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Review: 2013 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon

Brown-Forman has been producing the distillery’s annual Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (OFBB) release since 2002. Named after the distillery’s founder, George Garvin Brown, the release celebrates Mr. Brown’s September 2nd birthday. I personally have a love-hate relationship with the OFBB release. The 2010 I rated a whopping 9.3 – superb stuff. Other annual releases have ranged from underwhelming to very good. The question is did Brown-Forman bring out the good stuff for 2013…….

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2013), 49% abv (98 Proof), $54.95/bottle
Color: Medium Amber/Copper
Nose: Vanilla custard, caramelized banana, chocolate, dried dark fruits, and bright orange oil. Gentle oak character, but overall rich, sweet, and fruit forward.
Palate: Vanilla, butterscotch, pecan, and dried fruit livened with bitters, ginger, nutmeg, and hints of toast.
Finish: Lingering caramel sweetness, barrel spices (clove, nutmeg), and humming warmth.
Overall: The 2013 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (OFBB) is as epic a nose as you will find in the whiskey world – absolutely jaw dropping. The palate is perfectly proofed, harmonious, and on the sweeter side. I can easily say you’d have to look at the 2010 release to find an OFBB release as strong as this years. Even at $55 I consider the 2013 release a must try for bourbon lovers. Send me your opened bottles if you don’t enjoy the hell out of it – my birthday is right around the corner.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.5 (Superb)

Review: Woodford Reserve Four Wood Bourbon

Last Tuesday I posted about the latest release as a part of Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection release. For more insight on this release please check out the post here.

I received an advanced sample of this new whiskey. Here are my thoughts

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Four Wood Bourbon, 47.2% abv (94.4 Proof), $99/bottle
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Sweet and fruity – butter pecan, maple and toffee meets lush ripe orchard fruits (peach,, golden delicious apple, and muscadine jelly). An almost floral oak aroma adds interest.
Palate: Rustic, youthful, and corn laden up front on the palate. Maple and butter pecan flavors add needed sweetness before a drying oak tannin builds. The fruit hints at showing but never quite breaks through.
Finish: Buttered corn, maple sweetness, and bitter tannin.
Overall: Four Wood begins with an epic bang. The nose is absolutely phenomenal with lush fruit and candy shop sweets everywhere. It’s truly gorgeous and as unique a nose in all of whiskey. And that’s where things sort of get all wobbly. The palate is a patchwork of disjointed flavors with awkward transitions through the sip on to the finish. Frankly it’s a bit of a mess – not without some high points, but never coming together. It tastes a lot more youthful than standard Woodford. What I’m left with is too much of the toasted maple wood dryness on the palate and not enough of the fruit and lushness that the nose demonstrates. It’s not bad whiskey, in fact it begins (as I noted) with a boom, but it finishes with a flutter. Not something I’d recommend at this price. I’m a fan of Woodford Reserve. It gets piled on by enthusiasts but I’ve always felt it’s a very good, quality bourbon. The Master’s Collection releases however come across as a complete money grab by Brown-Forman. That I cannot get behind.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.2 (Good)

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)

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: Jack Daniels Old No. 7 and Jim Beam White Label

The two top selling American Whiskeys are Jack Daniels Old No. 7 and Jim Beam White Label. according to the 2011 Liquor Handbook (via this New York Times article). Jack and Jim sell dramatically more than #3- Evan Williams Black Label, yet I have never taken the time to review them. Today looks like as good a time as any.

Whether you are a Jack or Jim man (or neither!), let’s keep the debates civil shall we.
; ) Cheers!

Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey, 40% abv (80 Proof), $21/bottle
Color: Light Amber/Deep Gold
Nose: Banana taffy, corn oil, vanilla, toffee, crushed rock, wafts of smoke and char. This is a beautiful and I must say, rather distinctive, nose.
Palate: A tad flabby with caramel, banana, and corn syrupy sweetness livened by the emerging punch of baking spices from mid palate. There’s a thread of char that ties everything together from the front entry on towards the finish. While not all that interesting on the palate, it’s quite textural with an almost velvety thick viscosity.
Finish: The finish is moderate in length with corn and caramel anchoring a nice helping of oak.
Overall: Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 is an icon of American Whiskey, and the 4th highest selling spirit on the planet. I’d argue the company’s best decision was finding a guy by the name of Angelo Lucchesi, who got this stuff into the hands of some of Hollywood’s and Entertainment’s hottest stars (like Frank Sinatra) in the 1950′s. That certainly helped to to solidify the brand, and Brown Forman has continued to build on that following. However, I would not classify this as great whiskey. Mind you it’s very good (barely by my scale) stuff and not without it’s virtues – a distinctive nose and a beautiful mouth feel being two that stand out to me. Outside of that, an underwhelming palate undermines the effort, thus keeping it from scoring higher.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.0 (Very Good)

