Monday, November 17, 2014

Wild Turkey Rye: 101 proof vs. 81 proof vs. Russell’s Reserve

Wild Turkey Rye 101: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 50.5%, $30
Russell’s Reserve Rye: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, aged 6 years, 45.0%, $45
Wild Turkey Rye 81: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, no age statement, 40.5%, $23

In my last post I took a look at what can happen if a distiller produces too much whiskey. The end result is older whiskey at suppressed prices and potentially shutting down operations for some length of time if the situation isn’t corrected quickly enough. There was a period where the whole industry went through this cycle. Whiskey drinkers may not have recognized it at the time, but the late 70’s through the 80’s was a great era for them; underpriced, extra-aged whiskey was bountiful in those years.

Of course that is far from an ideal scenario for the producers who are struggling to remain profitable, so it’s understandable why distillers didn’t ramp up production too quickly in the early part of the current boom. But now that demand for whiskey has continued to grow unabated for a surprising number of years, we’ve gotten to a point where no one has enough whiskey.

In such a situation, producers who had been operating below capacity can just turn up the wick, but they still have to wait for the whiskey to age. For the ones who need to add infrastructure in order to increase output, they also have to wait the additional time needed for permitting and construction.

In the short term there are four things that can be done to deal with the issue. The first is to put whiskeys on allocation (this is where producers allot certain quantities of product to various distribution areas every so often) and/or limit their distribution (the product would only be distributed in certain key markets that the distiller feels are most important). The second is to raise prices in order to temper demand.

Both of these strategies are dangerous because they have the potential to alienate consumers. If said consumers switch to another brand when their old favorite isn’t available (regularly or at all), it might be hard to win them back once supplies are restored. Raising prices enough to keep new customers at bay (at least temporarily) is okay, but raising them to the point of pushing away existing customers could also make it difficult to get them back. Constricting supply and lowering demand through pricing both have the potential to be detrimental to long term growth.

The other two things that can be done to deal with whiskey shortages; lowering proof and reducing age, are what I’ll focus on for this post and the next two. Lowering proof is just a matter of adding more water at bottling, and instantly stretches supplies. Reducing age is a little trickier because it’s a bit more of a shell game. You’re tapping into your future supply for today’s finished product, and you can only do that for so long. It can buy you time, but sooner or later some big production increases have to come up through the warehouses to balance things out.

If a whiskey never had an age statement, then changing its age isn’t too problematic, assuming the changes happen somewhat gradually. Most styles of American whiskey do require an age statement if they are less than 4 years old, so at least that reassuring floor of youth exists. Many consumers have found the profusion of disappearing age statements that we’ve been witness to recently off-putting though. That being said, angst over the loss of an age statement is usually short lived; few people complain about a dropped age statement years down the road. Proof, on the other hand, is always there to be seen on the label. Partiality to a particular alcoholic strength is a matter of personal preference, but most whiskey connoisseurs associate higher proofs with more concentrated flavors and higher quality. When proof is lowered to the mid-80’s or less, the term “watered down” is often bandied about. Again, producers run the risk of alienating faithful consumers with these changes.

Even though Rye is a small category of American whiskey relative to Bourbon, the former has exceeded the latter in terms of sales growth in recent years, at least on a percentage basis. The popularity of the craft cocktail movement and its fascination with pre-Prohibition cocktails has been a driving force behind the growth of Rye. Wild Turkey 101 Rye (as well as Rittenhouse Rye), with its bold flavors and reasonable price, became a favorite of bartenders at the fore of that movement.

Originally introduced in the 1970’s, Wild Turkey’s 101 proof Rye started off as a sourced product. Some time in the late 1980’s production was brought in house. Then in 2007 they introduced the Russell’s Reserve Rye, at 90 proof. The original 101 proof version remained the more popular of the two, and by early 2011 supply problems began to crop up, along with rumors that it was on allocation. A year later they got to the point of having to do something more drastic; it was time to drop the proof.

Clearly concerned about making their customers unhappy, Wild Turkey introduced an 81 proof Rye as a new product, rather than as a reformulation of the much-loved 101 proof Rye. Soon after that they stopped bottling the 101 proof Rye, but the move was announced as a temporary suspension; they promised that it would come back eventually. Skeptics had their doubts, but the distillery had managed to minimize consumer outrage over the move.

After an absence of nearly two years, Wild Turkey Rye 101 did return late in 2013, albeit in a limited way. It was only made available in select markets and only in 1-liter bottles, which the distributors were cajoled into selling primarily to bars and restaurants. A year later it is still only available in 1-liter bottles and still pretty tough to come by, but most people who are seeking it out seem more excited that there’s a chance they might find it again rather than being upset that it was unavailable for almost two years.

As far as age goes, the Russell’s Reserve Rye has been consistent with a 6 year age statement since its introduction. Neither the 101 proof Rye nor the 81 proof Rye has ever had an age statement. It’s likely that their ages have differed from each other and varied over the years, but it’s impossible to know when or by how much.

As for pricing, the 81 proof has held pretty steady at about $23 since its introduction. That price is just slightly higher than the $22 that Wild Turkey 101 Rye was typically priced at before its absence. Since it was marketed as new product rather than a reformulation of the old one, no one really got upset about what could have been viewed as a big drop in proof accompanied by a slight bump in price. Some people did experience a bit of sticker shock when the 101 proof Rye returned. Prices for it vary quite a bit, but $40 seems to be the average. Adjusting for bottle size, that equates to $30 for 750ml. That is a 36% increase, but many still consider it to be reasonably priced, and after a lengthy absence few are complaining about the cost if they can find one. Over the last seven years, the price of the Russell’s Reserve Rye has slowly crept up from its introductory $25 to its current $40. I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about this price increase, but I suspect that’s a result of Russell’s Reserve Rye having never really caught on in popularity like the 101 Rye did.

101 proof
nose – Primarily clay and leather work gloves, with some spice character and subtle floral aromas.
palate – Bold and full flavored. A bit of sweetness up front quickly gives way to wintergreen mint and cinnamon red hots.
finish – Warming and dry on the finish, which is quite lengthy.
overall – It’s brash and even a bit aggressive, but not to the point of getting out of line, and it maintains nice continuity from start to finish.

Russell’s Reserve
nose – Pretty similar to the 101 but the aromatics are sharper and more dense.
palate – Sweet and woody, pine needle notes stand out.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into pay on the finish, but they are not as pervasive as those on the 101. It seems a little tannic at the very end.
overall – The sweetness at the start carries a little further on this variant. It’s interesting, but not as endearing as the 101.

81 proof
nose – Similar again, but with the aromas reprioritized. The clay and leather are toned down, the spice is very delicate, and the floral aspect is more prominent and slightly perfumed.
palate – There is some sweetness, but the slightly perfumed floral character is the main player here. That being said, the clay/leather/spice combo is just strong enough to keep it from going out of balance.
finish – There’s a minimal amount of spiciness on the palate which carries through to the finish, but the spice character does not gain much strength going into the finish as it does in the other two examples.
overall – I would probably miss this as being a rye whiskey in a blind tasting. It’s not a bad whiskey, just not what I would expect from a rye, especially one carrying the Wild Turkey brand.

My best estimate is that the 101 proof bottle I have is from 2008 or 2009. My initial impression back then was that it had some good flavor but that it was just too hot. Now that it’s had a few years to breath, it seems to have settled down and come into its own. I suppose it’s also possible that my palate has evolved and I may have originally mistaken some of the fiery spice notes for alcoholic heat. The Russell’s Reserve bottle dates to about 2010 and has been open for a while, but not as long as the 101. This may explain the fuller nose I experienced on the Russell’s. The 81 proof bottle was purchased last year and just opened for this tasting.

While I don’t dislike and of the three, I prefer them in the order that I have them listed above. I’m surprised they’re not more similar to each other; this was more of an apples-to-oranges comparison than I expected.

Friday, October 31, 2014

George Dickel, No. 8 vs. No. 12

George Dickel No. 8, Tennessee Whiskey, 40%, $22
George Dickel No. 12, Tennessee Whiskey, 45%, $24

In spite of some economically uncertain times, the worldwide whiskey industry has been enjoying a sustained boom period for upwards of a decade now. But even the best of times can be terribly challenging for an industry whose products see years of aging between their making and their eventual sale. Distillers can’t just increase production levels in lock-step with demand; if that demand vaporizes by the time the whiskey reaches maturity, they risk a logistical nightmare.

Over time many producers have learned to temper their reactions to consumer trends. Between Prohibition, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the economic recessions of the 70’s and 80’s, and the rise in popularity of clear spirits in the latter half of the 20th century, the last 100 years has seen far more bad times than good for the whiskey industry. It’s understandable that they’ve been a little slow to react to the longest sustained upswing in demand since the post WWII years.

