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Where does Pappy Van Winkle come from?

There’s no hiding that I’m a big Pappy Van Winkle fan. I realize as someone that does whiskey reviews that’s not exactly the right thing to say. However, I’m a fan of whiskey first and foremost. That’s why I do what I do – I love whiskey. And for me the Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old is a bourbon masterclass – intensely rich, complex, and walking the line between the elegance of age while still possessing the power and vigor of youth.

Julian Van Winkle is the president of the Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) distillery. He is a busy guy and a part of a two man operation. I’ve been trying to hook up an interview with him but have been unsuccessful thus far. For those that don’t know, Old Rip Van Winkle entered into a partnership with Buffalo Trace years and years ago to begin producing their whiskey. This was in preparation for all of the older Pappy Van Winkle stock from Stitzel-Weller running out. The Stitzel-Weller distillery produced the Old Rip Van Winkle line up as well as a number of other great bourbons. It closed its doors long ago, and only the reserves remained in order to fortify the Van Winkle line up.

That later part is important because it’s shrouded in mystery. Many enthusiasts, even ones that are “in the know” have trouble figuring out which ORVW products are produced by Buffalo Trace, and which are still from Stitzel-Weller stock.

Well, some of that mystery might have been solved with the latest podcast from David Driscoll at K&L Wines Spirit Journal. David’s guest this week is Buffalo Trace Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. Harlen is very young reletive to his Master Distiller peers, but he’s worked at Buffalo Trace for 15-16 years before taking over in 2005 as MD. In this podcast below, Harlen is extremely transparent, which I certainly appreciate. He quickly points out that he doesn’t have the numbers in front of him and is speaking off the cuff a little bit, but it’s still coming from a very informed position. Please check out the entire podcast because it’s a great listen. The discussion around Pappy and ORVW begins around the 20 minute mark.

Here are few of the nuggets Harlen discusses about Pappy:

-The ORVW 10 year old and Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 year old (Lot b) is Buffalo Trace product, not Stitzel-Weller I think this has been commonly known and reported by many, but I’m not aware of either Julian Van Winkle, Harlen, or anyone else that close to the situation confirming this before. So from that stand point, we can check that off the list.

-The 20 year old and 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons are still all Stitzel-Weller stock. The rumors of 20 year old being close to dry was not addressed but Harlen mentions “being close” in terms of having product around that age. So hopefully we’ll see things continue to churn without much, if any, interuption.

-The 15 year old wasn’t talked about in absolutes but Harlen says he believes it to be a mix of stock between Buffalo Trace and Stitzel-Weller. This was the interesting one to me because I was thinking it was still all S-W reserves. Very cool to hear.

And that about sums it up. It’s just nice to get some understanding of exactly what is what with the ORVW/Pappy whiskey. Please check out the podcast in its entirety here. David does an excellent job.

Knob Creek (9 Year) Small Batch and Single Barrel Bourbon Reviews

Knob Creek is an extremely popular and well made bourbon from the folks at Jim Beam. If you drink bourbon or American Whiskey, the chances are great that you have tried or heard of Knob Creek. It’s a 9 year old small batch bourbon (a batching of numerous barrels) that is a part of Jim Beam’s “Small Batch Bourbon Collection” along with Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Booker’s Bourbon.

This past February Beam put out a very highly anticipated Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. It too is 9 years old and is a single barrel version of the small batch. Based on the below thoughts I’m pretty convinced it’s also from some very choice barrels. Enjoy the review!

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon, 9 Years Old, 50% abv (100 Proof), $32
Color: Deep Amber w/ glittering orange highlights
Nose: Burnt sugar and maple syrup dominate at first, then joined by dark dried fruits (particularly raisin quality), flint, and fresh oak. The oak influence is very prevalent in the nose of this whiskey.
Palate: Much like the nose, the small batch starts out with a sweet maple syrup entry as you bust through a crackle of hard caramel candy. Bitter char and sappy, wood resin intensifies almost as soon as the sweetness subsides. Things begin to quickly dry up as the spice takes over with cinnamon, clove, and black licorice playing the lead roles. The later third of the sip is an eruption of dry oak through to the finish.
Finish: Dry, lingering oak for days with some sweet and herbal notes. It’s worth noting, that while I didn’t detect it from the nose and palate, the empty glass (after drying) had a definite honeysuckle scent to it.
Overall: I can surely see why Knob Creek Small Batch has such a strong following. It’s a hefty bourbon with great sweetness, spice, and wood. With each tasting I grew to like it more and more. I would have preferred if the oak influence had been toned down just a bit, but I did enjoy the strong and hearty ways of this bourbon. Beyond just being a fantastic neat sipper, I am certain it would make a fantastic old fashioned or whiskey cocktail. The spice and oak really shines through.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good/Excellent)

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Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, 9 Years Old, 60% abv (120 Proof), $40
Color: Deep Amber w/ glittering orange highlights
Nose: The family resemblance is definitely there, but the Single Barrel handles it’s business a bit more harmoniously in spite of 20% more alcohol. The nose is richer, fuller, more earthy and complex than the Small batch. Spicy cinnamon, mint, and floral notes are sandwiched between sweet maple syrup and a dry, clean oak. Leather and tobacco linger in the background.
Palate: This is a sticky, viscously textured bourbon with heaps of maple and marmalade livened with black pepper, clove, sweet spearmint, and a smoky oak quality (BBQ smoke). The char and barrel flavor is very prevalent, but in better balance with the other flavors than in the small batch.
Finish: Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve finishes with sappy wood, mint, sweetness, and rising warmth that lingers.
Overall: This Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve was a real eye opener for me. In fact it is superb. I expected a more intense version of Knob Creek at 20% more alcohol. While I got that to some degree (there is a family resemblance for sure as mentioned), the flavor delivery is so much better with the Single Barrel. This is a complex bourbon packing loads of great flavor in a more balanced package than the Small Batch. With only about an $8 upgrade in price, the decision for me is pretty easy. The Single Barrel is the hands down winner and a good value at the price. Please do note: As with all single barrels there most certainly will be some variance from barrel to barrel. However I have a pretty good feeling they hand selected the very best barrels for their single barrel offering.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

