Sunday, April 30, 2017

Scotland 2017, an introduction

Five years ago, almost to the day, I was mid-way through my inaugural visit to Scotland. On that Sunday I journeyed by car and ferry from Islay to Campbeltown, on the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula. Now, on this Sunday, I fly from Boston to Glasgow for my long-overdue return to the heartland of Europe’s distilling industry.

Springbank’s Whisky School was the impetus for the original pilgrimage. With one week already occupied, I only had to plan out an itinerary for the other week that I added on to the trip. A stay on Islay was an obvious choice since I’d be driving right past the ferry terminal as I made my way south. Wanting to see something a little off the beaten path (in terms of whisky tourism at least), I soon decided to spend a few nights in Tobermory (with its namesake distillery), on the Isle of Mull. A few distillery tours and a night in Oban on the way there rounded out my plans and then I just had to make a schedule of tours for the days on Islay.

This time around it was a little different; I was starting with a blank slate. The only must-see distilleries for me were Edradour and Glenfarclas. With so many options available and a full two weeks to work with, I found myself in a terrible state of indecisiveness. I considered focusing almost exclusively on Speyside, but I soon realized that even though the area is dense with distilleries, many of them do not offer tours. Feeling the need for some structure to work around, I finally opted to include an island expedition. The general plan was to head north, so all the way to the Orkney Islands I would go.

After that it was just a matter of planning out a route north that would allow me to tour a few distilleries each day while not involving more than a few hours of driving between the overnight stays. Once I got back to the mainland I could camp out in Speyside for several days, then finally head south for one last night closer to the airport.

Countless hours were spent pouring over distillery web sites to find tour schedules, getting drive times from Google maps, reserving appropriate lodging, booking ferry travel and even researching some non-whisky related tourism. It got a bit overwhelming at points, but I think I’ve put together an itinerary that would make Alfred Barnard proud.

My intent is make daily posts on the blog, but not to spend too much time writing. I’m hoping to put up a brief recap of each day; where I went, what I saw and did, and most importantly what I drank, along with a few photos. In the ensuing months I’ll follow up with posts that go into much greater detail. I’ll be visiting distilleries that are very well-known as well as some that keep a much lower profile. I also have a few special tours lined up that I’m really excited about. I hope you’ll follow along.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 4

On the last night I would be staying in Frankfort, Kentucky, I was at Capital Cellars a little beyond their official closing time of 9:00. By the time I made my way over to Serafini it was probably getting close to 9:30, but fortunately they serve food until 10:00. Once I had settled in with dinner and a beer, the server who had originally waited on me let me know that her shift was ending and that she would be passing my care off to the closing bartender.

At some point he struck up a conversation and enquired about where I was visiting from and the nature of my journey. When I mentioned that I was a whiskey tourist he excitedly told me that I should introduce myself to a gentleman who was part of a group of people sitting behind me; he was the second biggest whiskey collector in the county. I was intrigued, but I was also in the middle of making tasting notes for the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I was sipping on. Not only that, but the group seemed rather large and boisterous and I was feeling semi-introverted, so I decided not to mind the barman’s suggestion.

As time passed, the group dwindled down to the gentleman in question and just a few others. The bartender seemed to know him well and was quite insistent that we meet, finally taking it upon himself to facilitate an introduction. I conceded and made my way over to the high top tables in the bar area. We found common ground with our shared interest in whiskey pretty quickly.  The initial conversation was about our respective collections. My Scotch-heavy, 100-plus bottle quiver was admittedly humble compared to the nearly 1000 bottles of mostly American whiskey he had amassed. He was, however, impressed that I still had a mostly full bottle of E. H. Taylor, Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon, and also seemed appreciative of the rare single malt holdings I mentioned; a 33 year Bruichladdich Legacy and an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist among them.

His collection had great depth and breadth, even though a very high percentage of it came from the Buffalo Trace distillery. The one that really caught my attention though was an A. H. Hirsch 16 year old (this is the famous bourbon that was distilled in 1974 at the Michter’s Distillery, near Schaefferstown, PA). The best I could do was mention the notable releases that had already come and gone from my collection; the 10, 12, 15 and 20 old Van Winkle bottlings, the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Rediscovered Barrels (17, 19 and 21 years old), and each of the Antique Collection expressions.

