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Review: Antique Ryes – 2012 Sazerac 18 and Thomas H. Handy

Two rye whiskeys are a part of the highly anticipated Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) released each fall, Sazerac 18 year and Thomas H. Handy. The later is a youthful 6 year old bottled at cask strength, while it’s older brother of 18 years is released at a more composed 90 proof. Their greatness cannot be disputed, at least not by me. I cannot recall a year when these whiskeys have not been at worst very good, and at best, some of the top whiskeys released in a given year.

So as not to add to the frenzy over these releases, I was leaning towards making Sour Mash Manifesto a BTAC free zone for 2012. That went out of the window as I simply I have no self control (for the record I’m sticking to my Pappy free zone pledge for 2012). Thanks goes to Brad Kaplan, of Thirsty South, for sending me a sampling of the Saz 18. Brad has an excellent post on the make up of this whiskey. It’s really quite interesting, and rather than rehash it, I’ll just link to his well written post.

Below are my tasting notes and ratings on these two rye whiskeys.

2012 Sazerac 18 year Rye Whiskey, 45% abv (90 Proof), $75.00
Color: Medium/Deep Amber
Nose: Bright notes of mint, vanilla, spiced orange tea, cinnamon and old, dusty rye with a core of caramelized fruits (banana, orange), ripe berry, and hints of maple. Gorgeous layers and complexity. Softened by time.
Palate: Drier, and only moderately sweet. Toffee is fleeting now with a plethora of sweet orange flavors (marmalade and candied rind) dominating the palate. Vanilla, mint, clove and cinnamon add sparkle with hints of coffee bitterness.
Finish: Old wood, bitter orange, berry fruit, and hints of toffee.
Overall: Time continues to soften this whiskey into an even more harmonious sip. Perhaps the finest rye whiskey made today with one of the best noses in all of whiskey. Not much has changed with this one, but I consider it a must buy if you can locate it.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)

2012 Thomas H. Handy Rye Whiskey, 66.2% abv (132.4 Proof), $75.00
Color: Deep Amber
Nose: Rich and syrupy – maple sugar, caramel, ample blasts of mint, licorice, and Big Red chewing gum. Hints of sticky fruits – cherry, raisins, and candied orange.
Palate: Bold and brash – big rye influence. Honey, maple syrup, kirsch, chili and cinnamon heat with bitter burned sugar.
Finish: Long and lingering warmth, wood spices, and sweet fruit.
Overall: An exceptional pour even at 6 years of age. Rich and concentrated with ample spice, fruit, and enough sweetness at it’s core to keep the whiskey anchored. What’s more – perhaps the easiest BTAC whiskey to located. Requires a healthy dose of water to wake things up.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

In spite of the family lineage – the 2012 Sazerac 18 and Thomas H. Handy are two very different whiskeys. One uses finesse and well developed flavors that only time can create. The other – brute force and concentrated sweetness, fruit and spice. Both are superb.

Review: Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit Bourbon

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery, out of Frederiksburg, VA, has been producing some excellent products in recent years. Owned by Sazerac since 2003, Bowman sources Buffalo Trace new make distillate and re-distills it at the distillery for a total of three distillations (reportedly). They age the whiskey on premises and recently opened a visitors center onsite.

A. Smith Bowman produces a Rye, a Small Batch Bourbon, Single Barrel Bourbon, rum, vodka, gin, and a number of limited release whiskeys. Last year I reviewed a barrel strength rye that was one of the best rye’s I tasted all year (2011).

Today I’ll be digging into the Small Batch Bourbon.

Bowman Brothers Pioneer Spirit Small Batch Bourbon, 45% abv (90 Proof), $29.99/bottle
Color: Light-Medium Amber
Nose: Brown sugar, sorghum syrup, sweet cinnamon, red apple, and moderate oak influence.
Palate: Well balanced sweetness (brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla) with ample sharp spice notes (pepper, cinnamon, and all spice).
Finish: A shade dry and spicy. Charred wood bitterness and cinnamon with a touch of maple sweetness.
Overall: Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon is a whiskey of very good quality. It offers a balance of sweetness and spice. I cannot say it’s very full flavored, nor is it complex, but it’s a damn fine sipper that offers some classic bourbon flavors. If you favor zippier bourbons, this one would certainly please you with its well defined wood/barrel sugars and spices.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.4 (Very Good)

Review: 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select Bourbon

Barton Brands Distillery, owned by Sazerac (the same folks that own Buffalo Trace), has produced 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon for almost a decade or so now. This bourbon is called “barrel select”, which essentially means it is a small batch bourbon. The master distiller selects barrels that he deems “ready” for batching together with other barrels and then bottles these “batches” separately. The minimum age of each barrel in 1792 (the year KY became the 15th state) is 8 years. That’s a fair bit of age, and what some believe to be a real sweet spot for most bourbons. Of course that’s extremely subjective.

