Review: Willett Family Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon – 8 Year (Barrel 305)

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) is an Independent Bottler based in Bardstown, Kentucky. While KBD has been in the process of renovating the old Willett Distillery, until recently it had not been doing any distillation. The company’s model has centered on sourcing choice barrels from other distilleries for bottling under their many labels. After the first of the year KBD was able to crank up the still at the distillery, and I sure hope to see some of their own distillate coming out soon. Until then…….

One of their more popular products is the Willett Family Reserve line of longer aged bourbons. The subject of this review is the 8 year old version. The source distillery is unknown and the folks from KBD would probably have to take out all of my taste buds one by one (a fate worse than death) if they told me. Here are my thoughts….

Willett Single Barrel Bourbon (8 Year) , Barrel #305, 64.15% abv (128.30 Proof), $50

Color: Deep Mahogany

Nose: Baked banana, smoky caramel, sorghum syrup, vanilla, cocoa, flint and roasted nuts.

Palate: This is brooding whiskey – molasses, toffee, dark chocolate caramels, bitter espresso, and heavily toasted bread. There is a good bit of waxiness as well. In spite of the deep dark flavors, this whiskey does not drink it’s proof. I would have guessed something around 100-105 – it hides it very well.

Finish: Huge finish with cocoa, coffee, toffee and more of the wood spices than were present on the palate (clove and cinnamon in spades). There’s a nice interplay between bitter and sweet.

Overall: What a fantastic whiskey! This is “end of a great meal” whiskey that could easily substitute for a well balanced dessert. Intense, sweet, bitter, solidly spiced, and interestingly smoky. I loved it from start to finish. At $50 it’s certainly not inexpensive, but considering the proof it is a tremendous value. Without hesitation, this can go toe to toe with the big boys from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. One note of caution – as mentioned in the opener, KBD sources these barrels. I can only imagine their program focuses in some way on consistency and flavor profile, but it’s still a single barrel product. As a result I would expect some variation. Please note that I’ll continue tasting some additional barrels and will post my thoughts and updates as I try them. Even considering the potential for variance, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: Eagle Rare 17 Year Bourbon

I am making my way through the last of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For this review we are taking a look at Eagle Rare 17 Year Bourbon. This 17 year old whiskey is made using the same mashbill as Buffalo Trace’s namesake whiskey. The 2011 release is one of the better Eagle Rare 17’s I’ve had in the last 3-4 releases.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $75

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Vanilla, baked banana and apple, sorghum syrup, old rum, a touch of corn, and sweet baking spices.

Palate: Viscous and creamy mouth feel. Vanilla fudge, spiced (cinnamon and clove) caramel, corn cakes, maple syrup, apple cider, and well toasted oak. There is a bit of resinous grip as well, but it drinks so easily.

Finish: Lingering fruitiness, tea, and juicy old oak – moderate length.

Overall: Eagle Rare 17 Year is not quite as interesting as it’s 4 other brothers in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). For starters it has a rather pedestrian proof point in comparison. However, let’s remember that the BTAC is made up of some of the best whiskeys in the world. The pluses for Eagle Rare 17 are still many. It’s absolutely the easiest drinking of the bunch, and has an oily “texture” on the palate with tremendous aroma and flavor – no doubt aided by 17 years in oak. If you are new to the world of bourbon or perhaps don’t like the challenge of 125+ proof whiskey, then this is absolutely where I would point you within the collection. For the initiated willing to water their own, I would probably steer you to one of the others. Regardless this is beautiful stuff worthy of a Superb/Outstanding rating.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

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: Sazerac Rye Whiskey (6 year old)

In the last week I did a review and accompanying video of the 2011 18 year old Sazerac Rye Whiskey. I thought a quick look at its little brother, a 6 year old, might be an interesting comparison.

Sazerac Rye Whiskey (6 year), 45% abv (90 Proof), $30.00

Color: Light Amber/Deep Gold

Nose:  Fruity and fresh with youthful exuberance. Cinnamon candy, sweet mint, vanilla bean, honeysuckle, and clove wrapped around a honeyed apple heart.

Palate: Very much in line with the fragrance on the nose. Crisp orchard fruit, vanilla infused honey, sweet mint and clove. The oak gets the hell out of the way. Wait, is that a bit of fleeting corn leading us to the finish?

Finish: Caramel and honey taming the emerging, warm baking spices. Never too hot though – just dries up cleanly. A bit of toasted wood bitterness as well.

Overall: This is a great example of a well made, classic rye flavor profile. For those that consider rye too hot or strong – this might be a great intro for you. It’s nicely balanced with fruit, sweetness and spice, but not “hot” in the least. It’s also a good price point in my opinion. Admittedly it’s not particularly complex, and tasted even a bit younger than 6 years, but it’s a very good sipping rye.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)

Review: 2011 Sazerac 18 Year Rye Whiskey

Sazerac 18 year old Rye Whiskey is one of five Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskeys released each fall. It is usually the more composed, elegant, and stately representative of the lineup’s two ryes. The much younger Thomas H. Handy Rye, which is offered at barrel strength and around 6 years of age, is the second in the release. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered why the Handy fits into a release called the “Antique Collection”, but it’s outstanding whiskey!)

Does the 2011 Sazerac 18 live up to its billing as one of the best rye whiskey releases of the year?

Sazerac 18 year Rye Whiskey, 45% abv (90 Proof), $75.00

Color: Deep amber

Nose:  The rye is floral and sweet with a darker side. Vanilla taffy, soft mint, sweet orange rind, a bit of cinnamon stick, caramelized banana, and maple syrup against old leather. The rye’s edges have been rounded beautifully by wood and time, but still have some vibrant zip.

Palate: Only moderately sweet, which is a different impression than the nose indicated. Brittle toffee and orange marmalade try to anchor the vanilla, crisp mint, and cinnamon. Chicory coffee, pepper, moderately spicy rye, and some light woody grip adds interest.

Finish: Bolder wood notes and chicory bitterness are mellowed with lingering fruit (citrus rind, berry) and rock candy.

Overall: One of the best available Rye Whiskeys each year, but this year is exceptional indeed. The nose alone is one of the finest in whiskey. A slightly higher proof might help to add more body. Outside of that, it is simply brilliant rye.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)

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.