The conversation eventually meandered over to my home state. He was exited to learn that I was from Vermont, mentioning that he had visited Burlington over the summer as one of his children was looking at UVM as a prospective college. He had actually eaten dinner in the sister restaurant of the one that I work in and had stayed in the hotel it shares a building with. His trip also included a visit to a whiskey bar I’ve sat at more than once, where he and his wife polished off their bottle of Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon.

It was getting late on a Thursday night, and new friend then asked what I was doing for the next couple of days, intimating that an invitation to examine his collection over the weekend was forthcoming. Sadly, I had to inform him that I was leaving for home in the morning. The clock was nearing midnight, but I needed to be patient to see where this might go. He needled me a little more about the possibility of sticking around a bit longer, but there was no way to extend my stay as I really had to show up for work on Saturday afternoon. I’m not one to try to invite myself over to someone’s house, especially someone I hardly know, but given the circumstances it didn’t seem inappropriate to suggest that I was willing to go see the collection that night, as long as that was amenable to him, and more importantly to his wife.

With spousal approval, my plans to get a good night’s sleep prior to the 15 hour drive home were blown apart. They explained that their house was quite a few miles outside of town, along some winding, narrow back roads. I agreed to follow them carefully after fetching my car from the other end of the block, and we were off. Much like Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, you don’t have to drive very far out of Frankfort before finding yourself on a dirt road that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere.

We eventually arrived at our destination and I was welcomed into their spacious, modern home. After a few brief pleasantries were exchanged, glassware was retrieved and a bottle of Thomas H. Handy Rye appeared seemingly from nowhere. The label showed it to be at 132.4 proof, indicating that it was from the 2012 release. We sipped on that beast of a whiskey as the conversation continued on.

At some point, the question was posed; “So, do you want to see the collection?” Of course I did! We made our way to the cellar where two tables (each roughly the size of a ping-pong table) were covered with boxes of whiskey bottles, and more were on the floor for a lack of a better place to put them. Some were packaged individually, others in cases of up to 12 bottles. There seemed to be an endless supply of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year and 20 year bottles. I believe every vintage of the Antique Collection was represented as well as every release from Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection and Single Oak Project; multiple bottles of many, if not all of them. Bottlings from the Frankfort-based distillery dominated the collection, but there were plenty of rare and special selections from other American distilleries too.

Then came the grand question; “So, what do you want to drink?” Two weeks earlier I had set off in search of whiskey adventure, but never could have imagined myself in this scenario. With so many splendid choices before me, that was no easy decision. It would have to be something I had never had before, and something I was unlikely to have the opportunity to taste again. I pondered briefly before coyly stating “A. H. Hirsch.” My new friend shook his head and said apologetically “I’m sorry, I can’t open that.” I smiled and told him that I had assumed that would be the answer, but I had to ask. “So, what else do you want to drink?” was the follow-up.

I started sliding bottles out of boxes to examine labels and soon gravitated to the short, 375 ml Experimental Collection bottles. I came across the Rediscovered Barrels bottlings, which I had purchased myself back in 2011. Then I pulled a few that had been made with oats and rice in their mash bills and remembered seeing some not-so-great reviews of them. Finally, something caught my eye; the 23 year old Giant French Oak Barrel bottling (at 135 gallons, this is about 2.5 times the size of a typical bourbon barrel). With my host’s approval, we went back up to the kitchen to crack it open.

We discussed how amazing it was that any American distiller was initiating such experiments back in 1989, and I noted that I had seen a recently filled (maybe 2012) barrel of the same size on the first floor of Warehouse C during my tour of Buffalo Trace earlier in the day. After sipping our way through a healthy pour of that whiskey, a mason jar of clear liquid mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter. This was allegedly white dog from a distillery somewhere in Kentucky, and from a run that will be used for a special bottling at some point in the future. I have doubts as to the legality of such things, so I’ll only say that is was quite delicious (at least as far as un-aged spirit goes) and leave it at that.

The gentleman’s better half had retired to bed by this point, and our conversation drifted on to the Single Oak Project. He opened a cabinet that was filled with different bottlings of it, all arranged in a lattice style rack, and told me to pick one. Not knowing one of these from the next, I had no idea which one to pick. I was pretty sure the one bottle from this series I had at home carried a double digit number, so I picked #171 just to ensure I didn’t taste something I already had. Just for the record, barrel #171 is a wheat based bourbon which was entered into the barrel at 125 proof and aged in a warehouse with wooden floors. The barrel was charred to #4 and its staves were from the top of the tree, course grained and seasoned for 12 months.

