Saturday, March 28, 2015

Woodford Reserve, Distiller's Select

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 45.2%, $37

In my last post, which covered 86 proof Old Forester, I discussed a few of the many acquisitions that Brown-Forman has made since the end of Prohibition. Now I’m going to look at another distillery, Woodford Reserve, which the company actually purchased two different times, in transactions that took place more than 50 years apart.

Located in Versailles, KY, the current Woodford distillery building was constructed in 1838, but Elijah Pepper had established his farm and distilling operation on the site in 1812. It is often mistakenly stated that distilling here dates to 1780; an inaccuracy that springs from the fact that Elijah Pepper began his distilling career in 1780. At that time he lived in Virginia though, and he didn’t relocate to Kentucky until 1797. He and his brother-in-law established a distillery in Versailles which they operated together for several years until Pepper started his new farm distillery in 1812, which was located about five miles away.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1831 leaving the distillery to his son, Oscar Pepper. In 1833 he hired Dr. James Crow as his master distiller. Crow held that position until his death 23 years later, and made many advances in the methods of bourbon production during his tenure. It was in this period that the distillery officially took the name Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, likely when the building dating to 1838 was constructed.

Oscar Pepper passed away in 1865 and the ownership of the distillery gets a little confusing from that point, as he left no will. His oldest son, James Pepper, who was 15 at the time, began running the distillery. The family leased the distillery to Gaines, Berry & Co. in 1867. When the court finally settled Oscar's estate in 1869 they divided it between his seven children. The portion of the property with the distillery (and everything else that made money) was given to his youngest son, O’Bannon, who was only seven years old. This was done so Oscar Pepper’s widow could be left in charge of the finances of the property. She extended the lease to Gaines, Berry & Co. by another two years at the start of 1870.

The official distillery name was not changed during this period, but due to the fame and reputation of Dr. Crow, the distillery may have sometimes been referred to as the Old Crow distillery while he was employed there and in the years following his death in 1856. Dr. Crow was paid with a share of the whiskey he distilled, and it's likely that the sold that liquid as Old Crow. Once Gaines, Berry & Co. took over the operation, Old Crow was revived as a brand.

In 1872 James Pepper sued his mother in order to take back control of the distillery. Two years later, James Pepper entered into an agreement with Col. E.H. Taylor, who provided capital for improvements to the distillery. Taylor had been a partner in Gaines, Berry & Co. when they leased the distillery, but he left the firm in 1870.

James Pepper declared bankruptcy in 1877, leaving Col. Taylor as the sole owner of the distillery. Shortly thereafter, Taylor was forced into bankruptcy himself. George T. Stagg, who had been one of Taylor’s creditors, paid off Taylor’s debts for pennies on the dollar and ended up with the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Later in 1878 he sold it to James Graham, who then partnered with Leopold Labrot.

In spite of a legal challenge from James Pepper after he emerged from bankruptcy, the new owners kept using the original name of the distillery, although it was amended slightly to Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. While the members of the partnership that owned the distillery changed several times over the following 62 years, the proprietorship continued using the Labrot & Graham name. The distillery was forced to close during Prohibition (1920-1933), leaving the buildings vacant and unused after much of the equipment was sold for salvage. At the end of this hiatus the company was re-established and the distillery rebuilt. As far as I can tell, it was at this time that the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery moniker stopped being used and the official name was changed to the Labrot & Graham Distillery.

Finally, in 1940, Brown-Forman purchased the distillery for the sum of $75,000. A series of improvements were made, increasing capacity. During this period the whiskey made there was primarily sold as Early Times bourbon. Early Times grew to become the best selling bourbon in America by the 1950’s, so the demand required that it be produced in the Versailles distillery in addition to Brown-Forman’s facility in Shively. Once the distillery in Shively was modernized and dramatically expanded in 1955, the days were numbered for the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Production ceased in 1957, but they continued to store whiskey in the warehouses until 1965. The mothballed distillery property was sold in 1973 to a local farmer who used it primarily for agricultural storage.

