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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)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

I am ashamed to call myself a whiskey geek today. Very ashamed indeed. I say this because I cannot tell a lie – no matter how hard I make myself, I can’t get excited about the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Honestly I have tried like hell to get into it. To date, I’ve sampled three bottles (different barrel numbers). They’ve been good, don’t get me wrong, but not mind blowing. I still wonder if it will even be worth the effort. Let me explain my thoughts……

For those that don’t remember, Buffalo Trace embarked on one of the most aggressive “projects” in whiskey history earlier this year. That’s not an understatement. You can read more about the experiment here. To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone right to the barrel making source to isolate the components of the wood that impact the finished whiskey more favorably in the eyes of the general public. You can purchase a bottle, log onto the website, enter your thoughts on the whiskey, and see what components/factors impacted the bourbon you tasted. The goal, simply put, is to figure out what sections of the tree (top or bottom cuts), what char levels, grain type (course to fine grain), and other factors yield the best results when mated with either a rye-based bourbon or a wheated bourbon. To date, Buffalo Trace has released 36 Single Oak Project Bourbons (3 releases of 12), each representing 192 possible combinations of flavor factors.

This is cool stuff right? On the surface I agree – it’s very cool. Buffalo trace is going to lengths no other distillery in the world has gone (to my knowledge) in order to improve consistency, and perhaps find the “holy grail” bourbon.

Here’s the thing – I think they have little or no chance of finding what they seek. Is that based on fact, research, or anything concrete? Nope, not a all. Still, I believe they are looking at this in a one dimensional way, focused on isolation of components. What if it’s a combination of top and bottom tree oak that yields more balance? What if variances in grain type actually help? What if it’s a combination of rye-based bourbons blended together that yield the best finished whiskey? What if my brain explodes as I think of the myriad of options that could yield the best results?

Also, and perhaps more critically, what are Buffalo Trace’s plans to execute on the “perfect” bourbon as per the Single Oak Project ratings? How does a distillery scale in such a way as to isolate top tree sections with tight grain (for example) and still produce an affordable bourbon? Does Buffalo Trace intend to buy their own cooperage to control those costs? Will it end up being a $150 bottle? The folks behind this endeavor are a hell of a lot smarter than me, but these are the things that run through my head, and keep me from jumping up an down with excitement.

Bottom line, I feel this will end up being a fun, cool experiment for the whiskey geeks in all of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we all don’t get our hopes up.

What about you? Share with me what you think about Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project. Perhaps I’m alone in my opinion here.

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)

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)

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)