Thursday, July 24, 2014

E.H. Taylor, Jr. Collection, Wahehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $65

When I wrote about the Glengoyne Teapot Dram last year, I mentioned that I was a sucker for a whiskey with a great story. I bought that bottle shortly before leaving Scotland in the spring of 2012, at the end of a two week visit. But a few months prior to that I had picked up another bottle which also had a great story; E. H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon.

I have quite a few unopened bottles in my collection and this is one that was long overdue for inspection. Buffalo Trace introduced the E. H. Taylor Jr. Collection in 2011, and its inception was likely prompted by the success of their Antique Collection. But this group is a little different.

While the Antique Collection has evolved gradually over the years, its bottlings are always put out as annual releases, pricing is consistent across the range, and what they offer from one year to the next is usually the same (except for some age and proof variations).

With the E. H. Taylor Collection, there have been six different offerings so far. Two of them, the Single Barrel Bourbon and the Small Batch Bourbon are regularly available, and the latter is at a significantly lower price point than the rest of the collection. The next two, the Straight Rye and the Barrel Proof Bourbon are more limited and my go in and out of availability. The last two, the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon and the Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon were special one-time products that were released in 2012 and 2011, respectively, and neither will be made again.

Buffalo Trace has recently received label approvals for two new additions to the series; they are bourbon bottlings whose themes relate to how the barrel staves were seasoned and treated. I’m guessing we’ll see the new members of the collection by the end of the year.

As for the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon, in the spring of 2006 a tornado touched down in Frankfort, Kentucky, damaging two of the warehouses at Buffalo Trace. Warehouse B was empty at the time, but Warehouse C contained 24,000 barrels of whiskey. Much of the upper portion of the north wall and a portion of the roof along that side of the building were torn off. Somehow, the barrels of whiskey inside all made it through unscathed. But the barrels on the upper two floors of that part of the warehouse were exposed to the elements; wind, rain and direct sunlight, for several months until repairs could be completed.


Those barrels remained in place and continued aging until late in 2011, when 93 of them were batched together for this special bottling. Their ages ranged from 9 years and 8 months to 11 years and 11 months. The lot, on average, had lost 64% of its contents to evaporation.

The rate of loss through evaporation can vary with warehouse location, and is typically faster on the upper floors of a warehouse. As a reference, we can look at the evaporation levels from the 2014 Buffalo Trace Experimental collection that compared bourbons from different floors of a warehouse. Those were all 12 year olds from Warehouse K. That’s great because the age is close and Warehouse K has a similar construction to Warehouse C; earthen floors and an all wooden internal structure that is surrounded by a brick shell. The biggest difference is that K has nine floors and C has six floors. The levels of evaporation for the warehouse K experiment are: 27% for floor 1, 25% for floor 5, and 49% for floor 9. Clearly, the process speeds up when the barrels are out in the open.

Enough background, let’s move on to the bourbon.

On the nose, the aromas are big and dense, but not too sharp. Leather, shoe polish, clay, wood from an old barn, a hint of dry spice (maybe ground allspice). I find it reminiscent of George T. Stagg.
Surprisingly, my first impression on the palate is that it’s a little hot. It’s very viscous on the tongue. There seems to be a bit of sweetness (perhaps even maple) up front mingled with complex barrel notes; oak, char, vanilla, etc. But that is short lived, heat and fiery spice notes (cinnamon red hots, peppermint) quickly come to the fore.
As it moves through the finish, the blazing spice notes grow and expand, building in layers. It eventually reaches a zenith, and then slowly recedes.



It took me a few ounces to wrap my head around this one and really start to appreciate it. I would liken this to a heavily peated single malt; the spice comes in waves, building and reverberating. There are some background flavors that try to round things out, but savoring this whiskey is all about hanging on to your hat for the wild, spice-driven roller coaster ride and seeing where it goes. I found that taking a healthy sip and rolling it on the tongue for a few seconds before swallowing maximized the effects that I was enjoying.

I tried adding a few drops of water, and while it did tame the fire a bit, it didn’t really bring anything additional out of the whiskey. I like this one, but it is far different than what I was expecting. I’m going to let the bottle sit, partially consumed, for six months or so then revisit it and see how it has evolved. I’ll put my findings up as a comment on this post.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Kirkland Signature Bourbon

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 7 years old, 51.5%, $22 (1 liter)

The terms “independent bottler” and “non-distiller producer” seem to be used interchangeably quite often in American whiskey circles. The fact that neither term is officially defined by the industry is a big part of why this happens. There are also a few companies out there with some parts of their businesses best described by the former and other parts of their businesses best described by the latter.

In either case, we’re talking about companies that bottle and sell whiskey that was distilled by someone other than themselves. I have my own loose definitions of each of these designations. When it comes to the independent bottlers, I typically think of the classic Scottish model of this type of enterprise; outfits like Gordon & MacPhail, Murray McDavid and Douglas Laing, who are clear about the fact that they buy bulk single malt on the open market from various distillers. With the vast majority of these bottlings, the name of the distillery where the whiskey originated is there for all to see on the label.

There are some independent bottlers who share common ownership with distilleries: Caddenhead’s and Springbank, Signatory and Edradour, Gordon & MacPhail and Benromach. But in all of these instances, the independent bottlings and the official distillery bottlings remain under clearly separate labels. Scottish blenders are typically considered as a different category from independent bottlers, further solidifying the characterization of the independents as those who identify the distillery of origin.

As for non-distiller producer’s, this seems to be much more of an American phenomenon. In my mind, the key here is that these companies are trying to create the illusion that they are the distillers of the whiskey that they are selling. The true sources of these whiskeys normally remain secret with the help of nondisclosure agreements. While the phrase obviously implies that they are not actually distillers, some of these outfits do own stills, but they are usually only able to distill a token amount relative to what they sell. Templeton Rye is one such case.

The matter is clouded though, by companies like Jefferson’s. Their flagship bourbon is sourced, but no one knows its origins for sure, and there is nothing on the label to indicate that it isn’t distilled in house. On the other hand, their Presidential Select 18 year bourbon was proudly labelled as being a product of the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Are they an independent, an NDP, or both? It’s kind of a matter of opinion.

There is however another term which is often overlooked; private label whiskey. Private label products are nothing new, supermarkets have been offering them for many years. These are alternatives to major name brand products, but they usually come from the same companies that put out the big name brands. Since these items are sold under store owned brands, they are guaranteed a spot on the shelf in every store of whichever chain owns them. That means no sales people are needed to get the products into the stores and advertising really isn’t necessary. These two reductions in overhead typically translate into tremendous values on the retail level.

Some NDP’s have their own bottling line and labeling capabilities, but in many cases these functions are contracted out to the distiller or a third party. Private label brands will always be packaged by the producer. The big differentiation between the two, in my opinion, is that everyone knows a private label whiskey is coming from one of the major producers, even though the source might not be revealed, where NDP’s will typically make it as hard as possible for the consumer to figure out if the whiskey is sourced or distilled in-house.

Costco introduced their private label “Kirkland Signature” brand in 1995. Several years after venturing into alcohol sales, Costco finally put the two together in 2007 and started introducing spirits under their Kirkland label. Early in 2011 they added the Small Batch Bourbon.

Back around Christmas I had the opportunity to taste the Kirkland 12 year Blended Scotch. I was impressed enough that I went hunting for it a few days later. The Kirkland scotch was sold out, but I came home with the Kirkland bourbon as a consolation prize.

When one considers the current trends in bourbon; rising prices, falling proofs and vaporizing age statements, this bourbon is a great deal, at least on paper, at 103 proof, with a 7 year age statement, and priced at $22 for a 1 liter bottle. The only question now is, does it taste as good as it sounds?

The nose has moderately intense aromas, with a nice balance of oak, candied sweetness and play-doh notes. The alcohol is evident, but by no means overwhelming.
It’s a little mild on the palate right up front, but clay and sweet caramel flavors emerge pretty quickly, followed on by some subtle floral notes.
As it moves into the finish, those flavors fade quickly while a pleasant spiciness (cinnamon red hots) arises. This is accompanied by an appropriate level of heat from the alcohol.
Considering it overall, the word monolithic crossed my mind at one point, but I think that would be describing it unfairly. The flavors have a modest level of complexity and degree of evolution. While I have had better bourbons, there really is nothing to dislike here, and you’d be hard pressed to find something better at the same price.



Of course, everyone wants to know which major distiller this comes from. That’s easy; Jim Beam is listed right on the Certificate of Label Approval. But Beam has two recipes, the high rye used for Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden, and the low rye which is used for everything else they make. Time to pull my OGD bonded and that dusty bottle of Booker’s off the shelf and see how they compare.

