Sunday, March 26, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 1

When I planned out my travel itinerary through Tennessee and Kentucky last year, I was mostly focused on coordinating the available distillery tours that I wanted to take and calculating drive times so everything would proceed smoothly. The only meal I had considered in advance was lunch on the Thursday I would spend in and around Frankfort. I’m not much of a breakfast person, and with limited window of time between the 10:00 tour at Four Roses and the 1:30 tour at Buffalo Trace I wanted to make sure I knew where that meal was coming from. I could figure out where to have dinner on Wednesday night and Thursday night at my leisure.

A very cursory online search turned up a place called Bourbon on Main which sounded promising and was penciled in to my schedule for that day. The day before, I started with the first tour of the morning at George Dickel. Despite their website listing it with a 9:00 start time, the tour didn’t get underway until 9:30. By the time I finished the post-tour tasting it was 11:00 and I was losing an hour to a time zone change on the ensuing drive to Kentucky, effectively making it noon.

Google maps put the drive to Maker’s Mark at a little over three and a half hours, but the run from Interstate 24 to Interstate 65 goes right through the heart of Nashville, so I was concerned about the potential for traffic. With the last tour at Maker’s starting at 3:30, I was going to have to skip lunch if I would have any chance of getting there on time (I ended up making it with about 20 minutes to spare).

Needless to say, by the time I had checked into my hotel after finishing the tour in Loretto and making the hour-plus drive to Frankfort, I was starving. No time for research; I was off to Bourbon on Main for dinner.

Frankfort can feel like a bit of a ghost town if you’re driving through on a weeknight in February, so I was a little surprised to see a lively atmosphere when I walked into the two story brick building housing Bourbon on Main. I later learned that BOM had only been open for about six months, having taken over the space previously occupied by a different restaurant. The room on the second floor can be used for private events or additional seating on busier nights. There was actually a Four Roses bourbon dinner, hosted by the master distiller, happening upstairs that night. The event was already underway and sold out when I arrived, but that’s the sort of thing I would check for in advance if I was going to be back in the area.

The building sits on the bank of the Kentucky River, which bisects Frankfort. The back deck seems to be one of the prominent features of this business; it overlooks the river and has views of the state Capitol building, which is less than a mile away. This was obviously not in use in the middle of winter though. The bar is on the smaller side, with five or six stools, but a few of them were free when I walked in, giving me my preference of seating.

I was quite happy to get a burger in my belly, but the food left a little to be desired. I wouldn’t say it was bad by any means, just uninspiring. I also got the impression that the kitchen was undersized relative to the rest of the space and it was hard for them to get food out in a timely fashion if the upstairs was full of diners or the back deck was in season on a busy night.

I sampled a few local beers before and during dinner, and then moved on to the whiskey in lieu of dessert. The list of American whiskeys on their website currently shows slightly more than 100 selections. I feel like that has probably grown since my visit last year, when I’m guessing they had closer to 70 offerings. I decided to try out the Old Scout Single Barrel, Cask Strength Bourbon.

This is from Smooth Ambler, which is a craft distillery located in West Virginia that was established in 2009. In addition to what they distill themselves, Smooth Ambler also bottles sourced whiskeys. But they are very transparent about what they do and keep all of the whiskey they don’t distill themselves under the Old Scout label. Most, if not all of these come from the MGPI distillery in Indiana. The Single Barrel, Cask Strength bottling is an older and stronger version of their standard Old Scout Straight Bourbon, which is aged a minimum of 7 years and bottled at 99 proof. Both are non-chill filtered and come from a mashbill of 60% corn, 36% rye and 4% malted barley.

This particular Single Barrel, Cask Strength bottling was aged 9 years and came in at 100 proof. It was big and full flavored (but not too hot or punchy), with a rich and dark character showcasing saddle leather and abundant spice notes. The long, spice-driven finish carried balancing oak notes and a subtle, dark baked fruit character. A solid performer.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Old Taylor and Old Crow sites

With last winter’s road trip, which included a few days of whiskey tourism in Tennessee and Kentucky, having transpired more than a year ago, I think it’s high time that I write the last few posts necessary to tie up all of the loose ends associated with that little adventure. Then I can move on to more pressing business.

As I mentioned toward the end of my post covering the visit to Buffalo Trace, my tour guide, Shelly, informed me that I would see very little on the Trace Tour that I hadn’t already seen on the Hard Hat Tour (she had extended our tour a good bit since it wasn’t a busy day, covering most of what would normally be seen on both tours). Rather than hanging around for the 4:00 Trace Tour, she suggested that I take a little drive and visit the sites of the former Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries, which are essentially right next to each other. She also let me know that given my interest in the history of the industry, I’d probably get a lot out of the Buffalo Trace National Historic Landmark Tour, which is offered Monday through Friday at 11:30, should I come back to visit in the future.

Shelly gave me easy-to-follow directions to get to the defunct distilleries from the hotel I was staying at, which was much better than taking the slightly more direct but much more confusing route there from Buffalo Trace. With just two days set aside for touring distilleries on my two week road trip, I hadn’t even considered trying to visit any historic former distilling sites, assuming that it would just be too tough to fit that into my itinerary. I had no idea some of the prime examples were less than four miles from the hotel I’d picked for my two nights in Frankfort.

When I reached the T-intersection where I would turn right and drive just a little further to reach my destination, there were signs pointing to the Woodford Reserve distillery if I turned left instead. It was less than three miles down the road.

The three distilleries all lie in Woodford County on Glenns Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River. Their histories are interrelated, so I’ll go over all three here. A key figure in this story is Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr.

E. H. Taylor started in banking in the early 1850’s, establishing his career in the business of his adoptive uncle. He got into the whiskey industry about a decade later, but from the position of a financier and business manager, rather than that of a practical distiller. He soon transitioned out of banking and eventually went into local politics during the 1870’s, but continued on with his whiskey industry interests. Taylor was involved in at least seven different distilleries during his lifetime.

Where Woodford Reserve stands today was once the site of the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. I covered the history of distilling there in my Woodford Reserve, Distiller’s Select post, but I’ve since discovered some new historical sources, so I’ll go over everything again with the updated information. On some points there are still conflicting sources, so what I’ve cobbled together here is the most likely course of events (in my opinion) based on all of the information I’ve found.

Whiskey was first distilled there by Elijah Pepper in 1812 when he established his farm-distillery on the 350 acre property. Pepper’s first foray into distilling was in 1780, when he was living in Virginia. He migrated to Kentucky in 1797 and operated a farm-distillery in Versailles with his brother-in-law for several years. That was about five miles away from the site he established as his own on the Grassy Springs Branch of Glenns Creek in 1812.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1831 and his son, Oscar Pepper, took over the operation. The distillery was expanded in 1838 with the addition of a new stone still house, among other improvements. This was likely the year in which it took on the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery name. When he passed away in 1865, Oscar Pepper left no will. This is where the history gets a little convoluted. Many accounts assume a five year hiatus in production after Oscar Pepper’s death. But I’ve come across some pretty convincing evidence that Pepper’s oldest son, James Edwards Pepper, assumed control of the distillery in 1865 and continued to oversee the operation through 1866. He had only turned 15 about a month before his father’s passing, but was already well versed in his knowledge of the distilling business.

