Sunday, April 23, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 4

On the last night I would be staying in Frankfort, Kentucky, I was at Capital Cellars a little beyond their official closing time of 9:00. By the time I made my way over to Serafini it was probably getting close to 9:30, but fortunately they serve food until 10:00. Once I had settled in with dinner and a beer, the server who had originally waited on me let me know that her shift was ending and that she would be passing my care off to the closing bartender.

At some point he struck up a conversation and enquired about where I was visiting from and the nature of my journey. When I mentioned that I was a whiskey tourist he excitedly told me that I should introduce myself to a gentleman who was part of a group of people sitting behind me; he was the second biggest whiskey collector in the county. I was intrigued, but I was also in the middle of making tasting notes for the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I was sipping on. Not only that, but the group seemed rather large and boisterous and I was feeling semi-introverted, so I decided not to mind the barman’s suggestion.

As time passed, the group dwindled down to the gentleman in question and just a few others. The bartender seemed to know him well and was quite insistent that we meet, finally taking it upon himself to facilitate an introduction. I conceded and made my way over to the high top tables in the bar area. We found common ground with our shared interest in whiskey pretty quickly.  The initial conversation was about our respective collections. My Scotch-heavy, 100-plus bottle quiver was admittedly humble compared to the nearly 1000 bottles of mostly American whiskey he had amassed. He was, however, impressed that I still had a mostly full bottle of E. H. Taylor, Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon, and also seemed appreciative of the rare single malt holdings I mentioned; a 33 year Bruichladdich Legacy and an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist among them.

His collection had great depth and breadth, even though a very high percentage of it came from the Buffalo Trace distillery. The one that really caught my attention though was an A. H. Hirsch 16 year old (this is the famous bourbon that was distilled in 1974 at the Michter’s Distillery, near Schaefferstown, PA). The best I could do was mention the notable releases that had already come and gone from my collection; the 10, 12, 15 and 20 old Van Winkle bottlings, the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Rediscovered Barrels (17, 19 and 21 years old), and each of the Antique Collection expressions.

The conversation eventually meandered over to my home state. He was exited to learn that I was from Vermont, mentioning that he had visited Burlington over the summer as one of his children was looking at UVM as a prospective college. He had actually eaten dinner in the sister restaurant of the one that I work in and had stayed in the hotel it shares a building with. His trip also included a visit to a whiskey bar I’ve sat at more than once, where he and his wife polished off their bottle of Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon.

It was getting late on a Thursday night, and new friend then asked what I was doing for the next couple of days, intimating that an invitation to examine his collection over the weekend was forthcoming. Sadly, I had to inform him that I was leaving for home in the morning. The clock was nearing midnight, but I needed to be patient to see where this might go. He needled me a little more about the possibility of sticking around a bit longer, but there was no way to extend my stay as I really had to show up for work on Saturday afternoon. I’m not one to try to invite myself over to someone’s house, especially someone I hardly know, but given the circumstances it didn’t seem inappropriate to suggest that I was willing to go see the collection that night, as long as that was amenable to him, and more importantly to his wife.

With spousal approval, my plans to get a good night’s sleep prior to the 15 hour drive home were blown apart. They explained that their house was quite a few miles outside of town, along some winding, narrow back roads. I agreed to follow them carefully after fetching my car from the other end of the block, and we were off. Much like Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, you don’t have to drive very far out of Frankfort before finding yourself on a dirt road that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

We eventually arrived at our destination and I was welcomed into their spacious, modern home. After a few brief pleasantries were exchanged, glassware was retrieved and a bottle of Thomas H. Handy Rye appeared seemingly from nowhere. The label showed it to be at 132.4 proof, indicating that it was from the 2012 release. We sipped on that beast of a whiskey as the conversation continued on.

