Saturday, March 28, 2015

Woodford Reserve, Distiller's Select

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 45.2%, $37

In my last post, which covered 86 proof Old Forester, I discussed a few of the many acquisitions that Brown-Forman has made since the end of Prohibition. Now I’m going to look at another distillery, Woodford Reserve, which the company actually purchased two different times, in transactions that took place more than 50 years apart.

Located in Versailles, KY, the current distillery building was constructed in 1838, but Elijah Pepper had established his farm and distilling operation on the site in 1812. It is often mistakenly stated that distilling here dates to 1780; an inaccuracy that springs from the fact that Elijah Pepper began his distilling career in 1780. At that time he lived in Virginia though, and he didn’t relocate to Kentucky until 1797. He and his brother-in-law established a distillery in Versailles which they operated together for several years until Pepper started his new farm distillery in 1812, which was located about five miles away.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1831 leaving the distillery to his son, Oscar Pepper. In 1833 he hired Dr. James Crow as his master distiller. Crow held that position until his death 23 years later, and made many advances in the methods of bourbon production during his tenure. It was in this period that the distillery officially took the name Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, likely when the building dating to 1838 was constructed.

Oscar Pepper passed away in 1865 and the ownership of the distillery gets a little confusing here, as he left no will. His oldest son, James Pepper, who was 15 at the time, began running the distillery. When the court finally settled the estate in 1869 they divided it between Oscar Pepper’s 7 children. The portion of the property with the distillery (and everything else that made money) was given to his youngest son, O’Bannon, who was only 7 years old. This was done so Oscar Pepper’s widow could be left in charge of the finances of the property. She leased the distillery out to Gaines, Berry & Co. in 1870.

The official distillery name was not changed during this period, but due to the fame and reputation of Dr. Crow, the distillery may have sometimes been referred to as the Old Crow distillery while he was employed there and in the years following his death. It appears that whiskey from the distillery was not sold under the Old Crow brand until Gaines, Berry & Co. took over the operation.

In 1872 James Pepper sued his mother in order to take back control of the distillery. Two years later, James Pepper entered into an agreement with Col. E.H. Taylor, who provided capital for improvements to the distillery. Taylor had been a partner in Gaines, Berry & Co. when they leased the distillery, but he left the firm later in 1870.

James Pepper declared bankruptcy in 1877, leaving Col. Taylor as the sole owner of the distillery. Shortly thereafter, Taylor was forced into bankruptcy himself. George T. Stagg, who had been one of Taylor’s creditors, paid off Taylor’s debts for pennies on the dollar and ended up with the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Later in 1878 he sold it to James Graham, who then partnered with Leopold Labrot.

In spite of a legal challenge from James Pepper after he emerged from bankruptcy, the new owners kept using the original name of the distillery, although it was amended slightly to Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. While the members of the partnership that owned the distillery changed several times over the following 62 years, the proprietorship continued using the Labrot & Graham name. The distillery was forced to close during Prohibition (1920-1933), leaving the buildings vacant and unused after much of the equipment was sold for salvage. At the end of this hiatus the company was re-established and the distillery rebuilt. As far as I can tell, it was at this time that the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery moniker stopped being used and the official name was changed to the Labrot & Graham Distillery.

Finally, in 1940, Brown-Forman purchased the distillery for the sum of $75,000. A series of improvements were made, increasing capacity. During this period the whiskey made here was primarily sold as Early Times bourbon. Early Times became the best selling bourbon in America in the 1950’s, so the demand required that it be produced in this distillery as well as Brown-Forman’s facility in Shively. Once the distillery in Shively was modernized and dramatically expanded in 1955, the days were numbered for the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Production ceased in 1957, but they continued to store whiskey in the warehouses until 1965. The mothballed distillery property was sold in 1973 to a local farmer who used it primarily for agricultural storage.

When the bourbon market showed signs of revitalization in the early 1990’s Brown-Forman began exploring the possibility of creating a premium bourbon using traditional methods. They investigated potential sites for this project and their old Labrot & Graham Distillery ended up being the most viable option. The property was repurchased in 1994, and Brown-Forman continued to call the facility the Labrot & Graham Distillery, as they had done through their first period of ownership.

During the two year restoration many of the historical aspects (in terms of architecture and production equipment) of the distillery were preserved. The biggest nod to traditional techniques in the new distillery was the reintroduction of the use of copper pot stills. This is certainly how whiskey would have originally been made here, as the column still didn’t start to see widespread use until at least the mid 1830’s. I’ve only seen documentation that the distillery was using a column still prior to the start of Prohibition, but I think it is likely that the switch from pot stills to a column still coincided with the building of the new still house in 1938. The new bourbon would be named Woodford Reserve, for the county in which the distillery is located.

It’s often rumored that Woodford Reserve is nothing more than over-priced Old Forester in a fancy bottle. While this rumor is not completely true, it does have some basis in fact. Not wanting to lose ground to their competitors, Brown-Forman chose to start building the brand for their new bourbon as soon as the distillery renovations were complete. Of course “straight” bourbon has to age for at least two years, so there was no way that the Woodford Reserve initially sold was a product of the new distillery. For several years it was in fact made up of the better barrels of bourbon from the Shively distillery that would have otherwise been used in Old Forester. Woodford Reserve is currently, and probably always will be a vatting of column still whiskey from Shively and pot still whiskey from Versailles. The reason is likely two-fold; so the bourbon sold as Woodford isn’t too dramatic of a departure from the whiskey the brand was built on, and because the Versailles distillery doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand for Woodford Reserve.

I did a bit of research and was able to glean some information about how Woodford Reserve has transformed over the years. The first 89 batches of Woodford were distilled solely at the Shively distillery. Batch 90 was the first one to have pot still whiskey from Versailles in the mix; that was released in May of 2003. As of 2005 there were numerous reports that Woodford Reserve was pretty inconsistent from batch to batch, and a well-respected source suggested it would likely be several years before the product had a consistent flavor profile. Somewhere around 2005 the batch size increased from 1000 cases to 5000 cases; a change that could only help the consistency issue.

The column still whiskey from Shively used in Woodford Reserve and the pot still whiskey from Versailles both use the same yeast and the same mash bill (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley) as Old Forester. The percentage of pot still whiskey in the mix varies from batch to batch as they try to attain the desired flavor profile. Brown-Forman doesn’t disclose these numbers, but in 2006 there was a claim on a discussion forum that it ranged from 25% to 50%. In 2010 a well-respected source stated that there was no difference between the barrels of column still whiskey that went into Woodford Reserve and those that went into Old Forester when those barrels were laid down. After a few years of aging in Shively, some barrels would be selected to finish aging in Versailles before they were used in Woodford. Although it carries no age statement, Woodford Reserve is said to be about 7 years old on average.

The annual limited release Master’s Collection from Woodford Reserve is always made up of 100% pot still whiskey, but those have each had unusual wood finishes or different grain recipes than the standard Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. And just one last historical footnote before my tasting notes; in 2003 the official name of the distillery in Versailles was quietly changed to the Woodford Reserve Distillery. That change went largely unnoticed and the “Labrot & Graham” name can still be found on every bottle.


The nose is not too intense, but focused and concentrated with a dark character – leather and shoe polish notes are prominent. On the palate it shows very good complexity. Leather, vanilla, cinnamon spice, oak, nuttiness and gentle sweetness are all well-integrated. It gently shifts to a drier, spicier character, with leather and charred oak as the prominent notes, as it transitions into the finish. All the while it maintains its complexity and the alcohol level stays in check. Overall, the flavors evolve gracefully with subtle transitions. It’s approachable but still has good depth and plenty of character.

Anyone who tells you that this is just over-priced Old Forester simply hasn’t tasted the two side by side.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Old Forester, 86 proof

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 43%, $22

I covered much of the history of the Old Forester brand and the Brown-Forman Corporation in my recent Birthday Bourbon post. There were a few points that I skipped over though, in part to keep that post from getting too long, but also because I wanted to save those topics for a few other bottles that were sitting on the old whiskey shelf.

First a slight correction; in the above mentioned post (which has since been updated) I stated that Old Forester was introduced in 1870. In actuality, the company that eventually came to be known as Brown-Forman was founded in 1870, but they sold whiskey by the barrel under several other brands before introducing Old Forester in 1873. In that post, I talked about the production of Old Forester transitioning through a variety of different distilleries during its long history, but didn’t cover some other changes that have happened along the way.

