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2011 Sour Mash Manifesto American Whiskey Awards

The world doesn’t need any more whiskey awards. This is probably a fact we can all agree on, but I felt compelled to acknowledge some great work in 2011. I hope you’ll allow me to add my contribution to what I believe to be the best of American Whiskey for the year.

Sour Mash Manifesto America Whiskey Awards – 2011

Distillery Of The Year: Buffalo Trace
This was actually the easiest pick of all. When it comes to whiskey, few distilleries in the world can touch Buffalo Trace’s monstrous portfolio of rye whiskeys and bourbon. If you favor value focused products, then Buffalo Trace’s namesake bourbon delivers in spades. If you are looking for high end whiskey offering more distinctive flavors, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bring 5 whiskeys to the table with three or four vying for best American Whiskey of the year. This year also saw the first (from what we’re told) Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon made entirely from Buffalo Trace wheated bourbon stock (they supply the Old Rip Van Winkle line as well). On top of all of that, Buffalo Trace undertook perhaps the most educational whiskey endeavor ever with the unveiling of the Single Oak Project. In spite of what I think of Single Oak as a whole, there is no doubt that it will serve to provide Buffalo Trace with invaluable information to help them continue to craft great whiskey. There are many great distilleries in America, but in my opinion none can match Buffalo Trace in 2011.

Bourbon Whiskey Of The Year: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
If you want to get hardcore bourbon enthusiasts riled up, start feeding them information about shortages of their much beloved Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon. Stitzel-Weller, closed since the early 90′s, has been the source of bourbon whiskey for the longer aged Pappy Van Winkle line. Last fall, Preston Van Winkle made it known that the Fall/Winter 2011 release of Pappy 15 was 100% Buffalo Trace wheated recipe bourbon. From that point the anticipation and frenzy reached new heights even by Pappy Van Winkle standards. Would it be as good? Did they ruin one of the most highly regarded bourbons on the planet? The short answer is “No!” The resulting bourbon lacked some of the softness and refinement of the Stizel-Weller whiskey, but made up for it with ramped up spice and bolder wood notes, which in some ways made the whiskey even more interesting. In spite of slight differences, the Pappy 15 DNA was still present, resulting in the highest rated whiskey of the year (9.7/10).

Rye Whiskey Of The Year: Sazerac 18 Year
2011 was a big year for rye. The craft and micro distillers have been on the rye bandwagon for a while now, but some of the big boys and independent bottlers got in on the act as well. A common trend for the year were sourced rye whiskeys from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). LDI’s 95% rye mashbill could be found in various ages, and bottled under names like Bulleit, Templeton, and Redemption to name a few. While quite good, many of these whiskeys tasted similar, leaving an opportunity for a new release rye whiskey to stand out from the crowd. Enter Buffalo Trace with their home run release of the 2011 Sazerac 18 Year Rye Whiskey. Each year this whiskey proves to be one of the better ryes, but the 2011 version had added depth and complexity. Few whiskeys can match the balance of dryness and sweetness as well as capturing both the vibrancy of rye with the stateliness of older whiskey. Not to mention that it’s one of the best noses in whiskey – period. Without a doubt one of the best Rye Whiskeys I had this year.

Craft Whiskey Of The Year: St. George Spirits Single Malt, Lot 10
Situated in a former Naval aircraft carrier along the San Francisco Bay sits one of the coolest distilleries in the country. St. George Spirits has been making whiskey longer than most craft or micro distilleries, but their approach and attitude is still fresh and vibrant. Well known for creating fantastic gins, absinthe, and liquers, the pride and joy of the distillery is the Single Malt Whiskey. Actually I just made that part up. They’d probably tell you their pride and joy is something else that they make, but to me it should be their pride and joy – it’s phenomenal. The Single Malt is made from a Sierra Nevada Beer, crafted especially for the distillery using a number of different barley malts (chocolate malt makes it’s presence felt). The resulting whiskey is unlike any other being made today – fruity and full of deep, rich, smoky notes from the beer. With more than 15 years of whiskey making under their belt, I can’t wait to see where St. George takes this delicious Single Malt Whiskey.

