Friday, September 26, 2014

Laphroaig Tasting

I’ve never been much of a morning person. Combine that with the fact that I work nights and you can see why I’m rarely awake before 10 AM. Then an email came through my inbox a few weeks ago with the phrase “free Scotch tasting”; that certainly got my attention. But it was a two hour drive from home and it started at 9:45… the morning. I had my doubts.

The tasting was hosted by Laphroaig and upon rereading the email I noticed that it would include the flagship 10 year, the new Select bottling, the 2014 release of the Cairdeas series, and a “surprise special treat from the Laphroaig Vault”. I was starting to think I shouldn’t pass this one up. It only took a few days of contemplation before I decided that I’d just have to suck it up and break out the old alarm clock.

The invitation came to me by way of the Friends of Laphroaig, a club that can be joined by anyone upon purchasing a bottle of Laphroaig. I signed up shortly before heading to Scotland two and a half years ago, enticed by the fact that a complimentary miniature when visiting the distillery is one of several member benefits. The tasting was only open to Friends of Laphroaig, but it was held in conjunction with the New Hampshire Highland Games and Festival, an event which is in its 40th year and one of which I was somehow previously unaware.

Fortunately, most of the drive was on less travelled roads through sparsely populated areas of Vermont and New Hampshire. The narrow, twisting section of route 112 that runs along the Wild Ammonoosuc River brought back fond memories of driving in the Scottish countryside. Cool temperatures, low cloud cover and even a scenic, high-elevation pond all conspired to set a perfectly appropriate tone for the event I was heading to.

As I closed in on my destination, I began to realize the magnitude of the event. Hundreds of people were milling about and lining up for entry, and nearly everyone was outfitted with traditional Scottish attire. Even the police officers directing traffic and providing crowd control were wearing kilts. It was quite a sight to see. Regrettably, I had to get home by mid afternoon for work; I would have liked to have lingered for a bit and enjoyed the festivities after the tasting.

By the time I found a place to park and figured out where exactly I was supposed to go, I had managed to settle in just a few minutes before things got under way. The first three whiskies had been pre poured and a cup was set out for the fourth. About 30 people were in attendance, but the room had tables set up for many more, as several larger tastings were being held in the same location throughout the weekend. I really prefer to sample whisky out of glass rather than plastic, but I understand that the logistics of large tastings dictate otherwise.

Our host was Simon Brooking, the Scotch Whiskies Brand Ambassador for Beam Suntory, Laphroaig’s parent company. Simon is a master of his craft and did a wonderful job. With a fine repertoire of toasts and literary quotes, plenty of insightful information and the ability to not get too far off topic, he was able to keep the group engaged and keep the tasting moving at an appropriate pace.

The elusive fourth whiskey was Laphroaig Highgrove, an exclusive bottling produced one barrel at a time and sold only in London’s Highgrove Shop. Profits from the sale of Highgrove products are donated to the Prince of Whales Charitable Foundation, and Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Whales. The distillery has held that honor since 1994.

With a little time left at the end, Simon produced a fifth bottle for us to sample. He had brought one of his personal favorites, the 1989 Vintage 17 year Laphroaig which was bottled for the 2007 Feis Ile festival. His original intention had been to use it to toast Scottish independence, which had been voted on two days prior. In light of his plan being scuttled by the vote going the other way; he chose to generously share the bottle with us instead.

As for the whiskies, I’ll start of with some production details, tasting notes and general impressions of each first, then follow up with some more philosophical thoughts on them. And just a quick side note, picking out specific flavors and aromas is somewhat of a slow, contemplative process for me. As a result, my tasting notes made in a setting such as this tend to be more rudimentary than what I put together when I’m home alone.

Laphroaig 10 year – 43%, $50, chill filtered, aged exclusively in first fill bourbon barrels. Dense, weighty peat smoke with iodine and sea spray on the nose. It starts off with big bold peat smoke up front, which gently and gracefully fades. There is some vanilla sweetness up front, but its finish is fairly dry. It has moderate complexity, but doesn’t evolve dramatically from start to finish. I think it’s a good idea to start a Laphroaig tasting with the flagship 10 year, as it gives a nice frame of reference for the other expressions being tasted.

Laphroaig Select – 40%, $55, chill filtered, aged in a combination first fill bourbon barrels, quarter casks, Oloroso Sherry buts and PX seasoned hogsheads, all of which are vatted and entered into straight American white oak for one year. Most people assume these are new barrels, but the Laphroaig web site does not use the word “new”. I suspect they might be re-using the barrels from Laphroaig’s QA Cask offering, which starts in first fill bourbon barrels and is finished in new charred American white oak. Peat smoke is still the dominant aroma, but it is less dense than the 10 year. It starts of with a hint of sweetness and seems light up front, but a wave of peat comes up quickly. The peat smoke lingers but isn’t too intense as other flavors build and evolve, primarily dark sherry fruit and sweet vanilla notes. It gets a little weird on the mid palate to early finish, where some bitterness comes into play (overly tannic perhaps?) and it seems not so well-integrated. It does come around late on the finish and redeems itself a little as it slowly fades.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 – 51.4%, $75, non-chill filtered, aged in first fill bourbon barrels and finished for one year in Amontillado hogsheads (there is no age statement, but we were told it spent 8 years in the bourbon barrels). The nose has sharp, focused peat aromas with brine and medicinal notes. It has a weighty character from the start. There’s a hint of vanilla driven sweetness up front, but that is quickly rolled over by an iodine laden wave of peat smoke. The intense peaty character echoes on for a while before the nutty sherry character emerges late and it gets quite dry on the finish. It has a fascinating interplay of peat smoke and dry nuttiness as it moves through the finish.