It was originally bottled at 90 proof and stayed that way until Prohibition. As I mentioned before, Brown-Forman was one of only a handful of companies that were able to obtain a license to sell medicinal whiskey during that dark period. Medicinal whiskey was a product that was highly regulated by the federal government, and one of the requirements was that it had to be Bottled in Bond. There are a few different regulations that a whiskey must conform to in order to qualify as being Bottled in Bond. One of the stipulations is that it must be bottled at 100 proof (50% abv), so Old Forester saw its proof go up at the dawn of Prohibition for the first time since its inception.

Brown-Forman chose to keep Old Forester as a Bottled in Bond product after Prohibition ended, but in 1959 they added an 86 proof bottling to the lineup. Then, around 2002 or 2003 the Bottled in Bond designation was dropped from the 100 proof version of Old Forester. Bonded whiskeys must be the product of one distillation season, so this change would have given the company a little more flexibility in terms of vatting together whiskeys with a wider variety of ages. In 2006 the 100 proof bottling was re-launched with new labeling as Old Forester Signature. The reasoning given was that the barrels were now being specially selected to produce a different flavor profile than the 86 proof bottling. In the past, the 86 proof Old Forester had just been a watered down version of the 100 proof bottling.

I’m going to taste the 86 Proof Old Forester today, but first I want to go off on a brief tangent. Since Prohibition ended, Brown-Forman has stayed on a significant path of growth which has been fueled by a steady stream of acquisitions. I’m just going to consider a few of them here.

In 1945 they purchased the Louisville, KY facilities of the Wood Mosaic Company. The plant dated to the early 1920’s and had started as a furniture factory. At the onset of World War II, it was converted to make riffle stocks for the British and plywood parts for military aircraft. After the war, Brown-Forman transformed the factory into a cooperage so they could make their own whiskey barrels. This facility was named Bluegrass Cooperage, but in 2009 it was renamed as the Brown-Forman Cooperage.

Another important acquisition happened in 1955, with the purchase of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. Why is the significant? Well, Jack Daniel’s may have just been a small regional distillery at the time (producing only 200,000 cases of whiskey per year), but Brown-Forman was able to grow the brand into the best selling American whiskey by 1996. Worldwide case sales for the brand were up to 8.9 million in 2006 and they hit 12.4 million cases in 2012, vastly outpacing Brown-Forman’s other whiskey brands.

Making that much whiskey takes an awful lot of barrels. The Bluegrass Cooperage had long supplied barrels to distilleries outside of the Brown-Forman family, but the growth of Jack Daniel’s put and end to that practice in 2006. The company announced that it would build a second cooperage in Alabama in mid 2012, and that facility went online two years later, in mid 2014. The facility, named Jack Daniel’s Cooperage, won’t be up to full capacity until at least the end of 2015, but once it reaches that point it will match the output of Brown-Forman Cooperage. The company is presently still only producing new barrels for its own use, and I’ve been told that is unlikely to change in the next two to three years (that was the personal opinion of an employee, not an official company statement).

While there are a handful of other barrel producers, all of them operate on a very small scale, with one exception. That one exception is the Independent Stave Company. Started in 1912 as a stave and barrel head producer, Independent Stave expanded into bourbon barrel manufacturing in 1951. Eventually the lion’s share of the barrels produced in the US were coming from either Brown-Forman or Independent Stave. Once Brown-Forman stopped doing external barrel sales in 2006, Independent Stave, with its two cooperages (Lebanon, KY and Lebanon, MO), was really the only game in town for all of the other whiskey distillers.

Then, in the March of 2014 the online store section of Independent Stave’s website had a message stating that they had current customers on allocation and were unable to take new orders. It also said that they hoped to be able to address new inquiries within 6 to 12 months. By December of 2014 that message had been updated to say 9 to 12 months, and it as of today it has not changed. The barrel shortage is here and it is real.

Where this story really gets interesting is with a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn that I got a few months ago. This came from a gentleman in China who owns a company that produces oak barrels. They seem to be focused on wine barrels now, but surely the whiskey industry will be in their sights soon (and if not them, I’d imagine a similar company will try to fill the void).

And that brings up a whole host of intriguing questions. Does the species of oak that is native to northern Japan (Mizunara, aka Quercus mongolica var. crispula) and used by their whisky industry also grow in China? Are there other oak species growing in China that are suitable for barrel making? How will the quality control of Chinese made barrels be? How much of a cost savings will a producer see with Chinese barrels? Will barrel origin become a selling point for American whiskeys? Currently, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; will the laws be updated to only allow American Oak?

Okay, back on track and on to the whiskey.



The nose has moderate intensity and shows notes of grain, leather and dry spice, along with a good hit of alcohol. On the palate it is mild up front, but rapidly picks up stream as it moves along. There’s a prominent but short-lived wave of sweetness on the mid-palate (candy corn and maple sugar) which is quickly followed by leather and a touch of oak. On the finish it quickly turns dry and spicy with the heat from the alcohol becoming more dominant. Wood and spice notes carry it along late in the finish, but it does fall a little flat at the very end. Overall it’s a little clumsy as it transitions from start to finish, but I’d still call it a respectable glass of whiskey.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oban, 18 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $158

My current employers are wise enough to not pass up a good resource that is at their disposal. So after less than six months of employment they asked me select new single malts for their existing restaurant and pick the Scotches that they would feature in their soon-to-open, second location. Neither establishment is particularly whisky-centric, so the single malt groupings had to be small, focused and well-selected. A little more than a year after the opening of the second, larger outlet, I was asked to put together a short list of potential additions to their Scotch collection from a higher price range. The only caveat was that it had to be something with good brand recognition.

That was actually kind of a tough exception for me. I’m not all that fond of many of the more easily recognized whisky brands for a variety of reasons. The other single malts I had previously chosen were picked to fit a theme of having been produced by traditional methods, at least to some degree (long fermentation, slow distillation, floor malting, direct-fire stills, worm tubs, non-chill filtration, etc), and I wanted to stick to that if possible. Adding a flavor profile that would compliment what we already had on offer was something to be considered as well.

Being in a small liquor-control state also puts some limitations on what is available. My short list was pretty short; just four selections from three producers (well, I also tacked on one more without much name recognition, just to hold true to my principles). The selection that eventually came out on top was 18 year Oban.

Of the twenty-something malt distilleries owned by Diageo, Oban is the second smallest, with a capacity of 670,000 liters per year. Just to put that into perspective, Caol Ila, Diageo’s workhorse on Islay puts out 6.5 million liters per year, and two of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, Kilchoman and Edradour are at 100,000 liters per year.

When the distillery was established in 1794, the town of Oban was a small fishing village with a minimal population that was just starting to establish other industries, such as shipbuilding, trading and quarrying. Further growth of the town was fuelled by its connection to Glasgow by rail in 1880. Today Oban has a population of 8500 people. That may not seem like a lot, but the fact that it is the largest town on Scotland’s west coast and its dense, compact layout make Oban have more of an urban feel than one might expect. Oban’s bay allows it to serve as a major ferry port, acting as a hub to many of the Hebridean islands, and supporting tourism, which has been its principal industry for the last 60 years.

The town grew and developed through the 19th and 20th centuries with the distillery at its center. This has left the facility unable to expand in modern times, limiting Oban to its current capacity. I’ve actually found a few references from 10 to 15 years ago stating that 80 percent of Oban’s production went to blends. I couldn’t find a current figure, but I’m sure that number has shifted downward since then allowing for the growth in popularity of Oban as a single malt. I’ve also seen older references to Oban using bourbon barrels for three or four cycles, but during my visit to the distillery three years ago I was told that they use second fill bourbon barrels exclusively. This focus on cask management is another indication that they are shifting away from using the whisky in blends.

As for modernization, Oban stopped using their traditional floor maltings in 1968, and when they shut down from 1969 to 1972 and rebuilt the stillhouse, the stills were converted from being direct fired with coal to using internal steam coils. Importantly though, the worm tubs were retained and the fermentation times were kept relatively long, at four days. These factors certainly have an impact on the character of modern Oban.

Originally released as a distillery bottled single malt in the late 1970’s, Oban started off as a 12 year old at 40% abv. In 1987 they transitioned to a 14 year old at 43% abv, which is still their flagship, and is easily Oban’s most widely available single malt. There have been quite a few other bottlings from the distillery over the years though.

