Sour Mash Manifesto

Bourbon and American Whiskey

Tag: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

Review: Pure Kentucky XO Bourbon

Pure Kentucky XO Straight Bourbon is one of the many brands produced and bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. (KBD) out of Bardstown, KY. If you are unfamiliar with KBD as a company, you will probably recognize many of the whiskeys they produce – Willett Family Estate Bourbon and Rye Whiskeys, Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon, Noah’s Mill Bourbon, Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, and numerous others.

KBD operates out of the Willett Distillery, which it has owned since the 1980’s. As an aside, it’s a charming distillery that sits atop a bluff not far from Heaven Hill distillery. The whiskey that makes up Pure Kentucky XO, as well as the others mentioned above, are sourced from unnamed distilleries. KBD has built their supplies by purchasing new make spirit sourced in bulk, and then aged in the Willett Distillery’s aging facilities on property. They’ve also procured fully or partially matured whiskeys that were distilled and aged elsewhere. I’m sure many of you know by now that a lot of this stuff is shrouded in mystery. I’m certainly not going to be able to clear that up – it’s sourced and I suppose that is that.

In January 2012 the Willett Distillery began distillation once again. This past fall the company released their first rye whiskeys that were distilled, aged, and bottled on property. I have bottles of both the 107 and 109 proof ryes (purchased at the distillery). The whiskeys absolutely need more time in oak to realize the complexity and depth that longer aged rye whiskey typically possesses, but Willett has a good foundation with these whiskeys.

Let’s get back on track to the whiskey in question. Pure Kentucky XO Bourbon is a high proof (107) small batch straight bourbon whiskey. It has no age statement (NAS) so we really don’t know how old the whiskey is, but that’s not uncommon nowadays. As recent as 2-3 years ago, Pure Kentucky XO stated the whiskeys in the bottle were at least 12 years of age. We can venture a guess that is no longer the case. Age only matters to a point, and at the end of the day what matters is how the whiskey tastes. Let’s find out….

pure-kentucky-xo-300x300Pure Kentucky XO Straight Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 proof), $28/bottle
Color: Copper/Medium Amber
Nose: Cinnamon and barrel spices (right up front), toffee, maple sugars, dry dusty oak quality. Faint dried apricot and fruit notes linger on the edges.
Palate: Spicy, rustic, and woody. Cinnamon, clove, and some bitter barrel notes (and grip) make way for oily corn, vanilla, and faint toffee sweetness.
Finish: Warming spice/heat and zip, corn, and a fruit. Long finish.
Overall: Pure Kentucky XO Bourbon is a good choice for those that like spicy and oaky bourbons. It’s not overly sweet, and the price point is good considering the proof. It does take water well, and is recommended to brighten up the party a bit. If it has a fault it’s that it’s not particularly well balanced, but it fits a profile that many may appreciate.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good)

Review: Noah’s Mill Bourbon

Steve Ury (Sku) of Sku’s Recent Eats, Tim Read of Scotch and Ice Cream, and I have done a couple of collaboration reviews already. Please take a peek at the Rebel Yell Bourbon and Wild Turkey 101 Rye reviews we did together to understand a little background on how this whole thing got started. Suffice it to say it’s just a fun way for us to mix it up every now and again.

The ground rules for our “group” reviews are pretty simple. We each sample a specific whiskey, then post our thoughts on the same day and time. The goal is really just to give different perspectives so readers can gain some insight into what each of us thinks about the same whiskey.

The subject of this review is Noah’s Mill Bourbon. It is a small batch bourbon bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), which operates out of the old Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY. This past January, KBD completed renovations on the distillery in order to start distillation again. The first new make distillate in decades made it off the still the same month renovations completed. In a number of years we’ll hopefully see the aged product on store shelves.

To this point however, KBD has been an independent bottler. The operation’s business model involves sourcing whiskey from established (and well known) distilleries, then bottling it under the myriad of labels they own (Willett, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, Vintage, Johnny Drum, and others). Rumors abound as to where much of KBD’s whiskey comes from. Many say Heaven Hill, but I have reason to believe it’s a bit more diverse than that. In a conversation last fall, KBD’s Drew Kulsveen was not able to divulge specific sources, but he was gracious enough to give some background on Noah’s Mill.

Noah’s Mill is a barrel strength bourbon, bottled at 57.15% abv or 114.30 proof. For many years it was bottled as a 15 years old, meaning the youngest bourbon whiskey in the bottle must be at least 15 years old. According to Kulsveen, difficulty locating older stocks of whiskey required KBD to reformulate Noah’s Mill in recent years to ensure a more consistent product. Today the finished bourbon consists of whiskey that is between four to twenty year of age.

In my opinion, the most interesting tidbit about Noah’s Mill has more to do with mash bill (grain recipe). KBD makes use of a varied mix of barrels that include rye-based bourbons of low, moderate, and high percentages of rye grain, along with wheated bourbon (wheat replacing rye grain). I learned a long time ago not to speak in absolutes about whiskey, but I certainly cannot think of another bourbon whiskey that utilizes such an array of grain recipes. It does have me wondering what the target is for Noah’s Mill in terms of flavor profile with so many mash bills involved. That is for another discussion.

