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Micro Monday: A look at Koval Lion’s Pride Whiskey

The “craft” whiskey movement, while littered with a lot of sub-par products, is also one of the biggest reasons why the United States is the most exciting whiskey industry in the country. It’s amazing what some of these distilleries are doing.

Recently I’ve reviewed products and received samples from about 25 micro/craft distillers. I have to be honest – some of them are simply not good at all. But on the other hand, the stuff that is good really stands out. I’ll be talking about some of those in the coming weeks and months.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of the distilleries doing some great work – Koval, based in Chicago, Illinois. Koval is owned and operated by husband and wife team, Sonat and Robert Birnecker. Robert, master distiller, is from Austria, and has built a reputation on utilizing some interesting grains for Koval’s whiskey. After turning some heads with the distillery’s un-aged and light whiskeys, Koval set out to create some aged products named after the couple’s son, Lion. The result is Lion’s Pride Whiskey, with both a Dark and Light version of each grain.

Below I have reviewed 4 of the 5 “dark” whiskeys. They are all aged under 2 years in new oak and distilled from single grains. Koval uses enzymes rather than barley for fermentation. The result is a very grain forward character to the whiskey.

To me, these whiskeys almost fit into their own category. They are lighter in style and body, really clean and bright, and less oak-forward. While they do taste young, all of the usual “funk” and rough edges that younger whiskeys typically have are not present here. Koval credits that fact to focusing on capturing only the heart cuts of the distillate, preferring to remove as much of the heavy flavors (which can bring that funk) with them. There’s more waste, but it results in a flavor profile that Koval prefers over the heavier bodied American Whiskeys.

Lion’s Pride Dark Millet Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: The nose consists of fresh, ripe fruit (green apple, plum, and peach), bright spices (ginger and anise), and caramelized nuts. The palate begins sweetly (brown sugar and canned fruit) before barrel, wood spices, and licorice dry things up on through to a moderately spicy finish. Millet is a grain I dare say few distillers, if any, work with today. It’s an eye opener and very distinctive.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.4 (Very Good/Excellent)

Lion’s Pride Dark Oat Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: I have been accused of having a sweet tooth before. Guilty as charged! This Dark Oat Whiskey is a confectionary wonder. The distillate has a distinctive banana aroma. It comes across as banana cream, vanilla fudge, and brown sugar syrup on the nose. The flavors on the palate are sweet as well with banana bread, oatmeal, and taffy balanced by cracker dryness, and black pepper. The finish is clean, sweet, and light. Superb stuff and my favorite in the lineup.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Superb/Outstanding)

Lion’s Pride Dark Wheat Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: The other grains seemingly have so much more depth and character. The wheat without a supporting cast struggles to keep up. The nose has notes of toffee, juicy fruit gum, and graham cracker. The flavors are soft and sweet with vanilla custard, sticky caramel, and a welcomed hot ginger bite as it leads to the finish, which is mildly peppered with cinnamon. A solid effort, but certainly the weakest of the four by a good margin.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.6 (Good/Solid)

Lion’s Pride Dark Rye Whiskey, 40% abv/80 Proof, $50.00
Tasting Notes: This one is perhaps the most grain forward of the lineup. This is rye in all it’s glory: evergreen, eucalyptus, and peppery rye grain dominate a nose that comes across quite fresh and lively. There’s a sweet, fruity underbelly at play on the nose as well. Vanilla infused honey makes an appearance early on the palate before being overcome by a rush of spices in the form of cinnamon, anise, and peppermint.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.2 (Very Good/Excellent)

Old Grand-dad Bourbon (Bottled In Bond) Review

Old Grand-Dad is a high rye bourbon offered in a couple of different proof points. This one is their 100 proof Bottled-in-Bond bourbon whiskey. The “Granddad” reference in the name is homage to Basil Hayden, a very recognizable name in bourbon and also the name of another product I’ve reviewed on this site. Basil Hayden was known for using a higher percentage of rye grain in the mashbill (whiskey grain recipe) for his bourbon whiskey. His grandson, Raymond Hayden, started Old Grand-Dad using his grandfather’s high rye recipe. While we don’t know the exact percentage of rye in the mashbill, I’m guessing it’s pushing somewhere around 30%. If you know, please share.

