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.

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