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Review: McAfee’s Benchmark Bourbon

You’ve probably seen McAfee’s Benchmark Bourbon at your local liquor depot. If not, head to the Bourbon aisle, look a couple shelves down from eye level – there it is. As many times as I’ve scanned right over this bottle I’ve never purchased it before. I’ve had it a time or two here and there, and been asked my thoughts, but frankly couldn’t ever remember anything specific. It was time to give it a closer look as a we work to “keep it real” in 2015. Is it a bottom shelf gem or merely a solid cheap pour?

BENCHMARK NO 8 2McAfee’s Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand Bourbon, 40% abv (80 proof), $12/bottle
Color: Light Amber/Gold
Nose: Clean and fruity with notes of vanilla, dried apricot, sweet orange, corn oil, and honey.
Palate: Straight forward – Vanilla, light caramel sweetness and bright fruit.
Finish: Vanilla, fruit and faint spice – finish drops off quickly.
Overall: Benchmark bourbon is a light, bright bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace. It’s an easy, pleasant sip, but doesn’t bring much flavor to the party. While rather cheap, there are other bourbons in the $11-$15 range that are better pours.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.4 (Good)

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)

Sour Mash Manifesto in 2015

Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 was kind to all of you. If it wasn’t –fear not! Simply resolve to make 2015 your best year yet. I’m going to work hard to do the same for me and my family.

There is one a regret I have for last year. I’m very disappointed with my lack of activity on Sour Mash Manifesto. If you’ve visited in the last 12 months you’ve probably read numerous excuses from me. I’ll refrain from making any specific promises, but I do intend to make Sour Mash Manifesto worth your time in 2015. I’m very grateful that you have stuck with me in spite of the snail’s pace of new content.

As I look back on 2014 from a whiskey point of view, I am a little disappointed to be honest. Not about a lack of great whiskey, mind you. There’s some awesome stuff out there. I’m not even overly concerned about escalating prices. Sure, I hate paying more for whiskey, but I adjust my expectations accordingly (probably like you do). What has really disappointed me is all this clamoring for limited releases, rare whiskey, and the constant questioning of “which one’s better, which one should I buy?” The whiskey loving community is so overcome with finding these limited and rare bottles that little else seems to matter. I’m worried we are forgetting to appreciate all that is readily available.

Bloggers must take the bulk of the blame for fanning these flames. I’ve come across as the head of the Pappy Propaganda Parade at certain points over the years (Guilty!). Yes I feel the 15 year is one of the great whiskeys on the planet, I truly do, but it’s all a bit much. Ironically this contributed a bit to the inactivity here. Why pile on to this fervor?

As an aside – I recommend ignoring every review you see on a Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), Four Roses Limited, etc. If you want to secure these rare releases I’d start making friends with a few local merchants. Find out how the store determines who gets a bottle of these highly sought after whiskeys. Then spend your money with the one or two that you feel give you the best shot. You’ll have to talk to owners and buyers at the stores and get a good “read” on that. Show the store that you are committed to giving them your business, and ask them to do the same. Like anything in life, ask for what you want, but be realistic about it (they can’t satisfy everyone). If the store is one that uses a list – get on it and be patient. When you have the opportunity, buy it.

Back on track……

The answer for me and for Sour Mash Manifesto is to get back to basics. That means focusing the majority of reviews on products with at least some moderate availability. There are so many gems out there that are overlooked while we scan for scan for labels of old men or deer antlers. I’m going to shed more light on those whiskeys. Some limited releases will find their way on the site from time to time, but less often. As a result, Sour Mash Manifesto won’t be your best place to find the latest ratings on the 2015 BTAC or Limited Edition Four Roses. For that information there are a ton of other great resources.

Another area I’ll be looking at more closely is “craft”/“micro” whiskeys. I hate both of those terms, but this segment of the industry continues to grow and evolve into a category on its own. It represents a lot of younger whiskeys, regional styles, and more unique grain bills and recipes. Fear not bourbon lovers – this won’t be a micro-only site, but I do wish to help wade through some of this stuff on the shelves.

Honesty, I’ve never had an original idea when it comes to Sour Mash Manifesto. I just talk about what has my attention. Other bloggers and industry folks have stated the same as I have above. I’m not trying to grandstand or act above the fray, and I don’t begrudge others that feel differently. Clearly people want to know what enthusiasts think about certain whiskeys.

To put my thoughts in perspective, consider for a moment that I’m sipping a beautiful Eagle Rare Single Barrel (private barrel selection) from One Stop Wine and Liquors in Johnson City, TN. It’s easily on the best whiskeys I’ve drank in the last six months. It’s spectacular, but writing about it is pointless due to your chances of securing some. Even still, you probably have a better chance getting this than you do some of the others I’ve mentioned. That’s the problem with all this hoopla, and I don’t need to add to it.

Please consider this a glimpse into where things are going at Sour Mash Manifesto. I know it will allow me to provide more value to the whiskey loving community. Thank you again for visiting.

Happy New Year to you and yours and drink your whiskey!

Jason

Review: James E. Pepper 1776 Bourbon (15 Year)

Thank you for your patience with me and my “time” excuses. I hope things are well with all of you and that you’ve been sipping some excellent whiskey. While I’ve not been posting about it, I sure have! Again, thanks for your patience as I work through many reviews.