When the bourbon market showed signs of revitalization in the early 1990’s Brown-Forman began exploring the possibility of creating a premium bourbon using traditional methods. They investigated potential sites for this project and their old Labrot & Graham Distillery ended up being the most viable option. The property was repurchased in 1994, and Brown-Forman continued to call the facility the Labrot & Graham Distillery, as they had done through their first period of ownership.

During the two year restoration many of the historical aspects (in terms of architecture and production equipment) of the distillery were preserved or revived. The biggest nod to traditional techniques in the new distillery was the reintroduction of the use of copper pot stills. This is certainly how whiskey would have originally been made here, as the column still didn’t start to see widespread use until at least the mid 1830’s. I’ve only seen documentation that the distillery was using a column still some time prior to the start of Prohibition, but I think it is possible that the switch from pot stills to a column still happened as early as the 1838 construction of the new still house. The modern bourbon made here would be named Woodford Reserve, for the county in which the distillery is located.

It’s often rumored that Woodford Reserve is nothing more than over-priced Old Forester in a fancy bottle. While this rumor is not completely true, it does have some basis in fact. Not wanting to lose ground to their competitors, Brown-Forman chose to start building the brand for their new bourbon as soon as the distillery renovations were complete. Of course “straight” bourbon has to age for at least two years, so there was no way that the Woodford Reserve initially sold was a product of the new distillery. For several years it was in fact made up of the better barrels of bourbon from the Shively distillery that would have otherwise been used in Old Forester. Woodford Reserve is currently, and probably always will be a vatting of column still whiskey from Shively and pot still whiskey from Versailles. The reason this isn't likely to change is two-fold; the bourbon sold as Woodford can't be too dramatic of a departure from the whiskey the brand was built on, and because the Versailles distillery doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand for Woodford Reserve.

I did a bit of research and was able to glean some information about how Woodford Reserve has transformed over the years. The first 89 batches of Woodford were distilled solely at the Shively distillery. Batch 90 was the first one to have pot still whiskey from Versailles in the mix; that was released in May of 2003. As of 2005 there were numerous reports that Woodford Reserve was pretty inconsistent from batch to batch, and a well-respected source suggested it would likely be several years before the product had a consistent flavor profile. Somewhere around 2005 the batch size increased from 1000 cases to 5000 cases; a change that could only help the consistency issue.

The column still whiskey from Shively used in Woodford Reserve and the pot still whiskey from Versailles both use the same yeast and the same mash bill (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley) as Old Forester. The percentage of pot still whiskey in the mix varies from batch to batch as they try to attain the desired flavor profile. Brown-Forman doesn’t disclose these numbers, but in 2006 there was a claim on a discussion forum that it ranged from 25% to 50%. In 2010 a well-respected source stated that there was no difference between the barrels of column still whiskey that went into Woodford Reserve and those that went into Old Forester when those barrels were laid down. After a few years of aging in Shively, some barrels would be selected to finish aging in Versailles before they were used in Woodford. Although it carries no age statement, Woodford Reserve is said to be about 7 years old on average.

The annual limited release Master’s Collection from Woodford Reserve is always made up of 100% pot still whiskey, but those have each had unusual wood finishes or different grain recipes than the standard Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. And just one last historical footnote before my tasting notes; in 2003 the official name of the distillery in Versailles was quietly changed to the Woodford Reserve Distillery. That change went largely unnoticed and the “Labrot & Graham” name can still be found on every bottle.

The nose is not too intense, but focused and concentrated with a dark character – leather and shoe polish notes are prominent. On the palate it shows very good complexity. Leather, vanilla, cinnamon spice, oak, nuttiness and gentle sweetness are all well-integrated. It gently shifts to a drier, spicier character, with leather and charred oak as the prominent notes, as it transitions into the finish. All the while it maintains its complexity and the alcohol level stays in check. Overall, the flavors evolve gracefully with subtle transitions. It’s approachable but still has good depth and plenty of character.

Anyone who tells you that this is just over-priced Old Forester simply hasn’t tasted the two side by side.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Old Forester, 86 proof

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 43%, $22

I covered much of the history of the Old Forester brand and the Brown-Forman Corporation in my recent Birthday Bourbon post. There were a few points that I skipped over though, in part to keep that post from getting too long, but also because I wanted to save those topics for a few other bottles that were sitting on the old whiskey shelf.

