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

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 1870 as his company’s founding 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

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

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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Old Grand Dad 80 proof vs. Basil Hayden's

Old Grand-Dad 80 proof, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 40%, $15
Basil Hayden’s, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 40%, $41

Like the Wild Turkey Rye that I recently reviewed, Old Grand-Dad Bourbon has also become a favorite pour of the ever expanding craft cocktail movement. And like Wild Turkey Rye, Old Grand-Dad has also had to deal with supply issues in recent years. Before I examine how the situation has been handled, let’s take a quick look at the history of the brand.

The story of Old Grand-Dad starts with, well, Old Grand-Dad himself. Basil Hayden was an American colonist of English descent who was born in Maryland in the mid 1700’s. In the late 1700’s he led a group of settler’s to what is now Nelson County, Kentucky. He established a farm there and began distilling as a supplemental activity. According to some accounts, he was noted for using a higher percentage of rye in his whiskey than most other distillers in the area.

The farm and the farmer-distiller tradition were passed in to Basil’s son, Lewis, around 1820. Lewis’s second son, Raymond Bishop Hayden, who was born in 1821, took over the farm and its small distillery after his father’s passing, at some point in the 1840’s.

In the ensuing decades the surrounding area developed and new railroads expanded trade beyond the markets that were accessible by river, allowing the whiskey business to become more commercialized. Raymond Hayden decided to capitalize on this situation and with a business partner he built the R.B. Hayden and Company Distillery, in Hobbs, Kentucky (just outside of Clermont), in 1882. Their flagship bourbon was named Old Grand-Dad in honor of Raymond’s grandfather, Basil Hayden.

Just three years later Raymond Hayden passed away with no heirs and controlling interest in the business was sold off by his estate. By 1899 the distillery and its main brand had been sold to three brothers from the Wathen family, which was rapidly becoming a powerhouse in the Kentucky whiskey industry. They changed the official name of the distillery to Old Grand-Dad.

The next generation of Wathens carried the brand into Prohibition. They became consolidators, buying whiskey from the warehouses of other former distillers, and were licensed to sell medicinal whisky through their American Medicinal Spirits company. Although the original distillery never reopened, the brand lived on and survived Prohibition. In 1929 the Wathens sold out to National, a company which had become a large shareholder in AMS. National and another company named Schenley went on to be the two big post-Prohibition spirits companies in the United States.

In 1940 National bought the K Taylor Distillery, located just outside Frankfort, and renamed it Old Grand-Dad. That distillery had been built by one of E.H. Taylor’s sons, Kenner Taylor. It was completed in 1937, just after his death, but still named after him. Old Grand-Dad bourbon was made there until National was acquired by Jim Beam Brands in 1987. It is now produced at either their Clermont or their Boston plant, or both.

At the time of the deal there was still an American whiskey glut. Beam bought National for its other assets; primarily the DeKuyper family of cordials. National’s many whisky brands just came along as part of the package. Most of the brands that were kept active were switched over to Beam’s standard recipe and house yeast. But since Old Grand-Dad was such a prominent brand and still commanding a respectable price, the folks at Beam wisely decided to let it keep a separate mash bill and its unique yeast. The standard Beam recipe has about 15% rye, where the Old Grand-Dad recipe has about 30% rye.

Then, in 1992, Beam introduced their Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Three of its four bottlings (Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek) use whiskey made with the standard Beam mash bill. The fourth, Basil Hayden’s, uses the high-rye Old Grand-Dad recipe.

Toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium Old Grand-Dad, particularly the 100 proof Bottled-in-Bond variant, started to become quite popular with serious bartenders. Basil Hayden’s was also seeing strong sales growth, with a 29% jump in 2011 (a trend which continued in 2012 and 2013).

This put pressure on supplies and by 2012 something had to give. Old Grand-Dad had been available in three proofs (86, 100 and114 – I compared them early last year) for a long time, longer than Beam had owned the brand. Adding a fourth, lower proof bottling would have cluttered store shelves and likely not helped the supply problem much. With a few rare exceptions, Old Grand-Dad had been a brand without age statements throughout its history. Basil Hayden’s carried an 8 year age statement, but was already at the minimum 80 proof.

