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.