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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 2

1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 46.85%, $30

The nose shows fruit and grain with soft spice notes. It’s more robust on the palate than I remember (I originally tasted this bourbon about eight years ago, but this is the first time I’ve revisited it recently). There’s some sweetness on the palate mingled with rye spice. It comes across relatively bold, but remains well integrated.

It’s no secret that 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is a Sazerac product. The Sazerac Company owns the Buffalo Trace distillery and bottles the whiskey made there under so many different brands that many people forget (or just don’t realize) that they actually own a couple of other distilleries as well. One of them is A. Smith Bowman, a micro-distillery located in Virginia, and the other is the Barton 1792 Distillery, of Bardstown, Kentucky. The later produces Ridgemont Reserve bourbon.

The distillery dates back to before Prohibition and sits on the grounds of several historic distilleries. Like many of the early American whiskey distilleries / brands, it has a long and convoluted history. All of the details are too complex to go into here, but it was known as the Tom Moore distillery up until a change of ownership in 1944, when the name was changed to Barton. The company that owned the distillery eventually became known as Barton Brands (as the company grew, it acquired several other whiskey brands along the way, as well as changing owners several times), and in 2008 they changed the name of the distillery back to Tom Moore in a historical tip of the hat. A year later, Barton Brands, along with their distillery, was purchased by Sazerac (owners of the Buffalo Trace distillery since 1992). Sazerac promptly changed the name of the distillery back to Barton, although I’m not sure when the 1792 was added into the distillery name.

The likely reason for the distillery not being too well known is because for most of its history it only produced smaller, regionally distributed bourbon and rye brands; not to mention the confusing series of ownership and name changes that the distillery went through. One of the distillery’s better known brands, Very Old Barton, was only distributed in Kentucky for many years. Sazerac has increased distribution of VOB, but it’s still only available regionally.

In 2002, Barton Brands introduced Ridgemont Reserve bourbon nationally as a premium brand, selling at a higher price point than any of the distillery’s other offerings. But it started off with a different name; Ridgewood Reserve 1792. Brown-Forman sued Barton, claiming that the name was too close to that of their Woodford Reserve bourbon. Brown-Forman won, and the name of the new bourbon was soon changed to 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. The name contains 1792 as a reference to the year in which Kentucky gained statehood.

Ridgemont Reserve bottles carried an 8 year age statement up until December of 2013. The Sazerac website and the Ridgemont Reserve website both still claim that the bourbon is aged at least 8 years, but that doesn’t really mean anything; it only has to be at least that old if it says so on the bottle. The Ridgemont website states that all of the barrels for this bourbon are housed in Warehouse Z, one of many spread across the distillery’s sprawling property. It sits on a bluff, receiving full sun all summer and is said to have optimal aging conditions.

The other feature of this bourbon is its mash bill, which is somewhat of a mystery. Their website claims that it has a higher percentage of rye than most, but the company won’t reveal the proportions. The Very Old Barton mash bill is known to be 15% rye (75% corn, 10% malted barley). That’s pretty middle-of-the-road for rye content in a bourbon. Most of the known mash bills have a rye percentage in the 11% to 18 % range. The two mash bills used by Four Roses have 20% rye and 35% rye. I’m guessing that two different bourbon mash bills are produced at Barton, the known one for VOB and a higher rye recipe for Ridgemont.

Recalling my impression of this bourbon eight years ago and comparing that to how it tastes now, I can only wonder if it started off being made from the VOB mash bill and was gradually transitioned over to a higher rye mash bill. Such a change would taken time; vatting the two together in varying percentages across several years.

Templeton Rye, Straight Rye, 40%, $37

The nose has slightly sweet fruit aromas and gentle, flowery rye spice notes. On the palate the warm, lingering rye spiciness carries through to the finish with just a hint of sweetness. I found this whiskey to be soft in all aspects except the rye spice. And that spice character is more pervasive than aggressive, resulting in a whiskey that is approachable, albeit with a bit of an edge.

When it comes to catching heat for trying to make someone else’s whiskey look like one’s own, Templeton Rye is probably one of the most well known examples. They’ve been very successful at marketing their product, first in Iowa and shortly thereafter in Chicago; the first major market they entered. That caught the attention, and ire of Chicago based whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery.

First, the story on which Templeton Rye’s successful marking strategy is predicated. The small Iowa town of the same name had a reputation for producing illicit rye whiskey of a very high caliber during Prohibition. The whiskey was eventually nicknamed “the good stuff” and supposedly brought to bigger markets by Al Capone. They even say it was his personal favorite and he had some smuggled into Alcatraz. The tradition of bootleg whiskey continued on in Templeton after Prohibition, and some say it still goes on today.