Laphroaig Highgrove – 46%, £60, non-chill filtered, 12 year, aged first fill bourbon barrels (the bottle at the tasting had no label, and some research shows that prior to 2008 the Highgrove bottlings were chill filtered and at 43%, but I’m assuming this was a more recent bottle). The aromas show a lot of subtle complexity, with peat smoke that has great depth but not in a sharp, aggressive way. It is very elegant and well composed on the palate with fishing nets and slowly smoldering peat being the dominant aspects.

Laphroaig 1989 Vintage 17 year, 50.3%, £50, non-chill filtered. I was unable to find any cask-type information, so I’m assuming is all from first fill bourbon barrels. The price listed is the original offering price; current auction prices go considerably higher. It has lots of brine and sea spray on the nose, with very subtle peat aromas. On the palate it is big and fiery (but not overly hot), with a peaty intensity that one would not expect after nosing it. A bit of a rollercoaster ride, but it manages to stay in balance.

One of the other interesting aspects of spending an hour with someone like Simon Brooking is that you can catch a lot of inside information if you pay attention. Here are a few of the interesting bits that I picked up.

Currently Laphroaig 10 year accounts for 75% of their sales volume and Quarter Cask is at 15%. That leaves just 10% for all of their other bottlings combined.

Simon also mentioned that there were plans to phase out the 18 year and bring back the 15 year that it replaced in 2009. The 15 year had been chill filtered and the 18 year is not, hopefully they don’t bring back that aspect of the younger version. This realignment could be the result of increased demand, but I’m curious to see if they are making way for another release that will fill the price gap to the $400 25 year; perhaps a $200 21 year?

Laphroaig, as well as Maker’s Mark, has had a common ownership with Jim Beam for many years. Laphroaig uses Maker’s Mark barrels almost exclusively.

The Laphroaig distillery is pretty much running at capacity and they are considering adding a second still house to increase production. One idea being considered is to build it on the narrow strip of land between the ocean and the existing buildings. That doesn’t seem like much space, but a still house which looks out over the water, like that of Caol Ila, could be quite stunning.

The distillery will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. Festivities are still being planned, but they likely occur in November. Big crowds are expected and one idea they are looking at is a floating hotel, on a barge right in front of the distillery. I imagine they have been planning a special bottling to mark the occasion for some time.

As I mentioned above, I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts about the whiskies we tasted. I don’t dislike the 10 year per se, but tasting most other Laphroaig expressions shows how much more the distillery has to offer. I, like many other purists, wish the 10 year was bottled non-chill filtered at 46%. Interestingly, the Highgrove bottling should give the closest glimpse of what that would be like. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after the tasting. If I’m ever passing through London I will definitely pick up a bottle of Highgrove for a proper side-by-side with the 10 year.

Of the obtainable bottles we tasted, the 2014 Cairdeas was the standout to me. It impressed me enough that I stopped by the local liquor store and picked up a bottle before heading home. I’ll add some background details on the series.

The Feis Ile, Islay’s festival of whisky and music, was started by residents of the island in 1984. By 2000, the distilleries on Islay finally started to get behind the festival, many of them offering special tours and tastings and putting out limited bottlings for the event. Laphroaig’s first Feis Ile bottling was in 2003. They bottled just one barrel (a few hundred bottles) for the festival that year and for each of the next two or three years. In 2007 they expanded it to 4000 bottles (this was the one tasted above) and also made it an exclusive online offering to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. That bottling also marked the occasion of the opening of their new Friends Lounge at the distillery. In 2008 they started to use the word Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship) on all of the Feis Ile bottlings, as they were now made available to the Friends of Laphroaig as well as at the festival. Laphroaig has been distributing the Cairdeas bottlings more widely since at least 2012, and the production numbers reflect that: 5000 bottles in 2010, 20,000 bottles in 2012 and 28,000 bottles in 2014. Confusingly, they have put “Cairdeas” on the label of at least on non-Feis Ile bottling; a 30 year expression that I tasted at the distillery a few years ago.

As for the Laphroaig Select, that was my only disappointment for the day. Some of the marketing material says it is composed of casks which represent their 10 year, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood and PX cask. Many reviewers have mistakenly said it is an actual combination of those four whiskies, which it is not. I hope this is an unfortunate coincidence and not something that was done intentionally. As for the whisky itself, I had seen a few unenthusiastic reviews beforehand, but tried to go in with an open mind and judge it fairly. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly didn’t make me swoon. The stated goal of this bottling is to be an approachable introductory whisky. It actually kind of fails on two fronts; it alienates Laphroaig loyalists by tempering the expected big peaty character, and I don’t think it will entice newcomers on price point or flavor profile. Even though the peat is restrained and a healthy does of sweetness is added, it just isn’t that well composed overall.

After a good deal of consideration, I’ve come up with a strategy that I thing could have worked better for them. In my opinion, they’re goals would have been better served by the introduction of a “lightly peated” Laphroaig, age stated at 8 years and bottled at 40% with chill filtration. At the same time, they could have moved the 10 year to 46% and non-chill filtration.