Around 2:00 in the morning the cell phone call came from upstairs; it was time for my generous host to go to bed. All too aware that I may have overstayed my welcome, I apologized (the call had somehow gotten onto speaker-phone), thanked her for their kind hospitality and promised to be out the door in the few short minutes that it would take to finish the whiskey in my glass.

The ever-polite man of the house saw me out, and while we were on the front porch he presented the Experimental Collection bottle we had opened earlier, telling me to take the rest of it. Not wanting to take advantage of the kindness of someone who was at least moderately intoxicated, I politely refused. He insisted and I refused again. By the third offer he was pushing it into the open pocket of my jacket and I finally caved. He did have more than one bottle of almost everything in his collection, so at least knowing that made me feel a little better about accepting it. And, of course, I can now make proper tasting notes to go along with this post.

The nose has lots of shoe polish and saddle leather, subtle vanilla and a delicate hint of fragrant spice.
There’s a maple syrup like sweetness up front, which is soon joined by, and eventually surpassed by round, complex spice notes which are warming but not fiery. Teaberry, vanilla and a touch of nuttiness join the fray as well. The oak becomes more prominent late in the finish, but not to the point of being overwhelming.
The spice notes seem to be primarily from the French oak, but with a minor influence from rye grain as well. This is really good and interesting without getting too exotic.

Interestingly, this bottle is labeled as “whiskey” rather than bourbon, even though it is made with one of Buffalo Trace’s bourbon mash bills. The French oak does not disqualify it from that designation, but the barrel entry proof of 130 does.

Thank goodness for modern technology; I only had to touch the saved location of the hotel I was staying at in my GPS and the Garmin’s little purple line guided me safely out of the wilderness.

My departure the next morning was only slightly delayed, but I did have to take a brief detour through the Buffalo Trace Distillery Shop to pick up a bottle of Peychaud’s barrel-aged bitters for a friend. This was a distillery exclusive offering that had been aged in former Sazerac Rye barrels for 140 days and was selling for $17 for a 5 oz bottle.

There was a nice unintended consequence to that little task. If I had left for home from the hotel, the GPS would have put me on I-64 as the quickest route over to I-75. But since I was starting from the north side of town, I was instead led east on US-460, which goes right by the old National Distillers plant at the Forks of Elkhorn. The former home of Old Grand Dad, that facility is now the site of Jim Beam’s bottling operation and finished goods storage, as well as a small number of aging warehouses. It was great to get a little more historical perspective on the way out of town.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Four Roses, 2016 Limited Edition Single Barrel

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 14 years old, 59.7%, $125

Yesterday was my birthday and I got into some good whiskey, as one would expect. While I still have one more post left to complete the tale of my adventures in Kentucky last year, I’m going to take a brief diversion and talk about what I drank last night. Rather than fretting over what to open from my collection I decided to step out to the local pub, where I knew there was something special on the shelf. This way I wouldn’t have to cook dinner either.

That something special was a bottle of Four Roses 2016 Limited Edition Single Barrel, also known as Elliott’s Select. In a previous post I detailed information about the Four Roses Limited Edition bottlings (both Single Barrel and Small Batch) from their inception through the 2013 vintage. Initially these were releases of about 2000 bottles. They grew as the years rolled on, with the LE Small Batch getting up over 12,000 bottles in 2013 and the LE Single Barrel reaching 4000 bottles that year, before creeping up to 5000 bottles in 2014.

Then came the news that no one wanted to hear in 2015; the annual Limited Edition Single Barrel releases were being suspended. Four Roses had grown in popularity to the point that there just wasn’t enough extra aged stock on hand to support the Limited Edition bottlings in the volume that had become necessary. The company decided to sacrifice the LE Single Barrel offering to ensure the future of the of the LE Small Batch releases. They did, however, announce that going forward there was the possibility of the Limited Edition Single Barrel product occasionally returning for special commemorative bottlings.

