Sunday, May 4, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 1

My first full day in Florida was all about catching up on sleep, then hunkering down and polishing the details of that evening’s presentation. My only obligations on the second day were a late afternoon staff training session and dinner with my host. The food & beverage management at Frenchman’s Creek were kind enough to arrange for one of the local liquor distributors to put on an American whiskey tasting at the club on the last night I would be there.

Having spent ample time on the beach without sun-block on day two, I had brought myself right to the verge of a substantial burn. My mission on day three was to avoid the ultraviolet rays; and besides, I still needed to make proper tasting notes of the single malts from the dinner I had hosted. So I cranked up the air conditioning and hid out in my room for much of the afternoon with four sample bottles, slowly sipping, analyzing and taking notes.

And how does one transition from an afternoon of Scotch induced contemplation to an even tasting of American Whiskeys? Well, if you’re in Florida, you have a glass of whiskey during “happy hour”. The lobby bar at my accommodations had a few bottles that piqued my interest; it was only logical to sample one when everything was half price, from 4:00 to 6:00. From this lengthy day of tasting, followed by one more whiskey for the road before checking out the next morning, a theme would eventually emerge……

Ten years ago virtually all of the whiskey produced in the U.S. came out of a mere 14 distilleries. Of course, the number of brands was much higher than the number of distilleries. There were some independent bottlers; companies who bought bulk aged whiskey on the open market and bottled it for retail sale. These companies could focus on their marketing and image building activities while letting someone else deal with the nuts and bolts of whiskey making. Many of the brands, however, were owned by the big distilleries. This business model gave them the flexibility to shift their product across the brands they owned as the popularity of those brands waxed and waned.

The landscape of American whiskey has changed tremendously over the last decade, and the explosive rise of whiskey’s popularity has set the stage for this change. The lion’s share of American whiskey is still produced by a small number of macro-distillers, but there are now well over 300 small distilleries also producing whiskey in the U.S. The number of non-distiller producers (ndp’s, just another name for independent bottlers) has risen dramatically, to well over 100, not to mention several brands recently created or resurrected by the big distillers.

While it may seem like the American whiskey industry is moving into uncharted territory, in many ways it is becoming more reminiscent of how things looked in the decades leading up to prohibition. In the early 1800’s, much of the whiskey made in the U.S. was produced on small farm distilleries, and some of those lingered on into the early 20th century. After the Civil War (1861-1865) the new railroads allowed much greater distribution than was possible when whiskey was transported primarily by river, ushering in the era of big, commercial distilleries. Large, nationally known whiskey brands first started to appear in the mid 1800’s, with Old Crow and Old Oscar Pepper being some of the earliest examples.

Through the latter half of the 19th century, most of the whiskey coming from the big distillers was sold in bulk to wholesale merchants. The wholesalers employed travelling salesmen who would entice customers with product samples. Those customers were usually the owners of bars or general stores, who would buy the whiskey by the barrel and sell it at the retail level. Most of the brands back then were created by the wholesale companies, who often mixed whiskey from different distilleries to create a variety of offerings. This is a big part of why there were so many small, regional brands back then.

Unfortunately the industry had very little regulation prior to 1900 and trademark protections were also weak at the time. At best, unscrupulous wholesalers would use bait and switch tactics, with their sales samples being of far greater quality than the whiskey that was eventually delivered in barrels. At worst, they would water down the whiskey, then put in additives, which ranged from harmless to toxic, in order to mask the deception. Deceit happened on the retail level as well, and knock-off brand names were all too common.

While the whiskey trade has come a long way since the days of the Wild West and consumers enjoy a lot of protections in the modern era, deceptive practices are still seen today. Some of the terminology used on whiskey labels is undefined (at least officially) and unregulated, leaving how those terms are used to the discretion of the producer. One example is “barrel proof”; this should be the proof of the whiskey as it exits the barrel, but if a producer wants to add a little water to each batch so they have a consistent proof number and don’t have to change the label, there is no rule against that.

But most of the current deception in the industry relates to the source of the whiskey, with many ndp’s buying bulk whiskey from the big distillers and trying to give the impression that they distilled it themselves. There are also issues with the history and provenance of many of the brands and producers (there seem to be a lot of tall tales of “old family recipes” going around these days). I’m going to run through the nine offerings that I tasted as my trip wound down since they represent an interesting cross section of American whiskey, and along with my opinion of each, I’ll look at their stories and try to separate the fact from the fiction.

Angel’s Envy, Kentucky Straight Bourbon finished in Port wine barrels, no age statement, 43.3%, $45

The nose is fairly sweet and soft, but still very bourbon-like. I find it reminiscent of Maker’s Mark. On the palate it is full flavored, but soft and approachable. Corn, dark berry fruit and sweetness is the main theme here, with a minimal oak and spice influence. As with the palate, the flavors through the finish are robust, yet soft, round and approachable. I suspect that this is a wheat based bourbon. While I think it is well made, liking it will come down to personal preference; it is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to an aggressive, spice driven, high-rye bourbon. I think it would do well in a cocktail with a strong bitter component, like an Amaro.

Lincoln Henderson, a former Brown Forman distiller, founded Angel’s Envy. It was first released in the spring of 2011, and from the start the company has talked about their plans to open a micro-distillery in Louisville, KY. Such projects take time, and they finally announced the ground breaking for the distillery in July of 2013. They’ve made no secret of that fact that they are working with sourced whiskey, and that will continue until the whiskey they’ll eventually distill themselves comes of age.