As for Laphroaig devotees, I think the majority of them would welcome such a change to the 10 year, even if it came with a modest price increase. They would also have realistic expectations of a Laphroaig carrying the “lightly peated” moniker, and would either view it as a new facet of Laphroaig that they’d like to experience, or as something they simply weren’t interested in. With the Select, many Laphroaig drinkers try it just because it is the newest bottling and then end up being disappointed.

A lightly peated 8 year aged primarily in first fill bourbon barrels (maybe with a little new charred oak and/or sherry wood if some additional sweetness was desired) could come in at a lower price point ($40 to $45) that would entice new consumers and could act as a perfect gateway to the more robust, fully peated Laphroaig bottlings.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whistle Pig Rye, Vermont Edition vs. Masterson’s Rye

Whistle Pig, Vermont Edition – straight rye, 10 year, 51%, $70
Masterson’s – straight rye, 10 year, 45%, $70

Whistle Pig and Masterson’s are both produced at the same distillery; Alberta Distillers Limited, of Alberta, Canada. While they both fall into the category of companies whose marketing strategy is based on a pretense intended to obfuscate the true origins of their whiskey, which outfit is the more egregious offender is a debatable point.

If you just look at their websites, Masterson’s looks like the worse of the two. They mention “our artisans”, how they choose only the best rye grain, and pitching yeast themselves. And there is Bat Masterson, an iconic figure of the American Old West who has nothing to do with the whiskey that bears his name and likeness on its label. But that does give the company something to talk about other than the fact that they don’t actually distill anything.

While the Whistle Pig site talks a lot about their Vermont farm and the rye grain they grow there, they at least mention the barn they are restoring, which will eventually house their distillery, making it obvious that they have distilled nothing themselves as of yet.

But if you look for a consensus among whiskey enthusiasts, journalists and bloggers, Whistle Pig is generally considered to be the more deceptive of the two. As far as I can tell this is because Whistle Pig was very secretive about the source of their whiskey when they started in 2010 and that they continued to dance around the subject to some extent in the ensuing years. On the other hand, the producers of Masterson’s (the Sebastiani wine family) have been pretty upfront about the source of their whiskey when pressed with questions on the matter since they started the brand in 2011.

In the last six months, Whistle Pig owner Raj Bhatka, who has a history of being somewhat of a walking public relations nightmare, and master distiller Dave Pickerell have started to become more forthright about the origins of their whiskey. I believe there is good reason for this. Whiskey consumers basically break down into two groups; the general public who buy into the marketing tales they are fed and are generally oblivious to the realities of the industry, and the whiskey geeks who really care about the truth behind the products and are quite offended by the deceptive practices that run rampant in American whiskey.

As someone who lives in Vermont and works in the service industry, I can tell you that it is truly astonishing how many people (tourists and locals alike) seek out Whistle Pig, thinking it is a locally made craft product. But the latter group mentioned above has become more vocal and is now even taking an activist stance. In my opinion, the owner of Whistle Pig has seen this coming and is trying to adjust his strategy. Well, at least enough to keep the critics off his back, but not so much that he can’t continue to fool the general public.

In just the last month, there have been some very interesting developments. Almost all of the deceptive non-distiller producers buy their bulk whiskey from one of a few big distillers in Kentucky or from MGP of Indiana. If you read through the Federal Code of Regulations for alcohol (they seem straight forward at first, but quickly become mind numbing), Title 27, Part 5.36(d) says that if a whiskey is not distilled in the state given in the address on the brand label, the state of distillation must be listed.

There are currently countless violations of 5.36(d). The activist consumers that I mentioned have been informing the companies directly of their wrongdoing, as well as notifying the TTB of the violations. That action has resulted in a damning piece being published in the Des Moines Register about Templeton Rye. Now there is a class action lawsuit in the works against Templeton. Some of the many flagrant 5.36(d) offenders in Colorado and Texas are likely to be targeted next.

Bottles of Masterson’s clearly state that is a “product of Canada” (albeit on the back label and in small print). The same was true of early Whistle Pig bottles, but the statement is absent from more recent bottles. When researching such matters it doesn’t take long to come across Title 27, Part 5.36(e), which states:

On labels of imported distilled spirits there shall be stated the country of origin in substantially the following form “Product of ______”, the blank to be filled in with the name of the country of origin.

The owner of Whistle Pig would be wise to pay attention to the regulations and not attract the ire of the activist whiskey enthusiasts.

Regardless of whether they carry the “product of Canada” tag, many pundits also wonder how these whiskeys can legally be classified as Straight Rye Whiskey, rather than Canadian Whisky.

I did a little digging and I thing I came up with a reasonable answer to that one. Title 27, Part 5.22(b)(9) says:

“Canadian whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada regulating the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Canadian whisky” (Canadian whisky—a blend).

But if you look at Canada’s regulations, Canadian Whisky must:

possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.