Scott Bush started Templeton Rye in 2005 to produce a legal version of Templeton’s historic whiskey, which his great grandfather had supposedly once distilled. Bush brought on Keith Kerkhoff as a partner in the business to gain access to his family’s whisky recipe, which had been passed down from Kerkhoff’s grandfather, a prolific Prohibition era distiller.

When they first started selling Templeton Rye, every bit of their marketing material made it sound as if they were producing all of the whiskey themselves, in their tiny Iowa distillery. But red flags quickly began popping up: well-aged whiskey available shortly after the company started, pictures of barrels marked with the company logo and “barrel entry” dates going back years longer than they had been in business, etc.

Before I analyze the truthfulness of Templeton’s current marketing, let’s take a look at where their whiskey actually comes from. There’s a very large distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana that dates to 1847. It became part of Seagram’s in 1933, and then Pernod Ricard acquired it in 2000 when Seagram’s collapsed. Next it was sold on to CL Financial in 2007 and renamed LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). CL fell victim to the financial crisis of 2009 and in 2011 sold the distillery to MGPI, a Kansas based food and alcohol producer.

The distillery had made straight whiskeys for many years, but few people knew that since the whiskeys weren’t sold as such, but rather used as flavoring components in blends like Seagram’s 7. In April of 2006, Pernod Ricard announced that it would close the distillery. Not long after that, they made their existing stocks of straight whiskey available on the open market. Templeton was their first customer, followed very shortly by High West. Instead of being closed, the distillery was sold to CL Financial. That deal was completed in July of 2007. CL had plans to develop their own brands before they folded, but MGPI has chosen to stick with producing and leave brand development to their customers. Brands buying from them now include High West, Redemption, Dickel Rye and Buillet Rye, just to name a few.

I’ve gone back and read quite a few blog posts about Templeton Rye that span the last six years. The owners of Templeton even respond to the criticisms in a few of them and it paints an interesting picture. The rye whiskey made by LDI/MGPI is unique in that it is made up of 95% rye, a much higher proportion than any of the other mass produced American ryes. When Templeton started they were very secretive about who made their whiskey (and no one who was speculating thought of LDI as it wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” at that point). Templeton also went to great lengths to give the impression that all of the whiskey they sold was made in-house, at least to the less informed observer.

Under heavy criticism, Templeton had to admit
pretty early on that they were working with another distillery, and by 2010 they had finally revealed that LDI was the source of their whiskey.

Looking over Templeton’s website today, it doesn’t take long to see that they are still playing fast and loose with the truth though. They do mention their distilling partner in Indiana on one page of the web site, but everywhere else, especially on the fact sheet describing the production process, they still put forth a strong effort to make it sound like the whole process is done in-house.

They claim that their “master distillers utilize the original Kerkhoff family recipe” and that it is “unique for the remarkably high rye content”. These statements are pretty ridiculous. This is the same recipe of rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% malted barley) that many other NDP’s buy from MGPI. Chuck Cowdery has researched the history of that recipe; it was developed by Seagram’s (therefore pre 2000, before Templeton even claims to have started). Creating custom whiskey recipes is part of what MGPI offers today, but that is a fairly recent development. It was certainly not a service offered when the distillery was owned by Pernod Ricard or CL Fiancial. Templeton states (on their website and on the bottle labels) that their recipe is “more than 90% rye”; that’s a great way to introduce plausible deniability, letting the less skeptical believe they may be using a unique recipe. But the real kicker comes from a 2010 Chicago Tribune article about Templeton. In it, Keith Kerkhoff is quoted as saying "The Tax and Trade Bureau requires us to make it at least 51 percent rye. Prohibition whiskey was probably less than that". That’s a pretty big contradiction to the company line.

Templeton is a Straight Rye without an age statement. That means it is at least four years old. For their story of an original recipe coming from LDI/MGPI to be possible, their relationship would have to have been established at least four years before they started selling whiskey. And that is what they claim on their website; that the building blocks of the company were put in place in 2001. They even go so far as to claim that the first batch of 68 barrels was aged entirely in Iowa. This is clearly revisionist history put in place to lend credence to their marketing claims. There is no evidence of Templeton Rye existing as a company before 2005. They didn’t even file to register a trademark on the name until April of 2007. And finally, Chuck Cowdery states that they received their alcoholic beverage producers license in 2005; they could not have taken possession of a single barrel of whiskey without that (I’m doubtful they could have even purchased the whiskey and left it in LDI’s hands without the license).

