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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: Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon

Ahhh, it’s that time of year. You know the one where a line of popular bourbon and American Whiskeys release, thus setting off a consumer frenzy that wine and spirit stores dread across the country. Pappy Van Winkle and the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskeys just hit store shelves in recent weeks, so it’s time to take a look at them.

Originally I had planned a little comparison between the 15 year and 20 year old. However, the recent news that the 2011 15 year old is now 100% Buffalo Trace bourbon, prompted me to rethink that comparison. As evidenced by the myriad of comments and emails I’ve received, it’s pretty clear that the Pappy 15 requires a thorough examination and comparison with the old. I also want to give my $.02 on the craziness over Stitzel-Weller juice.

In the meantime, how about we take a look at one of the other flagship whiskeys in the lineup, the 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle.

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon, 45.2% abv (90.4 Proof) $110.00

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Demerara Sugar, Maple Syrup, and Old Cedar Box right off the top. Candied Dates, Big Vanilla, soft spices (CLOVE and Nutmeg), and Old Leather in the background. Very elegant for 20 years in new oak.

Palate: Velvety textured and again so elegant. I’d even say very well balanced for a 20 year old bourbon. The sip is redolent with oak and warm warm spices, but it’s never too much. It’s gorgeous actually. Sweet and fruity flavors evolve with spiced maple syrup, bitter orange, cinnamon stick, and honey.

Finish: The finish is also honeyed and warm with a touch of barrel. A surprising baked cinnamon apple fruitiness emerges as well. Didn’t anticipate that!

Overall: This is brilliant whiskey. The 20 year old is much less brutish and weighty in comparison to the 15. That does make it a bit less challenging, and as a result less interesting, but it’s so easy drinking. It’s also a testament to just how well wheated bourbons can handle the age and wood.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: Parker’s Heritage Collection (Cognac Finished) Bourbon

Parker Beam is American Whiskey royalty. Few men in the industry have accomplished more. Today he and his son Craig, decendents of THAT Beam, are the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill Distillery, makers of Evan William, Elijiah Craig, and many others.

Five years ago Parker introduced a limited annual release under the label Parker’s Heritage Collection (PHC). He’s continued to release a PHC whiskey each year since. While many of you are quite familiar, these PHC products stand up with the best in whiskey almost every year. Last year’s release was a 10 year old wheated bourbon. I thought it was wonderful, but not quite different enough to stand out.

A month or two ago word got out that the latest PHC release would be a 10 year old bourbon (with rye as the small flavoring grain, not wheat) that had been finished in massive Grande Champagne Cognac barrels from Frapin Cellars in France. The bourbon used is the same recipe as Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon. This bourbon is aged high in the upper levels of the rickhouse where temperature exchange is greatest. Once the barrels are dumped, the bourbon was placed in the cognac barrels for another four months (the label says six but Parker confirms it was actually four) high up in the aging racks.

Folks, I wasn’t exactly moved upon hearing about this cognac finish. While we haven’t seen such a finishing process in many many years, I was somewhat concerned this was a bit of a gimmick of sorts. I was foolish for thinking that…………..

Parker’s Heritage Collection (Cognac Finished) Bourbon, 50% abv (100 Proof), $80

Color: Deep, rich amber with glints of copper

Nose: Rum soaked fruits, toffee candy, banana, bright floral fragrance, and vanilla bean at the fore. Crushed rock and barrel in the background along with well toasted oak.

Palate: Structured and well rounded. The layers of flavor peel back like an onion. First, syrupy toffee sauce is brightened with candy apple, and dates over an undercurrent of warm spices (clove, nutmeg, and a gentle hum of chili). There’s a welcomed bitterness from the barrel as well.

Finish: Long, sweet, and well spiced. Rum raisin, chewy caramel, and spicy warmth remain.

Overall: Easy to sip even at 100 proof. I don’t recommend cutting it with any water – it drinks too well right from the bottle. However, don’t be fooled either. There is still loads going on here, but it’s just so well integrated. The 2011, 5th Edition Parker’s Heritage Collection is a whiskey masterpiece and also a clear whiskey of the year candidate for me.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: (9.6 Epic/Whiskey Classic!)

