Monday, December 23, 2013

Four Roses, Small Batch vs. Small Batch 2010 Limited Edition

Small Batch: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 45%, $30
Small Batch 2010 Limited Edition: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 55.1%, $65 

For the last 11 years, Four Roses has been rebuilding their image and slowly but surely returning the brand to its former glory. Their standard lineup of the Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel provide a core of consistent quality and value. But it’s their Limited Edition releases that have been receiving most of the accolades and continue to propel their reputation to new heights.

I recounted the history of Four Roses a few years ago when I posted about their Single Barrel offering, and followed that up with a post about the Yellow Label where I discussed how the distillery’s single story warehouses largely eliminate barrel location as a variable in the bourbon’s flavor.

But with ten unique recipes (five different yeast strains applied across two different mash bills), Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has the ability to create a massive range of flavor profiles. The potential at his disposal had been realized through their annual Limited Edition bottlings.

Each of the ten recipes is identified by a four letter code, but only two of those letters describe the makeup of the recipe. The first letter is always O, which designates the bourbon as having been made at the Four Roses Distillery (I assume these codes date back to when the distillery operated under its previous name, Old Prentice). The third letter is always S, which designates the distillate as “straight”, meaning it came off the still at 80% abv or less (all Four Roses whiskey is “straight” these days, but under Seagram’s ownership there would have been plenty of whiskey floating around which didn’t qualify for the “straight” designation, making this a more relevant bit of information).

The second letter identifies the mash bill. It will either be E (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) or B (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley). Recipes with a higher percentage of corn will typically produce a sweeter bourbon, while those with a higher percentage of rye will usually result in a bourbon showing more of that grain’s unique spicy character.

The fourth letter identifies the yeast strain:

V – delicate fruitiness
  savory, complex, slightly fruity, exceptionally well-balanced classic bourbon

K – spicy
  full-bodied, slow-aging, with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain

O – rich fruitiness
  plump, juicy and rounded with red fruit tones, complex and long in flavor

Q – floral
  exceptionally floral with almost acacia-like tones, delicate and highly aromatic

F – herbal
  hints of mint, pink peppercorn, and floral notes, soft in the mouth, mellow yet potent

The 80 proof Yellow Label, which was reintroduced to the U.S. market in 2002, uses as many as all ten recipes and though it carries no age statement, it’s said to be in the 5 to 6 year range.

The 100 proof Single Barrel, which debuted in 2004, has always come from the same recipe; OBSV. The labels are marked with the warehouse number and barrel number. Again, there is no age statement, but they target an age of at least 8 years.

The 90 proof Small Batch, introduced in 2006, combines four recipes; OBSO, OBSK, OESO and OESK (so two different yeast stains with each of the two mash bills). Like its siblings it lacks an age statement, but it is usually at least 7 years old.

In the spring of 2007 Four Roses began expanding their distribution to areas beyond Kentucky. New York City was first, and they have gradually been spreading across the U.S. since then.

In the fall of 2007, the first Single Barrel Limited Edition release appeared as a tribute to Jim Rutledge’s 40 years in the industry. It has continued as an annual release, but over the years the timing has been shifted back to the spring to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. The whisky is bottled at barrel proof after being aged substantially longer than the 100 proof Single Barrel bottling. The size of the release has ranged from less than 1500 bottles in the first year to about 4000 bottles this year. A barrel will yield roughly 200 bottles at full strength, and with the alcohol level varying quite a bit from barrel to barrel, any given year will see bottles ranging from roughly 100 proof to 115 proof. I’ve put together a list of the recipes and ages of the Single Barrel LE releases over the years:

2007 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESO, 13½ years

2008 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSK, 12 years

2009 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESQ, 11 years

2010 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSV, 17 years

2011 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSQ, 12 years

2012 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESK, 12 years

2013 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSK, 13 years

2008 saw the addition of a second annual Limited Edition release. For the first two years it was called the Marriage Collection, and then in 2010 its name was changed to Small Batch Limited Edition. Always a fall release, its arrival is timed to coincide with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Each year two to four recipes will be married together (although the proportions of each recipe are not typically revealed) to create a barrel proof offering which is aged quite a bit further then the standard Small Batch. Since all of the barrels for a given year’s release are vatted together they do have consistent proofs, unlike the Single Barrel LE. The release size grew gradually from about 2500 bottles initially to over 4000 bottles in 2012. Then, in 2013, the number grew dramatically to over 12,000. I’m sure they wanted there to be plenty to go around as this bottling was commemorating the 125th anniversary of the brand, but it was also the first Limited Edition release to see distribution in Europe. I’ve compiled all of the recipes, ages and proofs below:

2008 Marriage Collection
   OBSV-13 years, OESK-10 years, 55.7%

2009 Marriage Collection
   OBSK-10 years, OBSK-19 years, OESO-10 years, 54.8%

2010 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSV-15 years, OBSK-11 years, OESK-10 years, 55.1%

2011 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSK-13 years, OESK-11 years, OESV-12 years, OESQ-13 years, 55.1%

2012 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSV-11 years, OBSV-17 years, OBSK-12 years, OESK-12 years, 55.7%

2013 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSV-18 years, OBSK-13 years, OESK-13 years, 51.6%

Sorry if that was an overload of technical information, but I’m sure some will find it interesting. Tonight I’ll be dusting off my Small Batch 2010 LE bottle and comparing it to the standard Small Batch Four Roses. Both bottlings see a contribution from each of the two mash bills, and they both have two components made with the K yeast (spicy), but the 2010 LE also uses the V yeast (delicate fruitiness) instead of the O yeast (rich fruitiness) used in the standard Small Batch. The higher proof and greater age of the Limited Edition will make a big difference, but it’s really hard to predict how these will taste without knowing the percentages of the various recipes used in each vatting.