Since 100% rye whiskey is not normally bottled on its own in Canada, but rather used as a flavoring component in blends, one could make the argument that is doesn’t fit the definition of Canadian Whisky and shouldn’t be labeled as such. Some might view this as a bit of a stretch, but I suspect that it is the loophole that is being used.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the Whistle Pig I tasted for this review is a 102 proof version that is only available in Vermont. It’s a strange situation, they mentioned its introduction on their Facebook page back in February along with a launch party for it, but there is no mention of it on their website and almost no one in Vermont even knows about it. They seem to have replaced all of the 100 proof bottles in the Vermont state liquor stores with 102 proof bottles, so you don’t see them side by side. As far as I can tell there is no difference between the two aside from the 1% increase in abv.

nose: the nose definitely has an element of sweetness, which is well integrated with the floral spice notes. very aromatic, but not in an aggressive way.
palate: rich mouthfeel, with some sweetness and vanilla up front, hot spice note start to appear next and they continue to build. it really starts to expand as it moves toward the finish.
finish: floral spice notes emerge, but at the same time fiery spice notes (cinnamon red hots) take center stage. A subtle hint of Teaberry and an underlying element of sweetness keep things in balance. The intensity of the builds and lingers for some time before it slowly fades off.
overall: plenty of backbone, but not unruly.

Whistle Pig, Vermont Edition:
nose: slightly less aromatic, surprisingly. there is a detectable sweetness, but it is minimal. All of the rye spice notes are present, but mingled in with a clay-like earthyness.
palate: full bodied. caramel up front then it moves into the spice and dry, earthy, clay-like notes.
finish: there’s a little heat as it moves through the finish, but the spice notes are definitely more floral and earthy in nature. It gets a little hot late in the finish as the other flavors drop off.
overall: big, but in more of a weighty, chewy way and only getting a little fiery at the very end.

They are both very good, but the differences between the two are notably more significant than I expected. Considering that Jefferson’s sells a 10 year old rye which is also sourced from ADL (at 47%) for about $40, I think it’s safe to say that Whistle Pig and Masterson’s are both turning a very tidy profit with their whiskey.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Kirkland Canadian vs. early 80's Crown Royal

Kirkland Signature: Blended Canadian Whisky, 6 years old, 40%, $20 (1.75 liter)
Crown Royal: Blended Canadian Whisky, no age statement, 40%, $26 (750 ml)

While visiting my parents for the holiday weekend, I came across a few interesting whiskies to taste; a vintage Crown Royal bottle dating back to the early 1980’s, and the Kirkland Signature Blended Canadian Whiskey. You may recall from my Kirkland Signature Bourbon review that it is Costco’s private label brand.

I searched around online quite a bit, but could not come up with a definitive answer for the source of the Kirkland Canadian Whisky. The list of possible answers is not very long though. And only three have a real likelihood of being the source; Canadian Club in Windsor, Ontario, Canadian Mist is Collingwood, Ontario, and Crown Royal in Gimli, Manitoba.

The source might not be disclosed, but the Kirkland label definitely has a very Crown Royal-esque look to it. The purple colorway, the cursive font, the standing lion logos; it’s all too similar for there not to have been a lawsuit if it was done without permission. And I can’t see why Crown Royal would give them permission for such a thing if there wasn’t a deal for the purchase and bottling of whisky between the two.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Kirkland has to be exactly the same as what goes into a bottle of Crown Royal. Five different whiskies are blended together to make Crown Royal; two base whiskies and three flavoring whiskies. The Kirkland Canadian could certainly be a proprietary blend, using different proportions of the five, or maybe even just three or four of them.

Following up on the Kirkland website, they list the composition for this whisky as 95% corn, 2% rye, 2% barley and 1% sherry. In the greater whisky world, seeing the word “sherry” usually implies sherry cask maturation. But, according to the Canadian regulations, other spirits or wine, up to 9.09% of the total composition, can be added to Canadian whisky. So, in this case it’s likely that they actually do add sherry as a flavoring. Since this whisky is a blend of an unknown number of component whiskies, the formula listed above doesn’t really provide any additional insight as to who the distiller might be.

color – Golden amber.
nose – Clean. Fruit and baked goods, a hint of spice and a bit of a vegetal element.
palate – Sugar cookies, peppermint and subtle teaberry. A little punchy on the mid palate, but not too wild.
finish – Smooth. Warming spice notes, with a biscuit like background and decent length
overall – Approachable. Has the mild-mannered Canadian personality overall, but a decent amount of character for the style.

As for the vintage Crown Royal, dating such things can be a little tricky. If you are lucky, a two digit year of manufacture will be stamped in the bottom of the glass bottle. Neither bottle producers nor distillers sit on their inventory of empty bottles for very long, so that number will usually tell you the year that the whisky was bottled. In this case, I only see a “7” and a “6”, but there’s too much space between them for it to be a 76. I’ll have to use some alternative dating methods.

The first two clues tell me that the bottle predates 1990. The alcohol level is shown only as a “proof”, not and “alcohol by volume”. The requirement to have abv shown on the label started right around 1990. Also, there is no government warning on the label; a requirement which went into effect late in 1989.

The next clue is the lack of a UPC code. Their use was slowly phased in during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Looking at the size of the bottle, it is given in metric units. The transition from standard measurements (pint, quart, gallon) began in the late 70’s and was completed by 1980/1981.

The last clue is the tax stamp. Well, there are no tax stamps on this bottle, but looking at pictures of older Crown Royal bottles I saw examples which had two tax stamps crisscrossed over the screw top. Looking at this bottle, I can see adhesive residue on the neck in four spots where tax stamps would have been affixed. The use of tax stamps on liquor bottles was discontinued in 1985.