And what of that term, “small batch”? “Small Batch” is typically used to describe the blending/mingling of a certain number of barrels. It has few guidelines surrounding it, giving a distillery tremendous leeway to define what “small batch” whiskey means to their product line. For some it could be a couple hundred barrels. For larger distilleries it might be thousands. In the case of Noah’s Mill, it’s no more than 20 barrels of bourbon. That’s quite small indeed.

Here’s my specific tasting notes and overall impression of this barrel strength small batch bourbon. Don’t forget to take a look at Tim’s and Sku’s posts as well and check out their thoughts.

Noah’s Mill Small Batch Bourbon, 57.15% abv (114.30 Proof), $49.99/bottle

Color: Medium/Dark Amber

Nose: Toffee, dark roasted coffee, vanilla taffy, banana, raisins, and the rustic tang of corn mash. Strong wood spice notes and toasted wood are also ever present. Benefits from, and softens, with the addition of a splash of clean, room temperature water.

Palate: Dark dried fruits (fig and raisin), cocoa, marmalade, berry syrup, toffee, vanilla and roasted nuts make for a varied (and at times cluttered) flavor profile. There’s some spry youth as well. With a bit of water the spicier, earthier, and floral wood flavors are more pronounced.

Finish: Lengthy as you would expect from such a high proofed whiskey. Well spiced, big warmth, and littered with charred oak bitterness.

Overall: There’s a lot going on with Noah’s Mill. The explosion of aromas and flavors come at you with gusto. A bit of water and a little airtime helped to soften the tannins on the palate and round some of the sharper edges (and cool down the alcohol punch of course). Earlier in 2011 I reviewed a sample, which I wrote about in “1001 Whiskies You Must Taste Before You Die”. It’s been a while, and I’m working off memory, but this batch (11-121) has a bit more of a brash attitude than my previous experience. Does that have anything to do with the variances batch to batch? Probably so. With a small batch of this size, some differences should probably be expected, but also embraced in my opinion. Noah’s Mill is a bourbon for those looking for bold monsters. Not for the faint of heart, or anyone in search of one of my least favorite whiskey descriptors…..”smooth”.

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

Review: Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye

The Willett Brand is owned by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, LLC (KBD), a Bardstown, Kentucky Independent Bottler. The company is responsible for a number of well known bourbon and rye whiskeys – Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and of course the Willett label to name a few. In spite of having the word “distillers” in its name, KBD does not currently distill whiskey. Instead, the operation relies on partnerships with established distilleries to produce its whiskeys.

As an aside, KBD has been working for years to get the former Willett distillery up and running (in Bardstown, KY). In a discussion I had this past fall with Drew Kulsveen, the man behind most of the company’s whiskeys, KBD is making significant progress in getting the distillery operational. Kulsveen estimates the distillery will be producing whiskey at some point in 2012. Until that time, Kulsveen takes a hands on approach to selecting barrels for KBD’s many products.

The subject of this review is KBD’s Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye. What we know is this product is made by Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. For more information on LDI, please check out my reviews on Bulleit Rye, Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye, and a number of the High West whiskeys. LDI is responsible for distilling each of those products.

Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye Whiskey, 55% abv (110 Proof) $35.00

Color: Medium Amber

Nose:  Razor sharp rye, granulated ginger, pine sap, licorice, and fresh, juicy oak at the fore. Rock candy and vanilla share the stage, but in the background.

Palate: Concentrated, brittle caramel sweetness fades to crisp, dry peppermint, evergreen, and clove at mid-palate. Lots of deep, dark barrel notes anchor the brighter flavors of this whiskey, adding depth and complexity.

Finish: The finish is huge – spiced with rye, clove, and mint as well as bold notes of the oak.

Overall: The hallmark of LDI’s rye whiskey, particularly their 95% rye, is that bracing rye nose and palate, with brittle caramel, juniper, and fresh green notes (evergreen, pine, and herbs). Willett 3 year Single Barrel Rye certainly demonstrates the family resemblance, but is also different from the rest in the way it delivers aroma and flavor. I consider this a good thing because most of the independently bottled LDI juice tastes so very similar. Releasing this at 110 proof was a wise move first and foremost. The result is a deeper sweetness, complexity, barrel/toasted notes. From a textural point of view, the Willett Rye is more viscous as well. I’d go so far as to consider this one of the best young whiskeys (under 4 years old) made. Quite a distinctive pour for $35.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Superb/Outstanding)

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon Review

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon, 47.5% abv (95 Proof), $35/bottle

Color: Light Amber

Nose: Very prominent corny twang, sourdough, maple syrup, vanilla, coconut, and barrell char/oak. There’s a funky quality to it – somewhat different. Reminiscent of the pungent corny nose of George Dickel No. 12, but without the anchoring dried fruit and spice aromas/depth.

Palate: Again, a heavy corn quality – almost a sour corn flavor too. Caramel and candy corn sweetness emerges with honey, vanilla fudge, maple candy, and even a malty quality. Some spice (rye?) and oak asserts itself reasonably well from mid palate on through to the finish. I would love a little more spice to cut through some of the corny quality. Overall it tastes a little younger than I would have expected.

Finish: A medium length finish with candy corn that is lifted by smoky toasted oak.

Overall: This was a curve ball for me. There’s some great qualities to this whiskey, some really nice things going on. I enjoy the cornyness, but the fact that it tasted a little raw knocked it a few points for me. But overall it is very solid whiskey pushing towards very good. While in this price range there are better bourbons to be had, this has a high interest level.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.9 (Good/Solid)

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