Small Batch:
The color is a medium brownish-amber.
The nose is somewhat restrained with a subtle clay-like earthiness and complex spice notes.
On the palate there is just a hint of sweetness up front which quickly gives way to a dry earthiness and layered spiciness.
As it moves into the finish, red-hot cinnamon spice notes come to dominate. The flavors evolve and fade while the heat stays somewhat constant further into the finish.
It is certainly spice driven and full of character, but overall very drinkable.

Small Batch 2010 LE:
The color, which is the same as above but a few shades darker, is what one would expect given the elevated age and proof.
The nose is also subdued, but the higher alcohol level is noticeable. The aromas are a little more brooding, with clay, leather and cinnamon showing.
On the palate it is bigger and bolder right off the bat and throughout. It’s drier up front, with a hint of middle-eastern spices joining in. While the red-hot cinnamon spice notes emerge as it enters the finish here as well, they aren’t as dominant. Bright fruitiness (in spite of what one would expect from the yeasts being used) and bold oak flavors add complexity and balance. It is also very drinkable, in spite of its elevated proof.

The only other Limited Edition Four Roses I have tasted was the 2012 Single Barrel; it was phenomenal, and from the reviews that I have read, the LE releases seem to be getting better year after year. Both of the bourbons that I tasted tonight are very good, but I would give an edge to the Limited Edition. That being said and looking at the prices, I would say that the standard Small Batch is a better value. The $65 price listed above is what I paid a few years ago; the current Limited Edition releases are usually priced in the $80 to $85 range.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ledaig 10 Year

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 46.3%, $55

It’s easy to become enamored with the single malts of the Scottish islands; many of them seem to have an almost magical allure. Islay, with its eight distilleries, commands most of the attention and recognition. As for Scotland’s six distilleries located on other islands, picking the most inconspicuous of the lot would be a tossup between Tobermory and Scapa (there’s actually a seventh, but Abhainn Dearg is so new that I’m not taking it into consideration).

But taking the obscurity a step further would be Ledaig (pronounced led-chig), the peated variant of Tobermory. From the first time I heard about Ledaig I became mildly obsessed with learning more about this mysterious malt. I’m grateful that my curiosity led me to see the distillery in person; my visit to the Isle of Mull was truly a highlight of the time I spent in Scotland.

I wrote about my first encounter with a bottle of Ledaig almost two years ago. That 16 year old bottling from Gordon & MacPhail, which was distilled in 1990, was far less heavily peated than I was expecting. I wrote briefly about the history of the Tobermory distillery in that post, but I have learned a great deal since then. Tasting notes for the 10 year Tobermory and 15year Tobermory can be found on the posts written during my visit to Mull. A more comprehensive overview of the distillery’s history will provide a fitting lead-up to a tasting of the current 10 year Ledaig.

The town of Tobermory was established on the northeastern coast of Mull as a fishing port in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society, in part because of its superior natural harbor. The village located on that harbor prior to 1788 was named Ledaig, which translates from Gaelic as “safe haven”.

Ten years later, in 1798, a local merchant named John Sinclair established the Ledaig distillery in the town of Tobermory. Some confusion has been caused by the fact that he was initially only given permission to build a brewery and a year later he got the okay for his planned distillery. But as far as I can tell the sight never operated as a brewery.

The Excise Act of 1823 set reasonable fees and tax rates on distillers with the goal of curbing illicit operations. That was in that year in which Ledaig was granted a license, and why we see both 1798 and 1823 on the bottles as the “established” date. The company seems to have embraced the earlier date in recent years, and only 1798 shows up on all of the newer labels.

The distillery closed in 1837 for reasons that have been lost to history. That closure would last more than 40 years, and maps from the 1860’s show that the site was being used as a saw mill. Finally, in 1878, distillation resumed there.

Seven years later, in 1885, Alfred Barnard toured the distillery, giving us a detailed record of the operation. By this time the distillery was named Tobermory, although it is unclear when the change from Ledaig took place. Barnard notes that raw barley was shipped to Mull by steamers from the mainland, and was then malted at the distillery and dried in a kiln fueled by peat from a nearby estate. He also describes the two water wheels that powered most of the distillery, as well as the boiler that produced steam to heat the mash water and drive a five horsepower engine which ran the pumps necessary to move liquids against gravity.

But the biggest surprise in Barnard’s description is that the Spirit Still was heated by steam while the Wash Still was heated by fire (he doesn’t note if the fuel was peat or coal). I believe steam heated pot stills were quite rare at the time. Glenmorangie was the first to use pot stills with internal steam coils when the distillery was rebuilt in 1888-1889, but no one else followed that lead until the late 1950’s. Scapa, which was newly built in 1885, had stills heated by steam jacketing, which was apparently quite unusual at the time. Barnard doesn’t give further detail, but I am assuming that jacketing was the method used on the Spirit Still at Tobermory.