I put a splash of water in the Booker's to get the proof closer to the other two. The ages are 8 year, 7 year and at least 4 year (part of the definition of bonded). Barrels can be picked from certain areas of the warehouses to create a particular flavor profile, so that is a factor that adds some uncertainty.

On the nose the Kirkland is closer to the Booker’s. They have more of a Play-doh aroma while the OGD leans more toward clay. Things get more complicated on the palate. I’m getting some flavors on the Booker's (green pepper maybe?) that are quite different than those on the Kirkland. The OGD is definitely drier than the Kirkland, but they do share a similar cinnamon spice on the finish.

I really thought the answer would be more clear-cut than this. I suppose it’s also possible that Beam is vatting their two bourbon recipes together for the Kirkland bottling to create a unique flavor profile.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Caledonia Spirits, Early Riser

stats: corn whiskey, 41%, $??

About a month ago my employer organized a tasting for us with the owner of Caledonia Spirits, a local craft distiller. The main focus was on their Barr Hill Vodka, Barr Hill Gin and Elderberry Cordial. But as luck would have it, he also brought along a pre-release sample of the new Early Riser corn whiskey.

The distillery was established in 2008 in Hardwick Vermont by Todd Hardie, a lifelong beekeeper. He started off with vodka made 100% from mead (honey wine) and a few years later added a gin to the lineup. The gin is made from a corn based mash and hand-crushed, whole juniper berries which are locally sourced. Raw honey is added to the gin after distillation (we were told that it is 5% of the total composition, but I’m not sure if that’s by weight or volume).

I’m no connoisseur of vodka or gin, but both products seemed quite good to me. The gin has a unique flavor profile, with the honey adding a sweet, floral aspect. The vodka was more flavorful than most, and had a rich, creamy mouthfeel. I usually scoff at expensive vodkas (which this is at $55), assuming that the fancy bottle is worth more than the liquid inside. At least in this case the price can be justified by the costly base ingredient. The gin is less pricey at $38, which stands to reason since it uses a lot less honey than the vodka.

Caledonia Spirits’ foray into whiskey is still in its early stages. The sample that I tasted was from a small, early release of 200ml bottles, which have already sold out. Todd mentioned that the whiskey had been aged in new, lightly charred oak. I was pretty sure that would classify it as bourbon and that he likely misspoke. But a work related tasting wasn’t really the time or place to press with too many technical questions, so I followed up by email a few days later and Todd put me in touch with his head distiller who clarified some details for me.

Since corn whiskey is kind of an oddball when it comes to American whiskey definitions, I’ll give a brief overview of the regulations, which can be found here if anyone cares to read them in full.

Whiskey is defined as being made from a fermented mash of grain, distilled to less than 190 proof, stored in oak containers (corn whiskey is exempt from this one), and bottled at 80 proof or more.

To be designated as one of the specific types of whiskey (bourbon, rye, wheat, etc.), the mash bill must be composed of at least 51% of that type’s associated grain (corn in the case of bourbon), distilled at no more than 160 proof, aged in new charred oak containers, and entered into those containers at no more than 125 proof.

Corn whiskey is a little different. It must be composed of at least 80% corn and distilled at no more than 160 proof. Barrel aging is optional, but if it is employed the barrel entry proof can be no more than 125 and the barrels have to be either used or uncharred new oak (I believe toasted oak falls under the definition of uncharred).

Anything that fits the above definitions of specific whiskey types (including corn whiskey) and has been aged for at least two years can add the word “straight” to the label.

Also, if a whiskey fits the above definitions (not counting corn whiskey), except that it is aged in used oak, it is known as “whiskey distilled from bourbon (rye, wheat, etc.) mash”. If a whiskey fits the definition of corn whiskey, it must be labelled as such.

Because of the way the regulations are written, a lot of people think that once the mashbill goes over 80% corn, the product can no longer be called bourbon. This is not true, bourbon can be made from a mash of up to (and including) 100% corn. For 80% corn or greater, new charred oak vs. used or new uncharred oak will determine if it is defined as “bourbon” or “corn whiskey”. For less than 80% corn (and down to 51%), new charred oak vs used oak will determine if it is defined as “bourbon” or “whiskey distilled from bourbon mash”.

Now, back to the whiskey at hand. Early Riser corn whiskey has a mash bill that is 82% corn and the remaining 18% is rye and barley, but I didn’t ask about their relative percentages. I think it’s safe to assume that the barley is malted, though I haven’t confirmed that. Early Riser is named after the corn variety that is used to make it. The corn is grown organically at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont.


The bottle states that the whiskey was aged less than one year, and we were told that this batch was aged for 9 ½ months. The distillery is currently producing bourbon as well, and I believe the two share the same mashbill. The bourbon is first entered into new charred (#3 char) 10 gallon oak barrels. After a short time, the bourbon is transferred to 30 gallon barrels for longer term aging. The lightly used 10 gallon barrels are then used to age the corn whiskey.

Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with corn whiskey. The only two I recall tasting are Georgia Moon, which is pretty awful, and the recently reviewed Balcones Brimstone, which is fairly iconoclastic. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts:

The nose is young and fresh, but not sharp or hot. It’s highlighted by grain and soft oak.
On the palate, it is slightly floral up front with oak notes adding depth. It comes across youthful, but is still impressive for its young age.
The finish is grain-forward with decent length, and it has a pleasant warming quality at the end.
It has distinctive corn whiskey qualities, but it’s in a whole other league compared to the minimally aged Georgia Moon.




I don’t have a price listed above because I think they may have been charging a bit of a premium for the limited early release at about $26 for a 200ml bottle. I was told that when this becomes a regularly available product in the fall, they will be offering it in 750ml and 375ml bottles and prices are still to be determined. Barr Hill also makes a barrel aged version of their gin, called Tom Cat. That is priced at $46 (750ml), and I’m guessing that the corn whiskey will be in the same neighborhood.

With all of the deceptive whiskey industry practices that I wrote about in my last three posts, it was very refreshing to see the unequivocal statement “mashed, fermented & distilled in house” on the label of this bottle. I’m really interested in trying their bourbon when it becomes available. I like the idea of transferring it from one barrel size to another; at least in the case of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, the practice seems to build great complexity.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 3

Hirsch Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 46%, $36

Aromas of sweet corn and candy corn come through on the nose along with notes of dusty grain. It’s a little fiery on the palate; not necessarily out of balance, just a little wild. It does settle down with a few sips to numb the palate. A bit of background sweetness helps to keep it somewhat in check.

The early history of the Hirsch brand was summed up quite nicely here by Chuck Cowdery; I’ll just give a condensed version of that post.

The whiskey that started the brand came from a production run of 400 barrels of bourbon from the Pennco Distillery in Shaefferstown, PA. It was all distilled in the spring of 1974, under contract for a man named Adolph Hirsch. Not long after that bourbon was made, Pennco went out of business. The distillery went into foreclosure, and was eventually sold and renamed Michter’s. By 1989 the bank was ready to foreclose again, and this time Mr. Hirsch decided to get his whiskey out of there rather than risk losing it.

Hirsch sold all 400 barrels to a man named Gordon Hue. He moved the barrels to Ohio and began to bottle it under the A.H. Hirsch label. It was first released as a 15 year old, and then as a 16 year old. At that point most of the barrels were dumped into stainless steel tanks to prevent over aging. A small number of barrels were allowed to age further and those were bottled in limited quantities through the early 1990’s as an 18 year old, 19 year old and 20 year old.

In 2003, the brand and the remaining bourbon (all tanked 16 year old, about 3000 cases worth) were sold to Preiss Imports. They bottled all of it and put it out in a series of releases over the next six years. It was pretty phenomenal whiskey, and people knew there was only so much of it. Originally priced in the $40 to $60 range, it started to sell for elevated prices on the secondary markets and then retailers followed suit. Preiss went all out with the final release of 1000 bottles in 2009, including hand blown glass bottles and Mahogany boxes, and set the retail price at $1500.

With a limited supply of the original bourbon, and not wanting to lay a successful brand to rest, Preiss went hunting for other whiskeys to bottle under the same label. But they did only use the “A.H. Hirsch” name for the Pennco bourbon; all other whiskeys bottled for the brand have only had “Hirsch” on the label.

Around 2005 they came out with a series of Canadian rye whiskies. They were aged 8 years, 10 years and 12 years, priced from $30 to $45, and all met with fairly poor reviews.

