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Review: Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye

The Willett Brand is owned by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, LLC (KBD), a Bardstown, Kentucky Independent Bottler. The company is responsible for a number of well known bourbon and rye whiskeys – Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and of course the Willett label to name a few. In spite of having the word “distillers” in its name, KBD does not currently distill whiskey. Instead, the operation relies on partnerships with established distilleries to produce its whiskeys.

As an aside, KBD has been working for years to get the former Willett distillery up and running (in Bardstown, KY). In a discussion I had this past fall with Drew Kulsveen, the man behind most of the company’s whiskeys, KBD is making significant progress in getting the distillery operational. Kulsveen estimates the distillery will be producing whiskey at some point in 2012. Until that time, Kulsveen takes a hands on approach to selecting barrels for KBD’s many products.

The subject of this review is KBD’s Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye. What we know is this product is made by Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. For more information on LDI, please check out my reviews on Bulleit Rye, Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye, and a number of the High West whiskeys. LDI is responsible for distilling each of those products.

Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye Whiskey, 55% abv (110 Proof) $35.00

Color: Medium Amber

Nose:  Razor sharp rye, granulated ginger, pine sap, licorice, and fresh, juicy oak at the fore. Rock candy and vanilla share the stage, but in the background.

Palate: Concentrated, brittle caramel sweetness fades to crisp, dry peppermint, evergreen, and clove at mid-palate. Lots of deep, dark barrel notes anchor the brighter flavors of this whiskey, adding depth and complexity.

Finish: The finish is huge – spiced with rye, clove, and mint as well as bold notes of the oak.

Overall: The hallmark of LDI’s rye whiskey, particularly their 95% rye, is that bracing rye nose and palate, with brittle caramel, juniper, and fresh green notes (evergreen, pine, and herbs). Willett 3 year Single Barrel Rye certainly demonstrates the family resemblance, but is also different from the rest in the way it delivers aroma and flavor. I consider this a good thing because most of the independently bottled LDI juice tastes so very similar. Releasing this at 110 proof was a wise move first and foremost. The result is a deeper sweetness, complexity, barrel/toasted notes. From a textural point of view, the Willett Rye is more viscous as well. I’d go so far as to consider this one of the best young whiskeys (under 4 years old) made. Quite a distinctive pour for $35.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon

Ahhh, it’s that time of year. You know the one where a line of popular bourbon and American Whiskeys release, thus setting off a consumer frenzy that wine and spirit stores dread across the country. Pappy Van Winkle and the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskeys just hit store shelves in recent weeks, so it’s time to take a look at them.

Originally I had planned a little comparison between the 15 year and 20 year old. However, the recent news that the 2011 15 year old is now 100% Buffalo Trace bourbon, prompted me to rethink that comparison. As evidenced by the myriad of comments and emails I’ve received, it’s pretty clear that the Pappy 15 requires a thorough examination and comparison with the old. I also want to give my $.02 on the craziness over Stitzel-Weller juice.

In the meantime, how about we take a look at one of the other flagship whiskeys in the lineup, the 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle.

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon, 45.2% abv (90.4 Proof) $110.00

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Demerara Sugar, Maple Syrup, and Old Cedar Box right off the top. Candied Dates, Big Vanilla, soft spices (CLOVE and Nutmeg), and Old Leather in the background. Very elegant for 20 years in new oak.

Palate: Velvety textured and again so elegant. I’d even say very well balanced for a 20 year old bourbon. The sip is redolent with oak and warm warm spices, but it’s never too much. It’s gorgeous actually. Sweet and fruity flavors evolve with spiced maple syrup, bitter orange, cinnamon stick, and honey.

Finish: The finish is also honeyed and warm with a touch of barrel. A surprising baked cinnamon apple fruitiness emerges as well. Didn’t anticipate that!

