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Review: High West Campfire

One late April evening I was in a peated scotch whiskey mood. That’s somewhat rare. I’m not overly fond of peaty whiskies. I tend to feel the phenols overpower the subtle sweetness and fruitiness of the malt. There are a few that I do enjoy however. On this particular evening I was sipping the last of my Compass Box Flaming Heart, and moving my way into a pour of Compass Box Peat Monster. What I enjoy about these two whiskies is the peat presence is absolutely felt, but not at the expense of the malt, the fruit, and the toffee. In short they are balanced.

As I continued sipping, pondering Compass Box’s ways with the art of blending whiskey, I thought, “Geez, why doesn’t a distiller or independent bottler in the U.S. get a hold of some peated malt whiskey to add to a bourbon blend?” To me it just made sense – the rich, sweet, and sometimes spicy qualities of the bourbon seems like a perfect compliment to the smoky quality of a well made peated malt. I quickly dismissed the thought, “that would be way too costly.”

About a week later I received an email from David Perkins, proprietor of High West Saloon and Distillery. After a relatively tame 2011 (by High West standards) Perkins and co. were working on a new whiskey release called Campfire Whiskey. David explained that High West had finished the blending of 3 different batches of Campfire Whiskey and wondered if I would be interested in trying them along with some fellow enthusiasts.

A sample tasting ensued and I was able to try each of the blends. My favorite, oddly enough, happened to be the one (Sample C) with the highest percentage of peated whiskey in the blend. High West however was going after a much more subtle peat influence, and selected Sample A for public release. In hindsight – probably the smarter move, but more on that later.

Here’s the gist of Campfire Whiskey. Its a blend of a six year old bourbon distilled and aged at Midwest Grain Products (Formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana or LDI), a 5.5 year old rye whiskey also distilled at the former LDI and aged in the upper floors of the famed Stitzel Weller Warehouses in Kentucky, and finally an 8 year old peated Scotch whiskey from the Scottish mainland. Global blending anyone???

David Perkins is not at liberty to divulge the origins of the peated whiskey based on agreements (understandings rather) with the source distillery. And honestly, I’m sure some will complain about that, but I can live with not knowing. What I do know is High West is the first American Distillery (that I can recall) to produce a blended whiskey of this type.

It’s a wildly unconventional blend, and has a name that pays homage to the peat contained within. How does it taste?

High West Campfire Whiskey, 46% abv (92 Proof), $49.99/bottle

Color: Deep Golden/Amber

Nose: Bright and fruity up front with a tang of honey, golden dried fruits (apricot, apple, peach), hints of cinnamon, toffee, and only a lingering peat smoke note. The peat is faint as a whisper on the nose, but very much threaded throughout.

Palate: The bourbon and rye influence is felt first, balancing honey, dried golden fruits, and vanilla with a spark of the rye spices. There’s a bit more “zip” in the spice quotient on the palate. As these flavors fade, the smoke and peat adds a great deal of interest and needed complexity.

Finish: Quite fruity with lingering peat and a smoky quality.

Overall: Leave it to a bunch of whiskey outlaws in Utah to spit in the eye of conventional whiskey blending. The result is without question one of the most groundbreaking whiskeys of recent years. Overly dramatic? I don’t think so. High West has managed to “mingle” (Jim Rutledge term) global whiskeys into something that stands on it’s own. It’s not overly complex, but it works well together. I know what you may be thinking. This is a gimmick right? No, it’s not. Rather than be heavy handed with the peat, High West has shown a great deal of restraint with Campfire. The result is a whiskey that is livened up and made far more interesting with a kiss of peat. Unlike the name implies – there’s no fire here, just great whiskey.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

Review: High West Son of Bourye

High West Son of Bourye is the latest “blend” of straight whiskeys from the boys in Utah. Like its father Bourye, this whiskey is a blend of a bourbon (5 year old with a mashbill of 75% corn and 20% rye) mingled together with a rye whiskey (3 year old 95% mashbill). The remaining 5% in each is barley malt. Bourye utilized older whiskeys for the blend (10, 12, and 16 years old).

