Thursday, March 30, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 2

As noted in my previous post, dinner on the first night my stay Frankfort, KY left a little to be desired. When I got back to the hotel room I went online and started researching to see if I could find a better option for lunch the next day, and maybe even an impressive dinner for the last night of my two week vacation.

The search quickly led me to the discussion forum. I soon learned that Lexington, which is only 25 miles from Frankfort and has a much bigger population, tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the state’s capital city, at least in terms of nightlife and restaurant choices. One commenter mentioned that Frankfort has lots of dining options, all of which are chain restaurants; not really my cup of tea. Two names did come to my attention though, Capital Cellars and Serafini. It appeared that they were both well regarded for their food as well as their whiskey collections.

As I checked into the details of each establishment, I realized that Capital Cellars also offers retail liquor sales, which are focused primarily on American whiskey. Due to the time constraints of my visit to Kentucky, I had only planned on buying bottles from distillery shops rather than putting in the extra effort of hunting down stores where I could potentially find something special. A lunch spot that included a whiskey bar and retail sales was the perfect time saver.

My revised game plan for the day was to check out Capital Cellars between the morning tour at Four Roses and the afternoon tour at Buffalo Trace. Serafini would be my dinner destination, but if I liked what I saw behind the bar while having lunch, I could revisit Capital Cellars for a drink before dinner. The two businesses are a short walk from each other, located at opposite ends of the same block on West Broadway St. in Frankfort’s historic downtown.

After spending a good bit of time outside on a relatively cold winter morning during the Four Roses tour, I was ready to warm up with lunch. I sat at the bar at Capital Cellars and started to order tea when I realized that I was in the south and would need to specify that I wanted my tea to be hot and not sweet.

The space has a café-like feel. It’s quite casual, with a friendly staff and a menu that is simple but appealing. The whiskey collection lines the back bar and the bottles for retail sale against the same wall but to the left of the bar. Tables for dining are in an adjacent room with windows facing the street and another room behind that one houses a respectable selection of craft beer and wine.

I passed on having a bourbon with lunch since I was tasting samples on the tours, but the Virginia Baked Ham sandwich was just what I needed. As I ate, I saw enough interesting bottles behind the bar that I decided I would come back for a beverage in the evening. Once I was done eating, I wandered around the store for a bit, checking everything out before I honed in on the retail whiskey section.

One of the great misconceptions of many whiskey tourists visiting Kentucky for the first time is that they will find an abundance of limited, special release bottlings on local store shelves. Hard to find items like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, anything Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Four Roses Limited Edition (Small Batch and Single Barrel) are on allocation in Kentucky just like they are in every other state. If anything, those bottlings are even harder to get in their home state because a higher percentage of the population is aware of them and on the hunt.

So, what should one be on the lookout for when passing through the Bluegrass State? Worthwhile targets are solid performing, mid-shelf bottlings that offer strong value and aren’t widely distributed outside of Kentucky. Unfortunately, a few prime examples of this category were discontinued long enough before my visit that they had completely disappeared. Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year (not to be confused with AAA 10 Star) from Buffalo Trace went out of production toward the end of 2013 and Heaven Hill’s Very Special Old Fitzgerald was eliminated about a year later.

While I did see a few interesting looking labels at Capital Cellars, they were bottlings I wasn’t familiar with and high enough up the price scale that I wasn’t going to pull the trigger on any of them without having done some research. But I did find two bottles that fit my above noted criteria; Heaven Hill White Label, a bottled-in-bond, 6 year old bourbon, and Very Old Barton bottled-in-bond bourbon from Sazerac’s Barton 1792 distillery.

The VOB once carried a 6 year age statement, but that was dropped a few years ago. Unfortunately the “6” was left on the neck label while the words “aged” and “years” disappeared, which is quite disingenuous. Anyway, let’s see how they taste.

Very Old Barton, bottled in bond, non-age stated, 100 proof, $14:
The aromas a densely packed and well integrated. I’m getting lots of clay and saddle leather, with a hint of caramel balanced by dry, earthy notes. Some pretty assertive spice character jump right out on the palate entry. Everything stays pretty dry throughout, with pencil shavings and nuttiness playing off of a complex range of spice notes. It does go a little out of balance as it moves into the finish, with an odd bit of minerality coming to the fore (this seemed more offensive on the first sip, but was less obvious as I proceeded).

Heaven Hill, White Label, bottled in bond, 6 years old, 100 proof, $12:
The nose is more subdued than that of the Barton, but it shares a relatively dry profile. A little more oak comes through on the aromatics, and there’s a subtle mineral character which is similar to George Dickel #12. The flavor profile is definitely less spice-driven up front. Leathery oak notes are interlaced with subtle hints of pine and tobacco.
It does turn a little astringent on the mid-palate, but redemption comes when warming spice notes emerge to keep it lively on the finish.

Are there better whiskeys out there? Absolutely; but these are both interesting and perform respectably for their given price range.

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