At some point, the question was posed; “So, do you want to see the collection?” Of course I did! We made our way to the cellar where two tables (each roughly the size of a ping-pong table) were covered with boxes of whiskey bottles, and more were on the floor for a lack of a better place to put them. Some were packaged individually, others in cases of up to 12 bottles. There seemed to be an endless supply of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year and 20 year bottles. I believe every vintage of the Antique Collection was represented as well as every release from Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection and Single Oak Project; multiple bottles of many, if not all of them. Bottlings from the Frankfort-based distillery dominated the collection, but there were plenty of rare and special selections from other American distilleries too.

Then came the grand question; “So, what do you want to drink?” Two weeks earlier I had set off in search of whiskey adventure, but never could have imagined myself in this scenario. With so many splendid choices before me, that was no easy decision. It would have to be something I had never had before, and something I was unlikely to have the opportunity to taste again. I pondered briefly before coyly stating “A. H. Hirsch.” My new friend shook his head and said apologetically “I’m sorry, I can’t open that.” I smiled and told him that I had assumed that would be the answer, but I had to ask. “So, what else do you want to drink?” was the follow-up.

I started sliding bottles out of boxes to examine labels and soon gravitated to the short, 375 ml Experimental Collection bottles. I came across the Rediscovered Barrels bottlings, which I had purchased myself back in 2011. Then I pulled a few that had been made with oats and rice in their mash bills and remembered seeing some not-so-great reviews of them. Finally, something caught my eye; the 23 year old Giant French Oak Barrel bottling (at 135 gallons, this is about 2.5 times the size of a typical bourbon barrel). With my host’s approval, we went back up to the kitchen to crack it open.

We discussed how amazing it was that any American distiller was initiating such experiments back in 1989, and I noted that I had seen a recently filled (maybe 2012) barrel of the same size on the first floor of Warehouse C during my tour of Buffalo Trace earlier in the day. After sipping our way through a healthy pour of that whiskey, a mason jar of clear liquid mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter. This was allegedly white dog from a distillery somewhere in Kentucky, and from a run that will be used for a special bottling at some point in the future. I have doubts as to the legality of such things, so I’ll only say that is was quite delicious (at least as far as un-aged spirit goes) and leave it at that.

The gentleman’s better half had retired to bed by this point, and our conversation drifted on to the Single Oak Project. He opened a cabinet that was filled with different bottlings of it, all arranged in a lattice style rack, and told me to pick one. Not knowing one of these from the next, I had no idea which one to pick. I was pretty sure the one bottle from this series I had at home carried a double digit number, so I picked #171 just to ensure I didn’t taste something I already had. Just for the record, barrel #171 is a wheat based bourbon which was entered into the barrel at 125 proof and aged in a warehouse with wooden floors. The barrel was charred to #4 and its staves were from the top of the tree, course grained and seasoned for 12 months.

Around 2:00 in the morning the cell phone call came from upstairs; it was time for my generous host to go to bed. All too aware that I may have overstayed my welcome, I apologized (the call had somehow gotten onto speaker-phone), thanked her for their kind hospitality and promised to be out the door in the few short minutes that it would take to finish the whiskey in my glass.

The ever-polite man of the house saw me out, and while we were on the front porch he presented the Experimental Collection bottle we had opened earlier, telling me to take the rest of it. Not wanting to take advantage of the kindness of someone who was at least moderately intoxicated, I politely refused. He insisted and I refused again. By the third offer he was pushing it into the open pocket of my jacket and I finally caved. He did have more than one bottle of almost everything in his collection, so at least knowing that made me feel a little better about accepting it. And, of course, I can now make proper tasting notes to go along with this post.

The nose has lots of shoe polish and saddle leather, subtle vanilla and a delicate hint of fragrant spice.
There’s a maple syrup like sweetness up front, which is soon joined by, and eventually surpassed by round, complex spice notes which are warming but not fiery. Teaberry, vanilla and a touch of nuttiness join the fray as well. The oak becomes more prominent late in the finish, but not to the point of being overwhelming.
The spice notes seem to be primarily from the French oak, but with a minor influence from rye grain as well. This is really good and interesting without getting too exotic.

Interestingly, this bottle is labeled as “whiskey” rather than bourbon, even though it is made with one of Buffalo Trace’s bourbon mash bills. The French oak does not disqualify it from that designation, but the barrel entry proof of 130 does.