In the early 1990’s there were three bottlings under the “Manager’s Dram” title; a 13 year, a 16 year and a 19 year. All three were sherry cask matured and bottled at cask strength. These were apparently special bottlings for employees and friends of the distillery, and not released to the general public.

In 1998, Oban began annual releases of the “Distiller’s Edition”, a series that is used for many of the Diageo owned single malts. In the case of Oban it is aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in Montilla Fino butts. The first release was about 20 years old, but the ages drifted down over the next five releases and since then they have been aged 14 years plus an additional 6 to 18 months finishing time. Currently 300 casks are set aside each year for the Distiller’s Edition.

In 2002 there was a limited release (6000 bottles) of 32 year Oban which was distilled in 1969. It was matured in sherry butts and bottled at 55.1% abv. The original retail price was $350, but any that are still floating around out there today will cost at least $1000.

In 2004 the distillery put out another limited release (1260 bottles). This one was aged in bourbon barrels for 20 years and bottled at 57.9% abv.

18 year Oban was initially introduced as a limited release (about 8800 bottles) in 2008, matured in bourbon barrels, bottled at 43% and retailed for $150. It was exclusive to the U.S. and the distillery shop.

Another exclusive to the distillery shop first appeared in 2010. This one was a non-age stated cask strength bottling.

Then, at the end of 2011, Oban announced that the 18 year would return as a regular part of the standard lineup, though limited in production and exclusive to the U.S. market. The distillery now sets aside 300 casks each year for this bottling. I’ll spare you the boring math details, but that works out to about 60,000 bottles per year. Looking online I see an unusually broad range of prices for 18 year Oban, from $95 to $185. The price listed up top of $158 is the going rate here in Vermont.

2013 saw the release of a limited (2860 bottles) release of 21 year Oban, matured in a mix of bourbon barrels and sherry casks, bottled at 58.5% and selling for $385.

I also mentioned the 2014 introduction of Oban “Little Bay” here.

Before tasting the 18 year Oban I sat down with a glass of the flagship 14 year to reacquaint myself with it for the sake of comparison. It certainly has a malty core, but with more of a lighter, softer, honeyed character (as opposed to some other single malts that have more dense, molasses and baking spice aspect to their malt signature). Orange citrus notes, a subtle floral aspect, a touch of brine and soft peat notes all round out the profile.

With the 18 year Oban, the nose is less malty, with a little more oak showing. It’s also more delicate / elegant, and the aromas are a bit more harmonious. On the palate, the primary notes are similar to those of the 14 year. Honeyed malt, citrus (primarily orange), delicate peat smoke and a touch of brine are all there but toned down and the oak character is a little more prominent. It turns slightly floral (more so than the 14 year) as it moves into the warming, spicy finish. Overall, this is not a dramatic departure from the 14 year, but more of a pleasant refinement of it.


This is essentially what I was expecting, considering that the two are bottled at the same proof and matured in the same type of casks, with just a 29% increase in age. With the 18 year, you’re paying a premium more for the rarity of an older Oban than you are for a significant shift in the flavor profile. This is a good example of why a lot of Scottish malt distillers have started to use increasing proportions of sherry cask maturation (and sometimes higher alcohol levels) as they move up the age range of their offerings. It makes it much easier for them to justify the significantly higher prices of their older bottlings.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bruichladdich, Legacy Series Five, 33 Aged Years

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40.9%, $200

I lost my best friend today. When you’re a socially inept recluse with a fear of relationships, a wayward black cat can come to mean an awful lot to you. She was on my lap nuzzling and purring incessantly while I wrote much of what has been posted here. She’d even occasionally poke her nose into my glass to see what all of the fuss was about; and that would come with a rude awakening if I was tasting something from the more pungent side of Islay. It’s not easy to type with a twelve pound cat draped across your forearms and it’s tough to complete a thought with claws digging into your wrist for a little more attention. Those are distractions I’d be thrilled to tolerate as I write this.



My views on the grey market (i.e. personal sales) of whisky have changed over the years. I originally thought of those who engaged in it as vultures. Then, as I sat in a pub on Islay three years ago and mentioned tasting Ardbeg Kildalton on a distillery tour, the bartender asked how it tasted and said that she had a bottle but didn’t want to open it as it was one of her “investment bottles”. That altered my outlook a bit and I thought maybe it was okay to view special bottles of whisky as a commodity. Perhaps I could use my whisky knowledge to put a little money in my pocket. Upon returning to the states I quickly snapped up an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist and a Bruichladdich Legacy V - 33 year old, with the intention of flipping them and doubling my money. Shortly thereafter eBay closed their loophole on spirits sales and the most accessible illicit whisky market was gone.

Once I was stuck with those bottles, my frustration gradually turned to gratitude. These are special whiskies, meant to be enjoyed and cherished, not bought and sold for the sake of profiteering. They are links to the past; bottles of liquid history; ties to a less complicated time for the industry.

I almost opened the 33 year Bruichladdich on the most recent New Years Eve, but it just didn’t feel like the right night. I chose to crack into my bottle of Big Peat that night instead. This is incredibly ironic as I reached out to the Big Peat when in need of an emotional crutch this morning, but upon further reflection concluded that only my most treasured of unopened whiskies was befitting of a toast to my abruptly departed feline companion.

When Bruichladdich was rescued and restarted in mid 2001 it had been mothballed for nearly eight years. The new owners needed cash flow and their greatest asset was in the warehouses. The distillery had produced heavily peated malt up until 1960, before following the industry trend of the time and switching over to very lightly peated malt. The heavily peated spirit was all long gone, but the warehouses did contain stocks from 1964 up to 1994, as well a two weeks worth of production (moderately peated, at 28 ppm) that was carried out in 1998 by the staff of the Jura distillery.

The character of the whisky began to change when a second set of stills were introduced in 1975 and production levels were increased. Although much of the original Victorian era equipment remains in use at Bruichladdich to this day, it is likely that the period from 1975 to 1979 is when fermentation times were shortened, worm tubs were replaced with modern condensers and the stills were changed over from direct fire to steam heating.

After 1980 much of the spirit was entered into marginal quality casks. There was plenty of good whisky spanning 1964 to 1998 in the warehouses, but the new owners had to pick and choose casks wisely. This is a big part of why wine cask finishes were so important for the reawakened Bruichladdich and why she put forth such a wide range of limited edition bottlings in the early 2000’s.

The Legacy series bottlings were released annually from 2002 through 2007 and represent some of the oldest stocks that were in the warehouses, from 1964 to 1972. Release Five was bottled in September of 2006 and is made up of bourbon barrels and sherry casks from 1972 and 1968. It was a limited release of just 1690 bottles, and it’s quite shocking that I came across several of them on a store shelf in the summer of 2012 at their suggested retail price. The few Legacy series bottlings that I see for sale now are typically in the $400 to $500 range.



The nose is expressive; wood, leather, dark stewed sherry fruits and a touch of dry spice. Putting a drop on the finger and letting it dry brings out coconut aromas and more complex spice notes. It’s full bodied, but not to the point of being clumsy. There’s a lovely evolution of flavors. Biscuits and Dundee Cake lead up front, followed by coconut and subtle tropical fruit in the background. A briny coastal quality comes through on the mid palate as well. It becomes more spice driven as it moves into the finish; cinnamon, teaberry and delicate mulling spices all do their part. It turns drier as it progresses and becomes more woody as the spice notes fade, but not to the point of being detrimental. Its character is dark and brooding, but graceful and complex too. The density of flavor is impressive for 40.9% abv, but I guess that is the difference between the alcohol level coming down through three decades of evaporation and a younger whisky that has just had water added to it.

Old whisky, like friendships and life itself, should be savored and cherished, not traded or hoarded as a trophy. Cheers Frida.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, 2008 vs. 2014

stats:
2008 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, 13 years, 47.0%, $40
2014 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, 12 years, 48.5%, $60

Old Forester is a brand that often flies under the radar these days, but it still has a long and impressive history. In 1870 George Garvin Brown, a young pharmaceuticals salesman, started a whiskey business in Louisville, KY that would eventually grow into one of the largest spirits companies based in the U.S. The early years saw several name changes as various partners and investors came and went, but in 1890 the company took the name Brown-Forman when George Forman, an accountant who had been an employee since 1872, became a minor partner. Forman passed away in 1901 and his shares were bought back from his widow, but his name remains as part of the company moniker to this day.

