Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jim Beam Rye, Yellow label vs. Green label

Jim Beam Rye, yellow label: Straight Rye Whiskey, 40%, $19
Jim Beam Rye, green label: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 45%, $21

The lineup of whiskeys offered by the Jim Beam distillery has been expanding and evolving for several years now. When I recently noticed the new green label in stark contrast to the former yellow label on their eponymous rye bottling, I immediately looked to see if the liquid inside might be different or if they had simply updated the packaging. Two things instantly stood out: the proof had risen from 80 to 90, and they were now calling it “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

The fact that they upped the proof from its former anemic level was certainly welcome news, but what of this “pre-Prohibition style” business? Let’s do a little historical overview and at the same time dispel the widely believed myths that rye was the dominant style of American whiskey up until Prohibition and that Prohibition was entirely responsible for its demise.

Looking back to Colonial times (pre-1776), whiskey production was largely a secondary farming activity, and it was concentrated in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia (New England had a booming rum industry at the time which was fueled by the supply of inexpensive molasses from the Caribbean). Rye was the main ingredient of that early American whiskey because it was the grain that grew best in that mid-Atlantic portion of the colonies.

The trickle of settlers who migrated west of the Appalachians before the American Revolution had turned into a flood after that seminal event. When farmers (which most people were in those times) expanded westward, so did distilling. But the fertile, newly settled lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were much better suited to growing corn than other grains. The style of whiskey that emerged from this new distilling frontier eventually came to be known as Bourbon. Its production was centered in Kentucky, but it was also made in surrounding states such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

Aging whiskey in charred oak barrels had become standard practice in the U.S. by the early to mid 1800’s, significantly transforming the product. By the middle of the 19th century whiskey distilling was transitioning into an industry in its own right, rather than simply being a facet of farming activity. This held true both east and west of the Appalachians, but most of the growth in the industry happened in the west. While the eastern distillers focused on supplying their nearby population centers, the western distillers had access to river networks that led to the Mississippi and ultimately the important New Orleans market. Later, the new railroads also gave them access to markets further west. Fertile soils supporting high yielding corn crops allowed the western distillers to take advantage of this growth potential.

Most of the commercial distillers in Kentucky and its surrounding states also made rye whiskey, but almost always in very small quantities relative to their mainstay, Bourbon. Overall, rye was the leading American whiskey style being made before the Civil War (1861-1865), but Bourbon production outpaced rye from that point onward. Rye’s share of production ranged from 60% to 85% between 1790 and 1810, but its share had dropped to 38% by 1878. While Prohibition wasn’t solely responsible for the near death of rye whiskey, it certainly expedited the process. That period was tough on all distillers but the eastern rye producing region was hit particularly hard, with only a handful of Pennsylvania’s 3000 distilleries surviving Prohibition. That thirteen year stretch and the following decades were a time of great consolidation in the industry. Most of the popular eastern rye brands were bought up by the few surviving companies and production was moved to their distilleries in Kentucky.

There’s in interesting point of distinction that I haven’t mentioned yet though. The rye whisky produced by the new distilleries west of the Appalachians was made in a fashion similar to Bourbon, while the eastern distillers held on to their old traditions and even refined the process in some ways, essentially leading to two distinct styles of American rye whisky.

The first difference was corn. Most of the eastern ryes being made by the end of the 19th century had no corn in their mashbills; they were primarily rye with some barley malt, and some had a bit of malted rye. If any of them did have corn in the mix it would have been a very small percentage. The western ryes were made in corn country and had quite a bit of it in their mashbills. Their rye content would have been at or slightly above the 51% minimum required and they would have had some malted barley (5% to 10%) for its enzyme content. But the remaining percentage was corn.

The next difference was the sour mash process. This was a technique that bourbon producers had come up with where some of the spent stillage from the previous distillation is added to the next mash. This is done to adjust the pH level making a more hospitable environment for the yeast that will be added. The western distillers applied this new method to their rye whiskeys while the eastern distillers stuck with the traditional sweet mash approach.

The third difference was the stills. When the western distillers scaled up and modernized, they switched over from pot stills to column stills. In the early 1800’s eastern distillers came up with a new still design that fell somewhere between the two mentioned above; the “three-chambered still”. This was an arrangement of three pot stills housed within a wooden column. Live steam was injected directly into the pots to strip off alcohol, and each pot would feed the next.