Over the past few years though, we’ve gotten to the point in the American whiskey industry where demand is truly outstripping supply. While dramatic price increases have largely been the domain of the Scotch whisky industry over the last 10 years, American whiskey producers have only recently started to go down that path. They are trying to keep the rising prices somewhat in check though. This is primarily being accomplished by stretching inventory through lowering proof and age. Consumers sometimes view these tactics as de facto price hikes, and it has been very interesting to see how the various companies have dealt with imposing these changes and managing the impact on their images and public relations.

This post is the first in a series of four that will consider different examples of how distillers are attempting to work through their supply issues. Actually, the first case is more of a prelude: a situation where oversupply was followed by a shortage, which happened well before the current boom started causing headaches for most producers.

The George Dickel brand became part of the portfolio of a company called United Distillers in 1987 after that company acquired Dickel’s former parent company, Schenley. In the early 1990’s, United Distillers selected several of its American whiskey brands, Dickel among them, to target for major sales growth in Europe and Asia. Production was ramped up to meet the future demand that was expected from the marketing push.

Unfortunately that demand never really materialized, at least not to the extent that had been forecast. But United Distillers was a very large company that sometimes lacked focus and oversight with its many brands; a situation which led to the overproduction at Dickel continuing unabated for several years longer that in should have.

If the distillery had been producing bourbon, this wouldn’t have been as big of a big problem. The excess could be blended into other, better selling brands owned by the parent company, or even sold on the open market to non-distiller producers. However, Dickel is Tennessee Whiskey, a category unique amongst themselves and Jack Daniel’s. So the distillery was essentially stuck with whatever they had overproduced.

In 1997 Guinness (the parent company of United Distillers) merged with Grand Metropolitan (which had a large European spirits portfolio), forming Diageo. The new company had a lot of debt which required some cost cutting and consolidation. They decided to move their focus away from American whiskey and sold off most of those assets by early 1999, only retaining two brands; Dickel and I. W. Harper (in recent years Harper’s distribution was limited solely to the Asian markets, so you’re unlikely to see it in the U.S.).

The Dickel brand had a loyal following in certain regional markets in the U.S., but overall was not that well known. With the warehouses filled to capacity, production was stopped in February of 1999, the distillery was closed and the marketing budget reduced to zero.

Dickel’s core products, No. 8 and No. 12, carry no age statements, but the distillery does have a target age range for the whiskey that goes into each. With years of production that far outpaced subsequent sales, all they could really do was let the age of the whiskey that they were putting in the bottle slowly creep upwards. The retail price of Dickel was already pretty low, with the No. 12 at $14 and the No. 8 at $13 (as of 2001). Increasing prices wouldn’t help the oversupply situation, so they stayed low.

The stuff was an incredible bargain for a good number of years, which also means it probably wasn’t very profitable. It would have made sense to fire up the closed distillery for a month, or even a few weeks every year to ensure some product continuity and avoid a big gap in the age of the product. But Diageo claimed that the Dickel distillery needed some costly repairs before it could produce whiskey again, and that they wouldn’t make the investment until they were ready to go back to full production. Whether that is true or they were purposely trying to create a shortage as a tool to increase prices is hard to say (but either way, the price hikes did come). Finally, in September of 2003, the distillery was reopened and firing on all cylinders.

Diageo did reinstate a marketing budget for Dickel in 2002. That may have paid off in a big way or it may have been the case of a rising tide lifting all ships, as American whiskey in general was in the midst of a major resurgence. Either way, demand surged in the ensuing years.

But whatever the cause of its new found popularity, that four and a half year gap in production was coming back to haunt the company. By mid 2007 a shortage of the No. 8 was becoming apparent. Of course whiskeys sell at different speeds in different regions, so supply dried up at different times around the country. Late in 2007 a new product called Cascade Hollow was introduced. It carried an age statement of 3 years (most American whiskey categories require an age statement if they are under 4 years old), but its label was almost identical to that of the No. 8, and they shared the same retail price.

By mid to late 2008 they had switched the Cascade Hollow’s black label over to a new red label. This change could have been in response to complaints of deception, or because the company decided to keep the new whiskey around after reintroducing No. 8 and wanted to avoid confusion.

At the end of 2008, after an absence of more than a year, George Dickel No. 8 was back on store shelves, now with a significantly higher price of about $22. The Cascade Hollow bottling remained as a lower priced part of the Dickel lineup until 2013. There was never an outright supply interruption of the No. 12 bottling, but there was a period around 2009 where inventory got pretty tight and it could be hard to find in some areas. Between early 2008 and mid 2009 the price of No. 12 jumped from $14 to $24. Of course some areas move through product more slowly than others, so there were instances where individual stores were selling No. 12 at a lower price than No. 8 for a short period of time.

Looking back and considering that the distillery didn’t produce a drop of whiskey for four and a half years, it’s pretty amazing that the No. 8 was only unavailable for a little over a year and the No. 12 was never completely unavailable. Obviously there was a great deal of liberty taken with the age range of the whiskey that went into these bottlings. Even though these are both no-age-statement bottlings, distillery personal will occasionally mention the age ranges used, and while I wouldn’t trust such statements absolutely, they can be insightful.

I dug up a newspaper article from September of 2003 where Dickel’s master distiller David Backus is quoted as saying that the No. 12 on store shelves is actually 12 years old, and they would prefer it to be about half of that age (I interpret that as 7 years old).

In an interview in the 4th quarter 2006 issue of Malt Advocate, Dickel’s new master distiller John Lunn state that generally Barrel Select is 11 to 12 years old, No. 12 is 10 to 12 years old, and No. 8 is 8 to 10 years old. The most recent info I could find came from a combination of Dickel’s website and a few fairly reliable blogs. They put the Barrel Select at 10 to 12 years, the No. 12 at 6 to 8 years, and the No. 8 at 4 to 6 years.

My first experience with George Dickel was a bottle of No. 12 that I believe I bought some time in 2008. I still have the empty bottle, and according to its code, it was bottled in mid 2007. The whiskey was pretty phenomenal, and I do remember only paying $14 for it.

The bottle of No. 8 that I’m tasting for this post was bottled late in 2008 and the No. 12 that I’m tasting was bottled some time in 2013.

George Dickel No. 8
The nose is full but soft, with mellow corn, complex oak notes, a hint of vanilla sweetness and subtle clay-like earthiness.
On the palate there’s some sweetness up front which is soon overshadowed by a soot-driven smoke and mineral quality. As that mellows, it becomes more vanilla-centric.
The finish sees a nice progression of dry oak and warming spice notes.
Overall it has good complexity but comes across as being a little youthful, though not to the point of being disjointed.

George Dickel No. 12
The nose is similar to the No. 8, though more restrained (surprising given the difference in proof). There is also more of a funky oaky/minerality quality.
On the palate it seems promising up front, but a bitter, astringent mineral-driven character quickly comes to the fore.
This mellows slightly on the finish revealing some dry oak, but it’s pretty one-dimensional overall.

While I didn’t expect this bottle of No. 12 to impress me as much as the one from 2007 (that surely had much older whiskey in it), I was surprised to find the No. 8 so much more to my liking. Many people describe the signature George Dickel character as tasting like Flintstone’s Vitamins. I think this is what I’ve been describing as minerality. While present in the No. 8, it wasn’t to the point of being off-putting. Unfortunately, that seems to be the driving force in flavor profile of the No. 12.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Balvenie, 12 year DoubleWood vs. 17 year DoubleWood vs. 14 year Caribbean Cask

Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $57
Balvenie 17 year DoubleWood: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $150
Balvenie 14 year Caribbean Cask: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $68

I’ve never been an ardent admirer of the Balvenie. I have nothing against the brand and the whisky is highly regarded by most people; it’s just that the house style not really compatible with my personal preferences. I’ve always had a hard time enjoying single malts that have a strong floral component, as the Balvenie does. That being said, I do find some of their expressions a little more palatable than others. Those tend to be the longer aged and/or cask finished bottlings, where to original character of the spirit has been somewhat muted by the maturation process.

When I was whiskey hunting in New Hampshire last year, I was quite excited to come across a three-pack of Balvenie miniatures. I’m always keen to sample whiskies that I’ve never had before and the distillery has been putting out quite a few new expressions in recent years. But it seems silly to buy expensive bottles of single malt that I’ll likely be indifferent toward; three miniatures for $20 is the perfect solution.

I started looking into the history of Balvenie and found some interesting things, especially regarding a few related distilleries. Established in 1892 by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie was built to supplement demand for whisky from its nearby sister distillery, Glenfiddich, which had gone into production just five years earlier, in 1887.

In that era very little single malt Scotch was sold as such; almost all of it was bought by blenders and married with grain whisky. In 1898 William Grant & Sons launched the Grant’s brand of blended Scotch whisky. This move made the company less dependent on other blenders and helped to ensure sales of the malt whisky they produced.