As a side note, we’ve talked about the term “bottled in bond” before. It essentially refers to a single distillery bourbon whiskey that was distilled all in one single season (vs. pulling from various barrels distilled and aged at different times), and aged in a federally bonded warehouse for a minimum of 4 years. It’s also offered at 100 proof, or 50% alcohol.

Old Grand-Dad Bourbon (Bottled in Bond), 50% abv (100Proof), $19

Color: Medium Amber with Orange tones

Nose: Sweet corn and spicy rye yield to candied orange peel, cinnamon, honeysuckle, maple syrup, and kiln dried wood. There’s an alcohol punch you have to dodge but with time this one opens up nicely.

Palate: Big flavors of brown sugar, orange jellybeans, and loads of woody and peppery spices. The corn and rye is always present and welcoming. A healthy dose of barrel char emerges from mid palate.

Finish: This long finish is leaning towards the char, but mint, black pepper, and corny sweetness give relief.

Overall: This is a hell of a bourbon, and a continuation of the “parade of value” that I’ve been consciously trying to showcase on the site. It’s a marvelous thing when you can find such fantastic whiskey at this price. Old Grand-Dad BIB is a big whiskey with a spicy character, excellent and mature grain quality, and healthy doses of sweetness and wood to add complexity. All of that for around $20 or less.

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

Very Old Barton Bourbon (Bottled in Bond) Review

Very Old Barton has a myriad of bourbons that include 80, 86, 90, and this 100 proof product. Made by Barton Brands at the Tom Moore Distillery in Bardstown, KY. Today it’s owned by Sazerac (Buffalo Trace). This particular bourbon is offered at 6 years old and “Bottled in Bond”. What does that mean? BIB, as it’s abbreviated, refers to a bourbon from one distillery that has been distilled in one season (not bourbon pulled frome barrels of various ages), aged in a federally bonded warehouse at least 4 years, and is offered at 100 proof or 50% alcohol. This came about in the late 1800’s largely because people were selling inferior, diluted products as bourbon. It was also backed by a lot of the power players in the bourbon industry at the time to curb this practice.

From a mashbill standpoint, VOB BIB is 75% Corn, 15% Rye, and 10% Barley. It’s also well under $15 a bottle. Recently, Malt Advocate named it one of their best value picks of the year. And without ruining any review suspense I will say that designation is certainly not a stretch. Value is a very subjective topic because what one person considers a great value another person might have higher expectations. So how does VOB BIB rate out? Let’s give it a try.

Very Old Barton Bourbon (Bottled in Bond) , 50% abv (100Proof), $12

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: A fairly big, bold nose that has ample measures of fruit, spice, and grain. Corn and caramel/toffee at first with a sour apple fruitiness and baking spices galore (Cinnamon, Clove, Nutmeg). Oak lingers along with an earthy twang (barn?) to keep you sniffing happily.

Palate: The comforting synergy between the nose and palate is apparent with the first sip. Corn, chewy caramel, apple, cinnamon stick, and a good punch of rye make for a firm and assertive whiskey.

Finish: The finish is moderate in length with some drier, spicier oak quality emerging to blend and harmonize with after-sweetness of vanilla and caramel.

Overall: What is great about Very Old Barton BIB is the fact that it’s pure bourbon flavor to the core at a tremendous price. There is enough corny goodness to make you aware of what you are drinking, but so many other flavors to keep things very interesting and pleasant. No wonder many Kentuckians consider this their “table bourbon” of choice. Is this the best whiskey value on the market? I don’t think I can quite give it that designation, but it’s certainly right up there with some of the best values on the market.

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

1512 Barbershop Rye Review

“White” or Unaged Whiskeys can be sort of a mixed bag. By that I mean they mostly suck. Harsh? Perhaps, but in my experience that’s just been the case. I’m from the “wood is king” school of thinking. Wood does something to distillate that is pure magic. What more can be said?

About 4 weeks back I received an email from John Henry, a CA resident and visitor of this site. John asked me if I’d heard about an up an coming distiller out of the San Francisco Bay Area called 1512 Barbershop. He’d had a bottle and was floored by it and wanted me to be on the lookout. Soon after that I received a sample for review.

