at 134.5 proof. It benefits GREATLY from a healthy dose of water to calm the fire and levels the assault so to speak. The main complaint I have is there’s not a great deal of layered depth in spite of the proof. As a result it drinks a lot like what I imagine an air traffic controller feels like – stressed and intense. That’s not to say it doesn’t have many fantastic high points (boiled sugars, fruit and spice), but there’s a lot going on at a surface level. If you love ‘em big, brash, and in your face – this one is for you!
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.2 (Very Good)

Review: John E. Fitzgerald Larceny Bourbon

Larceny Bourbon is the latest release from Heaven Hill Distillery. This small batch bourbon consists of 100 barrels “or less” aged in the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors of the aging warehouse. The name refers to John E. Fitzgerald’s (Old Fitzgerald namesake) propensity to use his keys to the aging warehouses to “steal” bourbon from the very best barrels at his disposal. These barrels became known as the “Fitzgerald barrels”.

I’m not exactly certain if Heaven Hill intends to eventually replace the Old Fitz line with Larceny, or if this is simply an additional product offering. Time will tell. For now, let’s take a taste of this new wheated bourbon.

John E. Fitzgerald Larceny Bourbon, 46% abv (92 Proof), $24.99/bottle
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Brown sugar, caramelized banana, honeysuckle, corn, and a healthy dose of ground cinnamon. There is a bit of oaky resin as well.
Palate: Velvety on the tongue and surprisingly well spiced. Brown sugar syrup, vanilla, and notes of sweet corn are livened up big time with a cinnamon and wood spice punch.
Finish: Falls off quickly, but with an even warmth, never too hot, and a hint of honeyed sweetness.
Overall: This is an impressive release from Heaven Hill at this price point. First off – the proof is right on for an easy sipping and inexpensive wheated bourbon. They’ve left the flavor here without compromising drinkability. Because of the price, the natural comparison is against Maker’s Mark, but to me this compares closer in flavor profile with Maker’s 46. The healthy doses of cinnamon and wood spice have made for a much more interesting sip than the standard Maker’s.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)

Most Wanted

This weekend I was pondering the world of whiskey and in particular what I’d most like to see from producers. Obviously, for a whiskey lover, spending too much time on this subject could yield a rather long list. Outside of easy availability for all for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Van Winkle products, here are a few things I’d love to see:

George Dickel Barrel Strength No. 12: George Dickel is probably my favorite distillery. Is it because they produce the best whiskey? No – not exactly. I do love their 12 year old and Barrel Select, and it’s such a quaint, beautiful distillery tucked into a remote hollow in the southern portion of Middle Tennessee. I hate the fact that it’s treated as second class by the parent company, Diageo. Anyways, I would love to try a barrel proof version of their No. 12. I don’t think this one will ever see the light of day. Diageo uses Dickel essentially as a barrel producer for the company’s main whiskey brand, Johnnie Walker. Don’t plan on them doing any special releases that might divert away from their primary mission. Hey, a man can dream though.

Older (17+ year) Four Roses: This kind of goes against Four Roses Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge’s, philosophy on great bourbon. He believes bourbon hits a sweet spot between 8-12 years. I’d be a fool to think I know more than a thimble full of the whiskey knowledge Jim possesses, but I can’t help thinking that their single story aging process would make for some stellar older bourbons(17-20 years). Aging whiskey in a single story warehouse (5-6 barrels high) puts the whiskey through a less volatile aging process. If you’ve tasted many Four Roses products, what you’ll notice in most cases is well integrated oak – it’s a component and not the star of the show. Every now and then we get a taste of some older juice in the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch releases, but it’s usually mingled with 10-12 year old bourbon. What I want to see is either a blend of older bourbons or some single barrels. Are you listening Four Roses?

Four Roses Rye: Four Roses makes it on my list again here. It’s widely known that Four Roses uses more rye grain in their “B” mash bill than just about any other bourbon. A distillery that does that as well as Four Roses I’m sure could produce some outstanding rye whiskey. More than that, I’d be keenly interested in seeing how Four Roses’ 5 yeast strains influence a final rye whiskey. Talk about a hell of a lot a options. Will we see it? Rye whiskey isn’t going anywhere, and provided Four Roses can add it to their product line without hurting bourbon production, I think we will see it one day. Check out my three part discussion with Jim from 2011. He talks about rye a little bit. The reason it’s not an easy decision is because Four Roses, in spite of the history, is still a young brand (reintroduced in the U.S. in the last decade). It has taken tremendous efforts just to get the primary product lines (Yellow Label, Small Batch, and Single Barrel) entrenched. That’s a smart business model for sure – do a few things REALLY well, but I think it’s time for Four Roses to branch out. A rye whiskey is the perfect way to do so. The bad part is we’ll have to wait a long time before it would be properly aged. I’m patient though.

These are just a few things I’d like to see from a couple of producers. What about you? Let’s hear what you’d most like to see.