And that was exactly what happened in 2016. After Jim Rutledge retired from his position as the Four Roses Master Distiller (which he had held for more than 20 years) in 2015, he was succeeded by the distillery’s Operations Director, Brent Elliot. The company wanted to introduce their new Master Distiller with a special bottling, and chose to revive the Limited Edition Single Barrel for 2016 in his honor.

Many consumers mistakenly assumed that the LE Single Barrel was back for annual releases after a one year hiatus, but Elliot has reaffirmed that it will not be offered every year going forward. There definitely won’t be a 2017 LE Single Barrel; if there was we certainly would have heard about it by now. Also, the duty of commemorative bottling will fall to the LE Small Batch this year; it will honor Al Young’s 50th anniversary with the company. He has served in many roles during his career at Four Roses, but has been the Brand Ambassador for the last 10 years.

The inaugural Limited Edition Single Barrel was actually introduced in 2007 as a tribute to Jim Rutledge, having reached 40 years of service in the Bourbon industry. That release was of just 1442 bottles, while the 2016 version dedicated to Brent Elliot consisted of 10,224 bottles. Coming from roughly 51 individual barrels, it’s no surprise that the proof ranged from about 100 to 120. All of the bottles carry a 14 year age statement and come from the OESK recipe, which uses the 20% rye mashbill and the spicy yeast. This yeast produces a whiskey which is full bodied, slow aging and with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain. The particular bottle that I’m sampling is on the high end of the proof range, at 119.4 (59.7%).

The nose is full of dense aromas, but without being sharp or volatile. Notes of vanilla, leather, old books and subtle berry fruit are all layered beautifully together.
On the palate there’s a fruitiness up front that’s quickly overshadowed by a wave of complex spice notes. Traditional rye-based spice character combines with spice that is more floral and minty in nature, while balancing oak notes linger in the background.
The spice notes evolve to become more warming and fiery on the lengthy finish.
It’s big and bold, but surprisingly well-composed and approachable for the given proof.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Frankfort - part 3

After a day spent touring Four Roses and Buffalo Trace, as well as visiting the former Old Crow and Old Taylor distillery sites, I was ready for an evening out in Frankfort on the last full day of my vacation. Faced with a 15 hour drive home the next day, the plan was to take it easy and get to bed early that night; just a drink or two at Capital Cellars (where I’d had lunch that afternoon) and some dinner and another whiskey or two at Serafini.

The sun had already set by the time I got back to the hotel from the day’s adventures, and then I went for a swim and spent a bit of time organizing my belongings to facilitate a quick escape in the morning. Needless to say, I got kind of a late start heading out on the town. As I mentioned in my previous post, Capital Cellars has a very laid-back, café-like atmosphere. It’s a nice, quiet place to have a drink, but you don’t really feel like you’re at a bar there, at least not in the traditional sense.

After asking about a few whiskeys that were listed on the menu but not visible on the shelf (they were sold out; I seem to have a knack for picking unavailable items on whiskey lists), I inquired about the Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 year old Rye. It was on the shelf but not the list, so I was curious about the price. My interest was lost at $40 though. Don’t get me wrong, if a bar is going to keep Van Winkle whiskeys around for any length of time, they have to price them steeply. That particular whiskey just wasn’t appealing to me at that price.

I decided to go out on a limb and asked the bartender for a suggestion in the $25 to $30 range from their collection of about 70 bottles. He reached for the 17 year old Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, but was interrupted by the second bartender who felt that there where better whiskies in the same price range. She suggested a Limited Edition Yellowstone bottling, and he deferred. It was a bourbon that was definitely to my liking, but proper tasting notes were never taken as I had become engrossed in conversation with the staff. I’ll take a moment to detail the history of the brand though.

Yellowstone bourbon is named for the national park, and the brand was established shortly after the park was established in 1872. It was originally a product of Taylor & Williams, a wholesale whiskey firm based in Louisville, KY. The whiskey used for Yellowstone was first sourced from several distilleries but the brand grew in popularity and at some point in the 1880’s its production and bottling was contracted out to the Cold Springs distillery in Gethsemane, KY. In 1903 Taylor & Williams merged with the owner of the Cold Springs distillery, J. B. Dant.

The distillery was renamed after its Yellowstone brand and 1910 the company absorbed an adjacent distillery owned by Minor Case Beam. The combined sites continued to operate under the Yellowstone name and members of the Beam and Dant families were involved in its operation until Prohibition.