Colonel E. H. Taylor had been appointed as James Pepper’s legal guardian after Pepper lost his father while still a minor. I suspect that Taylor immediately had some influence at the distillery. In 1867 the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery was leased to Gaines, Berry & Co. This group, which invested in various distilling projects, was organized by Taylor in 1862. Gaines. Berry & Co. was reorganized into W. A. Gaines & Co. in 1868 when several new investors were brought into the group.

The courts finally settled the estate of Oscar Pepper in 1869. The property was divided equally among his seven children, but the portion with the distillery and all of the other business assets was left to the youngest son, Presley O’Bannon Pepper, who was only seven years old. This effectively left Oscar Pepper’s widow in charge of everything. She signed an agreement to lease the distillery out to W. A. Gaines & Co. for another two years on January 1st of 1870. Later in that year Colonel Taylor withdrew from W. A. Gaines & Co. In the 1870 census James Pepper was still listed as the distillery manager, so he was likely involved in its operation all along.

Toward the end of 1872 James Pepper won a lawsuit against his mother and regained full control of the distillery. In 1874 he entered into an agreement with Taylor, where Taylor invested capital for major improvements at the distillery. When Pepper declared bankruptcy in 1877 he lost the distillery property to Taylor. Shortly thereafter Taylor experienced his own bankruptcy, leaving the distillery in the hands of George T. Stagg, who had paid off Taylor’s creditors for pennies on the dollar. By the end of 1878 Stagg had sold the distillery on to James Graham, who then partnered with Leopold Labrot. They changed the name slightly to Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, but eventually (likely when emerging from Prohibition) it was shortened to the Labrot & Graham Distillery.

Finally, in 1940 the distillery was sold to Brown-Forman who used it to produce bourbon for their Early Times brand. They closed the distillery in 1957 and sold off the property in 1973. Brown-Forman re-purchased the site in 1994 and using the original 1838 still house as well as a pair of stone warehouses that date to the 1890’s, they built the distillery that is now known as Woodford Reserve.

Following McCracken Pike, the road which runs alongside Glenns Creek, to the north for 3.3 miles from Woodford Reserve will bring you to the former Old Taylor distillery. The site was originally home to the Johnson farm and distillery; it was also referred to as the Old Anderson Johnson distillery and later the James C. Johnson distillery (I’m assuming that James was Anderson’s son). Its date of establishment is unknown, but it was definitely in operation by the 1830’s and may have started as early as 1816.

The distillery was purchased by Jacob Swigert Taylor in 1879 and its name was changed to the J. Swigert Taylor distillery. E. H. Taylor bought the distillery from his oldest son in 1882, but Jacob continued to run the operation and its name remained the same.

After E. H. Taylor’s 1877 bankruptcy he had stayed involved in the O.F.C. distillery (which he had previously owned, and is now Buffalo Trace) in Frankfort, in partnership with George T. Stagg. But Taylor eventually had a falling out with Stagg and they parted ways at the start of 1887. Colonel Taylor formed a new partnership with two of his sons (Jacob Swigert and Kenner; his youngest son, Edmund Watson joined them at a later date) and they renamed their distillery Old Taylor.

Many accounts of the history of this site assume that a new distillery was built there in 1879 and again in 1887. None of the buildings that exist today were built before 1887 and any details of the evolution of the site prior to that year are speculative. More recent research has shown that the distillery was rebuilt and expanded over a period of many years after 1887, but primarily between 1900 and 1912. This was E. H. Taylor’s last distillery project; what he built there was to serve as an impressive tourist attraction as well as being a tribute to his namesake brand of whiskey.

The still house is the most iconic building on the property. Taking the form of a medieval castle, its limestone construction features corner turrets and crenellated battlements. This building’s construction lasted from 1901 to 1907. A small octagonal spring house and the larger, peristyle spring house are both architecturally significant. Just north of the castle is the Sunken Garden, which is one of the site’s most spectacular features. Warehouse B, which dates to 1912, is at the far north end of the property. At 68 feet by 530 feet, it is supposedly the longest brick masonry warehouse constructed in the world during that era.


The distillery operated up until Prohibition, and then it was acquired by American Medicinal Spirits in 1927 and used as a concentration warehouse. AMS was taken over by National Distillers in 1935, just after the end of Prohibition. Old Taylor quickly came back online and went through a period of expansion and modernization with several new buildings being added between 1935 and 1940. The largest of these is Warehouse E, which sits between the creek and the Sunken Garden.

Once production ceased in 1972 as the industry entered a major downturn, the property was neglected and gradually fell into a state of disrepair. National Distillers was acquired by Jim Beam in 1987, but they bough National primarily for the brands it owned and nothing was done with the Old Taylor property. Beam sold off the site in 1994 and the next owners wanted to bring distilling back there, but lacked the financial resources to do so. The site sold again after 10 years and unfortunately Warehouse C and Warehouse D were torn down in 2005 so the brick and wood could be sold off. Their outlines can clearly be seen in overhead views, lying across the street from the Sunken Garden and the Historic Bottling House. Also visible are the ruins of Warehouse A, which was next to Warehouse B and dated to 1910.

Finally, in 2014, the distillery was sold to someone who was interested in its preservation and in resuming distilling at the site. The Sunken Garden was brought back to life and restoration work on some of the buildings had begun at the time of my visit. No one was there while I was poking around, so all of the pictures I took were from the road. It is currently running as the Castle and Key distillery, but I’ve read that they are negotiating with Buffalo Trace for the rights to the Old Taylor name.

Before I cover the third distillery on Glenns Creek, let’s take a look at the man that connects them all. Dr. James Crow was born in Scotland in 1789. He trained as a physician and chemist in Edinburgh, graduating in 1822 and immigrating to the United States in 1823. Initially settling in Philadelphia, he followed the westward migration to Kentucky in 1825.

Crow was hired to run the farm distillery of Willis Field in 1826. This was on Griers Creek, about three miles west of Versailles. James Crow revolutionized distilling by applying scientific methods to whiskey making. He is often credited with inventing the sour mash method, but it is more likely that he was able to fully understand how it worked and improved the process by using litmus paper to measure the acidity of the mash. He was also one of the first distillers to use the thermometer, hydrometer and saccharometer. He would only make a certain amount of spirit from a bushel of grain, indicating a narrow cut of the spirit run, and he insisted on barrel aging for all of his whiskey at a time when that was not always done. Perhaps influenced by his medical background, he also took great care to ensure the hygiene of his distilling equipment.

Crow made a superior product very consistently and his reputation quickly spread. In 1833 he was hired as Oscar Pepper’s distillery master, moving five miles north of his previous employer. He worked there until 1855, with the exception of 1837 and 1838. That hiatus was likely due to the rebuilding and expansion of Oscar Pepper’s distillery which happened during that time. Crow found work at the nearby distillery of Newton Henry to fill that gap. Finally, Dr. Crow went to work at the Johnson distillery, located a few miles further north on Glenns Creek, in 1956. He died while on the job at that distillery later the same year. As detailed above, that site eventually became the home of the Old Taylor distillery.