Thank goodness for modern technology; I only had to touch the saved location of the hotel I was staying at in my GPS and the Garmin’s little purple line guided me safely out of the wilderness.

My departure the next morning was only slightly delayed, but I did have to take a brief detour through the Buffalo Trace Distillery Shop to pick up a bottle of Peychaud’s barrel-aged bitters for a friend. This was a distillery exclusive offering that had been aged in former Sazerac Rye barrels for 140 days and was selling for $17 for a 5 oz bottle.

There was a nice unintended consequence to that little task. If I had left for home from the hotel, the GPS would have put me on I-64 as the quickest route over to I-75. But since I was starting from the north side of town, I was instead led east on US-460, which goes right by the old National Distillers plant at the Forks of Elkhorn. The former home of Old Grand Dad, that facility is now the site of Jim Beam’s bottling operation and finished goods storage, as well as a small number of aging warehouses. It was great to get a little more historical perspective on the way out of town.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Four Roses, 2016 Limited Edition Single Barrel

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 14 years old, 59.7%, $125

Yesterday was my birthday and I got into some good whiskey, as one would expect. While I still have one more post left to complete the tale of my adventures in Kentucky last year, I’m going to take a brief diversion and talk about what I drank last night. Rather than fretting over what to open from my collection I decided to step out to the local pub, where I knew there was something special on the shelf. This way I wouldn’t have to cook dinner either.

That something special was a bottle of Four Roses 2016 Limited Edition Single Barrel, also known as Elliott’s Select. In a previous post I detailed information about the Four Roses Limited Edition bottlings (both Single Barrel and Small Batch) from their inception through the 2013 vintage. Initially these were releases of about 2000 bottles. They grew as the years rolled on, with the LE Small Batch getting up over 12,000 bottles in 2013 and the LE Single Barrel reaching 4000 bottles that year, before creeping up to 5000 bottles in 2014.

Then came the news that no one wanted to hear in 2015; the annual Limited Edition Single Barrel releases were being suspended. Four Roses had grown in popularity to the point that there just wasn’t enough extra aged stock on hand to support the Limited Edition bottlings in the volume that had become necessary. The company decided to sacrifice the LE Single Barrel offering to ensure the future of the of the LE Small Batch releases. They did, however, announce that going forward there was the possibility of the Limited Edition Single Barrel product occasionally returning for special commemorative bottlings.

And that was exactly what happened in 2016. After Jim Rutledge retired from his position as the Four Roses Master Distiller (which he had held for more than 20 years) in 2015, he was succeeded by the distillery’s Operations Director, Brent Elliot. The company wanted to introduce their new Master Distiller with a special bottling, and chose to revive the Limited Edition Single Barrel for 2016 in his honor.

Many consumers mistakenly assumed that the LE Single Barrel was back for annual releases after a one year hiatus, but Elliot has reaffirmed that it will not be offered every year going forward. There definitely won’t be a 2017 LE Single Barrel; if there was we certainly would have heard about it by now. Also, the duty of commemorative bottling will fall to the LE Small Batch this year; it will honor Al Young’s 50th anniversary with the company. He has served in many roles during his career at Four Roses, but has been the Brand Ambassador for the last 10 years.

The inaugural Limited Edition Single Barrel was actually introduced in 2007 as a tribute to Jim Rutledge, having reached 40 years of service in the Bourbon industry. That release was of just 1442 bottles, while the 2016 version dedicated to Brent Elliot consisted of 10,224 bottles. Coming from roughly 51 individual barrels, it’s no surprise that the proof ranged from about 100 to 120. All of the bottles carry a 14 year age statement and come from the OESK recipe, which uses the 20% rye mashbill and the spicy yeast. This yeast produces a whiskey which is full bodied, slow aging and with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain. The particular bottle that I’m sampling is on the high end of the proof range, at 119.4 (59.7%).