About a year later they managed to source a batch of older American rye. It was first released in 2006 as a 21 year old, and in subsequent years they released more, first at 22 years, then at 25 years. Prices ranged from $140 to $200 per bottle, and all three were very highly regarded. The source of the whiskey wasn’t disclosed, but this was around the same time that several other companies came out with extra-aged ryes, and those who like to speculate about such things say that Medley or Bernheim is likely where it was all distilled.

Next, in 2007, they came out with a 20 year old American whiskey. The label states that it originated in Illinois, was “distilled from Bourbon Mash”, and aged in used cooperage. Bourbon, by definition, has to be aged in new charred oak. But if a whiskey meets all of the other requirements defining bourbon and is aged in used oak, it can be labeled as American Whiskey distilled from Bourbon Mash. Most of the Illinois distilleries closed in the 1960’s and early 1970’s but apparently one mysterious distillery, about which very little is known, continued to operate in East St. Louis until 1987. That is the only possible source for the 120 barrels that were purchased for this bottling. It was priced at $70 and received only fair reviews. I actually came across a few bottles of it in a New Hampshire liquor store a couple of days ago.

In 2008 Hirsch came out with new bourbons. All three are from unnamed sources. The 28 year old at $447 was considered to be past its prime. The 25 year old at $270 was met with very good reviews. And there’s the non age-stated, small batch bourbon that is the subject of this post.

This is the only Hirsch whiskey you are likely to find in retail today, aside from the occasional rare sighting of the 20 year old American whiskey and the overpriced final release of the 16 year old bourbon. Considering how deep we are into a strong boom period, I’m sure all of the whiskey warehouses across the country have been picked over and I’d be surprised to see Hirsch put out any new bottlings of older, quality whiskey.

What we have here is a mediocre sourced bourbon priced above its quality level and riding on the coattails of a brand name built on the reputation of a very special limited release.


Blanton’s, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Single Barrel, 46.5%, $55

The nose is pleasantly oaky, with grain and soft rye spice. In simple terms, it just smells like good bourbon. On the palate, the oak notes and sweetness are in harmonious balance, and it shows good complexity while being permeated by a woody core. The flavors from the mid-palate carry nicely through the lengthy finish where a notable spiciness comes to the fore. Overall it is well-rounded with good depth and very drinkable.

Blanton’s is noteworthy as the first commercially available Single Barrel Bourbon. In the 1970’s, Glenfiddich began to promote single malt Scotch as a premium product rather relying solely on making bulk sales to blenders. Even though Scotch sales faltered through the 1980’s, the modern single malt Scotch movement had begun to gain traction. American whiskey producers took notice, and in 1984 they put forth their first challenge to the category in the form of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.

Blanton’s is a product of what is today known as the Buffalo Trace Distillery. This pioneering whiskey was named for Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton, who spent his entire 55 year career working at the distillery. He started there in 1897 at the age of 16 as an office boy. Over the next 15 years, he worked his way through every department at the distillery before being promoted to plant superintendent in 1912. In 1921 he became president of the distillery; a position he held until his retirement in 1953, six years before his passing in 1959.

The history of the distillery’s ownership and name changes can get a bit confusing, so I’ll try to lay out a straight forward timeline of it. In 1865, 16 years before Albert Blanton’s birth, his father, Benjamin Harrison Blanton, opened a small distillery on his property in Leestown, KY (now part of Frankfort, KY). In 1869, that distillery was purchased by E.H. Taylor, Jr., who acted primarily as a financier in the whiskey industry. He named the distillery O.F.C. (Old Fire Copper), and set about upgrading and vastly expanding the plant.

As a financier, Taylor would often invest in small distilleries and be involved in their growth before selling off his interest and moving on to the next project. O.F.C. fit that pattern and was eventually sold to George T. Stagg, Taylor’s partner in the endeavor. It may have been a gradual transfer of ownership, as I’ve seen dates for the sale ranging from 1873 to 1885.

Stagg owned the distillery until his death in 1890, when it was sold to the Duffy family. In 1904 they changed the official name of the distillery from O.F.C. to George T. Stagg. Their ownership lasted until the start of Prohibition, in 1920, when they sold to Albert Blanton.

The details get a little cloudy here, and there are very few references to Blanton having owned the distillery, so I think it was only for a short period of time. He sold it to Industrial Gram Products of Buffalo, NY, but no date for the sale is mentioned. They sold the plant to Schenley Distiller’s Corp., a New York City based liquor company. Reported dates for that sale range from 1929 to 1933.

Schenley sold the distillery to a group called Age International in 1983. In 1992 they sold it to the Sazerac Company, who renamed the distillery Buffalo Trace in 1999 and remain its current owners.

It was Albert Blanton’s leadership that saw the distillery survive Prohibition and thrive in the years after Repeal. The George T. Stagg distillery was one of only four to obtain a license to produce “medicinal whiskey” during Prohibition. No distilling was allowed to occur there until 1930, near the end of the ban on alcohol, but they were able to sell their existing stocks of whiskey.

Much of the whiskey locked away in warehouses during Prohibition could not be legally sold and started to make its way to the black market. Eventually the government required all remaining whiskey to be stored in a small number of “consolidation” warehouses, where it could be better guarded. The owners of the whiskey could pay the consolidator a storage fee, but most of them were strapped for cash and chose to sell their barrels to the consolidators (who usually had a medicinal license) instead. Albert Blanton was able to tap into this business as well.

He guided the company through the depression, had the distillery back up and running within 24 hours of the great flood of 1937, and managed the period of required industrial alcohol production during WWII. From the time he took over as president through to his retirement, the size of the distillery more than tripled, at least in terms of the number of buildings on the property.

Blanton was also very in-tune with what the distillery was producing and eventually realized that the plant’s prime location for aging bourbon was in the heart of warehouse H. He would hand select barrels from there and have them bottled individually for ambassadors, dignitaries, family and friends.

The single barrel bourbon that has paid tribute to its namesake since 1984 is selected from that same warehouse location. It carries no age statement, but is rumored to typically be in the 6 year to 8 year range. It is most commonly seen at 93 proof, but bottlings can also be found at 80, 98, 103 and barrel proof.

During the time Age International owned the distillery they put in a big effort to create a market for bourbon in Japan. But it was the introduction of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, which was the forerunner to most of the specialty bourbon bottlings available today, that was their crowning achievement.


Balcones Brimstone, Corn Whisky, Texas Scrub Oak Smoked, 53%, $60

I saved tasting this whisky for last, knowing that it would probably take my palate over the edge. Unfortunately my tasting notes got a little sketchy at that point, so I’ll have to do some creative interpreting of what I wrote down. But the whisky made a memorable impression, so I’m still confident in expressing my opinion of it.

The nose smells like barbeque before the meat goes on the grill (I was referencing the smoke of the wood fire, not the uncooked meat). It is interesting, but the intense smoke brings it out of balance on the mid palate. I believe it could benefit from the addition of an element of sweetness. Burnt wood is the dominant flavor on the finish.

There are several outfits involved in the burgeoning Texas whiskey scene, but Balcones and Garrison Brothers are the two most well known of the bunch. Balcones has been around since 2009. The distillery was started by Chip Tate in Waco Texas, where he and his crew built the facility and all of its equipment.

They proudly perform the entire process in-house; mashing, distilling, fermenting, aging and bottling, and they have never used any sourced whisky. Their products include a malt whisky and several variations of a corn whisky; three are just at different proofs (92, 100, and cask strength), the fourth is a smoked version at 106 proof. They have also put out some limited releases of bourbon that were based on the same mashbill as their corn whisky, but aged in new charred oak (I plan to talk more about the differences between corn whisky and bourbon in my next post).

Balcones corn whiskies are made from roasted Atol, a Hopi blue corn meal. The version called Brimstone is smoked with Texas scrub oak. Unlike traditional peat smoked Scottish malt whisky, where the grain is smoked in the kilning stage of malting, Balcones smokes the Brimstone distillate. They keep the details of the process secret, but they do describe it as a cold smoke type of method. It does make sense for them to do it this way from an efficiency perspective. If the grain is smoked, a lot of the smoky flavors are lost during the mashing and distilling. I would think that by smoking the distillate they are able to burn a lot less of the scrub oak in order to achieve the desired flavor intensity in the final product.

Most of the whisky from Balcones is fairly young. I’m sure the Texas heat accelerates the aging process. There’s also the fact that they age their whisky in 5 gallon barrels, which is somewhat of a controversial topic, but they do vat those together into 60 gallon barrels for some time before bottling. There’s not a lot of information out there about their barrel management techniques, and I’d love to know more about roughly how long their whiskies are held in each barrel size.