Value Whiskey Of The Year: Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Bottled In Bond
I consider whiskey a “for the people” product – something to be enjoyed by all. As a result, value is very important to me. Don’t get me wrong I love the high end stuff and can’t wait to try them each year. But I get really excited when I get my hands on a whiskey at a great price that sacrifices nothing in the way of flavor and character. Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey (Bottled in Bond), which is distilled by Brown Forman for Heaven Hill, is undoubtedly one such whiskey. At 100 proof, this rye whiskey packs a wallop with great depth and balance. Unlike some of the newer rye whiskey offerings consisting of 90+% rye grain, Rittenhouse is less rye-forward. I categorize it as a “bourbon drinker’s rye” – a bit richer and fuller bodied. At between $19-$24 depending on your area, Rittenhouse is a must find for the value seeker. I keep a bottle on hand at all times, and consider it a foundation whiskey for any great bar. NOTE: Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond is now being distilled at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery.

As we all know, taste is very subjective. The above represent whiskeys and a distillery that I believe to be worthy of distinction relative to their peers. What about you? What gets your vote for whiskey of the year?

Review: Hooker’s House Bourbon

Whew, sorry for the layoff folks. Appreciate your patience with me. Let’s get things started off with a review of a reasonably new small batch product called Hooker’s House Bourbon.

Hooker’s House is bottled by Prohibition Spirits, which is affiliated (owned actually) with HelloCello, a Sonoma, CA based company producing limoncello. Hooker’s is named after Joseph Hooker, a civil war general that was known to help lift soldier morale (shall we say) with the help of some of his finest ladies. The term we use as a slang reference to prostitutes can be credited to Hooker. Hooker’s home now serves as a Sonoma, CA museum of sorts.

But that’s only the name. What about the bourbon in the bottle? First off, this is four year old sourced bourbon whiskey from Kentucky. According to Prohibition Spirits, the whiskey is a mashbill of 54% corn and 46% rye. A search across the internet will prove fruitless in determining the origin distillery of such a grain recipe. According to Sku over at Recent Eats, Prohibition Spirits procured the barrels from a pilot program that never got off the ground. The bourbon was then placed in Pinot Noir barrels for 9 months before bottling. In a year where we’ve seen Port and Cognac barrel-finished bourbon, this is quite unique.

For the record, i’m a big fan of the finishing “craze”. It’s really hard to call it a craze because only a few are doing it, but I think it’s building towards that. I’ve found most of these products, like the 2011 Parker’s Heritage Collection and Angel’s Envy, to be quite good. Let’s see how Hooker’s House fares.

Hooker’s House Bourbon, 50% abv (100 Proof), $36

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Rich toffee and fig and plum jam overcome much of the rye spice at first. Eventually the bright rye spices emerge (cloves), but the overall impression is soft and rich with a touch of sun dried hay and toasted oak on the back end.

Palate: Much bigger and bolder than the nose indicated with a lovely, coating viscosity. Ripe, sweet cherry syrup, vanilla toffee, chili, spicy cinnamon, clove, and razor sharp rye. This is a very entertaining sip with loads of spice and fruit.

Finish: You actually can make out the winey notes on the finish, but it’s minor. Again fruity with remains of the cherry and spice flavors. Some developing oak as well.

Overall: Hooker’s House is a winner with great fruit and spice balance. The finishing process is well integrated, making something greater than the sum of its parts. In the end that’s what you look for in a well executed finished whiskey. The 100 proof also helps to accentuate the rich fruit and still keep things zippy with spice. I find this a more interesting whiskey than Angel’s Envy, which would have been a good notch better at 95-100 proof. Well done Prohibition Spirits! If you can find this whiskey online, grab it.

Sour Mash Manifesto Ranking: 9.2 (Outstanding/Superb)

Review: Rebel Yell Bourbon

There are a number of whiskey sites and blogs that I frequent on a consistent basis. Two that I enjoy are Steve Ury’s (he goes by Sku) Recent Eats and Tim Read’s Scotch & Ice Cream. Both of these guys are entertaining writers and good people to boot. If you are a whiskey geek you will be right at home at their sites. If you are a novice or interested in learning more about whiskey – there’s no shortage of knowledge either. Check them out on a regular basis, but particularly today, for reason’s I am about to explain.

With the ass kissing out of the way, let me give some background on how this review came about…….

A few weeks ago Sku posted a piece on Whiskey Collectors. He went so far as to categorize the various types of collectors with a “which of these categories fits you best” field guid. While almost dead on, I noticed I didn’t fit into any of Sku’s categories. I sent at Tweet informing him of the same, and he responded (jokingly) that he forgot the “Blogger that spends too much money on whiskey to blog about it” category. Sku can sympathize with this behavior as well. He recounted a recent moment of weakness where he almost bought a bottle of Rebel Yell just to write a post, before finally thinking better of it (“what was I going to do with the rest of it?!?!”).

