Saturday, September 30, 2017

Woodinville Whiskey Company Bourbon

stats: straight bourbon, Washington, 45%, $55

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m sort of fanatical about whiskey. This will occasionally open up some nice whiskey sampling opportunities for me. Recently, couple of very kind and generous relatives were visiting family members who had relocated to Washington State. On a mid-August morning I received a message on Facebook letting me know that they were in Seattle and planning to visit a distillery in Woodinville (a small city of 12,000 which is part of the Seattle metropolitan area).

My aunt and uncle were wondering if I knew of this distillery and if I had tried any of its whiskey. I was about to explain that with the number of new craft distilleries opening all over the US in recent years, it was hard enough to keep track of the ones in the tiny state where I live, let alone the many that are on the other side of the country. But I kept thinking to myself “Woodinville? Woodinville? Why does that sound familiar?” And then I remembered; I had just read about this distillery on The Chuck Cowdery Blog a few weeks prior.

Woodinville was in the news because it had just been bought out by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate which has owned Ardbeg and Glenmorangie since 2005. Woodinville was established in 2010 and its owners had a vision of making good craft whiskey which had been aged in traditional 53 gallon barrels for a respectable amount of time, and selling it at a fair price.

I’m going to take a moment to point out a few important differences between craft whiskey and craft beer. Before craft beer started to catch on in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the small number of remaining American macro-breweries were all making essentially the same product, and they weren’t making particularly good versions of it. Craft brewers brought variety and quality, and consumers were willing to pay a premium for that.

While the American whiskey industry had dwindled to just a handful of large distilleries, they had never really compromised on quality. Perhaps Bourbon’s reputation had suffered in general during its years of unpopularity, but American distillers continued to make fundamentally good product. Also, In spite of the small number of distilleries, there were still a large number of brands supported by these producers. This at least gave the appearance of good variety to the casual observer.

When the craft whiskey distillers started to pop up over the last 10 to 15 years, they were at a big competitive disadvantage. Bourbon was a very traditional product and while some innovation would be embraced, anything too esoteric would have a hard time catching on. Most of these outfits lacked the capital and / or financial backing to set up operations and keep producing for multiple years while their whiskey aged properly. Even if they could do that, economies of scale meant that their final products would be much more expensive than those of the old guard.

Some companies took the route of producing vodka or gin to support their whiskey productions. But that market has become oversaturated and it seems like most of the companies that were successful with that model have stayed focused on making money with their clear spirits. Other craft distillers went the route of using very small barrels (5 gal, 10 gal, 15 gal, etc) and short aging times. Despite claims to the contrary, this doesn’t make for particularly good whiskey. Then there’s the business model of setting up a Potemkin distillery and secretly buying aged whiskey from one of the large, established distillers and selling it as your own. Going down that path runs the risk of miring one’s brand in controversy and possibly disgrace, as was the case with Templeton Rye.

Woodinville was one of the exceptions; they made all of their own whiskey and even though they started off with some youthful releases, they were only using 53 gallon barrels and consistently selling a five year old bourbon and a five year old rye by their seventh year of production (although there is no official age statement on the label of the bottle I have). To do this, they had to limit sales to their home state. Granted, their whiskey does sell very well there.

As I noted above, the whiskey business is an extremely capital intensive one to break into. Once established, it takes even money (again with a slow return on investment) to grow operations and expand into new markets. It’s really not surprising that Woodinville sold out to LVMH; it was probably the only way they would be able to grow beyond Washington State.

Many people are bewildered by the astronomical sums that are being paid by the big players in the industry for these relatively small outfits (in the case of Woodinville the sum was undisclosed, but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap). But these valuations aren’t based so much on assets or current sales as they are on the future growth potential of the brand. With a crowded marketplace and many older, established brands already reaching their saturation points, one of the surest paths to future profit is via the acquisition of a brand that is relatively new, but off to a good start with a solid reputation.