George Brown introduced Old Forester bourbon in 1873, and it became his company’s flagship product. Most notably, it has the distinction of being the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in bottles, which was actually the whole premise of the brand from its start. This was done in order to market it to physicians, who commonly prescribed whiskey to their patients at the time.

During that era, whiskey sold on the wholesale level was notorious for its irregular quality and the unscrupulous practices of the merchants who dealt in it. George Brown was one of the honest wholesalers who had a talent for picking quality barrels from the distillers and blending them together to create a consistent product. He realized that if his bourbon was only available in sealed bottles, doctors and consumers could have faith in its source and the quality of what they were buying. For added measure each label had a signed, hand written pledge guaranteeing the authenticity of the whiskey.

Since its inception Old Forester has been a Brown-Forman product, but it hasn’t always been made at the same distillery. As noted above, John Brown started off as a wholesaler who blended together whiskey sourced from several distilleries. In 1902 Brown-Forman acquired the B F Mattingly distillery in St Mary, Kentucky. This distillery had been one of their major suppliers for more than 20 years, but even after buying it they continued to source whiskey from other producers, the Mellwood distillery in Louisville, KY chief among them.

Both of those distilleries ceased operations in 1918 during the lead up to Prohibition. Brown-Forman obtained one of the few licenses to bottle medicinal whiskey when Prohibition began and they bought many distilleries, brands and existing stocks of whiskey during that time period. The most significant purchase was Early Times in 1923. It was a major brand that dated to 1860 and they kept it alive through Prohibition by bottling its remaining stocks as medicinal whiskey, even though they sold off the land and building associated with it.

Another purchase consisted of a property in Louisville with a pair of defunct distilleries in 1924; White Mills distillery and Lynndale distillery (the first dates to at least 1886 and the second was an expansion dating to around 1900). When Prohibition came to an end in 1933 a new distillery and new corporate offices were built on the site of the old White Mills and Lynnwood distilleries. Both Old Forester and Early Times were distilled at this facility.

 In 1940 Brown-Forman acquired the Old Kentucky distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which had been constructed in 1935. This facility became the new home of Early Times, and by 1953 it had been renamed to Early Times Distillery. It was dramatically expanded and modernized in 1955. At some time prior to that the Louisville plant had taken the name Old Forester Distillery. Then in 1979 production of Old Forester was moved to the Early Times distillery in Shively and from that point on the Louisville location was used only for bottling, warehousing and corporate office space. Around 2005 the Shively plant was renamed as the Brown-Forman Distillery.

For most of its history Old Forester was just, Old Forester. Then, in 2002 the brand introduced its first specialty bottling; Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. This is a vintage dated, small batch bourbon, selected from a single day of production and the labels state the “barreled” and “bottled” years. It is released each year on September 2nd to commemorate the birthday of George Garvin Brown. For 2014, the Birthday Bourbon represents about 20% of the Old Forrester produced on the selected day.

The ages have all been in the 12 to 13 year range. The alcohol level of each bottling has been between 47% and 49%, with the exception of the first few years. It was 43% in 2002, and there were actually two different batches in 2003; one distilled in the spring of 1990 and bottled at 46.5%, the other distilled in the fall of 1990 and bottled at 44.5%. While most specialty bourbon bottlings strive to have some degree of consistency from batch to batch, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is meant to be a unique expression the distillery’s style each year. I’ve had a mostly full 2008 bottle sitting on my shelf for quite a few years, so when my local watering hole got a few bottles of the 2014 release it was a perfect opportunity for a side-by-side tasting.


2008 Birthday Bourbon

nose – Very strong aromas, shoe polish and leather. Quite boozy smelling.
palate – There’s an initial hit of sweetness that is short lived. The candy corn opening quickly gives way to oak and saddle leather notes.
finish – It gets kind of hot and a little astringent early in the finish before pleasant warming spice notes emerge later on in the finish providing some redemption.
overall – The flavors do evolve, but it’s sort of one note at a time and it moves from one to the other in somewhat of a clumsy fashion. The bold and fiery finish was the most appealing part for me.


2014 Birthday Bourbon

nose – Still very aromatic, but not so aggressive as the 08. The shoe polish and leather character is here too, but with caramel and clay soil as well.
palate – Pronounced sweetness with maple syrup and caramel is nicely balanced by toasted oak, leather and a gentle nuttiness.
finish – A smooth and gradual transition leads it into the spice driven finish which is quite complex; cinnamon, ancho chile powder and turmeric all make subtle contributions.
overall – Very well mannered compared to the 08. Good integration and smooth transitions. The flavors are actually similar between the two, but the 14 is more refined and more complex although some might find it a little too tame in character.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Highland Park, 12 year vs. Gordon & MacPhail 8 year

stats:
Highland Park, 12 year: single malt Scotch, Islands, 43%, $53
Highland Park, Gordon & MacPhail, 8 year: single malt Scotch, Islands, 43%, $33

When a distillery project in the Shetland Islands failed to come to fruition several years ago, Highland Park was able to retain its status as Scotland’s northernmost distillery. It is one of just two distilleries located on the Orkney Islands, and its neighbor Scapa lies just slightly to its south and west. Both distilleries are on the Orkney Mainland, which is the largest of roughly 70 islands that make up the archipelago that lies just north of mainland Scotland.

Highland Park was established 1798 and licensed 1825, and it is one of only seven malt distilleries in Scotland that still employs a traditional floor malting. It maintains a medium level of peat intensity, a noticeable step down from the well-known heavy hitters and falling in line with Bowmore and Springbank in that regard.

At some point in the past Highland Park increased production beyond the capacity of their in-house malting facility and they began to supplement their own malt with that of one of Scotland’s large, commercial malting facilities. The floor malted barley is heavily peated (35 to 40 ppm) and the additional malt is unpeated or minimally peated (I’ve seen conflicting reports). The two are always mixed to make a consistent, moderately peated product from batch to batch.

However, over the last 50 years the whisky made by Highland Park has become less peaty as the amount of commercially malted barley has increased relative to the amount of floor malted barley that they can produce. The ratio is currently 20% floor malted to 80% commercially malted. While some might bemoan this gradual loss of phenolic intensity, I think it is a fair tradeoff in order to keep from diluting the terroir represented by the peat local to the Highland Park distillery.

When a distiller buys commercial malt they have no control over the source of the peat that is used in the drying process. If a traditional floor malting is used, the kiln is typically fired by peat that is harvested from sources close to the distillery. As one moves around Scotland the character of the peat found in each area differs from that of other areas, as it is made up of the unique decomposed organic materials that are present in that area. The strength of that local flavor is diminished if peated commercial malt is added to the mix.

Highland Park has eliminated that effect by mixing unpeated commercial malt with their house malt which is dried with the heather-based peat found on Orkney. A few others eliminate the effect in different ways. Springbank is the only distillery in Scotland to malt 100% of their barley on a traditional floor malting and Kilchoman makes separate batches of whisky with their floor malt and their commercial malt, and labels them accordingly. I’ve been told that the strong iodine / medicinal flavors found in Laphroaig are derived from the peat that is hand harvested near the distillery and has a composition heavy in lichens and moss. Apparently this comes through quite clearly even though 70% of the heavily peated malt they use comes from a commercial source. I’d love to try a Laphroaig bottling made solely from their floor malted barley if they ever were to produce such a specialty.

Highland Park has always enjoyed a good reputation, but its popularity has really soared over the last few decades. That has caused some growing pains, primarily in the form of some big price jumps. I have also heard rumors of wavering quality over the years, but I don’t drink Highland Park (or any other whisky) on a regular enough basis to have observed this myself. One online source that I have a good deal of faith in states that the quality of 12 year Highland Park did suffer for a time, but the problem has been rectified since 2008 through better cask management policies.

On the pricing front, I recall that back in 2006 the 12 year was going for $38 and the 18 year was at $75. Today they retail at $53 and $130, respectively. That is roughly a 39% increase and a 73% increase. While substantial, that’s not really out of line with where single malt prices have generally gone over the last nine years, and it follows the trend of older whiskies having their prices rise more rapidly than younger ones.

