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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)

Review: 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon (Comparison w/ 2009)

As mentioned in earlier posts this week, the 2011 Pappy 15 Bourbon is 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey rather than Stitzel-Weller.  This was stated by Preston Van Winkle in a podcast with David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits. For more information on the Stitzel-Weller portion of this story and what all of this means, please check my post from Tuesday December 13, 2011.  It gives more background about a great old American Distillery. For this post I will spare you the redundancies because lord knows I talked enough in the video. It’s all in the interest of getting to the bottom of the hoopla. Is Pappy 15 better? Is it worse?

Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 Proof) $75.00

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose:  Deeper oak and a flintier opening than the 2009 Pappy 15, but still so familiar. Maple syrup, toffee, sweet vanilla, root beer, dried figs, caramelized pecans, and toasted wood. Less rummy and a notch spicier than previous releases, and gorgeous all the way around – masterclass stuff. Time and air serve to open this up even more – it gets better.

Palate: Syrupy textured and luscious. The front entry is sharper and spicier than the 2009. Otherwise we’re again in familiar Pappy 15 territory. Sticky dried dark fruits, chewy toffee, butterscotch, vanilla, roasted nuts, big wood spices (nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon), sassafras, and a healthy dose of barrel char.

Finish: The finish is long with caramel, barrel, coffee, and warming spices (nutmeg).

Overall: Amazing bourbon! For me, few whiskeys achieve the depth, power, and richness that Pappy 15 does at that proof point. Sweet and soft in ways, but also well spiced. You can spend an evening discovering new aromas and flavors. The differences between this and the 2009 release are very slight. It’s a bit bolder and drier on the nose and sip, the oak is a shade more pronounced, but again it’s Pappy 15 through and through. I believe they’ve been working towards this release for a long time. It’s just my opinion only but I have to believe previous years have had increasing percentages of Buffalo Trace whiskey integrated with them. And that’s fine with me, because what we have here is still one of the finest whiskeys in the world, and certainly a candidate for America’s best bourbon this year.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.7 (Epic/Classic)

Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Stitzel-Weller (S-W) Distillery Information (Condensed)

Earlier this week I posted my review of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old bourbon. Later this week I am taking a deeper look at the 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon and comparing it with a 2009 Pappy Van Winkle 15. Why does this matter? Well, it’s complicated, but recently Preston Van Winkle confirmed that the 2011 release was 100% Buffalo Trace produced bourbon and no longer S-W whiskey. I thought it might be important to share why that matters to many enthusiasts. So here’s a bit of light reading on the S-W distillery.

  • The S-W distillery that exists (but is not operational) today was opened post prohibition in 1935 by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. S-W quickly became known for its wheated recipe.  It’s also the same recipe given to Bill Samuels Sr. that started Maker’s Mark.
  • Pappy acquired the original distillery through the purchase of a wholesale whiskey operation and the Stitzel distillery, eventually naming it S-W. The Weller portion of that name came from William Larue Weller, and one of the distillery’s most important labels, W. L. Weller. Weller, the man, was an early bourbon pioneer, who produced the wheated recipe.
  • In addition to W. L. Weller, the distillery also produced a number of other wheated bourbon whiskeys; Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell.
  • Pappy operated the S-W distillery until his death in the Mid 1960’s
  • After his death, Pappy’s son Julian Van Winkle Jr. was forced to sell the distillery in 1972. Afterwards he decided to resurrect one of the brands that existed in the operation prior to prohibition, Old Rip Van Winkle.
  • While Julian Van Winkle Jr. no longer operated S-W, his Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon made use of S-W bourbon stocks. Van Winkle Jr. passed away in 1981.
  • His son Julian Van Winkle III, who runs the operation today, was responsible for taking his father and grandfather’s vision a step further. He decided to offer older whiskeys from S-W stocks after tasting them and noting just how fantastically the whiskey had aged.  Many don’t realize that Van Winkle III was the first of the trio of Van Winkles to produce the much longer aged Bourbons.
  • In 1991/1992, S-W distillery ceased operations, effectively shutting down. As a result there was a free-for-all of sorts over ownership of the reputable brands/labels that S-W had produced for so many years. Heaven Hill was able to purchase Old Fitzgerald, for which they continue to make today. Buffalo Trace purchased W.L. Weller, which they continue to produce today as well.
  • Even after the sell of S-W, Van Winkle III was still granted access to purchasing the whiskeys that still existed in the distillery‘s aging warehouses. However, with S-W no longer producing whiskey, and the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys increasing yearly, Van Winkle III found himself at a crossroads.
  • In 2002, Julian Van Winkle III made a decision to partner up with another distillery that could keep his growing brand of Van Winkle Whiskeys alive and well. As a result the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey operation entered into an agreement with Buffalo Trace to produce their acclaimed whiskeys.
  • Now things get very cloudy. It is not known for sure at what time the younger labels, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 and Van Winkle 12 became 100% buffalo trace produced whiskey. We can only guess at this point, but it has been a number of years.
  • Reportedly the 20 and 23 year old are still reserves of S-W stocks. However this is not officially confirmed. What is known is that as of Fall 2011′s release, the 15 year old joins its younger brothers (12 year and 10 year) as 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey. Preston Van Winkle confirmed this on a podcast in recent weeks.
  • Today, Diageo owns the S-W distillery. One of Diageo’s brands, Bulleit, has its offices at the once bustling distillery. Apparently much of the original distillation equipment is still intact, but an asbestos clean-up and the tight margins that distillery’s operate under are the kryptonite that keep S-W from resurrecting. Maybe one day…………

Many consider the bourbon produced at S-W to be some of the finest whiskey ever produced. And therein lies the reason for all of the talk and consternation over Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year old. Check back later this week to see how the 2011 release stands up against previous S-W releases.

Cheers!

-Jason