Today let’s take a look at James E. Pepper 1776 Bourbon, a 15 year old whiskey bottled by James E. Pepper & Co, but distilled by the folks at MGP in Lawrenceburg Indiana. It’s interesting that the folks at James E. Pepper were able to secure such old stock, but age isn’t anything but a number. How does this juice taste…..

James E. Pepper 15James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Bourbon (15 Years), Barrel 46% abv (92 proof), $100/bottle
Color: Deep Amber/Copper
Nose: Quite light and restrained for a 15 year old – very elegant. Sweet caramel, golden apple, and vanilla cover much of any barrel notes. Hints of clove and soft mint (rye) perk up with more time.
Palate: Again, light and elegant. Brittle caramel and barrel spices prickle on the tongue. Vanilla and a baked apple fruitiness as well. Finishes a tad flat. With a splash of water the spice notes are more pronounced, the soft sweetness lessens.
Overall: This is a very good whiskey, if not a touch flat. Tasted blind I’d never guess this was 15 years old. It has aged gracefully, perhaps somewhere shielded from the extremes. Overall it’s balanced and composed from sniff to sip, but it carries a big price tag.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.5 (Very Good)

Hoarding Whiskey Part 2

Apparently the whiskey hoarding debate from my post in late January struck a chord. Some response was positive, some negative, but regardless a fun discussion where over 50 comments can be read here. A nasty cold and cough have derailed my tasting and review plans for the week. But that’s okay – it allows me a chance to revisit this topic if you will allow me.

First, I wanted to further clarify my position. Like most things, it’s never black and white. I consider the hoarding mentality one of collecting whiskey for the sake of the collection. Who am I to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do with your whiskey? It’s your money. If you can build your stash while not sacrificing your personal enjoyment of good whiskey, then I say go for it.

There were a number of great points made about being a smart consumer. Something I am not. I can only speak for myself but for me, my title as whiskey blogger runs opposite of the title, “smart consumer”. I buy 90+% of the whiskey I review, and taste a whiskey no less than 2-3 times (sometimes more) before writing about it. That requires plenty of sipping and not a ton of saving. If a smart consumer knows he loves XYZ whiskey, shouldn’t he take advantage of good pricing and stock up? Absolutely. If that smart consumer enjoys that whiskey and drinks it regularly that is not a hoarders pursuit in my opinion.

The biggest point I wanted to make is don’t let a hoarding mentality keep you from enjoying the great stuff you have in your cabinet. Don’t rush to finish all those open bottles, don’t crack your Pappy just because you think I said so (but if you already did – save me some), but do find the time to enjoy these whiskeys that you’ve purchased. Don’t always wait for the perfect moment – a great whiskey MAKES the perfect moment perfect.

And finally, for some background, I’m not one that lives in the past. I don’t believe that everything made back in the day was better. Doesn’t mean some wasn’t better, but nobody can convince me that the juice put out by some of these distilleries today is not as good or better today as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. Buffalo Trace makes better whiskey than Stitzel-Weller did from top to bottom. Is that subjective? No. ; )

A number of comments also saw an underlying optimism in my post. Those folks are absolutely correct. I don’t believe the whiskey bubble is close to popping. I don’t have facts or figures to discredit what others feel to be an absolute certainty, citing rising prices, rising gimmicks, and depleting supply as chief reasons. Sure, it saddens me to see stuff aged on boats, but constraints (lack of supply) also lead to wonderfully creative products we’d never have otherwise.

Distilleries are making more whiskey today than ever before. Yes it’s getting more expensive – that happens. But we will soon have even more viable choices with natural selection doing its thing on a number of the micro distilleries. I tasted a Balcones whiskey that is very good and will only get better. The better micro distilleries are forcing other micros to make ever better products. It’s also forcing established distilleries to be more creative.

You could argue that 2012 would be a chief knock against my theory for the most part. I consider it an average year for whiskey, perhaps one of the worst for me in the last 5 years. Still, I tasted enough great stuff from the likes of Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, High West, Heaven Hill, and St. George Spirits, among others, to keep me optimistic. Therefore I still encourage you to drink your good stuff.

It’s Wednesday night – have a pour in good health!

-Jason

Your whiskey stash is probably better than mine

Your whiskey stash is probably better than mine. “What!”, you might say. “You write a whiskey blog – how is that possible?” It’s possible because I drink the whiskey I buy. As in – I don’t hoard it. If I don’t like it, I give it away. If I love it, I drink it and especially share it with others.

You will find no more Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year in my cabinet because I got three bottles last year, planned on saving two, but the stuff is so damn good that I simply cannot force myself to keep it around. I bought two extra bottles of the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch for 2012. I did so with the following mindset that I’m sure is familiar, “this stuff is great, and if I have two more bottles I’ll be able to savor and enjoy it for years to come.” Who am I kidding? This whiskey will be gone before the first tulip peeks its head above ground. And that’s just the way I am.

Yes, I’ve got some extremely good whiskeys around the house. Some you can find, some you can’t. Regardless, they’ll all be gone soon because I appreciate great stuff. The people that made these whiskeys didn’t do so for me to look at it for a decade. They did it for me to enjoy. And that’s what I do. Will I miss these bottles after they are gone? Yes, indeed, but they become a memory that is even better.

Drink your whiskey!

-Jason