There’s an interesting misconception about Highland Park’s cask program. They often mention that the 12 year and the 18 year are aged primarily in Spanish oak and that the 15 year is aged primarily in American oak. Many people mistakenly assume that American oak is synonymous with bourbon barrels, when in fact many sherry casks are made from American oak. Highland Park has stated that they use sherry casks exclusively, made from both types of wood. Sherry casks are much more expensive than bourbon barrels, mainly due to matters of supply and demand. Quality sherry casks are also harder to come by in significant quantities, so it’s no surprise that Highland Park’s stature slipped a bit as production grew rapidly.

All of the casks they use are seasoned with Oloroso Sherry, and the distillery employs both first fill and refill casks. The ratio of first fill to refill casks is adjusted to add further differentiation between the 12 year and the 18 year, with 20% of the former and 45% of the latter coming from first fill casks.

Today I’m tasting the flagship 12 year against an 8 year old expression from independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail. Looking at the G&M website for info, it appears that this bottling has been discontinued and replaced by an updated version with a different label design. The one I have is aged 100% in refill sherry casks (no indication of oak type) and the newer version is a mix of “refill sherry hogsheads and bourbon barrels”. I’m assuming that any Highland Park that does go into bourbon barrels is intended for blenders or independent bottlers, and not to be used in the official distillery bottlings.



Anyway, let’s see how these two stack up.

12 year
nose – Approachable, floral peat aromas with citrus notes over a malty base
palate – Vibrant; stewed fruits and a malty sweetness up front. The peat is obvious, but with a light, heathery style.
finish – It becomes more dry as it moves into the finish, with the peat notes turning more smoky and less floral. A briny, coastal quality emerges. The long finish becomes oaky, with a spicy, earthy quality.
overall – A good all-a-rounder. It has enough backbone to keep me entertained and enough civility to be an everyday drinker.

8 year
nose – There’s a malty back-drop with delicate peat notes and grassy, clay-like quality that is almost reminiscent of cat pee (not in a bad way though)
palate – Full bodied but mild mannered up front. A little bit of mint and malty sweetness is quickly pushed aside by strong grassy notes.
finish – Much more intensity on the back end. An earthy clay note is followed by a dry spice character that almost masks the peat smoke. The underlying grassy notes ride through almost to the end.
overall – Less depth and less evolution of flavors compared to the 12 year. It’s still a respectable single malt and a good value considering the price.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chivas Brothers, The Century of Malts

stats: blended malt whisky, Scotland, 40%, $56

Since I wrote about a Blended Malt Scotch in my last post, I’m going to take the opportunity to follow up with another Scottish Blended Malt that’s been sitting on my shelf for a while. The Century of Malts is a vatting of 100 different single malts that were assembled from the cellars of Chivas Brothers, and was originally released in 1995.

The bottle comes with a neat little book written by Jim Murray, which has a brief profile of each of the 100 distilleries represented in the vatting. But beyond that there’s very little background information to be found about The Century of Malts, which kind of makes since it came out about 10 years before anyone was really writing about whisky online.

The text on the label implies that 100 casks were vatted together; in other words, one from each distillery. Apparently there were two releases though, one at 40% abv and another at 43% abv. My guess is that the first one met with lackluster reviews so they raised the proof for the later release in an attempt to improve it.

It’s hard to say how many bottles of this whisky were produced. It certainly sounds like a one-off limited release, but it seems to have lingered in the distribution chain for many years. The yield per cask could vary quite a bit depending on cask size and age, but I’ll say 200 bottles on average. Even if they only did one vatting of 100 casks, and the first release was a partial bottling with the rest of that vatting kept in tanks until it was bottled for the second release, that would still mean about 20,000 bottles were produced. Of course, the number could be much higher.

I stumbled across this bottle some time around late 2009 / early 2010. I’ve done a little research and figured out that in all likelihood, it had been hidden away, collecting dust in the state liquor warehouse since mid-1997. I paid the standard retail price listed above but unbeknownst to me at the time, that was right around when retail supplies of it mostly dried up and people began to perceive it as having a collectable value. It was fetching prices as high as $150 on the secondary market back then and today it appears to range from $150 to $300.

At the time that it came into my collection, I had the attention of a girl who appreciated good whisky. I thought I’d impress her with my new acquisition, so I brought the unopened bottle to a late-night rendezvous. I don’t recall her exact words, but she likened the flavor to a pair of old gym socks. Needless to say, I no longer try to captivate women with whiskies that I haven’t yet previewed.

It’s been a few years since I’ve nipped into this bottle, so it’s time to give it a fresh tasting.

nose – It displays an interesting range of aromatics, and they vary notably with the nose-to-glass distance. A biscuit-like maltiness, delicate but complex peat notes, heather and other floral aromas, a subtle clay-like character and sherry driven fruit notes.
palate – It comes across as being more muddled on the palate. Too many cooks in the kitchen and none of them are really able to shine. There’s some decent flavor here, but the nose made promises that the palate can’t keep.
finish – It carries some weight into the finish, and the intensity of flavor holds up well considering the low proof, but it gets a little astringent and loses balance with a strong grassy note at the tail end.
overall – It’s better than I remember it and I wouldn’t put it in the “gym sock” category, but it does fall short of expectations, both by dint of its provenance and its collectable status.



Scotland has historically had about 100 operational malt distilleries at any given time. As a blender, Chivas normally keeps a healthy stock of a great variety of single malts. They need that variety because it is common for blends to have 30, 40 or even 50 different single malts in the mix, and as some go in and out of availability, having viable alternatives on hand is essential for consistency. What makes this whisky interesting, at least on paper, is that it dates from a time when many of the casks held by Chivas were from distilleries that had gone silent in previous decades, as well as other rare oddities from the period. The values of such whiskies have grown dramatically in recent years, and it’s unlikely that they would be vatted into a blended malt today, but many short-lived single malt variants and distilleries that did not survive the 80’s (or even the 70’s for a few) are represented in The Century of Malts. Unfortunately, the little book of distillery profiles has proven to be more interesting than the whisky in the bottle.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Big Peat, Christmas Edition

stats: Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Islay, 57.8%, $70

I’ve never really been a strong proponent of saving certain bottles of whisky for special occasions. I’m even likely to open a rare or expensive bottle for no reason other than the fact that the mood to do so has struck me. That being said, there are a few nights of the year, my birthday and New Years Eve chief among them, when I like to nip into something special, whether it was previously unopened or a bottle on which I’ve already cracked the seal.

After a long night at the office on the last evening of 2014 I was ready to sip on something a bit aggressive. The bottle of Big Peat that I’d been saving for just over a year was exactly what I was looking for.

Big Peat is a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky; that is a marriage of two or more Single Malt Scotches without the addition of any Scottish grain whisky. That addition would make it a Blended Scotch Whisky. Blended Malt is a category which historically was called Pure Malt or Vatted Malt. The shift in terminology became a legal requirement in 2009 and I discussed the reasons for this in my Johnnie Walker Green post. Additionally, all of the Single Malts in Big Peat were distilled on Islay.

Conceived in May of 2009 and launched the following November, Big Peat is produced by Douglas Laing, a Glasgow based independent bottler of Scotch whisky which was established in 1948. Being a Blended Malt makes it a bit unusual, but not completely unique. Other examples of the style include Sheep Dip and Monkey Shoulder. Of course there is also Walker Green, but a 2012 revamp of the Johnnie Walker lineup saw the Green label go into very limited production with distribution restricted to the Taiwanese market, where Blended Malts are especially popular.

There are two things that set Big Peat apart though. The first is the label. The bold, cartoonish image of the Big Peat character, seemingly taking a slap across the face from the bracing, pungent, peaty flavors of the whisky is quite a departure from the norm of Scotch Whisky labeling. The design of Scotch labels is usually steeped in tradition and best described as conservative and old-school. This break from established practice, clearly meant to appeal to a younger audience, is also exemplified by comic-like labels on the independent bottlings of That Boutique-y Whisky Company, which first came to market late in 2012.

I have mixed emotions about this new trend in labeling. Part of me really likes the traditional style and the respect it pays to centuries of distilling heritage. Another part of me finds the new style of labels to be refreshingly amusing and light hearted.

