Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bruichladdich, Legacy Series Five, 33 Aged Years

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40.9%, $180

I lost my best friend today. When you’re a socially inept recluse with a fear of relationships, a wayward black cat can come to mean an awful lot to you. She was on my lap nuzzling and purring incessantly while I wrote much of what has been posted here. She’d even occasionally poke her nose into my glass to see what all of the fuss was about; and that would come with a rude awakening if I was tasting something from the more pungent side of Islay. It’s not easy to type with a twelve pound cat draped across your forearms and it’s tough to complete a thought with claws digging into your wrist for a little more attention. Those are distractions I’d be thrilled to tolerate as I write this.

My views on the grey market (i.e. personal sales) of whisky have changed over the years. I originally thought of those who engaged in it as vultures. Then, as I sat in a pub on Islay three years ago and mentioned tasting Ardbeg Kildalton on a distillery tour, the bartender asked how it tasted and said that she had a bottle but didn’t want to open it as it was one of her “investment bottles”. That altered my outlook a bit and I thought maybe it was okay to view special bottles of whisky as a commodity. Perhaps I could use my whisky knowledge to put a little money in my pocket. Upon returning to the states I quickly snapped up an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist and a Bruichladdich Legacy V - 33 year old, with the intention of flipping them and doubling my money. Shortly thereafter eBay closed their loophole on spirits sales and the most accessible illicit whisky market was gone.

Once I was stuck with those bottles, my frustration gradually turned to gratitude. These are special whiskies, meant to be enjoyed and cherished, not bought and sold for the sake of profiteering. They are links to the past; bottles of liquid history; ties to a less complicated time for the industry.

I almost opened the 33 year Bruichladdich on the most recent New Years Eve, but it just didn’t feel like the right night. I chose to crack into my bottle of Big Peat that night instead. This is incredibly ironic as I reached out to the Big Peat when in need of an emotional crutch this morning, but upon further reflection concluded that only my most treasured of unopened whiskies was befitting of a toast to my abruptly departed feline companion.

When Bruichladdich was rescued and restarted in mid 2001 it had been mothballed for nearly eight years. The new owners needed cash flow and their greatest asset was in the warehouses. The distillery had produced heavily peated malt up until 1960, before following the industry trend of the time and switching over to very lightly peated malt. The heavily peated spirit was all long gone, but the warehouses did contain stocks from 1964 up to 1994, as well a two weeks worth of production (moderately peated, at 28 ppm) that was carried out in 1998 by the staff of the Jura distillery.

The character of the whisky began to change when a second set of stills were introduced in 1975 and production levels were increased. Although much of the original Victorian era equipment remains in use at Bruichladdich to this day, it is likely that the period from 1975 to 1979 is when fermentation times were shortened, worm tubs were replaced with modern condensers and the stills were changed over from direct fire to steam heating.

After 1980 much of the spirit was entered into marginal quality casks. There was plenty of good whisky spanning 1964 to 1998 in the warehouses, but the new owners had to pick and choose casks wisely. This is a big part of why wine cask finishes were so important for the reawakened Bruichladdich and why she put forth such a wide range of limited edition bottlings in the early 2000’s.

The Legacy series bottlings were released annually from 2002 through 2007 and represent some of the oldest stocks that were in the warehouses, from 1964 to 1972. Release Five was bottled in September of 2006 and is made up of bourbon barrels and sherry casks from 1972 and 1968. It was a limited release of just 1690 bottles, and it’s quite shocking that I came across several of them on a store shelf in the summer of 2012 at their suggested retail price. The few Legacy series bottlings that I see for sale now are typically in the $400 to $500 range.

The nose is expressive; wood, leather, dark stewed sherry fruits and a touch of dry spice. Putting a drop on the finger and letting it dry brings out coconut aromas and more complex spice notes. It’s full bodied, but not to the point of being clumsy. There’s a lovely evolution of flavors. Biscuits and Dundee Cake lead up front, followed by coconut and subtle tropical fruit in the background. A briny coastal quality comes through on the mid palate as well. It becomes more spice driven as it moves into the finish; cinnamon, teaberry and delicate mulling spices all do their part. It turns drier as it progresses and becomes more woody as the spice notes fade, but not to the point of being detrimental. Its character is dark and brooding, but graceful and complex too. The density of flavor is impressive for 40.9% abv, but I guess that is the difference between the alcohol level coming down through three decades of evaporation and a younger whisky that has just had water added to it.

Old whisky, like friendships and life itself, should be savored and cherished, not traded or hoarded as a trophy. Cheers Frida.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, 2008 vs. 2014

2008 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, 13 years, 47.0%, $40
2014 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, 12 years, 48.5%, $60

Old Forester is a brand that often flies under the radar these days, but it still has a long and impressive history. In 1870 George Garvin Brown, a young pharmaceuticals salesman, started a whiskey business in Louisville, KY that would eventually grow into one of the largest spirits companies based in the U.S. The early years saw several name changes as various partners and investors came and went, but in 1890 the company took the name Brown-Forman when George Forman, an accountant who had been an employee since 1872, became a minor partner. Forman passed away in 1901 and his shares were bought back from his widow, but his name remains as part of the company moniker to this day.