Let’s see how this SOB tastes………

High West Son of Bourye, 42% abv (92Proof), $40

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Sweet mint, vanilla, honey and golden fruits lifted by juniper, evergreen, fresh herbs, flint and wood/oak.

Palate: Soft and honeyed right at front entry, but builds swiftly to a spicy mid palate of mint, chili, and cinnamon red hot candy. Very bright and very drinkable!

Finish: Increasing warmth, wood notes, and big cinnamon flavors. Medium in length.

Overall: The folks at High West know how to bring together good whiskeys and make them so much better than the sum of their parts. Son of Bourye lacks the depth of Bourye, but is a more harmonious whiskey in my opinion. The rye plays lead, but the bourbon keeps it grounded as you would expect. I’m not sure what the ratio of the blend is but I’m guessing it pushes 75% rye to 25% bourbon. I’ll try to get David Perkins of High West to at least let me know if I am close. This is an excellent whiskey if you are looking for something extremely drinkable that is also lively, spicy, and fun.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 (Very Good/Excellent)

Shades of Gray

Earlier this week I read a post from David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits, an excellent California based retail store. I’ve frequently mentioned K&L and David because they are an example to what I feel wine and spirits stores need to aspire towards. They educate buyers regardless of the price or producer, bring unique products to attention, and really just make sure K&L is a resource for it’s loyal customers.

The premise of David’s post was the fact that the spirit and whiskey industry is complicated. We get caught up in this notion of “small batch” and “craft” and really – what is that? I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with David over various topics. He’s taught me a great deal about a number of artisan producers – their passion for just simply producing great stuff regardless of volume (or perhaps even profit), and also their relentless pursuit of the best raw materials. We’ve also had some interesting disagreements on a number of subjects. However his post last week titled “It’s Complicated” encompasses a lot of my thoughts about the world of whiskey today.

I urge you to read this if you are in any way “black or white” on craft/micro producers vs. the big boys. David discusses his recent visit from a passionate Grand Marnier representative. Apparently dreading the session, David was immediately engulfed by the guys passion upon hearing him speak (watch the video K&L’s blog a few posts down). I got to thinking about that and I believe the same is true for many of the big boys of bourbon and American whiskey.

The world is shades of gray folks. It’s so common for people to approach both with preconceived notions and opinions that can many times be changed if you are open to it.

Last Spring at WhiskyFest 2011 in Chicago I talked to Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Lobby. I think we all may share a feeling that Buffalo Trace is a “big boy”. It was so interesting to hear Kris talk about his desire to finally get BT’s flagship bourbon into all 50 states, and just how small their production really is. It’s clear the passion and care Kris takes in BT’s products. Ask Jim Rutledge of Four Roses where he gets the distillery’s corn and rye. But be prepared to spend 10-15 minutes learning just how critical Jim feels his relationships with the absolute best farmers in the country (or internationally for Rye) are to his finished product. To make assumptions that these guys are using lesser ingredients because they are bigger is very uninformed. To make assumptions they care less simply because they produce tens of thousands of barrels per year is an even bigger mistake.

On the flip side, you have micro distillers like Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox distillery going to the time and expense of floor malting barley at the distillery’s Sperryville, VA location. My numbers may not be exact but I believe there’s less than a half dozen distilleries in Scotland that are floor malting today. Rick knows it costs more, but he doesn’t care – he does it because it makes his product better. Head out to High West in Park City, Utah and talk to David Perkins about the lengths he went through to perfect his new OMG Rye. Having tasted a number of iterations, I know the care and time and energy High West put in to making sure it was EXACTLY the way they wanted. Spend a day with St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and if you aren’t excited about the state of their whiskey program then you are deader than a door nail.

The point is exactly as David Driscoll eloquently stated – It’s Complicated. We screw it all up when we make ourselves choose between the little guys and the big guys. Why in the hell do we do that? Why let romantic notions of the little guy sway our opinions of the bigger companies without facts. Why stay with the “old brand” just because we *think* those little guys can’t possibly be as good because they are not as established.