We don’t know exactly when whiskey began to be sold under the Old Crow brand. But we do know that when James Crow worked for Oscar Pepper, his compensation was 1/8 of the whiskey produced (in 1855 this was 10 barrels of the 80 barrel total). It’s likely that Dr. Crow sold this whiskey as his own and associated it with his name from an early date. His reputation was such that it wouldn’t surprise me if Oscar Pepper also sold some of the whiskey produced at his distillery under the Old Crow brand in addition to using his own Old Oscar Pepper label.

We also know that in 1849 Robert Letcher, a former Kentucky Governor, wrote a letter to a friend where he praised the qualities of Old Crow whiskey, so it was certainly well-known as a brand by that point.

When James Crow died in 1856, his long-time assistant, William Mitchell, was still working at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. Mitchell was quite familiar with Crow’s recipe and methods for making whiskey. Since Pepper still had aging stocks produced by Crow and the ability to make more whiskey to the same standards, it made sense for him to continue using the Old Crow brand name. This was one of the earliest instances of brand name marketing in the U.S., a practice that was mostly pioneered by the soap industry.

When the Old Oscar Pepper distillery was leased out in 1867 to Gaines, Berry & Co. (which became W. A. Gaines & Co. in 1868), Mitchell was retained as the distiller and the company continued to use the Old Crow brand. When James Pepper regained control of the family distillery in 1872, W. A. Gaines & Co. took the Old Crow brand as their own. I’m not sure if they paid the Pepper family for the rights to the name or if they simply assumed its ownership after using it for the five years during which they leased the Pepper distillery.

The distillery owned by W. A. Gaines and located on Glenns Creek, just north of Old Taylor then became the home of Old Crow. This is where the history gets really confusing. Depending on where you look, dates for the establishment of that distillery are listed as 1872, 1878 and 1882. After way too much research, I think I’ve figured out the most likely scenario.

The above mentioned distillery was probably built in 1868 by Gaines, Berry & Co. as the Hermitage distillery (this was their other major brand). William Mitchell is reported to have left W. A. Gaines & Co. in 1872. I believe he stayed loyal to the Pepper family and continuing to work for James when he regained control of the Pepper distillery. At the same time, Van Johnson, Mitchell’s assistant of several years, was hired by Gaines to take over as their head distiller. With his knowledge of Dr. Crow’s techniques and recipe, it was possible to shift production of Old Crow whiskey to the Hermitage distillery in 1872 (hence the first mistaken date of that distillery’s establishment).

It seems that at some point Gaines, Berry & Co. bought another distillery, one which had existed since at least 1871 (it can be seen on maps from that year), and moved the Hermitage name there. That distillery was located on the Kentucky River in the southern part Frankfort. It was turned into a chair factory during Prohibition before being torn down in 1945. Any modern traces of it have been lost to urban sprawl. At the same time the original Hermitage distillery would have been renamed as the Old Crow distillery. I’m guessing that this happened in 1878, as it would explain the second mistaken date of the establishment of the distillery on Glenns Creek.

In1882 Gaines, Berry & Co. registered trademark for “Old Crow Distillery, Woodford County, Kentucky. Copper Distilled Whiskey. W. A. Gaines, Distiller” (Congress had just passed a new trademark act in 1881). This is likely the origin of the third incorrect date of establishment of the Old Crow distillery. In 1887 W. A. Gaines & Co incorporated under the same name (having been a co-partnership previously). This can also add to the confusion of the company timeline.

During Prohibition Old Crow, like Old Taylor, was absorbed by the American Medicinal Spirits Company, which then became part of National Distillers. National reopened the Old Crow distillery shortly after the end of Prohibition and even refurbished and expanded it in the 1960’s. Unfortunately they screwed up the recipe, getting the backset ratio wrong when they modernized the distillery. The whiskey didn’t taste right and the brand lost much of its following. The problem was finally corrected in the 1980’s but just a few years later, in 1987, National was bought by Jim Beam and they immediately closed the plant. The Old Crow brand lives on but in the form of low-quality, minimally aged Beam distillate.

Beam continues to use seven of the warehouses for barrel aging; they are the more modern ones on the south end of the site. A few of them were even refurbished a few years ago. The rest of the distillery site was left to deteriorate through the years. Finally, at the end of 2013, Beam sold off the portion of the property that they weren’t using for warehousing. The new owners have set up a small scale distillery in the former bottling hall and are operating as Glenns Creek Distilling. They are making attempts to preserve and restore the remaining buildings as time and finances allow.

At the time of my visit there was some activity on the site, but it didn’t really look like it was open to the public, so again, all of my photos were taken from the road. As the daylight began to fade I drove down to Woodford Reserve. It was after 5:00 so the gate was closed and you can’t see too much from the road. I’m looking forward to returning to the area so I can tour all three distilleries now that I understand their interrelated histories.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gordon & MacPhail Tasting

I don’t check my email all that frequently. Work related emails are few and far between and internet access is very limited when I am at work. Consequently, I didn’t see an email that came in at 3:00 in the afternoon a few weeks ago until 11:00 the next morning.

I’m on the mailing lists of several whisky bars, liquor stores, state liquor commissions and a few distilleries, so I often get emails promoting whisky events. These are never really close to home though; only the truly special ones will warrant the time and effort it would take for me to attend them.

I was still lying in bed and only half awake as I scanned through the above mentioned email. It was for a whisky tasting at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham, MA (a suburb just west of Boston). When I got to the part of the message that showed the event lineup and saw a couple of 41 year old whiskies that had been distilled in the early 1970’s, my attention suddenly became undivided. Then I scrolled down further and saw the $200 price tag and quickly lost interest. Then I saw the next line noting that the price included a $200 gift card to the store.

Wait! So it’s a free tasting with rare, expensive whiskies and I just have to buy myself a $200 gift card to a liquor store with an incredible whisky selection? Being the skeptical sort that I am, I read over the email five or six more times to make sure there wasn’t some catch or caveat that I was missing. Next questions; when is this and do I have to take time off from work? It was on Friday evening the next week, and while not exactly convenient, I could slip down there between my Thursday night and Saturday night shifts. It was even close enough to my parents’ house that I could stay there and not have to spring for a hotel.

Of course, I knew an event like this would be limited in size and sell out quickly. If I was going to go, I’d have to get on the ball and sign up without hesitation. It turned out to be a 35 person event and when I reserved my spot just 22 hours after the email went out, there were only eight spaces left.

The main purpose of the tasting was to introduce Gordon’s customers to a new, single cask bottling of 21 year old Miltonduff that was done exclusively for the store by Gordon & MacPhail. Five other single malt offerings from the independent bottler would be tasted as well.

The additional bonus was that the event was hosted by Richard Urquhart, Gordon & MacPhail’s Export Director and part of the 4th generation of the family that owns the company. The business began in 1895 when it was established by James Gordon and John Alexander MacPhail as a family grocers, tea, wine and spirits merchant in Elgin. John Urquhart joined the company within its first year and was made a Senior Partner in 1915. By that point the Gordon & MacPhail brand name was well established and it didn’t make sense to amend it by adding Urquhart to the moniker. The same logic applied later when the Urquhart family eventually took full control of the business.