The distillery closed again in 1930. This time it was likely the result of decreased demand after 10 years of Prohibition in the U.S. In the ensuing years the buildings were used as a power plant and then as a canteen for marines stationed at a nearby naval base during World War II.

This second closure lasted more than 40 years until the distillery re-opened under new ownership in 1972. Unfortunately the owners went bankrupt in 1975 and operations ceased again. Even though the distillery name was changed back to Ledaig during this brief period, many casks were still labeled as Tobermory but almost all of the whisky was peated to around 40 ppm.

Whisky making resumed with another new owner in 1979. This is when the distillery began to make two separate styles of whisky; peated Ledaig and unpeated Tobermory. Extra money was brought in by renting some of the buildings for cheese storage and selling off the only warehouse for development into apartments. But that wasn’t enough to keep the distillery from closing again in the early 1980’s (I’ve seen closure dates ranging from 1981 to 1985, but I came across a listing for a Ledaig distilled in 1983, so they must have made it at least that far).

Production resumed once again in 1989, but it’s not clear if that involved a change of ownership. From 1979 through 1993 the peat levels of Ledaig were very inconsistent, but overall much lower than they had been in the early 1970’s, probably around 15 ppm. I could find no information as to whether or not the traditional floor maltings were used during this period. If they had been, that practice would have ended by 1993, when the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart.

With the latest owner came a period of stability which is still being enjoyed 20 years later. By the mid 90’s, the peat level of Ledaig had been raised to 37 ppm. Burn Stewart has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and used the extra warehouse space there to mature Tobermory and Ledaig casks. In 2003 the company acquired the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay, giving them access to more underutilized warehouse capacity. In 2007 a micro-warehouse was built in the Tobermory distillery complex, allowing an aging experiment to be carried out. A batch of Ledaig was distilled and 1/3 of it was stored at each of the three distilleries. Samples from each site will be analyzed as they approach 10 years of age to determine the different influences of each site. During my tour, I was told that most of the Tobermory/Ledaig production is now aged at Bunnahabhain. This makes a great deal of sense; if it can’t be warehoused on Mull, it should at least age in a coastal location.

In 2010, Burn Stewart made the move of eliminating chill filtering and caramel coloring across the board for all of their single malts. The abv was raised to 46.3% at the same time. I know this provided a huge improvement for Bunnahabhain, and I suspect that it did for Tobermory and Ledaig as well.

Also of interesting note is that when Bunnahabhain was acquired, the Black Bottle brand of blended scotch came with it. Formerly composed of all seven single malts from Islay, it now has Tobermory and Ledaig in the mix as well.

Burn Stewart was purchased in 2002 by CL Financial of Trinidad who had a major liquidity crisis in 2009. Fortunately, Burn Stewart was sold on to a South African beverage company named Distell earlier this year, ensuring future stability.

Ledaig 10 year:
It is pale straw in color, with a fresh nose of hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity before it fades gracefully though the finish.
It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement. The flavor profile lies somewhere between those of Laphroaig and Ardbeg (or perhaps closer to a vatting of the two).

I’m revisiting the 16 year Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig as well as the 10 year Tobermory for comparison sake. I wouldn’t say that the 16 year is bad, but it’s just not peaty enough and/or too floral (and in that perfumed way that I really have an aversion to). It is simply not in the same league as 10 year Ledaig. The 10 year Tobermory is very well made and does have a nice minty spice aspect and maltiness which balance the floral notes. For my personal preferences I view it is a good starting point, from which something really special happens when you add the peat level of Ledaig or the full sherry cask maturation of 15 year Tobermory. Perhaps some day the distillery will treat us to a Ledaig bottling that has been matured exclusively in sherry casks.

Friday, November 22, 2013

George T. Stagg vs. Stagg Jr.

2009 George T. Stagg: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 70.7%, $65
2012 George T. Stagg: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 71.4%, $70
2013 George T. Stagg: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 64.1%, $70 
Stagg Jr.: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 67.2%, $50

Keeping secrets isn’t easy. That basic fact has never been truer as we now find ourselves firmly entrenched in the age of electronic information. While no one in the business world wants the cat to be let out of the bag prior to the official announcement of a new product, the United States government has made that task nearly impossible for the spirits industry.

Regulations require every bottle of alcohol (beer, wine and distilled spirits) sold in the U. S. to have a label which has been approved by the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an offshoot of the ATF which was formed in 2003). That authorization comes in the form of a COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval).

Most companies wisely try to submit the paperwork for a COLA well in advance of their new product’s release. This provides a time buffer if the label is rejected for some reason (or if work grinds to a halt at the TTB for weeks on end due to a government shutdown), avoiding the situation of having product sitting in a warehouse, unable to be shipped for a lack of legal labels.

However, once that application gets the green light the COLA information is published online for the world to see, label images and all, by the TTB. I can’t speak for beer geeks and wine aficionados, but trolling the TTB website for a preview of new products long before they are officially announced has become a popular pastime for whiskey enthusiasts.

The site doesn’t provide an index of approved label filings, but they’re not too hard to dig up. While a search function is available on the TTB website, I found it to be a bit cumbersome and actually had better luck working with a Google site search using a variety of key words.