My suggestion is simple. If you find yourself in only one camp, do some research and try a few products across the aisle and see what you think. At worse you expand your whiskey palate. At best you may just find something you’ll love.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

WhiskyFest (2011) Chicago Recap

What’s not to like about 250+ (probably close to 300 really) pours of whiskey in one place on one evening? Add to that a gourmet “spread” of food in one of the great cities in America, and you have the recipe for a good time.

The above was a reality for me last Friday (April 15) at WhiskyFest (WF) at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. John Hansell, Publisher and Editor of Malt Advocate, and his devoted team did a mighty fine job of hosting this years event. It’s not cheap to attend, but whether you are a newcomer to whiskey or an experienced vet with a 1000 bottle “bunker”, WF has something for everyone. It’s a great place to try many whiskeys from around the globe at one convenient location.

Now that I’m a back to reality I thought it might be helpful to do a little recap of what I enjoyed about the event. Of course there were also some new whiskeys being poured, which always warrants a discussion.

There wasn’t much NOT represented at WF, whether from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and of course the U.S. If you pay the up-charge ($185 instead of the regular $135) you are able to enter 1 hour earlier (5:30pm-9:30pm instead of 6:30pm-9:30pm) on a VIP ticket. The distillers bring some pretty rare and expensive bottles to pour during the hour prior to regular admission. For me, it’s worth the head start.

Right off the top, I was really impressed with the shear number and quality of whiskeys many companies brought to WF. Buffalo Trace for example brought practically their entire family of whiskeys, including of course their namesake bourbon. Julian and Preston Van Winkle (Buffalo Trace connection) were pouring the Van Winkle 12 and Pappy 15/20/23. Even a bottle of BT’s new E.H. Taylor was tilted frequently during the VIP hour. BT also poured their entire 2010 Antique Collection throughout the evening. Pretty damn stellar.

Heaven Hill also brought practically every bottle in their lineup as well. This included two Parker’s Heritage Collection bottles (Golden Anniversary and 10yr Wheated Bourbon). Others with a great quantity of the “good stuff” inlcluded High West, Four Roses, Jefferson’s, Ardbeg, Koval, and Samaroli, and independent bottler (with some damn fine stuff), to name a few.

So what stood out? Please keep in mind there are very few “new” and mainstays in American Whiskey that I’ve not tried. By no means were these the only great whiskeys represented at WF, but they stood out in a big way for me:

Angel’s Envy Barrel Strength: This one might have been the best whiskey of the show. The port influence noted in my review from two weeks ago was not in any way compromised. In fact, the intensity was greater due to a much more syrupy and viscous texture. While a bit less easy drinking due to the proof, the chewy dried fruits, sweet, rounded flavors and spice was dialed up in ample measure. If pressed a bit, I’d say it pushes close to 9.3-9.4 territory. Look for this one maybe towards the end of this year.

Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel: This one was really unique with a blast of honeysuckle right off the top. I went back twice just to get all I could of this one. The fruitiness is scaled down a bit in favor of the floral, herbal aromas and flavors, but it’s a winner. One cool note; Four Roses, in an effort to make sure other pours didn’t throw off your tasting glass, washed out each glass with a splash of their yellow label. How’s that for thorough? This one comes out in May – be ready for it.

Redbreast 15 Year: My favorite Irish Whiskey has always been Red Breast 12. I think the 15 just knocked it off the top for me. The 12 is a refined beauty with lush fruit, honey, syrupy sweetness and well integrated oak. Well the 15 is a bit of a bully with a darker, denser, richer center, and a wonderful spicy mid palate on through to the finish. It’s a little more like The Pogues to the 12′s Chieftains (bad Irish Music reference). To me it’s less sweet, drier, and more intense. I loved it! It’s available now.

Thomas H. Handy Rye (Buffalo Trace Antique Collection): Sadly I did not get an opportunity to taste this one fully with the 2010 release. I will be picking up a bottle ASAP. While the Sazerac 18 is a beautiful rye with an elegant balance to it, the Handy is another bold bully like the Redbreast 15 above. The rye flavor pops with with spicy zest anchored by fruit and sweetness. What’s also cool is you can actually find this BTAC release – imagine that!

There were many other great whiskeys I tasted, but these stood out to me. Give them a try and let me know what you think.