Unfortunately, Lincoln Henderson passed away in September of 2013, but the company grew considerably and attracted significant investment in its first few years. Angel’s Envy will continue on, even without its founder.

Which distillery a whiskey is sourced from is often kept confidential, whether it is at the behest of the producer or the purchaser. In many cases the information is leaked from someone with inside knowledge, but the folks at Angel’s Envy have managed to remain tight lipped regarding the origins of their whisky. While doing some research, I did come across information that the source for the bourbon they are using may have changed at some point in the first year of production. Early on the age was claimed to be in the 5 to 7 year range, more recent statements put it in the 4 to 6 year range. The finishing time in French oak Port casks is said to be 3 to 6 months.

Even though they don’t disclose the source of their whiskey, the folks at Angel’s Envy are pretty upfront about the fact that they are using sourced whiskey. The copy on their website does raise my suspicions though. They talk about being involved in every step of the production of their whiskey, from the distillation through the aging process. It may be bottled in small batches, but this is bulk whisky produced by one of the big distilleries. I find it very hard to believe that Angel’s Envy, as one of their customers, is actually involved in the earliest stages of production. In the grand scheme of things though, this is actually a fairly minor embellishment.

Breaking & Entering, Bourbon, 43%, $39

The nose is soft and sweet, but still somewhat potent. It seems to have a wheat-like aroma characteristic. On the palate it has good complexity, with an interesting marriage of sweetness, wheat-like softness and rye spiciness. The finish is a little mild, aside from some lingering rye spice. I find it kind of gentle, but pretty good overall with nice complexity.

Breaking & Entering is the product of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. This is one of the earliest craft distillers in the U.S., having started with eu de vie (clear fruit brandy) in 1982. They began producing and aging malt whiskey in 1997 and released the first lot in 2000. Other notable achievements for the company include the creation of Hanger One vodka and the distillation of the first legal American absinthe since it was banned in 1912.

But Breaking & Entering is not distilled by St. George Spirits. They sourced the bourbon from distilleries in Kentucky and are proud of it. The name is even a play on words to intimate that they stole someone else’s whiskey. Viewing this project as a foray into the art of blending, they assume (and rightly so) that there is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey, even for an established craft distiller, if you are honest about it.

The bottle has no age statement, but the website claims that all of the whiskey is in the 5 to 8 year range. The online product description mentions that they selected nearly 400 barrels from various Kentucky rickhouses. But looking at the historical timeline on their site, it states that 320 barrels were brought back from Kentucky in 2011, when Breaking & Entering was first made. This leads me to believe that B&E is an ongoing project and the folks at St. George have gone on at least a couple of barrel sourcing missions. I’m not sure if it was done on purpose or not, but the product description kind of makes it sound like the project was a one time deal.

I did see a few older reviews that mention this whiskey being made up of 80 barrels. I’m guessing that when 300 to 400 barrels are brought back from Kentucky, they are blending the whiskey together in 80 barrel batches. The bottles do have batch numbers on them, but I’ve never seen any references to variations among the different batches.

Dancing Pines, Bourbon, 44%, $50

The nose is slightly restrained, showing notes of clay and soft rye spice. I find some resemblance to Old Grand Dad. One the palate, the flavors are in line with the aromas but they are overpowered by a high level of heat. The flavor that’s there seems nice, there’s just not enough of it. The whiskey doesn’t evolve too much; the flavors and heat recede at an equal pace through the reasonably long finish. Adding a bit of water opens the nose just a little and helps to bring out the flavors right up front, but the heat still rises up and takes over pretty quickly. I see some potential here, but it just comes across as being too immature. I’d love to try it at twice the age.

Dancing Pines is a craft distillery located in Loveland Colorado. It was started late in 2009 by a former homebrewer and hobby distiller, along with his wife and a little help from his father. Rum production is their main focus, but they also make a variety of flavored liqueurs, brandy, gin and the above tasted bourbon. The bourbon is double distilled in a small copper pot still, and, as with their other products, it is all made in house.

In my tasting notes I mentioned that I’d love to try it at twice the age, which begs the question; what is the age? Looking over the bottle as I was tasting, I noticed the “aged less than 4 years” statement, which raised a red flag. That is not a true age statement and is essentially meaningless. A whiskey could be aged for two days and it would qualify as being aged less than four years. A true age statement should be in the format of “3 years old” or “aged 3 years”, or it could say “aged 3 years or more”.

I did a little research and came across a video interview where the owner of Dancing Pines mentions that his bourbon is matured in a combination of 15, 30 and 50 gallon barrels, with aging times ranging from nine months to two years. Keep in mind though, that this whiskey is labeled as bourbon, not straight bourbon. There are certain requirements for a whiskey to qualify as bourbon, a few more are added on to qualify for the straight designation and a few more requirements on top of that if it is going to carry the bonded label. All bourbon must be aged in new charred oak containers, but there is no minimum aging requirement, and having an age statement on the label is completely optional. Straight bourbon, on the other hand, has a minimum aging requirement of two years and an age statement is required if it is less than four years old. The age statement is optional for straight bourbons older than four years. Along with a few other requirements, bonded bourbons must be aged at least four years.

A whiskey label’s age statement must show the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. So if Dancing Pines had a true age statement on the label it would have to be “9 months old”. I’m not sure if what Dancing Pines has on their label breaks the rules for age statements, or if it doesn’t matter because they aren’t required to have one, but either way it is a bit disingenuous. I think it’s great that they’re making all of their own whiskey even though they haven’t been around very long, and the product shows a lot of potential. The age statement thing is really the only nitpick I have here.