In 1963 the company made a couple of interesting maneuvers. Having grown Grant’s into a very successful line of blended Scotches, they built the Girvan grain distillery. This put them into a position where they were producing most of the whisky (both malt and grain) that went into their blends. In the same year, they started bottling and selling Glenfiddich as a single malt. They weren’t the first distillery to do this, but up until then single malts had been a niche market and were really only sold domestically. Glenfiddich was the first to build a brand around a single malt distillery and they did pioneering work to develop “single malt Scotch” as a category, especially in foreign markets. The company eventually followed suit with Balvenie, officially bottling it as a single malt in the early 1970’s.

With Glenfiddich enjoying rapid sales growth, the company likely felt the need to produce more single malt for their blends. I suspect this situation is what prompted them to build the Ladyburn distillery in 1966. It was a single malt distillery with four pot stills, which was located within the Girvan grain distillery. The whisky industry downturn that started in the 1970’s and lasted through the 1980’s is likely the reason that Ladyburn was decommissioned after just ten years, in 1976. But that wasn’t the only “distillery within a distillery” that the company would construct.

The industry had started to rebound in the late 1980’s, and in 1990 William Grant & Sons built the Kininvie single malt distillery, which may be Scotland’s most obscure. It is located within the Balvenie distillery and really consists of nothing more than a stillhouse. The rest of the whisky making process is carried out in Balvenie’s facilities. Kininvie does maintain a dedicated mash tun and group of washbacks, but they housed in buildings that are an integral part of Balvenie.

I have seen the argument put forth that Kininvie shouldn’t even be considered a separate distillery; that it should rather be classified as Balvenie’s second stillhouse. But if you dig around online you’ll find pictures of Kininvie’s stills, and their shape is dramatically different than those of the Balvenie. In my mind, that makes all of the difference in the world, and entitles Kininvie to its status as a separate distillery. Those who have tasted all three say that the whisky from Kininvie is stylistically midway between that of Balvenie and Glenfiddich. With nothing more than a stillhouse that visitors rarely get to see inside and the fact that no Kininvie was bottled as single malt until a limited release in 2013, it’s easy to understand why this is possibly the least known distillery in Scotland.

Then, in 2007, William Grant & Sons made another big move. They built the Ailsa Bay distillery; a new, modern single malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery (quite close to where Ladyburn had originally been). In 2010, three years after Ailsa Bay went online, Kininvie was mothballed, but there are rumors that it went back into production in 2013.

What really surprised me though were the relative sizes of these distilleries. Glenfiddich maintains the title of best selling single malt in the world. As such, one would expect the distillery to have a pretty big production capacity, and it does at 10 million lpa (liters per annum) of alcohol.

While the single malts from Balvenie can’t match those of Glenfiddich in terms of sales volume, they do garner more prestige and respect. The Balvenie also projects an image of producing a more handcrafted whisky on a smaller scale. Even though the distillery went through the typical period of modernization in the 1960’s, they have held onto some traditions. Chief among them is growing barley on their 1000 acre farm and malting barley on a traditional floor malting. Like most of the handful of distilleries that still malt barley in-house, it is only a percentage of the total that they use each year. As production goes up and the amount of floor malted barley remains the same, that percentage goes down; it is currently between 9% and 10% at the Balvenie. The distillery is also one of the last to have its own cooperage and a coppersmith on staff to maintain the stills, although those resources are shared with Glenfiddich.

In spite of its artisanal image, production at Balvenie is still quite massive at 5.6 million lpa. Considering that there is little more to Kininvie than a stillhouse, which is often disparagingly referred to as a shed behind Balvenie, it’s natural to assume that a lot less whisky is made there. Surprisingly, Kininvie is capable of putting out 4.8 million lpa of alcohol. Ailsa Bay, which likely won’t be bottled as single malt since the primary purpose of the distillery is to provide malt whisky for the Grant’s blends, originally had a capacity of 5 million lpa. But the number of washbacks and stills at Ailsa Bay were doubled in 2013, increasing capacity to 10 million lpa, and equaling the output of Glenfiddich.

Just to put all of that in perspective, Edradour and Kilchoman, which are some of the smallest distilleries in Scotland are each capable of producing just 100,000 lpa.

Okay, enough of the history lesson, on to the whisky. Most of the bottlings in the Balvenie range were matured in former bourbon barrels (or traditional oak whisky casks, as the company prefers to call them). Many of the expressions have an additional cask finish, usually done for short periods of time. When their 10 year Founder’s Reserve expression was retired in 2009, the 12 year DoubleWood moved into the position of being the Balvenie’s flagship offering. It is aged primarily in bourbon barrels with a finish of just a few months in European oak Sherry casks. The 14 year Caribbean Cask bottling was introduced in 2011. This expression is also aged primarily in bourbon barrels, with just a short finish in American oak casks (I suspect these were also former bourbon barrels) that had been seasoned with rum from the West Indies at Balvenie. The 17 year DoubleWood was introduced in 2012. Like its 12 year sibling, it sees a relatively short finish in European oak Sherry casks, but it spends an extra four years in bourbon barrels beforehand.

Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood:
The nose is floral and grassy, with perhaps a slight vegetal note. Some dry oak aromas come through as well.
On the palate, vanilla and honey also come into play but the floral notes become more dominant by the mid-palate.
As it moves into the finish a dry woodiness emerges along with a very subtle Sherry influence and just a whiff of peat smoke.
Overall, it is well balanced and approachable.

Balvenie 17 year DoubleWood:
The nose is somewhat restrained. Although similar to the 12 year, the aromas lean a bit more toward vanilla and clay.
On the palate it has a little more sweetness up front, but it’s also primarily driven by vanilla and honey. The floral notes are still present, but subdued and playing second-fiddle to the vanilla notes that carry further through on this expression.
It does eventually become dry on the finish, which is much more spice driven compared to the 12 year. The Sherry and peat are still there, but have an even more delicate presence.
Overall, the flavors are more robust throughout compared to the 12 year.

Balvenie 14 year Caribbean Cask:
The nose is oaky with vanilla and a hint of molasses.
On the palate it stays somewhat dry, in spite of the vanilla and demerara sugar notes.
The floral aspect doesn’t really emerge until it moves into the finish, where it also becomes spicy and notably bitter. The peat smoke is all but undetectable.
Overall, it is surprisingly less floral than I expected, but it becomes astringent too a fault on the finish and doesn’t have enough other redeeming qualities to sway my opinion.

With or without my anti-floral biases, the 17 year DoubleWood is the clear winner here. Of course, I’m not about to run out and plunk down $150 for a bottle of it. As for the other two, even though the 14 year Caribbean cask is less offensively floral to me, I can still be unbiased enough to say that the 12 year DoubleWood is clearly its superior.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin vs. Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.2%, $80
Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, £60

I have quite a few unopened bottles of whisky in the collection, and last week’s Laphroaig tasting served as a good reminder that I’d been meaning to crack open the bottle of Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin that I’d been sitting on for two years. While I was at it, the bottle of Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release that I’d brought back from Scotland in the spring of 2012 seemed like something that would make for an interesting comparison.

Since Laphroaig’s quarter casks play a prominent role in this story, I should address a few common misconceptions about them. They are re-coopered from fresh bourbon barrels, not made new. Also, they are not ¼ the size of a standard 200 liter bourbon barrel. They are 125 liter casks; ¼ the size of the 500 liter butts that were most common when the ¼ casks were originally developed for easier transportation.

Laphroaig has been a bit cryptic when describing the compositions of some of their past Cairdeas bottlings, so it took some research to get a solid idea of what I was dealing with. The Cairdeas Origin is the 2012 release, which celebrates 18 years of the Friends of Laphroaig. The description on the label states that it “combines some of the original liquid used to first create Cairdeas, further matured and complimented with newer Laphroaig spirit that has been fully matured in quarter casks”.

Additionally, I found a quote attributed to the “Distiller’s notes” which states “We specially retained some of our very first Cairdeas for the 'Friends' 18th birthday expression .This whisky is now between 13 and 21 years old. We then blended it (50:50) with some new spirit fully matured in quarter casks for 7 years and bottled it without any chill filtering for maximum flavour”.

The first Cairdeas was released in 2008; I actually tasted it when I toured the distillery in April of 2012. At the time, I was told that it was a vatting of 33 casks – two 17 year 2nd fill sherry butts and 31 bourbon barrels. The bourbon barrels were 9 to 15 years old when the liquid in them was transferred into fresh 1st fill bourbon barrels and aged for another four years. However, that information seems to have been slightly inaccurate.

There’s an interview with Robert Hicks, the master blender who created the original Cairdeas, where he talks about using barrels from an experiment that was done in the development of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. It appears they had started off entering new make spirit directly into the quarter casks for several years, likely starting in 1993. They eventually figured out that it was better to take whisky that had been aging in 1st fill bourbon barrels for several years and then finish it for seven to eight months in the quarter casks. At that point, in 2004, they transferred the whiskey from those experimental quarter casks into 1st fill bourbon barrels to see how it would develop. That is the whisky, along with the two 17 year 2nd fill sherry butts, that was used for the 2008 Cairdeas. It ranged from 9 to 15 years old total, so it was distilled between 1993 and 1999.