The nose is full of dense aromas, but without being sharp or volatile. Notes of vanilla, leather, old books and subtle berry fruit are all layered beautifully together.
On the palate there’s a fruitiness up front that’s quickly overshadowed by a wave of complex spice notes. Traditional rye-based spice character combines with spice that is more floral and minty in nature, while balancing oak notes linger in the background.
The spice notes evolve to become more warming and fiery on the lengthy finish.
It’s big and bold, but surprisingly well-composed and approachable for the given proof.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 3

After a day spent touring Four Roses and Buffalo Trace, as well as visiting the former Old Crow and Old Taylor distillery sites, I was ready for an evening out in Frankfort on the last full day of my vacation. Faced with a 15 hour drive home the next day, the plan was to take it easy and get to bed early that night; just a drink or two at Capital Cellars (where I’d had lunch that afternoon) and some dinner and another whiskey or two at Serafini.

The sun had already set by the time I got back to the hotel from the day’s adventures, and then I went for a swim and spent a bit of time organizing my belongings to facilitate a quick escape in the morning. Needless to say, I got kind of a late start heading out on the town. As I mentioned in my previous post, Capital Cellars has a very laid-back, café-like atmosphere. It’s a nice, quiet place to have a drink, but you don’t really feel like you’re at a bar there, at least not in the traditional sense.

After asking about a few whiskeys that were listed on the menu but not visible on the shelf (they were sold out; I seem to have a knack for picking unavailable items on whiskey lists), I inquired about the Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 year old Rye. It was on the shelf but not the list, so I was curious about the price. My interest was lost at $40 though. Don’t get me wrong, if a bar is going to keep Van Winkle whiskeys around for any length of time, they have to price them steeply. That particular whiskey just wasn’t appealing to me at that price.

I decided to go out on a limb and asked the bartender for a suggestion in the $25 to $30 range from their collection of about 70 bottles. He reached for the 17 year old Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, but was interrupted by the second bartender who felt that there where better whiskies in the same price range. She suggested a Limited Edition Yellowstone bottling, and he deferred. It was a bourbon that was definitely to my liking, but proper tasting notes were never taken as I had become engrossed in conversation with the staff. I’ll take a moment to detail the history of the brand though.

Yellowstone bourbon is named for the national park, and the brand was established shortly after the park was established in 1872. It was originally a product of Taylor & Williams, a wholesale whiskey firm based in Louisville, KY. The whiskey used for Yellowstone was first sourced from several distilleries but the brand grew in popularity and at some point in the 1880’s its production and bottling was contracted out to the Cold Springs distillery in Gethsemane, KY. In 1903 Taylor & Williams merged with the owner of the Cold Springs distillery, J. B. Dant.

The distillery was renamed after its Yellowstone brand and 1910 the company absorbed an adjacent distillery owned by Minor Case Beam. The combined sites continued to operate under the Yellowstone name and members of the Beam and Dant families were involved in its operation until Prohibition.

The brand was re-established by members of the Dant family after Prohibition when they built a new Yellowstone distillery outside of Shively, KY. In 1944 that distillery and the Yellowstone brand were purchased by Glenmore Distillers. By the 1960’s Yellowstone had grown to be the best selling bourbon in Kentucky. Finally, in 1991, Glenmore was purchased by Guinness and the Shively plant was closed. In 1993 the Yellowstone brand was sold to Heaven Hill and the closed distillery was sold to Florida Citrus Distillers, who started using it to produce wine and vinegar. Heaven Hill quickly sold the Yellowstone brand to the David Sherman Corporation.

David Sherman established his company in 1958 but in 2006 it was renamed to Luxco, reflecting a shift in ownership among its founding families. Until recently the company operated exclusively as a non-distiller producer. Their products (both whiskey and other spirits categories) tend to occupy the bottom shelf. Even Ezra Brooks and Rebel Yell, which are their more well-known brands, can barely aspire to the middle shelf. When the company purchased the Yellowstone brand in 1993 they contracted its production out to Heaven Hill, but I have read that whiskies from other sources may be in the mix as well.