While Bourbon took over as America’s prominent whisky after the Civil War, the western distillers were only making small amounts of rye, leaving the bulk of the country’s rye whisky production (and leading brands) in the eastern states up until Prohibition. One could easily make the argument that this late 19th century / early 20th century eastern style of rye is what actually defines “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

So, is this new Jim Beam Rye truly “pre-Prohibition style”? The short answer is no. The folks at Beam don’t disclose their mashbills, but it’s widely accepted that the one rye recipe they have used for many, many years is at or near the 51% rye mark. If they had done something so remarkable as coming out with a second rye recipe with little or no corn, or made a sweet-mash whiskey or set up a three-chamber still, any of those would be a huge selling point. It would also be something well worth screaming about in their marketing.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not saying that they’re lying. The term “pre-Prohibition style” isn’t legally defined anywhere. What I’ve laid out above is a historical perspective of what the term should mean. The Beam family has been making rye whiskey since before Prohibition (albeit primarily in the western style), making them somewhat entitled to put the term on their label. But it’s highly unlikely that the stuff in this bottle is any different than what was in the bottle with the yellow label, aside from having 5% more alcohol.

Why put the pre-Pro terminology on the label now? Craft cocktail culture is currently one of the prime drivers of rye whiskey sales. If you want to make an authentic whiskey cocktail from a pre-Prohibition recipe you’ll need a bottle of rye. A “pre-Prohibition style” rye will be that much more appealing.

Fortunately I’ve had a nearly full bottle of Beam’s yellow labeled rye kicking around on my whiskey shelf since some time in 2006, so I can do a proper side by side. I should also mention that at some point Beam had updated the “traffic safety” yellow label to a more easy-on-the-eyes, muted brownish-yellow label, but as far as I know the whiskey remained the same through that change.

Yellow label:
I really love the aromatics on this whiskey. There’s a lot going on, but it’s not very assertive – subtle complexity. Well rounded spice notes, a little bit floral, some clay and a hint of oaky sweetness.
Unfortunately the palate can’t keep the promises made by the nose. The flavor development just doesn’t come together. It starts off kind of flat, and then shows a brief moment of promise on the mid-palate with some gentle spice and subtle floral notes, before it goes out of balance and turns hot as it moves into the finish.
Some burnt toast notes stand out later on the finish. It’s not horrible, but comes across as being poorly integrated and is mostly disappointing because the nose showed so much potential.

Green label:
The nose seems to be less complex but fuller and still well composed. The spice and floral aromas have an interesting pine note riding along with them.
This one is a little more agreeable on the palate. The spice notes are complex with cinnamon red hots, pine and a touch of mint. The “Beam funk” that is a characteristic of their house yeast definitely comes through. I know that this is a polarizing trait and it’s one that I don’t love, but I find it less offensive here than I do in their Bourbon. I think the rye notes are able to balance it out to a certain degree.
The finish is lengthy with some nice spicy warmth. Everything is pretty well integrated here. Opinions of this whiskey are going to be very dependent on personal preferences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kilchoman Tasting

In light of the loss of Port Ellen (1983) and the near losses of Ardbeg (mothballed 1981-1989) and Bruichladdich (mothballed 1993-2001), it was a pretty big deal when Kilchoman opened in December of 2005 as the first new distillery built on Islay in 124 years. My first experience with Kilchoman was their Spring 2011 Release, a bottle which I had purchased in the fall of that year and finally sampled shortly before my trip to Scotland in the spring of 2012.

I was quite impressed by this young offering, especially considering its age (70% 3 year and 30% 4 year). Making a pilgrimage to and taking a tour of the Kilchoman distillery had become a top priority of the four days I would spend on Islay. Fortunately their gift shop was well stocked with a nice variety of miniatures. In addition to the 700 ml Sherry Cask Release bottle that I bought there, I also picked up 50 ml bottles of the Winter 2010 Release and Inaugural 100% Islay (reviewed here) as well as the 2006 Vintage and 2012 Machir Bay (reviewed here).

When I recently received an email from the Burgundy Lion in Montreal detailing their upcoming tastings, the Kilchoman event hosted by Anthony Wills, the distillery’s founder, immediately caught my attention. As the distillery had started out selling some very young whiskies, I was really curious to see how their products had evolved over the last three and a half years. The average age of their bottlings has crept up a little every year, but they do have to sell a pretty good amount of whisky to keep the operation going, so they’re certainly not offering a range of 9 year olds as the distillery approaches the 10th anniversary of the start of production.

Before I get into the individual whiskies, I’ll touch on some of the insights that I gained from the man who established the business. Starting an independent distillery from scratch is no easy task. Mr. Wills knew this, but as an independent bottler he also knew that it was getting harder and harder to source quality whisky and that distillery ownership was the best way to secure a future in the industry. Understanding that the reputable name of an established single malt brand can be a big asset to an independent bottler, he also realized how important the Islay “brand” and location would be to a new distillery, and he wisely chose to locate there.