With so many fantastic American Whiskeys under the Sazerac umbrella, I am interested in seeing how this one stacks up. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and had a pour of 1792.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon, 46.85% abv (93.7 Proof), $25

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose: Firm rye spice really elbows its way through at first with undercurrents of ripe fruit (Red Apple, Banana, Orange rind) and soft caramel eventually revealing themselves. There’s a ton of dried oak throughout. This is rye forward bourbon for sure and really shines after a good bit of air time. I find this common with many high rye mashbills (Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond comes to mind).

Palate: Much like the nose, the rye asserts itself immediately. It’s prickly, peppery, and very dry with mint, licorice, cinnamon and again loads of dried wood flavors. It’s certainly a bit of an oak monster with some astringency and a thin quality on the palate. Some maple sugars and faint fruit flavors (apple, dried apricot, golden raisin) take time to come through.

Finish: Bright and sharp with ample cinnamon warmth (big red chewing gum). The rye and oaky dryness again dominate. Moderate in length

Overall: There are some things to really like with this whiskey, but unfortunately some misses as well. Firstly it is not cloyingly sweet in the least, and might appeal to folks that don’t have a big sweet tooth. It also has a bracing nose backed with fruit and subtle sweetness that I felt was quite good. However, I enjoyed sniffing this one more than sipping it. That mentioned dryness overpowers and dominates the richer, sweeter undertones. Those flavors simply can’t get enough traction on the sip. With a bit of air time and a splash of water, things open up considerably, but it’s still unbalanced.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.9 (Good)

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: Sazerac Rye Whiskey (6 year old)

In the last week I did a review and accompanying video of the 2011 18 year old Sazerac Rye Whiskey. I thought a quick look at its little brother, a 6 year old, might be an interesting comparison.

Sazerac Rye Whiskey (6 year), 45% abv (90 Proof), $30.00

Color: Light Amber/Deep Gold

Nose:  Fruity and fresh with youthful exuberance. Cinnamon candy, sweet mint, vanilla bean, honeysuckle, and clove wrapped around a honeyed apple heart.

Palate: Very much in line with the fragrance on the nose. Crisp orchard fruit, vanilla infused honey, sweet mint and clove. The oak gets the hell out of the way. Wait, is that a bit of fleeting corn leading us to the finish?

Finish: Caramel and honey taming the emerging, warm baking spices. Never too hot though – just dries up cleanly. A bit of toasted wood bitterness as well.

Overall: This is a great example of a well made, classic rye flavor profile. For those that consider rye too hot or strong – this might be a great intro for you. It’s nicely balanced with fruit, sweetness and spice, but not “hot” in the least. It’s also a good price point in my opinion. Admittedly it’s not particularly complex, and tasted even a bit younger than 6 years, but it’s a very good sipping rye.

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

Review: 2011 Sazerac 18 Year Rye Whiskey

Sazerac 18 year old Rye Whiskey is one of five Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskeys released each fall. It is usually the more composed, elegant, and stately representative of the lineup’s two ryes. The much younger Thomas H. Handy Rye, which is offered at barrel strength and around 6 years of age, is the second in the release. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered why the Handy fits into a release called the “Antique Collection”, but it’s outstanding whiskey!)

Does the 2011 Sazerac 18 live up to its billing as one of the best rye whiskey releases of the year?

Sazerac 18 year Rye Whiskey, 45% abv (90 Proof), $75.00

Color: Deep amber

Nose:  The rye is floral and sweet with a darker side. Vanilla taffy, soft mint, sweet orange rind, a bit of cinnamon stick, caramelized banana, and maple syrup against old leather. The rye’s edges have been rounded beautifully by wood and time, but still have some vibrant zip.

Palate: Only moderately sweet, which is a different impression than the nose indicated. Brittle toffee and orange marmalade try to anchor the vanilla, crisp mint, and cinnamon. Chicory coffee, pepper, moderately spicy rye, and some light woody grip adds interest.

Finish: Bolder wood notes and chicory bitterness are mellowed with lingering fruit (citrus rind, berry) and rock candy.

Overall: One of the best available Rye Whiskeys each year, but this year is exceptional indeed. The nose alone is one of the finest in whiskey. A slightly higher proof might help to add more body. Outside of that, it is simply brilliant rye.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)