Here’s the scoop. Salvatore Cimino owns an actual barbershop in San Francisco called 1512 Barbershop. During prohibition, many barbershops acted as fronts for bootlegged spirits and whiskey. It wasn’t uncommon during those times for such “whiskey” to be of the unaged variety. Salvatore is a throwback whiskey purist of sorts having grown up distilling whiskey in an an old-school manner; milling grain by hand and copper pot distillation over open flames. 1512 Barbershop makes the not so subtle reference to this being Salvatore Cimino first “public” release. I chuckled when I read that. Thoughts of my granfather setting a mason jar with a peach floating in it popped into my memory.

So, how does this unaged Rye Spirit/Whiskey taste?

1512 Barbershop Rye, 45.5% abv (91 Proof), $30 (375ML Bottle)

Color: Crystal Clear

Nose: Green apple, ripe pear, clean, fragrant rye grain, and a confectionary sweetness.

Palate: The palate is crisp and clean with dusty, peppery rye grain shining through from the onset. Rock candy and taffy sweetness anchor this one as does an ever present fruity quality.

Finish: The finish is all rye, mild pepper, and a scant, haunting licoricey note.

Overall: I have to say this one caught me way off guard. To date, there are two white whiskey/spirits that I would consider “outstanding”. One of them is Four Roses OBSK mashbill (OBSQ isn’t far behind). The other is this one. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, K&L Wines has some in stock.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: (8.9 Superb/Outstanding)

Old Forester Bourbon Review

I just returned from vacation with three new reviews ready for this week. Unfortunately there won’t be video accompanying them, but we’ll be back to the vids starting next week. First up on the review front is Old Forester Bourbon. 1512 Barbershop Rye and Very Old Barton (BIB) are up next. Cheers!

Old Forester Bourbon has been around a long time, since around the 1870’s in fact. Produced by Brown-Forman in Shively, Ky, Old Forester’s 72% Corn, 18% Rye, and 10% Malted Barley is the same mashbill used for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, two bourbons I rated quite highly. There is no age statement on the bottle, but this one is around 4+ years in age and at a great price point. So how does it fare?

Old Forester Bourbon, 43% abv (86 Proof), $15

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: The strength of this whiskey – caramel corn, ripe apricot, wood spices, earth, and barrel.

Palate: Corn, caramel, vanilla, a diluted fruitiness, and a pinch of cinnamon/nutmeg spice – all encapsulated by a sturdy oak veneer.

Finish: The finish is moderate in length with dry oak asserting itself mightily, along with some bitter char, and a faint caramel sweetness struggling to bust through.

Overall: This one starts with a bang – the nose is very good and presents numerous layers, especially for a whiskey at this price point. The flavors on the palate however lean a bit towards pedestrian. The sweetness, fruit and spice never quite assert themselves as much as the oak influence on the palate. However, considering the price point, Old Forester packs some value in that simple bottle.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: (7.9 Good)

Evan Williams “Black Label” Bourbon Review

Forgive the lack of video, but I wanted to get to this review of the tried and true Evan Williams “Black Label”. Lately I’ve been on a bargain hunt spurned by a number of you returning visitors that have requested we examine some of these often overlooked whiskeys.

The folks from Heaven Hill make this bargain “juice” from the same mash bill (grain recipe) used for Evan Williams Single Barrel and their Elijah Craig products. John Hansell of Malt Advocate recently named it (along with Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond that I’ll soon be reviewing) as one of his “Best Buy” whiskeys of the year. Let’s give it a further look……….

Evan Williams “Black Label” Bourbon, 43% abv (86 Proof), $11

Nose: Caramel, cola, and cinnamon spice showcase a sweet nose that’s made more interesting by a sturdy backbone of oak.

Palate: Corn, cola, vanilla, and maraschino cherry syrup at the front of the palate with a good dose of cinnamon/all spice at mid palate. Like the nose, on the palate the sweetness is lifted by that familiar, and glorious oak. It’s a bit disjointed from the entry, but once the oak asserts itself you might be reminded of Elijah Craig 12 year old.

Finish: Caramel sweetness, light fruit, and oak veneer leave their mark in a moderate length finish.

Overall: Evan Williams “Black Label” lays its cards on the table right from the start, but there’s a great deal of quality here. It’s not particularly complex stuff, but who cares. It’s accessible, drinkable, and has a delicious combination of sweetness and wood that would appeal to a broad audience. Simply put this is well made stuff at a great price. Heaven Hill once again shows us that really good whiskey doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ll drink to that!

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.4 (Very Good/Excellent)