Overall: This is brilliant whiskey. The 20 year old is much less brutish and weighty in comparison to the 15. That does make it a bit less challenging, and as a result less interesting, but it’s so easy drinking. It’s also a testament to just how well wheated bourbons can handle the age and wood.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)

Tennessee Whiskey Review: Jack Daniels Single Barrel and George Dickel Barrel Select

Jack Daniels Single Barrel, 47%/94 Proof $45
Jack Daniels has one of the most distinctive flavor profiles in whiskey. The Lynchburg, Tennessee distillery’s single barrel effort is the same profile ramped up a few levels, particularly in the wood department. The deep amber, copper-red hued Tennessee Whiskey is thick and viscous in the glass. The nose is a all sweet and oak: huge caramel and vanilla, toasted oak and cedar, as well as floral aromas. Burnt cinnamon sugar and cocoa help make for a dark, sultry aroma. The flavors on the palate are sturdy and firm, again with tremendous weight. In spite of that, the front half of the sip is a bit flat, eventually evolving as vanilla infused caramel, black pepper, wood spices, and charcoal towards the finish. Oak, a resinous grippy quality, and dry spices dominate the finish. Jack Daniels Single Barrel is a very well made whiskey hurt a bit by a lack of balance and a slow development of flavors on the palate.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good/Excellent)

George Dickel Barrel Select, 43%/86 Proof $39
It’s no secret that George Dickel plays second fiddle to Jack Daniels when it comes to production and notoriety. Heck take a look at Dickel’s parent company’s (Diageo) website. Regardless, the little distillery in Cascade Hollow (Tullahoma), Tennessee continues to put out some excellent products. Take for example their Barrel Select, which is the name for the distillery’s small batch of select barrels. It’s light amber/deep gold in hue with a nose of corn mash, sweet tobacco, honey, canned pineapple, and maple syrup wrapped around a core of oak and leather. It’s a special nose! On the palate this whiskey continues with the well rounded theme. Honeyed dried apricots, caramelized nuts, big corn, vanilla, and spearmint lead to a solid punch of splintered fresh oak. The finish is all corn, warming wood spices (cinnamon and allspice), and honey. George Dickel Barrel Select is a superb whiskey with balanced flavors of fruit, corn, wood, and spices. It’s too bad those morons from Diageo continue to treat it like a red headed stepchild, because the whiskey Dickel produces is some of the best in the country for the dollar.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

Jim Beam Devil’s Cut Bourbon Review

Jim Beam’s Devil’s Cut is the latest release from the Bourbon Behemoth from Clermont, KY. It’s made from pretty interesting process called “barrel sweating”. Once the barrels of whiskey are dumped, they are filled with a proportion of water and agitated (rolled, moved) in the heat to bring out the “trapped” whiskey that’s been slumbering deep in the wood.

While I personally haven’t seen this process in action, I am told that it would surprise anyone just how much liquid is left in the wood itself. Once the process concludes, this woodier juice is reintroduced to 6 year old base Jim Beam. The result is Devil’s Cut.

And what about that name? Well, that’s a clever play on the “Angel’s Share”, which is a term referring to the whiskey that is lost to evaporation during the aging process. The amount lost to the angels can be quite significant over a 4, 8, 12, etc. period of time. The folks at Beam have apparently figured out how to take the Devil’s Cut as well.

Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, 45% abv (90 Proof), $24

Color: Lighter Amber (A bit lighter than I would have expected)

Nose: Sweet, candy shop nose of brown sugar, toffee, big vanilla, and ripe banana before oak and wood spices pick up steam. It’s certainly sweeter than the devilish name suggests.

Palate: Pretty straight forward and lacking complexity, but with bold flavor. Caramel sweetness and vanilla dominate the front palate with oak and spices (cinnamon, pepper, and nutmeg) emerging firmly from mid palate through finish.

Finish: The finish has it’s own zip code – it’s long and lingers forever. This, for me, is where I think their process for creating this whiskey makes it’s presence felt most. There’s loads of wood, barrel tannin, and spice influence backed with caramel and corn.