Micro Monday: St. George Single Malt Whiskey

St. George Spirits has been making single malt whiskey for over a decade, well before most distilleries in the United States took on a category of whiskey long dominated by our friends across the pond. During this period of time, St. George has amassed a reserve of older barrels, giving the distillery a great deal of versatility to blend some pretty phenomenal single malt whiskey.

One of the unique aspects of the distillery’s single malt is the use of a distillers beer crafted from varied types of malted barley. The barley has been smoked or roasted to different levels, which comes across cleanly in the finished whiskey. The result is a whiskey with base notes of roasted malt and cocoa. The product I reviewed is a sample of St. George’s Lot 10 release, their tenth bottling of the single malt whiskey. Lot 10 also consists of a batching of 18 barrels ranging from four years of age on up to 13 years, with most of the barrels between eight and nine years old. Something tells me the distillers at St. George like variety. They even uses different types of oak barrels (refill bourbon, sherry, port, and French Oak) to add depth and dimension to the whiskey.

I’d be lying if I said the craft or micro whiskey movement has yielded many exceptional products. Frankly most of what I’ve tasted is palatable at best. For those that share this concern, St. George Spirits gives us a taste of what’s possible when it’s done right.

Soon, I believe the distillery’s Lot 11 will release. For now, let’s enjoy what we have, which is superb.

St. George Single Malt Whiskey, Lot 10, 43% alcohol (86 proof), $50
Review: St. George Single Malt Whiskey is defined by a complex blend of malt and fruit. The nose is exceptional, opening up with lush aromas of melon, banana, pear, lemon-lime soda, and ginger ale. The fruitiness eventually gives way to smoky malt. On the palate the flavors are layered and evolving with ripe orchard fruit, spiced honey, nutty almond toffee, and cocoa. The finish is stamped with chocolate malt and the lingering flavors of the beer used to craft this excellent whiskey. Superb stuff!
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.2 (Superb/Outstanding)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

Friday, April 29th, Buffalo Trace is making an announcement of sorts at their distillery concerning a new product they are unveiling. It’s called the Single Oak Project and it appears the folks in Frankfort, KY have been mighty busy.

To sum it up, 10 years ago Buffalo Trace hand selected single trees and had them coopered into two barrels from each tree. They identified 7 critical areas they believe make up a bourbon’s “DNA”, and varied these factors with each barrel. The result apparently is 192 different barrels of bourbon they will bottling and releasing.

Check out the website here. While not what I expected them to announce, I am certainly looking forward to trying as many as I can. Let’s all hope we can actually find them on the shelves.

POST UPDATE

Buffalo Trace has a release out this morning which explains things in a little more detail.

-Drink your Bourbon!

Buffalo Trace’s Quest for Whiskey Perfection

Is there a such thing as the perfect whiskey? If so, then Buffalo Trace believes they know how to make it.

Last week I posted about David Driscoll’s K&L Wines podcast with Buffalo Trace Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. If you listened to it (and love whiskey) then I bet you sat up in your chair when Harlen mentioned the mind blowing products coming from Buffalo Trace in April. It was a mere whisper of information with very little detail. In fact I’ve been doing research since trying to figure out what’s coming our way. Information is scarce.

Well, Jason Wilson of The Washington Post has published an article that might be a follow up to that little nugget of info from Harlen. You can check out the article here.

To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone to great lengths to identify what makes up the “perfect bourbon”. They’ve compiled ratings from top publications, identified which levels and aisles of their aging facilities produce the best whiskey, and which distillation factors make the biggest impact. According to Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown, they even have a name for all of this due diligence, “Project Holy Grail”. As in the quest for the perfect whiskey.

Let’s hope we find out sooner rather than later what Buffalo Trace has in store for us. Frankly, I’ll settle for *close* to perfect and be just fine. I’m having way too much fun to see the quest to come to an end.