Brimstone is a very polarizing whisky; most people either love it or hate it. I basically fell in the middle of those two groups. While I wasn’t smitten by what I tasted, it’s not like I was disgusted by it either. I appreciate the effort and like the path they are going down, but feel the product could benefit from further refinement. Maybe much longer aging in full size barrels to mellow out the smoke. Maybe letting it finish in Sherry or Port casks to add some balancing sweetness. I believe the potential is there, it just hasn’t been realized yet.



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 2

1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 46.85%, $30

The nose shows fruit and grain with soft spice notes. It’s more robust on the palate than I remember (I originally tasted this bourbon about eight years ago, but this is the first time I’ve revisited it recently). There’s some sweetness on the palate mingled with rye spice. It comes across relatively bold, but remains well integrated.

It’s no secret that 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is a Sazerac product. The Sazerac Company owns the Buffalo Trace distillery and bottles the whiskey made there under so many different brands that many people forget (or just don’t realize) that they actually own a couple of other distilleries as well. One of them is A. Smith Bowman, a micro-distillery located in Virginia, and the other is the Barton 1792 Distillery, of Bardstown, Kentucky. The later produces Ridgemont Reserve bourbon.

The distillery dates back to before Prohibition and sits on the grounds of several historic distilleries. Like many of the early American whiskey distilleries / brands, it has a long and convoluted history. All of the details are too complex to go into here, but it was known as the Tom Moore distillery up until a change of ownership in 1944, when the name was changed to Barton. The company that owned the distillery eventually became known as Barton Brands (as the company grew, it acquired several other whiskey brands along the way, as well as changing owners several times), and in 2008 they changed the name of the distillery back to Tom Moore in a historical tip of the hat. A year later, Barton Brands, along with their distillery, was purchased by Sazerac (owners of the Buffalo Trace distillery since 1992). Sazerac promptly changed the name of the distillery back to Barton, although I’m not sure when the 1792 was added into the distillery name.

The likely reason for the distillery not being too well known is because for most of its history it only produced smaller, regionally distributed bourbon and rye brands; not to mention the confusing series of ownership and name changes that the distillery went through. One of the distillery’s better known brands, Very Old Barton, was only distributed in Kentucky for many years. Sazerac has increased distribution of VOB, but it’s still only available regionally.

In 2002, Barton Brands introduced Ridgemont Reserve bourbon nationally as a premium brand, selling at a higher price point than any of the distillery’s other offerings. But it started off with a different name; Ridgewood Reserve 1792. Brown-Forman sued Barton, claiming that the name was too close to that of their Woodford Reserve bourbon. Brown-Forman won, and the name of the new bourbon was soon changed to 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. The name contains 1792 as a reference to the year in which Kentucky gained statehood.

Ridgemont Reserve bottles carried an 8 year age statement up until December of 2013. The Sazerac website and the Ridgemont Reserve website both still claim that the bourbon is aged at least 8 years, but that doesn’t really mean anything; it only has to be at least that old if it says so on the bottle. The Ridgemont website states that all of the barrels for this bourbon are housed in Warehouse Z, one of many spread across the distillery’s sprawling property. It sits on a bluff, receiving full sun all summer and is said to have optimal aging conditions.

The other feature of this bourbon is its mash bill, which is somewhat of a mystery. Their website claims that it has a higher percentage of rye than most, but the company won’t reveal the proportions. The Very Old Barton mash bill is known to be 15% rye (75% corn, 10% malted barley). That’s pretty middle-of-the-road for rye content in a bourbon. Most of the known mash bills have a rye percentage in the 11% to 18 % range. The two mash bills used by Four Roses have 20% rye and 35% rye. I’m guessing that two different bourbon mash bills are produced at Barton, the known one for VOB and a higher rye recipe for Ridgemont.

Recalling my impression of this bourbon eight years ago and comparing that to how it tastes now, I can only wonder if it started off being made from the VOB mash bill and was gradually transitioned over to a higher rye mash bill. Such a change would taken time; vatting the two together in varying percentages across several years.


Templeton Rye, Straight Rye, 40%, $37

The nose has slightly sweet fruit aromas and gentle, flowery rye spice notes. On the palate the warm, lingering rye spiciness carries through to the finish with just a hint of sweetness. I found this whiskey to be soft in all aspects except the rye spice. And that spice character is more pervasive than aggressive, resulting in a whiskey that is approachable, albeit with a bit of an edge.

When it comes to catching heat for trying to make someone else’s whiskey look like one’s own, Templeton Rye is probably one of the most well known examples. They’ve been very successful at marketing their product, first in Iowa and shortly thereafter in Chicago; the first major market they entered. That caught the attention, and ire of Chicago based whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery.

First, the story on which Templeton Rye’s successful marking strategy is predicated. The small Iowa town of the same name had a reputation for producing illicit rye whiskey of a very high caliber during Prohibition. The whiskey was eventually nicknamed “the good stuff” and supposedly brought to bigger markets by Al Capone. They even say it was his personal favorite and he had some smuggled into Alcatraz. The tradition of bootleg whiskey continued on in Templeton after Prohibition, and some say it still goes on today.

Scott Bush started Templeton Rye in 2005 to produce a legal version of Templeton’s historic whiskey, which his great grandfather had supposedly once distilled. Bush brought on Keith Kerkhoff as a partner in the business to gain access to his family’s whisky recipe, which had been passed down from Kerkhoff’s grandfather, a prolific Prohibition era distiller.

When they first started selling Templeton Rye, every bit of their marketing material made it sound as if they were producing all of the whiskey themselves, in their tiny Iowa distillery. But red flags quickly began popping up: well-aged whiskey available shortly after the company started, pictures of barrels marked with the company logo and “barrel entry” dates going back years longer than they had been in business, etc.

Before I analyze the truthfulness of Templeton’s current marketing, let’s take a look at where their whiskey actually comes from. There’s a very large distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana that dates to 1847. It became part of Seagram’s in 1933, and then Pernod Ricard acquired it in 2000 when Seagram’s collapsed. Next it was sold on to CL Financial in 2007 and renamed LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). CL fell victim to the financial crisis of 2009 and in 2011 sold the distillery to MGPI, a Kansas based food and alcohol producer.

The distillery had made straight whiskeys for many years, but few people knew that since the whiskeys weren’t sold as such, but rather used as flavoring components in blends like Seagram’s 7. In April of 2006, Pernod Ricard announced that it would close the distillery. Not long after that, they made their existing stocks of straight whiskey available on the open market. Templeton was their first customer, followed very shortly by High West. Instead of being closed, the distillery was sold to CL Financial. That deal was completed in July of 2007. CL had plans to develop their own brands before they folded, but MGPI has chosen to stick with producing and leave brand development to their customers. Brands buying from them now include High West, Redemption, Dickel Rye and Buillet Rye, just to name a few.

I’ve gone back and read quite a few blog posts about Templeton Rye that span the last six years. The owners of Templeton even respond to the criticisms in a few of them and it paints an interesting picture. The rye whiskey made by LDI/MGPI is unique in that it is made up of 95% rye, a much higher proportion than any of the other mass produced American ryes. When Templeton started they were very secretive about who made their whiskey (and no one who was speculating thought of LDI as it wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” at that point). Templeton also went to great lengths to give the impression that all of the whiskey they sold was made in-house, at least to the less informed observer.

Under heavy criticism, Templeton had to admit
pretty early on that they were working with another distillery, and by 2010 they had finally revealed that LDI was the source of their whiskey.

Looking over Templeton’s website today, it doesn’t take long to see that they are still playing fast and loose with the truth though. They do mention their distilling partner in Indiana on one page of the web site, but everywhere else, especially on the fact sheet describing the production process, they still put forth a strong effort to make it sound like the whole process is done in-house.

They claim that their “master distillers utilize the original Kerkhoff family recipe” and that it is “unique for the remarkably high rye content”. These statements are pretty ridiculous. This is the same recipe of rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% malted barley) that many other NDP’s buy from MGPI. Chuck Cowdery has researched the history of that recipe; it was developed by Seagram’s (therefore pre 2000, before Templeton even claims to have started). Creating custom whiskey recipes is part of what MGPI offers today, but that is a fairly recent development. It was certainly not a service offered when the distillery was owned by Pernod Ricard or CL Fiancial. Templeton states (on their website and on the bottle labels) that their recipe is “more than 90% rye”; that’s a great way to introduce plausible deniability, letting the less skeptical believe they may be using a unique recipe. But the real kicker comes from a 2010 Chicago Tribune article about Templeton. In it, Keith Kerkhoff is quoted as saying "The Tax and Trade Bureau requires us to make it at least 51 percent rye. Prohibition whiskey was probably less than that". That’s a pretty big contradiction to the company line.