Buffalo Trace sent out a flurry of press releases late in July to let the world know about their new Stagg Jr. bourbon, which would start to appear on store shelves by mid August. For anyone spending a decent amount of time on popular bourbon discussion forums, that was old news. The COLA application, which was submitted on December 20th, 2012, was approved and posted online on January 18th. Within three days the forums were buzzing with speculation about this upcoming product.

A label application is of course no guarantee that the product will ever see the light of day, and much of the information can be changed after approval has been granted. In the case of Stagg Jr., it was labeled as a barrel proof bourbon but carried a 100 proof rating. This was just a place holder, as the proof of the first batch (which ended up being 134.4) was unknown at the time the application was submitted. Buffalo Trace does plan to release several batches per year, and the proof of subsequent batches is expected to vary from that of the original.

About a month ago I spotted a bottle of the new Stagg Jr. sitting on the shelf at a local bar, not far from their bottle of 2012 George T. Stagg. I gave them a quick comparison, forming somewhat of a negative impression of the Jr., while noting that the newer vintage of the Sr. differed quite a bit from the 2009 bottling I had at home.

Then, about a week ago, I was at the same bar scrutinizing their bottle of Eagle Rare 17 Year for my last post when I noticed that it was from the 2013 release. Then I spotted a full bottle of George T. Stagg behind the opened one and began to suspect that it too was from the 2013 release. What a perfect opportunity to try Jr. against two different vintages of the original. This was especially interesting because the proof of the 2013 George T. Stagg has dropped below 130, where the last eight releases were all over 140 proof. 

The premise here is that Stagg Jr. is being offered as a younger, less expensive and more readily available (but still barrel proof and unfiltered) variant of the legendary George T. Stagg. But none of the Stagg bottlings carry an age statement. Well, the back label of the Stagg Jr. bottle mentions that it “ages for nearly a decade”. But that is not an official age statement, so it is somewhat meaningless. All we can do is refer to (and trust) the press releases and technical data sheets that come from Buffalo Trace.

According to the press releases that I’ve seen, Stagg Jr. is a marriage of barrels aged for eight years and nine years. Thus far only one batch has been released though. The age of the whiskey used in future batches could change, and if it does it would be up to Buffalo Trace to reveal that information.

As for the George T. Stagg, they do put out information sheets for each annual release with a pretty impressive level of detail. They show that the 2012 vintage was aged to 16 years and 9 months, and the 2013 vintage was aged to 15 years and 11 months. The 2009 vintage, which I’ll get into later, was aged to 16 years and 7 months.

Another thing that stands out while looking at the data is the loss due to evaporation. In 2012 it was 53.69% and in 2013 it was 73.34%. So even though the 2012 batch was comprised of 118 barrels and the 2013 batch of 157 barrels, there was actually 23.4% less George T. Stagg bottled this year compared to the one previous. This really highlights just how much of a variable the warehouses (and locations within them) can be. 

2012 George T. Stagg (142.8 proof)
The nose is full and spicy, but doesn’t let on to how high the proof is.
It has complexity in the sense that it evolves quite a bit from start to finish but at the same time it does kind of lack depth at any given point. On the palate it is viscous and intense, with the heat battling the flavors for dominance. The spice notes get quite hot (red hot cinnamon spice) as it moves into the finish. While the spice notes are enjoyable and interesting, they are definitely the driving force here. The whisky would benefit from a broader spectrum of flavors adding to the spice.

2013 George T. Stagg (128.2 proof)
The nose is far more restrained than that of the 2012; I expected less with the lower proof, but not this much less.
It’s big and chewy in the mouth. The palate is full of spice and has plenty of backbone, but everything is very well integrated. While primarily spice driven, it still shows good complexity with sweet caramel, leather and subtle dark fruit. Transitioning smoothly into the long finish, it picks up steam and evolves nicely. “Elegant” seems like a strange word to describe this whiskey, but I find it appropriate relative to the 2012 and the Jr.

Stagg Jr. (134.4 proof)
Again, the nose has some weight to it but is not as severe as expected.
This one definitely has the sharpest horns of the three, but doesn’t seem to be nearly as harsh as the first time I tasted it (about a month ago, same bottle), maybe tasting its older brothers first softened my palate this time around. There’s plenty of heat, but more from the alcohol burn than the spice notes. I might not have picked it out, but I definitely agree with the dark cherry flavors other reviewers have noted. It is a little unrefined and edgy, but really not as bad as some of its early reviews (or my initial impression). It’s kind of the inverse of the 2012 Stagg, in that it has more depth throughout, but it really doesn’t evolve from start to finish.

2009 George T. Stagg (141.4 proof)
When I got home from the bar I sampled this bottle, which I originally posted about a few years ago. It has a nose that opens the eyes in the same way that smelling salts do, as I would have expected from the other three. Big and brash on the palate, you could even go so far as saying a little rough around the edges. A lot of great flavor (leather, pencil shavings and oak) battles with some intense heat. While not as spice driven as the other two vintages, the spice that does come to the fore on the finish is of the Cedar variety. It really seems to come into its own late in the game. This is a highly regarded vintage by many, but I would personally rate it somewhere between the 2012 and the 2013 releases. I like all three of them, but they do vary quite a bit in style.