John developed Gordon & MacPhail’s whisky broking business and got them started bottling single malts under license for several distilleries. This soon led to the company having their own casks filled with new make spirit, which were left to age at the distilleries where the whisky was produced; this is the mainstay of the business today.

George Urquhart, John’s son, joined the business in 1933 and became a senior partner upon his father’s death in 1956. In the 1960’s Gorge launched a range of single malts from different distilleries under the “Connoisseur’s Choice” brand and offered them for sale in export markets, which included Italy, France, America and the Netherlands.

Four of George’s children joined the business between 1967 and 1981, and the fourth generation includes at least six of their collective offspring who are now part of the company. Getting to hear Richard’s insights into the history of Gordon & MacPhail and his family really made this a very special event. Richard started his talk, then paused and mentioned the look that he sees on everyone’s faces when he speaks too much before anyone has tasted any whisky.

He suggested we jump in with the first one right away. I’ll alternate between the topics that were discussed and the whiskies which we tasted. Keep in mind that the pours at this type of event are small, about ½ an ounce, and that it’s not the best environment for contemplating detailed tasting notes.

We started with a 10 year Miltonduff which was aged in refill sherry casks, bottled at 43% and selling for $56. It was fresh and elegant, with delicate malt notes, soft tree fruit and a hint of minerality. The overall style was clean and approachable, but it seemed to have minimal sherry influence.

We started off talking about casks types and filtration. Richard explained that it used to be common practice in Scotland to re-cooper Bourbon barrels (200 liters) and Sherry butts (500 liters) into hogsheads (250 liters). The barrels would be shipped as “knock downs” (disassembled) to save on transport costs. They would need to be re-coopered to weed out faulty staves so the labor cost was already accounted for. A full butt weighs around 1000 pounds, so making them smaller made them less difficult to manage. The hogshead was the happy medium size that both types of casks were often reassembled into.

Things are different today. Bourbon barrels are manufactured to a much higher level of quality and don’t need to be re-coopered before they are put into service in Scotland. It’s more cost effective to just ship them whole now. Spain banned the export of bulk Sherry back in the 1980’s; it is all bottled in the country now. The vast majority of the Sherry casks that come to Scotland these days were produced specifically for the whisky companies and seasoned with Sherry in Spain for a few years at most before being sent over to the distilleries.

All of the G&M whiskies bottled at 46% and above are non-chill filtered. Whiskies that the company bottles at 43% are filtered at 5° C (41° F), where the industry standard is much colder, as low as -4° C (25° F). This will keep the whisky from forming a haze in the bottle, but not if ice is added. The process is sort of a compromise that allows more flavor to be retained.

Next we moved on to the Gordon’s exclusive 21 year Miltonduff which was bottled at 53.8% and priced at $150 (I missed the details on the cask type). It had similar aromas to previously tasted 10 year old, but with more oak presence. The palate showed subtle tropical fruit notes, a grain-forward character and warming spice notes. This was the only whisky of the night that I added water to. That allowed the aromas to open up a little and brought out more floral notes. More fruit, vanilla and toasted oak notes came out on the palate.

The company’s business model has evolved over the years and while they do still have a retail store in Elgin, being an independent bottler of single malt Scotch whisky easily represents the largest part of their business today. That is all that they have bottled for at least a few decades, but Gordon & MacPhail did bottle other products in the past, including Sherry, wine, rum, vodka and even Coca-Cola for a short time during WWII.  They have been approached by whisky producers from other countries more recently, but declined the offers.

Gordon & MacPhail is also unique among independent bottlers in that they only lay down newly filled casks from the distilleries that they work with. All of the other bottlers buy most, if not all, of their whisky from brokers who sell casks that already have a good bit of age on them.

All of the casks that they use are first-fill or second-fill, and the Sherry casks they use are manufactured to their specification before being seasoned with the fortified wine in Spain. Richard noted that they use staves on these casks that are a little thicker than the industry standard. Since Gordon & MacPhail tend to age many of their whiskies for an extended period of time, the extra stave thickness gives the casks more longevity and slows down evaporation rates.

Tastings normally end with the most heavily peated whiskies, but we sampled those in the middle to save the rare and special offerings for the end. First up was the 10 year Caol Ila which was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels, bottled at 46% and priced at $64. The nose showed unadulterated peat smoke with sea spray and coastal minerality. The palate was full of weighty, meaty peat smoke with a touch of mint and engaging spice notes. This is classic Caol Ila, where the peat character takes center stage with minimal distraction. Most, if not all of the official bottlings of Caol Ila are chill filtered, so it’s nice to have non-filtered options from independent bottlers.

Richard also emphasized the relationships that G&M has built with the many companies they have worked with over the decades and the importance of maintaining those relationships, even if they don’t currently do business together. He mentioned that the Sherry producer who seasons casks for them is the same one that they used to work with as a bottler back in the 1970’s.

While G&M does have a bonded warehouse in Elgin capable of holding up to 8000 casks, they prefer to have the whisky that they buy age in the warehouses of the distilleries where it was produced, as that contributes to the unique character of each whisky. I believe that they could legally use the names of the distilleries where the whisky is distilled on their labels without permission, but they choose to work out licensing agreements with the companies instead. I’m sure that goes a long way to ensure they are able to fill casks in the future and age them on site.

G&M have filled casks from 103 different distilleries over the years. They now fill casks from about 70 distilleries, but are still laying down more whisky than any time in the past. Caol Ila is one of their biggest filling partners, currently supplying about 100 casks per year.

Next we moved on the Caol Ila 2003 Sassicaia Finish. This Caol Ila was aged for a total of a few months less than 13 years. It started off in first-fill Bourbon barrels, where it spent roughly 10 years. It was then transferred to Sassicaia (red wine from Tuscany) casks for another 33 months. It was bottled at 45% and priced at $86. The dark, brooding peat smoke aromatics were layered with dark red berry fruit notes. On the palate it was meaty and smoky with notes of chocolate and mulled red fruits adding complexity. There was a bit of sweetness up front, but it turned more dry and tannic as it moved into the finish.

Richard also took a little time to talk to us about the company’s biggest development in the modern era; their purchase of the Benromach distillery in 1993. The distillery had been closed since 1983 and was in a state of disrepair. After five years of refurbishment it went back online in 1998. The ambition to own and operate a distillery of their own had actually gone back to the first generation of the Urquhart family that was involved with Gordon & MacPhail. John Urquhart had tried to buy the Strathisla distillery in 1950 after its owner was jailed for tax evasion and the court ordered an auction of his assets. Urquhart was outbid by Chivas Brothers, who paid £71,000 for the distillery. According to the story Richard was told as a child by his grandfather, George, they had been outbid by a mere £5 (he conceded that may have been an exaggeration, though).

After the Caol Ila samples we took a moment to drink some water, let our palates refresh and prepare to taste offerings from Gordon & MacPhail’s “Old & Rare” and “Speymalt” ranges.