My aunt and uncle had offered to procure a bottle of whiskey from the Woodinville distillery shop and bring it back east, riding silently on their drive across the country. I graciously accepted, and noted that I’d love to try this new bourbon from the Pacific Northwest. Little more than a few weeks later the newest addition to the collection was in my hands. I really love the bottle and label design; let’s see how it tastes.

The nose is bold and expressive, but not sharp or punchy. The vanilla aromas are the most obvious, but caramel, spice and delicate toasted notes join in, making it very well rounded. This really does smell like a very well made traditional bourbon.
On the palate it seems like it’s going to be a little hot right up front, but the flavors open up quickly, keeping everything harmonious. A bit of underlying sweetness shows itself early on and lends to a full mouthfeel, but that caramel-driven character stays as a minor influence and is eventually overtaken by drier notes that emerge as things moves on. The mid palate shows leather and a hint of dark red fruits as complex spice notes develop.
The finish becomes increasingly dry. Toasted oak, nuttiness and dry spice become dominant, but balance is maintained.

This really is a lovely bourbon and I’d say it’s every bit as good as Woodford Reserve, which it purportedly competes with in terms of sales volume in Washington State.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Eagle Rare, Private Barrel Tasting

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a small group tasting for the selection of a private barrel of bourbon. I’ll step back a bit and explain how this all came about before I get into the details of the tasting, since it’s an interesting story.

I was working at my regular job, waiting tables, one night toward the end of last January when a solo diner requested a pour of Buffalo Trace bourbon. I informed him that while we didn’t have Buffalo Trace, we did have Eagle Rare bourbon. I mentioned that they were both produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, and that they were both made from the same distillate of Trace’s low rye mash bill recipe, and both bottled at 90 proof. I then went on to explain that the difference between the two came down to age (with Buffalo Trace being around 6 years old and Eagle Rare carrying a 10 year age statement) and warehouse location (they come mostly from the same warehouses, but Buffalo Trace barrels are stored on the middle floors and Eagle Rare barrels are stored on the lower floors).

He seemed slightly taken aback that some random waiter possessed such bourbon knowledge and complimented the accuracy of my information. When I’m at work, I try not to spout off about my whiskey blog at the drop of a hat; it just strikes me as being unprofessional. Instead I’ll usually let the whiskey discussions progress pretty far before I mention the blog. On this occasion I responded by noting that I had visited Buffalo Trace less than a year prior and had taken their distillery tour. Much to my surprise, the gentleman informed me that he worked for them; it turned out that he was the northern New England Field Sales Manager for Sazerac.

Vermont is a liquor control state and a very small market, but a bar in my town had recently purchased a private barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so I was aware of the possibility. I had also seen a private barrel bottling of Eagle Rare at a liquor store in Massachusetts, so I assumed that was probably an option as well.

We had a series of brief conversations revolving around various whiskey topics throughout the course of his dinner. I’m not sure which one of us brought up the private barrel program, but we discussed it at length and the fact that it might be a viable option where I work, since my employers own three restaurants across which the cost of roughly 240 bottle of bourbon could be spread. Of course, I eventually mentioned the blog and we exchanged business cards before he departed.

Not long after that night, I sent an email pitching the idea of a private barrel purchase to the two owners and the bar manager of our largest restaurant. At the same time I made a strong push for us to go with Eagle Rare, if they decided to move forward. I thought it was important for us to go with private barrel of a different bourbon brand than the one that was already at another establishment in town, and we already sell a high volume of Eagle Rare with our current cocktail program.

The reaction to that email was very positive, but from that point I handed off responsibility for the matter to Chris, the bar manager, since it was more in line with his job duties. Just a few weeks later it was confirmed that a barrel of Eagle Rare had been designated for us, and one week after that we committed to moving forward with the purchase.

Many distilleries have private barrel programs and most of them work on the same basic principle; anyone can buy a barrel, but it must be bottled before it is delivered and the buyer must purchase the entire bottled contents of the barrel at the same time. There’s no volume discount either; the bottles go through the regular distribution and retail channels and are priced at the standard markup. These barrels are occasionally bought by private individuals, but this is typically the realm of large liquor stores or bars and restaurants that sell high volumes of spirits.