Templeton is a Straight Rye without an age statement. That means it is at least four years old. For their story of an original recipe coming from LDI/MGPI to be possible, their relationship would have to have been established at least four years before they started selling whiskey. And that is what they claim on their website; that the building blocks of the company were put in place in 2001. They even go so far as to claim that the first batch of 68 barrels was aged entirely in Iowa. This is clearly revisionist history put in place to lend credence to their marketing claims. There is no evidence of Templeton Rye existing as a company before 2005. They didn’t even file to register a trademark on the name until April of 2007. And finally, Chuck Cowdery states that they received their alcoholic beverage producers license in 2005; they could not have taken possession of a single barrel of whiskey without that (I’m doubtful they could have even purchased the whiskey and left it in LDI’s hands without the license).

The interesting thing is that they have been distilling at Templeton since pretty early on (probably starting some time in 2006). But it has always been in miniscule amounts relative to what they sell. The whiskey they make themselves is sold in very limited local releases and is not the same as the mass produced whiskey that is their main product. Actually, they can’t even legally call the limited releases whiskey because even though there’s some rye in the mix, the main ingredient is sugar. That moonshine style recipe is likely a lot closer to the Prohibition era family secret than what they are sourcing from MGPI.

Templeton Rye is a good whiskey. Whether or not it’s worth the price they sell it for is a debatable point. But clearly, everything the company puts out there to promote the product is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.


Breckenridge, Bourbon, 43%, $40

This bourbon has a pleasantly grainy nose which is full and a little sweet. It’s easy drinking with good flavor development and notable rye spiciness that nicely rounds out the finish. I found it surprisingly well composed for its young age (stated as “a minimum of two years” on the bottle, and two to three years on their info sheets / web site).

I was very impressed upon tasting such a seemingly well made young whiskey. I should have been suspicious instead. Before I get into the details of what I’ve found, I’ll take a quick look at the background of the operation. Breckenridge distillery, located in the ski town of Breckenridge Colorado, was founded in 2008 by Bryan Nolt, a physician turned distiller. He brought on Jordan Via, who was the American Distilling Institute’s Master Distiller, first as a consultant and later as Breckenridge’s Master Distiller.

The bourbon is their flagship product, but they have a full portfolio of distilled goods: vodka, rum, brandy, bitters, several liqueurs, and a malt whiskey that is in the works but needs further aging before it’s released. I’m not sure when they started distilling in earnest, but they opened to the public for tastings and tours in October of 2010, and began distributing their bourbon and their vodka in July of 2011.

When I research an American whiskey that I’m not familiar with there are a few places that I look first. I check a couple of trusted blogs and also search through some whiskey discussion forums (straightbourbon.com in particular). In the case of Breckenridge, what I came up with was troubling because the information was so conflictory. Some said it was sourced whiskey, others said it used to be sourced but no longer was, and there were reports of it being a mix of sourced whiskey and whiskey distilled in-house. Worst of all, most of these statements could be traced back directly to the distillery.

From what I’ve pieced together, it looks like the folks at Breckenridge started off being fairly up front about the bourbon being sourced, but then things changed in 2012. They had embarked on a big marketing push and were trying to increase their distribution dramatically. Their “small distillery” story was a key selling point, and sourced whiskey certainly wouldn’t fit that narrative.

I found references from 2011 stating that they were pretty open on their website about the bourbon being sourced whiskey. By 2012 the web page with that information was still up, but there was no link to it from the rest of their site. Now that page is gone.

What I consider to be the most accurate information comes from someone who posts on straightbourbon.com and visits the distillery about twice a year. The latest information he posted was from April of 2013. At that time he was told (at the distillery) that the bourbon was originally 100% sourced, and then they switched over to blending the sourced whiskey with their own distillate, but they wouldn’t reveal the proportions of the two components. When that switchover happened, they changed the label a little; it went from saying “bourbon” to saying “bourbon whiskey”. He was also told that the bourbon would “eventually” be 100% their own and that another label change would happen to differentiate those bottles.

Interestingly, in June of 2013 one of the bloggers I have a lot of respect for was told by the distillery that their bourbon was still 100% sourced, and that eventually they would blend with their own distillate before transitioning to 100% made in-house bourbon.

Unfortunately, for the last couple of years they’ve also been telling a lot of people that the bourbon they are selling is all made at their Colorado distillery, and most of those statements originate with the company’s owner. One example was a restaurant manager from Atlanta who was fed this story directly by Bryan Nolt in February of 2012. I also found a blog post that called out Breckenridge for sourcing their bourbon. Someone commented with a quote from the distillery owner (it was a recent comment, but I think the quote dated back about a year) where he essentially stated that that they had sourced whiskey in the past, but were no longer doing that. But he also said they occasionally used whiskey distilled elsewhere that was made for them, with their recipe, yeast strain, etc. And finally I came across one more blog post where Bryan Nolt told the writer that most bottles are 100% their own whiskey, but occasionally a batch would require some older, sourced stock. That was in February of 2013.

Adding to the confusion, the bottle carries and age statement of two years, their marketing material says two to three years, and just about a year ago they told a prominent blogger that the age range was two to six years. When the same blogger questioned them about their use of unmalted barley, they told him that statement was a mistake and that they use malted barley. A year later that same information about unmalted barley is still on their website.

Their marketing is based on a few key points (followed by my rebuttals):

They claim to be the highest distillery in the world at 9600 ft.
While distilling at higher elevations has some advantages, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make good whiskey. And just 40 miles away, in Leadville, Colorado, is the Two Guns Distillery, at more than 10,200 ft.

Their water is supposed to come from snow-melt.
Apparently the distillery does have very high quality water. The water also comes off the tap at 38 degrees, and that does make their condenser very efficient. The water may originate from snow-melt, but I came across a newspaper article from 2011 where the distiller stated that it is municipal water and has to be filtered to strip out additives like chlorine and bromide.

They have a unique mash bill (56% corn, 38% rye, 6% unmalted barley).
First there’s the discrepancy that I mentioned above about the unmalted barley. In addition to that, I’ve seen references to the stated mashbill dating back as far as March of 2012, but I also found a youtube interview with their Master Distiller from May of 2012 where he stated the mashbill as being 56% corn, 34% rye and 10% malted barley.

They won an award in 2011 where they scored better than Pappy 23 year.
There are so many spirits awards out there that it is almost comical; most of them are judged by people whose opinions I don’t have much faith in. Much like modern-day school kids, almost everyone in these competitions gets an award and no one has to have their feeling hurt.

They have a custom copper Vendome combination still; the owner says that “Every shape, every bend affects the flavors”.
Reports from last year state that their plans for expansion include the installation of a column still to increase capacity. Not to mention that if they are sourcing as much whiskey as I suspect, then a significant proportion of the whiskey they have been selling would have come from a column still.

Clearly there are some honesty issues with this distillery. I decided to look for some numbers to see if I could draw any conclusions about the percentage of sourced whiskey that is in the bottle. After spending a considerable amount of time Googling, I did come up with some insightful information.

One article said they were one of the first craft distillers to sell more than 12,000 cases in their first year of distribution. I think that was for all of their products, but the bourbon is their focus and I’m sure it accounts for the vast majority of their sales. So let’s say 10,000 cases of bourbon in their first year. At the time, they were distributed in about 18 states. That was before their big marketing push in 2012. Looking at the product locator on their website, they are now in at least 29 states. But more importantly, they are in a massive number of locations in each state. Breckenridge bourbon is a regularly stocked item in 17 different stores in the Binny’s chain alone. And they are in all of the major markets: New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, Florida……

I think it’s safe to say that they’ve easily quadrupled their sales since their first year, so I’m going to estimate at least 40,000 cases last year. Just as a frame of reference, Maker’s Mark was selling 175,000 cases per year in 1994, and 14 years later they had increased sales almost ten-fold.

So, can Breckenridge make that much whiskey? There are two bottlenecks – distilling capacity and warehouse capacity. They were working on expanding both in the spring of 2013 and everything was supposed to be up and running by the fall of 2013. The old warehouse could hold up to 320 barrels and the new one was going to have a capacity of 3700 barrels. Assuming that they’re aging the bourbon for three years on average, the benefits of that expansion are still a few years away. For three years of aging that would give them 100 barrels per year. There are a few variables, but a barrel will typically yield 250 bottles. That would work out to about 2100 cases per year (12 bottle cases). The distillery does have a second warehouse in Denver (that info dates to late 2011), but I could find no information about its size so that is somewhat of a wildcard. To support 40,000 cases per year, the Denver warehouse would have to hold 5800 barrels, which is much bigger than the new warehouse at the distillery and I’d be very surprised if they had something that big.