First up was the 41 year Coleburn, which was distilled in 1972, aged in refill, remade American hogsheads, bottled at 46% and priced at $725. The aromas were fascinating, showing classic notes of the old school distilling methods, with an oily character and paraffin wax coming through. On the palate caramel and shoe polish showed over a subtle floral backdrop.

At this point the conversation drifted to the older bottlings released by Gordon & MacPhail. In 2015 they bottled a 75 year old Mortlach, which is the oldest single malt bottled by anyone to date. Richard talked about the connection to his great-grandfather, who he never met. This first-fill Sherry but was laid down by John Urquhart in November of 1939, and 75 years later the fourth generation of the family running the business took part in its bottling and release.

As questions came up about their older casks, Richard cryptically revealed that the oldest cask they have in their possession now dates to 1940. It will be interesting to see how long they let that one go before it is bottled. Talk of a 1950 Talisker that was bottled at 60 years of age brought up the topic of how whisky can morph as it ages. The phenols that contribute the smoky character break down over time, and that 60 year Talisker had no discernable peat smoke flavors. Then Richard mentioned the company’s “liquid library”; a collection of samples taken from many of their casks at various points through time. He was able to go back and taste the very same Talisker cask as it was with just 10 years of age, from a sample pulled in 1960. And of course it had the signature peat smoke that Talisker is well-known for.

Finally, we moved on to the 41 year Macallan, which was distilled in 1973, aged in European Oak first-fill Sherry casks, bottled at 43% and priced at $1260. The aromatics had layers of complexity, with saddle leather, raisins and dark, oxidized sherry fruit being the most obvious notes. On the palate there was a lovely evolution of flavors. It was big and masculine with dark, sinewy sherry fruits along with hints of unsweetened chocolate and coffee beans. Baking spice notes took the spotlight on the finish.

Someone questions the price difference between the last two, given that Coleburn is a silent distillery which hasn’t produced whisky since 1985 and is unlikely to ever again. Richard indicated that it mostly came down to the cost of the licensing agreements to use the distillery names.

We talked a little more about the company’s past and the fact that G&M continued to fill many casks during the 1930’s and 40’s when the industry was seeing some of its worst times. This probably seemed risky at the time, but it helped to ensure Gordon & MacPhail’s future success. Richard mentioned that back in those dark days Macallan had actually requested that G&M fill their casks ahead of schedule to give the distillery a much needed infusion of cash. Times have changed though, and Macallan has been unable to supply whisky to Gordon & MacPhail for some years. I believe Richard said 2006 was the last time that happened.

As I mentioned above, maintaining good relationships with their distilling partners, both past and present, is of great importance to the company. Gordon & MacPhail still hosts an annual dinner with representative of all of the distilleries in Scotland. Macallan is on the cusp of opening a new, much larger distillery; if the industry takes another downturn I’m sure the Urquharts will be ready to buy whisky from them again.

Overall, this was really a great tasting event. As for my opinions of the whiskies, I was a little indifferent toward the Miltonduffs. The 21 year was more interesting than the 10 year, but I think the subtleties of the house style might be lost on me. The Coleburn was intriguing, but I found it more appealing on the nose than on the palate. I have a feeling that Coleburn is a whisky I really wouldn’t care for at a much younger age, and that is probably down to my personal preferences. I really enjoyed the 10 year Caol Ila, but for me the two standouts were the Macallan and the Caol Ila Sassicaia Finish, even though they were very different from each other stylistically.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nomad, Outland Whisky

stats: whisky, distilled and partially aged in Scotland, finished and bottled in Spain, 41.3%, $40

Back in the spring I had the opportunity to nick a sample out of a bottle of whisky that I’d never heard of before; Nomad, Outland Whisky. The information provided on the label was somewhat lacking in detail, but a little online research did shed some light on its background.

The label vaguely notes “A unique ageing process, beginning in Scotland and finishing in González Byass’ PX casks in Jerez……” While it is marked as a product of Spain, that’s a technicality; the vast majority of its production process did happen in Scotland.

The Nomad website gave more details, and related press releases filled in the gaps. This is actually a collaboration between González Byass and Richard Paterson. Byass is a prominent Sherry producer and many of his casks have made their way to Scotland for whisky maturation. Isle of Arran, Tobermory and Glenfarclas are just a few of the single malts that have employed his casks. Byass had already added gin and vodka to his portfolio of products, but this was his first foray into whisky.

Paterson is the well-known Master Blender who works for Whyte & Mackay. In addition to overseeing the Whyte & Mackay branded blend (which sells over 1 million cases a year, primarily in its home market), he also manages the bottlings of the company’s single malts; Dalmore, Fettercairn, Isle of Jura and Tamnavulin. Paterson’s most noteworthy project was the Shackleton blended malt. When 11 bottles of Mackinlay’s Scotch Whisky, which had been abandoned in Antarctica by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909, were recovered from their icy resting place in 2010 Paterson was tapped to extract a sample and create a replica whisky by blending together modern Scottish malts.

In the case of Nomad, Paterson has assembled a blend of 25 single malts (40% of the blend) and six grain whiskies (60% of the blend), sourced primarily from the Speyside region of Scotland. Those 31 whiskies range in age from 5 years to 8 years. After being vatted together, the blend is filled into Oloroso Sherry butts for another three years of aging in Scotland. It is then shipped to Spain, transferred to old Pedro Ximenez casks and aged for a minimum of 12 months in the hot, humid southern Spanish climate of San Fernando, in the cellars of the Byass bodega.

They claim to have experimented with the final finishing period in Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso and Fino Sherry casks, before settling on Pedro Ximenez casks as having the best result. Nomad debuted in key Asian markets in mid-2014 and made its way to Europe and the United States shortly thereafter.

You’ll note that this is not labeled as Scotch whiskey; it legally cannot be, as it was not matured exclusively in Scotland. Furthermore, this type of ageing scheme would not be possible with a single malt from Scotland, regardless of how it would be labeled; since 2012 it has been illegal to export single malt whiskey from Scotland unless it is bottled for retail sale.

Anyway, let’s see how it tastes:
The nose is an interesting dichotomy; delicate, fragrant tree fruit notes typical of Speyside malts are layered across the weightier, complex, dark berry fruit character from the heavy Sherry cask influence. The aromas are quite appealing.
It’s full bodied, with big, brash sherry fruit on the palate. The flavors show good range, with raisiny sweetness and slightly oxidized nuttiness. Things get a bit wonky from the mid-palate onward though, with a lack of integration and a bit too much heat.
But it does pull itself together on the finish as the flavor profile becomes more dry and earthy.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 21 year

12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 40%, $42
21 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $137

When I decided to write a post comparing Old Pulteney 12 year to Old Pulteney 17 year, I thought it would be a good idea to get the 21 year old in the mix too. It’s somewhat of a pricey bottle though, so I was trying to avoid buying one. I am, however, always looking for a reasonable excuse to visit some of my favorite whisky bars in Montreal. That was all I needed to head north one more time before the busy summer season got going at work.