The most common production number for 2008 Cairdeas is 3600 bottles. I’ve seen higher numbers, from 7000 to 12,000, but I don’t think they are accurate. I did some calculations to account for evaporation losses, and found that if the 3600 number is correct, it would have been 31 quarter casks that were transferred into an unspecified number of bourbon barrels along with the two sherry butts to compose that bottling.

So, that brings us back to 2012. From the “Distiller’s notes” quoted above, they say that the whiskey from the original Cairdeas is now between 13 and 21 years old. That leads me to believe that there was more of the whisky that had started in quarter casks between 1993 and 1999, and that by 2012 it had been in bourbon barrels for 8 years. That would give it a range of 13 to 19 years old. If more of the sherry butts that were 17 years old in 2008 were aged until 2012 that would put them at 21 years. Of course, that’s just half of the whiskey in the 2012 Cairdeas, the other half is 7 year old that has been aged entirely in quarter casks.

Assuming a somewhat high evaporation rate with the quarter casks, roughly 80 of them would have been needed to represent half of the whisky in the 20,000 bottles of Cairdeas that were released in 2012. That leaves some interesting questions. Did they continue experimenting with quarter casks that were filled with new spirit after 2005? Did they fill quarter casks with new spirit between 2000 and 2004? If so, how many of these quarter casks were produced each year, and has any of the whisky from them been transferred to larger casks?

It seems like there are really interesting stories behind the creation of some of these Cairdeas bottlings. I just wish Laphroaig had chosen to tell us those stories and had been be a little clearer with the details of the composition of the whiskies.

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012):
The nose has a dry, earthy peat smoke character, but it’s also slight grassy. Imagine throwing straw and a small amount of fresh cut grass on a dying campfire. Oaky notes persist as well.
The palate has just a touch of vanilla up front which quickly gives way to stronger flavors. The earthy peat smoke seems mild at first, but it gradually builds in intensity. Dry, woody oak notes come into play as well.
Some warming spice notes emerge on the finish, but it’s really all about the peat and the oak, each of which has a very dry quality, vying for dominance.
Overall I was a little unsure of this one on the first sip, fearing that it was fatally over-oaked. As I took some time to get to know it however, I found to be an unusual but interesting face of Laphroaig. This is an instance where I don’t find the whisky to be terribly complex overall, but it makes up for that evolving nicely from start to finish.

I wasn’t too fond of the 2008 Cairdeas when I tasted it at the distillery, but maybe it didn’t stand a chance in the company of the 25 year and the 30 year. Compositionally, the 2012 Cairdeas is sort of an evolution of the 2008, so I wasn’t really expecting to care for it, but it has definitely grown on me.

After being quite impressed with Kilchoman’s Spring 2011 Release, I was very exited to visit Islay’s newest distillery while I was in Scotland in the spring of 2012. Their visitor center was well stocked with a good variety of miniatures, which I wrote about here and here. I could only fit so much whisky in my luggage, so I was very selective about the full size bottles that I purchased; no sense in buying anything I could easily get at home. The first bottle I decided to pull the trigger on was Kilchoman’s Sherry Cask Release, which had just become available. Production was limited, and even though some of it was going to the U.S., it was highly unlikely that I’d come across one of those 600 bottles.

Looking over Kilchoman’s website today, I was pleased to see that things seem to have been progressing nicely there since I was there two and a half years ago. In October of 2013 they completed a new, much larger warehouse capable of holding 10,000 casks. The beginning of 2014 saw the addition of several new pieces of equipment that would improve production: two new vatting tanks where batches will be married prior to bottling, a new corking machine and a bottle conveyor, as well as a malt conveyor to move barley from the malting floor to the kiln.

Kilchoman has released quite a few single cask bottlings along with an annual Feis Ile festival bottling and even a Travel Retail (Duty Free) offering. But the bulk of the distillery’s output is seen in four different bottlings. Each of the four carries either a vintage date or an edition number, as they are gradually increasing the age of each bottling year by year.

Machir Bay is their core expression and the whisky is matured in bourbon barrels to a variety of ages, and some of it has been finished in sherry casks. The Vintage series is aged exclusively in bourbon barrels, both 1st fill and refill, and uses some of the oldest stock they have on hand. The 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown at the distillery which has been malted on their traditional malting floor, and is aged in bourbon barrels. It is peated to a lower level than all of their other expressions, which are made using malt from Port Ellen Maltings.

The fourth expression, Loch Gorm, is aged exclusively in sherry casks. It was introduced in 2013, but the Sherry Cask Release bottle that I have from 2012 is essentially the predecessor to the series. The three bottlings (Sherry Cask Release, 2013 Loch Gorm and 2014 Loch Gorm) are all aged primarily in Oloroso butts, but specific details beyond that are a little spotty. As best as I can tell, the Sherry Cask Release is all 5 year old, the 2013 Loch Gorm was aged 5 years and had an additional 6 week finish in Oloroso hogsheads, and the 2014 Loch Gorm is composed of whisky that ranges from 5 to 6 years old.

Kilchoman Sherry Cask Release (2012):
The nose very sherry-forward, with aromas of dark candied fruits being nearly as dominant as the dense peat smoke, which is very full but not in a sharp way. Subtle floral notes add complexity on the nose.
On the palate, it is full bodied and richly flavored. It has an element of sweetness up front, which is quickly followed a big wave of peaty intensity, then sherried fruit notes (more sweet than oxidized).
The finish is lengthy, with the peat smoke subsiding and making way for malty baked goods and warming spice notes.

The flavors are bold and interesting, but they tend to dart around a bit. Overall it feels like a whisky that’s yearning to be more mature and refined, but it can’t quite find its way there. I’d call this a work in progress; it has elements of greatness, and while the individual components aren’t completely at odds with each other, they haven’t really come together yet. I’m really curious to see how the Loch Gorm series progresses as the age of the whisky creeps upward.

This was a very interesting compare / contrast, with two heavily peated Islay single malts that are near opposites in terms of how they are aged (younger Oloroso butts vs. older bourbon barrels and quarter casks). At the same time, a quick revisit to the 2014 Cairdeas revealed that it is quite different from both, with its lack of subtlety and an initial dose of sweetness followed by its dry nutty finish.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Laphroaig Tasting

I’ve never been much of a morning person. Combine that with the fact that I work nights and you can see why I’m rarely awake before 10 AM. Then an email came through my inbox a few weeks ago with the phrase “free Scotch tasting”; that certainly got my attention. But it was a two hour drive from home and it started at 9:45… the morning. I had my doubts.

The tasting was hosted by Laphroaig and upon rereading the email I noticed that it would include the flagship 10 year, the new Select bottling, the 2014 release of the Cairdeas series, and a “surprise special treat from the Laphroaig Vault”. I was starting to think I shouldn’t pass this one up. It only took a few days of contemplation before I decided that I’d just have to suck it up and break out the old alarm clock.

The invitation came to me by way of the Friends of Laphroaig, a club that can be joined by anyone upon purchasing a bottle of Laphroaig. I signed up shortly before heading to Scotland two and a half years ago, enticed by the fact that a complimentary miniature when visiting the distillery is one of several member benefits. The tasting was only open to Friends of Laphroaig, but it was held in conjunction with the New Hampshire Highland Games and Festival, an event which is in its 40th year and one of which I was somehow previously unaware.

Fortunately, most of the drive was on less travelled roads through sparsely populated areas of Vermont and New Hampshire. The narrow, twisting section of route 112 that runs along the Wild Ammonoosuc River brought back fond memories of driving in the Scottish countryside. Cool temperatures, low cloud cover and even a scenic, high-elevation pond all conspired to set a perfectly appropriate tone for the event I was heading to.

As I closed in on my destination, I began to realize the magnitude of the event. Hundreds of people were milling about and lining up for entry, and nearly everyone was outfitted with traditional Scottish attire. Even the police officers directing traffic and providing crowd control were wearing kilts. It was quite a sight to see. Regrettably, I had to get home by mid afternoon for work; I would have liked to have lingered for a bit and enjoyed the festivities after the tasting.

By the time I found a place to park and figured out where exactly I was supposed to go, I had managed to settle in just a few minutes before things got under way. The first three whiskies had been pre poured and a cup was set out for the fourth. About 30 people were in attendance, but the room had tables set up for many more, as several larger tastings were being held in the same location throughout the weekend. I really prefer to sample whisky out of glass rather than plastic, but I understand that the logistics of large tastings dictate otherwise.

Our host was Simon Brooking, the Scotch Whiskies Brand Ambassador for Beam Suntory, Laphroaig’s parent company. Simon is a master of his craft and did a wonderful job. With a fine repertoire of toasts and literary quotes, plenty of insightful information and the ability to not get too far off topic, he was able to keep the group engaged and keep the tasting moving at an appropriate pace.

The elusive fourth whiskey was Laphroaig Highgrove, an exclusive bottling produced one barrel at a time and sold only in London’s Highgrove Shop. Profits from the sale of Highgrove products are donated to the Prince of Whales Charitable Foundation, and Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Whales. The distillery has held that honor since 1994.