The twice-a-year visitor to the distillery I mentioned earlier stated that he was told they were going to add a column still to increase capacity. In talking about that expansion, the owner of the distillery said production capacity would go from two barrels per day to 16 barrels per day. Again, with the aging time, that expansion is still a few years away from taking affect. Two barrels per day is about 700 per year. That works out to 44,000 cases per year. Breckenridge does make a lot of other products besides their bourbon, but it’s hard to say how much of the distilling capacity is taken up by those products.

I was really hoping I could come up with a good ballpark estimate of the ratio of sourced whiskey to house-made whiskey in Breckenridge’s bourbon, but without knowing the size of their Denver warehouse there are just too many variables. Their current sales could be a lot higher than my estimate too. Based on what I tasted, it’s my belief that it is a blend of the two, that the two to three years age statement refers to the whiskey they made themselves, and that there is a significant amount of sourced whiskey in the mix that’s in the four to six year age range.

The big story here is that once a distillery goes down the road of telling blatant lies and ends up with a bunch of conflicting information floating around on the web, it becomes hard for the informed consumer to trust anything they say, even if they do eventually start telling the truth.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 1

My first full day in Florida was all about catching up on sleep, then hunkering down and polishing the details of that evening’s presentation. My only obligations on the second day were a late afternoon staff training session and dinner with my host. The food & beverage management at Frenchman’s Creek were kind enough to arrange for one of the local liquor distributors to put on an American whiskey tasting at the club on the last night I would be there.


Having spent ample time on the beach without sun-block on day two, I had brought myself right to the verge of a substantial burn. My mission on day three was to avoid the ultraviolet rays; and besides, I still needed to make proper tasting notes of the single malts from the dinner I had hosted. So I cranked up the air conditioning and hid out in my room for much of the afternoon with four sample bottles, slowly sipping, analyzing and taking notes.

And how does one transition from an afternoon of Scotch induced contemplation to an even tasting of American Whiskeys? Well, if you’re in Florida, you have a glass of whiskey during “happy hour”. The lobby bar at my accommodations had a few bottles that piqued my interest; it was only logical to sample one when everything was half price, from 4:00 to 6:00. From this lengthy day of tasting, followed by one more whiskey for the road before checking out the next morning, a theme would eventually emerge……

Ten years ago virtually all of the whiskey produced in the U.S. came out of a mere 14 distilleries. Of course, the number of brands was much higher than the number of distilleries. There were some independent bottlers; companies who bought bulk aged whiskey on the open market and bottled it for retail sale. These companies could focus on their marketing and image building activities while letting someone else deal with the nuts and bolts of whiskey making. Many of the brands, however, were owned by the big distilleries. This business model gave them the flexibility to shift their product across the brands they owned as the popularity of those brands waxed and waned.

The landscape of American whiskey has changed tremendously over the last decade, and the explosive rise of whiskey’s popularity has set the stage for this change. The lion’s share of American whiskey is still produced by a small number of macro-distillers, but there are now well over 300 small distilleries also producing whiskey in the U.S. The number of non-distiller producers (ndp’s, just another name for independent bottlers) has risen dramatically, to well over 100, not to mention several brands recently created or resurrected by the big distillers.

While it may seem like the American whiskey industry is moving into uncharted territory, in many ways it is becoming more reminiscent of how things looked in the decades leading up to prohibition. In the early 1800’s, much of the whiskey made in the U.S. was produced on small farm distilleries, and some of those lingered on into the early 20th century. After the Civil War (1861-1865) the new railroads allowed much greater distribution than was possible when whiskey was transported primarily by river, ushering in the era of big, commercial distilleries. Large, nationally known whiskey brands first started to appear in the mid 1800’s, with Old Crow and Old Oscar Pepper being some of the earliest examples.

Through the latter half of the 19th century, most of the whiskey coming from the big distillers was sold in bulk to wholesale merchants. The wholesalers employed travelling salesmen who would entice customers with product samples. Those customers were usually the owners of bars or general stores, who would buy the whiskey by the barrel and sell it at the retail level. Most of the brands back then were created by the wholesale companies, who often mixed whiskey from different distilleries to create a variety of offerings. This is a big part of why there were so many small, regional brands back then.

Unfortunately the industry had very little regulation prior to 1900 and trademark protections were also weak at the time. At best, unscrupulous wholesalers would use bait and switch tactics, with their sales samples being of far greater quality than the whiskey that was eventually delivered in barrels. At worst, they would water down the whiskey, then put in additives, which ranged from harmless to toxic, in order to mask the deception. Deceit happened on the retail level as well, and knock-off brand names were all too common.

While the whiskey trade has come a long way since the days of the Wild West and consumers enjoy a lot of protections in the modern era, deceptive practices are still seen today. Some of the terminology used on whiskey labels is undefined (at least officially) and unregulated, leaving how those terms are used to the discretion of the producer. One example is “barrel proof”; this should be the proof of the whiskey as it exits the barrel, but if a producer wants to add a little water to each batch so they have a consistent proof number and don’t have to change the label, there is no rule against that.

But most of the current deception in the industry relates to the source of the whiskey, with many ndp’s buying bulk whiskey from the big distillers and trying to give the impression that they distilled it themselves. There are also issues with the history and provenance of many of the brands and producers (there seem to be a lot of tall tales of “old family recipes” going around these days). I’m going to run through the nine offerings that I tasted as my trip wound down since they represent an interesting cross section of American whiskey, and along with my opinion of each, I’ll look at their stories and try to separate the fact from the fiction.


Angel’s Envy, Kentucky Straight Bourbon finished in Port wine barrels, no age statement, 43.3%, $45

The nose is fairly sweet and soft, but still very bourbon-like. I find it reminiscent of Maker’s Mark. On the palate it is full flavored, but soft and approachable. Corn, dark berry fruit and sweetness is the main theme here, with a minimal oak and spice influence. As with the palate, the flavors through the finish are robust, yet soft, round and approachable. I suspect that this is a wheat based bourbon. While I think it is well made, liking it will come down to personal preference; it is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to an aggressive, spice driven, high-rye bourbon. I think it would do well in a cocktail with a strong bitter component, like an Amaro.



Lincoln Henderson, a former Brown Forman distiller, founded Angel’s Envy. It was first released in the spring of 2011, and from the start the company has talked about their plans to open a micro-distillery in Louisville, KY. Such projects take time, and they finally announced the ground breaking for the distillery in July of 2013. They’ve made no secret of that fact that they are working with sourced whiskey, and that will continue until the whiskey they’ll eventually distill themselves comes of age.

Unfortunately, Lincoln Henderson passed away in September of 2013, but the company grew considerably and attracted significant investment in its first few years. Angel’s Envy will continue on, even without its founder.

Which distillery a whiskey is sourced from is often kept confidential, whether it is at the behest of the producer or the purchaser. In many cases the information is leaked from someone with inside knowledge, but the folks at Angel’s Envy have managed to remain tight lipped regarding the origins of their whisky. While doing some research, I did come across information that the source for the bourbon they are using may have changed at some point in the first year of production. Early on the age was claimed to be in the 5 to 7 year range, more recent statements put it in the 4 to 6 year range. The finishing time in French oak Port casks is said to be 3 to 6 months.

Even though they don’t disclose the source of their whiskey, the folks at Angel’s Envy are pretty upfront about the fact that they are using sourced whiskey. The copy on their website does raise my suspicions though. They talk about being involved in every step of the production of their whiskey, from the distillation through the aging process. It may be bottled in small batches, but this is bulk whisky produced by one of the big distilleries. I find it very hard to believe that Angel’s Envy, as one of their customers, is actually involved in the earliest stages of production. In the grand scheme of things though, this is actually a fairly minor embellishment.


Breaking & Entering, Bourbon, 43%, $39

The nose is soft and sweet, but still somewhat potent. It seems to have a wheat-like aroma characteristic. On the palate it has good complexity, with an interesting marriage of sweetness, wheat-like softness and rye spiciness. The finish is a little mild, aside from some lingering rye spice. I find it kind of gentle, but pretty good overall with nice complexity.



Breaking & Entering is the product of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. This is one of the earliest craft distillers in the U.S., having started with eu de vie (clear fruit brandy) in 1982. They began producing and aging malt whiskey in 1997 and released the first lot in 2000. Other notable achievements for the company include the creation of Hanger One vodka and the distillation of the first legal American absinthe since it was banned in 1912.