Then, at the end of 2014, Luxco announced that they had acquired a 50% stake in the Limestone Branch distillery. The focus of that partnership is to reinvigorate the Yellowstone brand. Brothers Paul and Steve Beam established their Limestone Branch distillery in 2011, in Lebanon, KY. They started with a focus on “moonshine” style products, with a vision to expand and add properly aged whiskeys in the future.

The Beam brothers are descendents of Minor Case Beam on their father’s side and the Dant family on their mother’s side. One of their uncles actually had a copy of the original Yellowstone bourbon recipe. Teaming up with Luxco allowed them to quickly expand their operation and since 2015 they have been distilling whiskey for the Yellowstone brand using its original recipe.

It’s likely that the low-quality incarnation of Yellowstone that has long been sold by Luxco will be eliminated when the new version comes of age. In the meantime some transitional bottlings of Yellowstone have come out using better quality sourced whiskey selected by the Beam brothers. What I tasted at Capital Cellars was the first of those; the 2015 Limited Edition bottling. It’s a 105 proof bourbon, priced at $105 a bottle, which commemorates the 105th anniversary of Minor Case Beam selling his distillery to J. B. Dant. 6000 bottles were produced and the end result is a marriage of 12 year old rye-based bourbon, 7 year old rye-based bourbon and 7 year old wheat-based bourbon.

Later in 2015 they introduced Yellowstone Select; a bourbon priced at $50 a bottle, which is a marriage of barrels aged for 4 years and 7 years. Luxco is also currently constructing a $35 million distillery in Bardstown, which should go into production late in 2017 and will be the new home of their Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks brands, among others.

Feeling pangs of hunger before I was ready to depart from Capital Cellars, I asked about ordering an appetizer. It was a good bit after the 8:00 cutoff for ordering food, but the staff was kind enough to put together a Smoked Salmon Carpaccio plate for me. After my snack I was ready to wander down to the other end of the block for the main course.

Serafini is an upscale establishment with an Italian influenced menu. White table linens in the dining room bring an air of fine dining, but the bar area has a more casual feel. The bar itself is small, with only four or five stools, but it’s backed up by several high-top tables. The back-bar is densely packed with bottles, featuring upwards of 150 selections of American whiskey.

I’m not usually one for pairing whiskey and food, so I had a local beer with the baked salmon, which was quite good. After studying the list and inquiring about a few unavailable whiskeys (again) I finally settled on a glass of 2015 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, which was a 12 year old bottled at 100 proof. I wrote pretty extensively about the background of the Birthday Bourbon series in this post, if you’re curious.

The 2015 vintage has big aromas, featuring ample leather and oak. The nose is sort of hot, in a volatile sense. It punches above its weight, bringing plenty of flavor and heat for its given proof. Dark and brooding on the palate, it’s quite dry with lots of fiery spice notes and struggles to stay in balance. Further contemplation reveals more complexity with hints of mint, charred oak, cinnamon, teaberry and subtle dry, dark berry fruit all emerging before it gets through the long, warming finish.

Now, one would think that would have been the end of my little whiskey adventure; but the real adventure was only about to begin…………

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 2

As noted in my previous post, dinner on the first night my stay Frankfort, KY left a little to be desired. When I got back to the hotel room I went online and started researching to see if I could find a better option for lunch the next day, and maybe even an impressive dinner for the last night of my two week vacation.

The search quickly led me to the discussion forum. I soon learned that Lexington, which is only 25 miles from Frankfort and has a much bigger population, tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the state’s capital city, at least in terms of nightlife and restaurant choices. One commenter mentioned that Frankfort has lots of dining options, all of which are chain restaurants; not really my cup of tea. Two names did come to my attention though, Capital Cellars and Serafini. It appeared that they were both well regarded for their food as well as their whiskey collections.

As I checked into the details of each establishment, I realized that Capital Cellars also offers retail liquor sales, which are focused primarily on American whiskey. Due to the time constraints of my visit to Kentucky, I had only planned on buying bottles from distillery shops rather than putting in the extra effort of hunting down stores where I could potentially find something special. A lunch spot that included a whiskey bar and retail sales was the perfect time saver.