With a little time left at the end, Simon produced a fifth bottle for us to sample. He had brought one of his personal favorites, the 1989 Vintage 17 year Laphroaig which was bottled for the 2007 Feis Ile festival. His original intention had been to use it to toast Scottish independence, which had been voted on two days prior. In light of his plan being scuttled by the vote going the other way; he chose to generously share the bottle with us instead.

As for the whiskies, I’ll start of with some production details, tasting notes and general impressions of each first, then follow up with some more philosophical thoughts on them. And just a quick side note, picking out specific flavors and aromas is somewhat of a slow, contemplative process for me. As a result, my tasting notes made in a setting such as this tend to be more rudimentary than what I put together when I’m home alone.

Laphroaig 10 year – 43%, $50, chill filtered, aged exclusively in first fill bourbon barrels. Dense, weighty peat smoke with iodine and sea spray on the nose. It starts off with big bold peat smoke up front, which gently and gracefully fades. There is some vanilla sweetness up front, but its finish is fairly dry. It has moderate complexity, but doesn’t evolve dramatically from start to finish. I think it’s a good idea to start a Laphroaig tasting with the flagship 10 year, as it gives a nice frame of reference for the other expressions being tasted.

Laphroaig Select – 40%, $55, chill filtered, aged in a combination first fill bourbon barrels, quarter casks, Oloroso Sherry buts and PX seasoned hogsheads, all of which are vatted and entered into straight American white oak for one year. Most people assume these are new barrels, but the Laphroaig web site does not use the word “new”. I suspect they might be re-using the barrels from Laphroaig’s QA Cask offering, which starts in first fill bourbon barrels and is finished in new charred American white oak. Peat smoke is still the dominant aroma, but it is less dense than the 10 year. It starts of with a hint of sweetness and seems light up front, but a wave of peat comes up quickly. The peat smoke lingers but isn’t too intense as other flavors build and evolve, primarily dark sherry fruit and sweet vanilla notes. It gets a little weird on the mid palate to early finish, where some bitterness comes into play (overly tannic perhaps?) and it seems not so well-integrated. It does come around late on the finish and redeems itself a little as it slowly fades.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 – 51.4%, $75, non-chill filtered, aged in first fill bourbon barrels and finished for one year in Amontillado hogsheads (there is no age statement, but we were told it spent 8 years in the bourbon barrels). The nose has sharp, focused peat aromas with brine and medicinal notes. It has a weighty character from the start. There’s a hint of vanilla driven sweetness up front, but that is quickly rolled over by an iodine laden wave of peat smoke. The intense peaty character echoes on for a while before the nutty sherry character emerges late and it gets quite dry on the finish. It has a fascinating interplay of peat smoke and dry nuttiness as it moves through the finish.

Laphroaig Highgrove – 46%, £60, non-chill filtered, 12 year, aged first fill bourbon barrels (the bottle at the tasting had no label, and some research shows that prior to 2008 the Highgrove bottlings were chill filtered and at 43%, but I’m assuming this was a more recent bottle). The aromas show a lot of subtle complexity, with peat smoke that has great depth but not in a sharp, aggressive way. It is very elegant and well composed on the palate with fishing nets and slowly smoldering peat being the dominant aspects.

Laphroaig 1989 Vintage 17 year, 50.3%, £50, non-chill filtered. I was unable to find any cask-type information, so I’m assuming is all from first fill bourbon barrels. The price listed is the original offering price; current auction prices go considerably higher. It has lots of brine and sea spray on the nose, with very subtle peat aromas. On the palate it is big and fiery (but not overly hot), with a peaty intensity that one would not expect after nosing it. A bit of a rollercoaster ride, but it manages to stay in balance.

One of the other interesting aspects of spending an hour with someone like Simon Brooking is that you can catch a lot of inside information if you pay attention. Here are a few of the interesting bits that I picked up.

Currently Laphroaig 10 year accounts for 75% of their sales volume and Quarter Cask is at 15%. That leaves just 10% for all of their other bottlings combined.

Simon also mentioned that there were plans to phase out the 18 year and bring back the 15 year that it replaced in 2009. The 15 year had been chill filtered and the 18 year is not, hopefully they don’t bring back that aspect of the younger version. This realignment could be the result of increased demand, but I’m curious to see if they are making way for another release that will fill the price gap to the $400 25 year; perhaps a $200 21 year?

Laphroaig, as well as Maker’s Mark, has had a common ownership with Jim Beam for many years. Laphroaig uses Maker’s Mark barrels almost exclusively.

The Laphroaig distillery is pretty much running at capacity and they are considering adding a second still house to increase production. One idea being considered is to build it on the narrow strip of land between the ocean and the existing buildings. That doesn’t seem like much space, but a still house which looks out over the water, like that of Caol Ila, could be quite stunning.

The distillery will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. Festivities are still being planned, but they likely occur in November. Big crowds are expected and one idea they are looking at is a floating hotel, on a barge right in front of the distillery. I imagine they have been planning a special bottling to mark the occasion for some time.

As I mentioned above, I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts about the whiskies we tasted. I don’t dislike the 10 year per se, but tasting most other Laphroaig expressions shows how much more the distillery has to offer. I, like many other purists, wish the 10 year was bottled non-chill filtered at 46%. Interestingly, the Highgrove bottling should give the closest glimpse of what that would be like. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after the tasting. If I’m ever passing through London I will definitely pick up a bottle of Highgrove for a proper side-by-side with the 10 year.

Of the obtainable bottles we tasted, the 2014 Cairdeas was the standout to me. It impressed me enough that I stopped by the local liquor store and picked up a bottle before heading home. I’ll add some background details on the series.

The Feis Ile, Islay’s festival of whisky and music, was started by residents of the island in 1984. By 2000, the distilleries on Islay finally started to get behind the festival, many of them offering special tours and tastings and putting out limited bottlings for the event. Laphroaig’s first Feis Ile bottling was in 2003. They bottled just one barrel (a few hundred bottles) for the festival that year and for each of the next two or three years. In 2007 they expanded it to 4000 bottles (this was the one tasted above) and also made it an exclusive online offering to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. That bottling also marked the occasion of the opening of their new Friends Lounge at the distillery. In 2008 they started to use the word Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship) on all of the Feis Ile bottlings, as they were now made available to the Friends of Laphroaig as well as at the festival. Laphroaig has been distributing the Cairdeas bottlings more widely since at least 2012, and the production numbers reflect that: 5000 bottles in 2010, 20,000 bottles in 2012 and 28,000 bottles in 2014. Confusingly, they have put “Cairdeas” on the label of at least on non-Feis Ile bottling; a 30 year expression that I tasted at the distillery a few years ago.

As for the Laphroaig Select, that was my only disappointment for the day. Some of the marketing material says it is composed of casks which represent their 10 year, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood and PX cask. Many reviewers have mistakenly said it is an actual combination of those four whiskies, which it is not. I hope this is an unfortunate coincidence and not something that was done intentionally. As for the whisky itself, I had seen a few unenthusiastic reviews beforehand, but tried to go in with an open mind and judge it fairly. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly didn’t make me swoon. The stated goal of this bottling is to be an approachable introductory whisky. It actually kind of fails on two fronts; it alienates Laphroaig loyalists by tempering the expected big peaty character, and I don’t think it will entice newcomers on price point or flavor profile. Even though the peat is restrained and a healthy does of sweetness is added, it just isn’t that well composed overall.

After a good deal of consideration, I’ve come up with a strategy that I thing could have worked better for them. In my opinion, they’re goals would have been better served by the introduction of a “lightly peated” Laphroaig, age stated at 8 years and bottled at 40% with chill filtration. At the same time, they could have moved the 10 year to 46% and non-chill filtration.

As for Laphroaig devotees, I think the majority of them would welcome such a change to the 10 year, even if it came with a modest price increase. They would also have realistic expectations of a Laphroaig carrying the “lightly peated” moniker, and would either view it as a new facet of Laphroaig that they’d like to experience, or as something they simply weren’t interested in. With the Select, many Laphroaig drinkers try it just because it is the newest bottling and then end up being disappointed.

A lightly peated 8 year aged primarily in first fill bourbon barrels (maybe with a little new charred oak and/or sherry wood if some additional sweetness was desired) could come in at a lower price point ($40 to $45) that would entice new consumers and could act as a perfect gateway to the more robust, fully peated Laphroaig bottlings.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whistle Pig Rye, Vermont Edition vs. Masterson’s Rye

Whistle Pig, Vermont Edition – straight rye, 10 year, 51%, $70
Masterson’s – straight rye, 10 year, 45%, $70

Whistle Pig and Masterson’s are both produced at the same distillery; Alberta Distillers Limited, of Alberta, Canada. While they both fall into the category of companies whose marketing strategy is based on a pretense intended to obfuscate the true origins of their whiskey, which outfit is the more egregious offender is a debatable point.