I thought we were moving on, but Tim (who had seen these Tweets go back and forth) seized the opportunity to propose a simultaneous review of Rebel Yell on each of our sites. The only stipulation was no Billy Idol references, which was harder than I thought it would be. Rebel Yell was also a fitting suggestion since I had intended to review more entry level and lower price point whiskeys over the months of February and March. What a way to get started.

I invite you to take a look at my review below, then please go check out Sku’s and Tim’s websites for their thoughts. If it turns out they don’t agree with me, just remember they are wrong. Cheers!

Rebel Yell Bourbon, 40% abv (80 Proof), $13

Background: Rebel Yell is actually a pretty storied name from the standpoint that it was one Stitzel-Weller Distillery’s (S-W) primary brands (along with Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, and W.L. Weller). For more background on S-W, check out this post. After the S-W closed in the early nineties, these brands were all sold off to other distilleries and independent bottlers. Today, Rebel Yell is distilled, aged, and bottled by Heaven Hill (their Bernheim Distillery) for Luxco, a spirits company that owns Ezra Brooks Bourbon and a few other liquor and spirit brands. It’s a similar wheated recipe bourbon that was made popular by Stitzel-Weller.

Color: Medium Gold, like over-oaked chardonnay

Nose: Heavy sweet corn, corn oil, vanilla, and honey are the predominant notes. Candied orange, hints of dry corn husk and light hickory are also faint but present. NOTE: A healthy splash of water and time actually improves the nose a great deal, bringing out a whole lot more fruit (ripe pear and soft golden delicious apple) and lessening the crude corn assault.

Palate: Think corn whiskey rounded by the wheat. No surprise the sweet corn and vanilla are still the major flavors. Some sweeter, golden dried fruits (golden raisin, apple, and apricots) do their best (unsuccessfully) to lift the insipid whiskey. The influence of the wood is negligible, except for a light dryness/toastiness and bitterness most of the way through the sip.

Finish: 3-2-1……done. The faint flavors of ripe orchard fruits, sweet corn, and a kiss of honey are all that’s left. Some soapiness also.

Overall: What struck out to me the whole time I nosed and sipped this whiskey is the irony in the name. “Yankee Whisper” would be much more appropriate since there is little character or shape to this whiskey. Actually I take that back – I like yankees and mean no disrespect, but this whiskey is anything but a yell. It’s also lacking so much in the flavor department that it makes it hard to even call it “bad”. One thing is for sure – it’s just not worth your time in the least. The price point is low, but at half the price it still wouldn’t be worth it. There are so many other whiskeys (around this price) that offer more flavor, more character, and more value: Very Old Barton (80, 90, and 100 Bottled In Bond), George Dickel No. 8, Evan Williams Black Label, and Old Grand-Dad to name a few.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 6.8 (Decent – Palatable only)

Thanks to Sku and Tim for the suggestion. Drink your Bourbon!

-Jason

Review: Town Branch Bourbon

Pearse Lyons, the man behind the animal health and nutrition company, Alltech, apparently knows a thing or two about distilling whiskey. Lyons is formally educated (Masters Degree) in brewing and distillation, with a Phd. in yeast fermentation. According to the latest edition of “The Bourbon Review” magazine, Lyons’ knowledge of yeast fermentation actually spawned the idea for Alltech in the early 1980′s, which began by developing animal supplements and feed.

In recent years, Lyons Spirits released a malt whiskey (Pearse Lyons Reserve), and now their latest, Town Branch Bourbon. Town Branch is actually made with a pretty unique grain bill of 51% corn (right at the legal limit for bourbon) and 49% malted barley. This is unusual for a number of reasons. Most notably because bourbon typically contains at least some percentage of wheat or rye depending on what the distiller is going for in the flavor profile.

Let’s put this one through its paces a bit…….

Town Branch Bourbon, 40% abv (80 Proof), $27

Color: Town Branch’s medium golden hue is perhaps a clue (in hindsight) as to the softness that ensues on the nose and palate.

Nose: Soft, overly ripe banana, flint, caramel corn, stale pancake syrup, hints of butterscotch, and dry oak veneer.

Palate: Candy corn, butterscotch, rum soaked golden raisins, and disjointed oak running a few paces behind. “Where’s the beef?!?!”

Finish: The finish works hard to perk things up a shade with white pepper and nutmeg, but it’s a flash in the pan, and quickly smothered with the remnants of caramel corn and toast.