The other thing that makes Big Peat stand out is that its component distilleries are named on the label. While this is done almost universally for Single Malts, it is the exception rather than the rule for Blended Malts. Walker Green does name four distilleries on its box (rather than its label), but there are 11 others in the mix that go unnamed. The label of Big Peat proudly proclaims that is contains whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen. Since they are not listed in alphabetical order, I’m assuming that they are listed in order of decreasing quantity.

Looking on their website, they do mention that Big Peat contains a few other peated Islay single malts that are not named. While Laphroaig and Lagavulin seem like the obvious answers, it’s entirely possible that there could be some Kilchoman or some peated Bruichladdich in the mix. Kilchoman, Islay’s newest distillery, started production at the end of 2005. It seems logical that they would have been in a position to sell some new make spirit to an independent bottler to generate much needed revenue in their early days. Bruichladdich, which was restarted by new owners in 2001 after an eight year closure, would also have benefited from raising much needed funds by selling un-aged whisky to an independent bottler. Since these distilleries were trying to build and rebuild their respective images, it makes sense that they would sell off some whisky to Douglas Laing on the condition that it be used without being named.

And then there is Port Ellen, the Islay distillery that was shuttered for good in 1983, and whose whisky now has a cult-like following, not to mention skyrocketing prices. At first glance it seems odd that such a valuable commodity would be vatted into Big Peat. But in the years leading up to its closing, all of the whisky made at Port Ellen was destined for blending. Chances are good that much of it ended up in casks of marginal quality. Douglas Laing is said to have substantial stocks of Port Ellen whisky. I’m sure they bottle anything that can stand on it’s own as single malt. The whisky from the questionable casks, if used in small amounts will probably add a bit to the complexity of Big Peat without being noticeably detrimental. But its big contribution is really lending its name to the label.

Let’s look at it from a financial perspective. The Big Peat website states that a typical batch is about 5000 barrels. Let’s say there is one bourbon barrel of Port Ellen in the vatting. A 200 liter barrel would have 111 liters left after aging for 31 years (assuming 3% annual evaporation). With 5000 bottles at 700ml each, it would represent 3.2% of the total composition. I’m really venturing into speculation here, but let’s say having the Port Ellen name on the labels allows them to bump the price 10%. It typically retails for $55, but might otherwise only command $50. A $5 price increase across 5000 bottles comes to $25,000 (I know, those are retail prices and I’m ignoring markups in the distribution chain, but I’m trying to keep it simple). If that one barrel of Port Ellen had been bottled as single malt, 111 liters would yield 158 bottles (at 700ml). To generate $25,000, they would have to be priced at just about $158 per bottle. While that’s a very reasonable price for Port Ellen these days, if the whisky wasn’t good enough to stand on its own then bottling it as single malt would only hurt Douglas Laing in the long run.

The standard Big Peat is bottled at 46% abv, non-chill filtered and with natural color. Each year since 2011 they have bottled one batch at cask strength and released is late in the year as the Christmas Edition. These annual releases have unique labels which are holiday themed variants of the original. Their bottling strengths have been 57.8% (2011), 53.6% (2012), 54.9% (2013) and 55.7% (2014). There was also a very limited run of just 250 bottles (500ml) at 50% abv released in 2013. The bottle I have is actually the original Christmas Edition from 2011.


color – Pale straw. The color makes me assume that it is composed entirely from bourbon barrels, likely with few first-fill barrels in the mix.
nose – Sharp, with a good dose of alcohol, but plenty of peat to balance it out. It has notes of brine and fish nets with uplifting peat aromas that are floral and grassy.
palate – Medium bodied, it is more weighty in the mouth than the light color would lead one to expect. The attack is rapid and aggressive. It’s a little malty with a touch of sea spray right up front but that quality is quickly overwhelmed. Some peat smoke is evident from the start, but it bides its time as the grassy floral notes come to the fore on the mid palate
finish – As it moves into the finish, the peaty character begins to dominate. It builds and evolves with campfire, burning wet leaves, ash and soot. When the smoke and fire finally die down late in the finish, some of the grassy notes reemerge. The smoldering finish takes quite some time to fully abate.
overall – The complexity is nice, but it’s the evolution of flavors that has really impressed me here. Everything is bracingly tied together by a backbone of alcohol as it moves from start to finish, which is perfectly personified by the caricature on the label.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holiday Whiskyfest Tasting

Sometimes getting the opportunity to taste rare whiskies is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. While I was visiting Massachusetts around Thanksgiving I stopped by a few of the more reputable whisky purveyors in the area to see if they had anything interesting on their shelves.

While I was perusing the selection at Luke’s Liquors in Rockland, an announcement came down from above, promoting their Holiday Whiskeyfest, which was just a week away and would feature many limited and older offerings. Then I overheard another customer saying that he’d been to the event in previous years and it was the best five dollars that he’d ever spent.

While it’s unusual for me to come down out of the mountains and travel to the Boston area twice in little more than a week, luck would have it that I needed to be back in the neighborhood for a social engagement the first weekend of December.

I was near the store the night before the event and stopped by for a quick glance across the shelves. I struck up a conversation with a few of the people working there and pressed for a little information about the tasting. It was scheduled from 1:00 to 3:00, but they suggested that I get there before 1:00 just to find parking. The vendors would all stop pouring at 3:00, so getting there early would also maximize the tasting opportunities.

Punctuality not being my strong suit, I rolled up at 1:05 to a nearly full parking lot and a store packed with people. I paid my $5 entry fee and was given a guide book and a complimentary tasting glass. They ran out of those glasses about 10 minutes after I got there. A combination of spirits companies, importers and distributors had 30 tables set up around the store, each featuring anywhere from one to a dozen whiskies.

With roughly 150 bottlings on offer, there was no way to taste them all. I was anxious and jumped right into the action. In retrospect, I should have taken a few minutes to go through the guide book, prioritize and strategize. Some of the presenters only brought one bottle of each of their high-end offerings so some things that I would like to have tasted weren’t available toward the end. There were also some tables that I never even made it to. I probably spent a little too much time tasting whiskies that weren’t all that important to me early on as well.

Obviously this was no time for putting together detailed tasting notes, so most of what follows will be more along the lines of general impressions.

First up was the Dewar’s table, featuring several variants of that blend and two of its component single malts – Aberfeldy and Craigellachie. I’ve never been a big Dewar’s fan, but I tried the 15 year (they also had the 12 year and 18 year on offer). It was nice, and a far cry better than Dewar’s white label, but still not really my cup of tea. I passed on the Aberfeldy; had them before, not my style. I had seen the Craigellachie on the shelf recently but didn’t know much about it. This is a fairly large distillery located in the heart of Speyside that was established in 1891. In 1998 its ownership passed from Diageo to John Dewar & Sons. Very few official bottlings of Craigellachie had been released over the years, with the bulk of the distillery’s production gong into blends. That all changed with the introduction of a new line of single malts in the fall of 2014. It consists of a 13 year, 17 year, 19 year and 23 year. The 19 year is exclusive to Travel Retail, and there is rumor of a 31 year coming soon. I tasted the 13 year and the 23 year. While both were quite good, stylistically they weren’t really my favorites. That being said, they did earn my respect on several fronts. I’m always happy to see official bottlings from distilleries that didn’t get much attention in the past. The whole lineup is bottled at 46% abv, with natural color and non-chill filtered. Craigellachie is also one of just a handful of single malt distilleries still using traditional worm tubs to condense the vapors coming off the stills. This results in a weightier, more sulfury spirit (and I’m a sucker for traditional methods).

Next up was a new offering from Oban called “Little Bay”, which carries the sub-title “Small Cask” on the label. I had seen it on the shelf the night before and was curious about it but there was really no information online, so I was quite happy to see it at the tasting. The information on the tube says that mature Oban is given extra time in small oak casks to make the Little Bay version. Part of me wants to be critical of the rather vague term “mature” being used instead of an age statement here. But Laphroaig basically does the same thing with their Quarter Cask bottling, and I’m a big fan of that whisky. The lack of age statement is understandable if they are putting a wide age range of single malts into the smaller casks for finishing, as Laphroaig supposedly does. It would be nice to see some unofficial info from the distillery on the range of ages in the mix though. As for the whisky, it was definitely a bolder, spicier, more oak driven incarnation of Oban. Interesting, but I prefer the more elegant persona of the flagship 14 year.

I’ll just do a quick run-through of some other notables.