First a slight correction; in the above mentioned post (which has since been updated) I stated that Old Forester was introduced in 1870. In actuality, the company that eventually came to be known as Brown-Forman was founded in 1870, but they sold whiskey by the barrel under several other brands before introducing Old Forester in 1873. In that post, I talked about the production of Old Forester transitioning through a variety of different distilleries during its long history, but didn’t cover some other changes that have happened along the way.

It was originally bottled at 90 proof and stayed that way until Prohibition. As I mentioned before, Brown-Forman was one of only a handful of companies that were able to obtain a license to sell medicinal whiskey during that dark period. Medicinal whiskey was a product that was highly regulated by the federal government, and one of the requirements was that it had to be Bottled in Bond. There are a few different regulations that a whiskey must conform to in order to qualify as being Bottled in Bond. One of the stipulations is that it must be bottled at 100 proof (50% abv), so Old Forester saw its proof go up at the dawn of Prohibition for the first time since its inception.

Brown-Forman chose to keep Old Forester as a Bottled in Bond product after Prohibition ended, but in 1959 they added an 86 proof bottling to the lineup. Then, around 2002 or 2003 the Bottled in Bond designation was dropped from the 100 proof version of Old Forester. Bonded whiskeys must be the product of one distillation season, so this change would have given the company a little more flexibility in terms of vatting together whiskeys with a wider variety of ages. In 2006 the 100 proof bottling was re-launched with new labeling as Old Forester Signature. The reasoning given was that the barrels were now being specially selected to produce a different flavor profile than the 86 proof bottling. In the past, the 86 proof Old Forester had just been a watered down version of the 100 proof bottling.

I’m going to taste the 86 Proof Old Forester today, but first I want to go off on a brief tangent. Since Prohibition ended, Brown-Forman has stayed on a significant path of growth which has been fueled by a steady stream of acquisitions. I’m just going to consider a few of them here.

In 1945 they purchased the Louisville, KY facilities of the Wood Mosaic Company. The plant dated to the early 1920’s and had started as a furniture factory. At the onset of World War II, it was converted to make rifle stocks for the British and plywood parts for military aircraft. After the war, Brown-Forman transformed the factory into a cooperage so they could make their own whiskey barrels. This facility was named Bluegrass Cooperage, but in 2009 it was renamed as the Brown-Forman Cooperage.

Another important acquisition happened in 1955, with the purchase of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. Why is the significant? Well, Jack Daniel’s may have just been a small regional distillery at the time (producing only 200,000 cases of whiskey per year), but Brown-Forman was able to grow the brand into the best selling American whiskey by 1996. Worldwide case sales for the brand were up to 8.9 million in 2006 and they hit 12.4 million cases in 2012, vastly outpacing Brown-Forman’s other whiskey brands.

Making that much whiskey takes an awful lot of barrels. The Bluegrass Cooperage had long supplied barrels to distilleries outside of the Brown-Forman family, but the growth of Jack Daniel’s put and end to that practice in 2006. The company announced that it would build a second cooperage in Alabama in mid 2012, and that facility went online two years later, in mid 2014. The facility, named Jack Daniel’s Cooperage, won’t be up to full capacity until at least the end of 2015, but once it reaches that point it will match the output of Brown-Forman Cooperage. The company is presently still only producing new barrels for its own use, and I’ve been told that is unlikely to change in the next two to three years (that was the personal opinion of an employee, not an official company statement).

While there are a handful of other barrel producers, all of them operate on a very small scale, with one exception. That one exception is the Independent Stave Company. Started in 1912 as a stave and barrel head producer, Independent Stave expanded into bourbon barrel manufacturing in 1951. Eventually the lion’s share of the barrels produced in the US were coming from either Brown-Forman or Independent Stave. Once Brown-Forman stopped doing external barrel sales in 2006, Independent Stave, with its two cooperages (Lebanon, KY and Lebanon, MO), was really the only game in town for all of the other whiskey distillers.