But Breaking & Entering is not distilled by St. George Spirits. They sourced the bourbon from distilleries in Kentucky and are proud of it. The name is even a play on words to intimate that they stole someone else’s whiskey. Viewing this project as a foray into the art of blending, they assume (and rightly so) that there is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey, even for an established craft distiller, if you are honest about it.

The bottle has no age statement, but the website claims that all of the whiskey is in the 5 to 8 year range. The online product description mentions that they selected nearly 400 barrels from various Kentucky rickhouses. But looking at the historical timeline on their site, it states that 320 barrels were brought back from Kentucky in 2011, when Breaking & Entering was first made. This leads me to believe that B&E is an ongoing project and the folks at St. George have gone on at least a couple of barrel sourcing missions. I’m not sure if it was done on purpose or not, but the product description kind of makes it sound like the project was a one time deal.

I did see a few older reviews that mention this whiskey being made up of 80 barrels. I’m guessing that when 300 to 400 barrels are brought back from Kentucky, they are blending the whiskey together in 80 barrel batches. The bottles do have batch numbers on them, but I’ve never seen any references to variations among the different batches.


Dancing Pines, Bourbon, 44%, $50

The nose is slightly restrained, showing notes of clay and soft rye spice. I find some resemblance to Old Grand Dad. One the palate, the flavors are in line with the aromas but they are overpowered by a high level of heat. The flavor that’s there seems nice, there’s just not enough of it. The whiskey doesn’t evolve too much; the flavors and heat recede at an equal pace through the reasonably long finish. Adding a bit of water opens the nose just a little and helps to bring out the flavors right up front, but the heat still rises up and takes over pretty quickly. I see some potential here, but it just comes across as being too immature. I’d love to try it at twice the age.



Dancing Pines is a craft distillery located in Loveland Colorado. It was started late in 2009 by a former homebrewer and hobby distiller, along with his wife and a little help from his father. Rum production is their main focus, but they also make a variety of flavored liqueurs, brandy, gin and the above tasted bourbon. The bourbon is double distilled in a small copper pot still, and, as with their other products, it is all made in house.

In my tasting notes I mentioned that I’d love to try it at twice the age, which begs the question; what is the age? Looking over the bottle as I was tasting, I noticed the “aged less than 4 years” statement, which raised a red flag. That is not a true age statement and is essentially meaningless. A whiskey could be aged for two days and it would qualify as being aged less than four years. A true age statement should be in the format of “3 years old” or “aged 3 years”, or it could say “aged 3 years or more”.



I did a little research and came across a video interview where the owner of Dancing Pines mentions that his bourbon is matured in a combination of 15, 30 and 50 gallon barrels, with aging times ranging from nine months to two years. Keep in mind though, that this whiskey is labeled as bourbon, not straight bourbon. There are certain requirements for a whiskey to qualify as bourbon, a few more are added on to qualify for the straight designation and a few more requirements on top of that if it is going to carry the bonded label. All bourbon must be aged in new charred oak containers, but there is no minimum aging requirement, and having an age statement on the label is completely optional. Straight bourbon, on the other hand, has a minimum aging requirement of two years and an age statement is required if it is less than four years old. The age statement is optional for straight bourbons older than four years. Along with a few other requirements, bonded bourbons must be aged at least four years.

A whiskey label’s age statement must show the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. So if Dancing Pines had a true age statement on the label it would have to be “9 months old”. I’m not sure if what Dancing Pines has on their label breaks the rules for age statements, or if it doesn’t matter because they aren’t required to have one, but either way it is a bit disingenuous. I think it’s great that they’re making all of their own whiskey even though they haven’t been around very long, and the product shows a lot of potential. The age statement thing is really the only nitpick I have here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Florida Scotch dinner, part 2

This is the second part of a two part post. If you haven’t read the beginning, please start here.


When it comes to traditional whisky making techniques, the methods utilized by Springbank are about as comprehensive as it gets. While a few bits of modernity can be seen around the distillery, it is in many ways a working museum.

They utilize a wide range of cask types at Springbank, but most of the less traditional ones are reserved for limited edition bottlings. Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks are exclusive to their standard lineup, but the proportions vary from one expression to the next. In the case of the 12 year Cask Strength, it is 60% fresh Sherry hogsheads and 40% refill Sherry butts (just for reference, the 10 year bottling is from 60% Bourbon barrels and 40% Sherry casks).

As I mentioned above, Springbank does employ the direct firing method. But that is only on their wash still, and that still also uses an internal steam coil. Their other two stills are heated indirectly with internal steam coils.



I also made note of Springbank’s condensers above. The wash still and the #2 low wines still have the modern shell and tube arrangements, while the #1 low wines still uses the traditional worm tub.



Like Glengoyne, Springbank distills at a very slow speed. The photo below shows their three receiver tanks. You can see the dipsticks going into the tanks (all three are visible, but the one on the right is the easiest to see). During distillation, the liquid level in the tank should rise 7 cm every thirty minutes. This is checked and recorded in a log book. If it is rising too fast the steam valve is closed a little to slow down the distillation, and if it is rising too slowly the steam valve is opened a little to speed things up.



Where Springbank really stands apart from other Scotch producers is the parts of the process that lead up to distillation. First, they only use barley that was grown in Scotland, where many others source barley from England or even continental Europe. When I first heard this I thought it was just a matter of national pride. But I later learned that Scotland’s far northern location (which gives it a long summer with many hours of daylight) and its position right in the path of the Gulf Stream (which gives it a cool damp maritime climate) provide a long, slow growing season which results in barley that is low in nitrogen and has a high starch content, and that is ideal for making whisky.

The barley itself has evolved over time, especially since the 1960’s. New varieties are constantly being introduced in the hunt for better disease resistance and higher yields (both in terms for the tons grown per acre, and the amount of sugar available per ton). Golden Promise was the industry’s variety of choice from the mid 1960’s through the mid 1980’s. The succession then went: Triumph, Chariot, Optic; all of which had overlapping runs of about 15 years. Newer varieties come and go more rapidly, but Optic, whose prime years were 1995 to 2010, is still around. In fact, Optic is still the barley of choice at Springbank, at least as of mid 2012.

The next step is malting the barley. In Barnard’s time almost all of the distilleries did this in-house, on traditional floor maltings. That rapidly changed in 1960’s when most of the distillers embraced mass production in an effort to meet the demands of the post World War II whisky boom. Large malting companies had mechanized and automated the process, making it far less labor intensive and in turn less costly. I mentioned above that many single malt producers reduced their peat levels in the 1960’s to meet the requirements of the blenders who bought most of their whisky. Purchasing malted barley made this a little easier as they could just specify the peat level (in parts per million phenols) of the malt they were buying, rather than making and fine tuning adjustments to a process they were doing themselves.



There are currently only eight distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings. Most of them only malt 20% to 30% of what they use and purchase the rest malted to order. Springbank is typically touted as the only distillery to malt 100% of their own barley. In actuality, their sister distillery, Glengyle (which produces Kilkerran single malt) does as well. Glengyle currently only produces whisky one month a year, when Springbank is closed for maintenance. So Springbank’s malting floors are available for and able to cover the malting needs of both distilleries. The old malting floors at Glengyle are still intact, so when they eventually expand production, a little restoration work could easily have them back in action.




Many whisky writers say that traditional floor maltings are now used for no reason other than as a tourist attraction. I spent a long time trying to figure out if this was true. It seems logical that automating the malting process, a lot of which is temperature and moisture content sensitive, would make for much more consistent results. I couldn’t think of any quality advantage to be gained by the traditional method. Then it struck me; it’s the ability to maintain the flavor of the local peat. As you move around Scotland, the organic matter that makes up the peat varies from place to place. Highland Park buys unpeated malt and heavily peats the 20% that they malt in house. The two are mixed together to achieve a moderate peat level that showcases the floral, Heather driven smoke flavors of Oarkney’s peat. The staff at Laphroaig hand cut peat from their own beds. It is composed of an unusually high amount of lichens and mosses. Even malting just 30% of the barley they use is enough to let the pungent iodine-medicinal flavors of their local peat come through. I’m not sure what the peat local to Campbeltown is composed of, but it comes through as a soft, dry, earthy smokiness. And that characteristic is even more evident in Springbank’s heavily peated Longrow single malt.