The interesting thing is that they have been distilling at Templeton since pretty early on (probably starting some time in 2006). But it has always been in miniscule amounts relative to what they sell. The whiskey they make themselves is sold in very limited local releases and is not the same as the mass produced whiskey that is their main product. Actually, they can’t even legally call the limited releases whiskey because even though there’s some rye in the mix, the main ingredient is sugar. That moonshine style recipe is likely a lot closer to the Prohibition era family secret than what they are sourcing from MGPI.

Templeton Rye is a good whiskey. Whether or not it’s worth the price they sell it for is a debatable point. But clearly, everything the company puts out there to promote the product is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Breckenridge, Bourbon, 43%, $40

This bourbon has a pleasantly grainy nose which is full and a little sweet. It’s easy drinking with good flavor development and notable rye spiciness that nicely rounds out the finish. I found it surprisingly well composed for its young age (stated as “a minimum of two years” on the bottle, and two to three years on their info sheets / web site).

I was very impressed upon tasting such a seemingly well made young whiskey. I should have been suspicious instead. Before I get into the details of what I’ve found, I’ll take a quick look at the background of the operation. Breckenridge distillery, located in the ski town of Breckenridge Colorado, was founded in 2008 by Bryan Nolt, a physician turned distiller. He brought on Jordan Via, who was the American Distilling Institute’s Master Distiller, first as a consultant and later as Breckenridge’s Master Distiller.

The bourbon is their flagship product, but they have a full portfolio of distilled goods: vodka, rum, brandy, bitters, several liqueurs, and a malt whiskey that is in the works but needs further aging before it’s released. I’m not sure when they started distilling in earnest, but they opened to the public for tastings and tours in October of 2010, and began distributing their bourbon and their vodka in July of 2011.

When I research an American whiskey that I’m not familiar with there are a few places that I look first. I check a couple of trusted blogs and also search through some whiskey discussion forums ( in particular). In the case of Breckenridge, what I came up with was troubling because the information was so conflictory. Some said it was sourced whiskey, others said it used to be sourced but no longer was, and there were reports of it being a mix of sourced whiskey and whiskey distilled in-house. Worst of all, most of these statements could be traced back directly to the distillery.

From what I’ve pieced together, it looks like the folks at Breckenridge started off being fairly up front about the bourbon being sourced, but then things changed in 2012. They had embarked on a big marketing push and were trying to increase their distribution dramatically. Their “small distillery” story was a key selling point, and sourced whiskey certainly wouldn’t fit that narrative.

I found references from 2011 stating that they were pretty open on their website about the bourbon being sourced whiskey. By 2012 the web page with that information was still up, but there was no link to it from the rest of their site. Now that page is gone.

What I consider to be the most accurate information comes from someone who posts on and visits the distillery about twice a year. The latest information he posted was from April of 2013. At that time he was told (at the distillery) that the bourbon was originally 100% sourced, and then they switched over to blending the sourced whiskey with their own distillate, but they wouldn’t reveal the proportions of the two components. When that switchover happened, they changed the label a little; it went from saying “bourbon” to saying “bourbon whiskey”. He was also told that the bourbon would “eventually” be 100% their own and that another label change would happen to differentiate those bottles.

Interestingly, in June of 2013 one of the bloggers I have a lot of respect for was told by the distillery that their bourbon was still 100% sourced, and that eventually they would blend with their own distillate before transitioning to 100% made in-house bourbon.

Unfortunately, for the last couple of years they’ve also been telling a lot of people that the bourbon they are selling is all made at their Colorado distillery, and most of those statements originate with the company’s owner. One example was a restaurant manager from Atlanta who was fed this story directly by Bryan Nolt in February of 2012. I also found a blog post that called out Breckenridge for sourcing their bourbon. Someone commented with a quote from the distillery owner (it was a recent comment, but I think the quote dated back about a year) where he essentially stated that that they had sourced whiskey in the past, but were no longer doing that. But he also said they occasionally used whiskey distilled elsewhere that was made for them, with their recipe, yeast strain, etc. And finally I came across one more blog post where Bryan Nolt told the writer that most bottles are 100% their own whiskey, but occasionally a batch would require some older, sourced stock. That was in February of 2013.

Adding to the confusion, the bottle carries and age statement of two years, their marketing material says two to three years, and just about a year ago they told a prominent blogger that the age range was two to six years. When the same blogger questioned them about their use of unmalted barley, they told him that statement was a mistake and that they use malted barley. A year later that same information about unmalted barley is still on their website.