If you just look at their websites, Masterson’s looks like the worse of the two. They mention “our artisans”, how they choose only the best rye grain, and pitching yeast themselves. And there is Bat Masterson, an iconic figure of the American Old West who has nothing to do with the whiskey that bears his name and likeness on its label. But that does give the company something to talk about other than the fact that they don’t actually distill anything.

While the Whistle Pig site talks a lot about their Vermont farm and the rye grain they grow there, they at least mention the barn they are restoring, which will eventually house their distillery, making it obvious that they have distilled nothing themselves as of yet.

But if you look for a consensus among whiskey enthusiasts, journalists and bloggers, Whistle Pig is generally considered to be the more deceptive of the two. As far as I can tell this is because Whistle Pig was very secretive about the source of their whiskey when they started in 2010 and that they continued to dance around the subject to some extent in the ensuing years. On the other hand, the producers of Masterson’s (the Sebastiani wine family) have been pretty upfront about the source of their whiskey when pressed with questions on the matter since they started the brand in 2011.

In the last six months, Whistle Pig owner Raj Bhatka, who has a history of being somewhat of a walking public relations nightmare, and master distiller Dave Pickerell have started to become more forthright about the origins of their whiskey. I believe there is good reason for this. Whiskey consumers basically break down into two groups; the general public who buy into the marketing tales they are fed and are generally oblivious to the realities of the industry, and the whiskey geeks who really care about the truth behind the products and are quite offended by the deceptive practices that run rampant in American whiskey.

As someone who lives in Vermont and works in the service industry, I can tell you that it is truly astonishing how many people (tourists and locals alike) seek out Whistle Pig, thinking it is a locally made craft product. But the latter group mentioned above has become more vocal and is now even taking an activist stance. In my opinion, the owner of Whistle Pig has seen this coming and is trying to adjust his strategy. Well, at least enough to keep the critics off his back, but not so much that he can’t continue to fool the general public.

In just the last month, there have been some very interesting developments. Almost all of the deceptive non-distiller producers buy their bulk whiskey from one of a few big distillers in Kentucky or from MGP of Indiana. If you read through the Federal Code of Regulations for alcohol (they seem straight forward at first, but quickly become mind numbing), Title 27, Part 5.36(d) says that if a whiskey is not distilled in the state given in the address on the brand label, the state of distillation must be listed.

There are currently countless violations of 5.36(d). The activist consumers that I mentioned have been informing the companies directly of their wrongdoing, as well as notifying the TTB of the violations. That action has resulted in a damning piece being published in the Des Moines Register about Templeton Rye. Now there is a class action lawsuit in the works against Templeton. Some of the many flagrant 5.36(d) offenders in Colorado and Texas are likely to be targeted next.

Bottles of Masterson’s clearly state that is a “product of Canada” (albeit on the back label and in small print). The same was true of early Whistle Pig bottles, but the statement is absent from more recent bottles. When researching such matters it doesn’t take long to come across Title 27, Part 5.36(e), which states:

On labels of imported distilled spirits there shall be stated the country of origin in substantially the following form “Product of ______”, the blank to be filled in with the name of the country of origin.

The owner of Whistle Pig would be wise to pay attention to the regulations and not attract the ire of the activist whiskey enthusiasts.

Regardless of whether they carry the “product of Canada” tag, many pundits also wonder how these whiskeys can legally be classified as Straight Rye Whiskey, rather than Canadian Whisky.

I did a little digging and I thing I came up with a reasonable answer to that one. Title 27, Part 5.22(b)(9) says:

“Canadian whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada regulating the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Canadian whisky” (Canadian whisky—a blend).

But if you look at Canada’s regulations, Canadian Whisky must:

possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.

Since 100% rye whiskey is not normally bottled on its own in Canada, but rather used as a flavoring component in blends, one could make the argument that is doesn’t fit the definition of Canadian Whisky and shouldn’t be labeled as such. Some might view this as a bit of a stretch, but I suspect that it is the loophole that is being used.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the Whistle Pig I tasted for this review is a 102 proof version that is only available in Vermont. It’s a strange situation, they mentioned its introduction on their Facebook page back in February along with a launch party for it, but there is no mention of it on their website and almost no one in Vermont even knows about it. They seem to have replaced all of the 100 proof bottles in the Vermont state liquor stores with 102 proof bottles, so you don’t see them side by side. As far as I can tell there is no difference between the two aside from the 1% increase in abv.

nose: the nose definitely has an element of sweetness, which is well integrated with the floral spice notes. very aromatic, but not in an aggressive way.
palate: rich mouthfeel, with some sweetness and vanilla up front, hot spice note start to appear next and they continue to build. it really starts to expand as it moves toward the finish.
finish: floral spice notes emerge, but at the same time fiery spice notes (cinnamon red hots) take center stage. A subtle hint of Teaberry and an underlying element of sweetness keep things in balance. The intensity of the builds and lingers for some time before it slowly fades off.
overall: plenty of backbone, but not unruly.

Whistle Pig, Vermont Edition:
nose: slightly less aromatic, surprisingly. there is a detectable sweetness, but it is minimal. All of the rye spice notes are present, but mingled in with a clay-like earthyness.
palate: full bodied. caramel up front then it moves into the spice and dry, earthy, clay-like notes.
finish: there’s a little heat as it moves through the finish, but the spice notes are definitely more floral and earthy in nature. It gets a little hot late in the finish as the other flavors drop off.
overall: big, but in more of a weighty, chewy way and only getting a little fiery at the very end.

They are both very good, but the differences between the two are notably more significant than I expected. Considering that Jefferson’s sells a 10 year old rye which is also sourced from ADL (at 47%) for about $40, I think it’s safe to say that Whistle Pig and Masterson’s are both turning a very tidy profit with their whiskey.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Kirkland Canadian vs. early 80's Crown Royal

Kirkland Signature: Blended Canadian Whisky, 6 years old, 40%, $20 (1.75 liter)
Crown Royal: Blended Canadian Whisky, no age statement, 40%, $26 (750 ml)

While visiting my parents for the holiday weekend, I came across a few interesting whiskies to taste; a vintage Crown Royal bottle dating back to the early 1980’s, and the Kirkland Signature Blended Canadian Whiskey. You may recall from my Kirkland Signature Bourbon review that it is Costco’s private label brand.

I searched around online quite a bit, but could not come up with a definitive answer for the source of the Kirkland Canadian Whisky. The list of possible answers is not very long though. And only three have a real likelihood of being the source; Canadian Club in Windsor, Ontario, Canadian Mist is Collingwood, Ontario, and Crown Royal in Gimli, Manitoba.

The source might not be disclosed, but the Kirkland label definitely has a very Crown Royal-esque look to it. The purple colorway, the cursive font, the standing lion logos; it’s all too similar for there not to have been a lawsuit if it was done without permission. And I can’t see why Crown Royal would give them permission for such a thing if there wasn’t a deal for the purchase and bottling of whisky between the two.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Kirkland has to be exactly the same as what goes into a bottle of Crown Royal. Five different whiskies are blended together to make Crown Royal; two base whiskies and three flavoring whiskies. The Kirkland Canadian could certainly be a proprietary blend, using different proportions of the five, or maybe even just three or four of them.

Following up on the Kirkland website, they list the composition for this whisky as 95% corn, 2% rye, 2% barley and 1% sherry. In the greater whisky world, seeing the word “sherry” usually implies sherry cask maturation. But, according to the Canadian regulations, other spirits or wine, up to 9.09% of the total composition, can be added to Canadian whisky. So, in this case it’s likely that they actually do add sherry as a flavoring. Since this whisky is a blend of an unknown number of component whiskies, the formula listed above doesn’t really provide any additional insight as to who the distiller might be.

color – Golden amber.
nose – Clean. Fruit and baked goods, a hint of spice and a bit of a vegetal element.
palate – Sugar cookies, peppermint and subtle teaberry. A little punchy on the mid palate, but not too wild.
finish – Smooth. Warming spice notes, with a biscuit like background and decent length
overall – Approachable. Has the mild-mannered Canadian personality overall, but a decent amount of character for the style.

As for the vintage Crown Royal, dating such things can be a little tricky. If you are lucky, a two digit year of manufacture will be stamped in the bottom of the glass bottle. Neither bottle producers nor distillers sit on their inventory of empty bottles for very long, so that number will usually tell you the year that the whisky was bottled. In this case, I only see a “7” and a “6”, but there’s too much space between them for it to be a 76. I’ll have to use some alternative dating methods.

The first two clues tell me that the bottle predates 1990. The alcohol level is shown only as a “proof”, not and “alcohol by volume”. The requirement to have abv shown on the label started right around 1990. Also, there is no government warning on the label; a requirement which went into effect late in 1989.

The next clue is the lack of a UPC code. Their use was slowly phased in during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Looking at the size of the bottle, it is given in metric units. The transition from standard measurements (pint, quart, gallon) began in the late 70’s and was completed by 1980/1981.

