Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jefferson's, Presidential Select 18 Year

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 18 year, 47%, $90

I prefer to keep the company of women who enjoy good whiskey. It was one such acquaintance who purchased a bottle of Jefferson’s bourbon on a whim (i.e. never having tasted it before) for a debaucherous evening of drinking about three and a half years ago. Unfortunately, we were both thoroughly disappointed upon tasting it. I can’t really blame her for buying the Jefferson’s though, it’s a good looking bottle – it has shelf presence.

Little effort is required to figure out that Jefferson’s is the product of an NDP (non distiller producer). They are one of many companies who buy whiskey from distilleries which are in the business of supplying others, then bottle and sell that whiskey under their own brand. Jefferson’s might not come right out and tout this fact, but unlike many other NDPs, they make no attempt to create the illusion that they distill the whiskey they sell.

What we had tasted was the standard “very small batch” version, which retails around $30. After that had left a bad taste in my mouth (both literally and figuratively), I was less than inclined to open my wallet for a sample of the $40 “reserve” bottling.

A year or so after that initial tasting, I read a review which stated that the entry level Jefferson’s had been improved with the new formula containing a higher percentage of older whiskey. But I live in a liquor control state where the sole distributor (the state) will sometimes buy an item in large quantities (relative to the size or our tiny population) and slowly meter that product out to the stores over many years. Without a new label or abv change to signify the reformulation, giving Jefferson’s another try was a $30 gamble I wasn’t interested in.

Okay, in fairness the bottles do carry a neck label with a batch number and bottle number. It may have been possible to figure out the batch number above which the improvement had taken place, but that was more legwork than I really wanted to get into. So I basically wrote off the brand.

That is until last fall, when I heard about Jefferson’s Presidential Select, which was supposedly made up of Stitzel-Weller whiskey. I was curious, but skeptical. It was late in 2012 and this was an 18 year old, but Stitzel-Weller last produced whiskey in 1992.

I finally got around to trying the Presidential Select a few weeks ago when I paid a visit to the local pub to see a good friend on her last night behind the bar. Of course this was followed by a healthy dose of research where I learned quite a bit from some past threads on a bourbon discussion forum.

The big questions are: Is this actually Stitzel-Weller bourbon? And how did it end up being bottled as Jefferson’s instead of Van Winkle?

The label says right on it that the whiskey was distilled in the fall of 1991 and aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels. The first fact that surfaced as I researched was that the Jefferson’s Presidential Select had been available longer than I realized. I seems to have originally appeared as a 17 year old in 2009, followed by the more commonly seen 18 year old in 2010. It just took a few more years to make it to my neck of the woods.

There seems to have been a fairly steady supply of 18 year old (all distilled in 1991) over the last two or three years. I’m guessing that they bottled a few batches at 17 years in 2009, then fearing that the oak would dominate if they let it age much further, bottled quite a few more batches at 18 years in 2010 and have been slowly releasing them since.

There were rumors of some barrels being held back to age further, but the 21 year old Jefferson’s Presidential Select that came out this past spring was not from Stitzel-Weller (nor was it even a wheated bourbon). You never know what they have waiting in the wings, but an older S-W release seems unlikely at this point.

Back to the subject of authenticity – there were some online debates a few years ago as to whether or not this bourbon was actually distilled at Stitzel-Weller. Some claimed that the term “aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels” used on the labels could mean that the bourbon was distilled elsewhere and aged in barrels that once held S-W whiskey. But this is straight bourbon, which must be aged in new barrels by law, so that theory was quickly ruled out.

Then the idea was put forth that this could be whiskey distilled in some un-named distillery and aged in the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. They could legally say the whiskey was aged in S-W barrels in this scenario, but the idea was eventually deemed highly unlikely, and the online consensus was that the wording of the label was just poorly phrased. The whole conversation does however illustrate the level of mistrust that has been created among consumers by the less-than-forthright practices of some non distiller producers.

As to how Jefferson’s got a hold of Stitzel-Weller bourbon, there are a few thoughts. The Van Winkle family certainly had rights to purchase S-W bourbon, but it is not known if they were only allowed to take a certain percentage of what was produced or if they simply took what they deemed to be up to their standards (or fit their flavor profile) and passed on the rest.

Either way, Diageo (the company that evolved out of United Distillers, who were the owners of Stitzel-Weller when the distillery went silent) have had an unknown quantity of S-W whiskey all along. There have been unconfirmed rumors for years that some of this bourbon was going to Canada and being used as a flavoring component in Crown Royal – Canadian Whisky can legally have up to 9.09% of almost any other liquor mixed in with it.

Whether it was surplus turned down by the Van Winkles or whiskey destined for Canada which Diageo chose to take more profit from, it seems that the people who produce Jefferson’s were able to purchase some of the last bourbon produced at Stitzel-Weller.

But the question of quality still remains. Looking through past discussions, the quality of the Presidential Select seems to have varied significantly from batch to batch. Some are highly recommended, while others are said to not be worth the price of entry.

The bottle that I tasted was from batch 13. I can say with confidence that the flavor profile is very similar to that of the 15 year PappyVan Winkle Family Reserve that I polished off a few monthsago. This is definitely Stitzel-Weller bourbon in my opinion.

It has a pleasant nose of grain and oak. On the palate it is full flavored and well balanced. There is a nice interplay between the heat and the complex array of flavors (grain, oak, vanilla, caramel and subtle floral notes). The finish is respectably long, but the whiskey may fall slightly out of balance at this point, going a little too dry / oaky.

Overall it is a very good bourbon. But I guess it’s a matter of opinion if it is worth the going retail price to get a hold of what is likely to be some of the last Stitzel-Weller whiskey that will be available in the retail market.

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