Their marketing is based on a few key points (followed by my rebuttals):

They claim to be the highest distillery in the world at 9600 ft.
While distilling at higher elevations has some advantages, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make good whiskey. And just 40 miles away, in Leadville, Colorado, is the Two Guns Distillery, at more than 10,200 ft.

Their water is supposed to come from snow-melt.
Apparently the distillery does have very high quality water. The water also comes off the tap at 38 degrees, and that does make their condenser very efficient. The water may originate from snow-melt, but I came across a newspaper article from 2011 where the distiller stated that it is municipal water and has to be filtered to strip out additives like chlorine and bromide.

They have a unique mash bill (56% corn, 38% rye, 6% unmalted barley).
First there’s the discrepancy that I mentioned above about the unmalted barley. In addition to that, I’ve seen references to the stated mashbill dating back as far as March of 2012, but I also found a youtube interview with their Master Distiller from May of 2012 where he stated the mashbill as being 56% corn, 34% rye and 10% malted barley.

They won an award in 2011 where they scored better than Pappy 23 year.
There are so many spirits awards out there that it is almost comical; most of them are judged by people whose opinions I don’t have much faith in. Much like modern-day school kids, almost everyone in these competitions gets an award and no one has to have their feeling hurt.

They have a custom copper Vendome combination still; the owner says that “Every shape, every bend affects the flavors”.
Reports from last year state that their plans for expansion include the installation of a column still to increase capacity. Not to mention that if they are sourcing as much whiskey as I suspect, then a significant proportion of the whiskey they have been selling would have come from a column still.

Clearly there are some honesty issues with this distillery. I decided to look for some numbers to see if I could draw any conclusions about the percentage of sourced whiskey that is in the bottle. After spending a considerable amount of time Googling, I did come up with some insightful information.

One article said they were one of the first craft distillers to sell more than 12,000 cases in their first year of distribution. I think that was for all of their products, but the bourbon is their focus and I’m sure it accounts for the vast majority of their sales. So let’s say 10,000 cases of bourbon in their first year. At the time, they were distributed in about 18 states. That was before their big marketing push in 2012. Looking at the product locator on their website, they are now in at least 29 states. But more importantly, they are in a massive number of locations in each state. Breckenridge bourbon is a regularly stocked item in 17 different stores in the Binny’s chain alone. And they are in all of the major markets: New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, Florida……

I think it’s safe to say that they’ve easily quadrupled their sales since their first year, so I’m going to estimate at least 40,000 cases last year. Just as a frame of reference, Maker’s Mark was selling 175,000 cases per year in 1994, and 14 years later they had increased sales almost ten-fold.

So, can Breckenridge make that much whiskey? There are two bottlenecks – distilling capacity and warehouse capacity. They were working on expanding both in the spring of 2013 and everything was supposed to be up and running by the fall of 2013. The old warehouse could hold up to 320 barrels and the new one was going to have a capacity of 3700 barrels. Assuming that they’re aging the bourbon for three years on average, the benefits of that expansion are still a few years away. For three years of aging that would give them 100 barrels per year. There are a few variables, but a barrel will typically yield 250 bottles. That would work out to about 2100 cases per year (12 bottle cases). The distillery does have a second warehouse in Denver (that info dates to late 2011), but I could find no information about its size so that is somewhat of a wildcard. To support 40,000 cases per year, the Denver warehouse would have to hold 5800 barrels, which is much bigger than the new warehouse at the distillery and I’d be very surprised if they had something that big.

The twice-a-year visitor to the distillery I mentioned earlier stated that he was told they were going to add a column still to increase capacity. In talking about that expansion, the owner of the distillery said production capacity would go from two barrels per day to 16 barrels per day. Again, with the aging time, that expansion is still a few years away from taking affect. Two barrels per day is about 700 per year. That works out to 44,000 cases per year. Breckenridge does make a lot of other products besides their bourbon, but it’s hard to say how much of the distilling capacity is taken up by those products.

I was really hoping I could come up with a good ballpark estimate of the ratio of sourced whiskey to house-made whiskey in Breckenridge’s bourbon, but without knowing the size of their Denver warehouse there are just too many variables. Their current sales could be a lot higher than my estimate too. Based on what I tasted, it’s my belief that it is a blend of the two, that the two to three years age statement refers to the whiskey they made themselves, and that there is a significant amount of sourced whiskey in the mix that’s in the four to six year age range.

The big story here is that once a distillery goes down the road of telling blatant lies and ends up with a bunch of conflicting information floating around on the web, it becomes hard for the informed consumer to trust anything they say, even if they do eventually start telling the truth.