Overall: Devil’s Cut starts off innocent and sweetly enough, but quickly the spice and wood emerges. It’s understandable considering the process I noted in the introduction above. It’s not a very complex whiskey, but frankly I found it quite interesting. It’s a spicy bourbon for the folks that make some fairly sweet and mellow juice for the most part. I applaud the effort.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: (8.5 Very Good/Excellent)

Single Barrel Bourbon Comparison: Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farm, and Kentucky Spirit

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon, 50.5% abv (101 Proof), $45-50
Background: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit sits at the top of Wild Turkey Distillery’s (Lawrenceburg, KY) primary line of products. Not including some of their limited releases of course. The Wild Turkey hallmark is a spicy rye character that is quite prevalent (albeit in varying degrees) throughout the range. Jimmy Russell, a bourbon icon, and his son Eddie are the Master Distillers at Wild Turkey.
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Crushed rock, leather, and dry oak at the front with dried banana, vanilla, herbs, and rye to follow. Maple syrup increasingly more prevalent with air time.
Flavor: This one is almost dry and crisp throughout the sip. It starts spicy with peppery heat and a rye-heavy punch. Hard caramel candy sweetness struggles through just gripping oak takes it to the finish.
Finish: Long and spicy with a bit of corn and toasted, dry oak.
Overall: The nose is fantastic, bringing some aromas that don’t present themselves very often in other bourbons. On the palate it leans heavily towards dry and spicy, so if you are a fan of this type of flavor profile, Kentucky Spirit will please you.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)
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Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, 46.5% abv (93 Proof), $45-50
Background: Produced by Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, KY, Blanton’s was the bourbon that started the single barrel craze in the early 1980’s. It’s disputed by some noted historians and industry figures as to whether it was the first Single Barrel, but nobody can dispute that it was the first to really achieve commercial success. Others took note and quickly followed. It’s named after Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton, a former George T. Stagg Distillery (now Buffalo Trace) president. His favorite bourbon came from Warehouse H, which is where Blanton’s barrels are selected today. We owe Elmer T. Lee for getting Blanton’s released. At his urging, the distillery agreed to release this bourbon to the public in 1984. It is made using Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #2.
Color: Medium Amber
Nose: Corn, apples and apricots, cinnamon, rye, and a little caramel sweetness adds weight.
Flavor: Corn, orchard fruits (apples, peaches), bracing rye spice, and the bitterness of charred wood.
Finish: Baking spices, fruit, maple syrup, and barrel yield a moderate length finish.
Overall: Blanton’s is a wonderful expression of a rye recipe bourbon full of grain and barrel aromas and flavors. It is also accessible and relatively easy drinking. My only complaint is Blanton’s flattens a bit on the palate. I would love to see this at barrel proof as Colonel Blanton used to sip it. Buffalo Trace, are you listening?
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 (Very Good/Excellent)
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Rock Hill Farm Single Barrel Bourbon, 50% abv (100 Proof), $45-50
Background: Rock Hill Farm is a Single Barrel bourbon made by Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, KY. Like Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farm is made using Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #2.
Color: Deep Golden/Amber
Nose: Corn, honey, apple cider, a sprinkle of rye, mint, and wet oak. What a fantastic nose this is, and with fruit and corn prevailing and enough oak and spice character to keep it lively.
Flavor: Again we have corn right from the fore, loads of honey, rye, peppery bite, burned sugar, maple, and again that apple note.
Finish: Moderate length -fruity with caramel and peppery spice.
Overall: Rock Hill Farm is a tremendous bourbon that really doesn’t get its due. It has depth and layers of flavor that Blanton’s didn’t quite measure up to. More than anything I enjoyed the balance of grain and fruit that shines through.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Outstanding/Superb)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

Friday, April 29th, Buffalo Trace is making an announcement of sorts at their distillery concerning a new product they are unveiling. It’s called the Single Oak Project and it appears the folks in Frankfort, KY have been mighty busy.

To sum it up, 10 years ago Buffalo Trace hand selected single trees and had them coopered into two barrels from each tree. They identified 7 critical areas they believe make up a bourbon’s “DNA”, and varied these factors with each barrel. The result apparently is 192 different barrels of bourbon they will bottling and releasing.

Check out the website here. While not what I expected them to announce, I am certainly looking forward to trying as many as I can. Let’s all hope we can actually find them on the shelves.

POST UPDATE

Buffalo Trace has a release out this morning which explains things in a little more detail.

-Drink your Bourbon!