I have a huge aversion to rating whiskeys on a 100 point scale but I’m going to do it here because it’s the most direct way to express how I feel about each of these offerings relative to the others.

2013 Stagg - 96
2009 Stagg - 92
2012 Stagg - 90
Stagg Jr.     - 86

Having the Stagg name on the bottle raises the bar quite high for Jr. While not in the same league as its older siblings, I would say that it is at least worth trying. Oh, and I almost forgot to throw in a thanks to the folks at Prohibition Pig for cracking open their 2013 Stagg so I could compare it to the 2012 and Jr.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Eagle Rare, 17 Year Vs. 10 Year Single Barrel

17 Year: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45%, $70
Single Barrel 10 Year: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45%, $27

Many people who know me recognize that fact that I’m a fairly valuable whiskey resource. I’m always happy to share my insight and opinions, but I’m also quick to admit my limitations if the subject at hand goes beyond my realm of knowledge. When it comes to whiskey advice, you’ll either get an honest answer out of me or no answer at all.

I’ll occasionally get calls or texts from friends who are seeking recommendations while they’re shopping for whiskey. I’ve also had the privilege of making the single malt selections for the whisky lists of some very highly regarded restaurants, along with being asked to conduct whisky training sessions for their staff members.

From time to time I also get emails from Food & Beverage industry acquaintances seeking my opinion of the bottlings that are currently available to them. While I’m always honored by these requests, they can be quite time consuming as I’m not one to skimp on the details.

One such seeker of advise emailed me regarding a rather poorly written piece from the Wall Street Journal which highlighted the scarcity of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year and went on to mention several other bourbons that were supposed to be almost as eagerly sought after.

Oddly, they mentioned Eagle Rare but made no differentiation between the Single Barrel 10 Year, which is commonly available at a reasonable price, and the 17 Year which is a more expensive, limited release from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Of the five bottlings from that collection, the Eagle Rare 17 is arguably the least coveted. You’d think they would have mentioned George T. Stagg, the most fervently collected bottling from the group, as well as some of the highly acclaimed, limited edition releases put out by Heaven Hill and Four Roses.

After explaining all of that in my response, I went on to note that I did have a bottle of each of the two Eagle Rare offerings tucked away on the back of my whiskey shelf. It’s taken nearly eight months, but those two bottles have finally ventured out for a proper evaluation.

I knew some years had passed since their purchase, but even I was surprised to see the “bottled” date of Fall 2005 on the label of the 17 Year. I don’t see any bottling codes or other indication of vintage on the 10 Year bottle, but my foggy memory give me the sense that I picked it up a year of two after the 17.

While scrutinizing the bottles I noticed that they were both labeled as being distilled, aged & bottled by Old Prentice (one says company, the other says distillery), Frankfort, KY. That seemed odd; I know these are both Buffalo Trace products. A few hours of investigating ensued, revealing some interesting history.

The Seagram Company introduced Eagle Rare as a bourbon brand in 1975. Bottled with a 10 year age statement at 101 proof, it was positioned as a direct competitor to Wild Turkey. Eagle Rare was produced at what had formerly been named the Old Prentice Distillery, in Lawrenceburg, KY. That distillery was built in 1910 and kept its original name until it was purchased by Seagrams in 1943 and renamed as the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Distillery. In 1986 it was finally renamed as The Four Roses Distillery, in honor of the bourbon that had been produced there for many decades.

Then, in 1989, the Eagle Rare brand and the Old Prentice name were sold to the Sazerac Company. At the time of the Eagle Rare acquisition, Sazerac was sourcing the majority of their whisky from Heaven Hill. The most likely scenario is that Heaven Hill bourbon was used for Eagle Rare for the next three years, until Sazerac purchased the Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1992.

The Old Prentice name has always appeared on the Eagle Rare labels, and it still does on the most current bottling. But the stated location has changed a few times. Originally it was Lawrenceburg, KY, which was where the whisky was being distilled. Then in 1989 it changed to New Orleans, LA. Even though the whiskey was probably coming from Heaven Hill, the Sazerac headquarters were located in New Orleans so they could legally list that location on the label. In spite of the fact that the source of Eagle Rare likely changed to Buffalo Trace in 1992 the location on the label wasn’t updated to Frankfurt, KY (where the Buffalo Trace Distillery is located) until some time in the late 1990’s.

The lineage is a little hard to follow, but the important lesson here is that whiskey companies have some flexibility in regards to the locations they are allowed to put on their labels, and that location isn’t always indicative of the whiskey’s source.

I’m sure the flavor profile of the Eagle Rare 101 must have changed noticeably as it was coming from different distilleries over the years, but it wasn’t until 2000 that two new expressions of the brand were introduced. Eagle Rare 17 Year was part of the inaugural release of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, of which it has been a part ever since. At the same time the Single Barrel 10 Year was brought out, although with limited distribution. I also came across a few references to an Eagle Rare15 Year, but couldn’t really find any information about it aside from the fact that it was an export-only bottling,

Finally, in 2005 the original 10 Year, 101 proof Eagle Rare was discontinued while the newer Single Barrel, 10 Year, 90 proof Eagle Rare saw nationwide distribution. When I bought my bottles they were priced around $50 and $22. The prices I have listed up top are current suggested retail, but Antique Collection bottlings are prone to price gouging in some markets. As far as I know the 10 Year is the least expensive single barrel bourbon currently available. 