Michter’s Unblended Small Batch American Whiskey

Michter’s Unblended Small Batch American Whiskey , 41.7% abv (83.4Proof), $30/bottle

Color: Deep Amber

Nose: Corn, candy corn, vanilla bean, marshmallow, and musty wood notes. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Black Maple Hill Small Batch. I later found out from Ethan Smith, a Michter’s historian of sorts, that Kentucky Bourbon Distillers LLC (makers of Black Maple Hill) is aging and bottling all Michter’s products today. So perhaps there really is some relation between the two.

Palate: Candy corn, vanilla, and custard to start, and then a thin veneer of oak and spice emerges at mid palate through to the finish. For a whiskey aged in barrels that had already been used for aging bourbon, this has a good bit more oak than I would have expected. There is also some slight astringency. All in all, it’s a bit simplistic, but it’s tasty.

Finish: Prickly spices continue to warm the tongue with some dusty oak and confectionery sweetness. Moderate in length before gently fading.

Overall: This whiskey has a long name. That stems from the fact that it has been aged in refill barrels that once aged bourbon (this is similar to what the Scotch industry does with bourbon barrels). While not 100% stated on the packaging, one has to use their imagination to decipher what “Aged in bourbon soaked barrels” means. All in all, this is a fine, simple sipping whiskey that is good, albeit unspectacular. Michter’s is a storied brand, and one of the oldest distilleries in the US at the time of its closing in 1989. Some say George Washington and his troops sipped Michter’s (rye at the time I believe) whiskey well back into the 1700s. Regardless of that, this particular product in the Michter’s line left me wanting more depth, richness, and character.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.4 (Good/Solid)

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 3)

This is the final segment of a 3 part interview with Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller at Four Roses. Frankly, this was my favorite part of the conversation because it shed so much light on Jim’s thoughts on the industry. What fantastic insight from arguably the most noted Master Distiller in the American Whiskey Industry today.

This piece of video starts after I had asked a question to Jim about the somewhat touchy subject of “blending”. I was concerned he might give me the boot for even bringing it up. I’m serious – I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond. The term “blended whiskey” was talked about a good bit in my piece on the history of Four Roses. And when you consider their history, it makes perfect sense why Four Roses would want to move far away from associating with the term “blend”. On their website they even go so far as to describe the “blending” of their 10 recipes of straight bourbon into their batched products as “mingling”. Remember, “blended whiskey” has historically referred to whiskey blended with grain neutral spirits (GNS). Some folks consider it whiskey-flavored Vodka.

I feel the connotation associated with this term is old and stodgy. It doesn’t have to be negative. If you’re interested to learn more about great blending, I encourage you to do a search on Compass Box Whiskey Company and owner John Glaser. Compass Box is doing amazing stuff, and it’s all blended whiskey (or vatted). In the course of this segment, Jim Rutledge talks about David Perkins, proprietor of High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, Utah. David worked a bit with Jim before starting High West. High West distills their own spirits (Vodkas, “white” whiskey, and a number of other cool things in the works), but like Compass Box, they source (purchase from other distilleries), blend, and bottle some fantastic stuff. I’ve reviewed some of them here and here. In short, blending is an art and can be a big part of creating a great whiskey.

Now let’s look back at Four Roses. I’ve always felt that Four Roses, more than any other American Whiskey Company, was the most like the Scotch Industry in their philosophy and approach. They distill 10 different straight bourbon whiskeys, and blend them to create harmonious end products (for all but their Single Barrel products of course). In my opinion I consider this ultra premium blending or vatting of various straight bourbon recipes. It just all happens inside their own walls. But did Jim agree?…….

In addition to touching on that subject, Jim also talks about the prospects of a Four Roses Straight Rye Whiskey (cross your fingers and give your opinions to Four Roses if you want it!), his thoughts on the craft movement, and finally the level of camaraderie between the Master Distillers and other distilleries.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 3 part conversation, because I really enjoyed doing it. What a pleasure to speak with Jim Rutledge, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so again……….hopefully soon.

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 2)

This post is Part 2 of my video conversation with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller. I hate to even call it an “interview” because frankly it’s a conversation I caught on camera. In this segment Jim continues to tell us more on the background of Four Roses. He also talks about which Four Roses product he consumes most, gives a rundown on “Whiskey Flavor Factors” (including some detail on barrel aging), and some comparisons to Scotch whiskey. Enjoy!

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 1)

Thanks for checking out the most recent posts from my visit with Four Roses. If you haven’t read them yet (here and here), I feel it helps to add context to Part 1 of my chat with Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge.

The morning of this conversation was spent taking part in a Barrel Selection at Four Roses aging and bottling facility in Cox’s Creek, KY. And what a treat it was. We tasted Four Roses’ OBSV recipe from five single barrels. The differences were amazing, and tasting bourbon right from the barrel is special for sure. Later that day I headed up to Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY. There I was able to sit in Jim’s office and chat about Four Roses, the Bourbon industry, and all sorts of other great stuff.

Jim had planned on giving some background before we jumped into the “interview”. After about 30-40 minutes I realized, “man, this is too great not to cut this camera on.” So I did, and this is part 1 of an hour long conversation with Jim Rutledge. He was more than generous with his time. Enjoy.