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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: Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon

Smooth Ambler is a relative newcomer to your liquor store shelf with a Vodka, Gin, and a White Whiskey that they make out of their Maxwelton, WV distillery. Smooth Ambler does all of their milling (grinding the grains) onsite for their products and distills these spirits from start to scratch. Proprietor, John Little, was interested in putting out a bourbon whiskey that had enough age and complexity to warrant releasing it to the public. There’s just no hurrying aged whiskey folks – many do so with results that taste as rushed as the process. John was apparently interested in avoiding that, hence the release of a sourced (purchased) bourbon with Smooth Ambler Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Smooth Ambler is very up front with the fact that they purchased the whiskey from another distillery. While it’s not named on the bottle, Little mentions in a recent StraightBourbon.com post that the product was indeed sourced in Indiana. With a mashbill (grain recipe) of 36% rye that matches up with one of Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana’s (LDI) stock bourbon recipes, I think it’s safe to say this is LDI juice.

Enough with the specs, let’s get into a tasting of this one……….

Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon, 49.5% abv (99 Proof), $32/bottle

Color: Pale Amber

Nose: A bright mix of soft cinnamon candy, spearmint, eucalyptus, sweet almond extract, juicy fruit gum, and punchy rye and oak. Blindfolded I’d guess this was a straight rye whiskey.

Palate: The entry is caramel and honey, spiked with crisp mint, clove, and juicy rye. Corn makes a brief appearance before the mid-palate dries things up and gains some resinous grip through to the finish.

Finish: Warm and spicy with big cinnamon, splintered oak, toasty flavors, and corn.

Overall: What I like about Old Scout is I think Smooth Ambler got the details right. First off this is 5 years and 10 month old – just 2 months shy of 6 years at bottling. Certainly not “OLD”, but it has some decent age to it. Second, it’s non-chill filtered, and non-carbon filtered and bottled at a respectable 99 proof. That last part I enjoy because it gives the drinker the flexibility to add water as needed. The result is a well executed high-rye bourbon. The aromas and flavors are clearly influenced greatly by the rye, maybe a bit more than I’d ideally wish for, but it’s anchored with sweetness and balanced oak. The price point makes it a solid value as well.

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

Review: 2011 William Larue Weller Bourbon

It’s perhaps the most highly anticipated release of the year in American Whiskey. Each Fall the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) releases a line up of five whiskeys; George T. Stagg Bourbon, Eagle Rare 17 Bourbon, Sazerac 18 Rye Whiskey, Thomas H. Handy Rye Whiskey, and the subject of this review, William Larue Weller. Supply and demand are clearly good for business because these whiskeys can be tough to come by. Some might suggest you have to have compromising pictures of your local spirit merchant to even get a bottle or two. I say just make friends and/or be a great customer and that usually helps.

William Larue Weller is made from a wheated bourbon mashbill (grain recipe) that contains no rye grain. It’s a similar (likely exactly the same) recipe as used in Pappy Van Winkle.

2011 William Larue Weller Bourbon, 66.75% abv (133.5 Proof), $80/bottle

Color: Mahogany, deep amber

Nose: Dark dried fruits (dates, raisins), Fruitcake, toasted almonds, cocoa, and creamy cafe au lait. This is one where a splash of water releases beautiful roasted notes of coffee beans and saddle leather.

Palate: Dark and sultry. Toffee, roasted and caramelized nuts (slightly burned?), candied fruits, black coffee, bitter dark chocolate, and clove. The balance of sweet, rich, spicy, and bitter is just outstanding.

Finish: Chocolate caramels, concentrated berry syrup, toasted oak and vanilla.

Overall: Clearly one of the three best whiskeys I’ve sipped this year thus far, but I do hate the fact that this stuff is so damn tough to get. I can’t believe they don’t have more of this to get to the public. Keep searching though because this is without question an Epic whiskey. It’s the best William Larue Weller of the last 2-3 years for sure, and based on the three I’ve tasted from the collection this year (Stagg and Handy), it’s the best so far in my opinion.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.6 (Epic/Classic)

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!)

Gentleman Jack Whiskey Review

This, interestingly, may be one of the top five requests for review that I get. What can you say about the good Gentleman Jack? Why don’t we start with a little background.