Finally, one of my observations about whiskey lovers is they are almost always people worth getting to know. WF did not disappoint in the people department. I was fortunate enough to interact with some folks that comment regularly on this blog or that I interact with on Twitter and other sites. That was honestly the highlight for me. I also appreciated the time that John Glaser, Jim Rutledge, Jimmy Russell, Lincoln and Wes Henderson, Craig Beam, Julian Van Winkle, David Perkins, and many other industry folks spent just shootin’ the breeze. Not necessarily pushing their wares, but rather talking shop, the industry, barrel making, distilling, and a great whiskey at the end of a long day (however you like to drink it).

Well that’s a wrap on Chicago WhiskyFest for me. As you can probably tell, I had a great time. Hopefully I didn’t sound like a ad for WF – it’s expensive and may not be for everyone. But if you have an opportunity and would like to attend check out WhiskyFest online. The San Francisco and New York events are later this year.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

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.

High West Showdown: High West Double Rye! & 12 Year Old Rye

High West Double Rye!, 46% abv (92 Proof), $35/bottle
This is an advance tasting of High West Double Rye!, a new product release for High West slated to hit the market within the next month. I’m very excited to be one of the first to publicly review and rate this whiskey. It turned out to be an excellent one indeed. Double Rye! is a blend of a 16 year old 53% Rye Whiskey (37% corn, 10% Barley Malt) and a 2 year old Rye Whiskey (95% rye).

Color: Pure Gold
Nose: Gin Botanicals, Juniper, Pine Sap, Evergreen, Eucalyptus, Menthol, Mint, Fresh herbs, Honey. Green and fresh with a lurking sweetness and oak character. Truly unique!
Flavor: Immediate rye punch of prickly spices, then Gin, menthol, mint, eucalyptus, wildflower honey, and confectioners sugar flavors abound. Those fantastic fresh notes the nose hinted at are present, but with a really pronounced spiced honey flavor that pieces everything together.
Finish: Long and lingering with honeyed sweetness and warm, prickly rye spice.
Overall: Simply put, one of THE most unique whiskeys I’ve ever tried. The nose is unlike anything I’ve sniffed. Truly it smells of gin and evergreen. These young, fresh flavors I assume come predominantly from the 2 year old rye, while the older 16 year old adds its subtle sweetness and depth as you sip. On the palate the gin-like flavors remain but are softened and rounded by the honey notes. If you enjoy Rye or want to try a really different product than what’s available on the market – Double Rye! fits that bill well. It should be coming your way soon.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.1 (Superb/Outstanding)

AND

High West 12 year old Rye, 46% abv (92 Proof), $49/375ML bottle
High West sells this big ole rye whiskey directly from their Saloon and Distillery in Park City, UT. I believe they have somewhere around a half dozen barrels, so not quite enough to get it out to the masses, but worth a drop by to pick up if you are in the area. David Perkins has done a great job sourcing some of the best rye whiskey made. This one I feel is his very best.

Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Rich and deep at first, then yielding intense rye spice, caramel, honey, mint, anise/licorice, and Juicy Fruit gum. A “wow” rye nose.
Flavor: Caramel and honey entry then yielding to rye heat, clove, nutmeg, chili, and well integrated toasted oak. As the nose hinted, this one is big and rich. An almost bourbon drinker’s Rye. Thick and viscous in mouth feel – delicious!
Finish: Long, Intense, your whole tongue tingles with spice and warmth. Dry oak and rye is interplayed nicely with honey and caramel flavors.
Overall: One of the finest Rye whiskeys I have had in some time. Deep and rich with incredible rye intensity, well balanced sweetness, and oak. I mentioned almost a “bourbon drinker’s rye”. Clearly this is an unmistakable rye whiskey, but it carries a richness with it that few ryes can match. It gets our top marks for the year in the Rye category so far. That is saying a lot because I felt Whistlepig might be my favorite straight rye of the year. This one tops it. Highly recommended.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.5 (Superb/Outstanding)

High West Distillery and Saloon
703 Park Ave, Park City, UT 84060
435.649.8300

Note: Samples were provided by High West