The biggest challenge would be finding investors; trying to start a brand new distillery was almost unheard of 10-plus years ago and the return on investment would come on a very long time scale. He was able to pull together £1 million; just enough to get the distillery built. Once the vision had a physical manifestation, it was a little easier to attract more capital to keep the place running and growing. The total investment to date has been £10 million. That’s quite a leap of faith.

Having a respectable product to sell early on would be critical to keeping the place going. Wills had the foresight to bring on Dr. James Swan as a consultant with the objective of creating a spirit that would mature quickly. They targeted a style that would be light, clean and fruity. I’m sure every aspect of the process was scrutinized, but the small stills with tall, narrow necks were chosen to maximize copper contact with this goal in mind. The almost exclusive use of 1st fill casks is also an important part of the equation (we were told at the tasting that Kilchoman only uses 1st fill Bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery and fresh Sherry casks from the same source as Glenfarclas, but I know some of their early bottlings were aged at least partially in refill Bourbon barrels).


Kilchoman has charted a steady course for growth. Production in 2006, their first full year, was 50,000 liters of alcohol. I believe it was a little over 110,000 in 2012, and we were told that they were likely to come in at 170,000 for 2015 and were forecasting 200,000 liters for 2016. Production will max out at 250,000 liters per year with the current set of stills.

The original idea was for this to be a complete farm distillery, with all of the barley grown on site and malted in house. They quickly realized that this wasn’t feasible but kept the concept alive for one whisky. Their 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown on a neighboring farm (which they have since bought, bringing that part of the process under their control too) and malted to 20 parts-per-million phenols on a traditional floor malting. The other 80% of their barley, which is used for all of the other bottlings, comes from the Port Ellen malting facility and is peated to 50 ppm.

Kilchoman also does their own bottling and 100% of the whisky they produce ends up as single malt; none of it goes into blends. Everything they bottle in non-chill filtered and natural color.

One of the big questions that I had (and it must be a common question because it was answered before anyone asked it) was “what is the end game in terms of the level of maturation they will eventually build up to?” The answer was 8 to 12 years. Until they have whisky in that age range, they won’t really know where the sweet spot is though. I did get the impression that Anthony was leaning toward the younger part of that estimate as being more likely though. This seems pretty reasonable to me considering how well their spirit performs even down around 4 years of age. Also, looking back to the 1980’s and 1990’s, 8 year old single malts were actually quite common before they were lost to an arms race of increasing age statements.

Of course we’ve now moved into unprecedented boom times and those higher age statements can’t be sustained, so non-age stated single malts are becoming the norm. While Kilchoman has never used official age statements on their labels, preferring to let the whisky stand for itself, they’ve always been very forthright with the age information on their website. Anthony made the very good point that it’s much better to have started without age statements than to have built a reputation around them and then find yourself in a position where you have to eliminate them and try to put a positive spin on the change, as many distillers are now doing.

First up was the 100% Islay bottling. The miniature of this offering that I got at the distillery was the inaugural edition, bottled in 2010 and aged just three years. For the event we tasted the 5th edition which was released in May of 2015. This latest edition is a 5 year old, coming from barrels filled in 2009 and 2010. In both cases the whisky was aged solely in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and bottled at 50% abv.

The nose is very aromatic, with fresh peat smoke, sea spray and fish nets.
On the palate there is a moderate peat level accompanied by tree fruit with a slightly floral edge.
The finish shows good length.
Overall it is clean and well-integrated, with good intensity but not too assertive.

Next up was the Machir Bay bottling, which is Kilchoman’s core expression and accounts for 20% of their sales. The miniature of this bottling that I picked up at the distillery was from the initial release that came out in 2012. Back then it was a vatting of 3 year (60%), 4 year (35%) and 5 year (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and the 4 year old having spent another 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The 2013 bottling was a vatting of 4 and 5 year old Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old being finished in Oloroso Sherry butts for 4 weeks.

For the event, I’m not sure if we tasted the 2014 or the 2015 Machir Bay (I never saw the bottle), but I believe it was the former. We were told that it was a 5 year old, 90% of which was aged in Bourbon barrels and 10% in Oloroso Sherry casks. The Kilchoman website describes the 2014 as a vatting of 5 and 6 year old Bourbon barrels and Oloroso Sherry butts. There’s no info on the site about the 2015 bottling but I did find a review online claiming that it is aged 5.5 years in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and finished for 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks, giving a total age of 6 years. All of the Machir Bay bottlings have been at 46% abv.

Compared to the 100% Islay, the nose has fuller, deeper peat smoke aromas, but still with plenty of maritime character.
On the palate the peat is bigger and more robust, with the fruit character dropping into the background.
The smoky notes reverberate and evolve through the lengthy finish.
Surprisingly, this one came across with less apparent maturity than the 100% Islay.