Beam ended up doing two things. They lowered the 86 proof Old Grand-Dad bottling to 80 proof and they dropped the 8 year age statement from Basil Hayden’s. The drop in proof happened in the second half of 2012 and the age statement was lost early in 2013.

From a public relations perspective, these were the least damaging moves they could have made. As I said in my last post, anger over a dropped age statement is often short-lived, if the change is even noticed at all. As for Old Grand-Dad, the 86 proof ended up being the sacrificial lamb for the rest of the lineup. I’m sure their thinking was that the majority of people buying the 86 proof were focused primarily on price. While some consumers would undoubtedly be upset by that change, most of the people who really care about such matters were already drinking the 100 proof and/or the 114 proof. Messing with either of those bottlings would have resulted in significant outrage from Old Grand-Dad loyalists.

But this brought about an interesting situation; the lowest proof Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden’s were now both 80 proof non age-stated bourbons made from the same distillate. Was there any difference between them?

I did a little research and found information posted by Chuck Cowdery in 2008 saying that Beam did have some production differences for the their Small Batch Collection. Barrel management was part of that, with specific warehouse locations reserved for barrels that were destined to be used for the Collection bottlings. I’m not sure if they differentiated the quality of the oak (tighter grain, air dried staves, etc) as well, but I suppose that is possible. Distillation proof was the other factor with Booker’s and Baker’s coming off the still at 125 proof, Knob Creek at 130 and all Jim Beam bottlings at 135. Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand-Dad were said to come off the still at 127 proof. The bourbons are entered into the barrel at 125 proof across the board.

So, it looks like the only technical difference between the two is barrel management, and without age statements, that factor is a wildcard. Time to taste them for myself:

Old Grand-Dad, 80 proof
Nose – Pleasant, with the signature clay-like earthiness, and a subtle floral/spice aroma.
Palate – It has some rye character (both in a floral and an earthy way) but the flavors come across in sort of an astringent, chemical-like manor. Not in a horrible way, just slightly off-putting.
Finish – Respectable warming spice notes come to the fore on the finish, but the flavors that were prominent up front linger on in the background.
Overall – There’s nothing terribly offensive about it, but the redeeming qualities of the finish only manage to elevate it to mediocrity.

Basil Hayden’s, no age statement
Nose – Similar in style, though somewhat less aromatic. The clay-like earthiness is less pronounced and it shows more vanilla and woody notes.
Palate – Nice mix of dry earthiness, floral rye notes, vanilla and oak. The spicy character starts sooner here; more on the mid-palate.
Finish – The spice notes are reminiscent of “cinnamon red hots” and build as the other flavors fade moving into the finish. It gets a little thin toward the end, but not to a fault.
Overall – It has more depth and complexity than the 80 proof Old Grand-Dad. It’s still somewhat delicate overall, but I like the way it evolves from start to finish.

I sampled some 86 proof Old Grand-Dad to see how it compare to the new 80 proof. I found it to be a little more aromatic and much better composed. The 80 proof is like a light switch going from the floral/earthy mid-palate to spicy finish. The 86 proof is more balanced up front and has a more gradual building of the spice notes moving into the finish; those notes also get more fiery at the end. Then I took a quick sip of 100 proof Old Grand-Dad and it showed them all who’s boss.

After several years of tight supplies, all of the Old Grand-Dad bottlings are probably not much older than the 4 year minimum required of non age stated bourbons. When Basil Hayden’s lost its age statement, it’s not as if it would suddenly jump from being 8 years old to 4 years old. The age will gradually creep down as needed to meet demand until supply can catch up. That’s the important thing to keep in mind here; there was a significant difference in the two whiskeys I compared today, but that difference may diminish over the years if sales continue to grow faster than production.

Many people criticize Basil Hayden’s for being too mild. But it does serve a purpose; it’s a good transition into bourbon from blended Scotch or Canadian whisky. The funny thing is that it could also act as a good stepping stone – to 100 proof Old Grand-Dad. In light of my last Old Grand-Dad review, my biggest surprise here was just how good the new 80 proof was able to make the old 86 proof look.

Monday, November 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

George Dickel, No. 8 vs. No. 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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