George Brown introduced Old Forester bourbon in 1873, and it became his company’s flagship product. Most notably, it has the distinction of being the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in bottles, which was actually the whole premise of the brand from its start. This was done in order to market it to physicians, who commonly prescribed whiskey to their patients at the time.

During that era, whiskey sold on the wholesale level was notorious for its irregular quality and the unscrupulous practices of the merchants who dealt in it. George Brown was one of the honest wholesalers who had a talent for picking quality barrels from the distillers and blending them together to create a consistent product. He realized that if his bourbon was only available in sealed bottles, doctors and consumers could have faith in its source and the quality of what they were buying. For added measure each label had a signed, hand written pledge guaranteeing the authenticity of the whiskey.

Since its inception Old Forester has been a Brown-Forman product, but it hasn’t always been made at the same distillery. As noted above, John Brown started off as a wholesaler who blended together whiskey sourced from several distilleries. In 1902 Brown-Forman acquired the B F Mattingly distillery in St Mary, Kentucky. This distillery had been one of their major suppliers for more than 20 years, but even after buying it they continued to source whiskey from other producers, the Mellwood distillery in Louisville, KY chief among them.

Both of those distilleries ceased operations in 1918 during the lead up to Prohibition. Brown-Forman obtained one of the few licenses to bottle medicinal whiskey when Prohibition began and they bought many distilleries, brands and existing stocks of whiskey during that time period. The most significant purchase was Early Times in 1923. It was a major brand that dated to 1860 and they kept it alive through Prohibition by bottling its remaining stocks as medicinal whiskey, even though they sold off the land and building associated with it.

Another purchase consisted of a property in Louisville with a pair of defunct distilleries in 1924; White Mills distillery and Lynndale distillery (the first dates to at least 1886 and the second was an expansion dating to around 1900). When Prohibition came to an end in 1933 a new distillery and new corporate offices were built on the site of the old White Mills and Lynnwood distilleries. Both Old Forester and Early Times were distilled at this facility.

 In 1940 Brown-Forman acquired the Old Kentucky distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which had been constructed in 1935. This facility became the new home of Early Times, and by 1953 it had been renamed to Early Times Distillery. It was dramatically expanded and modernized in 1955. At some time prior to that the Louisville plant had taken the name Old Forester Distillery. Then in 1979 production of Old Forester was moved to the Early Times distillery in Shively and from that point on the Louisville location was used only for bottling, warehousing and corporate office space. Around 2005 the Shively plant was renamed as the Brown-Forman Distillery.

For most of its history Old Forester was just, Old Forester. Then, in 2002 the brand introduced its first specialty bottling; Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. This is a vintage dated, small batch bourbon, selected from a single day of production and the labels state the “barreled” and “bottled” years. It is released each year on September 2nd to commemorate the birthday of George Garvin Brown. For 2014, the Birthday Bourbon represents about 20% of the Old Forrester produced on the selected day.

The ages have all been in the 12 to 13 year range. The alcohol level of each bottling has been between 47% and 49%, with the exception of the first few years. It was 43% in 2002, and there were actually two different batches in 2003; one distilled in the spring of 1990 and bottled at 46.5%, the other distilled in the fall of 1990 and bottled at 44.5%. While most specialty bourbon bottlings strive to have some degree of consistency from batch to batch, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is meant to be a unique expression the distillery’s style each year. I’ve had a mostly full 2008 bottle sitting on my shelf for quite a few years, so when my local watering hole got a few bottles of the 2014 release it was a perfect opportunity for a side-by-side tasting.

2008 Birthday Bourbon

nose – Very strong aromas, shoe polish and leather. Quite boozy smelling.
palate – There’s an initial hit of sweetness that is short lived. The candy corn opening quickly gives way to oak and saddle leather notes.
finish – It gets kind of hot and a little astringent early in the finish before pleasant warming spice notes emerge later on in the finish providing some redemption.
overall – The flavors do evolve, but it’s sort of one note at a time and it moves from one to the other in somewhat of a clumsy fashion. The bold and fiery finish was the most appealing part for me.

2014 Birthday Bourbon

nose – Still very aromatic, but not so aggressive as the 08. The shoe polish and leather character is here too, but with caramel and clay soil as well.
palate – Pronounced sweetness with maple syrup and caramel is nicely balanced by toasted oak, leather and a gentle nuttiness.
finish – A smooth and gradual transition leads it into the spice driven finish which is quite complex; cinnamon, ancho chile powder and turmeric all make subtle contributions.
overall – Very well mannered compared to the 08. Good integration and smooth transitions. The flavors are actually similar between the two, but the 14 is more refined and more complex although some might find it a little too tame in character.