First, despite what many think, it is not a requirement that all Tennessee Whiskey undergo a charcoal filtration process (known as the Lincoln County Process) in order to be called Tennessee Whiskey. Unlike bourbon, regulations and standards for calling something “Tennessee Whiskey” are very loose at best. However, most associate Tennessee Whiskey with the charcoal filtering largely because the two biggest producers of “brown water” in my home state, Jack Daniels and George Dickel, follow this process. In previous reviews I’ve discussed the differences in the way Jack and Dickel do this. Let’s run through this one more time.

George Dickel chills their distillate down before passing it through large vats of charcoal sandwiched between giant wool blankets. Jack Daniels does not chill their distillate down, instead allowing the distillate to be filtered right off the still. Both of these processes take a hell of a long time (trickle by trickle), and one is not right or wrong. They are both just different approaches that yield two very different flavor profiles. Jack Daniels, from Old No. 7 on up through Single Barrel has a much smoother, cleaner front entry (front of the palate) on the sip than George Dickel. Sip them side by side and the differences will jump out at you.

How does this process of filtration affect flavor? When a distillate comes off the still it contains substances called congeners that do a number of things. They CAN add off flavors to the spirit if the spirit contains certain types of congeners. They can also add stronger, more pronounced desired flavors to a whiskey. Over time, the barrel the whiskey is aged in does a number on these congeners, softening and rounding them out through the expansion and contraction of the wood. The barrel can also filter some of them out as well.

The charcoal filtration process gives the distillate a bit of a head start. Charcoal is a natural filtering agent, absorbing stronger congeners to help ensure the finished product is as smooth as possible. However, charcoal doesn’t have a dial on it allowing you to, “only filter out the bad stuff”. Because of this – you do lose some of the body and impactful flavors from the distillate. This is one of the knocks on this process.

What if you charcoal filtered a whiskey twice you might wonder. Well, you’d have Gentleman Jack. That’s exactly what the Jack Daniels Distillery does to make this very smooth, clean whiskey. Let’s give it a test drive……..

Gentleman Jack Whiskey, 40%abv/80 proof, $29
Color: Deep Golden Amber
Nose: The nose is the absolute highlight of this whiskey. Cinnamon red apple, vanilla, honeysuckle, floral fragrance, toasted oak, and dry corn husk.
Palate: Vanilla, corn, mildly spiced honey, golden raisin, and prickle of pepper. It comes off extremely thin and watery on the palate.
Finish: Light, and clean as a whisper. There’s a tinny note on the finish along with corn and moderate oak.
Overall: As noted, the nose is incredible, but it’s a bit of a letdown from there. The palate is diluted and lacks concentration of flavor. Let’s understand however that this whiskey has been filtered twice. It’s designed to be a clean, smooth whiskey. Execution was extremely well done in that regard. And while this is definitely good whiskey, for flavor hounds there is so so much better out there for the money.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.5 (Good/Solid)

Breaking & Entering Bourbon Review

Breaking & Entering is a new bourbon from the folks at St. George Spirits. While St. George makes all of their own distillates, whiskeys, vodka, gins, etc. – Breaking & Entering is the distilleries foray into the sourcing and blending model. It’s something we’ve seen from companies like High West in Utah, and Compass Box in the UK.

For B&E Bourbon, St. George hand selected and procured 80 barrels of 5-7 year old Kentucky Bourbon from some of the big distilleries in the Bluegrass State. They brought it all back to their Alameda, CA Hanger (and I mean an actual hangar on a former Naval Base right on the San Francisco Bay) and tweaked the blend until they had something unique and quite different from other bourbons on the market.

As an aside: St. George is doing some incredible things, and are one of the more exciting distilleries in this country. Be sure to keep an eye on these guys.

Breaking and Entering Bourbon, $33.00, 43% abv/86 Proof
Color: Deep Golden
Nose: Vanilla infused banana cream, flint, dried golden fruits, nutty, well integrated oak. A tang of sour corn mash.
Palate: Balanced and not overly sweet. Honey and toffee on the entry, white pepper, a healthy dose of wood spices, slightly bitter burned caramel, and tea. Core of fruitiness as well throughout the sip.
Finish: Lively and bright. A good prickle on the tongue as well. Here is where the corn arrives, along with a hint of honey and orange peel.
Overall: Very well made, nice complexity and diverse flavors. This is clearly bourbon, but the flavors are presented in a different way than what you may be used to. For those that feel bourbon can be a tad too sweet for them, B&E is a great middle ground sweetness. Superb stuff.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.9 (Superb/Outstanding)