It’s likely that each distillery operates their private barrel program a little differently, but here’s how it goes at Buffalo Trace. The potential buyer will request a barrel of a particular brand of whiskey; Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, etc. The distillery will then approve the purchase (I’m assuming they have a limit on the number of private barrels that they sell each year, so there would probably be a waiting list if demand got high enough) and a barrel is designated for the buyer. This doesn’t mean that a particular barrel has been selected at this point, just that a one-barrel quantity has been allocated from inventory for the purchase that will happen eventually.

When barrels are entered into the warehouses at Buffalo Trace (and likely most other modern distilleries), their eventual fate has already been determined. In other words, when a certain distillate is put into a certain specification barrel and placed in a particular warehouse location, the company intends to bottle that whisky as a specific brand when it’s ready. So a distinct number of barrels are laid down each year with the intention of their contents becoming Eagle Rare ten years later. Of course, these barrels are all tasted at some point before bottling to make sure that they fit what the Eagle Rare flavor profile is supposed to be. As for those that don’t make the cut, they’ll still be used; maybe some special ones are held back to age further and become Eagle Rare 17 year, maybe some not-so-special ones get blended off into something cheap, like Benchmark bourbon.

When a private barrel request comes through, the people that do the barrel tasting at the distillery will pick three different barrels for the purchaser to choose from. Then, a 200 ml sample bottle is drawn from each of the three barrels and these are sent out with a sales rep who will conduct a tasting with the person (or group of people) who will decide which of the three barrels to make their own.

Fast forward to May of this year and we were informed that our samples had arrived. A few weeks later we assembled a small group of people who would collectively select our barrel, and we all got together for a tasting of the samples. This was hosted by a sales rep from the distributor that essentially acts as a middleman between the distiller and our state liquor commission (through which all spirits purchased in-state must go).

This was a pretty informal affair; essentially a round-table discussion where general impressions were bantered back and forth along with the occasional specific aroma or flavor note. Most people at work consider me to be somewhat of an authority when it comes to whiskey, so I was in a position to have the most influence on the group decision, but I wanted to be sure that everyone’s input was valued and that we all had a fairly equal say.

Our samples consisted of three barrel numbers; 033, 332 and 409. I was surprised to see more variation across the three than I had expected. I actually wondered if they had picked some barrels that were outside of the typical Eagle Rare flavor profile, but I was assured through follow-up emails that that was not the case. In retrospect though, it would make sense for them to send the biggest range possible from barrels that do qualify to become Eagle Rare; it wouldn’t be very interesting for buyers to pick from three barrels that are almost identical.

Barrel 033 was sort of the anomaly of the group, its character was much further from the other two than those two were from each other. 033 had very subtle aromas and was quite delicate in the mouth, but there was a distinct mint note that stood out both in a floral way on the nose and in a more herbal way the palate. While some of us found this interesting, we eliminated 033 early on as we all found it to be a little too mild mannered.

Barrel 332 was also a bit restrained on the nose, but I did find some very interesting aromas (including old books) after spending some time with it. What really struck me was how incredibly well balanced it was on the palate.

Barrel 409 had the most assertive nose of the group. It was also big and bold on the palate with a lot of caramel and nutty character.

As a group, we went back and forth between these two for quite some time. To me, 409 was the whiskey that was able to grab one’s attention right of the bat, but 332 was more elegant and well composed overall. While I think either of these would have served us well, the majority eventually gravitated toward 332, and that was what we finally went with. All in all, my first barrel picking session was a fun and insightful experience.

Our barrel is scheduled for bottling right around now. Hopefully the transit time from the distiller to the distributor to the state warehouse to the retail store and finally to the restaurants won’t take too long. Once we have the bottles in hand, I’ll follow up with proper tasting notes as well as some information about the barrel codes that were on our sample bottles and a few other relevant points.