That means this bottle dates to somewhere between 1980 and 1985, and that makes it interesting for two reasons. First, the early 1980’s were the peak of the whisky glut. The industry overproduced in the 1970’s as sales were falling and they went into the next decade with way too much inventory. That meant that the whisky going into the bottles got older (older than their age statements, or older than they had traditionally been), without prices going up. Second, Crown Royal was still being produced at their Waterloo, Ontario distillery which was lost to fire in 1992. That was in addition to the Gimli, Manitoba plant which continues to operate today.

color – The same golden amber, but a few shades darker.
nose – Sharp. A bit of a chemical-like quality, but there are some more respectable notes behind that (baking pies, subtle middle eastern spices).
palate – More weight. Darker in character. Spiced baked goods (apple pie crust with cinnamon), just enough fruity sweetness to add balance.
finish – Warming and pleasantly spicy, with a tree root-like character to it .
overall – I see a common thread between the two. This one has slightly better continuity and more depth overall.

The Kirkland Signature is only available in the 1.75 liter size, so that is the price listed above. For the Crown Royal, I listed the current standard retail price for a 750 ml bottle. The large format Crown bottles run about $46, making the Kirkland Signature a tremendous value. I’ll try to follow up in a few weeks with a recent bottle of Crown Royal to see how it compares.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Buffalo Trace, Single Oak Project, Barrel #63

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, single barrel, 45%, $47

They do a lot of experimenting at Buffalo Trace. So much so that they installed a separate micro-distillery about six years ago and recently built warehouse X, which allows them to vary environmental factors during the aging process. They’ve been releasing the results of some of their test runs under the Experimental Collection label since 2006, with many of those bottlings having origins dating back to the mid 1990’s. But their boldest such undertaking began in 1999, when they started the Single Oak Project.

This is a series of 192 single barrel bourbon bottlings which are differentiated by seven variables. Six of the variables have two options each, and the seventh has three, giving 192 possible combinations. First, 96 White Oak trees were selected from the Missouri Ozarks. The selected trees were categorized by their grain structure and split into three groups; 1/3 of them having course grain, 1/3 of them having average grain and 1/3 of them having tight grain. Next, each tree was cut in half, giving a top and a bottom. As these tree sections were milled into staves, they were tagged and tracked so that each barrel could be made entirely from an individual tree section.

With the first two variables down, they had six groups of 32 barrels to which they could apply the other five variables. First, the staves were air seasoned for either 6 months or 12 months. Then the barrels were given either a #3 char or a #4 char. They were then filled with either rye recipe bourbon or wheated bourbon, with a barrel entry proof of either 105 or 125. Finally, they were either aged in Warehouse K (with wooden floors) or Warehouse L (with concrete floors).

The significance of some of these factors is less obvious than others. Apparently a tree’s chemistry varies along its height. The lower half has a higher concentration of lignins and the top half has a higher concentration of tannins. This is a really interesting variable because it is not normally an option offered by the cooperages that supply the barrels, whereas char level, grain structure and stave seasoning time are. As for warehouse style, both K and L are constructed with brick walls. But the wooden floors of warehouse K allow for more airflow, resulting in bigger temperature differences through its nine floors and from season to season. Conversely, the concrete floors of warehouse L act to moderate the temperatures, keeping them more consistent through its five floors and from season to season.

Once filled, the barrels were all aged for 8 years, then they were bottled at 90 proof. They are offered only in the 375ml format, with a suggested retail price of $47. Rather than putting them all out at once, Buffalo Trace is releasing them over the course of four years, 12 barrels at a time, every three months. Those releases started in the spring of 2011 and now just two remain to be seen, with the last one scheduled for winter 2015.

The whole purpose of this endeavor is feedback. While samples of every bottling have been sent to a select number of whiskey journalists (Drinkhacker and Scotch & Ice Cream consistently review each release), they are primarily relying on reviews posted by consumers to the Single Oak Project website.

There does seem to be a segment of the bourbon community that loves to hate Buffalo Trace, which I believe to be a vocal minority. While I’m certainly not part of that group, I do have some criticisms of this project. Don’t get me wrong though; I love the concept of this grand experiment, I just have some issues with manner in which it was implemented.

First is the conveyance of information, which is somewhat haphazard. I recently had a similar complaint about the E.H. Taylor Jr. collection. I understand that they are looking for unbiased reviews of these bottlings, so it makes sense that you are only able to access the “DNA” profile for a barrel number after you complete a review of it. At the same time it is a little annoying that I can’t view any of the information about the other barrels when I have no intention of buying more Single Oak Project bottles.

Also, the info put out on the website and in press releases isn’t as thorough as it ought to be. I had to do quite a bit of digging to find blogs with official statements describing the difference between the two warehouses and the top and bottom halves of the trees. Some sources report the grain structure for each barrel as tight, average or course, and others simply list the number of rings per inch. It took me quite a while to determine that they were calling 11 to 14 rings/inch average, 10 or less course and 15 or more tight. As far as I can tell the range goes from 7 to 21 rings per inch.

It looks like all of the barrels from warehouse K were on its seventh floor, and all of the barrels from warehouse L were on its third floor, but that information was not clearly stated on the website, as it should have been. There are also a few additional variables that are being tracked, but they are not discussed anywhere. The barrels are listed as coming from trees harvested from location A or location B, but no further information is provided. Also, the number of staves in each barrel is listed, and as far as I can tell they range from 30 to 65, but this is another topic that is not expanded upon.