I’ll pick up where my last post on this distillery left off, with a little more history. After being established in 1826, Pulteney operated continuously for more than 100 years and remained in the control of its founding family up until 1920. James Watson & Co. Ltd., the new owner, sold it on to John Dewar & Sons Ltd. in 1923. Just two years later it was sold to the Distiller’s Company Ltd.

With the Herring boom at its peak, there must have been some wild times in the port town; local authorities enacted a prohibition on alcohol, making Wick a dry town from May 1922. Diminished local demand combined with global factors detrimental to the whisky industry caused DCL to close the distillery in 1930.

The local prohibition came to an end in May of 1947 and four years later the distillery was purchased and resurrected by Robert Cumming, a lawyer from Banff. In 1955 he sold the distillery on to Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. They renovated and modernized the operation in 1958-59, bringing an end to its use of traditional floor maltings (though worm tubs continue to be used to this day). This is likely also when the original pair of 9,092-liter spirit stills were replaced by the single 17,343-liter spirit still that is in use there today.

Pulteney was sold on to Allied Brewers in 1961. That company later changed names several times through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Finally, the distillery was purchased by its current owners, Inver House, in 1995. They released the official 12 year old bottling in 1997. The 17 year old was introduced in 2004, originally at 40% or 43% abv (depending in its intended export market), but the alcohol level was raised to 46% in 2006. The 21 year old was added to the core lineup in 2007 or 2008.

There have also been limited releases of older bottlings, including a 30 year old in 2009 and a 40 year old in 2012, as well as several non-age stated bottlings that were special editions or sold only in duty-free shops.

Looking to clarify some information about the cask types used to mature Old Pulteney’s core range, I came across their online shop which had different product descriptions than their main website. The pages on that site have links to the online shop, but shipping is only available to the UK, so I doubt very many people click on over for a look.

For the 12 year old the cask descriptions are identical; “Matured wholly in air-dried, hand selected ex-bourbon casks”.

For the 17 year old the main web site gives the rather vague description of “Aged in both American and Spanish oak casks”. But the online shop goes into more detail, noting that it “…..predominantly features ex-bourbon maturation, with the addition of spirit that has been wholly matured in Spanish wood ex-sherry casks, predominantly Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso”.

Unfortunately, for the 21 year old the two descriptions contain conflicting information. The main site notes that “…..with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon casks with spirit from ex-Oloroso sherry casks. We mostly use second fill American oak, plus some Spanish oak first fill. However, there is a higher proportion of ex-Oloroso sherry cask compared to the 17 Years Old”. But the online shop states that “As with the 17 year old, with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon wood with spirit from ex-sherry wood casks. The crucial difference, however, is that the ex-sherry wood in this case is made from American Oak (mostly Fino Sherries)”.

If I can get any official clarification from the company, I’ll post an update in the comments below.

So, I bellied up to the bar in Montreal and ordered a glass of Old Pulteney 12 year to calibrate my palate. On my first sip I immediately knew that something was off. After a brief instant of self-doubt, I took a closer look at the bottle and noticed that this was the 40% abv bottling rather than the 43% abv bottling that gets exported to the U.S.

I usually harp on the difference in flavor that can be realized when distillers stop chill filtering; a move that usually goes hand-in-hand with the alcohol level rising to 46% or more. I found it very interesting that a three point drop in the alcohol percentage with no change in filtration was so obvious to me, even when I hadn’t tasted the higher proof version for several months.

The 12 year old shows biscuity malt aromas with some subtle tree fruit and briny coastal notes.
Somewhat full bodied, the palate has a good balance of malt and oaky spice notes with a touch of sea spray.
It gets thin on the finish, falling a little flat after a respectable start.

The 21 year old is much darker, with a beautiful mahogany color.
The nose is somewhat restrained, without much volatility. But the aromas that are there are full of complexity, with mature oak-driven notes and briny minerality.
The palate is very oak-forward, but not out of balance. Long-soaked staves, shoe polish, maple and warming spice notes all come through.
The finish is long and evolving with a coastal character reminiscent of old fishing nets emerging. Everything is very well-integrated.
Overall it is well-composed, and while bold and assertive it doesn’t get unruly.

Back in November I came across a bottle of the 21 year old in MA for $130, which wasn’t much of an difference over the 17 year old. Knowing how much I enjoyed it after my sampling in Montreal, I was tempted but decided to wait until I was back in the area a few weeks later. When I returned to the same store, that bottle had a price tag of $175.

I questioned someone working there to see if it had been marked in error. He did a little checking and found that the price from the distributor had jumped dramatically with their latest delivery. He actually offered to sell me one for $150, noting that their cost was now $144. I appreciated their effort to keep a customer happy in the face of quickly rising prices, but I passed and drove a few miles down the road to a store where I had recently seen the 21 year at $137. Fortunately they still had a few bottles on the shelf.

These are both stores with pretty aggressive pricing, so most places will probably have it priced in the $180’s, if not a bit higher. Looking at prices online, I got the sense that the 17 year is jumping from around $110 up to the $130 neighborhood. I haven’t seen any indication of the 12 year’s price rising at this point. If you come across any of the 21 year Old Pulteney at the previous price, snap it up while you can.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Updating the list of Scottish distillery owners

Back in October of 2015, a question about the ownership of Glenrothes (both the distillery and the brand) led me to write a post where I compiled a list of all of the malt distilleries in Scotland and who they were owned by. I only included the ones that were currently distilling at that time and had been running for at least three years. A major purchase of three Scottish distilleries in 2016 necessitated an update of the list, which I’ve just done. I’ll take a moment here to detail the backgrounds of the buyer and the seller, as well as the distilleries involved

Billy Walker, a veteran of the Scotch whisky industry since 1971, began his career as a distillery chemist at Inver House (which was owned by Hiram Walker at the time; no relation). By the late 1980’s Mr. Walker had stepped into a management role with Burn Stewart, and was part of a management buy-in in 1988 that gave him a 3% stake in the company. Burn Stewart was established in 1948 as a whisky blending, brokering and export business. During Walker’s tenure there, the company acquired two distilleries; Deanston (1991) and Tobermory (1993).

When Burn Stewart was bought out by CL Financial at the end of 2002, Billy Walker was left with a pile of cash and no job. Rather than retire, he went on to look for his next challenge. Along with two South African funding partners (South Africa was on of Burn Stewart’s major export markets), Walker began the hunt for a distillery to buy. In April of 2004 they purchased the BenRiach distillery, with the new owners forming the BenRiach Distillery Company Limited. The group went on to purchase Glendronach in 2008 and Glenglassaugh in 2013.

BenRiach was established in 1898 in Speyside, a bit south of Elgin. But it closed down after just two years, in the wake of the bursting of the industry bubble of the late 1800’s at the turn of the century. The floor maltings at BenRiach continued to be used though, supplying malt for the nearby and co-owned Longmorn distillery. This was made practical by the new private railroad which had been constructed between the two distilleries.

BenRiach was purchased by Glenlivet in 1965 and completely refurbished before reopening in 1966. It was taken over by Chivas Brothers in 1978 and a second set of stills were added in 1985, but its production was dropped to just three months per year in 1999. When Seagram’s, the parent company of Chivas Brothers, broke apart in 2001, Pernod-Ricard acquired many of their assets, including BenRiach. The distillery was closed entirely in August of 2002.

