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Review: Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year Bourbon

Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year small batch bourbon is perhaps one of the most requested whiskey reviews I get asked about. So this one is a long time coming. The answer to the question of whether or not this is actual Stitzel-Weller bourbon is simple. Yes – this is from the same distillery that started the Van Winkle line. The distillery is known for their wheated bourbon mashbill, which is absent any rye grain. Below are my tasting notes on this old wheater.

Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year Bourbon, Batch 13, 47% abv (94 Proof), $80/bottle
Color: Deep Amber/Copper
Nose: A heady mix of rum soaked dried fruits (raisin, dates), pancake syrup, toasted almonds, caramelized banana, vanilla wafers, old leather, and oak. Air time ramps up the wood influence quite a bit.
Palate: Toffee, fig preserves, vanilla, and heaps of oak and resiny grip.
Finish: Toffee sweetness, rich fruit, and wood make for a marvelous ending.
Overall: Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbon certainly packs a complex and flavorful punch. It’s layered with rich, sweet aromas and flavors. The whiskey drinks its age with a heavy wood influence, but the results can only be described as a superb whiskey. Highly recommended.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.2 (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: 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon (Comparison w/ 2009)

As mentioned in earlier posts this week, the 2011 Pappy 15 Bourbon is 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey rather than Stitzel-Weller.  This was stated by Preston Van Winkle in a podcast with David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits. For more information on the Stitzel-Weller portion of this story and what all of this means, please check my post from Tuesday December 13, 2011.  It gives more background about a great old American Distillery. For this post I will spare you the redundancies because lord knows I talked enough in the video. It’s all in the interest of getting to the bottom of the hoopla. Is Pappy 15 better? Is it worse?

Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 Proof) $75.00

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose:  Deeper oak and a flintier opening than the 2009 Pappy 15, but still so familiar. Maple syrup, toffee, sweet vanilla, root beer, dried figs, caramelized pecans, and toasted wood. Less rummy and a notch spicier than previous releases, and gorgeous all the way around – masterclass stuff. Time and air serve to open this up even more – it gets better.

Palate: Syrupy textured and luscious. The front entry is sharper and spicier than the 2009. Otherwise we’re again in familiar Pappy 15 territory. Sticky dried dark fruits, chewy toffee, butterscotch, vanilla, roasted nuts, big wood spices (nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon), sassafras, and a healthy dose of barrel char.

Finish: The finish is long with caramel, barrel, coffee, and warming spices (nutmeg).

Overall: Amazing bourbon! For me, few whiskeys achieve the depth, power, and richness that Pappy 15 does at that proof point. Sweet and soft in ways, but also well spiced. You can spend an evening discovering new aromas and flavors. The differences between this and the 2009 release are very slight. It’s a bit bolder and drier on the nose and sip, the oak is a shade more pronounced, but again it’s Pappy 15 through and through. I believe they’ve been working towards this release for a long time. It’s just my opinion only but I have to believe previous years have had increasing percentages of Buffalo Trace whiskey integrated with them. And that’s fine with me, because what we have here is still one of the finest whiskeys in the world, and certainly a candidate for America’s best bourbon this year.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.7 (Epic/Classic)

Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Stitzel-Weller (S-W) Distillery Information (Condensed)

Earlier this week I posted my review of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old bourbon. Later this week I am taking a deeper look at the 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon and comparing it with a 2009 Pappy Van Winkle 15. Why does this matter? Well, it’s complicated, but recently Preston Van Winkle confirmed that the 2011 release was 100% Buffalo Trace produced bourbon and no longer S-W whiskey. I thought it might be important to share why that matters to many enthusiasts. So here’s a bit of light reading on the S-W distillery.

  • The S-W distillery that exists (but is not operational) today was opened post prohibition in 1935 by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. S-W quickly became known for its wheated recipe.  It’s also the same recipe given to Bill Samuels Sr. that started Maker’s Mark.
  • Pappy acquired the original distillery through the purchase of a wholesale whiskey operation and the Stitzel distillery, eventually naming it S-W. The Weller portion of that name came from William Larue Weller, and one of the distillery’s most important labels, W. L. Weller. Weller, the man, was an early bourbon pioneer, who produced the wheated recipe.
  • In addition to W. L. Weller, the distillery also produced a number of other wheated bourbon whiskeys; Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell.
  • Pappy operated the S-W distillery until his death in the Mid 1960’s
  • After his death, Pappy’s son Julian Van Winkle Jr. was forced to sell the distillery in 1972. Afterwards he decided to resurrect one of the brands that existed in the operation prior to prohibition, Old Rip Van Winkle.
  • While Julian Van Winkle Jr. no longer operated S-W, his Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon made use of S-W bourbon stocks. Van Winkle Jr. passed away in 1981.
  • His son Julian Van Winkle III, who runs the operation today, was responsible for taking his father and grandfather’s vision a step further. He decided to offer older whiskeys from S-W stocks after tasting them and noting just how fantastically the whiskey had aged.  Many don’t realize that Van Winkle III was the first of the trio of Van Winkles to produce the much longer aged Bourbons.
  • In 1991/1992, S-W distillery ceased operations, effectively shutting down. As a result there was a free-for-all of sorts over ownership of the reputable brands/labels that S-W had produced for so many years. Heaven Hill was able to purchase Old Fitzgerald, for which they continue to make today. Buffalo Trace purchased W.L. Weller, which they continue to produce today as well.
  • Even after the sell of S-W, Van Winkle III was still granted access to purchasing the whiskeys that still existed in the distillery‘s aging warehouses. However, with S-W no longer producing whiskey, and the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys increasing yearly, Van Winkle III found himself at a crossroads.
  • In 2002, Julian Van Winkle III made a decision to partner up with another distillery that could keep his growing brand of Van Winkle Whiskeys alive and well. As a result the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey operation entered into an agreement with Buffalo Trace to produce their acclaimed whiskeys.
  • Now things get very cloudy. It is not known for sure at what time the younger labels, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 and Van Winkle 12 became 100% buffalo trace produced whiskey. We can only guess at this point, but it has been a number of years.
  • Reportedly the 20 and 23 year old are still reserves of S-W stocks. However this is not officially confirmed. What is known is that as of Fall 2011′s release, the 15 year old joins its younger brothers (12 year and 10 year) as 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey. Preston Van Winkle confirmed this on a podcast in recent weeks.
  • Today, Diageo owns the S-W distillery. One of Diageo’s brands, Bulleit, has its offices at the once bustling distillery. Apparently much of the original distillation equipment is still intact, but an asbestos clean-up and the tight margins that distillery’s operate under are the kryptonite that keep S-W from resurrecting. Maybe one day…………

Many consider the bourbon produced at S-W to be some of the finest whiskey ever produced. And therein lies the reason for all of the talk and consternation over Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year old. Check back later this week to see how the 2011 release stands up against previous S-W releases.

Cheers!

-Jason

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)

Public Service Announcement

We interupt your regularly scheduled whiskey drinking to inform you that Van Winkle bourbons are close to shelves. According to Chuck Cowdery, The Van Winkles have informed him that their highly anticipated line of whiskeys will hit stores after Turkey Day, but just before the end of the year. Chuck’s a more than reliable source.

My recommendations, like earlier this year, are to to call your local liquor stores and get your name on a list. Make nice with your merchants and they’ll be kind to you. If you want to know which ones to get, I’d suggest the 15 year old Pappy Van Winkle, and the 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve. The 13 year old Rye is solid stuff, but there’s better out there for the dollar. The 20 and 23 year old Pappy are expensive. If your budget allows purchasing those, great, but they can’t come close to touching the 15 year old.

Cheers!