The other issue I have is format and price. There was a lot of buzz when the series was first announced, but that has faded quite a bit over the last three years. It’s an experiment; there are some great barrels and some duds, but most of them are just reasonably good. Of course, reviews vary; everyone has their personal preferences. That being said, I think a lot of consumers are wary of taking a gamble of a ½ bottle at nearly $50, especially when it will most likely be no better than “good”. Even if someone was enthusiastic enough about this series and gave it their full backing, I can’t imagine anyone spending nearly $10,000 to try every bottle.

The bottle that I have was from the second release, so it’s been out for about three years. Admittedly, I’m a little late to the game, but I would think all of the reviews for this barrel should be in by now. I only count 37 of them for barrel number 63. Assuming a yield of 400 bottles (375ml) from a barrel, that’s a participation rate of about 10%. I think they would have been much better off with 200ml bottles at $20 apiece. Or they could have split each barrel into 375ml bottles and 100ml bottles. With the larger bottles priced at $40 and the smaller bottles packaged in groups of 6 for $60 to $65, I think they would have gotten a much better response and a lot more feedback.

As for the reviews, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for the folks at Buffalo Trace to come up with a universal format that most people would be comfortable using. They had six categories with multiple choice selections and each was followed by a 1 – 10 rating choice. Most professional reviews (Whisky Advocate, etc) use a 100 point scale, but only 40 points or so are actually used – the worst of the worst never really score below 60. I tried to give scores (something I don’t usually do in general) that considered the full range of the scale. Whether or not others did that could be a bit of a flaw in the system. I also found some oddities in the questions. Color is something I observe and am aware of, but I’ve never considered assigning a quality rating to it. “Dry” and “thin” were options for mouthfeel, but I usually associate those terms with flavor (or lack thereof). The “overall” category presented an odd mix of flavors and sensations as options, it took me a while to wrap my head around that one.

As for the bottle that I have, I’ll list its “DNA” first, followed by the review I provided to the Single Oak Project website (underscored words were additional to the multiple choice options), and finally an overall assessment.

Barrel #63:

Age – 8 years
Entry proof – 105
Recipe – wheated
Barrel char - #4
Stave curing time – 12 months
Tree section – top half
Grain structure – tight, 17 rings/inch
Number of staves – 42
Harvest Location – A
Warehouse location – L / 3 / 27 (warehouse / floor / rick)

Color – Copper
Color rating – 7
Aromas – Butter, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Bread
Aroma rating – 7
Mouthfeel – Creamy, Hot
Mouthfeel rating – 6
Flavors – Caramel, Cinnamon, Leather, Mint, Nutmeg, Molasses
Flavor rating – 8
Finish – Dry, Earthy, Spicy, Long, Hot, Astringent
Finish rating – 7
Overall – Chewy, Dry, Complex, Spicy, Tannic
Overall rating – 7

Full bodied. Starts off a little thin (flavor-wise) up front, but picks up quickly. Good complexity but not all that well integrated. It goes back and forth between its pros and cons (big and spicy vs. astringent and acidic) as it moves from the mid-palate through the finish.

This project is already an ambitious undertaking. I realize that adding one more variable would double the size of it, but I think they could have learned so much more if age was a factor as well. It’s generally accepted that some warehouse locations are better for long term aging, while others produce better quality young whiskey. But what about factors like barrel char level, entry proof and grain structure? Can those be varied to suit whiskey that is destined to be bottled at a particular age? If they had doubled up and made two barrels from each tree section, they could have aged them out to 6 years and 10 years. That would have made this the ultimate bourbon experiment in my opinion.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

E.H.Taylor, Jr. Collection: Straight Rye, Small Batch, Single Barrel and Barrel Proof

While spending some quality time at one of my local watering holes, I noticed that they had four of the six bottlings from the E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection lurking on the upper shelf. That inspired me to finally crack open my Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bottle a few weeks ago. Now I’m catching up with the rest off the collection, except for the sold-out Old Fashioned Sour Mash bottling.

This seems like a good opportunity to look at the background of the man that the collection was named for. Chuck Cowdery has gone as far as to call Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. the most significant individual in the history of American Whiskey.

Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. was born in 1830 in Columbus, Kentucky. He was orphaned early on, and lived with a variety of relatives until he was adopted by a wealthy uncle for whom he had been named (the “Junior” suffix was added at that point to avoid confusion).

At the age of 19, Taylor began a banking career, going to work for his adoptive uncle. By 1860, that position had led to his involvement in the financial side of the whiskey industry. He started or operated no less than seven distilleries during his lifetime; O.F.C. (now Buffalo Trace), Pepper/Crow and Old Taylor among them.

His main role in the industry was that of a financier, and he was a key figure in the transformation of American whiskey into a large, commercial business. Taylor helped modernize many of the distilleries he was associated with. Steam heated warehouses and a more efficient sour mash method are just a few of the innovations he has been credited with.

By the time he was 50, Taylor had transitioned out of banking and become fully immersed in the whiskey business. But by his early 40’s he had also begun to dabble in politics. After serving as the mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky for 16 years, he was elected to the state legislature.

Politically, he became an advocate for whiskey, working tirelessly to pass laws that would assure the purity of the product and protect consumers from fraud and deception. Taylor was a proponent of increased trademark protections, but his crowning legislative achievements were the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection:

Rye: Straight Kentucky Rye, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $70
nose – big and bold, but not sharp or hot. rye spice and clay-like earthiness.
palate – good depth, with vanilla and caramel up front. it starts off fairly dry and becomes even more so as it moves into the finish.
finish – nice evolution of spice notes (cinnamon red hots, spearmint and peppermint) balanced by just enough heat.
overall – full flavored and weighty, but still well composed and approachable.