The third whisky of the event was Kilchoman’s Original Cask Strength. This one is from a release of 9200 bottles that came out late in 2014, and as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a 2015 release to date. Aside from a small number of single cask bottlings, this is the distillery’s first cask strength offering, so it has no equivalent among the earlier samples I was able to try. At 59.2% abv, this is a 5 year old coming from a vatting of 35 Bourbon barrels that were all filled in 2009.

The nose has an intense campfire-like smokiness. It has somewhat restrained coastal qualities, with aromas of fresh, wet beach grass thrown on to burning driftwood.
It’s big and assertive on the palate. Pine and wintermint are mingled in with the peat smoke adding nice complexity.
The smoke becomes a bit sooty in nature as the flavors evolve into the finish.
Adding a few drops of water helps to reveal greater depth.

The fourth and final whisky we tasted was the 2015 bottling of Loch Gorm, which is the version of Kilchoman aged exclusively in Sherry casks. There were Loch Gorm releases in 2014 and 2013 as well. The Sherry Cask Release bottle that I acquired at the distillery was essentially the 2012 predecessor to the Loch Gorm series. These have all been bottled at 46% after aging exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The Sherry Cask Release was aged for 5 years in butts with 6000 bottles produced. The 2013 Loch Gorm was a release of 10,000 bottles and was aged for 5 years in butts with a further 6 weeks in hogsheads. The 2014 Loch Gorm was a release of 17,000 bottles aged for 5 years in butts. The 2015 Loch Gorm is slightly older with a mix of casks filled in 2010 and 2009, all of which were at least 5 years old. 10,000 bottled were produced from a mix of butts and hogsheads.

The nose has lovely, rich 1st fill Sherry cask notes beautifully integrated with the aromas of smoldering peat embers.
The palate has a nice back and forth between the peat smoke and lush Sherry fruit.
Overall it shows good depth, complexity and length.

I mentioned above that I had sampled the Winter 2010 Release and the Spring 2011 Release. I was curious what had happened to this series, so I did a little research and learned there had been four other bottlings. The Inaugural 2009 Release was the distillery’s first general release and had a total of 8450 bottles. It, along with the Autumn 2009 Release and the Spring 2010 Release, was aged about 3 year in Bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks (6 months, 2.5 months and 3.5 months, respectively). The Summer 2010 Release and Winter 2010 Release were each aged for more then 3 years, solely in Bourbon barrels. The Spring 2011 Release was a vatting of 3 year old (70%) and 4 year old (30%) aged in Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 5 weeks in Oloroso Sherry casks. These were all bottled at 46% abv. Looking back it is quite obvious that this series of bottlings was the predecessor to the Machir Bay offerings.

The 2006 Vintage release was another of the miniatures I picked up at the distillery, and that series has continued on. These are aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels and bottled at 46%. They have been released every other year, but the age of the whisky has gone up by a full year with each new release. The 2006 Vintage was bottled in 2011 as a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage was released in 2013 as a 6 year old, and the 2008 Vintage was released in 2015 as a 7 year old.

A good variety of single cask bottlings have come from the distillery over the years, but each is quite rare by their nature. Aside from everything discussed above, the only other general releases to date have been the Port Cask Matured bottling (fall 2014) and the Madeira Cask Matured bottling (fall 2015). These were both distilled in 2011 and aged exclusively in their namesake cask types. Each release was at 55% abv with a yield of about 6000 bottles.

It was a pleasure to revisit the Kilchoman whiskies almost four years after seeing the distillery in person. Their offerings are progressing nicely and the nearly-10-year-old distillery looks like it is on the path to fulfilling its potential.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Upcoming Scotch Tasting

I'll be hosting a Scotch tasting at Doc Ponds restaurant in Stowe, Vermont, on Sunday, November 22nd at 6:00 PM. The $40 price includes food, five single malts and me talking for two hours. I'll be discussing Scotland's distilling regions, their historical origins and their significance in the modern era.

The malts that I've selected to represent the five regions are:
Auchentoshan Select (Lowlands)
Oban 14 year (Highlands)
Glenfarclas 12 year (Speyside)
Springbank 10 year (Campbeltown)
Ardbeg 10 year (Islay)

All of the tastings that I've conducted to date have been private events; this is the first one that is open to the public, but we are limiting it to 20 people. As of a few days ago, only eight spaces were still available. If you'd like to sign up, sending a message through the Doc Ponds Facebook page is the preferred method, but if you're not on Facebook you could also call the restaurant.

If the response is strong and all goes well, this may turn into a regular series of tastings (I'm guessing once or twice a month with a break during the busy summer season).