My revised game plan for the day was to check out Capital Cellars between the morning tour at Four Roses and the afternoon tour at Buffalo Trace. Serafini would be my dinner destination, but if I liked what I saw behind the bar while having lunch, I could revisit Capital Cellars for a drink before dinner. The two businesses are a short walk from each other, located at opposite ends of the same block on West Broadway St. in Frankfort’s historic downtown.

After spending a good bit of time outside on a relatively cold winter morning during the Four Roses tour, I was ready to warm up with lunch. I sat at the bar at Capital Cellars and started to order tea when I realized that I was in the south and would need to specify that I wanted my tea to be hot and not sweet.

The space has a café-like feel. It’s quite casual, with a friendly staff and a menu that is simple but appealing. The whiskey collection lines the back bar and the bottles for retail sale against the same wall but to the left of the bar. Tables for dining are in an adjacent room with windows facing the street and another room behind that one houses a respectable selection of craft beer and wine.

I passed on having a bourbon with lunch since I was tasting samples on the tours, but the Virginia Baked Ham sandwich was just what I needed. As I ate, I saw enough interesting bottles behind the bar that I decided I would come back for a beverage in the evening. Once I was done eating, I wandered around the store for a bit, checking everything out before I honed in on the retail whiskey section.

One of the great misconceptions of many whiskey tourists visiting Kentucky for the first time is that they will find an abundance of limited, special release bottlings on local store shelves. Hard to find items like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, anything Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Four Roses Limited Edition (Small Batch and Single Barrel) are on allocation in Kentucky just like they are in every other state. If anything, those bottlings are even harder to get in their home state because a higher percentage of the population is aware of them and on the hunt.

So, what should one be on the lookout for when passing through the Bluegrass State? Worthwhile targets are solid performing, mid-shelf bottlings that offer strong value and aren’t widely distributed outside of Kentucky. Unfortunately, a few prime examples of this category were discontinued long enough before my visit that they had completely disappeared. Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year (not to be confused with AAA 10 Star) from Buffalo Trace went out of production toward the end of 2013 and Heaven Hill’s Very Special Old Fitzgerald was eliminated about a year later.

While I did see a few interesting looking labels at Capital Cellars, they were bottlings I wasn’t familiar with and high enough up the price scale that I wasn’t going to pull the trigger on any of them without having done some research. But I did find two bottles that fit my above noted criteria; Heaven Hill White Label, a bottled-in-bond, 6 year old bourbon, and Very Old Barton bottled-in-bond bourbon from Sazerac’s Barton 1792 distillery.

The VOB once carried a 6 year age statement, but that was dropped a few years ago. Unfortunately the “6” was left on the neck label while the words “aged” and “years” disappeared, which is quite disingenuous. Anyway, let’s see how they taste.

Very Old Barton, bottled in bond, non-age stated, 100 proof, $14:
The aromas a densely packed and well integrated. I’m getting lots of clay and saddle leather, with a hint of caramel balanced by dry, earthy notes. Some pretty assertive spice character jump right out on the palate entry. Everything stays pretty dry throughout, with pencil shavings and nuttiness playing off of a complex range of spice notes. It does go a little out of balance as it moves into the finish, with an odd bit of minerality coming to the fore (this seemed more offensive on the first sip, but was less obvious as I proceeded).

Heaven Hill, White Label, bottled in bond, 6 years old, 100 proof, $12:
The nose is more subdued than that of the Barton, but it shares a relatively dry profile. A little more oak comes through on the aromatics, and there’s a subtle mineral character which is similar to George Dickel #12. The flavor profile is definitely less spice-driven up front. Leathery oak notes are interlaced with subtle hints of pine and tobacco.
It does turn a little astringent on the mid-palate, but redemption comes when warming spice notes emerge to keep it lively on the finish.

Are there better whiskeys out there? Absolutely; but these are both interesting and perform respectably for their given price range.

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.