Small Batch: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $40
nose – the most youthful and spirity of the bunch. caramel, mint and Play-Doh all come through aromatically.
palate – there’s a bit of clay mixed with dry oak. I’m also picking up a mild rye floral/spice note that is reminiscent of Old Overholt.
finish – It evolves a bit, developing some dry spice notes as it moves into the finish, but it is still fairly one-dimensional at any given time.
overall – there’s nothing terribly wrong and it has no obvious flaws, but it maintains a theme of slight immaturity throughout.

Single Barrel: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $60
nose – sweetness and soot come through as the primary notes
palate – candy corn and caramel, with some pleasant oak notes
finish – the barrel char comes to the fore as it moves into the finish, providing an interesting interplay with the sweetness, though they do seem to butt heads a bit. Good length as it slowly fades out.
overall – pretty good overall, but it goes a little out of balance (perhaps too acidic) at times through the finish.

Barrel Proof: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, unfiltered, 67.7%, $70
nose – the aromas are dense but subtle; surprising considering the high proof. dark chocolate, sweet corn, a bit of oak and very subtle spice notes.
palate – viscous, very well balanced, a hint of sweetness up front followed by dry oaky notes as it moves into the finish
finish – some warming spice notes rise up first, then it gets a little hot and fiery later in the finish, but in kind of a good way.
overall – an interesting transition from being somewhat mild mannered up front to getting a little surly on the back end.

My overall impression of the five bottlings that I tasted is that the Rye is the best of the group, with the Barrel Proof not far behind. The Small Batch and the Single Barrel are respectable, but they both have some characteristics that keep me from loving them. The Tornado Surviving is the iconoclast of the bunch, but I think it has the most potential to improve given some time to breath.

When you read what others have to say about these whiskeys as a group, the general consensus is that they are overvalued. Being priced (for the most part) in the same range as Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, many people feel that the quality level is not up to the standard set by that iconic range.

While some commenters get very passionate about the subject, I tend to have a more pragmatic outlook. In my opinion, the prices will stand at the level that the market is willing to bear. I think that Pappy Van Winkle bottlings are too expensive and would probably pass them up even if I came across them at suggested retail prices. But, obviously many people are willing to pay quite a premium for them, sustaining the elevated markups.

My criticism of the E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection lies more with the inconsistent manner in which Buffalo Trace has conveyed technical information about these whiskeys. Looking at the Buffalo Trace website, one finds a random hodgepodge of information about the whiskeys in the collection. A little more searching will get you their press releases where more detailed information can be had, but some of that seems to contradict the website and at least one fact from a press release is known to be wrong. And then there are journalists who have managed to extract more technical detail from the company than was originally made available. I’ll do my best to sort it out here.

As for age, none of the bottlings carry an age statement, but Buffalo Trace has announced their ages, mostly through press releases. The Small Batch and Barrel Proof are both aged 7 years. The Sour Mash and Rye are both at 9 years. The Single Barrel is 11 years, 7 months old, and the Tornado Surviving ranges from 9 years, 8 months to 11 years, 11 months. The press release for the Tornado Surviving says all 93 barrels were dumped together. It has been confirmed that this information is incorrect. One of the Bottled-in-Bond requirements is that all of the whiskey in the bottle comes from a single distilling season, and that would not have been the case if all 93 barrels were dumped together. They say it was actually dumped in two batches. I’ve heard that one batch is much better than the other, but there isn’t really a way to tell which batch a bottle is from.

As for warehouse location, most of the bottlings appear to have come from Warehouse C, which is appropriate as it was constructed under Taylor’s ownership. There’s no question about the location of the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving barrels (floors 5 and 6), but I could find no information about the warehouse location of the Old Fashioned Sour Mash bottling. The Rye comes from Warehouse C, floor 1. The Single Barrel also comes from Warehouse C, but no floor is specified. In press releases, the Small Batch and Single Barrel are both touted as having been aged on floor 6 of Warehouse C. But on the website it says those two come from “warehouses” constructed over a century ago by Taylor. That leaves open the possibility that some of the barrels came from Warehouse B, which Taylor also constructed, and seems to contradict the press releases.

With the Old Fashioned Sour Mash, they mention reviving a sour mash method used in Taylor’s time, but no details of the method are given. Chuck Cowdery did some investigating and found that the modern way of souring the mash (which lowers its pH to create a more favorable environment for the yeast) is to add spent liquid from the still into the next batch of fresh mash. Using the older method, that mash was transferred from the cooker to a holding vessel where it was allowed to rest for several days. During that time the pH lowered naturally. Once it was at the right level, that mash was transferred on to the fermenters.

The last bits of interesting information pertain to the mash bills used. Buffalo Trace is kind of secret about their recipes, but we do know that they make a wheated bourbon and two different rye bourbons. I’ve seen a few different estimates of the recipes and while no one knows for sure, Mash Bill #1 is probably 8-10% rye, and Mash Bill #2 is probably 12-15% rye. The press release for the Tornado Surviving states that it is made with Mash Bill #1, and there’s a pretty good consensus that the rest of the bourbons in the collection are from the same mash bill.