Overall: Town Branch is not a very memorable or complex bourbon, but it’s not below average either. The problem is pretty simple – it’s just too hard to pay attention to an average product when there’s so many excellent whiskeys in this price range. At only four years old or so, perhaps more time would add much needed zip. I do know that a healthy increase in proof would help to concentrate the flavors a bit. That is the part that shocks me most – releasing Town Branch at at a pedestrian 80 proof (40% alcohol). Perhaps it was intentional to align with a softer, smoother style. If so, then I suppose I can understand that, but it hints of “mailing it in” a little. Availability outside of Kentucky is limited as I understand, but getting better.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.0 (Good/Solid)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

I am ashamed to call myself a whiskey geek today. Very ashamed indeed. I say this because I cannot tell a lie – no matter how hard I make myself, I can’t get excited about the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Honestly I have tried like hell to get into it. To date, I’ve sampled three bottles (different barrel numbers). They’ve been good, don’t get me wrong, but not mind blowing. I still wonder if it will even be worth the effort. Let me explain my thoughts……

For those that don’t remember, Buffalo Trace embarked on one of the most aggressive “projects” in whiskey history earlier this year. That’s not an understatement. You can read more about the experiment here. To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone right to the barrel making source to isolate the components of the wood that impact the finished whiskey more favorably in the eyes of the general public. You can purchase a bottle, log onto the website, enter your thoughts on the whiskey, and see what components/factors impacted the bourbon you tasted. The goal, simply put, is to figure out what sections of the tree (top or bottom cuts), what char levels, grain type (course to fine grain), and other factors yield the best results when mated with either a rye-based bourbon or a wheated bourbon. To date, Buffalo Trace has released 36 Single Oak Project Bourbons (3 releases of 12), each representing 192 possible combinations of flavor factors.

This is cool stuff right? On the surface I agree – it’s very cool. Buffalo trace is going to lengths no other distillery in the world has gone (to my knowledge) in order to improve consistency, and perhaps find the “holy grail” bourbon.

Here’s the thing – I think they have little or no chance of finding what they seek. Is that based on fact, research, or anything concrete? Nope, not a all. Still, I believe they are looking at this in a one dimensional way, focused on isolation of components. What if it’s a combination of top and bottom tree oak that yields more balance? What if variances in grain type actually help? What if it’s a combination of rye-based bourbons blended together that yield the best finished whiskey? What if my brain explodes as I think of the myriad of options that could yield the best results?

Also, and perhaps more critically, what are Buffalo Trace’s plans to execute on the “perfect” bourbon as per the Single Oak Project ratings? How does a distillery scale in such a way as to isolate top tree sections with tight grain (for example) and still produce an affordable bourbon? Does Buffalo Trace intend to buy their own cooperage to control those costs? Will it end up being a $150 bottle? The folks behind this endeavor are a hell of a lot smarter than me, but these are the things that run through my head, and keep me from jumping up an down with excitement.

Bottom line, I feel this will end up being a fun, cool experiment for the whiskey geeks in all of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we all don’t get our hopes up.

What about you? Share with me what you think about Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project. Perhaps I’m alone in my opinion here.

Review: Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year Bourbon (107 Proof)

This past weekend, while traveling, I was able to locate a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year 107 Proof bourbon. I reviewed the 90 proof version of this whiskey about a year ago. Let’s take a look and see how the higher proof version fares.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 Proof), $45/bottle
As you might imagine, Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) 10 Year 107 brings a very similar flavor profile as the 90 proof version. It does so with a bit more punch and vigor however. The nose opens with toffee, maple syrup, rum soaked bananas, and rich, dark fruits (dates, figs). Things really shine on the palate, which is more concentrated and syrupy than its little brother. Toffee sweetness, caramelized nuts, coffee and cinnamon toast are most prevalent. The vanilla and toasted oak are prevalent throughout. With a splash of water more fruitiness emerges. ORVW 10 year 107 finishes with toasted oak, nutty toffee, and a warm hum of spices (cinnamon and clove).

Your chances of finding this one over a Pappy 15 is likely 3-4 times better. That’s only a guess, but I’d say that’s accurate based on my experience. The 107 proof point serves this whiskey well, concentrating the flavor and bringing more depth and force to the party. The price I found is certainly higher than it was last year, but in comparison to some other whiskeys in this range I still recommend it highly.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.1 (Superb/Outstanding)