When Walker’s group took over the distillery in April of 2004 its greatest asset was in the warehouses; a continuous stock of aging whisky dating back to 1966. In September of 2004, five months after the purchase, the distillery was up and running again.

Glendronach was established 1826 in Speyside, just outside of Huntly. The distillery went through a series of owners over the course of its history. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1837, fell silent from 1916 to 1920, had a second set of stills added in 1966-67, and was closed again from 1996 to April of 2001. After being taken over by Pernod-Ricard / Chivas Brothers in 2005, the stills were converted to steam heat, ending Glendronach’s reign as the last distillery in Scotland operating with coal fired stills.

Likely needing to free up some capital for their purchase of Absolut, Pernod-Ricard sold Glendronach on to Billy Walker’s group in 2008. In spite of the five year gap in production, there were still 30,000 casks aging in the warehouses; plenty for the new owners to work with as they rebuilt the brand.

Glenglassaugh was established in 1875, near Scotland’s north coast and just west of the modern boundary that delineates Speyside, making it a Highland distillery. In 1892 it was acquired by the Highland Distillers Company, which was in turn acquired by the Edrington Group in 2001.

The distillery saw long silent periods, which lasted from 1907 to 1931 and from 1936 to 1960. It was renovated during 1959-60 before going back into operation, but the next downturn for the industry caused Glenglassaugh to close down again in 1986. The Scaent Group, a Dutch investment consortium, purchased the distillery 2008 and with a healthy investment, had it reopened by November of that year. In 2012 Scaent sold the distillery to Lumiere, an Amsterdam based private equity group. Glenglassaugh was then purchased by the BenRiach Distillery Company in March of 2013. Walker invested even more in the distillery, with the goal of getting it up to full production as quickly as possible.

Just 26 years of production had been followed by 22 years of closure, and during that time the distillery’s owners had used most of the aging stocks in the warehouses for blended Scotches. By the time of the 2008 sale, there were fewer than 400 casks still in the warehouses. This led to the current situation of the distillery offering rare older bottlings (they have ranged from 28 to 51 years old) at very high prices, as well as younger, non-age stated bottlings created from distillate produced after the reopening.

Then, on June 1st of 2016, the BenRiach Distillery Company (all three distilleries, a bottling plant in Newbridge and the company headquarters in Edinburgh) was purchased by the Louisville, KY based Brown-Forman Corporation.

The roots of Brown-Forman date back to 1870, though the company didn’t take that name until 1890. Its original flagship Bourbon brand, Old Forester, was introduced in 1873. The company acquired its first distillery in 1902, and survived Prohibition by obtaining one of the few licenses to bottle and sell medicinal whiskey during that period. Brown-Forman also purchased Early Times, which was a major Bourbon brand, in 1923.

In 1933 a new distillery and corporate offices were constructed in Louisville. In 1940 the company acquired two more Kentucky distilleries, one in Shively and the other in Versailles. The Shively plant was modernized and expanded in 1955, which led to the Versailles distillery going silent in 1957 and eventually being sold off. Distilling ceased at the Louisville plant in 1979, though that location continued to be used for bottling and warehousing. Brown-Forman also established its own cooperage in 1945.

What ended up being their most significant acquisition, though, was the 1956 purchase of Jack Daniel’s. While Early Times had become the number one Bourbon in the US by 1953, Jack Daniel’s would fuel most of the company’s future growth. Its Lynchburg, TN distillery has been expanded many times, and the brand has grown into the best selling American whiskey in the world.

With the whiskey industry on a downward trend in the 1970’s and 80’s, Brown-Forman diversified through the 1980’s and 1990’s, substantially growing its wine business and acquiring Lenox (makers of fine China, among other things) in 1983.

Then, with annual sales topping $2 billion at the start of the new millennium, the company took a new direction. It began to sell off many of its wine assets and in 2005 announced the sale of Lenox. At the same time, it diversified within the spirits realm, adding vodka, rum and tequila to its portfolio.

Plans for a second cooperage were announced in 2012. In 2015 Brown-Forman purchased Slane Castle Irish Whiskey Limited with the commitment to build a $50 million distillery in Ireland.

Finally, in March of 2016, Brown-Forman had completed the sale of its Southern Comfort (which it had owned since 1979) and Tuaca (a brandy-based Italian liqueur) brands to Sazerac Co. Three months later came the purchase of the BenRiach Distillery Company.

What I found interesting were the prices involved in these acquisitions. Since we’re dealing with a mix of currencies, I’ll convert all of the figures to Pounds Sterling so they are relatable.

Billy Walker and company purchased the BenRiach distillery in 2004 for £5 million. The 2008 sale price of Glendronach wasn’t confirmed anywhere, but I’ve seen speculation / rumor that it was in the neighborhood of £30 million. The 2013 sale price for Glenglassaugh was also not disclosed. But we do know that the distillery sold for £5 million in 2008 and the new owners immediately invested £1 million to get it up and running again. I found one article saying that the distillery was sold to Walker for a “tidy profit”, but I found another where Walker stated that he got a great deal on it as the sale went under the radar and there were no competing bids. Keeping in mind that the distillery had almost no stock of whisky with significant age on it, I’m guessing that it went for between £10 million and £15 million. Let’s say £50 million total for all three distilleries.

I’m sure investments were made in all three of the distilleries after they were purchased. There was also the addition of a bottling plant and a company headquarters. I’ll take a wild guess and say £20 million for all of that, which puts the total at £70 million. The 2016 purchase of the company by Brown-Forman was for £285 million. So, the three founders probably quadrupled the money they had invested over the course of 12 years. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with an underutilized / undervalued distillery if you are good at managing the product, marketing and brand building.

While some people scoffed at the sum paid by Brown-Forman, they had just sold Southern Comfort and Tuaca for the equivalent of £373.4 million. That seems like a really high valuation to me for two brands that are probably past their prime (if Tuaca was going to rise with the tide of the craft cocktail movement I’d think it would have happened by now, and I just don’t see So Co having a Pabst Blue Ribbon-like resurgence). But hey, maybe the folks at Sazerac know something that I don’t.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey vs. Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

Bernheim; Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 7 years, 45%, $28
Parker’s Heritage Collection; Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 13 years, 63.4%, $90

Unexpected circumstances will occasionally prompt me to open a special bottle of whiskey without much forethought. I was in a mood to open something interesting on New Years Eve, but a grueling 10 hour shift at work followed by a few last-call drinks at the local pub resulted in me being down for the count as soon as I hit the couch that night.

When I read about the recent passing of Parker Beam about two weeks ago, I knew it was time to open my bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection 13 year old Wheat Whiskey. The bottle of Bernheim Wheat Whiskey I wanted to compare it to would also tie in nicely with my last post (more on that later).

The Beam family is as massive as their participation in the Bourbon industry is pervasive. Several branches of the family tree through many generations have been involved with the operation of countless distilleries. I’ll try to simplify the lineage as much as I can for the purpose of this post.

