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Reviews: Few Spirits and Ranger Creek .36 Bourbon

It’s been a while since I’ve examined some new Micro-Distillery offerings. Here are two that have caught my eye of late, and warrant some discussion.

The first is Few Spirits Bourbon. Few Spirits is an upstart of the last 18 months out of Chicago, IL. Chicago’s a city that has seen more local distilleries popping up, which is a great thing. I have paid attention to Few Spirit’s growth, and was surprised to see their bourbon already in the Nashville, TN market. Few makes an aged rye, white whiskey, and gin as well.

The second whiskey, Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon, comes from the Ranger Creek brewery in San Antonio, TX. The operation calls itself a “brewstillery” of sorts. Texas’ Balcones and Garrison Brothers distilleries have received some press nationwide for their products, and Ranger Creek is poised to do so as well. The distillery focuses only on a bourbon whiskey for now.

Few Spirits Bourbon Whiskey, 46.5% abv (93 Proof), $45.00/bottle
Color: Golden/Light Amber
Nose: Brash, youthful whiskey notes give way to vanilla, golden raisin, demerara sugar, clove, and corn.
Palate: Spicy and dry. Caramel and maple syrup dries quickly with clove and allspice. Some astringent bitterness overpowers the sip leading to the finish.
Finish: A tad on the bitter side with sweet corn and cinnamon.
Overall: Few Spirits Bourbon Whiskey is certainly drinkable, but there’s just way too much youth and rough edges to recommend it in any way. The label says “Aged in charred new oak barrels less than four years.” I’d guess no more than 6-9 months tops. Age is not the be all end all, but a whiskey is ready when it’s ready, and this one clearly needs more time to tie up the loose ends.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 6.7 (Decent)

Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey, 48% abv (96 Proof)
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Rich chocolate caramels, vanilla, nougat, banana, cinnamon, flint, dry corn and hints of rye spice.
Palate: Big and bold attitude – bitter caramel, cinnamon, maple candy, and a touch of chili heat. One quick note – avoid water. It’s 96 proof, and tended to go a little lopsided with the addition of too much. Add with caution.
Finish: Long – a balance of sweet caramel and barrel spices.
Overall: Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon has been aged for 9 months. I would have guessed it to be far older. Some traces of the typical young whiskey notes are present, but overpowered by a deep, dark, rich aroma and flavor profile that belies it’s age. Easily one of the best whiskeys under 2 years of age that I’ve tried. Ranger Creek claims it has a lot to do with the aggressive Texas heat, which they believe ages the whiskey quicker and more aggressively. I certainly believe the well developed flavor profile demonstrates the later well. As a result I’m looking forward to seeing more from this distillery. If this bourbon is any indication they are doing something right in San Antonio.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good/Excellent)

Review: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon

Woodford Reserve has released a new bourbon called Double Oaked in the last couple of months. The whiskey starts with standard Woodford, which is distilled in both copper pot and column stills before aging in heavily charred white oak barrels. Double Oaked starts off with standard Woodford Reserve before undergoing an inventive finishing process.

Once the standard Woodford is dumped, it’s then placed in a second barrel for an additional 9 months of aging. These barrels have been toasted twice as long, and charred far more lightly, than the first barrels. The result is a different type of “seasoning” to the wood that is designed to provide a dramatic impact on the flavor of the finished whiskey.

Let me say that I’m a big fan of these finishing processes. Mashbills (grain recipes) can only be tweaked so much. Significant flavor variations are hard to gain by tweaking grains a few percentage points. Same is true for distillation – it is what it is. Distillers are left with but a few weapons at their disposal, one of which is the wood – a HUGE flavor impact on the finished product. I hope to see more finishing out there. To me this is not a “tired” trend in the least.

Here are my thoughts on Woodford Reserve Double Oaked:

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, 45.2% abv (90.4 Proof), $49/bottle

Color: Dark Copper/Amber

Nose: Huge wafts of butterscotch and toffee with a bit of heady molasses. Vanilla cream, baked peaches, apricots, and clove provide some interest along with a heavy dose of toasted wood. The nose is far creamier, more buttery, and also much sweeter than the standard Woodford.

Palate: Butterscotch, vanilla, and toffee notes at the front of the palate, eventually giving way to cinnamon, clove, and rum raisin. As the sip finishes, a concentrated wood tannin and bitterness begins to emerge.

Finish: Flavors of butterscotch do their best to tone down the lingering bitterness. Moderate length with ample warmth.

Overall: It’s interesting that this is named “Double Oaked”, because it comes off literally with a bit of a dual personality. What we have here is clear evidence of standard Woodford Reserve, but it’s had a veneer applied to it that makes it quite different. The additional barrel finishing comes off best on the nose – an almost creamy quality emerges. Unfortunately from mid-palate through the finish, an increasing bitterness sets things a tad off course. The intensely sweet aromas and flavors juxtaposed against the bitterness almost speaks of two different whiskeys. I do applaud the process immensely. The results are also good, but don’t measure up to the original Woodford, which I enjoy very much. Factoring the additional $15-20 in cost makes it tougher to justify for me. But I can tell from comments and emails that many are already enjoying this new Woodford release immensely despite the price.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.1 (Very Good)

New Book: 1001 Whiskies

Last Spring I was given a great opportunity to contribute towards the American Whiskey section of a new book put together by noted whiskey writer Dominic Roskrow. Dominic’s objective was to create a different type of whiskey book – one focused less on the reviews and more on the stories and insights of some of the most unique and better whiskeys across the globe.

What’s more, Dominic had the grand idea to accomplish this objective working with both whiskey writing veterans as well as some new(er) faces. Enter yours truly. I was honestly a bit awed by the chance, but I jumped at it. Seeing it in my hands now is a very gratifying feeling for sure.

My task was simple conceptually – contribute write ups and tasting notes on a variety of American Whiskeys that fell under some of the lesser “traveled” categories (beyond Bourbon and Rye). I learned so much in the process, and the end result was on of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Thanks goes to Dominic.

So lets get to the important stuff. How’s the book? At the risk of sounding self serving in any way – the book is extremely well done. There is no doubt that many will debate some of the whiskeys included within, but what can’t be debated is the depth of the stories of each and every whiskey included. Rather than the typical review, rating, and a blurb or two about the distillery, this book dives into the specific whiskey and touches on where it got its name, how it was made, why it’s unique, etc.

Is this book worth you money? Honestly I believe it is. You’ll learn something about whiskeys you thought you already knew everything about, and will read about new whiskeys you might not have known before. If you are in the market for some interesting whiskey reading – give it a try and let me know what you think.

You can order the book here: “1001 Whiskies You Must Taste Before You Die

NOTE: I get no royalties on the sale of this book. It’s just a damn good read.

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)