As long as I’ve been in possession of these bottles, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted them side by side. Now I’m really curious to see how they compare.

10 Year:
The nose is somewhat restrained, with a dry, dusty nature and gentle oaky aromas.
It is medium bodied, and brings more sweetness to the palate than the nose would suggest.
Butterscotch comes to the fore up front, and then the whiskey quickly passes through an oaky/earthy transition to the spicy finish. While it is primarily a red-hot-candy cinnamon spiciness, there is a slightly bitter edge, reminiscent of green pepper.

17 Year:
The nose is pronounced but not overly assertive, with notes of clay, leather and dried corn coming through.
Sublime was the first word that came to mind when I tasted it. It’s certainly not meek, but still very smooth and well-integrated. The mouthfeel is thick and weighty. It opens with sweet caramel and vanilla. Then leather, oak and subtle fruit rise up on a wave of ethanol. But everything it shows up front is short lived compared to the mint and teaberry laced spiciness that takes over on the lengthy finish. 

This whiskey’s biggest attribute is its ability to transition through a range of flavors seamlessly from start to finish

I did stop into a local watering hole last night to examine the most recent release (2013) of the Eagle Rare 17. I really just wanted to see if “Old Prentice” was still on the label (which it was), but since the bartender had to climb a library ladder to get the bottle, I thought it would be rude to not have her pour at least an ounce of it for me. Take this with a grain of salt since I tasted them 24 hours apart, but according to my notes: more robust than the 05, with more intense spice notes, but less dissimilar than expected. 

I definitely like both of these Eagle Rare expressions. The 10 Year is more boisterous, and the 17 Year (both of the vintages I tasted) shows a great deal of refinement. That being said, I think this is a rare example of price being commensurate with quality. Obviously, as a single barrel product the 10 Year won’t b entirely consistent – I’d love to see some sort of barrel identification marked on each bottle.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Laphroaig, 18 Year vs. Cask Strength 10 Year

18 Year, Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 48%, $80
Cask Strength 10 Year, Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 55.7%, $65 (typical 750ml price)

I found myself laughing at the width of the roads here in the U.S. every time I drove for the first week or two after returning from Scotland. I had become so accustomed to the narrow roadways of the U.K. that when I got behind the wheel for the first time back home, it felt as if I was sailing along an ocean of asphalt.

When the trip was still in its planning stages, I consulted about driving over there with a good friend who had lived in England during the early years of his childhood and went back occasionally to visit relatives. He recounted the story of renting a car with an automatic transmission, as that was all his wife could drive. Since the vast majority of cars in Europe are standards (the complete opposite of how it is in the States), getting an automatic limits your choice to larger, luxury models. To emphasize how undesirable such a car would be, he mentioned something about driving down a road so narrow that both of the side mirrors were dragging along the hedgerows lining the street at the same time. He also allayed my fears that the layout of the pedals might be in the reverse order of what we drive here.

So, small and manual it would be. No concerns there; that describes what I’d been driving for the previous five years. I knew that shifting with my left hand would be a challenge, but at least I’m left-handed, so there is a little more coordination on that side. Aside from that, I just needed to remember to stay on the left side of the road.

Long before the trip began, it was decided that I would do all of the driving and my father would serve as co-pilot. “Keep dad against the curb, keep dad against the curb” was the mantra that I continuously repeated in my head as we drove along, ensuring that I stayed on the proper side of the road.

Not long after leaving the airport in Glasgow, you’re bound to encounter a roundabout. I’m no stranger to such road features, but driving around one in a clockwise direction for the first time proved quite unnerving. And with less than a foot of extra space on each side of the car in most places, the driver’s undivided attention is required at all times. In practice that’s probably safer than the ridiculously wide roads I’m used to driving on, which allow for all manner of distraction. Once I settled in, I truly did enjoy driving in Scotland, especially on the single track roads that snaked around the Isle of Mull.

I was surprised by a number of unexpected little differences though. I nearly grabbed the door handle more times than I’d care to admit while trying to shift. Every time I wanted to look in the rear view mirror I found myself gazing off to the right at…..well, nothing. My right hand also spent a good deal of time waving around in the center of the car in search of my seatbelt. And more often than not, leading up to a departure either my father or I would approach the wrong side of the car. This turned into somewhat of a Laurel & Hardy-esque routine; “tired of driving Mike? Ready to be the passenger?” or “Oh, did you feel like driving this time around, dad?” would come from one of us each time the other made the mistake.

As you can clearly see in the picture above, I’m standing next to the passenger side of the car, proudly displaying my newly acquired miniature of Cask Strength Laphroaig 10 Year. Just after that photo was taken was the only time that I actually got in the car, closed the door, and then came to the realization that there was no steering wheel in front of me. That picture will always bring a smile to my face.

Prior to the 2004 introduction of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, the Cask Strength 10 Year was the only non-chill filtered whisky in Laphroaig’s standard lineup. In 2009 they phased out the 15 Year and replaced it with the 18 Year which is non-chill filtered, leaving the flagship 10 Year (bottled at 40% or 43% abv, depending on where it’s being sold) as the only Laphroaig bottling to undergo that process. It’s nice to see a whisky company moving in the right direction.