The last clue is the tax stamp. Well, there are no tax stamps on this bottle, but looking at pictures of older Crown Royal bottles I saw examples which had two tax stamps crisscrossed over the screw top. Looking at this bottle, I can see adhesive residue on the neck in four spots where tax stamps would have been affixed. The use of tax stamps on liquor bottles was discontinued in 1985.

That means this bottle dates to somewhere between 1980 and 1985, and that makes it interesting for two reasons. First, the early 1980’s were the peak of the whisky glut. The industry overproduced in the 1970’s as sales were falling and they went into the next decade with way too much inventory. That meant that the whisky going into the bottles got older (older than their age statements, or older than they had traditionally been), without prices going up. Second, Crown Royal was still being produced at their Waterloo, Ontario distillery which was lost to fire in 1992. That was in addition to the Gimli, Manitoba plant which continues to operate today.

color – The same golden amber, but a few shades darker.
nose – Sharp. A bit of a chemical-like quality, but there are some more respectable notes behind that (baking pies, subtle middle eastern spices).
palate – More weight. Darker in character. Spiced baked goods (apple pie crust with cinnamon), just enough fruity sweetness to add balance.
finish – Warming and pleasantly spicy, with a tree root-like character to it .
overall – I see a common thread between the two. This one has slightly better continuity and more depth overall.

The Kirkland Signature is only available in the 1.75 liter size, so that is the price listed above. For the Crown Royal, I listed the current standard retail price for a 750 ml bottle. The large format Crown bottles run about $46, making the Kirkland Signature a tremendous value. I’ll try to follow up in a few weeks with a recent bottle of Crown Royal to see how it compares.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Buffalo Trace, Single Oak Project, Barrel #63

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, single barrel, 45%, $47

They do a lot of experimenting at Buffalo Trace. So much so that they installed a separate micro-distillery about six years ago and recently built warehouse X, which allows them to vary environmental factors during the aging process. They’ve been releasing the results of some of their test runs under the Experimental Collection label since 2006, with many of those bottlings having origins dating back to the mid 1990’s. But their boldest such undertaking began in 1999, when they started the Single Oak Project.

This is a series of 192 single barrel bourbon bottlings which are differentiated by seven variables. Six of the variables have two options each, and the seventh has three, giving 192 possible combinations. First, 96 White Oak trees were selected from the Missouri Ozarks. The selected trees were categorized by their grain structure and split into three groups; 1/3 of them having course grain, 1/3 of them having average grain and 1/3 of them having tight grain. Next, each tree was cut in half, giving a top and a bottom. As these tree sections were milled into staves, they were tagged and tracked so that each barrel could be made entirely from an individual tree section.

With the first two variables down, they had six groups of 32 barrels to which they could apply the other five variables. First, the staves were air seasoned for either 6 months or 12 months. Then the barrels were given either a #3 char or a #4 char. They were then filled with either rye recipe bourbon or wheated bourbon, with a barrel entry proof of either 105 or 125. Finally, they were either aged in Warehouse K (with wooden floors) or Warehouse L (with concrete floors).

The significance of some of these factors is less obvious than others. Apparently a tree’s chemistry varies along its height. The lower half has a higher concentration of lignins and the top half has a higher concentration of tannins. This is a really interesting variable because it is not normally an option offered by the cooperages that supply the barrels, whereas char level, grain structure and stave seasoning time are. As for warehouse style, both K and L are constructed with brick walls. But the wooden floors of warehouse K allow for more airflow, resulting in bigger temperature differences through its nine floors and from season to season. Conversely, the concrete floors of warehouse L act to moderate the temperatures, keeping them more consistent through its five floors and from season to season.

Once filled, the barrels were all aged for 8 years, then they were bottled at 90 proof. They are offered only in the 375ml format, with a suggested retail price of $47. Rather than putting them all out at once, Buffalo Trace is releasing them over the course of four years, 12 barrels at a time, every three months. Those releases started in the spring of 2011 and now just two remain to be seen, with the last one scheduled for winter 2015.

The whole purpose of this endeavor is feedback. While samples of every bottling have been sent to a select number of whiskey journalists (Drinkhacker and Scotch & Ice Cream consistently review each release), they are primarily relying on reviews posted by consumers to the Single Oak Project website.

There does seem to be a segment of the bourbon community that loves to hate Buffalo Trace, which I believe to be a vocal minority. While I’m certainly not part of that group, I do have some criticisms of this project. Don’t get me wrong though; I love the concept of this grand experiment, I just have some issues with manner in which it was implemented.

First is the conveyance of information, which is somewhat haphazard. I recently had a similar complaint about the E.H. Taylor Jr. collection. I understand that they are looking for unbiased reviews of these bottlings, so it makes sense that you are only able to access the “DNA” profile for a barrel number after you complete a review of it. At the same time it is a little annoying that I can’t view any of the information about the other barrels when I have no intention of buying more Single Oak Project bottles.

Also, the info put out on the website and in press releases isn’t as thorough as it ought to be. I had to do quite a bit of digging to find blogs with official statements describing the difference between the two warehouses and the top and bottom halves of the trees. Some sources report the grain structure for each barrel as tight, average or course, and others simply list the number of rings per inch. It took me quite a while to determine that they were calling 11 to 14 rings/inch average, 10 or less course and 15 or more tight. As far as I can tell the range goes from 7 to 21 rings per inch.

It looks like all of the barrels from warehouse K were on its seventh floor, and all of the barrels from warehouse L were on its third floor, but that information was not clearly stated on the website, as it should have been. There are also a few additional variables that are being tracked, but they are not discussed anywhere. The barrels are listed as coming from trees harvested from location A or location B, but no further information is provided. Also, the number of staves in each barrel is listed, and as far as I can tell they range from 30 to 65, but this is another topic that is not expanded upon.

The other issue I have is format and price. There was a lot of buzz when the series was first announced, but that has faded quite a bit over the last three years. It’s an experiment; there are some great barrels and some duds, but most of them are just reasonably good. Of course, reviews vary; everyone has their personal preferences. That being said, I think a lot of consumers are wary of taking a gamble of a ½ bottle at nearly $50, especially when it will most likely be no better than “good”. Even if someone was enthusiastic enough about this series and gave it their full backing, I can’t imagine anyone spending nearly $10,000 to try every bottle.

The bottle that I have was from the second release, so it’s been out for about three years. Admittedly, I’m a little late to the game, but I would think all of the reviews for this barrel should be in by now. I only count 37 of them for barrel number 63. Assuming a yield of 400 bottles (375ml) from a barrel, that’s a participation rate of about 10%. I think they would have been much better off with 200ml bottles at $20 apiece. Or they could have split each barrel into 375ml bottles and 100ml bottles. With the larger bottles priced at $40 and the smaller bottles packaged in groups of 6 for $60 to $65, I think they would have gotten a much better response and a lot more feedback.

As for the reviews, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for the folks at Buffalo Trace to come up with a universal format that most people would be comfortable using. They had six categories with multiple choice selections and each was followed by a 1 – 10 rating choice. Most professional reviews (Whisky Advocate, etc) use a 100 point scale, but only 40 points or so are actually used – the worst of the worst never really score below 60. I tried to give scores (something I don’t usually do in general) that considered the full range of the scale. Whether or not others did that could be a bit of a flaw in the system. I also found some oddities in the questions. Color is something I observe and am aware of, but I’ve never considered assigning a quality rating to it. “Dry” and “thin” were options for mouthfeel, but I usually associate those terms with flavor (or lack thereof). The “overall” category presented an odd mix of flavors and sensations as options, it took me a while to wrap my head around that one.

As for the bottle that I have, I’ll list its “DNA” first, followed by the review I provided to the Single Oak Project website (underscored words were additional to the multiple choice options), and finally an overall assessment.

Barrel #63:

Age – 8 years
Entry proof – 105
Recipe – wheated
Barrel char - #4
Stave curing time – 12 months
Tree section – top half
Grain structure – tight, 17 rings/inch
Number of staves – 42
Harvest Location – A
Warehouse location – L / 3 / 27 (warehouse / floor / rick)

Color – Copper
Color rating – 7
Aromas – Butter, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Bread
Aroma rating – 7
Mouthfeel – Creamy, Hot
Mouthfeel rating – 6
Flavors – Caramel, Cinnamon, Leather, Mint, Nutmeg, Molasses
Flavor rating – 8
Finish – Dry, Earthy, Spicy, Long, Hot, Astringent
Finish rating – 7
Overall – Chewy, Dry, Complex, Spicy, Tannic
Overall rating – 7

Full bodied. Starts off a little thin (flavor-wise) up front, but picks up quickly. Good complexity but not all that well integrated. It goes back and forth between its pros and cons (big and spicy vs. astringent and acidic) as it moves from the mid-palate through the finish.