The brand was re-established by members of the Dant family after Prohibition when they built a new Yellowstone distillery outside of Shively, KY. In 1944 that distillery and the Yellowstone brand were purchased by Glenmore Distillers. By the 1960’s Yellowstone had grown to be the best selling bourbon in Kentucky. Finally, in 1991, Glenmore was purchased by Guinness and the Shively plant was closed. In 1993 the Yellowstone brand was sold to Heaven Hill and the closed distillery was sold to Florida Citrus Distillers, who started using it to produce wine and vinegar. Heaven Hill quickly sold the Yellowstone brand to the David Sherman Corporation.

David Sherman established his company in 1958 but in 2006 it was renamed to Luxco, reflecting a shift in ownership among its founding families. Until recently the company operated exclusively as a non-distiller producer. Their products (both whiskey and other spirits categories) tend to occupy the bottom shelf. Even Ezra Brooks and Rebel Yell, which are their more well-known brands, can barely aspire to the middle shelf. When the company purchased the Yellowstone brand in 1993 they contracted its production out to Heaven Hill, but I have read that whiskies from other sources may be in the mix as well.

Then, at the end of 2014, Luxco announced that they had acquired a 50% stake in the Limestone Branch distillery. The focus of that partnership is to reinvigorate the Yellowstone brand. Brothers Paul and Steve Beam established their Limestone Branch distillery in 2011, in Lebanon, KY. They started with a focus on “moonshine” style products, with a vision to expand and add properly aged whiskeys in the future.

The Beam brothers are descendents of Minor Case Beam on their father’s side and the Dant family on their mother’s side. One of their uncles actually had a copy of the original Yellowstone bourbon recipe. Teaming up with Luxco allowed them to quickly expand their operation and since 2015 they have been distilling whiskey for the Yellowstone brand using its original recipe.

It’s likely that the low-quality incarnation of Yellowstone that has long been sold by Luxco will be eliminated when the new version comes of age. In the meantime some transitional bottlings of Yellowstone have come out using better quality sourced whiskey selected by the Beam brothers. What I tasted at Capital Cellars was the first of those; the 2015 Limited Edition bottling. It’s a 105 proof bourbon, priced at $105 a bottle, which commemorates the 105th anniversary of Minor Case Beam selling his distillery to J. B. Dant. 6000 bottles were produced and the end result is a marriage of 12 year old rye-based bourbon, 7 year old rye-based bourbon and 7 year old wheat-based bourbon.

Later in 2015 they introduced Yellowstone Select; a bourbon priced at $50 a bottle, which is a marriage of barrels aged for 4 years and 7 years. Luxco is also currently constructing a $35 million distillery in Bardstown, which should go into production late in 2017 and will be the new home of their Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks brands, among others.

Feeling pangs of hunger before I was ready to depart from Capital Cellars, I asked about ordering an appetizer. It was a good bit after the 8:00 cutoff for ordering food, but the staff was kind enough to put together a Smoked Salmon Carpaccio plate for me. After my snack I was ready to wander down to the other end of the block for the main course.

Serafini is an upscale establishment with an Italian influenced menu. White table linens in the dining room bring an air of fine dining, but the bar area has a more casual feel. The bar itself is small, with only four or five stools, but it’s backed up by several high-top tables. The back-bar is densely packed with bottles, featuring upwards of 150 selections of American whiskey.

I’m not usually one for pairing whiskey and food, so I had a local beer with the baked salmon, which was quite good. After studying the list and inquiring about a few unavailable whiskeys (again) I finally settled on a glass of 2015 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, which was a 12 year old bottled at 100 proof. I wrote pretty extensively about the background of the Birthday Bourbon series in this post, if you’re curious.

The 2015 vintage has big aromas, featuring ample leather and oak. The nose is sort of hot, in a volatile sense. It punches above its weight, bringing plenty of flavor and heat for its given proof. Dark and brooding on the palate, it’s quite dry with lots of fiery spice notes and struggles to stay in balance. Further contemplation reveals more complexity with hints of mint, charred oak, cinnamon, teaberry and subtle dry, dark berry fruit all emerging before it gets through the long, warming finish.

Now, one would think that would have been the end of my little whiskey adventure; but the real adventure was only about to begin…………