Then, in the March of 2014 the online store section of Independent Stave’s website had a message stating that they had current customers on allocation and were unable to take new orders. It also said that they hoped to be able to address new inquiries within 6 to 12 months. By December of 2014 that message had been updated to say 9 to 12 months, and it as of today it has not changed. The barrel shortage is here and it is real.

Where this story really gets interesting is with a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn that I got a few months ago. This came from a gentleman in China who owns a company that produces oak barrels. They seem to be focused on wine barrels now, but surely the whiskey industry will be in their sights soon (and if not them, I’d imagine a similar company will try to fill the void).

And that brings up a whole host of intriguing questions. Does the species of oak that is native to northern Japan (Mizunara, aka Quercus mongolica var. crispula) and used by their whisky industry also grow in China? Are there other oak species growing in China that are suitable for barrel making? How will the quality control of Chinese made barrels be? How much of a cost savings will a producer see with Chinese barrels? Will barrel origin become a selling point for American whiskeys? Currently, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; will the laws be updated to only allow American Oak?

Okay, back on track and on to the whiskey.

The nose has moderate intensity and shows notes of grain, leather and dry spice, along with a good hit of alcohol. On the palate it is mild up front, but rapidly picks up stream as it moves along. There’s a prominent but short-lived wave of sweetness on the mid-palate (candy corn and maple sugar) which is quickly followed by leather and a touch of oak. On the finish it quickly turns dry and spicy with the heat from the alcohol becoming more dominant. Wood and spice notes carry it along late in the finish, but it does fall a little flat at the very end. Overall it’s a little clumsy as it transitions from start to finish, but I’d still call it a respectable glass of whiskey.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oban, 18 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $158

My current employers are wise enough to not pass up a good resource that is at their disposal. So after less than six months of employment they asked me select new single malts for their existing restaurant and pick the Scotches that they would feature in their soon-to-open, second location. Neither establishment is particularly whisky-centric, so the single malt groupings had to be small, focused and well-selected. A little more than a year after the opening of the second, larger outlet, I was asked to put together a short list of potential additions to their Scotch collection from a higher price range. The only caveat was that it had to be something with good brand recognition.

That was actually kind of a tough exception for me. I’m not all that fond of many of the more easily recognized whisky brands for a variety of reasons. The other single malts I had previously chosen were picked to fit a theme of having been produced by traditional methods, at least to some degree (long fermentation, slow distillation, floor malting, direct-fire stills, worm tubs, non-chill filtration, etc), and I wanted to stick to that if possible. Adding a flavor profile that would compliment what we already had on offer was something to be considered as well.

Being in a small liquor-control state also puts some limitations on what is available. My short list was pretty short; just four selections from three producers (well, I also tacked on one more without much name recognition, just to hold true to my principles). The selection that eventually came out on top was 18 year Oban.

Of the twenty-something malt distilleries owned by Diageo, Oban is the second smallest, with a capacity of 670,000 liters per year. Just to put that into perspective, Caol Ila, Diageo’s workhorse on Islay puts out 6.5 million liters per year, and two of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, Kilchoman and Edradour are at 100,000 liters per year.

When the distillery was established in 1794, the town of Oban was a small fishing village with a minimal population that was just starting to establish other industries, such as shipbuilding, trading and quarrying. Further growth of the town was fuelled by its connection to Glasgow by rail in 1880. Today Oban has a population of 8500 people. That may not seem like a lot, but the fact that it is the largest town on Scotland’s west coast and its dense, compact layout make Oban have more of an urban feel than one might expect. Oban’s bay allows it to serve as a major ferry port, acting as a hub to many of the Hebridean islands, and supporting tourism, which has been its principal industry for the last 60 years.

The town grew and developed through the 19th and 20th centuries with the distillery at its center. This has left the facility unable to expand in modern times, limiting Oban to its current capacity. I’ve actually found a few references from 10 to 15 years ago stating that 80 percent of Oban’s production went to blends. I couldn’t find a current figure, but I’m sure that number has shifted downward since then allowing for the growth in popularity of Oban as a single malt. I’ve also seen older references to Oban using bourbon barrels for three or four cycles, but during my visit to the distillery three years ago I was told that they use second fill bourbon barrels exclusively. This focus on cask management is another indication that they are shifting away from using the whisky in blends.