This project is already an ambitious undertaking. I realize that adding one more variable would double the size of it, but I think they could have learned so much more if age was a factor as well. It’s generally accepted that some warehouse locations are better for long term aging, while others produce better quality young whiskey. But what about factors like barrel char level, entry proof and grain structure? Can those be varied to suit whiskey that is destined to be bottled at a particular age? If they had doubled up and made two barrels from each tree section, they could have aged them out to 6 years and 10 years. That would have made this the ultimate bourbon experiment in my opinion.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

E.H.Taylor, Jr. Collection: Straight Rye, Small Batch, Single Barrel and Barrel Proof

While spending some quality time at one of my local watering holes, I noticed that they had four of the six bottlings from the E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection lurking on the upper shelf. That inspired me to finally crack open my Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bottle a few weeks ago. Now I’m catching up with the rest off the collection, except for the sold-out Old Fashioned Sour Mash bottling.

This seems like a good opportunity to look at the background of the man that the collection was named for. Chuck Cowdery has gone as far as to call Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. the most significant individual in the history of American Whiskey.

Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. was born in 1830 in Columbus, Kentucky. He was orphaned early on, and lived with a variety of relatives until he was adopted by a wealthy uncle for whom he had been named (the “Junior” suffix was added at that point to avoid confusion).

At the age of 19, Taylor began a banking career, going to work for his adoptive uncle. By 1860, that position had led to his involvement in the financial side of the whiskey industry. He started or operated no less than seven distilleries during his lifetime; O.F.C. (now Buffalo Trace), Pepper/Crow and Old Taylor among them.

His main role in the industry was that of a financier, and he was a key figure in the transformation of American whiskey into a large, commercial business. Taylor helped modernize many of the distilleries he was associated with. Steam heated warehouses and a more efficient sour mash method are just a few of the innovations he has been credited with.

By the time he was 50, Taylor had transitioned out of banking and become fully immersed in the whiskey business. But by his early 40’s he had also begun to dabble in politics. After serving as the mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky for 16 years, he was elected to the state legislature.

Politically, he became an advocate for whiskey, working tirelessly to pass laws that would assure the purity of the product and protect consumers from fraud and deception. Taylor was a proponent of increased trademark protections, but his crowning legislative achievements were the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection:

Rye: Straight Kentucky Rye, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $70
nose – big and bold, but not sharp or hot. rye spice and clay-like earthiness.
palate – good depth, with vanilla and caramel up front. it starts off fairly dry and becomes even more so as it moves into the finish.
finish – nice evolution of spice notes (cinnamon red hots, spearmint and peppermint) balanced by just enough heat.
overall – full flavored and weighty, but still well composed and approachable.

Small Batch: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $40
nose – the most youthful and spirity of the bunch. caramel, mint and Play-Doh all come through aromatically.
palate – there’s a bit of clay mixed with dry oak. I’m also picking up a mild rye floral/spice note that is reminiscent of Old Overholt.
finish – It evolves a bit, developing some dry spice notes as it moves into the finish, but it is still fairly one-dimensional at any given time.
overall – there’s nothing terribly wrong and it has no obvious flaws, but it maintains a theme of slight immaturity throughout.

Single Barrel: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $60
nose – sweetness and soot come through as the primary notes
palate – candy corn and caramel, with some pleasant oak notes
finish – the barrel char comes to the fore as it moves into the finish, providing an interesting interplay with the sweetness, though they do seem to butt heads a bit. Good length as it slowly fades out.
overall – pretty good overall, but it goes a little out of balance (perhaps too acidic) at times through the finish.

Barrel Proof: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, unfiltered, 67.7%, $70
nose – the aromas are dense but subtle; surprising considering the high proof. dark chocolate, sweet corn, a bit of oak and very subtle spice notes.
palate – viscous, very well balanced, a hint of sweetness up front followed by dry oaky notes as it moves into the finish
finish – some warming spice notes rise up first, then it gets a little hot and fiery later in the finish, but in kind of a good way.
overall – an interesting transition from being somewhat mild mannered up front to getting a little surly on the back end.

My overall impression of the five bottlings that I tasted is that the Rye is the best of the group, with the Barrel Proof not far behind. The Small Batch and the Single Barrel are respectable, but they both have some characteristics that keep me from loving them. The Tornado Surviving is the iconoclast of the bunch, but I think it has the most potential to improve given some time to breath.

When you read what others have to say about these whiskeys as a group, the general consensus is that they are overvalued. Being priced (for the most part) in the same range as Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, many people feel that the quality level is not up to the standard set by that iconic range.

While some commenters get very passionate about the subject, I tend to have a more pragmatic outlook. In my opinion, the prices will stand at the level that the market is willing to bear. I think that Pappy Van Winkle bottlings are too expensive and would probably pass them up even if I came across them at suggested retail prices. But, obviously many people are willing to pay quite a premium for them, sustaining the elevated markups.

My criticism of the E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection lies more with the inconsistent manner in which Buffalo Trace has conveyed technical information about these whiskeys. Looking at the Buffalo Trace website, one finds a random hodgepodge of information about the whiskeys in the collection. A little more searching will get you their press releases where more detailed information can be had, but some of that seems to contradict the website and at least one fact from a press release is known to be wrong. And then there are journalists who have managed to extract more technical detail from the company than was originally made available. I’ll do my best to sort it out here.

As for age, none of the bottlings carry an age statement, but Buffalo Trace has announced their ages, mostly through press releases. The Small Batch and Barrel Proof are both aged 7 years. The Sour Mash and Rye are both at 9 years. The Single Barrel is 11 years, 7 months old, and the Tornado Surviving ranges from 9 years, 8 months to 11 years, 11 months. The press release for the Tornado Surviving says all 93 barrels were dumped together. It has been confirmed that this information is incorrect. One of the Bottled-in-Bond requirements is that all of the whiskey in the bottle comes from a single distilling season, and that would not have been the case if all 93 barrels were dumped together. They say it was actually dumped in two batches. I’ve heard that one batch is much better than the other, but there isn’t really a way to tell which batch a bottle is from.

As for warehouse location, most of the bottlings appear to have come from Warehouse C, which is appropriate as it was constructed under Taylor’s ownership. There’s no question about the location of the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving barrels (floors 5 and 6), but I could find no information about the warehouse location of the Old Fashioned Sour Mash bottling. The Rye comes from Warehouse C, floor 1. The Single Barrel also comes from Warehouse C, but no floor is specified. In press releases, the Small Batch and Single Barrel are both touted as having been aged on floor 6 of Warehouse C. But on the website it says those two come from “warehouses” constructed over a century ago by Taylor. That leaves open the possibility that some of the barrels came from Warehouse B, which Taylor also constructed, and seems to contradict the press releases.

With the Old Fashioned Sour Mash, they mention reviving a sour mash method used in Taylor’s time, but no details of the method are given. Chuck Cowdery did some investigating and found that the modern way of souring the mash (which lowers its pH to create a more favorable environment for the yeast) is to add spent liquid from the still into the next batch of fresh mash. Using the older method, that mash was transferred from the cooker to a holding vessel where it was allowed to rest for several days. During that time the pH lowered naturally. Once it was at the right level, that mash was transferred on to the fermenters.

The last bits of interesting information pertain to the mash bills used. Buffalo Trace is kind of secret about their recipes, but we do know that they make a wheated bourbon and two different rye bourbons. I’ve seen a few different estimates of the recipes and while no one knows for sure, Mash Bill #1 is probably 8-10% rye, and Mash Bill #2 is probably 12-15% rye. The press release for the Tornado Surviving states that it is made with Mash Bill #1, and there’s a pretty good consensus that the rest of the bourbons in the collection are from the same mash bill.

The mash bill for the Straight Rye is stated (on the web site and in the press release) as being composed of only rye and malted barley, but not corn. That was true of the eastern ryes made primarily in Maryland and Pennsylvania before distilling died out in that region during the decades following Prohibition. As the few remaining rye whiskey brands shifted production to distilleries in Kentucky, their mash bills changed, incorporating corn, and having their rye content drop much closer to the minimum required 51%.

Corn-free ryes originating in distilleries in Indiana and Canada have become pretty common over the last decade. They were originally intended to be used as flavoring components in blended whiskeys, but have made their way to many of the non-distiller producers. The Taylor Straight Rye is the only non-corn rye from Kentucky that I know of. It’s the result of an experiment from around 2003, but they have continued to make some every year so the E.H. Taylor Rye will be an annual release. Unfortunately, they don’t give any indications of the ratio of rye to malted barley in this whiskey.

I like the concept of this collection, but I think Buffalo Trace has missed a great opportunity here. They’re not being deceptive, but they could have been so much more transparent with all of the technical information about these whiskeys and presented it in a much more organized manner.

Imagine if all of the bottles carried age statements, the different batches of Tornado Surviving were identified on the label, and the Single Barrel bottles had their barrels numbers listed on the label. Additionally, they could have consistently identified warehouse locations, given at least general proportions of the mash bills used, and provided a basic explanation of the old fashioned sour mash method.

If they had done that and put all of the information in one place, clearly presented and easily accessible, it would have been a much greater tribute to the legacy of Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. and garnered a lot more respect from the consumers who are most likely to purchase these offerings.