The Cask Strength miniature that I picked up at the distillery is a bottling that was produced from 2004 through 2008, at 55.7% abv. Earlier bottlings were at 57.3% abv and had a green strip across the label rather than the red stripe seen on version I have. From 2009 onward the Cask Strength Laphroaig has been released in annual, numbered batches, where the proof changes from batch to batch (there is some inconsistency in the system, but that’s the topic of another post).

I thought it would be interesting to compare the Cask Strength 10 Year and the 18 Year since they are basically the opposite ends of the spectrum of the standard Laphroaig lineup. I do have some Quarter Cask on hand for reference as well.

18 Year:
It is light-to-medium golden amber in color.Pungent peat smoke with iodine and a hint of sea spray come through on the nose but with a relatively refined manner.
As expected, the body is thick and oily. The medicinal peat, slightly sweet vanilla and brine notes are all beautifully woven together. The well-integrated, complex flavors move seamlessly into the wonderfully long finish. Eighteen years in cask has barely tamed the beast; this is still very much a robust, masculine whisky.

Cask Strength 10 Year:
The color is notable darker than the 18, more of a medium amber.
On the nose, the pungent peat smoke is accompanied by a vegetal earthiness in this case. The aromas are a little more concentrated than the 18 Year, but not as unruly as I was expecting them to be.It’s even more viscous on the tongue than the 18, and it has more intensity across the board on the palate. But the flavor profile is quite different too; it has more of a nutty / woody character (rather than the luscious vanilla) joining the pungent, fiery peat notes. The vigorous intensity pulls through to the finish, carrying it along noticeably further than that of the 18 Year, which is by no means short of length.

I originally wrote about Laphroaig Quarter Cask in April of 2007 (the 2011 date is when I moved the older posts to the current format). As odd as my early writings seem to me now, I still feel essentially the same way about the Quarter Cask. I’m truly enjoying all three of these Laphroaig expressions; the 18 Year has a wonderful elegance and the Cask Strength shows its unbridled vigor, but the Quarter Cask is still my favorite. It’s beautifully balanced and wonderfully complex, with bold waves of flavor that keep crashing down on the palate, one after another.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Forty Creek, Barrel Select

stats: Canadian Whisky, 40%, no age statement, $25

I’ve been feeling somewhat conflicted about this post for the past few days. Forty Creek Barrel Select is a whisky that I really like and some unique methods are employed in its production. But the distiller has made some statements while describing his whisky making process that I’ve taken exception to. The issue at hand is important and I feel the need to discuss it, I just don’t want to focus too much one small negative aspect of an innovative distiller who’s creating great whisky.

So, we’ll start by taking a look at what makes Forty Creek Barrel Select special. After spending 22 years as a winemaker, John Hall wanted to do something different and expanded into producing spirits when he purchased the Kittling Ridge Distillery in 1992. Over the last 20 years whisky has become his main focus. This fact was emphasized last year when he changed the name of the distillery to Forty Creek, making it eponymous with his whisky brand.

The vast majority of modern whiskies are made with either distiller’s yeast or brewer’s yeast (or some combination of the two). Bringing his winemaking background into play, John Hall has chosen to ferment with wine yeast, taking advantage of the unique qualities it adds to his whisky.

Aside from malt whisky (which is made solely from malted barley) most modern whiskies are made from a mixture of grains, which are typically combined prior to mashing and fermentation. But at Forty Creek the three grains used (corn, rye and malted barley) are kept separate and made into individual whiskies, which are later blended together. This emulates the standard practice of the wine industry, where different grape varietals are made into individual wines before being blended together (if the grapes are mixed together prior to fermentation, the wine will be labeled as a “field blend”).

Continuing to follow the winemaking tradition, each of the three base whiskies at Forty Creek are aged separately as well. In order to accentuate the individual qualities of the different grains, the whisky from each one is aged in a different type of oak barrel: lightly charred for the rye, medium charred for the barley, and heavily charred for the corn. After 6 to 10 years in these barrels, the whiskies are finally blended together before being aged for a further 6 months in sherry casks.

The actual distillation process carried out at Forty Creek is also somewhat unique, but this is where I have a bit of an issue. While discussing his still setup, Mr. Hall essentially makes a blanket statement that whisky made in column stills is inferior to whisky made in pot stills. He also insinuates that because his whisky is made in a single pot still distillation that it is superior to double or triple pot-distilled whiskies.

A lot of people around the world have romantic notions of pot stills and a corresponding bias against spirits produced in column stills. While perhaps not completely baseless, these feelings are for the most part unreasonable.

Pot stills are easy to understand. Liquid with a low level of alcohol (wash) is added to the vessel and then heat is applied to its base. The more volatile components of the liquid (mostly alcohol) turn to vapor, rise up and escape through a tube connected to the top of the still. These vapors then move into a condenser where they are cooled and turn back to liquid. The process is usually repeated once or twice more to achieve the desired concentration of alcohol.