As for modernization, Oban stopped using their traditional floor maltings in 1968, and when they shut down from 1969 to 1972 and rebuilt the stillhouse, the stills were converted from being direct fired with coal to using internal steam coils. Importantly though, the worm tubs were retained and the fermentation times were kept relatively long, at four days. These factors certainly have an impact on the character of modern Oban.

Originally released as a distillery bottled single malt in the late 1970’s, Oban started off as a 12 year old at 40% abv. In 1987 they transitioned to a 14 year old at 43% abv, which is still their flagship, and is easily Oban’s most widely available single malt. There have been quite a few other bottlings from the distillery over the years though.

In the early 1990’s there were three bottlings under the “Manager’s Dram” title; a 13 year, a 16 year and a 19 year. All three were sherry cask matured and bottled at cask strength. These were apparently special bottlings for employees and friends of the distillery, and not released to the general public.

In 1998, Oban began annual releases of the “Distiller’s Edition”, a series that is used for many of the Diageo owned single malts. In the case of Oban it is aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in Montilla Fino butts. The first release was about 20 years old, but the ages drifted down over the next five releases and since then they have been aged 14 years plus an additional 6 to 18 months finishing time. Currently 300 casks are set aside each year for the Distiller’s Edition.

In 2002 there was a limited release (6000 bottles) of 32 year Oban which was distilled in 1969. It was matured in sherry butts and bottled at 55.1% abv. The original retail price was $350, but any that are still floating around out there today will cost at least $1000.

In 2004 the distillery put out another limited release (1260 bottles). This one was aged in bourbon barrels for 20 years and bottled at 57.9% abv.

18 year Oban was initially introduced as a limited release (about 8800 bottles) in 2008, matured in bourbon barrels, bottled at 43% and retailed for $150. It was exclusive to the U.S. and the distillery shop.

Another exclusive to the distillery shop first appeared in 2010. This one was a non-age stated cask strength bottling.

Then, at the end of 2011, Oban announced that the 18 year would return as a regular part of the standard lineup, though limited in production and exclusive to the U.S. market. The distillery now sets aside 300 casks each year for this bottling. I’ll spare you the boring math details, but that works out to about 60,000 bottles per year. Looking online I see an unusually broad range of prices for 18 year Oban, from $95 to $185. The price listed up top of $158 is the going rate here in Vermont.

2013 saw the release of a limited (2860 bottles) release of 21 year Oban, matured in a mix of bourbon barrels and sherry casks, bottled at 58.5% and selling for $385.

I also mentioned the 2014 introduction of Oban “Little Bay” here.

Before tasting the 18 year Oban I sat down with a glass of the flagship 14 year to reacquaint myself with it for the sake of comparison. It certainly has a malty core, but with more of a lighter, softer, honeyed character (as opposed to some other single malts that have more dense, molasses and baking spice aspect to their malt signature). Orange citrus notes, a subtle floral aspect, a touch of brine and soft peat notes all round out the profile.

With the 18 year Oban, the nose is less malty, with a little more oak showing. It’s also more delicate / elegant, and the aromas are a bit more harmonious. On the palate, the primary notes are similar to those of the 14 year. Honeyed malt, citrus (primarily orange), delicate peat smoke and a touch of brine are all there but toned down and the oak character is a little more prominent. It turns slightly floral (more so than the 14 year) as it moves into the warming, spicy finish. Overall, this is not a dramatic departure from the 14 year, but more of a pleasant refinement of it.

This is essentially what I was expecting, considering that the two are bottled at the same proof and matured in the same type of casks, with just a 29% increase in age. With the 18 year, you’re paying a premium more for the rarity of an older Oban than you are for a significant shift in the flavor profile. This is a good example of why a lot of Scottish malt distillers have started to use increasing proportions of sherry cask maturation (and sometimes higher alcohol levels) as they move up the age range of their offerings. It makes it much easier for them to justify the significantly higher prices of their older bottlings.