******

Jim Beam White Label, 40% abv (80 Proof), $19/bottle
Color: Lighter – Deeper Golden
Nose: Baked red apple, corn syrup, vanilla nougat, and wet oak. The aromas are soft and sweet, but also flat.
Palate: Not as cloyingly sweet as the nose gave hints to, but once again it’s as flat as pancake. There’s a vanilla, corn, and caramel party with a bit of dried apple adding fruit character. Towards the end of the sip we finally get some moderately warming cinnamon spice for a welcomed shake-up. The wood begins to emerge as well.
Finish: It continues to liven up with some bitterness from the wood adding interest. The caramel and warming spices fade into a rather clean and tidy finish.
Overall: Here’s the thing – this is a Good/Solid entry level whiskey. If you know someone that’s new to whiskey or bourbon and looking to dip their toe in the water – this would be a great introduction. It’s quite pleasant, mildly spiced, and has traditional bourbon flavors. Even though it’s only 4 years old, it doesn’t taste its youthful age. Jim Beam White Label is a nice casual sipper in a pinch or a versatile mixer, but not a whole lot more.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.3 (Good/Solid)

Between these two whiskeys, it wasn’t very close. Old No. 7 just has a more distinctive aroma and flavor profile, and as a result is a good bit more interesting to sip.

Gentleman Jack Whiskey Review

This, interestingly, may be one of the top five requests for review that I get. What can you say about the good Gentleman Jack? Why don’t we start with a little background.

First, despite what many think, it is not a requirement that all Tennessee Whiskey undergo a charcoal filtration process (known as the Lincoln County Process) in order to be called Tennessee Whiskey. Unlike bourbon, regulations and standards for calling something “Tennessee Whiskey” are very loose at best. However, most associate Tennessee Whiskey with the charcoal filtering largely because the two biggest producers of “brown water” in my home state, Jack Daniels and George Dickel, follow this process. In previous reviews I’ve discussed the differences in the way Jack and Dickel do this. Let’s run through this one more time.

George Dickel chills their distillate down before passing it through large vats of charcoal sandwiched between giant wool blankets. Jack Daniels does not chill their distillate down, instead allowing the distillate to be filtered right off the still. Both of these processes take a hell of a long time (trickle by trickle), and one is not right or wrong. They are both just different approaches that yield two very different flavor profiles. Jack Daniels, from Old No. 7 on up through Single Barrel has a much smoother, cleaner front entry (front of the palate) on the sip than George Dickel. Sip them side by side and the differences will jump out at you.

How does this process of filtration affect flavor? When a distillate comes off the still it contains substances called congeners that do a number of things. They CAN add off flavors to the spirit if the spirit contains certain types of congeners. They can also add stronger, more pronounced desired flavors to a whiskey. Over time, the barrel the whiskey is aged in does a number on these congeners, softening and rounding them out through the expansion and contraction of the wood. The barrel can also filter some of them out as well.

The charcoal filtration process gives the distillate a bit of a head start. Charcoal is a natural filtering agent, absorbing stronger congeners to help ensure the finished product is as smooth as possible. However, charcoal doesn’t have a dial on it allowing you to, “only filter out the bad stuff”. Because of this – you do lose some of the body and impactful flavors from the distillate. This is one of the knocks on this process.

What if you charcoal filtered a whiskey twice you might wonder. Well, you’d have Gentleman Jack. That’s exactly what the Jack Daniels Distillery does to make this very smooth, clean whiskey. Let’s give it a test drive……..

Gentleman Jack Whiskey, 40%abv/80 proof, $29
Color: Deep Golden Amber
Nose: The nose is the absolute highlight of this whiskey. Cinnamon red apple, vanilla, honeysuckle, floral fragrance, toasted oak, and dry corn husk.
Palate: Vanilla, corn, mildly spiced honey, golden raisin, and prickle of pepper. It comes off extremely thin and watery on the palate.
Finish: Light, and clean as a whisper. There’s a tinny note on the finish along with corn and moderate oak.
Overall: As noted, the nose is incredible, but it’s a bit of a letdown from there. The palate is diluted and lacks concentration of flavor. Let’s understand however that this whiskey has been filtered twice. It’s designed to be a clean, smooth whiskey. Execution was extremely well done in that regard. And while this is definitely good whiskey, for flavor hounds there is so so much better out there for the money.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.5 (Good/Solid)