It starts with Johannes Jacob Boehm, a miller and distiller of German descent who had changed his name to Jake Beam. He moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland to Kentucky and was distilling there, alongside his son David (one of 12 children) by 1795. Three of David’s sons (out of 11 children) went into distilling; Jack, Joseph B. and David M. Beam. The latter two brothers each had two prominent distiller sons, all four of whom gave birth to more sons who would go on to work in the industry.

David M. Beam’s two sons were Jim, who the famous brand that we all know today is named for, and Park. After Prohibition, they established the Clermont, KY distillery that still makes Jim Beam Bourbon today, although the company was bought out by one of its original investors after World War II. Park’s two sons, Earl and Carl “Shucks” Beam were distillers at that plant.

Joseph L. Beam, one of Joseph B. Beam’s sons started the Heaven Hill Spring distillery after Prohibition, but he had to sell out early on for financial reasons. He still played an important part in Heaven Hill’s first decade and his son, Harry Beam, was the original master distiller there. When Harry left the company in 1946, he was replaced by Earl Beam (his 3rd cousin, David Beam was the grandfather of both).

Earl’s son, Parker, started working at the distillery in 1960 and took over the master distiller position in 1975. Craig Beam, Parker’s son, started working at Heaven Hill in 1982 and worked his way up through the company, becoming the assistant distiller by the early 2000’s and joining his father as co-master distiller by 2006. Parker Beam still had the title of master distiller emeritus at the time of his passing.

Parker’s most notable achievements were the development of Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon in 1986, Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon in 1994 and the Parker’s Heritage Collection, a limited annual release of unique, one-off bottlings which began in 2007. Parker was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2010. When he went public with the illness in 2013, he decided to use the Heritage Collection to raise awareness and funds for the cause. The 2013 release was named the Promise of Hope and $20 from each bottle sold was donated to ALS research. Subsequent Parker Heritage Collection releases have donated $5 from each bottle to the Promise of Hope fund.

Jumping back to January of 2000, Parker Beam began distilling a wheat whiskey at Heaven Hill. This was America’s first commercially produced wheat whiskey, which would be introduced as a 90 proof straight whiskey in September of 2005. It bore no age statement, but was obviously about five and a half years old. The mash bill is not often mentioned, but reliable sources state that it is 51% wheat, 37% corn and 12% malted barley.

Wheat whiskey is clearly defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 27, Part 5.22), but it took some digging to figure out when this definition came into being. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 defined a new class of whiskey, giving consumers an assurance of quality if it was so labeled. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 brought more rules and regulated what could be called Bourbon. Further clarification was provided by President Taft’s “Decision on Whiskey” in 1909, which specified that Bourbon must be made from a majority of corn. I couldn’t find a copy of that document, but as far as I could tell it did not define wheat whiskey. In 1935 the Federal Government created the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. In addition to a more detailed definition of Bourbon, the SIDS also defined several other styles of whiskey; rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, rye malt whiskey and corn whiskey.

At that time the definition required wheat whiskey to be distilled to no more than 160 proof, bottled and no less than 80 proof and made from a mash of at least 51% wheat. The requirement for aging in new, charred oak (and possibly the requirement for a barrel entry of no more than 125 proof as well) was added in 1938.

But American whiskey distillers, by tradition, had primarily been making Bourbon and Rye for a very long time. Even with this newly defined style officially spelled out, it would be 65 years before anyone made a wheat whiskey. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey was an interesting new product and got some attention, but never really caught on in a big way. I picked up a bottle of it early on, probably in 2006. I polished that bottle off long ago, so clearly I didn’t dislike it, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind as being overly remarkable.

Then some interesting things happened in 2014. The Parker Heritage Collection bottling that year was a 13 year old, cask strength wheat whiskey, which came from the original batch that was distilled early in 2000. By the end of the year, the packaging for Bernheim Wheat Whiskey had been redesigned and the new label had picked up a seven year age statement. In the midst of whiskey shortages (for certain brands at least), price spikes and age statements dropping like flies, this was quite unusual.

As I said above, this is a product that never really caught on in a big way. If they were consistently selling 20% less than the volume of sales they had projected for, the whiskey would gain two years of age over the course of 10 years. It’s probably been slowly creeping up in age and was likely a six and a half year old by 2009.

I mentioned up top that this post would tie into my previous post, where I discussed the dropping price of the Hudson brand of whiskeys. When I first saw the seven year age-stated Bernheim Wheat Whiskey in a store it was at $28, much less than I had ever seen the NAS bottling for. But a little research showed prices ranging from the mid-$20’s to the lower-$40’s through the past five or six years. When Bernheim debuted in 2005 the suggested retail price was $40. I finally found evidence of an official price drop for this product starting around mid 2010, but apparently it sells so slowly in some markets that there has been a huge disparity in its retail pricing for many years.

Unlike the Hudson Whiskeys, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey was made at a reasonable cost from day one. Its price drop was simply a function of its sales volume failing to live up to expectations for the first five years it was available. The increased age is pretty solid evidence of that fact.

Here in Vermont, a liquor control state where the prices usually reflect what the producer would like the product to sell for, Bernheim is still $42. Of course, we still have the NAS bottling; sometimes it takes forever to move through old stock around here. Hopefully we’ll get the lower priced, age-stated bottles before too long.

Anyway, on to the whiskey; I’m excited to try these. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted the standard bottling and I’ve been sitting on the PHC bottle for a few years now.

The nose is fairly aromatic, with a dense richness. Some sweetness comes through and there’s plenty of clay-like earthiness. Vanilla-forward oak notes show too. Spice notes are the obvious no-show (as one might expect with no rye in the mix).
The dry earthiness wins out over the sweetness up front. It’s approachable while maintaining some backbone, though a little one-dimensional up front. It does evolve as it progresses, with flavors subtly reminiscent of Jim Beam’s funk and George Dickel’s Flintstone’s vitamins note.
The finish has a slightly warm burn, but it seems to be strictly from the alcohol, rather than that along with a contribution of spice notes.
I like it, but I don’t love it. I can kind of see this as being a good backdrop for a respectable cocktail.

PHC Wheat
The nose shows more depth and a shift in the profile of its aromas compared to the 7 year old, but it’s less volatile than one would expect for the given proof. The clay-like aromas are toned down significantly and the oak is more obvious and mature, with notes of old books and a hint of maple syrup.
It’s quite full bodied and a bit rambunctious on the palate. The sweetness that briefly fights its way to the fore up front quickly gives way to an intense dryness. Warming spice notes take over as it moves through the mid-palate, but in this expression they are primarily oak-driven. More time in cask seems to have effectively diminished the funk-and-Flintstone's notes.
The finish provides a wild ride of fiery spice notes which are exceptionally dry, but there’s enough underlying mature oak character to keep things interesting.
A doubling of the age and a big jump in proof has proven quite transformative for this whiskey. It took me a little while to wrap my head around this one and really get into it; well worth the effort though.

From all accounts Parker Beam was much loved and highly respected throughout the Bourbon industry. I’m grateful to have a glass of some of his finest work with which to acknowledge his passing.