The mash bill for the Straight Rye is stated (on the web site and in the press release) as being composed of only rye and malted barley, but not corn. That was true of the eastern ryes made primarily in Maryland and Pennsylvania before distilling died out in that region during the decades following Prohibition. As the few remaining rye whiskey brands shifted production to distilleries in Kentucky, their mash bills changed, incorporating corn, and having their rye content drop much closer to the minimum required 51%.

Corn-free ryes originating in distilleries in Indiana and Canada have become pretty common over the last decade. They were originally intended to be used as flavoring components in blended whiskeys, but have made their way to many of the non-distiller producers. The Taylor Straight Rye is the only non-corn rye from Kentucky that I know of. It’s the result of an experiment from around 2003, but they have continued to make some every year so the E.H. Taylor Rye will be an annual release. Unfortunately, they don’t give any indications of the ratio of rye to malted barley in this whiskey.

I like the concept of this collection, but I think Buffalo Trace has missed a great opportunity here. They’re not being deceptive, but they could have been so much more transparent with all of the technical information about these whiskeys and presented it in a much more organized manner.

Imagine if all of the bottles carried age statements, the different batches of Tornado Surviving were identified on the label, and the Single Barrel bottles had their barrels numbers listed on the label. Additionally, they could have consistently identified warehouse locations, given at least general proportions of the mash bills used, and provided a basic explanation of the old fashioned sour mash method.

If they had done that and put all of the information in one place, clearly presented and easily accessible, it would have been a much greater tribute to the legacy of Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. and garnered a lot more respect from the consumers who are most likely to purchase these offerings.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Benromach, 10 year

stats: single malt scotch, Speyside, 43%, $50

When I was hunting for a bottle of Talisker Distiller’s Edition back in December, my father came along for the ride and bought himself a bottle of Benromach 10 year. I recently sampled it and put together some tasting notes.

Like too many Scottish malt distilleries, Benromach was a victim of the hard times the industry went through in the 1980’s. After an 85 year run, the distillery closed, potentially forever, in 1983.

At that time it was owned by Distillers Company Limited. They were acquired by Guinness in 1986, which merged them with another company, forming United Distillers. Finally, in 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan, forming Diageo. While there are plenty of industry woes to blame on Diageo, the loss of multiple distilleries in the early 80’s isn’t one of them.

Although many of the distilleries that were shuttered during that period will never return, Benromach found salvation a decade later. In 1993, independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail came to the rescue. Hoping to become a producer and round out their business profile, they had been in the market for a distillery for some time. The early 90’s was a buyer’s market for such facilities and they were quite fond of the Benromach whisky they had bottled in the past, so Gordon & MacPhail made the move and purchased what was left of the distillery.

Unfortunately, not much of it was left. The previous owners had stripped out most of the equipment, leaving behind little more than an empty shell with some Larch washbacks, an ancient Boby Mill and a single dunnage warehouse. Making the distillery operational again was a lengthy process, and it wasn’t until 1998 that production finally recommenced.

Some of the wood from those original washbacks was salvaged and used in their replacements. New stills were commissioned which were based on the design of the originals, but slightly smaller in size. A modest peat level of 10 ppm was chosen, and they went with a relatively long fermentation time of three to five days.

Luckily, some pre-1983 samples of new make spirit had been retained, so the Gordon & MacPhail team had something to compare their early runs to and were able to stay fairly true to the distillery’s original house style.

Stocks of aging whisky did come with the facility, but with a 15 year production gap, the lineup obviously had to experience some changes. They were able to hold out with the well-regarded 18 year old longer than would have been expected, and the 21 year old lasted at least a few years beyond that.

Then came some younger expressions made from spirit distilled after the reopening. I was pretty indifferent to Benromach Traditional and really didn’t care for Benromach Organic. I felt the same way about it that I felt about Bruichladdich Organic a few years ago; that they were products released before they were ready, in an attempt to jump on the wave of popularity of all things organic ahead of anyone else in the whisky category.

Benromach came out with the first 10 year old made from distillate produced at the refurbished facility in 2009. According to their website, 80% of the whisky has been aged in bourbon barrels and 20% of it in sherry hogsheads. After nine years, that is all vatted together and aged for another year in first fill Oloroso sherry casks.

I hadn’t heard a lot about this whisky over the past five years, but I knew that there were some good reviews. Considering that the above mentioned Benromach examples had lowered my expectations of the brand, I was quite curious to taste the 10 year given the opportunity.

The nose is enticing, with malt, butterscotch and lively oak.
In the mouth, it is full bodied, rich, and well rounded. There’s a beautiful integration of the notes that came through on the nose with the addition of a whiff of smoke.
The finish is pleasant and dry with leathery notes and a late rush of minty spice.

Upon further observation, I noticed that the peat smoke seems to have a hide-and-seek quality, showing its self quite readily at times and alternately being hardly detectable. It is easily masked by the malty overtones when nosed at close quarters, but is more clearly evident when the aromas are observed from a distance of a few feet. After a few drops on the fingers have partially vaporized the peat smoke becomes quite obvious, revealing its dry, earthy nature. On the palate, the flavors are rich enough that the smoke adds just a subtle additional layer to the overall complexity.

Many Speysiders have too much of a strong floral component for my liking. This one does not and I think that is a good thing. It strikes me as being well composed, full of depth and very drinkable, but I’m left to imagine how it would present itself non-chill filtered and at a slightly higher proof.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Kirkland Signature Bourbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 30, 2014

Caledonia Spirits, Early Riser

stats: corn whiskey, 41%, $??

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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