Jim Beam Single Barrel – not bad, but still tastes like Jim Beam. I guess I’m just not a fan of the funky flavors that are a characteristic of Beam’s proprietary yeast strain.

Johnnie Walker Platinum was nice but kind of pedestrian for the price (this has long been my opinion of Walker Blue as well).

Wild Turkey Forgiven (a vatting of their straight bourbon and straight rye; the concept was supposedly inspired by a barrel dumping mistake at the distillery) was a whiskey that I felt pretty indifferent towards when I tasted it. It seemed to me like it was a little too similar to the 81 proof Wild Turkey rye.

This was my first time tasting Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit (101 proof, single barrel, no age statement, but website says 8.5 to 9.5 years) and their Rare Breed (108.2 proof, no age statement, said to be a vatting of 6, 8 and 12 year). I liked them both, but did prefer the Kentucky Spirit.

16 year Glen Grant stood out to me with an enchanting spicy character.

I was quite impressed by the 18 year Talisker. I really like the flagship 10 year and Talisker Distiller’s Edition, even though they are quite different from each other. The 18 year is elegant and refined, showing another unique face of the only distillery on the Isle of Skye.

18 year Bowmore may have been the surprise of the day for me. The distillery has enjoyed a stellar reputation for the whiskies it produced in the 1960’s, but its image has been tarnished more recently. Whisky produced there through the 1980’s has an extreme perfume-like character. Some refer to this as FWP Bowmore (French whore’s perfume). I’ve also found their more recent non-age stated bottlings to be rather uninspiring. The 18 year I tasted was exceptionally well composed and actually smokier than I expected (Bowmore starts off moderately peated and that is a characteristic that generally fades with time in the barrel).

I thought the 12 year Glen Garioch was quite good, but another that was not really my style. I much prefer pre-1995 Glen Garioch bottlings, which were distilled before they switched to completely unpeated malt.

In the past I’ve said that I really don’t care for the house style of Balvenie, but I find it more palatable in older and/or sherry finished expressions, like the 17 year Double Wood. Apparently I was partly wrong as I found out when I tasted the 25 year Single Barrel Balvenie (at $500 a bottle I was unlikely to try this anywhere besides at a free tasting). It is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, and I found it just as unappealing as their similarly matured Founder’s Reserve 10 year old. I would be curious to try something from Balvenie that was aged exclusively in Sherry casks, but that seems to be a rare bird.

I’ve had a bottled of 17 year Old Pulteney that was thoroughly disappointing sitting on my shelf at home for a few years. The 12 year that I sampled at the tasting was good enough to restore my faith in that distillery. I wish I had gotten to that table before they ran out of the 21 year.

I tried a few vintage dated single malts from Balblair (a 1975 and the other was either 94 or 95) that were at least interesting enough to make me want to research the distillery and revisit the whisky.

One distiller has piqued my interest with their offerings that I’ve seen on the shelf lately. The product of the Knockdhu distillery, anCnoc single malts have gone by that name since 1994 to avoid confusion with the Knockando distillery, which has a rather poor reputation. The current owners, Inver House, restarted the distillery when they bought it in 1989, after a six year closure. The lineup consisted of just a 12 year and a 16 year for some time, but there have been a series of limited vintage releases over the last 10 years. They have also added an 18 year, a 22 year and a 35 year to the lineup. In 2012 anCnoc put out a series of limited edition bottlings in conjunction with Scottish born illustrator Peter Arkle. In 2014 they put out a range of peated single malts with various phenol levels (measured in parts per million, ppm). These were named for various traditional peat cutting tools. I was able to taste one called Flaughter (14.8 ppm). I was quite impressed even though it was toward the end of the event and I was suffering from palate fatigue. I certainly hope to revisit this series soon.



The part of the event that I found simultaneously amusing and annoying was the fact that I came across several people who were pouring whisky and dispensing blatantly incorrect information about it. The Buffalo Trace table had both Sazerac Rye and E.H. Taylor Rye. When I mentioned that they came from two different mash bills and that the Taylor had no corn in it (information which is readily available on the company’s website) he looked surprised before disagreeing with me and insisting that it must have some corn in the recipe. After tasting the 25 year Balvenie, and not knowing anything about it at the time, I asked if it was aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels. The response blurted out at me was “it’s aged in oak”. The gentleman representing Diageo’s Scotch selections stated at least three times that Oban was a completely unpeated single malt. The fact that Oban is lightly peated (actually, on the heavier side of lightly) is basic single malt knowledge and should be obvious to anyone who tastes it. I was too polite to correct him in front of a large crowd. When I asked him about the new Oban Little Bay, he admitted that it was quite new and that he didn’t know much about it. Then he told me it was aged exclusively in small casks. When I pointed out that the blurb on the packaging mentioned something about “fully mature” Oban, he changed his mind and told me it was a vatting of whisky aged only in small casks and whisky aged only in traditional sized casks, stressing that that makes a big difference in the flavor profile. I let the conversation go there, but re-reading the packaging later it was quite clear that Little Bay is primarily matured in Bourbon barrels before being finished in small casks. There was a woman pouring at one of the Beam tables who was likely recruited based on looks. After a brief conversation she deferred to one of her more informed colleagues for the details I was asking about. She also mentioned that I was probably more qualified to be behind the table pouring than she was. Her honesty was like a breath of fresh air.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Maker's Mark: 90 proof vs. 84 proof vs. Cask Strength

stats:
Maker’s Mark (standard issue), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 45%, $28
Maker’s Mark (lowered proof), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 42%, $28
Maker’s Mark (Cask Strength), Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 56.6%, $40 (375ml)

I’ll always have a soft spot for Maker’s Mark; it was the bourbon that got me into bourbon after all. While my preferences have evolved over the past 15 years, Maker’s still stands as a consistent, reliable pour, and one that is almost universally available.

Over my last three posts, I’ve examined how American whiskey brands have dealt with product shortages, looking at George Dickel, Wild Turkey Rye and the Old Grand Dad / Basil Hayden family. The success and growth that has been sustained by Maker’s Mark over several decades finally caught up with them early in 2013 and the situation involving their supply challenges has been fascinating.

First a quick background of the brand. Maker’s Mark was started by William “Bill” Samuels, Sr. in 1954 after he purchased an existing distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Five years later, in 1959, the first bottles of Maker’s went on sale. From the start, the company was a little different. Maker’s Mark carried a premium price tag, though it was never dramatically more expensive than other bourbons. Their primary objective was to produce top quality whisky in small batches. Techniques such as low distillation proof and low barrel-entry proof, the use of Cyprus fermentation tanks, and rotating the barrels through the warehouses for even aging allowed them to justify their price point and promote their focus on quality.

Unique packaging set them apart too: the square-ish bottle with its distinctive red wax seal, and spelling Whisky without the “e” on the label helped Maker’s stand out from other bourbons on the shelf. Another thing that was different about Maker’s Mark was the use of wheat instead of rye in the mash bill. It wasn’t the only, or even the first wheated bourbon made, but Maker’s has used that fact to promote their product more successfully than any other brand.

When the American whiskey industry collapsed in the 1970’s, the conventional wisdom was to fight for the few remaining consumers by cutting costs and appealing to them with low prices. But the Samuels family stayed the course, refused to compromise on quality and even used the fact that Maker’s Mark was expensive as a selling point. That strategy paid off in the early 1980’s when the industry finally started to turn around. After 20 years of slow, steady growth, Maker’s was ready to really take off.

But really taking off requires capital. Often, selling out to a bigger entity is the most realistic way to attain that capital. And that is just what the Samuels family did in 1981 when they sold Maker’s Mark to Hiram Walker & Sons (since then the corporate ownership has transitioned to Allied Domecq in 1987, Fortune Brands in 2005, Beam Inc. in 2011 and Beam-Suntory in 2014).

Bill Samuels, Jr. had been the company president and CEO since 1975 and retained that role after the sale. As he neared retirement Samuels wanted to do something innovative, ensuring that his legacy would encompass more than simply not screwing up the good thing that his parents started. The result was the 2010 introduction of Maker’s Mark 46, a variant of the original that has seared French oak staves inserted into the barrels for a few months at the end of the aging process, and is bottled at the slightly higher 94 proof. The next year Bill Samuels, Jr. retired at the age of 70, handing off the president and CEO positions to Rob Samuels, his 36 year old son.