The way in which a column still works isn’t so obvious. A tall cylinder has a series of metal plates inside, spaced out from top to bottom. These plates are riddled with small holes, allowing the passage of liquid and vapor. Alcoholic liquid enters the column from the top and steam is pumped in at the base. As the liquid moves down and the steam moves up, the liquid is heated causing the alcohol to evaporate out of it. At the same time most of the steam will re-condense back into water. The mostly alcoholic vapor flows out of the top of the column and into a condenser where it is cooled, becoming a liquid again. The waste liquid (mostly water) is drained out of the bottom of the column. The perforated metal plates simply serve to spread out the liquid and slow its movement as it descends inside the column, allowing the steam to heat the liquid sufficiently. It is a little more complicated as the diagram below shows, but that’s basically how a column still works.

In addition to the fact that it’s not easy to understand how a column still works just by looking at one, their lowly reputation may be due in part to appearances; they resemble the type of industrial equipment that might be used to make gasoline. But the real issue at hand is the degree to which the spirit has been distilled. When the concentration of the alcohol coming out of the still goes up, the character of the original ingredients that gets carried through to the spirit diminishes.

Column stills are more efficient than pot still because they function in a continuous process as opposed to a batch process. A pot still is loaded with liquid, heated for a time to separate out the alcohol, then the remaining liquid is emptied out and the cycle is repeated. With a column still, as long as you keep feeding wash in at the top and steam at the base, it will continue to produce spirit. The column still can also put out highly concentrated spirit, above 95% abv (the legal maximum for whisky by most definitions), whereas with pot stills it’s hard to get the abv much above 80%.

So yes, you can make bad whisky with a column still (and plenty is). But that doesn’t mean whisky from a column still has to be bad. Let’s look at some numbers. We’ll start with some pot still examples from Scotland: doubled distilled Longrow comes off the still at 69% abv, two-and-a-half times distilled Springbank at 71%, and triple distilled Hazelburn at 73%. Auchentoshan, which is also triple distilled, comes out at 81%. A quick look at the laws that regulate how Bourbon is made reveal that it must be distilled to less than 80% abv. The vast majority of Bourbons are made in column stills, and while few distillers publish the numbers, I suspect that many of the better quality Bourbons are distilled to a lower number than the legal maximum of 80% abv. The degree to which a column still concentrates alcohol is easily adjusted by changing its internal configuration. There may be a little more to it, but I believe that it’s mostly a matter of how many metal plates are used along with the number and size of the holes in them.

Consider some of the top names in Bourbon: George T Stagg, William Larue Weller, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, The Parker Heritage Collection, Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition releases. Those are some serious whiskeys, all of top quality, and every one of them made in a column still.

Conversely, it is possible to make bad whisky in a pot still: low quality wort from high yielding strains of grain, short fermentation times with fast acting yeast, and finally a quick distillation driven by high heat. Pot stills are no guaranty of quality.

Of course there are some grey areas to consider too. The first is a piece of distilling equipment known as a thumper (or a thump keg, or a doubler). This is a closed vessel that, if used, sits between the still and the condenser (the diagram shows on being used with a pot still, but they are also used with column stills). It’s partially filled with water and the pipe coming into it from the still will have its opening below the water line. Another pipe goes from the top of the thumper to the condenser. The vapors coming off of the still will cool a little as they bubble up through the liquid in the thumper. That cooling causes some of the water in the vapor to re-condense and stay in the thumper. The vapors that exit the thumper now have less water than when they entered, so the alcohol has become more concentrated before moving on to the condenser.

Even though it functions by cooling rather than heating, some people consider the thumper to be a type of pot still. Nearly six years ago Chuck Cowdery wrote a great post about a Bourbon that was claimed to be the product of pot still distillation even though it was actually distilled in a column used in conjunction with a thumper.

I’m basically on the same path as Chuck here. You see, the main still that makes most of the wkisky at Forty Creek is a 6000 liter combi-still (combination still or hybrid still). It is basically a pot still base with a column still on top of it. Some of the wash starts in the pot, and once it heats to the point where it starts to vaporize, more wash is fed into the top of the column. The vapors move up through the column stripping alcohol out of the wash that is coming down and at the same time losing some water content along the way. The diagram below is just an example of this type of still.

John Hall has been somewhat of a pioneer in a Canadian whisky industry that has been slow to innovate, and for that he deserves credit. The spirit coming off of his still is at 65% abv; a sure sign of quality distillate, and as I said above I really like this whisky. But I get a bit rankled when I hear claims of the superiority of pot still whisky which clearly infer inherent inadequacies in the output of column stills. I also think it’s disingenuous to call the product of a combi-still a single pot still whisky, and I find it revealing that every photo of the still on the Forty Creek website either has the column cropped out or is taken from an angle that makes it barely visible.

Okay, enough of my column still crusade, time for a glass of whisky:

The nose is fairly complex, with subtle fruit and delicate floral aromas, but it’s the butterscotch notes that seem to stand out above the others.
While it doesn’t evolve dramatically on the palate from start to finish, there is good complexity throughout and all of the flavors are well integrated. Butterscotch, vanilla and spice notes are the most obvious flavors, but stone fruit, nuttiness and a floral aspect are all present as well.
The warm, spicy finish is smooth and of reasonable length.

It’s refreshing to see a Canadian Whisky that breaks from tradition. Next time I visit Montreal I may have to take a detour through Ontario and see if I can hunt down some of the Forty Creek bottlings that aren’t available in the U.S.