After malting and milling, it’s time for mashing. This is where hot water is mixed with the barley so it can steep at specific temperatures which will activate enzymes, causing starches to convert into sugars. This happens in a vessel which has changed over the years. The older style, called a mush tun, is made of cast iron with an open top and slotted brass floor plates that separate the liquid from the grain. The newer version, called a lauter tun, is made entirely of stainless steel with a closed top (if the top is copper, that material was chosen for cosmetic reasons). The mash tun is generally deeper and has what is called a stirring gear, which rotates as it circles the vessel, keeping everything well mixed. Water, which is added through one large pipe, is drained off then refilled successively three or four times. The lauter tun is a shallower vessel so the water travels through less grain. A sparging arm rotates around in the tun, slowly sprinkling hot water down onto the grain. Mixing blades attached to the arm mix the grain and water. This arrangement allows a continuous flow of liquid through the lauter tun.




A lauter tun will do the job faster, and it will produce a wort (sugar laden water) with a higher original gravity (higher sugar content). At Springbank, they use a traditional mash tun, but they also run significantly more water through it than they really have to. This probably helps to pull every bit of sugar out of the grain, but the real reason they do it is to dilute the wort and send it off to ferment with a very low original gravity. The original gravity of the wort has a definite effect on the flavors produced during fermentation. By starting with such a low original gravity, Springbank is, to a certain extent, emulating the results that would have been achieved by the low yielding barley strains that were common prior to the mid 1960’s. This also means that they end up with  a wash that is between 4% and 5% abv, where they typical modern distiller will be in the 9% to 11% range. I assume this means the stills have to do more work to get that liquid up to the target of 72% abv.

Speaking of fermentation, there are a few more factors at play here. Tradition washbacks (the fermentation tanks) are made of wood. Larch and Oregon Pine (the Scottish name for Douglas Fir) are commonly used. Many distillers have switched over to stainless steel washbacks, which last longer and are easier to maintain. Distillers with wooden washbacks say there are micro-organisms in the wood that have a distinct effect on the flavor of the whisky. At every distillery I visited that had stainless washbacks, I was told that they had no effect on the flavor. I guess that point is up for debate. But the length of fermentation is certainly not debatable. Prior to the 1970’s, fermentations lasting up to a week were the norm. Most of the alcohol is produced in the first two days of fermentation, but a lot of flavor development happens in the ensuing days. As production levels needed to rise in the 60’s and 70’s, fermentations times were cut back. Combined with faster distillation cycles, this resulted in many single malts losing their distinctive fruity character (typically citrus, tropical, stone and/or pome fruit flavors). Most distillers ferment for two to three days now, but Springbank holds on to the long fermentations of yesteryear, with five to six days being typical.



Although they have no impact on the taste of the whisky, a few other sights around Springbank are worth noting. The riveted seams on their wash still hearken back to the days before welding copper became commonplace, and they are a thing of beauty.



Modern distilleries have electric motors placed anywhere that mechanical motion is required. In Barnard’s time, a steam engine or a water wheel would run a series of belts, pulleys and shafts; transferring that energy to various locations around the distillery. Many of these ancient drivelines have been kept in tact at Springbank, and the old steam engine replaced by one big electric motor. The system provides a wonderful insight into how things would have looked in the 19th century.






Springbank 12 year Cask Strength, 50.3%
nose: Big and sharp. Malt, fruit and moderate peat smoke followed by a distinct oxidative quality.
palate: Robust, full bodied. Bold fruit up front (apple, orange, baked berry fruit). Springbank’s signature soft, dry, earthy peat character follows shortly thereafter, but is less intense than I expected. A hint of brine comes through as well.
finish: Long with warming spiciness (dare I say, even a little hot?), a bit of fruit and peat smoke linger on as the spice notes slowly recede.
overall: Unbridled, a bit of a wild ride. Adding a healthy splash of water tones down the aromas but seems to accentuate the peat notes. I’d still call it full flavored with water added, but that seems to have tamed the beast. Everything is still there, but now it seems more refined and well-integrated. It’s rare that I add water to a whisky, even those at cask strength, but I think it makes a nice improvement in this case.

The last single malt of the evening would be accompanied by a round of hand rolled cigars, so something heavily peated was in order. I chose 10 year Ledaig because I’m quite fond of it, I like introducing people to relatively unknown scotches, and it related nicely to the last few points that I wanted to discuss.

Ledaig is the heavily peated offering from Tobermory. It’s the only distillery on the isle of Mull and has had checkered history since it was established in 1798. The last 21 years however, has been a period of relative stability under the ownership of Burn Stewart.

The company has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and Bunnahabhain since 2003. In 2010 they made the decision to eliminate the chill filtering process for all of the single malts from their three distilleries. Chilling the whisky before filtering it causes fatty acids, esters and proteins to come out of solution so they can be removed. This procedure will keep the whisky from going hazy at low temperatures and is done purely for aesthetic reasons. But many believe it has the ugly side effect of stripping flavor out of the whisky too.

Chill filtering has been around since the 1920’s, but it didn’t become common practice in the Scotch industry until the 1960’s. While still prevalent, many single malt Scotch producers have started to move away from the practice. Since the compounds that would be filtered out are more soluble in alcohol than water, the non-chill filtered whiskies are normally bottled at a higher alcohol level; otherwise they could go hazy even at lower room temperatures. 46% abv is usually the minimum level, but some lighter style whiskies that have fewer of those compounds to start with may be bottled at a lower abv. Burn Stewart raised the alcohol level of all of their single malts to 46.3% when they did away with chill filtration.

The addition of caramel coloring is allowed by the Scotch industry. This is a practice that sort of goes hand in hand with chill filtering. Producers who do it claim they add a minimal amount to ensure consistent color from batch to batch. Many critics feel that the artificial coloring is often added in a heavy handed manner to make the whisky more visually appealing, to the point that is has a negative impact on the flavor. Like most Scotch producers who eliminate chill filtering, Burn Stewart swore off caramel coloring at the same time.

The last topic that relates to Ledaig is the location of the aging warehouses. Much like the use of local peat that I mentioned above, aging the whisky in warehouses located close to the distillery can impart a local flavor. As far as I know, this phenomenon only manifests itself in coastal locations, where the sea air can infiltrate the warehouse. Slowly over time, that air will impregnate the casks as whisky evaporates out of them, imparting distinctive brine-like notes. If there are other local climate factors that can affect the flavor of the whisky as it ages, I am unaware of them.

In the age of mass production, large companies that own several distilleries are often involved in blending too, and will have a centralized location for their bottling and distribution operations. In this case it makes sense (from a business perspective) to have most of their warehouses consolidated at the same location. But this has resulted in the whiskies of some coastal distilleries losing the maritime character that they once had.

In the case of Ledaig, the Tobermory distillery sold off its only warehouse to a real estate developer in order to raise capital in 1979. Once Burn Stewart took over, they started aging all of the Tobermory and Ledaig casks in the Deanston warehouses, located outside of Sterling; about as far as one can get from the ocean on the Scottish mainland.




Then, in 2003, the acquisition of Bunnahabhain and its surplus warehouse space gave them an opportunity to age these island malts on the edge of the sea again. Ledaig and Tobermory may not be aged on the same island where they are distilled, but at least they are once again resting quietly with throwing distance of the ocean.



Ledaig 10 year, 46.3%
What I’m tasting today comports with the notes I made back in December, so I’m copying them here for the most part.
nose: Fresh, hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
palate: The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity.
finish: Most of the flavors from the mid palate continue on and fade gracefully though the finish.
overall: It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement

Just a few brief footnotes before I wrap up. The folks at Springbank are quite proud of the fact that their whisky has never been chill filtered or had artificial color added. I would have preferred to use the non-chill filtered versions of Glenfarclas and Glengoyne, both of which are bottled at cask strength. Glenfarclas 105 was out of stock and probably would have put me way over budget, but I do have a bottle of it at home in the queue for blogging. Glengoyne used to have a cask strength 12 year old. They recently changed to a 43% abv 12 year old and a “no age statement” cask strength bottling. Unfortunately, that cask strength Glengoyne is the only member of their standard lineup that isn’t imported to the U.S. All of the official bottlings from Cragganmore are chill filtered. I have read that much of the weightiness that is gained by their use of worm tubs is lost in the process. As I said in my tasting notes, it seems to be holding something back; I suspect chill filtering is to blame. I’m definitely on the lookout for a non-chill filtered independent bottling of Cragganmore.



After a long day of final preparations and making my presentation, a little fishing was in order the next morning. The keen observer will note that I’m wearing the exact same outfit that I had on while fishing in the same spot last year. What can I say? I live in the mountains; my wardrobe is sparse when it comes to beach attire.