But Maker’s 46 is somewhat of an anomaly; for all of its prior history the company had made almost nothing but the standard Maker’s Mark, aged 6 to 7 years and bottled at 90 proof. Their driving principle has been that they perfected the product early on, so there was no sense in changing it or producing other variations of it. That fact made the February 2013 announcement that Maker’s Mark would lower its proof from 90 to 84 a bit harder for consumers to accept than if similar news had come from any other bourbon brand.

The proof-lowering news from Maker’s started what is arguably the biggest controversy in recent American whiskey history. While some pundits called the move unprecedented, that simply was not the case. Jack Daniel’s had lowered the proof of their flagship black label bottling from 90 to 86 proof in 1987, and then to 80 proof in 2002. Many consumers were outraged by that move too, but it was a different time; the internet wasn’t so pervasive back then and the 24-hour news cycle was only starting to establish itself. The consumer angst was short lived and those higher proof JD’s were all but forgotten before long.

It was a different story for Maker’s Mark in 2013 though. News of the proof change spread quickly online and consumer anger over the change went viral. The media latched on to the story and it was being covered not just by the spirits industry press, but also by mainstream news outlets. When people who don’t even drink whisky are talking about whiskey, you know the news is big.

Almost all of the coverage and reaction was negative. Fans were shocked by what they assumed would be a detrimental change to a product that they were loyal to and passionate about. The dreaded “watered down” phrase was freely bandied about. Many also viewed the proof lowering without a corresponding drop in price as a de facto price increase. Criticism from their customers was so sharp that Maker’s Mark reversed the decision just eight days after announcing it.

The situation garnered so much attention that some people began to speculate that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. That idea was reinforced by the fact that the Samuels had been so brilliant with their marketing for the brand’s entire history up to that point. It seemed odd that they would suddenly do something so stupid. Then, in September of 2014, Maker’s Mark introduced a new Cask Strength bottling. This new release was viewed by some skeptics as evidence that Maker’s Mark didn’t really have supply issues and that the proof lowering fiasco was a marketing ploy to drive sales.

Let’s look at some numbers and try to get a sense of what’s really going on. As I said above, the Samuels family members have always been brilliant marketers. And once the company had corporate backing, they were in a position to achieve double digit growth percentages year after year. That means production increases had to be managed to match future growth. While they have essentially been able to keep up, demand has continually been slightly ahead of supply.

Looking at the numbers for annual net sales growth is interesting (it’s been right around 15% each year since 2010), but the numbers that I was able to find for annual case sales are more relevant because they can be compared to output capacity.

1994 – 175,000 cases
2007 – 800,000 cases
2011 – 1,000,000 cases
2013 – 1,400,000 cases

In 1996 a second still house was added, doubling capacity from 750,000 cases to 1,500,000 cases. Remember though, the whiskey has to age for about six years, so they wouldn’t have been able to grow beyond 750,000 cases per year until 2002.

While the 1.4 million cases sold in 2013 was less than the distillery was capable of producing, it’s unlikely that they had entered more than that into barrels in 2007. Going back 6 years from the start of the shortage, we land squarely at the start of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis. I think it’s highly likely that there was a knee jerk reaction at Maker’s Mark to that period of economic instability. They probably cut production, or at least stopped increasing it, bringing about the shortage six years later.

In fact, there’s further evidence that the shortage was real. By the spring of 2013 Maker’s had limited (or even suspended) production of their 1.75 liter bottles. Diverting whiskey from the bigger bottles was necessary to ensure that they could fulfill all of the orders they had for the standard size bottles. The management at Maker’s also revealed that they had begun to employ a barrel rinsing process to extract as much whiskey from the oak as possible to reach that 1.4 million case total for the year.

Plans for the addition of a third still house had been announced in 2005, which would increase capacity 50%, to 2.2 million cases per year. That project got delayed when the corporate owner switched from Allied Domecq to Fortune Brands later that year. I suspect the financial issues of 07/08 delayed investment in that project even further. The latest expansion finally got under way last spring, but the production increase won’t go into effect until mid 2015 and the additional whiskey won’t hit the shelves until 2021.

The thought of the proof lowering fiasco having been part of grand marketing scheme did sound plausible to me on the surface, but as I’ve dug deeper and looked at the numbers, the idea has simply stopped making sense to me. There was no reason for them to engage in a risky marketing strategy when major production increases wouldn’t come to fruition for another eight years.

The management at Maker’s Mark probably bumped production back up pretty quickly in 2008 as the economic situation stabilized. That would give them enough extra whiskey to be able to put out the new Cask Strength bottling. And considering its substantially higher price point, it probably won’t draw too heavily from their supply.

The production of 84 proof Maker’s Mark early in 2013 lasted about a week. Considering their production level for that year, they probably bottled between 20,000 and 30,000 cases of the lower proof version. It went through the normal distribution channels but spread pretty unevenly around the country; some states saw none at all and others got quite a bit. It took some work, but I was able to get my hands on one of those bottles. Writing about it was something that I just kept putting off for various reasons. However, my procrastination ended up being beneficial; a side-by-side tasting of the 84 proof, the flagship 90 proof and the new Cask Strength will make for a much more interesting comparison.




Maker’s Mark (90 proof)
nose – Leather and shoe polish are the most obvious notes, but there is also a dusty grain quality and an underlying touch of sweetness. It is nicely balanced with just enough alcohol mingled in with the aromatics.
palate – The sweetness comes more to the fore on the palate but certainly not to the point of being cloying. Corn-driven grain notes mix with a vanilla and leathery oak character.
finish – Warming spice notes do come into play on the finish, but without the floral and cinnamon character common to rye based bourbons.
overall – It’s approachable but by no means lacking backbone. While the flavors don’t evolve in a dramatic way, they are well integrated. There might be a touch of astringency late on the finish, but one would be hard pressed to find any major flaws here.

Maker’s Mark (84 proof)
nose – The aromas are similar to the 90 proof Maker’s, but notably thinner. I’m also picking up a bit of mint that I didn’t notice in the original.
palate – There is less depth of flavor overall, but the balance has shifted as well. The sweetness and oak character have dropped back while the corn-driven flavors have become more dominant.
finish – It has the same warming spice quality on the finish, but far less flavor has carried along to that point.
overall – This is a significant departure from the 90 proof Maker’s; thinner, drier, more corn-like and not nearly as well-integrated.

Maker’s Mark (113.2 proof)
nose – It’s quite similar to the 90 proof in terms of the aromas, but much fuller, sharper and more dense.
palate – The classic Maker’s sweetness jumps out right up front, along with all of the flavors that keep the 90 proof version in check, but everything is amplified. That sweet start transitions into a drier mid palate rather quickly though, with lots of oak character and subtle nuttiness providing a pleasant segue to the finish
finish – It has a big, bold, spicy finish. While this is certainly alcohol driven, plenty of flavor (leather, oak, spearmint, teaberry) has carried along to keep things in balance. The finish is very long and warming.
overall – Robust and powerful, but still sippable neat. It has an interesting contrast from start to finish, going from sweet to dry. It’s a little pricey to be a regular pour, but well worth seeking out if you are fan of Maker’s Mark (or even if you weren’t before).




Maker’s Mark has been known almost exclusively for its 90 proof version through most of the brand’s history, but there have been higher and lower proof offerings for the export market. A few higher proof variants went to Japan almost 15 years ago, as reviewed here. In Australia, Maker’s went from 90 proof to 86 proof around the year 2000, and to 80 proof around 2010. Those changes probably had more to do with Australia’s proof-based import taxes than supply issues though.

The obvious conclusion from this tasting is that 90 proof is kind of a sweet spot for Maker’s, although higher proofs certainly don’t hurt it. The important questions lie in what the future holds for the brand. Current capacity of the distillery has been stated at 1.56 million cases per year. I’ll guesstimate that the barrel rinsing program boosted that by 5%, so maybe 1.64 million cases per year. 2013 sales were 1.4 million cases, and they have seen steady 15% annual growth since at least 2010. That means they’re pretty much maxed out now even if they had the foresight to maximize production six years ago. With the increased output of the third stillhouse not coming to maturation until 2021 and a failed attempt to lower the whiskey’s proof behind us, the only logical conclusion is that we will be coming into a period of rising prices and/or product allocation for Maker’s Mark.